In a rare and surprising press conference, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the defence minister of Saudi Arabia, the son of the king and the deputy crown prince, on Tuesday announced the formation of a 34-state Islamic military alliance that would coordinate the fight against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Afghanistan. Mr Salman stated that the focus of the alliance would not be just on the Islamic State (IS) but on “any terrorist organisation that appears in front of us”. The modalities and nature of cooperation are not clear at the moment and thus it would be premature to comment on the alliance’s utility. But looking at its composition it will clearly widen the Shia-Sunni divide in the region. While Saudi Arabia has brought in distant countries like Malaysia and Bangladesh into its alliance, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan have been omitted. The exclusion of Iraq and Syria from the alliance is bound to cast a shadow on how successful this alliance will be in fighting ‘terrorists’ — a term left open to speculation and even abuse.
It is mystifying why Riyadh should form such an alliance when it is part of a Washington-led coalition against the IS. This is likely because this move is more directed towards Iran than the IS. Iran’s influence over Baghdad and Damascus, and its role in pushing back the IS cannot be overlooked. After the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shooting, Europe and the United States, which were earlier sceptical about Iran’s anti-IS approach, are now increasingly agreeing with elements of Tehran’s approach. Saudi Arabia also fears that the military coordination between the US and Iran in Iraq and Syria will reduce Riyadh’s importance in Washington’s West Asia plans. The presence of Turkey in the alliance and the recent standoff it has had with Iraq put further questions on the viability of this alliance. In the first week of December, Iraq warned Turkey to withdraw all its forces from the country and on December 12 Iraq defence minister Khalid al-Obeidi denounced Turkish airspace violations.
With the US reducing its presence in West Asia, the tug-of-war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for asserting regional supremacy has become ever more evident. The conflict in Yemen and the battle lines drawn across Iraq and Syria are an extension of this. Tuesday’s announcement should be seen in this context. Ultimately Saudi Arabia’s alliance could be a fillip in the war against terror, but it should not be at the expense of further dividing the region on sectarian lines.