New Saudi Arabia-led Coalition Faces Acid Test to Demonstrate its Vitality

New Saudi Arabia-led Coalition Faces Acid Test to Demonstrate its Vitality

Two ballistic missiles were fired at Saudi Arabia from the territory of Yemen on December 18.  According to Al Arabiya, one missile was intercepted in Yemeni airspace, while the other landed in the desert east of the Saudi Arabian city of Najran.

Pro-al Houthi forces have recently launched their first large-scale ground assault on the Saudi-Yemeni border, signaling an inflection that may incite Saudi retaliation and possibly alter the Saudi-led coalition’s ongoing shift from combat operations to stabilization operations. A large al Houthi-Saleh force launched cross-border attacks on Saudi military sites, marking an uptick in hostilities near the Saudi-Yemeni border. Hundreds of al Houthi-Saleh ground troops attacked Saudi watchtowers on November 30 and December 1, according to reports.

This ground assault is the first large-scale cross-border attack confirmed by Saudi military sources. Willy-nilly, Yemen is doomed to become a testing ground for the newly formed Saudi Arabia-led coalition of Muslim states.

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Saudi Arabia said on December 15 that 34 mainly Muslim nations would be part of the counter-terrorism grouping to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. A joint operations centre would be established in the capital Riyadh and the coalition would focus on terror groups. The newly formed alliance includes: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Palestinians, Qatar, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Yemen is included. This fact is important as fighting is intensifying there. It makes the country the place where the coalition faces its acid test. 

The members are to «share information and train, equip and provide forces if necessary” for the fight against extremist groups, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said during a Dec.15 news conference in Paris.

He painted the coalition as a grouping that would allow member states to request or offer assistance among themselves in fighting groups they designate as terrorists.

Such assistance could include military force, financial aid, materiel or security expertise, Jubeir said, and would have a permanent base in the Saudi capital Riyadh. However, more detailed specifics of the plan are still unknown.

«We look forward to learning more about what Saudi Arabia has in mind in terms of this coalition», US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in his remarks.

A number of countries have expressed surprise that they were included by Saudi Arabia in a new military alliance to fight terrorism. Officials in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia all said they had not formally agreed to join the alliance. The decision happened to be a surprise for Bangladesh. While Western governments welcomed this week's initiative, there was uncertainty over how it would work.

The coalition proposal was quickly endorsed by the Council of Senior Scholars, the grouping of top clerics of Saudi Arabia, which issued a statement urging all other Muslim states to join the new alliance. In that context, it strikes the eye that the Shia-majority nations of Iran and Iraq, as well as Syria, are noticeably absent from the alliance. It is far from clear how it could conduct counter-terrorism operations in IS-plagued Iraq and Syria without the agreement from those governments.

Actually, the 34-member strong alliance includes no more than a half a dozen states that contribute militarily and politically to the fight against the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, have participated in the air war against the terrorists in Syria. The effort has been episodic and short-lived, especially compared to the Russia-Iran-Syria coalition that has really gained ground recently. Egypt is a big and powerful state, but at present it has to fight the jihadis of its own. It will not intervene militarily. Besides, it shares a common goal with Russia and Bashar al-Assad in preserving stability and state control against the Islamists.

Ankara, the only NATO state in the alliance, has agreed to take part in the Saudi-led initiative.

«The best response to those striving to associate terrorism and Islam is for nations of Islam to present a unified voice against terrorism»said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

However Turkish role in the fight against IS has been put to question. Russia has recently claimed that Ankara is the main consumer of oil smuggled by Islamic State from Syria and Iraq. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family are reported to be involved in the criminal business.

Meanwhile, Turkish MP Eren Erdem has told RT that IS terrorists in Syria received all necessary materials to produce deadly sarin gas via Turkey.

Washington has been urging Ankara to secure its Syrian border, which has been partially under the control of IS on the Syrian side. However, Ankara has expressed skepticism, saying that it would be extremely difficult.

Turkey has its own agenda with its forces deployed in the vicinity of Mosul without the permission of Iraqi government. It sees the Workers Kurdish Party as the main enemy to fight.

Arab boots on the ground is a must if the goal is to defeat the Islamic State. But it's hard to imagine such a force in place effectively engaging the enemy. Can Riyadh really lead the alliance? It’s an open secret that the kingdom is more concerned over Iran and the Shia. Until now it has been concentrating on the fight against the Houthis (a Shia group) in Yemen. The Riyadh’s primary motive in getting rid of Syria’s President Assad is directed at checking Iran and supporting fellow Sunnis.

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With the US-led coalition in place and the Russia-supported coalition of Syria and Iran, it’s hard to believe that the anti-IS front needs another coalition to make the effort successful. On Dec. 18 the UN Security Council passed a resolution strengthening legal measures against those doing business with terrorist groups. It targets mainly Islamic State militants. The resolution is the result of joint effort by Russia and the US in talks on coordinating their actions in Syria.

Somehow the initiative on forming the new coalition was put forward shortly before another round of talks on a Syrian settlement – the Vienna process – was due to begin in New York on December 18. Is it a coincidence? After all, Saudi Arabia is hardly happy with the fact that the United States and Russia are now acting as co-sponsors of the Syrian settlement.

Let’s hope the purpose of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition is not to torpedo the Vienna-based Syrian settlement process, led by the US and Russia.

The situation in Yemen will show how relevant the newly formed organization is when it comes to tackling regional conflicts. Military force is not the only solution. Can the new grouping effectively mediate and find ways to achieve peaceful settlements to the conflicts? It would be great if it were capable of doing it.