By Salman Rafi
The formation of the Saudi Arabia-led “anti-terror” ‘Muslim’ coalition last week has come as a surprise. But its underlying logic is hardly surprising. Far from being a potential step towards eliminating terrorism in the region, it has reinforced regional geopolitical tensions.
Although the move underscores Saudi Arabia’s ‘concerned engagement’ in the so-called ‘war on terror’ it has been fighting in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Yemen, it is actually meant only to serve Saudi Arabia’s cardinal foreign policy objectives against its arch rival, Iran.
The ‘grand coalition’ clearly indicates Riyadh’s attempt to take the matters of regional security directly in its own hands after having faced dismal failures vis-à-vis Iran and Syria which have not been included in the anti-terror alliance.
It is the very absence of these countries, or that of the so-called ‘Shia crescent’, that has reinforced regional geo-political tensions. The question that immediately arises is whether Iran, Iraq and Syria are not fighting “terrorism” as understood by Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners? Or, conversely speaking, do Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners not regard Islamic State (IS) as a “terrorist” organization—an organization Iran, Iraq and Syria are pitted against for almost two years now?
Speaking on the coalition’s overt anti-Shia outlook, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s chief, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, told local media that Israel, Islamic State, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were colluding to fight Shiites the same way Sunni caliphs fought more than 1,300 years ago.
It is ironical that while Syria and Iraq have not been included in the coalition, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince said the coalition would be fighting terrorism in countries like Syria and Iraq greatly affected by this “scourge.”
Given that these countries are not part of this coalition and that they will still be their target, any future intervention by the coalition would be more like an “invasion” of Iraq and Syria rather than a simple strike against IS or any other organization.
Apart from the fact that the “anti-terror” coalition does not have a clear definition of what constitutes “terrorism”, exclusion of Iran and Syria is certainly going to put many coalition partners—especially those who have good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran– in a difficult position.
The constituent members of the new coalition mostly fall on the Sunni side of the sectarian fault line and are themselves deeply divided on a number of key policy areas. This divergence is likely to be reinforced by the fact that the coalition seeks to bring together countries as disparate in foreign policy orientation as Nigeria, Turkey and Malaysia. Therefore, the probability that it can become an effective international security alliance is almost zero.
Another question is how far countries like Pakistan, which do have highly significant and politically vibrant Shia populations, be able to participate in this exclusively “Sunni club”? For them, the coalition’s obvious anti-Shia overtures are going to be a source of problem.
President Bashar al-Assad enjoys unqualified Iranian support, besides that of Hezbollah. In such a scenario, this coalition and its intervention will appear to have sectarian overtones which countries like Pakistan and Lebanon with large Shia minorities can ill afford under the precarious situation prevailing in these countries. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan sounded a cautious note regarding `the extent of its participation`.
In the past, Pakistan has at least twice rejected the possibility of deploying troops overseas.
“We are not looking for any involvement outside our region,” army spokesman Lt Gen Asim Bajwa had said last month while replying to a question about the possibility of Pakistan becoming part of a US-led coalition against IS.
Such concerns and slight to major disagreements also hold true with regard to some other coalition members. For instance, it is interesting to see how Turkey and Egypt are going to work together against terror while the relations between them are still far from smooth due to Turkey’s strong stance on the military coup and the Egyptian army’s selective targeting of the Muslim Brotherhood since 2013.
Similarly, the disagreements between UAE and Qatar make one feel that the coalition can only exist on paper. For example, the Saudi, Turkish and Qatari governments have been adamantly opposed to Russian intervention in Syria, while the UAE, Egypt and Jordan have been optimistic about Moscow’s moves.
Notwithstanding the disagreements on a number of regional issues ranging from Syria, Egypt and Iraq to Palestine, the ever increasing complexity with regard to various countries’ position vis-à-vis the presence and military operations of Western powers as well as Russia is likely to affect this coalition’s strategic calculus.
For instance, countries like Pakistan which have been trying to re-engage with Russia after a long time may find it difficult to play an active part in a coalition that implicitly goes against Russian interests in the Middle East. As anti-Iran and anti-Assad coalition, it has certainly created a policy-conundrum for many member states.
Given the internal hollowness of this coalition, it is unlikely to succeed, or even work in a coordinated manner to that end, in eliminating what Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman termed as “disease.” What it can do, and has already ironically done to some extent, is to tell the world that Saudi Arabia is “serious” about “fighting terrorism.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org