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What’s the Saudi Arabia coalition against ‘Islamic Terror’ really up to

A soldier from the Saudi-led coalition walks past a broken-down tank on a street in Yemen's southern port city of Aden September 27, 2015. As Gulf-backed forces assemble in Marib province east of Sanaa ahead of a widely expected thrust towards the Houthi-held capital, the fate of Aden and its hinterland may offer a glimpse at whether some form of central government can be resurrected. To match Insight YEMEN-SECURITY/ADEN   REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser - RTX1SQ8T


The clearest aspect of theSaudi Arabia’s nebulous announcement that it is forming a 34-country Islamic alliance to battle terrorism has raised speculation about the group’s true mission.  Dec. 15 announcement was that it was sorely lacking in details. Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, merely noted that Riyadh is creating the Islamic Military Alliance to fight terrorism in the Muslim world.

While no countries led by Shiite parties — such as Iran, Iraq or Syria — appeared on the list of member states, Salman stressed that the alliance is open to all Islamic countries. That sentiment was reiterated Dec. 19 by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in remarks made to the press during the international conference on Syria in New York.

Gen. Anwar Majid Ashqi, head of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Riyadh, said during a Dec. 15 phone call to Al-Ghad al-Araby channel that Iran is welcome in the alliance if it proves it does not support terrorist organizations. Ashqi said the precondition is necessary “because Western states accuse [Iran] of financing terror.” However, the general neglected to comment on the memberships of Turkey, Qatar and Sudan, despite numerous allegations that they support terrorism.

Most notable among those accusations is the one made by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who explicitly accused Turkey of supporting the Islamic State (IS) by buying Iraqi oil through the organization. On Dec. 2, Russia’s Defense Ministry also claimed Ankara is providing weapons to IS in exchange for oil. Thus, accusations of supporting terror are not confined to Iran alone and have been directed at some states that are actually members of the new Saudi alliance. This could indicate that the sectarian and political disputes between Saudi Arabia and Iran played a role in the alliance’s formation.

The alliance may only refuse to accept countries suspected of supporting Houthis in Yemen or those who oppose the operations of Gulf armies against them, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. However, it was announced that the Islamic alliance includes Lebanon, whose parliament includes many Shiites and is headed by a Shiite politician, Nabih Berri.

It’s noteworthy that Lebanon didn’t officially object to Gulf operations in Yemen, and Berri criticized Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for his aggressive statements against Saudi Arabia after the launch of Operation Decisive Storm. Berri has also praised on numerous occasions the important role of Egypt in Arab region, but a final decision regarding Lebanon joining the Islamic alliance has yet to be decided, and the government is divided about this issue.

In another oddity, the very day after the alliance was announced, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Indonesia said they had not decided whether they would join the alliance — even though Salman’s statement had mentioned both countries as members.

Other countries raised questions about the role of the alliance and its members. Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said his country supported the alliance ideologically and politically, yet he ruled out any military participation by Malaysia. He stressed that the Saudi initiative does not include any military commitment from members.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said in a Dec. 16 news conference in Ankara, “I can say that this coalition will not be a military structure. It is not on the agenda. The military and intelligence cooperation in the fight against Daesh [IS] is essential, but there is an ideological dimension of the fight against terrorism. These struggles should be coordinated so that Islam will not be identified with terrorism.”

Yet the day before, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had stated that Turkey would provide everything in its power to the alliance, without commenting on whether that would include military support.

Gen. Hisham al-Halabi, a military adviser at Egypt’s Nasser Military Sciences Academy, told Al-Monitor that alliance membership does not require a military commitment, and Riyadh is leaving it up to member states to participate via any means they can.

“This participation, for example, could include providing information or weapons, logistical support, training or financial assistance to the participating armies,” Halabi said, but he denied claims that the group would not be a military alliance. The coalition’s primary function, he stressed, will be military in nature.

Egyptian military experts and observers criticized the alliance for including Turkey and Qatar. Most notable among those experts were Abdul Rafaa Darkish and Talaat Muslim, as well as member of parliament Samir Ghattas. In statements made to the press, they said the alliance cannot be serious or effective, given that it includes two states that support terrorism.

Halabi told Al-Monitor that participation in the alliance will reveal states not serious about fighting terrorism. He added that there are no fears about Turkey providing false information to the alliance, since all data will be investigated by more than one source.

In a Dec. 16 news conference, Russian Foreign Minister



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