In his address to the nation about countering ISIS, President Obama said that the will model for his strategy will be the one we have employed in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). That strategy consists of relying on the Yemeni government to combat AQAP on the ground and pitching in with targeted air strikes to degrade that terrorists’ leadership.
On its face, the applicability of the Yemen model to Iraq and Syria seems dubious. ISIS, an army of up to 30,000 members, is far more formidable than AQAP in Yemen.
In addition, Katherine Zimmerman, a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, warns that “Yemen model” may well fail even in Yemen. The problem is that the government of Yemen, on whom we rely for the foot soldiers, will only fight AQAP to the extent it is not diverted by threats it views as more pressing. And currently, a more pressing threat looms.
That threat consists of the al Houthis, an armed Yemeni opposition group supported by Iran. Already, it has seized parts of the capital and forced the main Sunni party out of power.
The implications for the struggle against AQAP are clear. As Zimmerman explains:
[T]he concern is that the political tensions seething under a veneer of stability in Yemen post-Arab Spring will catapult the country into another bout of unrest that would make the prosecution of a counterterrorism campaign near impossible. Any Yemeni government is unlikely to pursue AQAP in Yemen’s south and east if threatened directly in Sana’a, the capital.
The implications are also clear for the struggle against ISIS. In Syria, the rebels we intend, finally, to support have taken to the battlefield to fight Assad, not ISIS. As in Yemen, there is no necessary convergence of their objectives and ours.
In Iraq, as in Yemen, conflicts between Sunni and Shia inhere. No matter how hard we try to paper them over, they can, at any moment, trump either faction’s desire (if any) to fight ISIS. If this had not been the case, ISIS probably would not have made nearly as much progress as it has.
Accordingly, the U.S. cannot, with any degree of confidence, simply farm out the “boots on the ground” role to local forces. If we truly want to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, we must use our own boots. The “Yeman model,” far from supporting President Obama’s approach to combatting ISIS, tends to confirm its weakness.