Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 2 December 2020

UAE shows the way to deal with regional crises

A UAE soldier guards a military plane at Aden airport. Nasser Awad / Reuters
A UAE soldier guards a military plane at Aden airport. Nasser Awad / Reuters

Since late 2013, two main regional blocs have competed over how to deal with the rise of extremist forces in Syria. The policy in Syria today seems to have finally settled in favour of one of the arguments.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on one hand, favoured a twin policy of fighting extremist factions at the same time as battling the regime of Bashar Al Assad. Turkey and Qatar, on the other hand, pushed for toppling Mr Al Assad first. They argued that it would be easier to build a local, regional and international consensus to fight extremists after the downfall of the regime. With varying success, the two sides competed to advance their visions on the ground in Syria and in policy circles outside it.

Around this time in 2013, Jabhat Al Nusra had already revealed its links to Al Qaeda after two years of acting as a local Syrian group with a jihadist bent. ISIL began to establish a foothold for itself in much of Syria, mostly focusing on policing rebel-held areas. Syrian Islamist groups then began discussions to form a unified front. By the end of the year, Islamist and jihadist forces became the main players in rebel-held Syria.

At the beginning of 2014, clashes erupted between the rebel forces and ISIL. This continued until the summer, when the latter took over ­Mosul and returned to Syria with a vengeance – eventually controlling about half of the country.

Two summers later, it should be clear that the twin policy of fighting the regime and extremists would have a better chance of working. Today, the two superpowers involved in the Syrian conflict are getting closer to working together to defeat ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra, after American president Barack Obama reportedly proposed a partnership with Moscow against the Al Qaeda affiliate. Turkey’s policy in Syria was also widely criticised after last Tuesday’s terror attacks inside Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, with many saying that the attacks were payback for neglecting the growing presence of extremists in Syria.

The lesson that must be drawn from how the situation developed in Syria is that the twin policy is more effective. But there is an inherent issue with counterterrorism efforts in the region, often because they have been largely led by the United States, or because operations show little regard for local sensitivities or aspirations. Shifting politics in Washington may also undermine ongoing efforts and therefore perpetuate or exacerbate the problem. So, the apparent solution is for regional countries to take on the task.

This is where the UAE comes in. On Tuesday, Reuters published a detailed account of the Emirati special forces’ counterterrorism mission in southern Yemen – an operation that turned out to be more extensive and impressive than initially made out in media. An Emirati eight-person special forces team landed in Yemen in April 2015 and began to train Yemeni soldiers. The UAE teams trained a 2,000-strong force that drove the Houthi rebels from Aden last July, and further 4,000 forces to run the newly captured city. The UAE special forces then began to prepare for the Mukalla operation which culminated with driving out Al Qaeda.

A US official told the agency that some in Washington had doubted the UAE’s sincerity in attacking Al Qaeda in the port city of Al Mukalla. But the Pentagon deployed a small number of military personnel to help in the fight after an evacuation in early 2015, according to Reuters, in a possible sign of increasing US willingness to re-engage on the ground.

“Whether there’s secession or not, the south is in the hands of its sons and that was made possible by the coalition countries,” Mahmoud Al Salmi, a professor at Aden University, said.

What makes the UAE’s mission particularly significant is that the effort is conducted by local forces and led by a regional country with a long-term commitment to the neighbourhood’s stability. This aspect is critical for any counterterrorism effort. While locals who want to expel extremist forces from their areas often seek support from the US, long-term commitment weighs heavily in their calculation. This dynamic is felt in Iraq, Syria and other countries where extremists dominate.

Local tribes or insurgents would rather strike temporary alliances with extremists, even though they could defeat them with some help from the US, because they know the US commitment is often fickle but extremists always come back. That is a lesson many have learnt from the Iraq war, when the people of Anbar joined forces with the American troops to expel the predecessor of ISIL from their areas between 2005 and 2010. The US withdrew from Iraq and left them to deal with an increasingly sectarian government in Baghdad and a growing jihadist force in their midst.

Today, many seek US support but they also want a regional guarantor of long-term commitment. The UAE offers an example of what that commitment looks like.

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan

Updated: July 3, 2016 04:00 AM

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