Monday, April 17, 2017

Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response

A deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria on April 4, 2017, and a U.S. military strike in response on April 6 have returned the conflict, now in its seventh year, to the forefront of international attention. In response to the April 4 attack, some Members of Congress called for the United States to conduct a punitive military operation. These Members and some others since have praised President Trump’s decision to launch a limited strike, with some calling on the President to consult with Congress about Syria strategy. Other Members have questioned the President’s authority to launch the strike in the absence of specific prior authorization from Congress. In the past, some in Congress have expressed concern about the international and domestic authorizations for such strikes, their potential unintended consequences, and the possibility of undesirable or unavoidable escalation.

Since taking office in January 2017, President Trump has stated his intention to “destroy” the Syria- and Iraq-based insurgent terrorist group known as the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL, ISIS, or the Arabic acronym Da’esh), and the President has ordered actions to "accelerate" U.S. military efforts against the group in both countries. In late March, senior U.S. officials signaled that the United States would prioritize the fight against the Islamic State and said that Syrian President Bashar al Asad’s future would be determined by the Syrian people. Nevertheless, in the wake of the April 4 attack it remains to be seen whether the United States will more directly seek to compel Asad’s departure from power while pursuing the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State.

Since late 2015, Asad and his government have leveraged military, financial, and diplomatic support from Russia and Iran to consolidate their position relative to the range of antigovernment insurgents. These insurgents include members of the Islamic State, Islamist and secular fighters, and Al Qaeda-linked networks that are working to integrate themselves with others in opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria. While Islamic State forces have lost territory to the Syrian government, to Turkey-backed Syrian opposition groups, and to U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters since early 2016, they remain capable and dangerous. The IS “capital” at Raqqah has been isolated, but large areas of central and eastern Syria remain under IS control. The presence and activities of Russian military forces and Iranian personnel in Syria create complications for U.S. officials and military planners, raising the prospect of inadvertent confrontation with possible regional or global implications.

Since March 2011, the conflict has driven over 5 million Syrians into neighboring countries as refugees (out of a total population of more than 22 million). More than 6.3 million other Syrians are internally displaced and are among more than 13.5 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance. The United States remains the largest bilateral provider of such assistance, with more than $6.5 billion in U.S. funding identified to date. The United States also has allocated more than $500 million to date for assistance programs in Syria, including the provision of nonlethal equipment to select opposition groups. President Obama requested $238.5 million in FY2017 funding for such assistance. Together, the Obama and Trump Administrations have requested $430 million in FY2017 defense funds to train and equip anti-IS forces in Syria.

U.S. officials and Members of Congress continue to debate how best to pursue U.S. regional security and counterterrorism goals in Syria without inadvertently strengthening U.S. adversaries or alienating U.S. partners. The Trump Administration and Members of the 115th Congress, like their predecessors, face challenges inherent to the simultaneous pursuit of U.S. nonproliferation, counterterrorism, civilian protection, and stabilization goals in a complex, evolving conflict.

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