Posted by Ryan Suto on October 18, 2018 in Blog

Syria and Yemen represent two of the final embers of the Arab Spring which swept across the region this decade. The conflicts in both countries have become, in part, proxy wars which have attracted regional players and international actors alike. For its part, U.S. policy has often exacerbated, and not mitigated, conflict in both countries. However, recent developments in Syria and Yemen provide opportunities for U.S. policy to shift toward supporting real political solutions.

In Syria, peace initiatives to resolve the civil war have been ongoing since shortly after widespread violence broke out in the country. These efforts have taken various forms and have included a variety of both domestic and international actors. With Assad and pro-Assad forces bearing down on the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, peace talks have taken on renewed import at the United Nations.

Earlier last month Iran, Russia, and Turkey held talks in Geneva with the U.N. Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura regarding the next constitution for Syria. During last month’s session of the UN General Assembly Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. called for a U.N. committee, under de Mistura, to again attempt to draft a new Syrian constitution, requesting an update by the end of this month. In response, Syria’s foreign minister stated that the constitutional drafting committee will not accept external dictates.

After relative success on the battlefield, whatever institutions that are created for Syria must receive buy-in from Assad; otherwise, there will be no incentive for the Syrian government to end the conflict. Of course, a return to an Assad-led Syria will be unacceptable for many who have fought the nearly 8-year long war against his authoritarian reign. For its part, the U.S. has pledged to impose sanctions on Syria if Assad does not cooperate with drafting a new constitution. However, this is more a product of the Trump Administration’s unwavering desire to contain Iranian influence than any true hope for peace on the ground. Opposing Iran has proved to be the administration’s only intelligible strategy in the region.


Yemen is perhaps a more complicated context than Syria at the moment. As Gregory Johnsen has described, the war in Yemen is best understood as three separate, but related, conflicts: counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, a regional war, and a civil war. The U.S. has provided arms and assistance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis as part of Trump’s desire to contain Iranian influence, bombarding the poorest Arab nation with American bombs. The Houthis have proven just as destructive. The result has been devastating for the Yemeni people; the country is on the verge of the worst famine the world has seen in a century.

Last month, peace talks slated to occur in Geneva fell through after the Houthis failed to show, and early October saw the South Yemen separatists call for an uprising in Aden and the broader southern portion of the country. At present, the only glimmer of hope for a political resolution to the conflict seems to rest on the work of United Nations special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths, who is traveling across the region in hopes of reviving peace talks.

From reneging on red lines regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria to participation in, or at least willful ignorance of, war crimes in Yemen, the U.S. has failed to provide moral leadership in either conflict and has played no major role in incentivizing peace in either country. A strategic shift away from these previous U.S. approaches could contribute to a greater likelihood for positive post-conflict outcomes in both countries. Specifically, the U.S. should use what influence it has left in these conflicts to support paths toward reconciliation which are best positioned to result in long-term democratic stability.


In both Syria and Yemen calculations for policymakers are complicated by the ongoing security threats posed by the continued existence of failed or near-failed states in the region. Legitimate concerns over ongoing counterterrorism measures can be utilized by bad actors to spoil a nascent peace process. While counterterrorism campaigns must be executed in coordination with other nations, they should not constitute the whole of U.S. strategy toward the conflicts.

Despite international calls for the drafting of a new Syrian constitution last month, including from the Trump Administration, the U.S. should urge patience on this important step. A rushed, flawed, contentious, or externally-driven constitutional drafting process, like those which occurred in Iraq and Egypt, can lead to deeper, protracted conflict. Yemen’s 2015 experience with a failed constitutional process should give caution to rushing in either context.

Further, policymakers must avoid advocating for post-conflict reconciliation structures which formalize the narrative of inviolable sectarian social cleavages. Experiences and Iraq, Lebanon, and to some extent Bahrain have shown such approaches only threaten to further entrench conflict based on identity, and have provided a poor track record for institutionalized consociationalism in the Arab world.


In Syria, the military success of Russian- and Iranian-backed pro-Assad forces in Syria has left the U.S. with few cards to play. Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to cement a long-term stable ally in Syria, shoring a Russian foothold in the region. Seeing a sure victory for Assad, Putin has called for pro-Assad forces to respect Idlib as a demilitarized zone, despite a missed deadline on Monday for a military withdrawal from a surrounding buffer; violent Salafist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham remains in the designated zone.

In response, the U.S. should support and encourage a political solution in Syria. Instead of blatantly pitting U.S. strategic interests against naked Russian strategic interests, the Trump Administration has an opportunity to play a more subtle hand. The U.S. could garner support from a wide array of regional and international actors and by advancing the post-conflict best practices written for Syria by two dozen international law scholars. These principles would serve as the region’s best chance for a post-conflict Syria, and could allow the U.S. to once again been seen as promoting international peace and security first and foremost. Such an initiative could afford the U.S. a greater degree of capital and cooperation than by hard power alone, and would open opportunities for more participation in U.S. counterterrorism measures, which would be seens as supporting and furthering core post-conflict principles. This approach would allow the U.S. to take a multilateral approach to mitigating Putin’s recent wins in Syria.


In Yemen, the widespread international criticism of Saudi Arabia after the alleged brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi provides an opening for policymakers to take a more critical view of U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s coalition in Yemen and its dire humanitarian impact. Heretofore, the U.S. has shown a near unconditional support of the Saudi-led campaign, even certifying to Congress last month that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have undertaken “demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.” This week, Secretary of State Pompeo is in Riyadh amidst talk that the Saudi may admit to the killing of Khashoggi.

This moment’s international outcry against Saudi Arabia’s blatant suppression of regime critics could allow for a re-set of the outdated assumptions upon which the Washington-Riyadh relationship is based. Such a pivot would allow U.S. efforts in Yemen to instead incentivize all parties to at sit at the table with U.N. envoy Griffiths: decreased arms provisions in exchange for good faith negotiations. The U.S. should first support a discussion regarding a framework for eliminating the presence of international actors in Yemen and thereafter discussions regarding how to set the foundations for political negotiations among domestic belligerents. These processes will take years, not months.


If a wave of newly elected officials does hit Washington next month, the new Congress should take steps toward shifting U.S. policy in Syria in Yemen to capitalize on these recent developments. America alone cannot solve the violent crises in either country, or perhaps any country, but can go long way toward a more peaceful and secure region.


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