Iraq Pulse

What are the real goals of Riyadh’s new Islamic coalition?

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Article Summary
The Saudi-led Islamic coalition was not formed to only combat IS, but also to determine the future of Sunni areas in the conflict areas in Syria and Iraq.

Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced, in a surprising move, that an Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism was formed on Dec. 14. He mentioned Syria and Iraq at the top of the list of countries where the coalition aspires to combat terrorism.

On the same day, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir explained in a press statement that the coalition’s mission is to share information, and train and equip the forces for the fight against the Islamic State (IS). In regard to the possibility of sending troops to countries dealing with terrorism, he said that the coalition will discuss this, and that it depends on “needs” and “requests.”

“Nothing is off the table,” Jubeir said when asked whether the initiative could include troops on the ground, noting that “it depends on the requests made, the needs and the willingness of countries to provide the necessary support.”

In this context, a question arises as to what are the Saudi motives behind the coalition. The coalition was designed to fight against IS, which is active in Iraq and Syria more than anywhere else. Yet Iraq and Syria have not been called to join the coalition, and until the coalition was announced, Iraq and Syria were not involved in the coordination talks with the coalition. Thus, how could this coalition be a unified front to fight against IS, while the countries that are at the front line in the battles against IS have not been called to join?

In the same context, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was shocked at the Saudi announcement, and said in a press statement on Dec. 17, “We were shocked at the Islamic coalition [announcement] by Saudi Arabia. We were not consulted and there is a fundamental mistake: We learnt that the coalition was formed after its formation was announced. This is important particularly since Iraq is a country fighting against IS on the ground.”

Abadi said it is strange that a coalition against terrorism is established while Iraq is excluded, without dealing with Syria, and with the majority of the member states lacking the potential and capacity to confront the violence due to their inexperience in fighting terrorism. Abadi questioned the coalition’s intentions, as the member states have never provided Iraq with actual assistance in facing terrorism.

The fact that Iraq was not called to join the coalition or was involved in the talks is an important indication that the Saudi-led coalition has a plan beyond the fight against IS in Iraq. The issue is not just limited to driving IS out of Iraq, but it may also include a contribution in determining the future of IS-controlled Sunni areas in Iraq and Syria.

This is backed by the fact that Jubeir told the press on Dec. 15 that countries taking part in the coalition — such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain — are currently discussing whether to “send special forces into Syria. These discussions continue to be held, and this option is on the table.”

Jubeir added, “[Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad's position is not tenable. … The war is not winnable for him.”

The Democratic Arab Center for Strategic, Political and Economic Studies said in a report Dec. 17 that Saudi Arabia is studying “a plan to rescue Iraq,” headed by the Saudi-led coalition to send troops to the Sunni areas in Iraq.

Another indication that the Saudi-led coalition has a sectarian perspective toward Iraq is that Saudi Arabia has excluded all Shiite forces in the region from the coalition. In addition, Iraq was not called to join the coalition, while Iran — which is contributing to the fight against IS in Iraq by sending military advisers, providing equipment and arms and even sending fighters to conflict areas in Iraq — was also excluded.

The same applies to Lebanon, where 35% of the population is Shiite. Shiites are also participating in the Lebanese government with Hezbollah and Amal being the two main Shiite parties in the government. However, Salman, said in his statement that Lebanon has joined it. Yet Hezbollah rejected it, and said on Dec. 18 that the decision to join the coalition is not legal at the Lebanese state institutional level.

Decisions such as joining the Saudi coalition must be disclosed in the parliament or the Cabinet, but this has not happened. Strangely, there was no official announcement in this regard except for Hezbollah’s statement.

On Dec. 17, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter welcomed the formation of the Saudi-led coalition, and said, “It is very much in line with something we've been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat IS.” Carter’s statement was made at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, during a regional tour aimed at garnering support for the US-led campaign against IS.

Highlighting the sectarian aspect in the fight against terrorism in the region is a major strategic mistake in dealing with the Islamic problems around the globe, because linking the fight against terrorism to religious identities — be it indirectly through the Saudi exclusion of the Shiites from the coalition, or directly through Carter’s call for a greater role by the Sunni countries in combating terrorism — will promote sectarian division in IS-controlled areas, after their liberation. In turn, this will produce new foundations for a long-term conflict in the future.

The sectarian perspective toward Iraq has been strongly present in US politics, especially after Iraq’s invasion in 2003. US Vice President Joe Biden’s well-known suggestion (in 2006) that Iraq be divided into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions had been on the table to resolve the rise of sectarian violence in 2005 between Sunnis and Shiites.

The perspective of dealing with the region’s problems based on religious and sectarian divisions is still present among US politicians. In November, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham suggested to send 100,000 fighters from Sunni countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, to fight IS in Iraq and Syria.

In a similar context, Shiite forces in the region considered the formation of the Saudi-led coalition a threat to them. On Dec. 18, Hezbollah said in a statement, “Hezbollah is deeply suspicious at the motives and objectives behind Saudi Arabia announcing the formation of the Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism. It views the decision as a response by Saudi Arabia and other countries to a US decision designed to provide troops from particular regimes in the Arab and Islamic worlds, under the sectarian and confessional nomenclature, as an alternative for sending US ground troops into the region.”

Deputy Cmdr. of the Popular Mobilization Units, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, said in a statement on Dec. 20, “The Saudi-led coalition targets the Popular Mobilization Units.”

It seems that the Saudi-led coalition was not formed just to fight IS. Rather, Saudi Arabia’s larger objective is to determine the future of the Sunni areas in conflict areas in Syria and Iraq.

Found in: terrorism, sunni-shiite conflict, saudi military coalition, mohammed bin salman, is, hezbollah, haider al-abadi, adel al-jubeir

Ali Mamouri is Al-Monitor's Iraq Pulse Editor and a researcher and writer who specializes in religion. He is a former teacher in Iranian universities and seminaries in Iran and Iraq. He has published several articles related to religious affairs in the two countries and societal transformations and sectarianism in the Middle East.

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