Evolving Counterterrorism Strategies: Rethinking U.S. Approaches in the Middle East

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The long-held U.S. perspective on counterterrorism was a roadblock to the victory of counterterrorism measures in the Middle East. Altogether, these actions lacked resources and coherence and failed to form a multilateral security and military structure competent to encountering the threat of terrorism in the region. 

However, the U.S. strategic and operative perceptions of counterterrorism measures have been challenged and revisited in recent years. The Biden administration has diverted the American position to concentrate on countering domestic extremism and succeeding in the global competition with the PRC  and Russia.

The inevitable repercussions of existing U.S. strategies assisted such a change in the American attitude. Washington was failing ground with its regional allies as the number of targets of counterterrorism operations—and specifically drone attacks—reproduced. The fact that many local nations managed to manipulate the fight against terrorism to crack down on their political opponent, curb democratic growth, and sabotage fundamental human rights compromised Washington’s position even more. 

The change in American policy, associated with the resolve to reduce the cost of intervention in the region extending from Afghanistan to Mauritania, overlapped with the emergence of ambitious regional powers—Iran, Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—who were given room to plot and play a more influential regional role. By recognising allies and adversaries among these emerging powers, the U.S. foreign policy structure was enabled, through local players, to redraw the map of power in countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan.

In this context, the hunger of emerging regional powers to lead and control was critical to the militarisation of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea region. The Arab alliance secured an Emirati-Saudi military presence on the shores and islands of Yemen and Eritrea, permitting maritime patrols to assist the international army bases already in the area. This intervention was also affected by the trajectory of Yemen, which, due to civil war, was no longer a partner country in combating security threats in the region. Instead, the country became a crucial part of the threat, given the Houthis’ use of sea mines and crewless boats to target military and civilian ships attempting to navigate the area.

Although many counterterrorism ambitions were introduced by regional actors, such as Russia, which proposed a regional security system in the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia, which sustained the establishment of a Red Sea bloc, the multilateral partnership was doomed to atrophy, and an alternative bilateral cooperation approach was presented. 

Leading this new approach was the UAE, which recently concluded two agreements for military, security, and counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen in December 2022 and with Somalia at the beginning of 2023.  

These agreements are compatible with the strategic vision of the UAE’s foreign policy and purposes in the region and Africa. They are expected to rescue and develop the UAE’s economic interests and improve their operational capabilities. On a geopolitical level, the agreements seek to guarantee the security of waterways, particularly the Bab al-Mandab Strait, through Emirati security and military units while limiting the UAE’s burden of military deployment.

It could be claimed that after years of intervention by the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, it would be profitable to institutionalise the involvement of these countries, including the UAE, in the region. However, the timing of the recent UAE security arrangements falls within a complex context that makes the UAE’s foreign policy more conditional on a security and military approach in weak countries that suffer from sharp sections and are vulnerable to regional polarisation that could cause state collapse.

Moreover, the agreement with Yemen has yet to be presented to or approved by the Yemeni parliament. The deal is flawed without the parliamentary support that would make it legitimate and binding. Furthermore, such agreements can be anticipated to arouse the sensitivity of the UAE’s rivals in the region since the UAE’s latest actions could be perceived as a turn to unilateralism and an indication of the inefficiency of multilateral cooperation within the framework of the Arab coalition.

Thus far, the unilateral security method for counterterrorism has proved unsuccessful. This approach damages the political and social alternatives that promote better governance and political participation. Clear examples of this are Yemen and Somalia, where the two weak states adopted the military approach at the expense of democratic transition and political independence. 

Both regimes have let external powers interfere, influence, and control internal affairs and jeopardise the integrity of the state while stifling political participation and violating social problems. In Yemen specifically, the American approach prioritised combating terrorism and piracy in the Gulf of Aden at all costs. Still, this view ignored the priorities of the people on the ground. 

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