International Crisis Group: US must work to prevent civilian deaths, trust in diplomacy to combat terrorism

The International Crisis Group recently released a set of policy recommendations aimed at the Trump administration and its approach to anti-terrorism efforts in the Middle East and South Asia. The report notes the success of the military campaigns that the new US administration has inherited and advocates for caution going forward in order to maintain this success, emphasizing the importance of maintaining positive relationships with local communities whose support is crucial to US efforts against such groups as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Thus far, the recent volley of US airstrikes earlier this month in Yemen and President Trump’s decision to approve the January raid which killed a significant number of civilians have been in direct conflict with these recommendations.

“Campaigns against jihadists hinge on winning over the population in which they operate…’Targeted’ strikes that kill civilians and alienate communities, as appears to have been the case in the January Yemen raid and the 16 March strike in Syria’s Aleppo province, are counterproductive, regardless of immediate yield. Loosening rules and oversight designed to protect civilians, as has been suggested, would be a mistake.”

The report emphasizes that the main beneficiaries of attacks that kill civilians are Al-Qaeda and ISIS. To avoid this, the report recommends restricting targets to known AQAP leaders rather than local fighters, and making sure that military actions are governed by greater efforts to prevent civilian casualties and are in line with domestic and international laws.

Crisis Group also recommends against aggravating other conflicts in the Middle East that could further destabilize the region. Setting off regional or local conflicts or aggravating the Saudi-Iran rivalry in the Middle East fall under this category.

“The U.S. appears set to deal with this unfavourable regional context by bolstering ties to traditional Gulf allies – augmenting weapons sales and working in concert with Gulf states on a more muscular approach toward Iran. Providing extra hardware would carry drawbacks, given the weapons proliferation in the region, the economic challenges faced by Gulf monarchies in a time of lower oil prices and the often indiscriminate conduct of the Yemen campaign. Any more confrontational stance would also risk an asymmetrical Iranian response through non-state allies across the Middle East and Afghanistan, a dangerous dynamic that could provoke a military conflagration.”

Most importantly, Crisis Group warns against neglecting the use of diplomacy and peace processes in confronting terrorist groups. In the case of the Yemeni civil war, the report places emphasis on the existence of a UN roadmap that provides a realistic framework for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, which should be taken advantage of. Continued fighting is unlikely to lead to any resolution, and only empowers extremists and increases Iranian influence while weakening humanitarian actors. Increasing military assistance for operations against the Houthi-Saleh alliance, meanwhile, is likely to push the Houthis closer to Iran and prolong the conflict, to the benefit of extremist groups who thrive on the chaos created by the war.

Instead of unconditional backing for the Saudi-led coalition, the International Crisis Group recommends leveraging the closer ties with Gulf countries that President Trump is seeking to develop in order to ensure their adherence to international law and to encourage de-escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, particularly in Yemen. Through such diplomatic efforts, the United States could play a far more constructive role to both combat the influence of jihadist groups in the region and to promote peacebuilding and conflict resolution. This approach would have a far more positive impact on the lives of civilians than the increased military spending and weapons sales that has characterized the new administration’s approach to policy in the Middle East thus far.