In Syria – Learning Lessons from the “Success” of Yemen

Since Wednesday’s submission for a new authorization on the use of force against ISIL, many (including in this forum) are talking about the proposed act, how it relates to previous AUMFs, and how or whether it will significantly change or impact the situation on the ground. All these discussions, while important, should not distract us from the bigger picture of the overall US approach to the Syrian crisis.

When announcing the US air campaign against ISIL in September, President Obama referenced the ‘successful’ strategy we were ‘already adopting in Yemen’ as a good example of how to conduct limited airstrikes. Many experts and commentators were deeply skeptical of basing an ISIL strategy on the Yemeni model, as Yemen seemed to be perpetually teetering on the brink of collapse.

Now, six months into the US campaign against ISIL, we see that Yemen has reached a crossroads between chaos and a return to a fragile and halting process of transition. Just last Thursday, the UN Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar noted before the Security Council that the country is on the brink of a civil war, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told the Security Council that “Yemen is collapsing before our eyes.”

What have we have learned from this ‘success’? 

First and foremost, we have learned that a strategy that is too narrowly focused on anti-terrorism, while minimizing or neglecting the need for a democratic transition, is intrinsically flawed. In the long term, such a narrow strategy is unlikely to succeed in either reducing the terrorist threat, or creating stability. Unequal access to power and resources is and will always remain the utmost cause of sectarian violence. In Syria, like in Yemen, the United States ought to be cognizant that investing in building democratic institutions is paramount to avoiding the effigy of another collapse.  While it may be easy, and convenient, to dismiss the democratic solution as idealist, if anything, we have learned these past years that there is no genuine alternative to such an approach if one is concerned about a durable peace.

Democratic institutions promote inclusiveness, build resilience and ensure the sustainability of peaceful ways of addressing grievances and dissatisfaction. To assist in the building of truly democratic institutions in liberated areas of Syria, and preparing for a genuine democratic post-conflict Syria, the United States must accelerate its support to the moderate Syrian opposition – both the military and political arms.

Caught between ISIL and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the moderate Syrian opposition – our only genuine allies (along with the Kurdish forces) are being decimated. Now, and for a short period of time, the Syrian opposition (consisting of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the Interim Government, and the Free Syrian Army) can still be the partner we need, but they, in turn, need a serious commitment on our part.

The only real prospect for democratic institutions is the moderate opposition, which arguably is not the tidiest of groups. Yet the beauty of democracy is its diversity of views and opinions, which some often mistake as disfunctionality. Instead of pursuing blind stability, the United States should embrace inclusivity and diversity to ensure the sustainable character of the resilient segments of the Syrian society. Building democratic institutions in the best of times is difficult, and doing so during an active conflict is exceptionally hard. But there is no other option.

In supporting the moderate Syrian opposition, the true key will be to support women and youth. In Yemen, women and youth constituencies (which received substantial support and encouragement from the United States) are the only two groups that seem to be genuinely interested in moving away from the old system of elite-based power and wealth sharing, which in large part laid the seeds for the Yemeni conflict. Even though there are seemingly already a vast number of voices and perspectives operating within the moderate Syrian opposition, efforts to include women and youth must continue and must be prioritized if there is to be hope of a genuine political transition taking root when the guns fall silent.

In addition, it will be crucial to acknowledge that a genuine or lasting peace cannot be based on impunity. In the case of Yemen, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was granted not only de facto, but also de jure immunity. As a result, he remained in Yemen to actively undermine stability and the political transition. He clearly harbors hope of returning himself or his family to power, and seems willing to lead Yemen into chaos in order to achieve that objective.

In Syria, forces under the command and control of President Assad are responsible for unspeakable atrocities including the dreaded and indiscriminate barrel bombs and the use of poison gas. Recent suggestions by UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura that President Assad is part of the solution clearly put us on a path of short term gain over long term stability.

A more active engagement in the Syria crisis might not be the solution the United States was after but, having waited too long to take action, we are obliged to recognize that there is no good option left, and that the way out is not going to be easy, but if it is going to be successful, it must be more than a limited military campaign aimed only at destroying ISIL.

As long as the United States strategy is only based on the use of force and directed at dealing with ISIS, it will fall short of having a real impact. In Syria, like in Yemen or Iraq, the US needs to embrace broader solutions that go beyond the use of force, especially when this comes narrowly and one-sided. We cannot win the ‘forever war’ without seriously investing in building partners on the ground, and the only credible investments at this stage is with the Syrian moderates. 

About the Author(s)

Federica D'Alessandra

Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Co-Vice Chair of the International Bar Association’s War Crimes Committee, UN Representative for the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG)

Paul Williams

Rebecca Grazier Professor of Law and International Relations at American University, President and Co-Founder of the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG), Former Attorney/Advisor for the U.S. Department of State