With the situation in Syria worsening daily, governments are trying to develop policy steps to halt, or at least alleviate, the conflict. The proposed Geneva II talks, tentatively scheduled for mid-November, will address the possible futures for a post-war Syria in an attempt to reach a settlement for a political transition. 

Michael Oppenheimer, Consulting Senior Fellow for Scenario Planning at the IISS and Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, examined some of these possible futures in a Syria ‘scenarios’ workshop held in February, and presented three of the scenarios in a talk at the IISS, which was chaired by Steven Simon, Executive Director, IISS–US and Corresponding Director, IISS–Middle East. Simon was also involved in the scenario planning committee in February. 

Scenario planning involves a panel of experts who examine the current conditions of a situation – the drivers behind it, the policy attitudes towards it and any potential surprises – and attempt to formulate detailed future scenarios that can then inform policy decisions. Their reports aim to ‘take both wishful thinking and despair out of the policy debate’, said Oppenheimer. He argued that a kind of conservatism – an aversion to risk-taking and a blindness to predictions that do not match the patterns of the recent past – prevents policymakers from considering all the options, limiting foreign-policy choices and reducing the chances of finding a solution. 

The Syria workshop was markedly different to previous scenario-planning sessions held by Oppenheimer’s department: in this case, the country under discussion had already all but collapsed. Whereas previous workshops on Turkey and China, among others, had addressed potential future causes of conflict and what to avoid, Oppenheimer explained that the opportunity for that kind of disaster-averting in Syria had been missed. More than two years into the conflict, he said, ‘Syria is close to being irredeemable’. The three scenarios presented – Regionalised Conflict, Contained Civil War and Negotiated Settlement – were all based on the assumption that neither side would achieve a decisive military victory on the ground. 

Under the 'regionalised conflict' scenario, the external actors in the region continue to support their chosen groups and the violence intensifies, eventually spreading across borders, where the refugee crisis and sectarian divisions have already destabilised fragile societies. Oppenheimer argues that this – the worst-case-scenario – is currently the most plausible; the role played by Hizbullah has already heightened tensions between Lebanon, Iran and Israel. 

In the second scenario, 'contained civil war', external actors realise that their interests are not served by escalating their involvement in an attempt to give one side a critical advantage. Instead, there is an understanding that support on both sides should be scaled back to a point where the conflict runs on as ‘a protracted, multi-sided sectarian conflict with aspects of a proxy war’, Oppenheimer explained, but without the regionalisation of the previous scenario.

The final scenario presented was 'negotiated settlement', which would rely on a shift in power from the current balance to give both sides an incentive to negotiate. The international community would have a prominent role, negotiating a ceasefire, settling interim territorial arrangements (most likely a partition of the country, with the regime controlling the south and the opposition forces taking the north), peacekeeping and organising talks between the two sides. This final scenario was seen as the most optimistic – and the one that the United States should be aiming for – but the actual conditions of the conflict as it stood made it the least plausible of the three.

The point of these scenario-planning sessions was not to show that all was lost, according to Oppenheimer, but to demonstrate that the current policy calculations of the Obama administration and other external actors were based on perceptions of the consequences of intervening, when they should instead be concerned with the far more destructive consequences of not doing so. 

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