The recent evacuation of U.S. special operations forces in Yemen is a troubling trend for American involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, following the July 2014 evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Libya. The U.S. government claims that these evacuations are temporary, but American personnel are unlikely to return any time soon.
Given the way things are going in the region, and the expansion and overflow of conflicts from one country to another, there is no way that the United States can return to solid footing in Yemen or Libya in the next few years. In fact, Yemen is likely to turn into its own version of the Syrian civil war, complete with sectarian dynamics and inter-militia rivalries.
For the United States, this is cause for serious soul-searching. U.S. foreign policies relative to the Middle East have resulted in declining U.S. influence, increased militarization throughout the region, and the precipitation of failing states since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In Yemen, U.S. support for its long-time dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been based on narrow counter-terrorism interests with no regard for how this support would affect Yemen’s economy, human rights record, or other aspects of development.
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 “Arab Spring,” every regime that the United States has supported in Iraq, Yemen and Libya — including Saleh’s — has resulted in a failed state, with no rule of law and a collapsed economy.
The reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. weapons, equipment and supplies falling into enemy hands in Iraq, Syria and now in Yemen are more than just signs of strategic failure. Rather, they’re part of a long list of recent embarrassments, including the poor performance of U.S.-trained Iraqi military personnel when Islamic State invaded Mosul last summer, and the Islamic militant army’s confiscation of U.S. military weapons and supplies in the Iraqi territories it has occupied.
The United States and its Western allies have yet to appreciate the logic that militarization, airstrikes and drone attacks are not quick-fix elixirs to the complex problems in the Middle East. The United States lacks cohesive, comprehensive, long-term strategies for the entire region, and also for individual countries. Islamic State, by comparison, has a long-term strategy that is “light years ahead of its enemies,” according to BBC News.
The United States has unmatched military prowess for invasions and interventions, but fails miserably in post-campaign policies and strategies. It continues to have faith in supposed “allies” in the region, who usually end up undermining the very national interests that the United States is pursuing. This is because the United States fails to take into account that each state and non-state actor in the region — from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Iran and even Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq — has its own interests and agendas that frequently do not align with the United States. Western powers cannot keep up with these growing complexities, especially in Yemen.
The situation in Yemen has the potential to further destabilize the Persian Gulf region. With the United States inadvertently working side-by-side with Iran to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Iran and its proxies are emboldened and empowered. The coup by the Shi’ite Houthi tribe in Yemen is a major coup for Iran, and in many ways, it’s a coup within the region. These Iran-Saudi and Shi’ite-Sunni power struggles will continue to have diverse and violent repercussions, especially as Islamic State expands its franchises, as it has recently done in Libya and Tunisia.
In Iraq, the scale has tipped almost entirely in favor of Iran and its proxies — including equally violent and brutal Shi’ite militias. This power shift, along with the Houthi push in Yemen, will likely drive greater Iranian-backed movements and mobilizations in other countries, such as Bahrain. U.S. General David Petraeus was right when he warned, in a recent interview, that the real threat to Middle East security and stability is the increasing empowerment of Iran and its proxies.
The Sunni pushback will also grow. The hatred and violent bloodlust that many Shi’ites and Sunnis have for each other is only intensifying. They will bring down the region together in the process, while pursuing genocidal agendas and scorched earth tactics along the way. There will be no winners.
This piece appears courtesy of Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For further information and other commentaries visit http://projects21.com/
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. She specializes in the Middle East, South Asia and Islamic Studies. The views expressed are personal.