Enclave governance: How to circumvent the Assad regime and safeguard Syria’s future

A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sits on a vehicle near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Amid the devastation of the past nine years, Syria faces a plethora of challenges that make it difficult to establish peace and security at this time. The country is not only grappling with ongoing conflict, but also with the brutality of Bashar Assad’s regime, extremist groups, and warlords. At best, Syria could experience intermittent periods of stability and lulls in violence due to local and international pressures. However, the country will, in all likelihood, continue to be engulfed in violent instability, its population mired in misery and destitution, while the conflict enables local and international terrorism and aggrandizes American rivals like Russia and Iran.


This analysis paper argues for the embrace of enclave governance in non-regime-held areas in the Northeastern and, eventually, Northwestern parts of the country in order to limit further humanitarian crises, protect civilians, and address threats to the United States and its allies. The United States and its allies should embrace Syria’s non-regime-held areas and prevent the Assad regime from regaining control of these areas by keeping their troops in place and supporting local governance structures as part of a long-term strategy focused on circumventing the Assad regime and turning these areas into bastions of peace and stability. This course of action, which will henceforth be referred to as “enclave governance,” is the best way to prevent further regime atrocities, secure a durable peace, and provide reprieve from conflict. Drawing on the example of northern Iraq in the 1990s, this paper shows how harnessing enclave governance can secure a durable peace in non-regime-held areas and protect at least some segments of the Syrian population, while ensuring that any post-conflict settlement does not provide legal or political cover for further regime abuses.


Instead of calling for the restoration of regime rule over rebel-held areas, international actors should take measures to make existing self-governance arrangements more effective and more conducive to achieving peace and sustainable governance. This should also involve relying on the use of force in self-defense to deter regime atrocities and encroachment in non-regime-held areas. Fundamentally, U.S. policies in Syria will be far more sustainable and credible to friend and foe if they are underpinned by an enclave strategy that provides a set of guiding principles for U.S. involvement. Such principles will bring much needed political stability to a volatile environment that is plagued by uncertainty surrounding the future of U.S. forces in the country.


This paper outlines the shape and parameters of these guiding principles. It addresses the possibility that certain groups may exploit such enclaves with detrimental implications for local stability and accepts that non-regime-held areas have their own challenges, including inter-rebel and intra-community conflict. Moreover, local and international humanitarian organizations in non-regime- held areas have their own shortcomings, as do local governance structures dominated or controlled by Kurdish authorities, Arab tribes, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.


That said, it is vital to engage Syria in a way that reflects the country’s realities after nine years of war, rather than impose alternative designs. Syria’s rebel-held enclaves are already self-governing, with decentralized and localized administrative structures having emerged from and crystalized during the conflict. Enshrining enclave governance into a long-term strategy will strengthen the resiliency of these structures, mitigate the challenges posed by the conflict, and re-establish peace and security by promoting closer cooperation with local actors, injecting political certainty into the enclaves in the process, and establishing the stepping stones for long-term political and economic order. This will help constrain the second and third-order effects of conflict, while better preparing non-regime-held areas for unforeseen crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and improving their capacity to detain foreign jihadi fighters captured in the anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign. This analysis paper dismisses the post-conflict transitional proposals put forward by both the United Nations-led and Russian-led peace talks as being unlikely to provide inclusive post-conflict outcomes. It also challenges power-sharing and decentralized governance as part of a post-conflict settlement since these require a level of coordination with the regime (or submission to it) yet to be achieved. These alternatives will either hasten regime consolidation, provide a smokescreen for continued regime atrocities, or fail to accommodate the intricacies of Syria’s political and security landscape.