January 16, 2015
Yemen and Syria: Making the Same Mistakes Twice
By Danya Greenfield and Faysal Itani
In both Yemen and Syria, the United States has single-mindedly focused on killing suspected militants. Yet it is far from clear that this approach has meaningfully weakened the jihadist threat. In fact, reports from the ground indicate the opposite is true. This trend will not change unless US policy begins to account for local realities and the broader political contexts in which AQAP and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) emerged. The jihadists thrive, not merely because US air strikes have not killed enough of them, but because they are embedded in toxic political environments and complex civil conflicts. Without policies that help address these underlying issues, the continued reliance on air strikes alone make US policy part of the problem rather than the solution.
When President Barack Obama referred to Yemen as a ‘model’ in a September 10, 2014 speech outlining the campaign against ISIS, Yemen-watchers from Washington to Sana’a groaned in unison. Yemen is barely surviving renewed political upheaval amid a Houthi incursion into the capital of Sana’a, a reinvigorated Southern secessionist movement, and fighting between competing tribal groups—all of which are exacerbated by US drone strikes. Even while a US-backed political transition was underway in Yemen since 2011, AQAP has continued to grow, key leaders remain at large, and jihadists continue to kidnap Yemeni military officials and foreigners. The US-Yemeni campaign against AQAP in Abyan in 2012 managed to push jihadists out of local strongholds, but did not deal them a fatal blow. After licking their wounds, AQAP affiliates have reemerged strengthened in other governorates and specific threats over the summer prompted closure of the US Embassy and evacuation of staff. The US whack-a-mole approach may produce the appearance of short-term wins, but these gains are not sustained.
US air strikes also generate widespread hostility toward the United States, and erode the credibility of President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi and his government among Yemeni citizens, who see such cooperation as an infringement on their sovereignty. Yemenis deeply resent drone strikes that inevitably kill civilians without addressing the very real security threats that citizens experience daily. With little transparency about who is being targeted and why, a generation of Yemenis now see the United States as responsible for killing innocent community members, adding fuel to the fire of extremist ideology. This policy builds a powerful anti-American narrative that both AQAP and the Houthi movement have seized upon. US efforts create new enemies each day and do little to build the credibility and trust in government institutions that ultimately need to provide the basic security and economic opportunity that would undercut the appeal of jihadist rhetoric.
US air strikes in Yemen also fail to account for local conflict dynamics that contribute to basic security failures and undermine state legitimacy. Consumed by the fight against AQAP, the United States has pursued a narrow agenda and has insufficiently considered the impact of other security problems, including the aggressive behavior of both the Houthi and Salafist movements in the north and militants rising in the south. Given the growing sectarian narrative in Yemen between the Iranian-backed Shia Houthi movement and Saudi-backed Salafis and Sunni tribal groups, it easy for Yemenis to see the United States as taking sides, with US drone strikes against AQAP viewed as benefiting the Houthis and, therefore, Iranian interests. This inevitably fuels perceptions that the United States is working with Shia forces to undermine Sunni interests.
Yemen is a tough environment, and there are few good policy options, but we should not gloss over the real costs of the current US approach, reminiscent of another problematic anti-jihadist strategy in the region. While drawing parallels between complex policy issues is always risky, there are indeed striking similarities between the US approach in Yemen and now against ISIS in Syria and Iraq—and depressingly similar flaws and consequences.
The US air campaign against ISIS in Syria is arguably even more destabilizing. Rather than working with Syrian partners with demonstrated military capability against jihadists, the United States ignores local actors and strikes ISIS alone. In doing so, it dismisses opportunities to gather valuable local intelligence, establish credible allies, and help build alternatives to ISIS other than a tyrannical regime or complete security vacuum—thereby all but guaranteeing that jihadists will reemerge.
Worse, this single-minded air campaign against jihadists, divorced from the wider context of the Syrian conflict that gave rise to them, has perverse effects on our ostensible allies in Syria—the moderate opposition that alone is able to offer a viable alternative to jihadist rule in Syria. Firstly, these air strikes kill innocents, implicating by association US-aligned rebel groups in the death of Syrian civilians.
Additionally, even as US aircraft fly sorties over Syria, regime aircraft continue to bomb Syrian civilians from the same air space. At the same time, the United States has gone to great lengths to clarify that ending these atrocities by an Alawite-dominated regime is not a priority; killing Sunni jihadists is. Ironically, the regime benefiting from the airstrikes is not even a US partner as in Yemen, but one that the United States has declared as illegitimate and demanded step aside.
Similar to Yemen, these air strikes and their targets are shrouded in ambiguity, leaving Syrians to guess as to who is bombing them at any one point: the United States or the regime. Understandably, a growing number of Syrians believe the United States is working with the Syrian regime to destroy the opposition. For its part, the regime is increasingly confident that the US focus on ISIS—and ISIS alone—will compel the United States to make terms with Assad. As in Yemen, locals whom the United States needs as partners against jihadists believe that US policy favors their enemies.
Worst of all is the impact the narrow ISIS campaign has had on inter-rebel dynamics on the ground. In its single-minded focus on killing jihadists, the United States has ignored its local allies’ pleas for serious military support against these same jihadists, while simultaneously (and publicly) calling on them to fight ISIS. Additionally, the US appears to be bombing jihadists with whom its opposition allies have opportunistically aligned to fight the regime, in the absence of meaningful US military support for their struggle. The result is that the ‘ISIS only’ campaign has provoked attacks by powerful jihadist groups on our only potential partners against them.
In addition to undermining our allies and the long-term political stability of their countries, US policy continues to show disregard for the impact of civilian deaths on popular perceptions toward the United States. In Yemen, compensation for families of non-combatants killed by US airstrikes has been opaque and inconsistent. In Syria, where US airstrikes have killed at least one hundred civilians in a few weeks, the United States has declared it will not compensate victims’ families at all. In Syria, the refusal to coordinate with forces on the ground further compromises any US ability to correctly identify targets and help avoid civilian deaths. In both places, the United States lacks reliable, consistent, high-quality intelligence assets on the ground, which contributes to the likelihood of targeting mistakes and civilian casualties. This approach is morally and strategically bankrupt.
It is not that US air strikes and kinetic counterterrorism operations cannot be useful against jihadists in Yemen and Syria, of course. Nor are air strikes unequivocally and universally opposed even by Yemenis and Syrians. Syrian opposition members say they would welcome air strikes against their jihadist enemies, and even accept inevitable civilian casualties, provided that they are incurred to free Syria from both the regime and ISIS as part of an effort in which Syrians are partners.
Nor is it the case that the United States faces a choice between ‘easy’ counterterrorism consistent with a ‘realist’ foreign policy, and quixotic efforts to strengthen anti-jihadist forces. There is nothing realistic or economical about an endless, clumsy campaign of killings that undermine the political circumstances essential to fighting extremists. Anti-jihadist strategy urgently needs to account for local dynamics and the long-term political and economic health of the countries in which groups like AQAP and ISIS thrive. Otherwise, the United States will find itself with few if any allies—and plenty of enemies—in both Yemen and Syria.
Danya Greenfield is a Deputy Director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
Faysal Itani is a Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.