The Saudi anti-terror coalition could be a game changer

The key, overriding point is whether the Islamic coalition will attack ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, how often, and to what effect

Dr. John C. Hulsman
Dr. John C. Hulsman
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“The proof is in the pudding.”
--14th century proverb

Part of the problem with modern political risk analysis is the difficulty in separating the portentous from the pretentious, the significant from the marketing dross that so often masquerades as foreign policy initiatives. On any given day, there a literally hundreds of press releases as to new, revolutionary, foreign policy strategies being unfurled that are bound (so their authors insist) to change the course of history.

Most, of course, amount to less than nothing; but the analytical ‘noise’ in the modern world is truly deafening. It takes an especially skilled analyst to ignore the din, focusing on what really matters. And while the jury is surely still out, yesterday’s announcement by Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of a new Saudi-inspired 34 country Islamic coalition designed to fight terrorism, could truly amount to that rarest of things: a foreign policy initiative that fundamentally matters.

As the war in Syria drearily continues, with U.S. air strikes increasing against ISIS to a new high in November, Washington has grown increasingly and publicly exasperated at the lack of support from its allies in the anti-ISIS coalition. Specifically, the U.S. has made frequent and urgent calls for the Gulf Arab states to do more against ISIS.

The key, overriding point is whether the Islamic coalition will attack ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, how often, and to what effect

Dr. John C. Hulsman

This is due to issues relating to technical military sophistication, as well as to the crucial matter of local political legitimacy. Both the Saudi and Emirati air forces are modern, powerful and capable of truly helping to carry the military load of increased air strikes directed against Raqqa. Perhaps even more importantly, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s overt, and strong opposition to ISIS decisively makes a lie of the group’s false (but powerful) claim to be the champion of the Sunni worldview.

American frustration has centred on the fact that while almost every major state in the Middle East is genuinely against ISIS, getting rid of it in its Syrian-Iraqi heartland has not been the priority of many. While the U.S.-backed Kurds, and Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq have taken the fight to ISIS, there had been a crucial lack of effective Sunni boots on the ground.

Instead, the Egyptians have been fretting about the failed state that Libya has become, and the rise of the local ISIS chapter there, as well as another manifestation of the group in the Sinai. Turkey has been more intent on facing down the Kurds than taking the war to ISIS. Saudi Arabia, in American eyes, has been seen as worrying about the Iranian-inspired Houthi rebellion on its southern doorstep, rather than in aiding America in Syria and Iraq. But with a ceasefire set to take hold in Yemen, as U.N.-sponsored peace talks commence, there has been increasing hope in Washington that the pivotal Saudis are set to re-focus their efforts.

Raqqa may well not have helped matters from their point of view in their strategically baffling desire to take on all their many enemies at once; while the Arab world may have been ambiguous in its efforts to fight ISIS, the group has been crystal clear in its desire to attack Gulf states, initiating a series of attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, in an effort to foment Sunni-Shiite tensions, as well as attacking security forces in both states as well. Given this sub-text, the U.S. should be increasingly hopeful that the just-announced Islamic coalition against terrorism marks the crowning of this new strategic shift it has so hoped for.

Certainly, King Salman could not have been rhetorically clearer about ISIS, urging further, significant efforts in November to “eradicate this dangerous scourge and rid of the world of its evils.” The new 34-state Islamic coalition against terrorism puts operational heft behind these stirring words. Including pivotal predominantly Sunni states Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, Malaysia, and Pakistan, the new coalition has both the diplomatic and strategic heft to potentially matter a great deal.

Crucially, this vast alliance possesses the vital elixir of political credibility for Sunnis in eastern Syria and central and western Iraq, as it cannot be accused — as the U.S. so easily can — of being a malign, outside influence impervious to local political goals and aspirations. Mohammed bin Salman put his finger on this vital point, saying that the new group had political ‘legitimacy’, without which ISIS cannot be ultimately defeated.

If the group has the heft to tip the strategic scales against ISIS, it also seems poised to serve a vital operational function. The Saudi Defense Minister says the new alliance will “coordinate efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan,| exactly what is necessary to maximise its impact.

The proof is in the pudding

While it is understandable that there have been few specific operational details as to how the new alliance will proceed, without them we are all left guessing as to how much political capital the individual member states of the alliance are prepared to put behind this new coalition to defeat ISIS.

The key, overriding point is whether the Islamic coalition will attack ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, how often, and to what effect. This is the proof in the pudding as to whether the just-announced Islamic coalition is the best news to hit the region in a long time; it shouldn’t be allowed to be merely another press release.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has also given 1490 interviews, written over 410 articles, prepared over 1270 briefings, and delivered more than 460 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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