Five Problems with the “Secret” Drone Campaign in Syria

Last week’s Washington Post report of the CIA/Special Forces “secret” drone campaign provided fresh evidence that the United States is heading in the wrong direction on the Middle East. Supporters of increased military action abound in Washington, of course, and lacking any better idea, the Obama administration has decided to double down on drones, despite no evidence that such an effort will have any measurable effect on the situation in Syria or Iraq. Instead, the new drone campaign is likely to have (at least) five negative consequences.

First, it will inflame anti-American sentiment in the region. Sadly, as survey after survey shows, anti-Americanism is rampant through the Middle East, even in countries the U.S. counts on as allies in the fight against terrorism and the Islamic State. A recent study shows that the Arab Twitterverse is awash in negative sentiment toward the U.S., illustrating that  And even more relevant, a recent Pew study documents the unsurprising fact that U.S. drone strikes are incredibly unpopular almost everywhere, prompting majorities in several Arab countries to say strikes against the United States for its behavior are justified. More drone strikes will move the U.S. backwards, not forwards.

Second, it will aid Islamic State recruiting and spur more terrorism. After 9/11 the United States went on the offensive, looking to destroy Al Qaeda and kill terrorists abroad before they could visit America to do more harm. What happened, however, was that by killing large numbers of Al Qaeda members and supporters, but also a large number of civilians, and thereby causing immense chaos, strife, and uncertainty, the United States managed to give fresh air to first Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts and now to the Islamic State’s. In 2001 there were 1878 terrorist attacks in addition to the 9/11 attacks. After 13 years of war on terror there were 16,818 terror attacks worldwide in 2014. In short, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has been debunked. With every drone strike, the U.S. lends weight to jihadist claims that the U.S. is a malign presence in the Middle East.

Third, it will not change the facts on the ground in Syria. Hawkish critics of Obama’s ISIS campaign have correctly noted that the administration’s air campaign in Iraq falls far short of what would be necessary to make a decisive difference on the ground. Pentagon leaders have repeatedly made clear that U.S. troops on the ground would be required to provide a meaningful impact on the fight. Obama, who has clearly been trying to avoid reentering the ground war, may be looking at the drone strikes as a bit of national security theater – to look like he’s doing something without actually doing anything. At any rate, in a situation as complex as the one in Syria, targeted killings via drones won’t do much to swing the battle.

Fourth, it promotes the unhealthy involvement of CIA in military operations. Even though Joint Special Operations Command is reportedly doing all the actual drone strikes, this sort of mission goes against Obama’s previous efforts to pull the CIA back to its traditional mission of intelligence gathering and analysis. The CIA’s involvement may be expedient in the short term, but longer run risks warping the agency’s priorities and organizational culture. We need a CIA committed to independent analysis, not another agency that risks

Fifth, it will accelerate the slide towards greater entanglement in Syria and Iraq. If Obama had a clear strategy in Syria, we could argue about how much the drone campaign would help. In the absence of any strategy, however, the drone campaign represents merely another step down the slippery slope to greater entanglement. Every action the U.S. takes in Syria or Iraq raises the political stakes for the president, increasing the chances that he will take even more aggressive steps to ward off critics and ensure “success.” Unfortunately for the U.S. real success would start by recognizing that greater engagement in Syria is a bad idea.