Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Future of Syria - Gray Zone Competition

At a recent meeting of the congressionally-mandated Syria Study Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the participants outlined Washington's agenda for Syria, particularly a forward-looking examination of the diplomatic and military components of America's long-standing efforts in Syria.  The discussion entitled "Syria in the Gray Zone" focused on what is termed "gray zone competition" in Syria, a concept that we will look at in this posting.

Let's start by taking a quick look at CSIS.  Here, in their own words, is what we need to know about CSIS to put their influence over Washington into perspective:

"Established in Washington, D.C., over 50 years ago, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit policy research organization dedicated to providing strategic insights and policy solutions to help decisionmakers chart a course toward a better world.

Founded in 1962 by David M. Abshire and Admiral Arleigh Burke, CSIS is one of the world’s preeminent international policy institutions focused on defense and security; regional study; and transnational challenges ranging from energy and trade to global development and economic integration. For the past eight years consecutively, CSIS has been named the world’s number one think tank for defense and national security by the University of Pennsylvania’s “Go To Think Tank Index.”

The Center’s over 240 full-time staff and large network of affiliated scholars conduct research and analysis and develop policy initiatives that look to the future and anticipate change.  CSIS is regularly called upon by Congress, the executive branch, the media, and others to explain the day’s events and offer recommendations to improve U.S. strategy."  (my bold)

With that background, let's look at key takeaways from the recent CSIS discussion on Syria and the use of gray zone tactics.  According to Melissa Dalton, the director of the Cooperative Defense project at CSIS, gray zone competition is defined as:

"Gray zone competition is the area between conventional warfare and day-to-day statecraft, whereby the United States, along with other significant actors across the globe, are using a range of coercive tools - from information operations, to economic levers, to the use of proxy forces, as well as in the cyber and space domains - to extend their influence and their interest."

Gray zone tools are generally considered to be nonmilitary in nature and to me, would be considered coercive means used to win a conflict.

Let's look at the opening remarks by Dana Stroul, the Democratic co-chair of the Syria Study Group and a Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in which she outlines Russia's use of the "gray zone" in its activities in Syria.  It is important to keep in mind that Ms. Stroul is a staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and spent many years in the Department of Defense:



Here is what she said:

"…since we’re talking about Russia, and Iran, and gray zone activities, one question we worked to tackle in the deliberations of our group is about the alliance between Russia and Iran in Syria, and are there vulnerabilities, or factures, or tensions that could be exploited by the United States to divide them and then move forward with a better outcome for Syria?

And our conclusion was no, not at this time. That what unites Russia and Iran in their commitment to the survival of Assad regime and his commitment to retake Syrian territory is much stronger than any of the tensions that are dividing the two entities at this point in time.

In terms of gray zone activities, other than Russia’s overt kinetic military support for the Assad regime, what it’s doing in Syria is entirely in the gray zone. Two great examples are Russia, through its Security Council seat at the U.N. Security Council, consistently blocks efforts to have truth-telling commissions, fact-finding commissions on things, for example, like use of chemical weapons, commission of war crimes, et cetera. So Russia consistently at the U.N. Security Council and in deliberations across U.N. bodies – like the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons – OPCW – will block international bodies from undertaking those fact-finding missions, block international bodies from assigning complicity for the commission of war crimes, for the use of chemical weapons. So it’s basically, no, this didn’t happen; look over there – somewhere else.

And another great example of Russian operations in the gray zone are its use of mercenaries, like the Wagner organization. So basically, rather than have Russian military forces itself challenge us, there was a time where U.S. military forces at our outpost at the Tanf garrison were challenged not by the Russians themselves, but by mercenaries – Wagner – operating alongside Iran proxies.

So these are examples where the Russians maintain just enough distance to be able to deny, but it’s clearly different elements of the Russian state challenging and testing the United States – both our commitment, our resolve, and then actually what we’re doing in Syria, and where we’re willing to draw that line." (all bolds mine)

Here is what Michael Singh, the Republican co-chair of the Syria Study Group and Managing Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in which he outlines Iran's use of the "gray zone" in its activities in Syria.  We should keep in mind that Mr. Singh previously served as the senior director for Near East and North African affairs at the White House, director for Near East and North African Affairs on the National Security Council and special assistant to two secretaries of state:


Here's what he said:

But I think we can say that, with respect to Iran – and I think this goes to a large extent for Russia, as well – but if you look at Iranian activities, there is obviously an overt conventional military aspect to what Iran is doing. Iran has sent its own military, in relatively small numbers, to Syria, IRGC officers – Revolution Guard, that is – officers, and it has tried – without great success – to establish a sort of forward military presence which it could use against, say, Israel or other U.S. allies in the area. And Israel has obviously engaged in an air campaign to try to stymie those Iranian activities.

But we also see Iran engaging in a host of proxy activities: sending – whether it’s Pakistani or Afghan – militants there, sending Hezbollah, sending Iraqi Shia militants to Syria, and then also actually recruiting new militias in Syria. And one of our colleagues from the Washington Institute, Phillip Smyth, has a project where you can actually look at the map of all these different militias that Iran has created in Syria.

They are also engaged across the spectrum of economic activities as well as, I would say, social and political activities, so looking to purchase real estate, looking to gain contracts, looking to insinuate themselves into society in different ways. They’ve obviously been accused of trying to sort of convert people from Sunni Islam to Shia Islam, although lots of those reports are a bit murky I would say. And if we move into a political phase in Syria, which maybe is ahead of us, then I would expect Iran to try to do in Syria what it has done in, say, Iraq or Lebanon, which is to also insinuate itself into the political process. As Dana noted, I think we see some of the same activities with respect to Russia, where you see different Syrian commanders who may owe greater allegiance to the Russians then they actually owe to the Assad regime." (all bolds mine)

Here is the key part of his musings:

"But I think there’s another purpose, which is to use Syria in both cases, Russia and Iran, as a platform to project power. For Russia I think that means sort of into the Mediterranean. Obviously, Russia has put a premium on maintaining its naval facility as well as its airbase, which it’s expanded and consolidated throughout this conflict. And for Iran I think that means, again, trying to sort of embed itself in a way which expands its front against Israel in particular."

So, what does the Syria Study Group think that Washington should do in Syria?  We must remember that Syria's political leadership invited both Iran and Russia to participate in the Syrian Civil War whereas the United States was an unwelcome  and uninvited participant, a fact that actually breaches international law:

"We argued in our recommendation section that taken as a whole, even though in the United States that there’s limited appetite domestically here or on the Hill to match the level of resources or even diplomatic investment of the Iranians and the Russians in Syria, that the United States still had compelling forms of leverage on the table to shape an outcome that was more conducive and protective of U.S. interests, and we identified four.

So the first one was the one-third of Syrian territory that was owned via the U.S. military with its local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Now this was a light footprint on the U.S. military, only about a thousand troops over the course of the Syria Study Group’s report; and then the tens of thousands of forces, both Kurdish and Arab, under the Syria Democratic Forces. And that one-third of Syria is the resource-rich – it’s the economic powerhouse of Syria. So where the hydrocarbons are, which obviously is very much in the public debate here in Washington these days, as well as the agricultural powerhouse.

Well, we argued that it wasn’t just about this one-third of Syrian territory that the U.S. military and our military presence owned, both to fight ISIS and also as leverage for affecting the overall political process for the broader Syria conflict. There were three other areas of leverage."

Please note Mr. Singh's repeated assertion that the United States military (and its partner) owned one-third of Syria territory.

What are these three areas of leverage that Washington can still use to its advantage in Syria:

1.) political and diplomatic isolation of the Assad regime - preventing Russia from rehabilitating Assad on the world stage by preventing embassies from returning to Damascus.

2.) economic sanctions on Syria as a whole and Bashar al-Assad as an individual for human rights abuses and on backers of Assad for supporting him.

3.) reconstruction aid - preventing reconstruction aid and technical expertise from going back to Syria by using Washington's influence over international financial institutions and its co-operation with Europe.

Now who's talking about using "gray zone competition"?

Now that we can see that, from the perspective of an influential Washington-based think tank, the war in Syria is far from over, lets close with the final thoughts from Michael Singh:

"I’ll only say by the United States, I wish we were better at these types of activities, that sort of activity short of conventional warfare. Part of our difficulties in Syria have been that we haven’t really been willing to put resources in. Even the resources that Congress has appropriated over the past several years haven’t been spent. And so I think that has actually undermined our ability to have influence in different areas of Syria. We had, for example, in the past more influence in southwestern Syria, but that was largely withdrawn. So this is not, I think, a sort of arena in which we have competed well with those we’re theoretically trying to compete against.

On the troops the only thing I’ll add is that there’s going to be a domestic political component to this as well. We have an election next year. Our military presence in the Middle East is, I think, not one of the 10 most popular things on the list of foreign policy matters for the Democratic candidates. And there’ll be questions that arise about our continued presence there, as to whether the mission is one which is properly authorized, whether it’s one which is worthwhile. And I think we’ll see that play out here in Washington as well." (my bold)

Apparently, Mr. Singh is more than willing to see American military personnel sacrifice themselves for the sake of gaining Syria.

If you wish to watch the entire discussion, you can find it here:


Given the congressional mandate for the Syria Study Group and the highly influential position of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, we can be certain of one thing; that the American regime change war for Syria is far from over.