Deteriorating Circumstances in Syria and Yemen Overshadow US Tactical Success


The location of the ISIS attack in Manbij, Syria, which claimed the lives of several US soldiers. Photo credit: ANHA

As 2019 begins, the United States remains embroiled in two bloody and seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East: in Syria and Yemen. Their scope is enormous; together, they have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused untold damage to both countries. According to estimates, at least 511,000 have been killed in Syria along with anywhere from 17,000 to 56,000 civilians in Yemen. (These figures by and large exclude the impacts of collapsed medical, water, electricity, other vital systems, as well as hunger, on overall civilian mortality rates.) According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 5.6 million people have fled Syria and another 6.6 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs). In Yemen, UNHCR estimates there are over two million IDPs. Also inflicted has been physical damage to housing and vital public infrastructure, valued in the billions of dollars. War has pushed both countries, particularly Yemen, to the brink of state failure.

The United States is intimately involved in both of these conflicts, despite frequent assertions that Washington is largely a bystander or has only limited interests in Syria and Yemen. The US military (for now) maintains a small but significant troop presence in Syria dedicated to the defeat of the Islamic State (IS); it has also served as a major—if vacillating—player in diplomatic efforts to resolve the civil war and determine the country’s future political arrangements. Washington has provided substantial military and diplomatic support to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that has been fighting Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi insurgent forces since 2015. Thus, the United States will own a share of the outcome, no matter what, and its regional interests will be impacted for many years to come.

With everything that is at stake on the ground, and given the churning controversies in Washington about the wisdom of US strategy and involvement in both conflicts, it is time for a reassessment of the American strategy. And that must start with an evaluation of whether US involvement is accomplishing its aims.

Syria: Failure to Focus Compromises Success on the Ground

To President Donald Trump and members of his administration, the US mission in Syria—focused on the comprehensive defeat of IS—has been an unvarnished success, justifying the precipitate pullout Trump announced in the third week of December. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” the president tweeted, “my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” Amplifying his claim the next day, the president approvingly tweet-quoted a Heritage Foundation analyst, Jim Carafano, as saying on Fox News that “When Trump came into office, ISIS was running amuck [sic] in the Middle East. Over a million refugees poured into Western Europe – none of that is happening today. That’s all due to Trump.” White House and Pentagon spokespersons likewise echoed the president’s insistence that the Islamic State had been defeated on the ground and the territory it held was liberated, thus justifying the rapid withdrawal of American troops. The administration’s central claim, then, is that IS has been ousted from its Syrian strongholds and the chaos engendered by the organization, including mass movements of refugees, is no longer a concern. Therefore, America’s strategic aims in Syria had been achieved.

But is this in fact the case?

On the positive side, there have been some unquestioned successes in the fight against the Islamic State and efforts to bring some measure of stability to northeastern Syria. The so-called IS capital, Raqqa, was liberated in October 2017 by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, symbolically destroying the IS self-proclaimed “caliphate.”

The United States also embarked on an ambitious project of reconstruction and stabilization, focusing on restoring essential services and improving safety conditions in areas of northeastern Syria it controls with its Syrian Arab and Kurdish allies, with the goal of enabling Syrian IDPs to return to their homes. Overall, the United States has contributed about $8.6 billion to Syrian relief and reconstruction since the conflict began, and since last April has managed to elicit another $300 million from partners to support early recovery efforts in areas the United States and its allies on the ground liberated from IS. Relief operations, while limited in scope to accessible areas in Syria and to neighboring countries with Syrian refugee populations, have helped alleviate the dire conditions of IDPs in Syria as well those in refugee camps. Refugee flows to Europe have indeed tapered off, although this is attributable more to EU efforts than any particular policy of the Trump Administration.

Looking beyond these achievements, however, the record is more cloudy, due in no small part to the administration’s tendency to keep shifting the goal posts and its definitions of success. At various times Trump officials have advanced alternate rationales for the ongoing US presence in Syria, signifying they had broader regional goals in mind—only to redefine them later. By these measures, the US experience in Syria comes up short.

At various times Trump officials have advanced alternate rationales for the ongoing US presence in Syria, signifying they had broader regional goals in mind—only to redefine them later. By these measures, the US experience in Syria comes up short.

Critically, for example, the White House touted the American presence in Syria as an effective check on Iranian regional ambitions. National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed last fall that the United States would remain in Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” Further, and without mentioning Iran, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis said in August that in addition to the defeat of IS, two other conditions needed to be met before the United States could withdraw troops: training local forces to maintain security and prevent the return of Islamic State terrorists, and advancing “the Geneva process, the UN-recognized process to start making traction towards solving this war.”

However, departure of key officials, policy reversals, and mixed messages quickly undermined both the administration’s claims of success and the stated reasons for the continuing American presence in Syria. Trump’s December 19 announcement of the immediate pullout of troops precipitated the resignation of Defense Secretary Mattis and the State Department’s envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, throwing Syria policy into confusion. Then the president seemed to abandon his administration’s earlier insistence that US troops would remain until Iran departed, telling the press that “Iran is pulling people out of Syria, but they can frankly do whatever they want there,” setting off alarms in allied capitals, especially Israel. This in turn helped precipitate an apparent reversal of the president’s withdrawal announcement. During a January 6 visit to Israel, Bolton announced that US troops would remain more or less indefinitely, at least until all remnants of the Islamic State were defeated and Turkey guaranteed it would not attack US-allied Kurdish forces. This demand earned Bolton a stiff rebuke from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a couple of days later, when Erdoğan rejected Bolton’s demands. To confuse the situation further, US troops began pulling equipment out of Syria on January 11, signaling that preparations for the troop withdrawal were advancing. Meanwhile, the administration stopped linking the presence of US forces to the Geneva process and downplayed the troops’ training role, leaving the rationale for any American role in Syria entirely unclear.

Struggle in Syria Far from Over, but US Involvement Might Be

For now, the best that can be said is that the Islamic State in Syria has been dramatically weakened. However, with at least 2,500 IS fighters still entrenched in Syrian territory, the group by no means has been eradicated. In addition, Washington’s apparent abandonment of its various other goals in Syria represents a wasted opportunity at best. Trump’s insistence on leaving while elements of IS remain a threat and the fate of Syrian Arab and Kurdish allies of the United States is up in the air undermines any success Washington may have had. Most important, the administration’s failure to address the future of the Syrian state, leaving it up to a moribund UN process, is a pure gift to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Trump’s insistence on leaving while elements of IS remain a threat and the fate of Syrian Arab and Kurdish allies of the United States is up in the air undermines any success Washington may have had.

Yemen—and US Policy—on a Downward Spiral

The American record in Yemen is perhaps even more dubious than it is in Syria. It is worth noting here that the United States, in effect, has been at war in the country since the beginning of the George W. Bush Administration’s Global War on Terrorism, Bush having authorized the first drone strikes against terrorist targets in the country in 2002 in retaliation for the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden. The drone war against al-Qaeda intensified under President Barack Obama, whose administration conducted some 154 strikes in his eight years in office. President Trump sharply accelerated the pace of operations, with 176 attacks in the first two years of his administration. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the estimated toll from all US drone strikes combined—approximately 328—include 1,019-1,383 dead, 174-225 of them civilians and among them 44-50 children.

It is worth noting here that the United States, in effect, has been at war in Yemen since the beginning of the George W. Bush Administration’s Global War on Terrorism.

During all this time, US military activities have scored some real successes in targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leaders and personnel. These included the 2011 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American al-Qaeda recruiter and organizer; the 2015 slaying by drone of Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of AQAP, and several of his lieutenants; the 2018 death of Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP’s lead bomb maker; the January 1, 2019 killing of Jamal-al Badawi, a key planner of the USS Cole bombing; and the demise of numerous other al-Qaeda leaders and foot soldiers. US strikes also forced AQAP elements to adopt new security measures, forcing them into the mountains and away from heavily populated areas (where they could more easily recruit and blend in with the locals), and discouraging large gatherings and traceable cell phone usage. Strikes on the group’s leadership and the imposition of new operational burdens have likely inhibited the AQAP’s ability to plan and undertake terrorist attacks against US interests.

With the entry of Saudi Arabia and its allies into Yemen’s civil war in March 2015, however, the United States adopted a different posture, one not altogether compatible with the mission of combating al-Qaeda. Seizing an opportunity to push back against Iranian influence, the United States agreed to support its Gulf allies in their effort to oust the Iran-backed Houthi forces from the Yemeni capital Sanaa and restore the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Obama Administration began providing logistical support, including intelligence, targeting information, advice, and aerial refueling to the coalition, a policy continued by President Trump.

The expansion of the American mission in Yemen not only failed to advance appreciably the coalition’s goals, but the fight against al-Qaeda has in some ways taken a turn for the worse since the Saudi-led intervention. According to an eye-opening report by the Associated Press (AP), the coalition’s war aims—defeating the Shia Houthis and dealing a political blow to their Iranian allies—dovetailed with those of AQAP. As a result, coalition forces and al-Qaeda have often found themselves on the same side in Yemen’s civil war. Militias backed by the Saudis, the UAE, and their allies have actively recruited al-Qaeda members, largely because of their exceptional fighting skills, and coalition-supported militias with close ties to al-Qaeda have received millions of dollars from their Gulf backers. This includes substantial payments to AQAP militants to withdraw from cities and towns and move elsewhere to avoid conflict with coalition forces, leaving them free to fight another day. According to the AP report, the first such deal took place in the spring of 2016, allowing thousands of AQAP fighters to depart Yemen’s fifth largest city, Mukalla, in exchange for $100 million. Other such deals followed.

The United States has asked that the Saudis devote more resources to the fight against al-Qaeda, and certainly Riyadh views AQAP as a threat and not to be trusted. But as a tactical partner, AQAP has had its uses, and it is effectively taking advantage of the strategic calculus of the military partners.

The well-remunerated frontline presence of al-Qaeda fighters on the side of the coalition, one al-Qaeda commander told AP, is an effective recruiting tool, and its numbers on the ground are growing beyond the 6-8,000 the United States estimates are already there. “AQAP has woven itself into society by building ties with tribes, buying loyalties and marrying into major families,” the AP report noted, making them much harder to dislodge.

The Bottom Line in Yemen

Limited tactical achievements against AQAP cannot disguise the fact that Yemen has devolved into an unmitigated disaster. UN Secretary General António Guterres has described Yemen as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” in which three-fourths of the population, or more than 22 million people, are in need of “humanitarian aid and protection.” There is no end in sight to the military conflict; a recently agreed ceasefire in Hodeida governorate is beginning to show cracks, and peace talks have yet to gather significant momentum toward a negotiated end to the war. The death toll, exacerbated by the collapse of public health and other vital services, continues to rise. Even with US assistance, none of the coalition’s war aims has been realized; the Houthis are still firmly entrenched in Sanaa and their Iranian allies remain committed. Moreover, with AQAP having become a key military ally of the Saudis and Emiratis on the ground (and thus, ironically, a de facto partner of the United States), al-Qaeda’s presence appears more strengthened in the country than ever before.

Moreover, with AQAP having become a key military ally of the Saudis and Emiratis on the ground (and thus, ironically, a de facto partner of the United States), al-Qaeda’s presence appears more strengthened in the country than ever before.

The political fallout of the Yemen war has added to the growing strain on the US-Saudi relationship. US congressional criticism of the Saudi-led campaign and the administration’s unwavering support is intensifying, and a push to limit or ban arms sales to the kingdom (strengthened by the Saudi Crown Prince’s alleged involvement in the murder of Washington Post Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi) has gained new momentum with the seating of a Democratic House majority on January 3rd. In November of last year, the administration suspended aerial refueling of coalition aircraft, supposedly at the request of the Saudi government. The White House will remain under pressure to scale back its involvement further.

A Test for Congress

The Trump Administration will face many serious tests on the domestic and international fronts in the coming year, and US involvement in the Syria and Yemen conflicts is among the most important pieces of unfinished foreign policy business. Changing circumstances on the ground and shifting strategies coming from Washington have exposed administration claims of success as threadbare. Yet, no innovative thinking or considered adjustments in strategy appear to be forthcoming from the White House. Congress may well need to step in, exercising its powers of appropriation and oversight, to force needed modifications—or even wholesale transformation—in America’s strategy before further damage is inflicted on US interests and standing in the Middle East.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here