Saudi-led military coalition focusing on combating ISIS: WSJ
Web Monitoring Desk
According to Wall Street Journal, a Saudi-led coalition force of 41 countries is now taking shape and has found a focus: protecting member nations against the threat from Islamic State as the militant group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria disintegrate.
The coalition, sometimes referred to as the “Muslim NATO,” is expected to have its first substantive meeting over the next few months in Riyadh when defense ministers from member states, from Morocco to Malaysia, will gather to agree on its structure and mission.
However, these are Sunni-majority nations and absent from the alliance is Saudi Arabia’s major rival in the Middle East, Shiite powerhouse Iran, which sees the grouping as a sectarian show of force.
The new coalition—concerned over where in the Middle East and Africa militants from Islamic State could lodge themselves as their “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria collapses—will set up a mobile military force to aid member countries that don’t have strong counterterrorism capabilities. It also will battle other jihadist groups spilling out of war-torn Libya and Yemen, and Boko Haram in west Africa.
Under pressure from Riyadh, close ally Pakistan will provide a separate force of some 5,000 men to Saudi Arabia to help guard its vulnerable south, close to the border with Yemen, Pakistani officials said, a deployment yet to be announced.
At Saudi request, the coalition force will be led by the former head of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Raheel Sharif, said Pakistani officials. Gen. Sharif was lauded for taking the fight to Pakistani militants.
Pakistan, which borders Iran, had previously said it wanted to focus on its battle with terrorism at home and stay out of the big confrontation in the Middle East between Riyadh and Tehran, aspirations that will be challenged by its participation in the coalition. Two years ago, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations reacted angrily when Pakistan refused to join their continuing war in Yemen.
Pakistani officials are treading carefully out of concern their latest moves could raise tensions with Iran.
“This alliance is against terrorism, especially to help those countries which are threatened, but don’t have the necessary wherewithal to combat terrorists,” said Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Pakistan’s defense minister, in an interview. “We will not act against Iran.”
However, experts say that the coalition will inevitably antagonize Tehran. The Saudis also see Iranian-backed groups as terrorists.
“They [Saudis] live in fear of Iranian expansionism. And when they realized they couldn’t rely on the U.S., they turned to allies who have armies,” said a Gulf-based Western diplomat. “They wanted their Sunni neighbors to help defend them from Iran. They turned to Pakistan and Egypt—Sunni countries that have armies.”
The military component is the central focus of the alliance, which officials say is expected to be fully operational by year’s end. Its command and control center, based in Riyadh, recently began hiring staff. It will also seek to boost cooperation to combat extremist ideology and terror financing.
“All countries will put effort into combating terrorism in the member countries, regardless of the nature of the terror groups. That is the main goal,” said Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, an adviser to Saudi Arabia’s minister of defense who is involved in assembling the new alliance. “Each country has its own expertise that it can contribute to the coalition.”
The alliance isn’t restricted to confronting terror groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda, said Gen. Asiri. In response to a request from a member state, he said the coalition could move against rebel groups and militias that pose a threat to member countries such as Yemen’s Houthis, which is supported by Iran.
Iran’s ambassador to Islamabad, Mehdi Honardoost, said this month that he had protested Gen. Sharif’s appointment to Pakistan and that Muslim countries “should come together to form a coalition of peace to resolve their issues rather forming a controversial military alliance.”
Riyadh has pursued a more muscular foreign policy under the leadership of King Salman, partly a response to its growing frustration with the regional policy of its most important strategic ally, the U.S. Ties between the longstanding allies soured under the presidency of Barack Obama, largely over Washington’s outreach to Iran.
President Donald Trump has since embraced closer cooperation with Riyadh, stepping up its support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and it has vowed to take a harder line against Iran.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, the first stop of an official trip “to engage with strategic partners in the Middle East and Africa, and to discuss cooperative effort to counter destabilizing activities and defeat extremist terror organizations,” according to the Pentagon.
The coalition will be run by a council of member defense ministers, with a rotating chair, meaning that decisions shouldn’t be in Saudi Arabia’s hands alone, Pakistani officials said. It is expected to have a charter. The coalition will have a relatively small but well-equipped military force, and it could call upon forces stationed in member countries and possibly recruit mercenaries, they said.
Pakistan currently has about 1,200 soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia, mainly to train Saudi forces. The brigade that is now poised to be dispatched will be an operational deployment, aimed at protecting installations against terrorism and repelling any incursion into Saudi Arabia.
The Pakistan military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor said any Pakistani troops sent “shall only be for employment within Saudi Arabia”. He added that “we will not filter soldiers to send a particular sect only.”