Why Saudi Arabia's coalition against terrorists might not be all it appears

Saudi Arabia said all the right things in announcing a 34-nation Islamic military coalition against terrorism. And the move could help in some ways. But it could also largely be window dressing.

Saudi Press Agency/Reuters
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman speaks during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 15, 2015. Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced the formation of a 34-state Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism.

A group of Muslim countries announced Tuesday a coalition aimed at doing what the United States and other powers have long called on the Islamic world to do: make the war on the Islamic State and other Islamist terror groups its own.

Saudi leaders announcing the 34-nation coalition and some participants said all the right things in trumpeting the new antiterror alliance. Terrorist ideology is an evil force within Islam that must be confronted first and most adamantly by Muslims themselves, these leaders say, while the war on Islamist terror must be fought and won by Muslims.

Speaking of a “disease” that has “affected the Islamic world,” Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman said that the new coalition underscores “the Islamic world’s vigilance in fighting” the scourge of terrorism.

“This is our war and the Muslims’ war,” the government of Jordan said in a statement announcing adherence to the coalition.

Yet as encouraging as the new coalition and the rhetoric around it may sound, the effort may end up as little more than window dressing. The announcement may be aimed at assuaging a world that after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks is demanding action by Muslims against the rising Islamist terrorist threat, some terrorism analysts say.

“The Saudis are under a lot of pressure, for what they’re doing in Yemen, from the accusations that they’re spreading Wahhabi ideology, and for what they are not doing on the military side of the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. So I can see that this would have some propaganda value for them,” says Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat in Middle Eastern affairs who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

“We already have a coalition of 65 countries engaged in the fight to defeat ISIS, and only a half dozen of those countries count and are of any practical value,” he adds. “So I just don’t see how a coalition of 34 very diverse Muslim countries is going to have any more than symbolic value.”

Announcement of the coalition could ring especially hollow if Muslim countries – and Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia in particular – cannot address the conflicts that have opened the door to groups like the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS, some regional experts say.

“I think [the new coalition] is more symbolic than anything. It’s a response to international criticisms that the Saudis aren’t doing enough to stop ISIS,” says Farea al-Muslimi, a specialist in Gulf and Yemeni politics at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon.

IS and other terror groups like Al Qaeda will thrive as long as conflicts like those in Yemen, Syria, and Libya create “power vacuums” and ungoverned territory, Mr. Muslimi says.

In some cases, Muslim countries have acted in ways that have abetted a group like IS, Muslimi says. For example, Saudi Arabia’s nine months of military intervention in Yemen has paved the way for IS to expand in the country’s south, he says.

“It’s an easy hitchhike for ISIS” to benefit from chaos and the breakdown in government authority in a poor country like Yemen, Muslimi says.

The Saudi leaders announcing the “Islamic military alliance” gave few specifics on what the coalition will do, but there were some indications that the leaders of the group understand how conflict within Muslim countries allows terrorist organizations like IS to thrive.

At a press conference in Paris, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir cited the case of Libya, where warring political factions have plunged the country into civil war. That has allowed militants affiliated with IS to establish in Sirte, on the Mediterranean Sea, what experts now consider to be the terror group’s second most important base of operations after Raqqa in Syria.

Mr. Jubeir said that “countries that need help” to fight terrorism can request assistance from the coalition. The neighbors of countries like Libya where power struggles have allowed IS to thrive can also call on the new alliance, he added.

The alliance is to be headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the coalition will share information and prepare the “assistance missions” that the countries decide to undertake. A second track of activity will focus on fighting the ideological war with the propaganda wings of groups like IS – although the Saudis provided scant information about how what amounts to a battle for Muslim hearts and minds will be carried out.

“If this means these countries are going to get serious about information sharing and efforts to stop recruits [for terrorist groups], that could be a useful function,” says Mr. Miller of the Wilson Center. “If the focus is to be intel sharing – great. If they pledge to have their clerics and imams stand up and condemn jihadist extremism – great. Better yet,” he adds, “if they commit to deploying 5,000 special ops forces to coordinate with the US – then I’d say, terrific.”

Perhaps the most optimistic assessments of the alliance foresee it furnishing the Muslim peacekeeping forces that diplomats say will eventually be needed as part of a comprehensive peace accord and political transition for Syria.

Saudi Defense Minister Salman hinted at this possibility at his press conference in Riyadh, saying any coalition role in Syria or Iraq would involve “international coordination with major powers and international organizations.”

The US, Russia, and other powers are trying to reach a cease-fire accord and political transition plan for Syria aimed at ending the country’s nearly 5-year-old civil war. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow Tuesday meeting with President Vladimir Putin, and Syria talks are to continue in New York on Friday.

A new commitment by Muslim countries to take on terrorists may be a welcome step, but Carnegie’s Muslimi says that ultimately defeating IS, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist terror groups will require ending the sectarian wars that have given the groups a foothold from which to operate.

Referring to the war in Yemen, which has involved a Saudis intervention against the Shiite-sect Houthis, terrorizing civilian populations, leaving millions without food, and opening a swath of the south to IS control, Muslimi says, “One more day of this war is 10 golden days for ISIS.”

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