Saudi Arabia's anti-terror coalition: Can it wrest the narrative on Islam?
On 15 December, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a coalition of 34 Muslim countries including Egypt and Turkey to coordinate a fight against “terrorist organisations”. In addition to Arab countries such as Qatar and the UAE, the coalition comprises of Middle Eastern, Asian and African states including Pakistan, Malaysia, Lebanon, Libya and Nigeria. While countries in the coalition all belong to the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), most are currently involved in counter-terrorism operations against the Islamic State (IS) militants or have been targeted by the group. The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said 10 other “Islamic countries” had expressed support, including Indonesia.
Given the nature of coalition, it appears as of now that its campaign against terrorism will rely more on ‘media and information’ than the military.
The coalition was announced by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi defence minister and deputy crown prince, who said the countries would work together to target “any terrorist organisation, not just ISIL” in countries including Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan. A press statement issued by SPA, said the alliance would be led by Saudi Arabia, which would also host a “joint operations centre” to coordinate efforts.
Military operations are on the menu of options with the coalition. These would be conducted in accordance with the local laws and in cooperation with the international community but it is not clear how, in practice, this would be possible in the IS-hit Iraq and Syria without the agreement of the respective domestic governments. The coalition military operations are expected to be supported by media and fuelled by information campaigns to counter the influence of the terror groups. Given the nature of coalition, it appears as of now that its campaign against terrorism will rely more on ‘media and information’ than the military.
Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran, and its allies in Syria and Iraq were excluded from the alliance, despite sharing the common enemy, IS. The US welcomed the announcement of the anti-terrorism alliance while the Russian opinion suggests that the coalition will not be effective, or even feasible, without Iraq and Iran.
Saudis would feel that the Turks have stolen the march over them with regards to the leadership of the anti-Assad Sunni forces after the shooting down of the Russian fighter bomber.
The initial assessment of the initiative by some analysts has been that it is a Saudi centric move aimed at checking the perception at home and abroad which ostensibly sees this country as responsible for the blossoming of Daesh (IS) in collusion with the West or otherwise. The announcement has been seen as a public-relations exercise with little to offer. It also comes at a time when there have been major developments in the Saudi neighbourhood in addition to Russian deployment to Syria, Iranian troops fighting Saudi backed anti-Assad forces and Iraq desiring a strategic defence and security agreement with Russia.
Firstly, much as most analysts had predicted, despite US support, Saudis along with the Emiratis find themselves bogged down in Yemen with no end in sight. While peace talks are on with the Houthi rebels in Vienna, al-Qaida and the IS have gained ground in Yemen.
Turkey, the only NATO member of this coalition has said it is set to assist anytime, anywhere the fight against terrorism. Saudis would feel that the Turks have stolen the march over them with regards to the leadership of the anti-Assad Sunni forces after the shooting down of the Russian fighter bomber. Turkey is also set to establish a military base in Qatar to station about 3000 troops to helping them confront “common enemies,” as a part of an agreement signed in 2014 and ratified by Turkey’s parliament in June this year.
The coalition bypasses India with its sizeable Muslim population, but includes its two major neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The Saudi-led coalition, which is basically a section of OIC countries, looks to cooperate on combating terrorism. However, it is straddling with two-points of unease. First is the sectarian fault-line which despite the inclusion of Shia-majority countries like Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, remains. It is bound to cast a shadow on the coalition’s actions. Second is Saudi Arabia’s own actions in the past; these tendencies could influence simple issues like designating a dissenting faction as terrorist group for initiating coalition action. Saudis have said that the alliance would not focus only on certain groups such as Daesh, but confront terrorist operators across the world.
With the alliance in place, what needs to be seen now is how it will move to achieve its objectives. It could bring to the table measures to control the flow of resources to the IS- recruits, finances, business links, weapons. More importantly, it remains to be seen how it fares at the crucial battle of ideology to wrest the narrative on Islam from the IS; something that ought to be the main plank of its counter-terrorism strategy.
The coalition could serve to heal the divide amongst the Sunni Arab countries; the coming together of Turkey and Egypt could bring some positive influence to bear in countries like Palestine where cultural and sectarian rifts have influenced developments negatively. The coalition could even, to the relief of the West, address the refugee issue.
The coalition bypasses India with its sizeable Muslim population, but includes its two major neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan since the announcement denies being consulted while Bangladesh has confirmed its participation.
The South Asian participation comprises of three countries as members: Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives, and Afghanistan as the proposed area of intervention by the coalition. All the above-mentioned countries in the past have been under the Saudi influence. While Pakistan has a significant Shia population, Bangladesh has a small percentage of Shias and Ahmadiyyas; the percentage of Shias in Maldives is in single digits. India would be concerned about Afghanistan where sectarian conflicts induced by Taliban and ISIS are on a rise.
The Saudi anti-terrorism coalition is nascent and has some distance to travel before it makes any impact across the globe. Till then, the statement by the government of Jordan, “This is our war and the Muslims’ war,” would best describe the coalition’s raison d’être.