NYU-SCPS Center for Global Affairs Considers Three Scenarios for Syria in 2018


NEW YORK, August 29, 2013 – The current situation in Syria can either continue to expand beyond the country’s borders, settle into a stalemated but mostly internal conflict, or be managed towards a territorial partition through coordinated pressure by outside powers, according to “Syria 2018,” the latest report issued by the Scenarios Initiative of the Center for Global Affairs (CGA) of the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies (NYU-SCPS).

Rather than attempting to predict the future of the country, “Syria 2018” projects these three plausible alternative scenarios and their consequences for U.S. interests.

In Scenario One, “Regionalized Conflict,” regional powers contend for influence within Syria through imperfectly-controlled proxies. Escalated fighting fragments the country along sectarian and ethnic lines, putting to rest any hope for a negotiated settlement. The conflict bleeds across borders, effectively overturning the post-World War I regional order in the Middle East, and invites competitive intervention by the great powers. This worst-case scenario is the current trajectory of Syrian events.

In Scenario Two, “Contained Civil War,” great powers and regional actors conclude that unrestrained support to favored factions within Syria has produced diminishing returns, thus creating an opportunity to limit regional spillover. This restraint does not, however, permit a resolution to the conflict. Instead, the civil war remains tenuously contained within Syria, settling into a protracted, multi-sided sectarian conflict with aspects of proxy war among regional rivals. This is less likely than the regional conflict scenario, but more plausible than a negotiated settlement.

In Scenario Three, “Negotiated Settlement,” a subtle and potentially transitory shift in the power balance within Syria creates sufficient incentive for both parties to negotiate, and enables outside actors to exert pressure toward a settlement. As century-old political boundaries dissolve and sectarian enclaves emerge, a north-south partition and ceasefire holds, with the potential for a formalized political settlement on the horizon. The combination of coordinated outside action and internal political accommodation makes this the least likely of the three scenarios.

“The report contains several observations on U.S. policy for Syria that emerge from the alternate futures,” said Michael Oppenheimer, the NYU-SCPS Center for Global Affairs clinical professor who leads the Scenarios Initiative. “Each argues that the current U.S. posture of reactive and incremental escalation is insufficient to influence Syrian outcomes, whether the preferred outcome is a negotiated settlement, containment of the conflict within its current boundaries, or a victory by the opposition.”

As the Obama Administration contemplates its response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, thinking about alternate scenarios is essential for placing policy options in context. A response seen as largely symbolic will have only transitory effect on the fundamentals, and will fail to alter the worst-case path towards regional sectarian conflict and state failure (scenario one). A robust response with no clear act two will lead to further escalation, not deterrence. Only a response with meaningful impacts on the ground and a clear willingness to preserve these advantages, will generate the leverage essential to either containment (scenario two) or negotiation (scenario three). The risks of this path are clear, but can be assessed rationally only by considering the consequences of the current direction towards a regional conflagration with severe global consequences.

The CGA Scenarios Initiative aims to raise the quality of U.S. foreign policy by improving policymakers’ understanding of and reaction to change. The project gathers experts from diverse skill sets and nationalities to participate in interactive scenario-building workshops.

The Initiative has attracted leading experts representing a wide range of academic, commercial, and diplomatic expertise in each of the target countries. These workshops are unscripted and conversational in nature. The format enables the participants to challenge prevailing assumptions and attitudes towards the country under analysis and express their personal views. Oppenheimer, its leader, has provided research, consulting, and policy advice for the U.S. foreign policy and intelligence communities, using similar scenario-building exercises, for almost four decades.

This latest report, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, is the eighth in the CGA series that examines likely foreign policy issues facing the United States.

Syria 2018 is available for download at scps.nyu.edu/cga.scenarios or cgascenarios.wordpress.com. Previous reports on Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, China, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine can also be accessed through both websites.

About the NYU-SCPS Center for Global Affairs
The Center for Global Affairs (CGA), one of several comprehensive academic divisions within the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies (NYU-SCPS), offers graduate and continuing education programs in global affairs and hosts a series of vibrant public events on related topics

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