The civil war in Syria is at a stalemate, while some in the U.S. have called for limited military intervention. Senior Fellow Ken Pollack opens his new Middle East Memo by noting that “There is a growing recognition that the Syrian civil war is now dominated by its military dimension, and until there is a breakthrough on the battlefield, there will be no breakthroughs at the negotiating table.”
In “Breaking the Stalemate: The Military Dynamics of the Syrian Civil War and Options for Limited U.S. Intervention,” Pollack details the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition and the regime, plus options for U.S. interventions. His map, reprinted above, shows clearly how the lines of conflict have been compressed into a narrow belt running through the country. As Pollack explains:
Because the advantages of the two sides are now more or less balanced, the fighting has bogged down into a predictable (and predicted) stalemate. The opposition controls 60-70 percent of Syrian territory, but the regime controls 60-70 of the population—which is concentrated in the west of the country. Indeed, the countervailing advantages of the two sides have resulted in a rough deadlock along a line running north-south from Aleppo, through Idlib, Hama, Homs, Damascus and down to Dara’a. Virtually all of the major combat has occurred in a belt roughly 50 kilometers wide centered on this chain of cities—Syria’s primary zone of conflict.
[Bolton] tried to persuade Trump to adopt a particular approach on Syria, but that policy didn’t match the president’s inclination to pull the U.S. out of Syria.
His instincts about the Middle East are quite consistent over time … which is to say he doesn’t quite see the point. He would rather not have anything to do with the mess called the Middle East.
I was surprised to see Bolton's comments in the press, which seemingly return to the old strategy — defeat ISIS, counter Iran and diplomatically end the civil war. Trump's tweet this morning suggests he is doubling down on his desire to withdraw and doesn’t want to look managed by his staff.
These disjointed messages reflect the lack of a real policy process inside the government. Instead, we have decision-making by presidential tweet or pronouncement followed by advisers scrambling to implement Trump's guidance in a more rational way. If nothing else, it makes it hard for local actors to trust what Trump's envoys are telling them when they know it could be undermined by the president.