Abdel Bari Atwan
Saudi Defence Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman Bin Abdel Aziz surprised everybody with a sudden announcement that a new 34-nation military alliance of Moslem countries had been established and that its HQ is to be in Riyadh. Pakistan was astonished to find it was named as a member of the alliance and Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudry told journalists that Islamabad had not even been consulted on the matter. Malaysia and Lebanon also said they did not know they had joined the new coalition.
Another surprise was the fact that, although described as an Islamic alliance, some of the countries mentioned do not have Moslem majorities – Uganda, Gabon, Benin and Togo for example.
There are already three alliances or coalitions battling Islamic State (IS): Syria is fighting IS, as well as the rebels, with the help of Iran and Russia; the US is leading a different alliance and Iran is co-ordinating military efforts with the Iraqi army, Shiite militias and volunteers.
It is noticeable that certain nations have been excluded. Powerful Moslem nations such as Iran and Iraq, for example – an omission which is blatantly sectarian since both are majority Shiite countries. Indeed most commentators surmise that the new line-up is more about Riyadh’s regional power struggle with Tehran then its desire to quash Islamic extremism.
Also excluded are Afghanistan (which has been invited but has not decided yet), Oman (the most moderate Gulf state), Algeria which endured a bloody civil war against its own extremists through the 1990s with the loss of 200,000 lives and Indonesia, the world’s most numerous Sunni Moslem nation.
Is this alliance really designed to confront extremism or to square up to the Iranian axis comprising Syria and Iraq, supported by Russia? Are the Saudis trying to force Washington to choose between the two regional rivals – Iran and KSA – who are already embroiled in a bloody proxy war in Yemen.
We can learn much from the timing of the Saudi announcement:
First: Two senior Republican Senators, John McCain and Lindsay Graham, called on Sunday for the Arab states to provide 100,000 soldiers for a ground offensive against IS. McCain said the US should then send 20,000 ground troops into Iraq and Syria. ‘The region is ready to fight,’ he told reporters. ‘The region hates Isil (IS)… most of the fight will be done by the region’. Until now, the Arab world has done remarkably little to wrest the viper from its bosom.
Second, writing in the New York Times a few weeks ago, John Bolton, a leading neo-conservative hawk, said that when IS was defeated, the best course of action would be to establish a new Sunni state on the ruins of the Caliphate. He outlined a partition plan which would see the de factoKurdish geo-political entity while the remaining parts of Iraq and Syria would be a Shiite state.
Third, Saudi Arabia’s offensive in Yemen has been an unmitigated disaster; far from re-instating the ‘legitimate’ President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi it has caused tens of thousands of deaths and unnecessary suffering to the Yemeni people. Now it faces losing control of Shiite-majority areas of its own country with Jizan and Najran surrounded by the Houthi army which claims the cities used to be part of Yemen.
Fourth, only a week before, various factions of the Syrian opposition met in Riyadh and established a joint negotiating team which is expected to meet the Assad regime for talks in early January.
Fifth, the Jordanians were tasked, at the Vienna conference, to identify which Syrian opposition groups were ‘terrorist entities’ – these would not be invited to participate in peace talks. Obviously this list will be headed by Islamic State and al-Nusra and will greenlight liquidation of these entities by any or all alliances and coalitions.
Sixth, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have faced mounting criticism in recent weeks and months for their failure to confront terrorism and for having facilitated the establishment of IS and like-minded groups. This escalated in the wake of the Russian plane being blown out of the sky over Sinai, the Paris attacks and the California shootings.
It seems to us that the new Saudi-led alliance presages a partition plan for the region just as the Sykes-Picot agreement divided greater Syria in 1916 only this time along sectarian and ethnic lines.
There is also a strong possibility that the Saudis may transition from their Yemeni military adventure into another, regional conflict with Iran and its allies. This may enjoy the blessing, or even the participation of Israel (and, therefore, Washington).
One wonders where Riyadh will find the funds to bankroll such a huge undertaking at a time when oil prices have slumped to $35 per barrel and its economy depends entirely on oil revenues. Is it going to start raising indirect taxes or remove subsidies on the basics of life such as water, electricity and fuel?
It seems that the Arab world is being drawn into a devastating region-wide war which will devour our children, our wealth and our identity and which may last for decades, if not centuries.