Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Syrian Lethal Aid, Drones Over Yemen, and Isolationism

by Micah Zenko
May 3, 2013

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a news conference in Abu Dhabi. (Jim Watson/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks with reporters after reading a statement on chemical weapon use in Syria during a news conference in Abu Dhabi. (Jim Watson/Courtesy Reuters).

Nussaibah Younis, “Why Maliki Must Go,” New York Times, May 2, 2013.

Given the two-year-old Syrian civil war escalating next door, a sectarian crisis and political collapse in Iraq would be a disaster at the worst possible time. It would blur the boundaries between the two conflicts, bring additional misery to Iraq and pose enormous challenges for Iraq’s neighbors and the United States.

(3PA: An Iraqi exile asking the United States to help force out an Iraqi strongman.  A bad idea ten years ago, and an even worse idea now; attempting to choreograph and broker political reconciliation from Washington.)


Julian E. Barnes, “Hagel Outlines Syria Aid Options,” Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2013.

The U.S. has found evidence that sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, was used at least in small quantities in Syria. Still, doubts remain about how soil samples and other evidence were obtained.

Some U.S. military officials believe extremist rebel groups in Syria, possibly including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, may have used the chemical weapons in a bid to prod more direct action by the West against the Syrian government.

(3PA: See Alan J. Kuperman, The Moral Hazard of Human Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans)


Ahmed Al-Haf and Aya Batrawy, “U.S. Drone Strikes In Yemen Spur Growing Anti-American Sentiment,” The Huffington Post, May 2, 2013.

The cleric preached in his tiny Yemeni village about the evils of al-Qaida, warning residents to stay away from the group’s fighters and their hard-line ideology. The talk worried residents, who feared it would bring retaliation from the militants, and even the cleric’s father wanted him to stop.

But in the end it wasn’t al-Qaida that killed Sheik Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber.

Al-Qaida fighters, who hide in mountain strongholds near the remote eastern village of Khashamir, did call him out, demanding he meet them one night – apparently to intimidate him into stopping his sermons against them….

“Once they arrived to the car where al-Qaida was, four missiles hit,” Faysal said. At home in the village, he heard the blasts – and heard the U.S. drone that struck the cars. “We know the buzzing sound of the drones overhead,” he said.

Yemeni security officials confirmed three militants, along with Sheik Salem and his cousin were killed in the strike last August and that it was carried out by an American drone.


Widespread Middle East Fears that Syrian Violence Will Spread,” PewResearch Global Attitudes Project, May 1, 2013.

At the same time, there is no public support in the United States, Western Europe or in Turkey for sending arms and military supplies to the anti-government groups in Syria. Eight-in-ten (82%) Germans oppose such assistance, as do more than two-thirds of the French (69%) and the Turks (65%) and a majority of the British (57%). Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans were also against arming the rebels when the survey was taken in the first two weeks of March. Since then evidence has emerged that the Assad government may have used chemical weapons in its fight against opposition forces. In a subsequent Pew Research Center poll taken April 25-28, Americans, by a 45% to 31% margin, favor rather than oppose the U.S. and its allies taking military action against Syria, if it is confirmed that Syria used chemical weapons against anti-government groups.


Kevin Baron, “How the U.S. Army’s Top Corps Commander in Asia Sees Things,” Foreign Policy, May 1, 2013.

At the same time, Army planners are discussing which threats the service should be best prepared to face. In North Korea, [Lt. Gen Robert] Brown said, the Army’s “most likely traditional threat, if you will, is humanitarian assistance and disaster response.  That’s the most likely thing we will respond to.” But his list also includes air and missile defense, civilian evacuations, cyberattacks, IEDs, and terrorism.


Megan Thee-Brenan, “Poll Shows Isolationist Streak in Americans,” New York Times, May 1, 2013.

Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favors the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against terrorism suspects in foreign countries.

Sixty-two percent of the public say the United States has no responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and antigovernment groups, while just one-quarter disagree. Likewise, 56 percent say North Korea is a threat that can be contained for now without military action, just 15 percent say the situation requires immediate American action and 21 percent say the North is not a threat at all.

Louis Brown, 50, a poll respondent from Springfield Township, Ohio, said, “We don’t need additional loss of American lives right now.” In the poll, 4 in 10 Americans cited the economy and jobs as the country’s most important problems, while only 1 percent named foreign policy.  The nationwide telephone survey was conducted on both land lines and cellphones with 965 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.


Brian A. Jackson, Tora K. Bilson, and Patrick P. Gunn, “Human Subjects Protection and Research on Terrorism and Conflict,” Science,  April 2013.

The last decade has seen considerable expansion in research on terrorism and conflict. People have studied root causes, group behavior, and different approaches to counter such acts (1). Some of the best cases involved direct interaction with current or former terrorists, producing important results that, for example, replaced caricatures of terrorists as pathological killers with nuanced models of what drives individuals to join such groups and even sacrifice themselves intentionally for a cause.

Although not always the case, research funded by a government (or other entity) on a terrorist opponent is often counter to the group or itsmembers’ interest. This differs from most research considered by IRBs that lacks this adversarial character.  Although research can benefit participants, studies on terrorism can do so in distinctive ways, including disseminating groups’ messages or otherwise advancing their agendas. That potential for benefit has led some academics to question whether such research conflicts with laws forbidding material support to terrorist groups ( 5), which further complicates research management and review.


Phillip Mudd, Takedown: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013, p 23-24.

Later in the counterterrorist campaign, the focus was not just on the two at the top, or even primarily directed against them, but also on those who posed the most significant tactical threat to the United States, the series of operational commanders and their subordinates and facilitators who were trying to piece together the next major plot: Khalid Shaykh Mohammed, Hamza Rabia, Abu Yahya al-Lidi, Abu Faraj al-Libi, and the rest of them.  The list goes on, mostly Al Qaeda leaders whose names are unrecognizable to most Americans. But they were once all key players, all critical to plotting against the US homeland, and now, all dead or captured.  The measure of success was into just who was captured or killed, or whether bin Laden and Zawahiri were gone, but whether operations broke plots and destroyed networks that could sustain long-term training and planning resulting in another strategic strike.  In that sense, looking forward from the 9/11 attacks, I think the focus on these operational figures were well-founded: virtually no one, in 2001, would have bet that the Untied States would not have witnessed another 9/11-style event by now.  In the most critical sense, the operational focus was successful. Bin Laden took nine-plus years to take down, and Zawahiri is still out there, but their organization poses nowhere near the strategic threat it did a decade ago, and its leadership is decimated beyond recognition.

(3PA: Mudd perpetuates the Obama administration myth that “mostly Al Qaeda leaders” are killed by drones.  As we now known, even the CIA doesn’t believe that.)

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