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Syria in 2019: four scenarios - Implications for policy planning

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Minke Meijnders
Jaïr van der Lijn
Bas van Mierlo

Clingendael Report November 2017

Executive Summary

The main aim of this report is to identify policy options for the future of Syria, using four potential scenarios in 2019. These scenarios are based on an extensive scenariobuilding process with a wide variety of stakeholders in order to contribute to policy and strategy planning.

The scenarios

The scenarios are built on the basis of two key uncertainties:

1) Will the levels of violence in the Syrian conflict decrease, or will they increase even further?

2) Either by design or by use of force, will governance in Syria fragment further, or will it once again be more centralised?

The plotting of these two uncertainties on two axes results in a scenario framework of four quadrants, each representing one of the following scenarios:

Fragile PeaceLow intensity violence, central governance: After Assad was toppled in a palace coup, the former Assad regime reasserted its control over its militias and defeated the remnants of IS. The Syrian parties, except for designated terrorist groups, return to the negotiation table and reach a peace agreement that includes a federal system, headed by the Syrian Government of National Unity (GNU), which is supported by a UN peace operation. The Kurds have their autonomous region in the north. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is still in control of parts of the Idlib region. As there is some stability in this scenario, reconstruction is slowly gaining more traction and, in general, the situation in Syria is improving slightly.

ReconquistaHigh intensity violence, central governance: After peace talks in Geneva and Astana broke down, the fighting intensified and became more brutal than ever. Following indications that the moderate Sunni Arab opposition groups used chemical weapons against civilians, the West withdrew its support. Assad’s forces gain momentum and regain control over most of Syria. In government-held areas, the repression of civilians is severe and terrorist attacks and bombings are frequent. The Assad regime fights a high-intensity war to reconquer the remaining rebel-held areas.

WarlordismHigh intensity violence, fragmented governance: After the liberation of Raqqa, the breaking of the siege of Deir ez-Zor, and the territorial defeat of IS, international actors signed a peace agreement that forced their proxies to lie low. However, as differences between the different Syrian parties over the governance of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor resurfaced, fighting resumed. As the situation deteriorates, the government and opposition forces fragment and the country turns to a patchwork of fiefdoms. All politics are local, and there are regular violent clashes between the warlords. International actors are reluctant to intervene in the conflict.

Frozen ConflictLow intensity violence, fragmented governance: After large-scale ethnic cleansing, international and regional actors pressured their proxies into accepting a ceasefire. Reaching a peace agreement on the future of Syria appeared impossible. Violence in Syria decreases and the conflict is effectively frozen. The country is carved up into separate statelets, each backed by different regional and international players. In some regions, the economic and good governance situation improves, while in others the conflict continues