With every passing day, counterterrorism ranks higher on the agenda of governments around the world. Although the current climate does not compare to Washington’s war on terror after the 9/11 terror attacks, it is safe to assume that a new wave of counterterrorism has emerged. Over the weekend, at least seven people were killed on London Bridge, as the Raqqa operation kicked off. And on Monday morning, several members of the Gulf Cooperation Council announced their decision to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar. The three seemingly-unrelated developments have one thing in common: the war on Daesh.
In Britain, where at least three major terror attacks have taken place since March, Prime Minister Theresa May continues to make the case that there was no connection between the most recent attacks. Suggesting that there was “far too much tolerance of extremism” in her country, she stated that a series of harsh measures would be implemented.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump launched a military operation to liberate Raqqa as part of what he calls the war on ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. The highly-anticipated decision came after Mr. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he discussed efforts to combat extremism and isolate Iran with Arab leaders.
Just days after Mr. Trump’s departure, seven countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cut their diplomatic ties with Qatar citing Doha’s alleged support to terrorist organizations such as Daesh, al-Qaida and Iranian-backed groups. The diplomatic crisis was kicked off by ‘anti-Trump and pro-Iran’ remarks that the Qatar News Agency (QNA) attributed to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar. Although the Qatari government has since announced that the QNA was targeted by hackers who published a false story about their leader, tensions remained high and culminated in a broader campaign to isolate the country.
The three developments indicate that the Middle East has entered a new period of turmoil and conflict over the fight against Shia and Sunni extremism. The great powers, along with minor players and terrorist groups, have all been alerted by the prospect of chaos.
The eagerness to reduce the combat against extremism stemming from Muslim societies to ‘eliminating terrorism,’ however, is hardly new. To be clear, this approach has been the backbone of U.S. and European counterterrorism policy since the 9/11 attacks. The same pattern has emerged in the fight against Daesh since 2013.
As a matter of fact, hardly anyone was caught by surprise when Washington supported the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PKK’s Syrian franchise, and Shia militias in an effort to defeat Daesh. Nowadays, the Americans continue to try and undermine a terrorist group (Daesh) by enlisting the services of another terrorist group (PKK-YPG) which happens to be the archenemy of Turkey, a U.S. ally. Never mind that Washington’s Syria policy paves the way to future conflicts in the region.
Ambassador Robert Ford, a former U.S. envoy to Damascus, recently warned that arming the YPG was a bad idea, “It could be [useful] in the short run, but it would cause big problems in the long run. The (Democratic Union Party) PYD’s ambition could increase [popular] support for Sunni radical movements. We might take Raqqa from Daesh only to end up faced with al-Qaida 4.0.”
The people of the Middle East have suffered disproportionately from the Western-dominated international order’s unwillingness to develop a comprehensive counterterrorism policy, which would address the root causes of terrorism. For decades, the Palestinian question and the oppressive policies of Western-backed authoritarian regimes that fueled extremism were conveniently ignored by the great powers. To make matters worse, U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq turned them and neighboring countries into a breeding ground for terrorists. Then came the Arab Spring, which soured into civil war under the Gulf’s supervision. Today, the war on Daesh placed the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq at risk.
The Trump administration’s counterterrorism policy continues to be developed and implemented by the U.S. military, with new add-ons including a commitment to fight Shia radicalism and isolate Iran. Washington’s flawed Daesh policy, which was cooked for Barack Obama and reheated for Mr. Trump, pushed regional powers to use terrorist groups as proxies. This phenomenon led to a misguided distinction between good terrorists and bad terrorists, which makes it possible for various governments to force their rivals into a corner citing their relationship with what they consider to be terrorist organizations.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on June 7, 2017.