Pakistan’s western neighbourhood has seen foreign military interventions that have destabilized the region, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the great-power competition over Iraq, Iran and now Syria. Recently, violent extremism and terror groups that exploit ethnic, religious and sectarian fault lines have emerged as a direct threat to the integrity and stability of the countries in the region.
We in Pakistan are not immune to these threats. India is exploiting chaos in our western neighbourhood to create additional problems for us. In February, seven Indian companies were in a list of 51 found in a
European Union study to be the largest suppliers of components in explosives used by ISIS terror group in Iraq and Syria. India is interested in fomenting ISIS rise in Afghanistan to replace the disintegrating TTP and BLA as top proxy terror threats to Pakistan. New Delhi moved immediately to court Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates last year hoping to exploit alleged reports of discord between those countries and Pakistan over Yemen (the reports proved to be exaggerated). And in March, India was caught red-handed using Iranian soil to stoke terrorism in Balochistan, Karachi and the Punjab. All of this shows that Islamabad needs to remain engaged in the Gulf and the Middle East to secure its interests.
Luckily for us, we do not have to bear this burden alone. For the first time in decades, there is a reasonable opportunity that Arab and Muslim countries can take charge of their collective security to defeat terrorism and extremism, stop attempts to redraw borders, and prevent internal collapse in the name of ethnicity and religion.
The formation of the Islamic Coalition is a major step forward for Arab and Muslim nations. There is a realization that the people of the region should take charge of their security and not rely on outside powers for their security. After all, if we face similar problems, we might as well work jointly to find solutions that work for us.
Moreover, Western approach to fighting extremism and terrorism has resulted in a gigantic mess. It is time that Arab and Muslim countries step up and find solutions that keep the best interests of the people of the region at heart.
Why the Coalition?
There is a new trend underway in the region. The Gulf Security Council, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, are all moving steadily toward military coalition building. Major member countries in the newly-formed Islamic Coalition (#Islamic Coalition on social media) feel threatened by the rise of violent extremism in the name of ethnicity and religion, and the rise of shady terror groups capable of challenging the state.
There is also a region-wide resentment at the role of the West in spreading chaos and terrorism. Rightly or wrongly, suspicions persist that the West and major powers support the disintegration of the Middle East into smaller warring states created on ethnic, religious or sectarian basis.
Major Arab and Muslim nations that are spearheading the new coalition building in the region have something interesting in common: they were staunch allies of the United States during the Cold War and later the War on Terror. These countries — Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Egypt, and Pakistan — continue to have close working relationships with Washington, but the security component of these relationships has weakened. These countries harbour strong grievances on the role of the West in spreading chaos in the region. Analysts in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have publicly accused the West of trying to redraw the map of the region by fomenting ethnic, religious and sectarian strife. The media in Egypt, in particular, has been vocal in accusing the West of attempting to turn the country into another Libya or Syria. Turkey accuses world powers of supporting Kurdish separatism. We in Pakistan saw the United States and NATO botch the Afghan mission and create space for the TTP, BLA and Indian terrorism. Gulf states blame the U.S. for turning Yemen into a failed state.
Until recently, Arab and Muslim countries complained but took no action. This changed after the regime collapse in Egypt, where the Gulf States succeeded in working with the Egyptian military to stop a fast descent into Libya – and Syria-style chaos. The American and European approach, playing Egyptian groups against each other, appeared to prolong the crisis in the country and fan the flames of separatism and extremism.
The Gulf intervention in Egypt emboldened the decision makers. Saudi Arabia realized that, should Egypt collapse like Libya, Iraq and Syria, then Gulf States are next. This led to dire warnings from senior Saudi leaders to the West: help us clear the mess in the region or we will do it alone. In fact, in December 2013, the Kingdom’s ambassador to the UK published an op-ed in the New York Times titled, ‘Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone’. Talking tough, the Saudi envoy said his country enjoyed good relations with the West but that major policy differences forced a rethink in Riyadh.
All of this brings up one central point: The Islamic Coalition is the result of an idea circulating in power corridors from Morocco to Pakistan, that like-minded countries of the region should take charge of their security.
Can the Islamic Coalition Work?
The moment the Islamic Coalition was announced in December 2015, many questioned its motives and objectives. The idea faced what appeared to be organized opposition from within and outside the Middle East. Major powers that flexed their military muscle in the region for nearly a century would feel unease at a military alliance that could lessen region’s dependence on the West for security. But despite doubt and ridicule, the coalition is moving faster than most expected.
In February, the coalition managed to hold the largest military exercise in the Middle East, titled, North Thunder, with militaries from twenty countries participating. And in March, the first meeting of the chiefs of staff of the Islamic Coalition was held to chalk out a long term plan of action. Interestingly, the number of countries jumped for this meeting from 34 to 39, as more Arab and Muslim nations showed interest in the alliance.
The North Thunder drill created a sense of camaraderie and helped coalition forces and commanders understand each other. And the first meeting agreed to set up a command centre in Riyadh, lay out the internal workings of the coalition, and pave the way for the first meeting of the ministers of defence in coalition member states, which will be the third major step in coalition’s evolution.
It is clear now that the Islamic Coalition will take decisions unanimously, and that each member in the alliance has the space to decide the level of political and military participation, and that the coalition will operate within the parameters of international law.
The operations centre in Riyadh will work on four key areas in order to counter terrorism and extremism: Intellectual, Financial, Military and the Media.
A handout after the meeting of military commanders from member states on March 27 appeared to show that a high level of understanding has been reached between member states on how to take the alliance forward.
The handout said that the centre of the new alliance has been tasked with:
1. Coordinating and developing communication methodologies between member states to counter terrorism.
2. Coordinating and developing media campaigns.
3. Coordinating military efforts.
4. Monitoring terror activities in the region and worldwide.
It is obvious that the Islamic Coalition is moving forward, developing understanding and procedures along the way. The jump in the member states from 34 at the time of announcement to 39 in the first meeting of military commanders shows growing acceptability in the region and within the ranks of GCC, Arab League, and OIC. Oman, a GCC member that did not join the Islamic Coalition in December, changed course and participated in the North Thunder drills in February.
A common factor between key member states of the emerging alliance is their developing ties with Russia and China. Traditional American allies like Egypt, UAE, KSA, and Pakistan are expanding ties with Moscow and Beijing. The differences between Turkey and Russia over Syria are transient. Ankara had improved relations with Russia and China considerably before ties soured over Syria. And GCC leaders, who disagree with Moscow’s policy in Syria, nevertheless maintain close working relationship with Putin. The Saudi king is expected to visit Moscow this year.
Is the Alliance Sectarian?
Iran, Iraq, and Syria have not been invited to join the alliance but Saudi officials and other coalition members have not ruled it out once the outstanding political disputes between Iran and several members of the coalition are resolved.
The emphasis here is on the political, not sectarian, because each one of these major Muslim nations and Iran have a political conflict of a serious nature that requires resolution and needs to be addressed by both sides. Most of the conflict centres around charges that Iran is meddling in other Muslim countries. Major Muslim countries like Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, and the Gulf States, make this charge. However, Tehran denies it and insists it wants constructive engagement with all.
A retired Saudi General, Anwar Majid Ashqi, head of the Middle East Centre for Strategic Studies in Riyadh, is on record on December 15, the day the Islamic Coalition was announced, to have said that Iran can join the alliance once the disputes end. In March, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has said that his country is ready to turn the page with Iran if Tehran changes its behaviour.
There is hope. It is important to recall that Saudi Arabia sent a special representative of the King to congratulate President Hassan Rouhani when he was elected. Former president Ahmadi-Nejad and late King Abdullah had also made headway in Iran-Saudi rapprochement. There is no reason why this can’t be repeated once the political disputes are resolved.
Iraq and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States are gradually improving their relationship. And it is noteworthy that, while many Arab countries have suspended diplomatic ties with Iran, Baghdad continues to enjoy full diplomatic relations with all Arab and Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia.
As for Syria, and for all practical purposes, it is considered a failed state where the civil war is yet to decide the national will. Syria’s seat is also suspended in the Arab League.
The charge that the Islamic Coalition becomes a ‘Sunni alliance’ in the absence of Iran appears inaccurate and exaggerated. This is not the first time that Arab and Muslim countries create a military coalition sans Iran. In 1991, two dozen Arab and Muslim nations were part of the anti-Iraq military coalition. Interestingly, Syria, Iran and of course Iraq were excluded even then for political reasons and yet no one charged the alliance of being sectarian.
Many existing supporters and members of the Islamic Coalition do not belong to the majority Sunni sect of Islam. Oman, which follows a distant branch of Shia sect, participated in the North Thunder drills in Saudi Arabia. Morocco, whose royal family follows another branch of the Shia sect, is not only a member of the Islamic Coalition but the country has its own issues with Iran and had cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran in 2009. Azerbaijan is predominantly Shia country that supports the Islamic Coalition and is contemplating a military role.
Additionally, the Speaker of Lebanon’s parliament, Nabih Berri, who leads the Shia political party, Amal, has criticized Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrullah for excessively anti-Saudi statements and, on March 22, called for a resumption in Iran-Saudi ties. Lebanese media has reported that Berri sees the Islamic Coalition as a positive step.
The Islamic Coalition does not appear to be sectarian. It is a good step forward, where Iran can also join later once Tehran and other Arab and Muslim countries resolve their political differences and resume normal relations. Sectarianizing the coalition is not only incorrect and inaccurate but plays into the hands of powers that would like to see this experiment in indigenous regional security aborted.
Pakistan’s Role in Islamic Coalition
The Islamic Coalition is evolving, and its scope is multifaceted. But it is clear that major Muslim nations, like Egypt, Nigeria, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and UAE are the military core of the alliance.
The role of member states, including Pakistan, will evolve as the coalition evolves its structure and operations. Like all member states, Islamabad will be protecting its core national interests as it defines its role within the coalition.
Pakistan has traditionally trained many militaries in the Middle East. During times of crisis, from international sanctions after nuclear tests to aid and rehabilitation after the historic 2005 earthquake, the Middle East acted as Pakistan’s natural depth. Our largest Pakistani diaspora and our energy supplies make Pakistan’s western neighbourhood of vital strategic interest to Pakistan.
While it will be good to see Iran, Iraq and Syria eventually join the Islamic Coalition, it is up to those countries and other key members of the coalition to resolve their political differences. Pakistan should pursue its own interests, which lie in strengthening the Islamic Coalition and achieving greater military cooperation between Arab and Muslim nations to secure the region and ensure collective security.
The author is a researcher, journalist and a public policy commentator. [email protected]
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