WHILE Foreign Office officials claimed they were ‘surprised’ by Pakistan’s inclusion in the 34-nation alliance announced by Saudi Arabia it now appears that Riyadh had received assurances of Pakistan’s participation — though it is not clear at what level.

Pakistan has, however, sounded a cautious note regarding “the extent of its participation”. Indeed, it is best to proceed carefully, given the number of member-states and the geographical sweep of the area, in addition to the fact that the alliance seeks to bring together countries as disparate in foreign policy orientation as Nigeria, Turkey and Malaysia.

Not included in the alliance that has both military and ‘ideological’ content as announced by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir are some of the Middle East’s key states, including Iran, Iraq and Syria, the last two ravaged by the militant Islamic State group, which — along with the ill-defined terrorism — is supposedly the pact’s target. What is missing is a common threat perception.

The US-led military alliances formed after the Second World War had members which saw a common threat in the Soviet Union and the communist movement. In this case, the 34 member-states do not share a common perception of events in the Levant, their attitudes towards IS varying from non-active opposition to indifference — with many governments fearful of actively taking on IS.

For Pakistan, the alliance poses many questions. Since Riyadh, according to the Saudi defence minister, will be the ‘joint operations centre’, it is not clear whether alliance members would be required to take part in military action on Syrian or Iraqi soil.

Because President Bashar al-Assad enjoys unqualified Iranian support, besides that of Hezbollah, such an intervention will appear to have sectarian overtones which countries like Pakistan and Lebanon with large Shia minorities can ill afford.

Similarly, while air strikes by America and some European countries are targeting IS, Russia has recently stepped up its support of the Baathist regime by also attacking other groups.

Turkey has shown no interest in degrading IS, even when Abubakr al-Baghdadi’s hordes had reached its border by taking Kobane; Ankara is more concerned about the Kurdish militia and is involved in crisis management after Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane.

With international powers and non-state actors working at cross purposes in the Syrian cauldron, Pakistan, like many of the other countries, would find it extremely difficult to be part of an alliance which has not stated categorically that the target is only IS.

This is not to deny the need for all regional countries, and the Muslim world in general, to evolve a common strategy to fight the evil that is terrorism, but the way to achieve this is a gradual alignment of anti-terror policies free from any thinking that smacks of sectarianism.

Pakistan must seek more details, especially about the kind of military role it will be required to play as a member of the alliance.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2015

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