A new report from the influential Washington DC-based think tank, Center for American Progress makes recommendations for US policy officials on North and East Syria. The report makes key recommendations, including a policy of “conditional engagement” toward Turkey and an increase in the US troop level from 1,500 to 2,000 troops in the region.

The report, titled “Northern Syria Security Dynamics and the Refugee Crisis,” examines the humanitarian and security conditions, as well as foriegn relations issues, in each of five zones outside the control of the Assad government. The report was written by Max Hoffman, Director of the National Security and International Policy program at Center for American Progress, and Alan Makovsky, Senior Fellow for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.

“The United States can, working with partners on the ground and mobilizing international support, make a meaningful difference in the conflict in Syria at a minimal cost,” said Max Hoffman, director of National Security and International Policy at CAP and co-author of the report, in an interview with the Syrian Democratic Times. “It’s both the right thing to do and the strategic thing to do.”

Hoffman further emphasized that the United States and the European Union should prioritize deescalation in Syria. “The US and EU should be focused on trying to de-escalate the situation and improve living conditions for as many Syrians as they can.”

The policy recommendations made by the report are to achieve four main objectives: 1) preventing a new stage of conflict; 2) ensuring adequate humanitarian assistance; 3) exploring conditional engagement options with Turkey, and; 4) addressing external refugee issues. 

In furtherance of these broad objectives, the report makes a number of recommendations, including the following:

  • Support “a more durable US presence in the east to allow for longer-term humanitarian planning and more consistent delivery in SDF-controlled areas as well as for a ramp-up in stabilization activities to restore basic services and begin to address the issues likely to feed long-term radicalization and instability.”
  • Increase US troop levels in North and East Syria from current levels of about 900 to the range of 1,500 to 2,000 troops, in order to act as an effective deterrent against aggression, help keep local relationships smooth between ethnic groups, and prevent ISIS activity.
  • The United States and EU “should try to incentivize Turkey to rein in the abuses of its SNA proxies and establish forms of redress for civilians, including Kurds.” The report indicates that Turkey should cut funding, military supplies, and support for militias who cannot prevent their members from committing abuses.
  • The United States and Europe should push Turkey to allow the UNHCR to freely monitor removal centers to ensure that all returns to Syria are voluntary.
  • Ramp up pressure to extend the UN mandate for border crossings “by establishing a parallel system immune to Russia’s UN Security Council veto.”
  • Humanitarian aid for North and East Syria, including “ongoing humanitarian assistance; stabilization aid aimed at restoring basic services, improving governance, and training local security forces.” This includes scaling up current programs, as well as restarting the Syrian Transition Assistance Response Team (START). 
  • Exert additional pressure on Turkey through an approach of “conditional engagement” — to accept compartmentalization of the relationship with Turkey and move forward with US-Turkey relations under strict parameters.

The report contains a detailed section on Afrin, describing the Turkish military occupation of the region and reports of widespread human rights abuses. It states that “[p]arts of the Turkish-backed SNA are completely out of control, credibly accused of murder, looting, rape, seizing homes and property, rampant extortion, and preventing the return of displaced civilians.447 Turkey is complicit in these actions, arming and paying the factions and even busing in IDPs to replace residents forcibly ejected from their homes. Turkey has military dominance and effective local control, and the SNA is financially dependent on Ankara. Turkey therefore has the leverage to rein in these proxies but has chosen not to do so in any meaningful way.”

However, the report stops short of supporting the Turkish withdrawal from Afrin or other parts of the region, implicitly suggesting that Turkey should stay by indicating that the United States should “effectively freeze the current front lines.” 

“The conflict has sort of settled into this really unfortunate stasis. What’s clear is that there is no military solution,” said Hoffman, speaking about the report. “The core problem with the deescalation approach is that you effectively legitimize Turkey’s control.”

Detailing a number of the impacts of the occupation, such as potential for long-term demographic change, the report states that further study is merited: “The long-term implications of the effective Turkish annexation of Afrin — along with the areas considered in the following sections — demand further study.”

The Center for American Progress has gained increased attention due to a recent high-level appointment of its former head. Neera Tanden, who has been involved in the organization since its founding and had served as its President and CEO since 2011, was appointed as a senior advisor to US President Joe Biden in May 2021. The organization regularly issues policy briefs, reports, and statements, and engages in other forms of advocacy to promote progressive policy and leftist approaches.

The report also contains certain suggestions for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the AANES. It states that, “the United States should continue its efforts to push the SDF to be more inclusive and to distance itself from the PKK. This political evolution offers the best chance to ensure the stability of the AANES, protect humanitarian access through the KRG, maintain international support for stabilization in the east, and inch toward a political modus vivendi with Turkey.”

“[T]he SDF should respond publicly and consistently to accusations of abuse and rein in its forces when they are seen as overly aggressive. It should credibly respond to accusations made by human rights NGOs such as Syrians for Truth and Justice and credible international agencies and respond to the recommendations that such groups provide. Transitional and informal justice should over time segue into more established and transparent courts or other forms of judicial review, freely sharing information with families and tribal leaders when people are detained.”

The report underscores key reasons that the United States should act to resolve the crisis in Syria:

“The Biden administration, in concert with European allies, should seek to address this crisis as part of a broader effort to de-escalate regional conflicts and reconstitute some semblance of international cooperation. This interest should go beyond the laser-like focus on counterterrorism that dominated the Obama administration’s approach. Still less should the new team embrace the confused realpolitik—punctuated by chaotic presidential actions—and disinvestment that characterized the Trump administration. Nor should American interests be framed solely by a hackneyed conception of great power competition wherein rivals’ every commitment must be matched by counter-commitments. U.S. involvement in Syria is important not only because Russia is there, nor simply as a way to check Iran’s malign influence in the region; it is primarily important because the conflict is causing massive humanitarian suffering, crippling U.S. allies and partners, and eroding the international system.”

The policy recommendations made by the report take a markedly different approach from the policy of the previous presidential administration. That approach toward Syria was outlined by Joel Rayburn, who recently served as US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, during a December 9, 2020 Congressional hearing.

During that hearing, Rayburn outlined the policy goals toward Syria: the enduring defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda; the withdrawal of all Iranian command and forces from Syria; and a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict consistent with UNSCR 2254. 

Rayburn further outlined the US “approach,” which tracked closely with these goals. First, he said, the US must “implement a political process and nationwide ceasefire as outlined in UNSCR 2254.” Second, the US must continue its counterterrorism campaign and preserve the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Third, said Rayburn, “We must press for the withdrawal of foreign forces not present in Syria before 2011.”

The report concludes that, “[t]here is no putting Syria back together again, nor is there any way to undo the catastrophic damage the war has dealt to millions of lives and to the international system. This has been evident for years.” An agenda focused on deconfliction and damage control, freezing the current borders and avoiding military conflict, maximizing aid and reconstruction, rather than an agenda of making Syria while again, is emphasized by the report authors.