Forecasting the Syrian Civil War

The trajectory of the Syrian Civil War may fundamentally shift within the 90 day timeframe. Russia escalated its military assistance on behalf of the Syrian regime in early September 2015, deploying armored vehicles and hundreds of personnel to the Syrian Coast in preparation for the establishment of at least one forward air operations base. Rebel factions led by Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al- Nusra (JN) continue to pressure the regime’s stronghold along the Alawite Coast following a several-month campaign to expel regime forces from Idlib Province. Turkey and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition intend to establish an “ISIS-free” zone in northern Syria along the Turkish border with the assistance of moderate rebel forces. There a number of ways that the actors driving conditions on the ground could respond to these events or generate new conditions. The interplay between these developments and their courses of action could create numerous different outcomes in Syria over the next 12 weeks. A number of these divergent pathways could generate negative effects that intensify the conflict, spread regional disorder, and threaten U.S. interests in Syria.

It is possible to forecast these trajectories to provide policy-makers and analysts with a key tool to anticipate the actions of adversaries such as ISIS and avert the potential pathways that could be most damaging to the U.S. or its allies. The following forecast applies the traditional techniques of intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) to actors and conditions in Syria. IPB is a process of analyzing enemy forces, terrain, weather, and civilian considerations in order to anticipate their effects upon friendly forces and their planned or ongoing operations. IPB involves analysis of the possible courses of action of the primary actors on the ground, given existing knowledge about their capabilities, tactics, and intent. Courses of action are ranked from most to least likely and evaluated for the dangers that they potentially pose to friendly force operations. The purpose of this course of action projection is to inform decision-makers with accurate forecasts that adequately account for a range of possibilities as well as the outside risk of most dangerous courses of action. Most dangerous courses of action are designated as such because they are not most likely, but they are nevertheless plausible. Illuminating them allows commanders to mitigate risk while planning in the context of most likely courses of action.

The forecasts presented in this paper are undergirded by several fundamental assumptions. First, the recent deployment of Russian military forces to Syria will maintain a defensive posture to prevent the collapse of the Syrian regime rather than a direct offensive posture to seize territory from anti-regime actors. Second, the Iranian nuclear accord and its corresponding sanctions relief for the Iranian government will be implemented in full. Third, the U.S. and Turkey will succeed in organizing and launching some form of offensive by rebel forces on the ground in an attempt to implement an “ISIS-free” zone in northern Syria. Fourth, Turkey will not take hostile action against the Syrian Kurdish YPG due to pressure on both parties by the U.S. Fifth, neighboring states – particularly Lebanon – will remain relatively stable. Sixth, the Iraqi Security Forces will continue their current pace and scale of anti-ISIS operations in Iraq with a prioritization of Anbar Province. If one or more of these assumptions prove false over the 90 day timeframe, this forecast will need to be adjusted to account for a significant inflection in the Syrian Civil War.

Based upon the assessed courses of action available to actors on the ground in Syria, ISW anticipates a spectrum of possible developments in the Syrian Civil War over the 90 day timeframe.

These outcomes have been characterized through analysis of the most likely courses of action (MLCOAs) and most dangerous courses of action (MDCOAs) for three primary actors: ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Syrian regime with its allies.