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December 18, 2015

Sudden surprise


December 18, 2015

‘Surprised’ is probably the last word that one would want to hear from the Foreign Office after the announcement on Tuesday that Pakistan would be part of a 34-country ‘anti-terrorism’ alliance led by Saudi Arabia. It seems Saudi Arabia was given the go ahead from someone in the Pakistani establishment without the FO being intimated. This is the second time in recent history that Saudi Arabia has included Pakistan in its Middle Eastern war efforts. Earlier this year, Pakistan had been included in the Yemen war coalition, only for the government to declare that we would stay out of the conflict. Back then, Pakistan chose the wise option of diplomatically steering away from getting involved in Middle Eastern conflicts despite the wishes of its long-term ally Saudi Arabia. The official line now seems to have changed, but the FO is still clueless on what its inclusion in the alliance would entail. The Saudi-led alliance includes Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, UAE and a number of other Muslim-majority countries, but the exclusion of Iraq, Syria and Iran casts doubt over whether the group will have any impact beyond making headlines. Some countries have claimed that they were invited to join a coordination centre but it was later announced as a military alliance. Saudi officials have said that the alliance is keeping the possibility of deploying troops on the ground open, something that no Western country has yet indicated readiness for.

While Saudi Arabia has insisted that the alliance is an indicator of the need for the Islamic world to take a stand against terrorism, it has not restricted the scope of any actions taken by the countries to combating Isis. Officially, ‘any terrorist organisation’ operating in member countries will be targeted. The US has welcomed the development despite leading a separate 64-country international alliance against Isis. If the commitment is true, then it would mean that a number of Sunni Arab countries, which have often been accused of supporting Isis groups logistically and financially, will now take Isis on directly. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have both been victims of recent Isis-linked terrorist attacks. But there need to be questions about what a regional anti-terrorism coalition that excludes Iraq, Syria and Iran means? The former two are the main victims of the Isis insurgency in the Middle East while Iran is a major player in the ongoing conflict. A so-called ‘Muslim alliance’ that includes only Sunni countries is likely to create more controversy in the region. Moreover, the need for an alliance against terrorism in the region separate from the existing US-led alliance is unclear. Given that Saudi Arabia has titled it an ‘Islamic military coalition’, is it wise for the Pakistani government to consent to such a proposal without full knowledge of what this participation would entail? The absence of Shia countries suggests the agenda might include targeting Shia militias in the Middle East, which would open up an unnecessary can of worms. Like the Yemen alliance earlier, participation in the Saudi-led alliance should be put to debate in parliament.



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