Amid the rise of hardline Sunni militant groups like the ISIS, Saudi Arabia has unveiled an anti-terror coalition of Sunni-majority Muslim states, a dramatic step to entrench its credentials as the Arab world’s leading player and voice in an increasingly volatile region.
Besides Riyadh, the newly-formed anti-terror coalition includes, among others, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, Jordan, Malaysia and Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
“The countries here mentioned have decided on the formation of a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism, with a joint operations centre based in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations,” according to a joint statement published by the state news agency SPA.
Stressing on the need to protect Islamic countries from terrorism, the joint statement of participating nations underlined “a duty to protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organizations whatever their sect and name which wreak death and corruption on earth and aim to terrorise the innocent.”
Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s arch rival for influence in the Arab world, was predictably absent from the states named as participants. There are proxy conflicts in the region between the two regional powers, which include Syria and Yemen.
The US has been vocal about the larger role that the Gulf Arab countries should play in the region. The US has been pushing the Gulf Arab to do more to aid the military campaign against the Islamic State militant group based in Iraq and Syria.
Addressing a rare press conference, Saudi Arabia’s 30-year-old crown prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman said on December 15 that the campaign would “coordinate” efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. However, he offered only few concrete indications of how military efforts might proceed.
“There will be international coordination with major powers and international organisations … in terms of operations in Syria and Iraq. We can’t undertake these operations without coordinating with legitimacy in this place and the international community,” Mr Salman said. On being asked if the new alliance would focus primarily on the Islamic State, Mr Salman said it would confront not only that group but “any terrorist organisation that appears in front of us.” Saudi Arabia and its neighbours have been locked in nine months of warfare with Iran-allied rebels in neighbouring Yemen. They have launched hundreds of air strikes there till date.
After a series of attacks in recent months on Western targets claimed by the Islamic State, the US has increasingly begun to believe that firepower would better be used against the IS. With a ceasefire set to take hold in Yemen on December 15 alongside United Nations-backed peace talks, the latest announcement by Saudi Arabia may signal a desire to shift its attention back towards the conflicts north of its borders.
The Islamic State has vowed to overthrow the monarchies of the Gulf and have launched a series of attacks on Shi’ite Muslim mosques and security forces in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
The anti-terror coalition, say some analysts, is part of the larger strategy by Saudi Arabia to contain the growing influence of Iran in the region, in the aftermath of Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal with Western powers.
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