Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi
PAKISTAN’S participation in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) of 41 Muslim States is the largest transnational/trans-regional alliance in terms of its institutional and operational spectrum that has invited a heated debate in the policy circles of Pakistan. Though objectively the said coalition is committed to fighting terrorism via bilateral strategy, soft power ideology and hard power synergy, yet from a liberal strategic perspective this quasi, NATO of the Islamic world needs to perform its role without dragging itself into the cobweb of strategic entanglement caused by the ongoing tug of power in the Middle East. While it significantly needs to establish its operational neutrality vis-à-vis Iran, amidst the growing confusion/controversy regarding alliance’s strategic vision, there appears a mixed response coming from both protagonists and opponents in this regard.
Though for many analysts the prime objective of the Saudi-led alliance is to endorse the Saudi identity endorsed by its security orientations par excellence, the optimists charter hopes about its anti-terrorist role to be monitored by Pakistan’s ex-army chief general Raheel Sharif. Yet the pragmatists think that without exactly knowing about IMA’s strategic objectives, Islamabad’s siding with the coalition seems an action made in haste. This view holds merit because of the complex geopolitical situation of the Middle East emerged in the post-Jerusalem move phase.
From the Saudi perspective, the primary danger hails not starting with a military invasion but from that ideological boundary drawing and hovering over the Saudi young by the so-called Islamic State (IS). Nevertheless the IMA’s establishment may be seen as the ideological reverberation of the Arab League’s proposal to create a unified Arab force, the Cairo Declaration of Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Egypt to create a joint Arab military force, and the Saudi-led coalition (consisting Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait) to assist the government of Yemen in its fight against Shia rebels. All of these reflections were shared in 2015 and indicated the growing apprehensions about the threat posed to all Muslim countries by Islamic extremism, currently embodied by Al-Qaeda and IS—and, some would add, the Muslim Brotherhood—and by fears of subversion instigated by both state and non-state actors.
And yet, the Iranian strategists are seriously concerned about the alliance as they take this grouping as an organic political affiliation between Jordan-Egypt-Saudi Arabia +GCC, a block that fosters a tender policy narrative towards Israel while this group caters an anti- Hezbollah policy in Lebanon. The absence of three significant states—Syria, Iraq and Iran from the alliance—is indicative of an overt erosion or strategic entanglement, paving way for multiple conflict transactions. The Alliance needs to demystify this myth that there exists any clandestine Saudi-Israel-US deal against Iran. In this context, the biggest challenge for the alliance is to keep its strategic policy balance vis-à-vis Iran- Israel rivalry.
In Syria, a strategic troika of three- Turkey, Russia and Iran +Qatar is also emerging against US and its allies in the region. In this backdrop, some of the Muslim policy thinkers apprehend a conflict of interests between IMA and this troika in Syria. As far as the goal of terror financing, the alliance would have to use the endowment of its intelligence network so as to rightly comply this task. As for Alliance’s operational capability, the member states have to accordingly impart or pool their respective military troops to the central club of the coalition. Nonetheless the opt out clause— that any stage a member state can withdraw its troops once she is not satisfied with the progress/ objectivity of the said alliance—seems a viable policy option since it may act as a safety valve to maintain the objectivity/ neutral status quo power of the IMA.
However, the IMA’s real success lies in its indoctrination of fostering and nurturing an ideology which provides a liberal view of the Islamic values beyond the traditional ghettoes of ethnic divide or polarization of Sunni and Shite Islam, an ossification of Muslim unity. The prevention of violent extremism must be the prime focus of the Alliance via cross-fertilisation of ideas and values through Sufi Islam. From the military point of view, the Alliance’s pivotal objective should not be to fight against Hezbollah but to fight against the IS and its affiliates. The proposed operations by the IMA include five major countries including North Africa’s Egypt, Middle Eastern Libya, Syria, Iraq and Asia’s Afghanistan. And most significantly, the Alliance needs to create an interstate policy think tank to draft its strategic Charter. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is the main financial supporter of the Coalition, Riyadh should not unilaterally dictate alliance’s military strategy.
Operationally, alliance’s military mission under the command of General Raheel, needs to maintain its impartiality as general has already affirmed that the said alliance is not against any individual or a country. Tehmina Janjua, Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, has well asserted, “It is difficult for Pakistan to maintain equal relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, but we (Pakistan) will not go against Iran’s interests”. But people’s demand that espousing the cause of freedom of Palestine and Kashmir should be the part of Alliance’s strategic credo is not illogical. Though extrinsically by joining this alliance, Pakistan seems to charge a multi-pronged strategic influence on Riyadh, GCC, Cairo, Amman, Kabul and the West, yet intrinsically the fate of our diplomatic affiliation with the IMA largely depends on coalition’s future line of action that inevitably needs to be redrawn after Trump’s Jerusalem move.
— The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Karachi, is a member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies.