Saudi-Led Anti-terror Coalition Sharpens Its Focus
Group sets up mobile force to protect small countries from Islamic State.
A Saudi-led coalition force of 41 countries is now taking shape and has found a focus: protecting member nations against the threat from Islamic State as the militant group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria disintegrate. The coalition, sometimes referred to as the “Muslim NATO,” is expected to have its first substantive meeting over the next few months in Riyadh when defense ministers from member states, from Morocco to Malaysia, will gather to agree on its structure and mission. However, these are Sunni-majority nations and absent from the alliance is Saudi Arabia’s major rival in the Middle East, Shiite powerhouse Iran, which sees the grouping as a sectarian show of force.
The new coalition—concerned over where in the Middle East and Africa militants from Islamic State could lodge themselves as their “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria collapses—will set up a mobile military force to aid member countries that don’t have strong counter-terrorism capabilities. It also will battle other jihadist groups spilling out of war-torn Libya and Yemen, and Boko Haram in west Africa. Under pressure from Riyadh, close ally Pakistan will provide a separate force of some 5,000 men to Saudi Arabia to help guard its vulnerable south, close to the border with Yemen, Pakistani officials said, a deployment yet to be announced. At Saudi request, the coalition force will be led by the former head of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Raheel Sharif, said Pakistani officials. Gen. Sharif was lauded for taking the fight to Pakistani militants.
Pakistan, which borders Iran, had previously said it wanted to focus on its battle with terrorism at home and stay out of the big confrontation in the Middle East between Riyadh and Tehran, aspirations that will be challenged by its participation in the coalition. Two years ago, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations reacted angrily when Pakistan refused to join their continuing war in Yemen.
“This alliance is against terrorism, especially to help those countries which are threatened, but don’t have the necessary wherewithal to combat terrorists,” said Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Pakistan’s defense minister, in an interview. “We will not act against Iran.” However, experts say that the coalition will inevitably antagonize Tehran. The Saudis also see Iranian-backed groups as terrorists.
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