Saudi Arabia recently announced the formation of an Islamic military alliance for combating terrorism consisting of 34 Muslim-majority states. After some initial confusion, the Pakistani government confirmed its participation in this coalition, but without stating whether it would be willing to commit troops abroad. The credibility of this alliance is questionable, since Syria, and Shia-majority Iran and Iraq, have not been included. Without the collaboration and support of these three key states, the Middle East stands little chance of neutralising the militant Islamic State group.
The US has welcomed the Saudi announcement — behind closed doors, it might even have pressured the Saudi government to initiate this project. The US presidential election is less than a year away, and the Obama administration is under intense pressure from the Republicans for not doing enough to battle IS. The US does not want to commit boots on the ground; it wants friendly Arab nations to commit resources and soldiers for fighting IS.
Ironically, the rise of IS can be partially credited to the US: its inference and military adventurism in the Middle East, including by arming rebels many of whom later joined IS, has significantly weakened state policing and military institutions in the region. The US desired regime change in Libya and Syria. It succeeded in Libya by astutely getting the Security Council to acquiesce in its military involvement on the premise of protecting human rights. But on Syria, both Russian and China vetoed any Security Council resolution authorising the use of force against the established government.
We can’t afford to get drawn into unnecessary international wars.
A pivotal question arises: is the primary objective of the Saudi military alliance to neutralise terrorist groups which control swathes of territory and subjugate populations under their occupation, or is the aim to protect regimes in specific countries while concomitantly bringing about regime changes in others? For example, Arab monarchies threatened by IS desire regime change in Syria, but not in Yemen.
There is precedent of inter-states alliances to guard against regime change, eg the Economic Community of Western African States set up a convention under which the union is allowed to intervene in a member state to prevent regime change on the pretext of preventing grave breaches of international humanitarian law. The creation of a Sunni Muslim Nato-like alliance which acts in collective self-defence of member states might be in the making, but Pakistan can ill afford to get drawn into unnecessary international wars by committing troops at the moment.
In any case, under international law, a state’s consent is required for any military involvement on its territory by third states except when the latter are responding to an armed attack in self-defence. While Syria is in the midst of a civil war, under international law Bashar al-Assad’s regime remains in power because it currently controls the capital city and considerable parts of the country without being in imminent danger of collapse. Hence, any military involvement in Syria without its government’s consent would be legally problematic, because of the challenges posed to Syrian sovereignty under international law.
The right of collective self-defence, enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter, privileges Syria and Iraq to request and authorise other states to assist in the defence of their sovereignty against rebels and insurgents — including terrorists. Russian military involvement in Syria is an example of acting on the basis of such authorisation, whereas US aerial bombing clearly is not. Thus, any military operations targeting militants by this newly formed Muslim states alliance, without the consent of the state on whose territory the terrorists are active, disregards the principle of territorial integrity enshrined in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter.
Pakistan is already overstretched in its internal conflict with the TTP. Diverting military resources and manpower overseas will militate against establishing peace and security within its own border. IS has shown sophistication and craftiness, including by adeptly using social media, in executing terrorist attacks and fanning radicalism in countries it wants to target. Any external involvement against transnational terrorist organisations like IS will expose Pakistan to the wrath of the former.
Additionally, by joining military operations or providing other forms of military or intelligence support, Pakistan might end up antagonising Iran, driving it closer to what is currently a hostile India. Pakistan can thus end up jeopardising its commerce, energy and trade linkages with Iran at a time when sanctions are being lifted.
Increased trade with Iran has the potential to significantly boost the economy of Pakistan. While condemning terrorism and cooperating with all relevant UN bodies in combating it, Pakistan should aim to remain neutral in what increasingly seems to resemble a Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with US and Russian support respectively.
The writer is a former legal adviser, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2015