In December 2015, Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Saud announced the formation of a new Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) in the Middle East. The Islamic Military Alliance would consist of 34 countries with majority Muslim populations including states from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but also states such as Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria and Malaysia. This coalition, however, does not include Iran, Syria and Iraq. By March 2016, the number had risen to 39 members.
The primary goal of this organisation is to protect member states from the threat of terrorism irrespective of their name or sect with central operations to occur in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. It has been heralded as a historic move and as “a rival to NATO”. While the formation of the alliance has been welcomed by the United States as a positive move towards solidarity in fighting the ISIS threat, whether it can successfully demonstrate Islamic solidarity is another question. It must overcome serious hurdles or it will become another tool in the realist game of risk that is the Middle East.
The alliance has fundamental problems that hurt its chances of becoming a strong organisational force in the Middle East. The exclusion of Iraq and Iran, majority Shia countries, makes the alliance appear to assume a very sectarian dimension. The Middle East has already had many organisations that have promoted solidarity amongst Islamic nations. The Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) is one such organisation that has focused on solidarity through Islam. It is however plagued by member states not paying their dues and by the prevalence of power politics dominating the allocation of funds. As such, many countries do not feel an obligation to the OIC – a key reason why it failed to promote Intra-Muslim cooperation and solidarity. With the Islamic Military Alliance concentrating on military cooperation, it is more than likely that it will become a dominion of power politics especially as those with larger military might and/or finances will take control of the organisation and its activities.
Assuming that the military alliance does not just share intelligence but will use force in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to counter terrorism (as members of the alliance have previously averred), it also brings into question the issue of sovereignty. How will the Islamic Military Alliance facilitate military operations in countries without the approval of the host country? Any unilateral move without this consideration or UN approval is tantamount to a declaration of war. This also allows the host country to suspect that the alliance may be seeking regime change – particularly given the rhetoric against Assad by a majority of the alliance members.
Due to the Islamic Military Alliance’s lack of inclusiveness, it fails to build the necessary trust mechanisms that would be essential for such military intervention to occur. More and more this alliance will have to provide answers to how it will deal with international law particularly the right of safety for civilians if it is to engage in military action. Many of these states do not have the best human rights record and we can already see from Saudi action in Yemen that there will be a fundamental lack of accountability. On top of this, there is the question of who will provide most of the military hardware and logistical support in such anti-terrorist organisations. Most probably Gulf countries and/or Egypt or Turkey, who have their agendas in the Middle East, will dominate in this area.
Finally, the biggest concern and issue that this alliance faces is legitimacy. For example, who decides what constitutes a terrorist as well as which terrorist groups the organisation will fight. It is well known that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been actively funding anti-Assad groups within Syria. Most of these groups are not moderate forces but have Jihadi or Salafist links such as Jabhat al-Nursa, Ahrar Sham and Jaish al-Islam. While the international community has considered Daesh the biggest threat to peace in the region, will the members of these groups also fight against these Sunni-dominated groups or will this alliance focus solely on terrorist groups like Hezbollah?
Also, what stops Turkey, for example, from declaring the Kurds in North Eastern Syria under the PYD and YPG terrorist organisations? Will the U.S. and Russia agree to the use of force against a growing internationally legitimised Kurdish presence? On a domestic level as well in a majority of these countries, the broad interpretation of what constitutes a terrorist extends to peace demonstrators, academics, journalists and opposition members.
More than likely such definitions will be used to undermine fundamental human rights and silence critical dissent under the auspices of anti-terrorism. Therefore, without a legitimising framework, the international and regional community will meet such an organisation with suspicion.
Fundamentally IMAFT has many serious problems that it must overcome if it is to become a ‘NATO’ of the Middle East. Like many organisations before it, it has used Islam to act as a binding force to try to create solidarity in a very divisive region. In my opinion, strategic self-interest will take precedence in this organisation and IMAFT will become another Sunni-dominated group that seeks to counter growing Iranian regional power.
While it will aim to be non-sectarian in character, the current geopolitical situation and proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia will, unfortunately, shape it into a Sunni-dominated organisation at the behest of military and economically stronger states. Moreover, each state has their own agenda in the Middle East as they seek to create spheres of influence through supporting proxy groups and undermining regimes in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
The Middle East is the perfect example of realist politics, but its alliance systems change so quickly that the Islamic Military Alliance while strategic in character will fundamentally be a failure falling into the zero-sum game of risk that characterises the Middle East.
Iain MacGillivray was the January-June 2016 Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Defence Images (Flickr: Creative Commons)