Saudi flexes military muscles

2015-12-15 18:50
Saudi security forces take part in a military parade. (File, AP)

Saudi security forces take part in a military parade. (File, AP)

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Riyadh - Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday the formation of a military coalition of 34 Muslim-majority countries to fight "terrorism", in the latest sign of a more assertive foreign policy by the kingdom.

But analysts said it was too soon to tell what action the coalition will take, and noted the move comes with Saudi Arabia nearly nine months into a costly war in Yemen.

"Regardless, I'd say the move certainly packs a powerful symbolic punch," said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Baron called the announcement "in some regards, a bit of a surprise", but said it fits into "the larger, more assertive policy" of Saudi King Salman and his powerful son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

Mohammed made the announcement on the same day peace talks between Iran-backed Yemeni rebels and Yemen's government began in Switzerland, accompanied by a ceasefire.

The coalition will tackle "the Islamic world's problem with terrorism and will be a partner in the worldwide fight against this scourge" he told a rare Riyadh press conference, against a backdrop of flags from coalition members.

All belong to the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Co-operation.

The new Saudi-led alliance does not include the kingdom's Shi'ite regional rival Iran, or Syria and Iraq.

Mohammed said other countries including Indonesia have expressed support without yet joining the bloc, "but out of keenness to achieve this coalition as soon as possible, [this alliance of] 34 countries has been announced."

It will be based in Riyadh "to co-ordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism", with participation from Middle Eastern, African and Asian states, the SPA state news agency said, listing Egypt and Turkey among the members.

"Turkey is ready to contribute by all its means to all gatherings that aim to fight terrorism, no matter where or by whom it is organised," Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters in Ankara on Tuesday.

The United States has called for broader international participation in the fight against the Islamic State group of jihadists in Iraq and Syria. It said Turkey needed to do more to control its borders with Syria, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states had been distracted by the war in Yemen.

The coalition will fight "any terrorist organisation that appears", said Mohammed when asked if the alliance would concentrate only on ISIS.

Saudi Arabia is founded on the teachings of fundamentalist cleric Mohammed bin Abdul Wahhab, whose thought has been accused of fuelling deadly Sunni extremism around the world, including that of ISIS.

 Huge costs 

But the kingdom has repeatedly denounced international "terrorism" and has itself seen an upsurge of attacks claimed by ISIS over the past year, against minority Shi'ites and members of the security forces.

The ISIS threat "is the most fundamental challenge to Saudi's raison d'etat and the security of its citizens," said Andreas Krieg, a professor at the Department of Defence Studies at King's College London.

"It is therefore not surprising for Saudi to seek greater co-operation across the board in the fight against militant Islamism," said Krieg, who also serves as a consultant to the Qatari armed forces.

The huge human and financial costs of the kingdom's military operation in Yemen have become increasingly difficult for the kingdom to bear, he said.

"Only joint military operations are a real option."

In March the kingdom formed an Arab coalition of about a dozen countries to support the government of Yemen against Iran-backed Huthi rebels and their allies, who seized much of the country.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have, however, assumed the main roles in that coalition.

Prominent Saudi role

Saudi Arabia has also played a prominent role in efforts to find a political solution to the war in Syria.

Last week, the kingdom hosted unprecedented talks between opposition Syrian political and military factions, which agreed to negotiate with President Bashar Assad's regime, but insisted he step down at the start of any political transition.

Saudi Arabia supports some rebels in Syria, and last year joined other Gulf states in a US-led coalition bombing ISIS in Syria.

The UAE said two weeks ago that it was ready to commit ground troops against jihadists in Syria, and described Russian air strikes in the country as attacks on a "common enemy".

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said Russia awaited more details before evaluating the Saudi announcement about the new coalition.

Read more on:    isis  |  yemen  |  saudi arabia

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