SAUDI ARABIA — Calling Islamic extremism a disease, Saudi Arabia has announced the formation of a coalition of 34 predominately Muslim nations to fight terrorism.
“This announcement comes from the Islamic world’s vigilance in fighting this disease so it can be a partner, as a group of countries, in the fight against this disease,” Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman said.
Asked whether the new coalition could include ground forces, Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat told reporters in Paris on Tuesday that “nothing is off the table.”
“It depends on the requests that come, it depends on the need and it depends on the willingness of countries to provide the support necessary,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said. “The decisions will be made by individual countries in terms of what to contribute, and when to contribute it, and in what form and shape they would like to make that contribution.”
The coalition’s formation comes amid criticism that Arab states have not done enough to fight ISIS. The West has stepped up its war against the group, which is also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh.
“Today there are a number of countries that suffer from terrorism, for example Daesh in Syria and Iraq; terrorism in Sinai, terrorism in Yemen, terrorism in Libya, terrorism in Mali, terrorism in Nigeria, terrorism in Pakistan, terrorism in Afghanistan, and this requires a very strong effort to fight,” Salman said. “Without a doubt, there will be coordination in these efforts.”
Official: Two tracks in coalition’s efforts
The coalition’s joint operations center will be based in Riyadh.
In addition to Saudi Arabia, the coalition will include Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Turkey, Chad, Togo, Tunisia, Djibouti, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Gabon, Guinea, the Palestinians, Comoros, Qatar, Cote d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Yemen.
The Saudi foreign minister didn’t provide specifics about operations that could be in the offing, but he said the initiative will have two distinct tracks:
— Security and military, involving the exchange of information, training, providing equipment and providing forces where necessary.
— Combating ideology, involving the use of religious scholars, educators, political leaders and other experts to “drown out the message of the extremists,” Jubeir said. This approach, he said, will focus on how to deliver effective messages, counter extremist messages and protect youth.
Since September 2014, the U.S. military has been the primary force leading the military campaign against ISIS.
About 80% of the coalition bombing has been by the United States, with some support from allies in Europe, plus Canada and Australia. In fact, the United States is dropping bombs faster than it can replenish them.
Ten Middle Eastern countries have also taken part, but it’s a sensitive subject.
The Arab allies fighting against ISIS have refused to say how many airstrikes they have carried out against ISIS. Pentagon statements reveal that half the Arab countries in the coalition have carried out no bombing in Iraq and Syria at all.
Bahrain and Jordan haven’t dropped any bombs in months, according to a U.S. official speaking on background about the actions of allies, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bomb about once a month.
The formation of the Islamic coalition could signal a change in a region that has long left Syria and Iraq to their own devices.
The view is evolving now that ISIS has grown into a global network claiming responsibility for terror attacks from Paris to Australia.
“There’s been the idea that ISIS is a bigger challenge for Iran and its allies than it is for the Arab states, even though this feeling is changing now,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics.
“ISIS has threatened not only Iran and the (Shia)-dominated regimes in Iraq and Syria but even the Sunni-dominated Arab states.”
Whether the new coalition amounts to any real change in fighting ISIS remains to be seen.
“ISIS doesn’t just exist in Syria and Iraq — it has major constituency supporters in almost all Arab countries, including Saudi, Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan. So they want to really minimize the risks,” Gerges said.
It’s something that has prompted many Arab states to keep a low profile up to this point and could still suppress any response in the future, even with the announcement of the coalition.