By Hamid-Reza Azizi, Middle East Analyst*
The regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia in its onslaught on Yemen has not been able to achieve its goals after about nine months. However, Saudis have now taken a new step by forming an “anti-terrorism coalition.”Nonetheless, the makeup of this coalition and the time it has been proposed have raised serious questions about the goals and intentions of Saudi Arabia. In an analytic approach, a set of political and military considerations can be seen as underlying the formation of this coalition.
Issuing a statement through the country’s official news agency, the government of Saudi Arabia announced formation of a coalition consisting of 34 Islamic states aimed at what they called “fighting against terrorism.”
The statement said the above countries have decided to form a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia with its headquarters in Riyadh. Apart from Saudi Arabia, other member states of the coalition have been declared as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Turkey, Chad, Togo, Tunisia, Djibouti, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Gabon, Guinea, Palestine, the Comoros, Qatar, the Ivory Coast, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, the Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and the former government of Yemen.
The statement has also underlined the duty of countries that make up the coalition as protecting Muslim nations against terrorist groups and organizations regardless of their names and affiliations.
The most important issue that has drawn attention from international media and press is the absence of Iran, along with its two regional allies, Iraq and Syria, from the list of the coalition’s member countries. Oman, which is also known for its close relations with Iran, is not part of the coalition.
After the statement was released, Mohammad bin Salman, the deputy crown prince and minister of defense of Saudi Arabia, took part in a press conference noting that the coalition has been formed to fight against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan, but he declined to provide more details on this issue.
He continued by saying that all measures taken by the coalition will be taken in coordination with big powers as well as international organizations. Asked about whether the new coalition will merely focus on Daesh or not, Bin Salman said the coalition will fight any terrorist organization that would stand against it.
The announcement of the coalition came as a surprise to international circles because it happened at a time that Saudi Arabia’s nine months of military operations have not been able to achieve Riyadh’s desirable goals in Yemen, on the one hand, while on the other hand, the country has never taken any serious step to fight terrorist groups and is known as a supporter of many of these groups in practice.
One of the most important analyses offered on this coalition is that after a temporary cease-fire in Yemen and the UN-brokered peace talks in Switzerland, Saudi Arabia is getting ready to turn its attention to other countries once military operations in Yemen are over.
“Leader of the Islamic world”
However, there are other reasons to be considered behind Saudi Arabia’s move to form this coalition.
Firstly, review of the makeup of countries taking part in the coalition would show that apart from some countries with relative military power like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, countries like Benin, the Maldives, and Mauritania are also part of the coalition despite the fact that they do not seem to be actually capable of taking part in any international operation against terrorism beyond their borders.
Therefore, one may say that more than seeking to set up an efficient “military” coalition against terrorism, Saudi Arabia is trying to bring the allied Islamic countries together under the flag of a “political” coalition in order to show that it is the leader of those countries.
In other words, the coalition in the first place is a new sign of Saudi Arabia’s regular claim to be the “leader of the Islamic world” and Saudi Arabia is currently trying to reemphasize that claim in an opportunistic manner by taking advantage of the global concerns about terrorism.
Secondly, absence of Iran and its allies from the coalition sends an important message. It not only puts renewed emphasis on the age-old confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran both at regional level and at the level of the Islamic world, but also is in line with the analyses which have been offered months ago about the possibility of forming a coalition led by Saudi Arabia against Iran.
The point that must not be ignored is that according to Saudi Arabia’s definition of terrorism, such internationally recognized terrorist groups as al-Nusra Front – which now falls within the general outfit of Ahrar ash-Sham – are not considered as terrorist groups while resistance groups supported by Iran, including the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, are considered as terrorist groups. Therefore, it would not be illogical to assume that pressure will increase on groups close to Iran in the near future in the name of fighting against terrorism.
A parallel effort with regard to Syria?
Thirdly, Saudi Arabia’s new measure in forming this coalition was taken a few days after bringing Syria’s opposition groups together in Riyadh for the so-called coordination of these groups ahead of negotiations with representatives of the Syrian government.
These measures bolster speculations that developments which have taken place in Syria in the past months, including serious presence of Russia in the country and Iran's participation in international talks on Syria, have caused Saudis to feel threatened and now they are trying to launch a parallel effort with regard to Syria.
The political aspect of this parallel effort is for Riyadh to play an axial role in coordinating Syria’s opposition, while its military aspect is the leadership role of Riyadh in the new coalition.
Finally, another point, which can be enumerated as the fourth factor in this regard is continued criticism raised by Western countries about the passivity of Saudi Arabia and its allies in fighting terrorism in the region and lack of their active participation in the anti-terror fight within framework of the U.S.-led international coalition that has been set up to fight Daesh.
According to international media, major steps taken by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Daesh have been limited to a single operation in a month. Bahrain stopped its anti-Daesh operation in September while Jordan left the U.S.-led coalition in August.
Therefore, forming this coalition is important to improving Saudi Arabia’s “prestige” and is aimed at making the world believe that Saudi Arabia is involved in a serious and real fight against terrorism, thus reducing criticism against Riyadh in this regard.
Photo U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter places his hand over his heart as the national anthem plays during an honour cordon to welcome Saudi Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud to the Pentagon, May 13, 2015. The two defence leaders met to discuss matters of mutual interest. Credit: U.S.