Report on Armed Conflict in Syria and U.S. Response

July 28, 2020 6:52 AM

The following is the July 27, 2020, Congressional Research Service report, Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response.

From the report

As of 2020, Syria faces growing economic instability and pockets of renewed political unrest, amid ongoing interventions by outside states and new public health challenges posed by the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The government of Syrian President Bashar al Asad—backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah—has recaptured most areas formerly held by opposition forces but faces persistent challenges from fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL/ISIS), as well as new protests stemming from deteriorating economic conditions. U.S.-backed local forces have recovered most territory formerly held by the Islamic State, but the group continues to maintain a low-level insurgency.

U.S. policy toward Syria since 2014 has prioritized counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State, which sought to direct external attacks from areas under the group’s control in northeast Syria. Since 2015, U.S. forces deployed to Syria have trained, equipped, and advised local partners under special authorization from Congress and have worked primarily “by, with, and through” those local partners to retake nearly all areas formerly held by the Islamic State. As of July 2020, about 600 U.S. troops remain in Syria, where they continue to support local partner force operations against Islamic State remnants.

In addition to counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State, the United States also has responded to Syria’s ongoing civil conflict by providing nonlethal assistance to Syrian opposition and civil society groups, encouraging diplomatic efforts to reach a political settlement to the civil war, and serving as the largest single donor of humanitarian aid to Syria and regional countries affected by refugee outflows.

The Trump Administration has described U.S. policy towards Syria as seeking (1) the enduring defeat of the Islamic State; (2) a political settlement to the Syrian civil war; and (3) the withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces.

  • Enduring defeat of ISIS. U.S.-backed partner forces re-captured the Islamic State’s final territorial strongholds in Syria in March 2019. However, U.S. military officials in 2020 assessed that the group maintains a low-level insurgency in both Syria and Iraq and likely retains an intact command and control structure. The Defense Department has not disaggregated the costs of military operations in Syria from the overall cost of the counter-IS campaign in Syria and Iraq (known as Operation Inherent Resolve, OIR), which had reached $40.5 billion by September 30, 2019.
  • Political settlement to the conflict. The United States continues to advocate for a negotiated settlement between the government of Syrian President Bashar al Asad and Syrian opposition forces in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 (which calls for the drafting of a new constitution and U.N.-supervised elections). However, the Asad government has retaken most opposition-held areas by force, thus reducing pressure on Damascus to negotiate. U.S. intelligence officials in 2019 assessed that Asad has little incentive to make significant concessions to the opposition.
  • Withdrawal of Iranian commanded forces. Administration officials state that the removal of Iran from Syria is a political rather than military goal, and have emphasized that the United States will seek to counter Iranian activities in Syria primarily through the use of economic tools such as sanctions. The United States has on occasion conducted strikes on Iranian-backed militias in Syria when such forces appeared to endanger U.S. or Coalition personnel.

External Players. A range of foreign states have intervened in Syria in support of the Asad government or Syrian opposition forces, as well in pursuit of their own security goals. Pro-Asad forces operating in Syria include Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. The United States and a range of regional and European states have at times backed select portions of the Syrian opposition, while also expressing concern about reported ties between some armed opposition groups and extremist elements. Israel has acknowledged conducting over 200 military strikes in Syria, mostly targeting Hezbollah and/or Iranian targets. In addition, Turkey maintains military forces in northern Syria as part of a broader campaign targeting Kurdish fighters.

Humanitarian Situation. As of mid-2020, roughly half of Syria’s pre-war population remains internally displaced (6.2 million) or registered as refugees in neighboring states (5.6 million). The United States has directed more than $11.3 billion toward Syria-related humanitarian assistance since FY2012, and Congress has appropriated billions more for security and stabilization initiatives in Syria and neighboring countries. In July 2020, the Security Council reauthorized cross border humanitarian aid into Syria for a period of one year. The vote restricted aid to a single crossing point at Bab al Hawa following vetoes by Russia and China.

Public Health. Syria has struggled to provide adequate testing for the novel COVID-19 virus, and the extent of the virus’s spread in the country is thought to exceed official health ministry counts. As of mid-July, Syria reported less than 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19, as compared to over 86,000 cases in neighboring Iraq, and over 267,000 cases in Iran. Syria contains numerous populations that are particularly vulnerable to infection, including thousands of internally displaced persons and detainees living in overcrowded conditions and lacking adequate access to sanitation facilities. Syria’s health care system also has been significantly degraded since the start of the conflict in 2011 as a result of attacks by pro-regime forces on health care workers and infrastructure.

Additional Domestic Challenges. Syria faces an economic crisis, with the value of the Syrian pound dropping to record lows, and the cost of basic staples increasing by over 100% since 2019. In 2020, the Asad government also has confronted a resurgence of armed opposition in previously recaptured areas south of the capital, as well as growing criticism from both domestic and external allies.

The 116th Congress has sought clarification from the Administration concerning its overall Syria policy, plans for the withdrawal of U.S. military forces, the U.S role in ensuring a lasting defeat for the Islamic State, U.S. investments and approaches to postconflict stabilization, the future of Syrian refugees and U.S. partners inside Syria, and the challenges of dealing with the Iran- and Russia-aligned Asad government.

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