IS THE PURPOSE OF THE ISLAMIC “NATO”?
The Saudi initiative, launched on December 14, 2015, to create a joint military force that will include some Arab countries and exclusively muslim nations, and Sunni ones in particular, leaves several questions unanswered. There are a number of reasons why this plan was announced in the first place.
The first circumstance refers to the internal power struggle within the Saudi monarchy. Following the rise to the throne of King Salman, his nephew Mohammed bin Nayef (57 years old) was named crown prince and Minister of Interior. At the same time, Salman's son, Mohammed bin Salman (31 years old) was appointed Minister of Defense and thus deputy crown prince. These decisions have unsettled the reign. In a short time span, the ambitious son of the king has accumulated more power becoming both the head of the Royal Court – and thus the person with direct access to the ruler – and President of the Council for Economic Affairs and Development – the organism that oversees Aramco's oil activities and the use of government investment funds. The excessive power of Salman's son with respect to his elder cousin, and future successor of his own father, is creating a growing conflict within the house of Saud.
The conflict in Yemen and the creation of an international coalition are part of Mohamed bin Salman's attempts to gain yet more power and international appeal. However, the Yemeni war did not have the expected positive impact on the image of the Minister of Defense due to the resistance of the Houthis. The internal power struggle in Saudi Arabia is not limited to these two actors. There are also a number of nephews of former king Abdul Aziz bin Saud that will fight back to climb up the succession line when the current ruler passes away.
The Saudi-led coalition announced on December 14, 2015 and that groups 34 countries saw the light to allegedly fight terrorism, although the definition of the latter is yet to come. According to the declaration of the Saudi Minister of Defense, terrorism is not solely the Sunni one – currently represented by the ISIS led by Al Baghdadi or Al Qaeda – but includes all those groups that destabilize the region. Such a wide approach to the fight against terrorists means that, from time to time, the coalition will tackle any group that, if need be, will be labeled as “terrorist”. It is not a coincidence that none of the countries with a Shia majority, such as Iraq or Iran, or led by loosely Shia sects, as the Alawites in Syria, are part of this coalition. Another nation not part of this group is Oman, due to Sultan Qaboos's neutral position in the Sunni-Shia struggle.
This element implies that, regardless of which definition of
Islamic terrorism will be used, this alliance among Muslim
countries will tackle the growing influence of the Shia in the
region and the ongoing proxy war for supremacy between Iran and
Saudi Arabia. Mohamed bin Salman stressed that the coalition will
not move along sectarian lines. His words mean exactly the
opposite: the Sunnis will have a key role in determining the
future role of this organism. The Saudis want to strengthen their
leadership of the Sunni galaxy especially now that Iran has
returned on the international scene following the agreement on its
It is also pretty evident that the focal point of operations of any intervention of this coalition will be the Middle East and its neighboring regions. In other terms, this means that most of the 34 countries that joined the initiative did so only to access the generous economic flows that Saudi Arabia will guarantee. This is definitely the case for almost all African countries (Benin, Comoros, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Chad, Togo, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Gabon, Sudan, Mauritania) that have really nothing to do with Middle Eastern affairs. The same goes for Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Maldives. Pakistan is instead a natural partner, as it already supplies its military manpower to several countries in the Gulf.
It is interesting to notice how also the Palestinian National Authority has decided to join the alliance. Apart from funding, the Palestinians are in desperate need of support to revive a peace process that has been blocked by Israeli intransigence and that could favor the rise of the radical factions in the diaspora. The contribution of the emirates in the Gulf, given their limited demographics, will be mainly financial. The United Arab Emirates had to hire Colombian and Australian mercenaries to support Saudi military operation in Yemen. This is not the case for Egypt and Turkey.
Egypt, with its 90 million inhabitants, will be one of the biggest contributors to the military alliance and could become extremely useful if and when it decides to help Saudi Arabia overcome its difficulties in Yemen. Cairo is also fundamental in determining the outcome of events in Libya due to its support of the internationally recognized government in Tobruk, which is also part of the coalition. It is quite evident that Egypt is attracted by the potential funding coming from the Gulf and by the possibilities offered by the initiative to clear General Al Sisi's international stature. Lastly, Cairo is facing a real threat from Islamic terrorism, both from the ISIS in the Sinai and in neighboring Libya.
Another country that has joined the coalition is Turkey. President Erdogan has never hidden his intention to play an ambitious leading role in regional affairs and this alliance with Saudi Arabia will help him to do so. Both Ankara and Riyadh are allied against the Syrian regime and, indirectly, in the fight against Iranian influence. This is probably the major cause of their ambiguous stance in the fight against the ISIS, as their priority has always been the downfall of Bashar al Assad and not that of the Islamic caliphate.
The recent rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia follows the rift on Egypt and, in particular, on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which the Turkish ruling AKP party is affiliated. Riyadh has openly supported al Sisi, while the Turks opposed him. Despite their different opinions, both countries have recently signed economic deals worth some 10 billion dollars. Saudi Arabia has also taken another step to please their new Turkish friends: they have recently left the Kurdish factions out of the list of the opposition groups that will take part in the negotiations with the Syrian regime. This leads back to one of our first questions: the definition of terrorism. For Turkey, the ISIS is not top of the list, but rather the PKK and the Syrian YPG are.
Turkey's presence in the coalition – that some have labeled as the “Islamic NATO” – de facto creates a connection with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Ankara is also a member. Does this circumstance imply, as some analysts have speculated, that the two organizations will work together in the future? Hard to believe, if not in very specific circumstances and not necessarily in dealing with Middle Eastern affairs. And when such a convergence will not happen, it will be interesting to see which of the two NATOs Erdogan will pick.
In his public statements, Mohamed bin Salman has also mentioned that any military intervention will be coordinated with local “legal” national authorities (a subtle justification of the armed intervention in Yemen to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi) and the “international community”, whatever that means. Saudi Arabia refused to join the UN Security Council in 2013 claiming that the organization was incapable of carrying out “its duties and responsibilities” in dealing with the civil war in Syria and the Palestinian issue.
The Saudi initiative is also an implicit message to the United
States, Riyadh's main ally, and to its controversial policy in the
Middle East. Washington is accused by Saudi circles of lacking a
clear strategy, of escaping a direct military intervention and of
having signed a deal with Iran that goes against Saudi national
interests. Does this mean that Saudi Arabia will go on a collision
route with the US and will renounce its privileged bilateral
relationship? Definitely not. Weapons, military assistance,
sharing of intelligence and logistics supplied by the Americans
are far too important for Riyadh. However, it is also pretty
evident that the Saudis are seeking greater autonomy and creating
a privileged axis with Turkey.
Very little is known about the operational details of this new
coalition. We know that the command will be in Riyadh – it has
been defined as a “Coordination Center”, a term similar to the one
used by Iran and Russia for their center in Baghdad – but we don't
know when it will come into effect. There is no specific
information on the contributions from each member country, on
whether a rapid intervention force will be created, how the
decision making process will be handled, how each single nation
will behave and clear rules and strict duties similar to those
that apply for NATO members will be defined for this new
coalition. Above all, it is unclear who are the international
authorities this group will liaise with. Will it be the UN? The
Arab League? The Organization of the Islamic Conference? And will
the coalition intervene to defend member countries or will they
also envisage attacking third parties?
A meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council
The questions over the future role of the “Islamic NATO” will be answered with time. The first test will be in Syria. Will the coalition intervene against the ISIS, as the US wishes, or will they continue undermining al Assad's regime by supporting the extremist factions that fight against Damascus? Will it deploy in Iraq, possibly to counter the Islamic State, but how will it deal with Baghdad's national sovereignty? And will they do the same in Afghanistan, a country at the mercy of terrorism but that is not a signatory of the coalition? Hence, who are the terrorists? The Houthis in Yemen? The Kurds in Syria? The Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Adel al Jubeir, stated that “all options are open”. We shall see whether the coalition, greeted by the United States as the long awaited Arab and Muslim force to fight extremism, will actually fight Islamic terrorism.