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

Armed Conflict in Syria:
July 27, 2020
Overview and U.S. Response
Carla E. Humud,
As of 2020, Syria faces growing economic instability and pockets of renewed political
Coordinator
unrest, amid ongoing interventions by outside states and new public health challenges
Analyst in Middle Eastern
posed by the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The government of Syrian
Affairs
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
Christopher M. Blanchard
linked to the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL/ISIS), as well as new protests
Specialist in Middle
stemming from deteriorating economic conditions. U.S.-backed local forces have
Eastern Affairs
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.
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Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response

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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Contents
Background ..................................................................................................................................... 1
Issues for Congress .......................................................................................................................... 6
Syria Provisions in FY2020 Defense and Foreign Operations Legislation ............................... 9
FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 116-92) ............................................... 9
Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 (P.L. 116-94) ......................................... 10
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 (P.L. 116-93) ....................................................... 11
Select Syria-Related Legislation in the 116th Congress ........................................................... 11
Special Immigrant Status for U.S. Partner Forces ............................................................. 11
Military Developments .................................................................................................................. 12
Turkish Incursion into Northern Syria .............................................................................. 12
Islamic State: Ongoing Threats ......................................................................................... 14
Idlib Crisis ......................................................................................................................... 16
Political Developments .................................................................................................................. 20
Non-State Governance Structures ........................................................................................... 20
Political Negotiations .............................................................................................................. 21
The Geneva Process .......................................................................................................... 21
The Astana Process ........................................................................................................... 23
Humanitarian Situation .................................................................................................................. 24
Cross-Border Aid Endangered .......................................................................................... 24
Vulnerable Areas ............................................................................................................... 25
Public Health Developments ......................................................................................................... 28
U.S. Policy ..................................................................................................................................... 29
Trump Administration Statements on Syria Policy ........................................................... 30
U.S. Sanctions on Syria .................................................................................................... 31
U.S. Assistance to Vetted Syrian Groups ....................................................................................... 32
U.S. Military Operations; Train, Advise, Assist, and Equip Efforts ........................................ 32
U.S. Military Presence in Syria ......................................................................................... 32
U.S. Repositions Forces in 2019 ....................................................................................... 33
Syria Train and Equip Program ......................................................................................... 35
FY2021 Defense Funding Request ................................................................................... 36
U.S. Nonlethal and Stabilization Assistance ........................................................................... 37
Outlook & Challenges ................................................................................................................... 41
Consolidating Gains against the Islamic State .................................................................. 41
Preserving Relationships with Partner Forces .................................................................. 42
Countering Iran ................................................................................................................. 43
Addressing Humanitarian Challenges in Extremist-Held Areas ....................................... 44
Assisting Displaced Syrians .............................................................................................. 44
Preventing Involuntary Refugee Returns .......................................................................... 45
Managing Reconstruction Aid .......................................................................................... 46
Supporting a Political Settlement to the Conflict .............................................................. 46
Monitoring Destabilizing Economic and Political Trends ................................................ 47

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Figures
Figure 1. Syria: Map and Country Data .......................................................................................... 2
Figure 2. Syria Conflict 2011-2019 ................................................................................................. 3
Figure 3. Syria Areas of Influence 2020 .......................................................................................... 4
Figure 4. Syria Areas of Influence 2017 .......................................................................................... 5
Figure 5. Syria-Turkey Border ...................................................................................................... 13
Figure 6. Idlib and its Environs ..................................................................................................... 19

Tables
Table 1. Evolution of U.S. Military Presence in Syria .................................................................. 34
Table 2. Syria Train and Equip Program: Appropriations Actions and Requests .......................... 36
Table 3. Nonlethal and Stabilization Funding for Syria ................................................................ 39

Appendixes
Appendix. Syria Study Group Findings and Recommendations ................................................... 48

Contacts
Author Information ........................................................................................................................ 49

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

Background
In March 2011, antigovernment protests broke out in Syria, which has been ruled by the Asad
family for more than four decades. The protests spread, violence escalated (primarily but not
exclusively by Syrian government forces), and numerous political and armed opposition groups
emerged. In August 2011, President Barack Obama called on Syrian President Bashar al Asad to
step down. Over time, the rising death toll from the conflict, and the use of chemical weapons by
the Asad government, intensified pressure for the United States and others to assist the
opposition. In 2013, Congress debated lethal and nonlethal assistance to vetted Syrian opposition
groups, and authorized the latter. Congress also debated, but did not authorize, the use of force in
response to an August 2013 chemical weapons attack.
In 2014, the Obama Administration requested authority and funding from Congress to provide
lethal support to vetted Syrians for select purposes. The original request sought authority to
support vetted Syrians in “defending the Syrian people from attacks by the Syrian regime,” but
the subsequent advance of the Islamic State organization from Syria across Iraq refocused
executive and legislative deliberations onto counterterrorism. Congress authorized a Department
of Defense-led train and equip program to combat terrorist groups active in Syria, defend the
United States and its partners from Syria-based terrorist threats, and “promote the conditions for a
negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.”
In September 2014, the United States began air strikes in Syria, with the stated goal of preventing
the Islamic State from using Syria as a base for its operations in neighboring Iraq. In October
2014, the Defense Department established Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent
Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to “formalize ongoing military actions against the rising threat posed by
ISIS in Iraq and Syria.” CJTF-OIR came to encompass more than 70 countries, and bolstered the
efforts of local Syrian partner forces against the Islamic State. The United States also gradually
increased the number of U.S. personnel in Syria from 50 in late 2015 to roughly 2,000 by 2017.
President Trump in early 2018 called for an expedited withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria,1 but
senior Administration officials later stated that U.S. personnel would remain in Syria to ensure the
enduring defeat of the Islamic State. Then-National Security Advisor John Bolton also stated that
U.S. forces would remain in Syria until the withdrawal of Iranian-led forces.2 In December 2018,
President Trump ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria, contributing to the
subsequent decision by Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign, and drawing criticism from
several Members of Congress. In early 2019, the White House announced that several hundred
U.S. troops would remain in Syria.
As the Islamic State and armed opposition groups relinquished territorial control inside Syria, the
Syrian government and its foreign partners made significant military and territorial gains. The
U.S. intelligence community’s 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment stated that the conflict had
“decisively shifted in the Syrian regime’s favor, enabling Russia and Iran to further entrench
themselves inside the country.”3 Coalition and U.S. gains against the Islamic State came largely
through the assistance of Syrian Kurdish partner forces, but neighboring Turkey’s concerns about
those Kurdish forces emerged as a persistent challenge for U.S. policymakers. In 2019, Turkey
launched a cross border military operation attempting to expel Syrian Kurdish U.S. partner forces


1 Remarks by President Trump on the Infrastructure Initiative, March 30, 2018; Remarks by President Trump and
Heads of the Baltic States in Joint Press Conference, April 3, 2018.
2 “Bolton: U.S. forces will stay in Syria until Iran and its proxies depart,” Washington Post, September 24, 2018.
3 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, February 13, 2018.
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Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response

from areas adjacent to the Turkish border. In conjunction with the operation, President Trump
ordered the withdrawal of some U.S. forces from Syria and the repositioning of others in areas of
eastern Syria once held by the Islamic State.
Territorial gains by the Syrian government have pushed remaining armed opposition forces
(including Al Qaeda affiliates) into a progressively shrinking geographic space that is also
occupied by roughly 3 million Syrian civilians. (Figure 3 and Figure 4 show how territory held
by Syrian opposition forces was significantly reduced between 2017 and 2020.) The remaining
opposition-held areas of Idlib province in northwestern Syria have faced intensified and ongoing
Syrian government attacks since 2019. Unrest in southern areas recaptured by the government in
2020 suggests that security conditions nationwide may remain fluid.
The U.N. has sponsored peace talks in Geneva since 2012, but it appears unlikely that the parties
will reach a political settlement that would result in a transition away from Asad. With many
armed opposition groups weakened, defeated, or geographically isolated, military pressure on the
Syrian government to make concessions to the opposition has been reduced. U.S. officials have
stated that the United States will not fund reconstruction in Asad-held areas unless a political
solution is reached in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254.4 In June 2020, the
Trump Administration began implementing congressionally enacted sanctions on the Asad
government and its financial backers as part of a campaign to deny it revenue to compel Syrian
leaders to end the war (see “U.S. Sanctions on Syria”). Some observers have warned of possible
unintended effects of new sanctions given fragile economic conditions prevailing in the country.5
Figure 1. Syria: Map and Country Data

Sources: CRS using data from U.S. State Department; Esri; CIA, The World Factbook; and the United Nations.


4 State Department, “Joint Statement on the Ninth Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising,” March 15, 2020.
5 “Will more Syria sanctions hurt the very civilians they aim to protect?” War on the Rocks, June 10, 2020.
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Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response

Figure 2. Syria Conflict 2011-2019

Source: CRS.
Note: For more information, see CRS In Focus IF11080, Syria Conflict Overview: 2011-2018, by Carla E. Humud.
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Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response

Figure 3. Syria Areas of Influence 2020
As of May 25, 2020

Sources: CRS using area of influence data from IHS Conflict Monitor, last revised May 25, 2020. All areas of
influence approximate and subject to change. Other sources include U.N. OCHA, Esri, and social media reports.
Note: U.S. military officials have acknowledged publicly that U.S. forces are operating in select areas of eastern
Syria to train, advise, assist, and equip partner forces.
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