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Europe’s ambiguity in the Middle East

  • Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
  • 15 Oct 2019

European countries quick to condemn Turkey for its anti-terror operation in northern Syria continue to deal with the Middle East's most egregious counter-revolutionary forces and are arming those responsible for the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar in 2017. ( AFP )

Europe’s ad hoc concerns over stability in the Middle East have once again come to the fore after their reactions to Turkey launching Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria against the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK.

Soon after the operation kicked off, European states launched a wave of criticism against Turkey that completely ignores Turkey's security concerns. Meanwhile many states, including Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden have suspended weapons sales to Ankara.

Yet only a week before these states suspended weapons to Turkey, Germany signed a new deal to sell military equipment to the UAE, despite increasing awareness about Abu Dhabi’s regional policy actions. Meanwhile, France, another critic of Operation Peace Spring has upheld and even defended its considerable weapons sales to the UAE, despite concerns raised about their usage in the Yemen war.

Although the UAE has a major hand in what the UN calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, European states have only offered vague 'concerns' over the conflict there. Directly addressing the UAE’s role in the war through action is a far cry.

In contrast, Turkey has shouldered the humanitarian fallout from the Syria war nearly singlehandedly (with the exception of a few other countries) by hosting over three million refugees since the start of the war in Syria.

The UAE's lobbying efforts have seen it deploy its considerable wealth to fund think tanks and academic institutions to push its narrative in the West, using 'expert opinion' to influence policymakers globally.

Mohammad bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has operated in a particularly shrewd manner covertly pursuing his regional ambitions without taking any of the limelight for it. The UAE portrays itself as having a “pro-peace” and charitable agenda in the countries it intervenes in. It has showcased its humanitarian efforts to the European Parliament, which leading European ministers have applauded - but in reality, it has countered revolutionary movements that have sought to bring democracy to the Middle East.

Recently, the UAE managed to avoid heightened criticism over the Yemen war by staging a “withdrawal” by removing some of its troops from the country. This was a mirage to protect its image as not only did its forces still retain a presence, it retained its support for southern secessionist militias.

Meanwhile, it has tried to formulate an image of being a peacemaker, increasingly reaching out to Iran. While this helps protect its own security, as Abu Dhabi would likely be immediately affected if tensions in the Persian Gulf erupted, it also helps the UAE appear a more credible regional actor.

Even in the US, while Trump threatens to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy over Operation Peace Spring, he has often courted the UAE and supported their regional policies in Yemen and elsewhere, largely owing to Abu Dhabi’s lobbying.

It has tried to further divide Somalia between autonomous states like Puntland and Somaliland, to secure its own ports and trade empire and because Mogadishu refused to take sides in the 2017 Gulf Crisis against Qatar. Abu Dhabi has therefore tried to destabilise the Mogadishu regime. Yet this has obvious impacts on the country’s stability and its ability to provide security in its battle against al Shabaab.

Meanwhile, it has intervened directly in Sudan’s revolution, supporting the Transitional Military Council against the Sudanese revolutionaries. Sudan’s Rapid Special Forces, a branch of the military, launched massacres of revolutionaries before a recent agreement, showing Abu Dhabi attempted to facilitate continued repression of protestors.

The UAE's controversial moves in southern Yemen include its support for the Southern Transitional Council and various-linked militias like the Security Belt, Elite Forces and the Big Giants. These forces have opposed the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, whilst Abu Dhabi intervened reportedly to protect the Yemeni regime. Yet using the guise of fighting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has helped Abu Dhabi justify its increasing presence in southern Yemen.

Its role was increasingly highlighted after the STC launched a coup in Aden on August 10, seizing the temporary administrative capital from Yemeni government forces. 

Abu Dhabi’s malign role became more apparent after the Emirati air force launched airstrikes on government forces after they launched a countercoup against the UAE-backed southern separatists. This helped the STC retake Aden, thus further shoring up Abu Dhabi’s regional political ambitions.

Despite such blatantly provocative moves, which pushed Yemen into further instability, there was still no condemnation towards the UAE’s actions. Nor were there threats of military and economic sanctions, as has been the case with Turkey.

Meanwhile, the UAE has played a crucial role in facilitating Libyan warlord and leader of the so-called Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar’s attempted siege of the capital Tripoli. Haftar rejects democracy and the country’s peaceful democratic transition. Abu Dhabi has delivered extensive military support to the LNA.

Not only have European capitals ignored the UAE’s role here, but some have even supported it. France also backs Haftar’s campaign, showing that the UAE is sometimes seen as a crucial partner for Europe’s avaricious aims in the region.

In fact, the UAE will seek to use the situation in northern Syria to its advantage. It has been a leading voice in its criticism of Ankara’s operation. Meanwhile, it had previously helped the YPG by financing them and could continue doing so to shore up its own influence, and use them to irk Turkey further.

While European states have blindly tolerated the UAE’s pro-stability narratives, sometimes for their own interests, they need to dig deeper past this mirage and address the impact of Abu Dhabi’s policies, which restrict regionwide human rights and democracy on the ground. That is if they genuinely seek to be consistent with their calls for human rights and stability.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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