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How United Is Saudi Arabia's New Anti-Terror Coalition?

December 18, 2015 (Photo Credit: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

DUBAI and WASHINGTON — Days after Saudi Arabia announced the launch of a major anti-terror Islamic military coalition, details remain scarce, including what the coalition will do, how it could affect Syria and, even, who is part of it.

And while the coalition may be a good sign for an Obama White House that is desperately seeking more aid from Gulf regional allies in the fight against the Islamic State group (also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh) it appears little information has been shared with the US about the new coalition, even though the idea came after a recent visit from a top US senator.

Speaking at a surprise news conference in the early hours of Dec. 16, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said that the counterterrorism force was borne out of "the Islamic world's vigilance in fighting this disease which has damaged the Islamic world."

"Currently, every Muslim country is fighting terrorism individually ... so coordinating efforts is very important," he said, adding that the coalition will "target all terrorist organisations in the Islamic world."

"Every country will be participating according to its capabilities and we will not only fight Daesh, but any terrorist group," he said.

But within days, officials in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia — all listed as part of that coalition — denied that they had ever agreed to join the alliance.

Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry was quoted in the Dawn Newspaper as saying he was surprised by the announcement and had asked the Pakistani ambassador in Riyadh for clarification. The country's foreign office said in a statement later on Dec. 17 that it was "awaiting further details to decide the extent of its participation in different activities of the alliance" before making a decision on whether to join.

Indonesia's foreign ministry also said it too had not yet decided whether to join, with Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir telling the Jakarta Post that "the government is still observing and waiting to see the modalities of the military coalition formed by Saudi Arabia."

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, meanwhile, expressed support for the coalition but ruled out any military cooperation from Kuala Lumpur.

"The Saudi initiative does not involve any military commitment, but an understanding that we will combat militancy," he said.

It is also possible that other countries are still in the dark.

A United Arab Emirates government official told Defense News that the countries that have been briefed and accepted membership in the coalition are the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Those members will start coordination at the level of ministries of foreign affairs, the official said.

Indeed, the coalition appears very much to be driven by Saudi Arabia, which has also taken the lead on GCC operations in Yemen over the last year.

"We will be coordinating with Saudi officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to coordinate efforts to combat terrorism," the UAE official said on the condition of anonymity.

"The recent alliance raises many questions amongst countries left out and stirs doubts amongst some of them which were named as part of the club," said Shehab Al Makahleh, director of the Jordan-based Geostrategic Media Center.

He points to Pakistan's denial of being part of the coalition as a particularly notable warning sign about just how fragile this plan may be.

"Pakistan, which is the second-biggest Islamic country, voiced rejection last time it was asked to join a coalition to fight in Yemen," he said. "Today, the Pakistan government finds it weird as more than 30 percent of its population are non-Sunni, and they were surprised by this very fast announcement of the 34-state coalition, which has been created one day after the incident in Bab al-Mandab against Arab Coalition troops which 152 soldiers are feared dead."

Al Makahleh stressed that the announcement to combat terrorism appears slated to allow the members to share information and to train, equip and provide forces, if necessary, for the fight against extremist groups.

Becca Wasser of the RAND Corporation said that many questions remain after the cryptic announcement by the young Saudi defense minister.

"It's a little bit early to actually take much away from it other than questions," Wasser said. "First off, what is its objective? To fight terrorism worldwide? Great. Does that mean Daesh is the priority?"

"Which groups? Who decided which groups? You have Lebanon as part of the coalition," she added. "Does that mean Hezbollah is off the table? There are a huge range of countries involved who have very different definitions of what constitutes a terrorist group."

"My read is there are so many questions and it just seems to be largely symbolic at this point," Wasser said. "But there may be more concrete plans and answers which just have not been publicly stated."

Origin of the Idea?

The announcement of the coalition appeared to catch US officials by surprise — but, perhaps, it shouldn't, as the idea may have come from a recent visit to the region by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Al Makahleh said that last month's visit by McCain and fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to Baghdad was the springboard for this coalition.

"McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, proposed in Baghdad intervention in Syria by a European and Arab ground force backed by 10,000 US military advisers and trainers," Al Makahleh said.

McCain is a powerful senator but doesn't have the ability to make policy unilaterally. However, his recommendations appear to have echoed strongly with regional allies.

During McCain's November Mideast trip, he discussed his favored strategy in the fight against the Islamic State group with various leaders. The US, he said, should lead an effort to assemble a multinational force composed primarily of Sunni Arabs and including up to 10,000 American troops to destroy the Islamic State group in Syria.

The US would perform discrete tasks.It would improve and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces (especially Sunni tribal fighters), embed with and advise Iraqi units closer to the fight, call in airstrikes from forward positions and conduct counterterrorism operations.

However, McCain told reporters on Dec. 17 that he wasn't seeking support for a Sunni Arab coalition during the November visit.

The impediment to more involvement in the fight from Sunni Iraqis, McCain said, is that they do not trust the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, given Iran's "obvious" influence on the country's leadership.

The Gulf countries, McCain said, "have decided to go out on their own," as evidenced by their recent announcement — what he called "a dramatic demarcation from anything in the past because the US was totally excluded."

"They weren't even notified," he said.

McCain's proposed multinational ground force would be primarily made up of Sunni Arab and European forces, with a strong US component, "to do what no local force now can or will," retake the Islamic State group stronghold of Raqqa, "destroy ISIL's caliphate in Syria and prepare for a long-term stabilization effort."

As much as McCain may clash with the Obama administration over the strategy against the Islamic State group, the idea of enrolling Sunni fighters or partner nations into the fight is a popular one with US politicians on both sides of the aisle, and it is an unrealized tenet of the Pentagon's strategy in the fight against the Islamic State group — especially as the Obama administration seeks to avoid a massive commitment of US ground troops and repeat a protracted counterinsurgency campaign.

US Surprise

Regardless of the idea's origin, the Pentagon appeared to be caught flat-footed by the announcement and had few details to share with reporters this week.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced his surprise at the news and said that they are looking forward to learning more about this coalition.

"Well, we look forward to learning more about what Saudi Arabia has in mind in terms of this coalition," he told reporters during a trip through the Gulf region.

"At least it appears that it's very much aligned with something that we have been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL by Sunni-Arab countries," he said.

And indeed, it may be the start of greater Gulf partner involvement in the region.

A day after the announcement, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubair said in Switzerland that Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries are ready to send special operations forces to Syria. However, he did not clarify of this was part of the Islamic coalition.

Like the Pentagon, Wasser said, there may be positive opportunities from such a coalition in Syria — if the details can be sorted out.

"Would the new Saudi-led coalition act with the preexisting, US-led counter-ISIL coalition? Will it do its own thing? What really are they going to be doing? Is it airstrikes? Is it a focus on messaging like what UAE has been spearheading?" Wasser said. "And for the states that are also involved in the counter-ISIL coalition, what takes priority?"

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