A perception has been gaining ground that despite extensive air-bombing of the Islamic State (ISIS) positions in Syria and Iraq by the regional and international coalitions a victory against it is nowhere in sight. In fact, the opposite is seen to be happening with ISIS franchises fast emerging as serious threats in many other countries.
As expected, this has bred frustration in the United States and some European countries, particularly Germany, who tend to lay the blame for lack of success on the regional anti-ISIS players, more incisively Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom has now responded by announcing formation of a Saudi-led anti-terrorism alliance of 34 Muslim countries, including Pakistan. “We have a duty to protect the Islamic nation from evils of all terrorist groups, whatever their sect and name, which wreak death and destruction on earth with aim to terrorize the innocent,” said a statement issued by the Saudi authorities.
Explaining the rationale for this set-up, they say the proposed alliance would fight terrorists in “Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan” – thereby suggesting a wider field of its operations and against terrorist outfits of all descriptions.
The alliance would conduct both military and ideological operations – the former on a case-to-case basis and the latter remains undefined in so many words, but obvious from the fact that the alliance comprises Sunni-majority countries and excludes Shia Iran, Syria and Iraq. As to its legitimacy, the Saudi authorities say the Islamic military alliance would operate in line with “the United Nations and Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) provisions on terrorism”.
That the new coalition will land boots on ground in Syria to fight ISIS fighters is highly expected. In answer to a question ‘how and when’, the Saudis say the ‘member countries will share their information and co-ordinate efforts at the Joint Operations Centre in Riyadh against the violent extremists and terrorists in the Muslim world under the mandate of the UN’. So, it is quite clear that while the Saudi government had to come up with its riposte to Western criticism as early as possible, the follow-up to its endeavor is certainly a long-haul proposition.
It’s a long-haul proposition, because some of the 34-member countries of the Saudi-led Muslim military alliance had no information whatsoever of being inducted into the anti-terrorism military alliance. One of them is Pakistan. Though it is irreversibly committed to territorial integrity and independence of Saudi Arabia, by all means including political and military, it is highly unlikely to join conflicts outside its national borders except when called upon by the United Nations for peacekeeping missions.
It was only in the recent past that it had refused to join the anti-Yemen Arab coalition, as it also declined to send troops to Iraq following the invasion of this highly important Arab country by the US in 2003. So, it was greatly surprised by reports that it was one of the members of the Saudi-led Muslim military alliance.
Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry’s initial reaction was that he would like our ambassador in Riyadh to ‘get clarification from Saudi government on the matter’. But having said this, one would be circumspect in concluding that the Saudi plan is a stillborn initiative.
There is merit to it, in that there is the dire need for governments in Muslim countries to debate and tackle the issue of terrorism, as much in the context of this being a physical threat to their independence and security as it is an ideological challenge, which essentially stems from within their own sectarian division.
Can it be denied that the Islamic State is a net beneficiary of the prevalent Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East, which takes precedence over the regional states’ all other efforts for improved inter-state relationships.
Hopefully, as the Saudi-led anti-terrorism alliance takes up its agenda to work on the ideological front it would be doing immense good to the cause of peace in the Islamic world by adopting some concrete steps to jettison the villain of the piece, which is the lingering sect-based tension among the Muslim countries in the Gulf.
And as the conflict in Syria plays out, it becomes increasingly evident that outside powers, both regional and international, have their peculiar agendas to promote. In the name of fighting terrorism while some want President Bashar al-Assad to survive the civil war, others seek victories for their proxies, and some keep changing horses. And in the process everyone is a loser except the fighting force of the Islamic State.
Consequently, the ISIS is as much a beneficiary of its do-or-die involvement as it is the vicarious recipient of the negative fallout of cross-purposed involvement of outsiders in the Syria civil war.