ARE we or are we not a part of the newly formed Saudi-led ‘Islamic military alliance’? The contradictory statements emanating from the foreign ministry have deepened the puzzle. First, there was an appearance of surprise when the Saudi deputy crown prince named Pakistan among the 34 countries in the alliance. ‘We were not consulted’ was the reaction from the foreign secretary. A day later, the Foreign Office endorsed the Saudi move. What caused this sudden turnaround is anyone’s guess.
It is yet another foreign policy disaster in the making. The confusion exposes the complete disarray in our decision-making process on a critical foreign policy issue that has direct bearing on our national security. Sartaj Aziz, the adviser on foreign affairs, told the Senate that he was still unaware of the full details of the new alliance.
How come we have committed ourselves to a coalition in whose formation we had no role? We are not even clear about its tasks. Is it not bizarre that the adviser had no clue about the assurance of support we might already have given to the Saudi rulers?
The Saudi role in fighting IS that has established its brutal rule in parts of Iraq and Syria has remained dubious.
The Saudi move seems to have taken many other Muslim countries, supposedly part of the alliance, by surprise. Except for Turkey and some Gulf countries, that are already part of the Saudi-led military coalition against Yemen, no other Muslim country has endorsed the ‘Sunni’ alliance.
Although the declared objective of the proposed military alliance is to fight global terrorism, it is largely seen as a means of promoting the Saudi agenda of dividing Muslim nations along sectarian lines and solidifying an anti-Iran coalition. The Saudi role in fanning the Middle East civil war has hugely contributed to the rise of the militant Islamic State group that the alliance is supposed to counter.
Unsurprisingly, the announcement of the formation of the alliance came from none other than the young Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman who is believed to be responsible for his country’s disastrous military entanglement in the Yemeni civil war. The detail of what task the new alliance would undertake has deliberately been left vague. Saudi officials maintain that the modalities of how to move forward remain to be worked out. Predictably, Iran has been excluded from the list of the members.
One of the objectives of the new alliance is to fight IS. But the Saudi role in fighting the militant group that has established its brutal rule in parts of Iraq and Syria has remained dubious. The kingdom has been actively backing some of the extremist Islamist groups the elements of which later became a part of IS.
The power struggle in Syria that has left millions of people dead or homeless has largely turned into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia with other countries on one side or the other too. While Iran backed the government of Bashar al-Assad, the Saudis provided financial support to rebel groups that also included the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat-al Nusra.
Furthermore, the Saudis are actively supporting some of the Sunni rebel groups fighting the Iranian-backed Baghdad government. The kingdom has actually played no role in fighting IS so far. Instead, its focus has been diverted to Yemen, where it is combating what it says are Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Meanwhile, the role of Turkey, one of the main sponsors of the alliance, also raises questions about Ankara’s commitment to fighting IS. It is not only Russia that has accused Turkey of buying oil from IS that helps the terrorist group finance its war. Some other reports also confirm the allegation of Turkey looking the other way as foreign IS fighters cross into Syria.
Turkey has also been actively involved in the Syrian civil war supporting some of the Saudi-backed Sunni rebel groups. Its Kurdish separatist movement that has roots across the border in Iraq and Syria dictates Turkey’s position on the Syrian war. For Ankara, perhaps, the IS presents a counterweight to the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria.
Interestingly, Saudi officials maintain that one objective of the alliance is to fight the scourge of terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. But the names of three of them — Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — are absent from the list of alliance member countries. Iraq is obviously left out because of its closeness to Iran. So, how is the military alliance going to fight terrorism in those countries without their participation?
In this situation, the proposed military alliance would only sharpen the polarisation in the Middle East along sectarian lines, further worsening the civil war and making it more difficult to counter IS. For sure, there is an urgent need for uniting Muslim countries to fight terrorism, but a Saudi-sponsored military alliance with its headquarters in Riyadh can hardly bring together a Muslim world that is divided along sectarian lines. How can any counterterrorism alliance work with some member countries directly or indirectly supporting some of the militant groups?
In fact, it is hard to see a country that itself has long been seen as the sponsor of extremism and radical Islam — that is a major source of militancy in various countries, particularly in Pakistan — as a leader of the alliance.
The funding for radical madressahs involved in the sectarian conflict is believed to be coming from Saudi charities.
Surely, terrorism in all its shapes cannot be eradicated without countering extremism. It does not require a military alliance; rather it is the end of the sectarian-based proxy war in the Middle East that should be on the decision table.
Joining the Saudi-led military alliance spells more trouble for Pakistan waging its own war against militancy. In some ways, it has already been drawn into the proxy war with both Saudi Arabia and Iran reportedly recruiting Pakistani fighters for their respective proxies involved in Syria and Iraq. Pakistan’s joining the Saudi military alliance could just make the situation totally combustible.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2015