By Arhama Siddiqa.
On December 15, 2015 in a rare news conference the Saudi Defense Minister announced the creation of a new military alliance of mainly Islamic nations. Calling Islamic extremism a disease he stated that this announcement highlighted the Islamic world’s vigilance in fighting this widespread malady of terrorism. The coalition’s formation came amid criticism that Arab states had not done enough to fight the Islamic State (IS).
Even though the alliance was mainly formed to confront IS’s influence in Iraq and Syria, it simultaneously aimed to combat the rise of armed groups from Mali and Nigeria to Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan amongst others. Thirty-four nations were initially part of this coalition. They now number at forty with Oman being the latest addition, in December 2016. The alliance includes military heavy weights such as Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt as well as war-torn countries with embattled militaries such as Libya and Yemen. Economic giants such as Qatar and the U.A.E are also members.
The complete list of members till date is: Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Turkey, Chad, Togo, Tunisia, Djibouti, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Gabon, Guinea, Palestine, Comoros, Qatar, Cote d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Tajikistan and Oman.
The coalition’s joint operations center is based in Riyadh. This initiative encompasses two distinct tracks:
- Security and military, involving the exchange of information, training, providing equipment and providing forces where necessary.
- Combating ideology, involving the use of religious scholars, educators, political leaders and other experts to deliver effective messages, counter extremist messages and protect the youth.
However, it is safe to say there are some perplexing aspects to this alliance. Firstly, when the coalition was announced some countries stated that they had never agreed to be part of anything of the sort. “We came to know about it (the alliance) through news reports,” a senior official of Pakistan’s Foreign Office stated after the announcement. The governments of Malaysia and Lebanon also suggested they knew little about the alliance that they were listed as a part of.
Secondly, many countries listed as being part of the alliance do not have Muslim majorities. This is confusing since the Saudi government had suggested its members came from “all over the Islamic world”. Conversely, a number of the countries listed as members do not have Muslim majorities. For example, over 80 percent of Uganda and as much as 75 percent of Gabon is Christian. In Benin, the largest religion is Catholicism, while in Togo, the majority of the population holds indigenous beliefs. What these countries have in common though are large Muslim minorities including membership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
However, their involvement in the alliance is still surprising – especially taking into account the countries not part of the alliance. Some of the most important Muslim countries in the world, including Iran, Iraq are missing. The exclusion of Shiite nations in an alliance intended to represent the Islamic world seems to buttress the belief that this alliance is primarily motivated by sectarian rivalry and not terrorism. The Iranian Ambassador to Pakistan, Mehdi Hoonardost echoed this viewpoint when he said that the loosely arranged alliance had a conflicting agenda since four major Islamic countries of the Islamic block were out of the military coalition. However, Saudi officials deny all accusations of partisanship. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at a news conference in Paris blatantly stated that “This is not a Sunni coalition or a Shia coalition”.
There is also the question of whether Saudi Arabia can lead a fight against extremism.The exact definition of terrorism needs to be clear. The Saudi authorities’ interpretation of terrorism stretches far beyond the violent actions of armed insurgents.Recent legislation has even branded peaceful opposition activists and reformers, whether online or in the street, as suspected “terrorists” and a security risk to the state. Since this is primarily an alliance spearheaded by Saudi Arabia. Would such rules and regulations be enforced in all member states?
Riyadh has also come under increasing international pressure over its campaign against Iran-supported Huthi rebels in Yemen, which is widely seen as a sectarian-driven proxy war with Tehran. In light of this, Amnesty International voiced concerns that the coalition could be used to further restrict human rights.
However the formation of the alliance has been saluted by many countries – United States and Germany amongst them. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen expressed her country’s willingness to cooperate with the alliance to fight terrorism, expressing her appreciation of the Kingdom’s handling of critical regional issues and counter-terrorism efforts. Turkey, one of the members of the new alliance, highlighted the relationship between the need for the alliance and growing criticism of Islam in the West. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that “The raising of Muslim countries’ voices together against terror is the best response to those who try to associate terror with Islam”. He further went on to say: “We consider this effort by Muslim countries as a step taken in the right direction”. Egypt’s highest Sunni authority, Al-Azhar applauded the initiative calling it “historic.”
On January 6, 2017 former Pakistan army chief Raheel Sharif was appointed as the first commander-in-chief of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT). This news is not yet confirmed. Minister of Defence Khawaja Asif did affirm the news on a live TV broadcast, but later retracted his statement during a speech in Senate. Sources have also said that the final confirmation will take place in March. Hence the official formation of the alliance is still on the tenterhooks.
According to the latest reports, Sharif has set three preconditions prior to taking up the command:
- Inclusion of Iran in the alliance.
- The commander- in -chief would not work under anyone’s command.
- The Commander-in-chief would act as an arbitrator to promote greater harmony in the Muslim world.
The IMFAT is not yet operational and it is still ambiguous whether it will follow the model of NATO or something akin to the United Nations peacekeeping operations. The formation of the Islamic coalition could signal a change in a region that has long left countries such as Syria and Iraq to their own devices: provided of course that this union adheres to being non- partisan and avoids the dormancy which has plagued the OIC. It is also imperative that the coalition defines its role since abstruseness will only undermine its ambitions of tackling militancy and deflecting international criticism. Most important of all, Iran, Iraq and Syria need to be part of the union. Needless to say these nations are the epicenter of the Middle East crisis. Eliminating them is out of the question. Ostracizing them will only open a Pandora’s box.
The Muslim Ummah needs unity amongst its ranks. This alliance could be the glimmer of hope in an otherwise troubled region and may possibly be the catalyst for change the Islamic world needs. It could very well be a tangible representation in a changing world order.
Arhama Siddiqa is a LUMS and University of Warwick Alumnus. She is currently a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. Her prime area of interest is World Politics and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org