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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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?
"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.
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."
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."
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.
Pentagon Spokesman Captain Jeff Davis reiterated to Defense News Secretary Carter's surprise on the announcement.
"We look forward to learning more about it. We've not gotten a full understanding of what the announcement was," Davis said.
"It does, initially anyway, appear to be aligned with something we have said before, which is that we want greater involvement in the campaign against ISIL by Sunni Arabs, not just in Iraq and Syria but in Sunni Arab countries," Davis noted. "So to the extent they could be more involved in that, we view that as a good thing."
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.
Awad Mustafa is a Middle East and Africa correspondent for Defense News.