Saudi Arabia announced the formation of an anti-terrorism coalition of Arab and Muslim states yesterday, but the group is unlikely to be a coherent entity, much less achieve its stated goal of confronting jihadism. The Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance is comprised of 34 states, however, these countries are unlikely to be willing to operate under Riyadh’s leadership, as they see the kingdom as one source of the jihadist problem.
Providing little detail of this new multinational force, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman said that the joint command headquarters would be based in the Saudi capital. Separately, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told journalists that the new entity would share intelligence and train, equip and provide forces if necessary for the fight against the Islamic State.
The bulk of the countries named in the alliance are Arab and African states, most of them small countries with limited military capability, with the exception of Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia. Not surprisingly, Iran, Iraq and Syria are absent from this coalition, which underscores that this is as much an attempt to isolate the kingdom’s arch rival Iran and its Shia allies, as it is an effort to fight jihadists. Algeria, the biggest North African state, which has 25 years of experience fighting jihadists, is also not part of the coalition.
This is not the first attempt by the Saudis to form an alliance. Earlier in the year, they tried to form a coalition for the military intervention in Yemen and reached out to both Arab and non-Arab countries. The move was an utter failure as Turkey, Pakistan and even Egypt politely declined to send forces. As a result, the Saudis have not made much progress with the “coalition of the willing” in Yemen, which consists of mostly small Arab countries. Even the Saudi attempts at converting the Gulf Cooperation Council into a military alliance has not succeeded due to the deep intra-GCC differences and the fact that even the biggest component of the GCC does not have much of a fighting force despite its frequent procurement of state-of-the-art American and other Western weaponry.
While Saudi Arabia, because of its status as the world’s largest exporter of crude, is a major regional power, it lacks military strength of its own. It is for this reason that Riyadh, until a few years ago, was totally reliant on the United States for its national security needs. Divergence in American and Saudi interests and Riyadh’s worry that its erstwhile protector is pursuing detente with its nemesis, Iran, forced the Saudis to try and forge a new national security doctrine, which has been based on their attempt to build regional alliances led by the Saudis themselves.
Indeed, the kingdom is the only major Arab state unaffected by uprisings at a time when the Arab world is undergoing autocratic meltdown. The Saudis have taken it upon themselves to manage the regional Arab chaos while also trying to fend off an Iran with increasing bandwidth to expand its influence. But the biggest threat to the Saudi regime and its claims to legitimacy comes from the Islamic State, which is not only a threat because of its military capabilities but also because of its attempts to appropriate the founding principle of the kingdom, Salafism. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Salafism, an ultra-conservative sect within Sunni Islam.
Meanwhile, the attacks in France and the United States have increased the pressure on the Saudis as well as the other regional powers – in particular Turkey – to step up to the plate in the fight against IS. Washington’s doctrine for dealing with the problems of the Middle East is based on the regional players taking the lead. It is not, therefore, surprising that the Saudi announcement regarding the Islamic Military Alliance came within hours of President Barack Obama’s comments about Sunni Arab states needing to accelerate their efforts in the global fight against the Islamic State.
Another critical factor informing the Saudi move is that the region’s largest Muslim power, Turkey, is slowly becoming more active in managing the growing regional anarchy. From the Saudi point of view, they cannot afford to have Turkey take the lead and, therefore, have used their influence to try and assume a leading position. Though the Turkish prime minister came out in strong support of the Saudi initiative – since it also provides a way for the Turks to fight Kurdish separatists – his comments implied that Turkey would have participated in the alliance regardless of which country initiated it.
Clearly, the Turks are not tying themselves down to being a participant in a Saudi-led effort. In fact, Ankara sees itself as the one country bringing order to chaos in the Middle East. Thus, contrary to conventional wisdom, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are not on the same page with regards to regional matters. It is extremely unlikely that Turkish forces would be very active militarily in an anti-IS campaign, particularly under Saudi command.
The same is true for the other big states in this military alliance such as Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia and Nigeria. Besides, the Pakistanis, Egyptians and Nigerians have their respective domestic and regional jihadists that take precedence over any collective effort. In addition, most of these Muslim states see Saudi Arabia as a source of the global jihadist problem – though they will not officially say so. Even Egypt, which is financially dependent upon Saudi Arabia, sees itself as the leader of the Arabs and the Egyptians do not agree with the Saudi push to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Furthermore, Pakistan actually expressed surprise that it was included in this alliance, adding that it was not consulted beforehand and would seek clarification from the Saudi government.
Moreover, most of the members of this coalition realize that the Saudi imperative here is to fight the Islamic State and the wider jihadist enterprise yet somehow salvage Salafism in the process. However, these countries do not believe that this will work and have no interest in risking their blood and treasure for the sake of the Saudis. Each of them has their own view of how the problem should be tackled, which means this military alliance will be little more than an intelligence sharing forum. The Saudi foreign minister conceded this when he said that whether the military alliance would deploy troops in Syria depended partly on the willingness of member countries to offer the necessary support.
Therefore, this new entity is anything but a coalition of military forces and will be unable to do much damage to the Islamic State. That it has been named the Islamic Military Alliance underscores the major contest over legitimacy that is taking place among Sunni Muslims.