The end of summer in Syria brought with it the most disruptive period in the 17-month-long rebellion to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power. In August alone 100,000 refugees fled Syria accounting for nearly half of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees’ count of 234,368. As for the death toll, 5,000 Syrians were killed in August, making it the deadliest month of the conflict and pushing the total number of deaths to 26,000 according to activist groups.
The political violence in Syria is now spilling over into its neighbors, where the United States has important strategic interests at stake such as the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey or business interests in Lebanon. The Syrian military attacked a village on the Jordanian border, gun fights are breaking out in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, and the overwhelming influx of refugees is putting a serious strain on Turkish resources. This sort of spillover could turn what has predominantly been a problem for Syria into a major problem for the entire region.
The violence seen in Syria this August shows no sign of stopping as Assad-loyal forces continue to rely on air power and heavy weaponry to put down the rebellion, and Iran reportedly continues to arm the Syrian regime with military equipment and weapons flown through Iraqi airspace.
Initial prognostications by some analysts earlier this summer that the Assad regime had only days or weeks left in power proved false. While it is clear that President Assad will not be able to maintain effective political control over Syria as he did prior to the rebellion, much more conflict remains and it is unclear what the endgame will look like.
U.S. interests remain the same even as the daily situation in Syria changes. As we recommended last month in “Next Steps in Syria: A Look at U.S. Priorities and Interests,” U.S. policymakers must focus on five key priorities:
- Preventing the spillover of conflict into neighboring countries, including mitigating the effect of refugee outflows
- Securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and preventing their use
- Eliminating the space for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to operate
- Safeguarding the country against collapse into sectarian violence
- Preparing for an effective and stable political transition
Over the next several months, we will see continued violence and instability throughout Syria as Assad desperately attempts to maintain his hold on power. The daily images and news stories of high casualty rates, massive refugee outflows, and heavy shelling of population centers will and should continue to mortify us. But none of these daily updates will radically change U.S. policy priorities in Syria as the conflict drags on.
U.S. policymakers and the intelligence community need to start working right now with our allies in the region and partners on the ground to lay the foundation for a stable, prosperous Syrian future. We may not be able to control what the endgame in Syria looks like but there are steps we can take right now to protect our interests, advance our priorities, and develop contingency plans that can handle the daily disruptions we are guaranteed to see over the next few months.
Ken Sofer is a Research Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress.