Title: Stabilizing Eastern Syria After #ISIS#
Author: James A. Schear, Jeffrey Martini, Eric Robinson, Michelle E. Miro, James Dobbins
Release date: 2020
The U.S.-led international coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has achieved substantial progress over the past several years, but the counter-ISIS campaign is not over. The authors assessed humanitarian needs in Eastern Syria's Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV). They also examined how locally focused stabilization efforts might be orchestrated to help preclude the Islamic State's recapture of territory, even as Syria's larger civil conflict continues unabated and is growing more complex.
This report opens with a sociocultural perspective on the MERV's human terrain, explicating long-standing divisions within and among the Valley's Sunni Arab tribes that may pose challenges to restoring broadly accepted local governance. The authors then assess the region's most urgent post-ISIS needs, focusing intensively on the status of its critical infrastructure—e.g., bridges, hospitals, transit facilities—as well as its natural resources, human displacement, and economic activity. In the political sphere, the authors examined how stabilization efforts might be pursued in a region where both the Syrian government and nonstate actors are filling a vacuum left by a common enemy's loss of territorial control. The authors then analyzed the pluses and minuses of attempting to overcome these challenges via either a separated division of labor approach to stabilization (i.e., a steer clear approach) or a more collaborative interactive approach. The authors recommend that both sides should start with a minimalist steer clear option but incrementally move toward a more interactive approach, as conditions permit.
While the level of infrastructure damage endured by the MERV's major cities and towns appears to be less than in other population centers once controlled by ISIS, the region's bridging, industrial sites, water treatment facilities, and oil and gas infrastructure have not been spared.
Along with repairs in these domains, early recovery's highest-priority efforts should address shortfalls in water, electricity, and agricultural production.
Agricultural investments should focus on providing short-term assistance—e.g., seeds, fertilizers, and affordable fuel—to help revive levels of crop production during the MERV's upcoming growing seasons.
Geopolitical Complexities of the MERV
Even if each side chooses to begrudgingly accept the other's presence in Eastern Syria—and there are pressures on each side to do so—the pathway toward stabilization would not be easy to navigate.
The five most consequential challenges would be where to draw the deconfliction line; whether and how to organize mutually agreed flows of unarmed civilians, economic goods, and relief supplies across the Valley; managing water scarcity and sharing oil and gas revenues; attending to the needs of displaced communities and their influx back into the Valley following ISIS's departure; and (5) mitigating the risks of retributive violence against communities suspected of having ISIS sympathizers.