An alliance against a radical ideology

Following the Paris attacks last month, widespread demonstrations of sympathy generated criticism for supposed double standards in global reactions to terrorist attacks and their victims. According to these critics, nothing of the sort was seen after recent terrorist attacks in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. Tragically for the region’s inhabitants, deadly blasts and civilian victims have become the norm.

Recognizing that the phenomenon is first and foremost a threat to the Muslim world, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman announced on Tuesday an alliance of 34 Muslims nations to fight terrorism. Cooperation between members will include intelligence sharing and deployment of troops if necessary “on a case by case basis”, according to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

Its formation is also recognition that, as much as the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) requires close coordination between Middle Eastern and international partners, Sunni-majority states have a key role to play in efforts to eradicate the group.

Participating in this 34-nation coalition against terrorism are key Sunni-majority powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Turkey. Also part are Sub-Saharan countries that have long grappled with the threat of terrorism such as Nigeria, with a population nearly equally divided in numbers between Christians and Muslims, or Somalia. In Asia, Malaysia and Pakistan were also listed as members of the alliance.

All 34 nations are members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and there will be a joint operations center in Riyadh. Ten other states, including Indonesia, have expressed support for the initiative and openness to collaborate with it.

Absentees

Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, as well as the regime of Bashar al-Assad, are naturally absent from the alliance. Also not included is Shiite-majority Iraq, where ISIS was born, and where concerns over Iranian meddling run deep, even among key Shiite figures such as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

In the longer term, a determination to cooperate against radical ideology and the conditions that allow it to thrive will prove more vital than the military and security responses the alliance can offer

Manuel Almeida

Oman is also not participating. That is unsurprising given its traditional foreign policy of balancing between Iran and Saudi Arabia and being a neutral mediator. Also outside the alliance is Algeria, which has cultivated close ties with Iran and often finds itself at odds with Sunni Arab states over various issues. Afghanistan, where the Taliban and ISIS vie for influence while both threaten the weak government, is also out.

The list of participants and notorious absentees indicates that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others are responding to the U.S.-led call for a greater Sunni role against ISIS and other radical groups. but also to a clear Iranian strategy to portray itself as crucial partner in the fight against ISIS while it accuses Sunni governments of sponsoring ISIS.

The Iranian strategy to use the fight against terrorism to justify its unconditional backing to the murderous Bashar al-Assad of Syria, or support for the expansion of a variety of Shiite militias in Iraq, thus faces a renewed challenge.

Goals

There is much speculation about the next steps and how to achieve them, as well as which groups other than ISIS, Al-Qaeda and their affiliates could be included as targets of the Saudi-led alliance. Jubeir explained during a press conference in Paris that there are still procedures to go through for countries to join the alliance, but the announcement was made "out of keenness to achieve this coalition as soon as possible.”

Nevertheless, much of its initial focus is likely to be on Syria and Iraq, where the core ISIS presence is. Bin Salman said operations in either country would be coordinated with major powers, international organizations and the international community.

The slight improvement of relations between Riyadh and Baghdad means there is room for cooperation, and Saudi ties to Sunni tribes in western Iraq could help in the Sunni mobilization against ISIS. In exchange, Baghdad would have to do more to guarantee greater Sunni inclusion, and security of Sunni communities against both ISIS and Shiite militias.

It is still unclear what the alliance can do until there is a deal for Syria among regime forces, the moderate opposition, and the foreign backers of both. Without a deal that includes the eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it is difficult if not impossible to foresee a full, united focus against ISIS and other terrorist groups.

Other areas of great concern include Libya, which experts fear might become a focus of ISIS as it gradually loses ground in Iraq and Syria, or Yemen, where the conflict and the collapse of government authority has provided an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to expand and ISIS to infiltrate.

In the longer term, a determination to cooperate against radical ideology and the conditions that allow it to thrive will prove more vital than the military and security responses the alliance can offer. Here could reside much of the positive impact of this coalition.


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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

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Last Update: 18:02 KSA 21:02 - GMT 18:02
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