On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman announced that the Kingdom had formed an international military coalition comprised of 34 Muslim-majority countries dedicated to fight terrorism.
With coalitions already formed to combat insurgencies in the Middle East - the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition bombing Iraq and Syria, as well as the Saudi-led Arab coalition operating against Houthi militias in Yemen – how is this new Islamic coalition different?
According to Prince Mohammed, the coalition will tackle “the Islamic world's problem with terrorism and will be a partner in the worldwide fight against this scourge,” he said while emphasizing that the new coalition aimed to “coordinate” anti-terrorism efforts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.
All of the members of the newly formed coalition belong to the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation and include the following Arab League countries: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Tunisia, Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Comoros, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania and Yemen.
The following African and Asian countries are also participating: Benin, Chad, Togo, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Malaysia.
As the only NATO member to join the newly formed alliance, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu welcomed the initiative by stressing: “Turkey is ready to contribute by all its means to all gatherings that aim to fight terrorism, no matter where or by whom it is organized.”
Also welcoming the newly established coalition, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter was quoted by Reuters on Tuesday as saying, “We look forward to learning more about what Saudi Arabia has in mind in terms of this coalition… But in general it appears it is very much in line with something we've been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL (ISIS) by Sunni Arab countries.”
Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran and its allies Syria and Iraq were not surprisingly included in its coalition. There are signs, however, that Saudi-Iraqi relations are about to improve as the Kingdom dispatched its first ambassador to Baghdad in 25 years on Tuesday.
While it is not surprising that Iran is not included in the alliance as it has been deemed by Gulf states and the United Nations as a state sponsor of terrorism, for Saudi Arabia to be successful in its quest to defeat extremism, many believe it must also seek to help defuse simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions across the Middle East. With its new ambassador in Baghdad, Saudi Arabia faces a historic opportunity to begin this critical process.
A changing strategy?
The announcement of the newly established anti-terror coalition came on the same day as the United Nations confirmed that peace talks between Yemen’s warring factions would take place in Geneva, Switzerland.
U.N. officials also confirmed a ceasefire agreement between the Saudi-led Arab coalition and Yemen’s Houthi militias, which the coalition has been fighting since March as part of an effort to reinstate President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi and his government after he was deposed by the militias, that Riyadh and its Gulf allies consider an Iranian proxy.
From the onset of its military campaign, Saudi Arabia has repeatedly insisted that its objective was not only to restore President Hadi, who has since taken refuge in Riyadh, but that airstrikes would only end once Houthi militias disarmed and withdrew to their positions prior to forcing the government’s resignation in January.
While the Houthi leadership clearly miscalculated Saudi resolve to prevent it from expanding its territorial reach by attempting to take the southern strategic city of Aden and by extension controlling the country, the upcoming peace talks in Geneva suggest that a diplomatic solution to defeat the Houthis may be in the works.
Despite Riyadh’s apparent political support for peace talks between President Hadi’s government and the Houthis, the negotiators’ principal challenge seems to be how to reach an agreement on the implementation of a U.N. Security Council Resolution passed in April that calls on the militias to withdraw from the capital of Sanaa. Presently, Yemen’s warring parties face a zero-sum narrative that must be broken if a path to reconciliation is to be found.
Meanwhile, the rapid and brutal advance of ISIS, holding onto territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq has exasperate concerns in Riyadh that regional instability and turmoil could threaten its own security.
Between ISIS having established a hub of terrorism in the Middle East with wide-ranging global consequences – as witnessed by the Paris and San Bernardino attacks - and Iran’s rise as a regional power, Saudi Arabia initially saw the Houthi attempt to take control over Yemen’s three largest cities as a red line that required immediate military attention. Between an estimated 6,000 people killed in the conflict and its devastating humanitarian crisis engulfing the Arab world’s poorest country, peace talks with the Houthis may be the best way to prevent an even more dangerous enemy – ISIS – from establishing a foothold in Yemen.
With this in mind, Saudi Arabia appears to be changing strategy from seeking to fully defeat the Houthis to reaching some sort of a diplomatic solution that will enable it to better free up its resources to fight ISIS globally along with its newly established coalition. As part of the Kingdom’s ambitious anti-terrorism strategy, a coordination center for the new alliance will be established in its capital.
Saudi Arabia has also pledged to fight ISIS on theological grounds as it seeks to counter the organization’s perverted interpretation of Islam by launching its own counter radicalism programs while relentlessly combatting it on social media.
Amid growing anti-Muslim sentiments across Europe and within the United States following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, coupled with ISIS’s false narrative that Islam and the West are incompatible, Saudi Arabia is uniquely positioned to win the battle for hearts and minds of Muslims from across the Arab world, Africa, Asia and beyond at this critical period in time:
By taking on this battle, Saudi Arabia is demonstrating that it will not accept extremists comprising the standing of Muslims around the world and their quest to undermine coexistence and tolerance.
Sigurd Neubauer is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
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