From Yemen to Syria, counter-terrorism alone not the answer

That al-Qaeda, and especially now ISIS, represent a threat to regional and global security is an elementary fact around which the governments of the Arab world, Iran, U.S., Russia, UK or France are in agreement. Yet beyond this basic understanding, they hold very different views on how to deal with the problem of militant jihadism and the various Middle Eastern crises that allow the jihadist propaganda to thrive. This continues to hinder the efforts to tackle the jihadist menace.

Take Yemen. The presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been generally overshadowed by the ongoing conflict, which opposes pro-government and anti-Houthi forces supported by the Saudi-led coalition to the alliance between the Houthi rebels and military units still loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

As it becomes clearer that ISIS cannot be defeated without a political solution in Syria and a renegotiated social contract, a basic understanding among the various regional and global powers about the need to negotiate Assad’s way out might not be that far away

Manuel Almeida

However, whenever militants of AQAP or Ansar al-Sharia (a name that emerged as a local rebranding attempt by AQAP) take advantage of the chaos and lawlessness to make a threatening move, widespread demands magnified by regional and especially international press call for a change of priorities toward the fight against militant jihadism.

This is what happened a few days ago when AQAP militants attempted to take control of the presidential palace located in Aden’s Tawahi neighbourhood and a military base in the city. A similar case took place in April in the coastal city of al-Mukalla, the capital of Hadhramaut province, when AQAP fighters seized government buildings, robbed the central bank and allegedly backed the formation of a local civilian council that AQAP backs financially.

Ignoring the threat

On both occasions, the Saudi-led coalition and Yemen’s government in exile were blamed for ignoring the threat posed by AQAP and, in the case of more conspiratorial or propagandistic regional media outlets, of actively supporting AQAP in the fight against the Zaydi Houthi rebels. The propaganda of the Houthi rebels themselves equates every mild Sunni Islamist within Yemen’s al-Islah party, which the Houthis turned into a primary target when they took over the capital Sanaa in September last year with AQAP.

What is widely missed in the views that call for the prioritization of counter-terrorism strategies is that the AQAP-first approach that drove U.S. policy toward Yemen during much of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ruinous era has had limited effects in preventing the spread of AQAP’s tentacles in Yemen. In fact, this U.S. approach to Yemen seems not to have changed much even after Saleh agreed to step aside in 2011 in the context of the Gulf Initiative.

The former president of Yemen often honoured a pact of non-aggression with AQAP’s leadership to capitalize on the financial and logistical support for counter-terrorism it received from the U.S., which was then channelled for other purposes. In the meanwhile, the U.S. overreliance on drone strikes to eliminate AQAP’s leaders and militants generated and continues to generate great resentment among local populations.

A comprehensive approach

Only a far more comprehensive approach would be able to eradicate or at least much diminish the presence of AQAP. This can only be achieved by a government with the willingness and capacity to actually rule Yemen, reform the military and security sectors, and manage a much strained economy with regional and international backing.

The same stands for Syria. As the Syrian conflict dragged on and radical groups such as Jabaat al-Nusra and then ISIS begun to make their presence felt, the focus in Western capitals started to shift away from the brutalities committed by the pro-Assad camp and support for the moderate opposition to the pressing need to fight the ISIS. For too long, Western governments as well as Russia seem to have been influenced to a certain extent by the narrative, used by the Assad cohort and its main sponsor Iran, that the regime in Damascus was the last bulwark and only hope in Syria against ISIS.

Assad himself greatly contributed to the radicalization of the armed opposition, not only via extremely brutality that included and continues to include the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but by releasing hundreds of militant jihadists from the regime’s jails and avoiding to strike jihadist groups for a long period in the conflict.

Nevertheless, the terrorism card that Assad desperately used to play with Western and Russian fears of militant jihadism may well be shifting against him. As it becomes clearer that ISIS cannot be defeated without a political solution in Syria and a renegotiated social contract, a basic understanding among the various regional and global powers about the need to negotiate Assad’s way out might not be that far away.


Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:46 - GMT 06:46
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