In December 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a pan-Islamic unified front in the global fight against terrorism and violent extremism under the name the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). This coalition of 41 countries is claimed to be a counter-terror force, however, the real motives of this strategic move have been received with a tinge of scepticism. With its real objectives buried under the glaciers of secrecy, the alliance is being viewed also as a calculated Saudi move to have more military and political might in the Middle Eastern theatre of war.
The inaugural meeting of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) Ministers of Defence Council was held under the theme ‘Allied Against Terrorism’ on November 26, 2017 in Riyadh, the capital of the Saudi Kingdom. While speaking at the meet, Saudi Arabia’s assertive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed that extremists will no longer “tarnish our beautiful religion.” Addressing the gathering, General Raheel Sharif, the military commander of the coalition said, “The vision of the IMCTC is to have a collective response to terrorism … it will provide a platform to the member-countries to fight terrorism.”
The terrible catastrophe unleashed by the ISIS in the Middle East has given a fresh impetus to the cause of combating terrorism which, apparently, is the basic cause of setting up the very alliance. The war-ravaged countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen are home to the ISIS terrorists and their presence in these countries is a grave threat to the trembling peace of the entire Middle East.
But, the setting up of the alliance with its ambiguous agenda prompts a number of questions: What purpose has the alliance been set up for? What exactly is meant by terrorism under this coalition? What will be the targets of the operations carried out by it? Why Iran, Syria and Iraq have been kept out of it?
Some analysts view the IMCTC as a sect-specific alliance as Shia-majority countries like Iran, Syria and Iraq have not subscribed to the coalition. The perennial feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran is nothing new. The strained relations between the two countries have a long history of hostilities. The Sunni outlook of the alliance could further widen the Shia-Sunni gulf. Saudi intervention in the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen has been a hard pill to swallow for the Shia governments. Is the military alliance to finish ISIS or is it a move to get further engaged in vicious brawl for regional sway? Mystery shrouds!
The Saudi government has shown zero tolerance towards terrorism and the ISIS. Examples abound. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia accused the tiny Gulf state Qatar of being in league with the ISIS. As a casus belli, the Saudi Kingdom has isolated Qatar on the allegations of sponsoring terrorism, down to the present day. The former browbeat the latter into submitting to its demand of neutralizing itself. This very move has dented the integration of the Gulf Cooperation Council – an alliance of 6 countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE.
Some think the alliance is neither against ISIS nor specifically against Shias; rather it is for KSA’s showdown in the Middle East that has become a theatre of war and, hence, an arena of political wrangling. Being a strong regional power, the kingdom wants its grasp on come-what-may basis in power politics of the region, tactically playing on the fronts of politics, economy and military. Hence, the alliance might serve the purpose of extending the Saudi sway in the conflict zones of the Middle East.
The story does not end here. Saudi Arabia and the United States are staunch allies and both the states have almost identical interests in the Middle East. The US backs the KSA on Syria and Yemen theatres of war. The two are members of the same camp vis-à-vis the Russo-Iranian camp. Hence, the alliance might become a tool to protect US interests in the region instead of tackling terrorism in the Muslim world.
Although the much-touted agenda of the IMCTC is to tackle terrorism in the Muslim countries, developments on the ground suggest otherwise. It is ironical that the country that leads the alliance i.e. Saudi Arabia, is itself involved in wars in the Middle East and, hence, causing humanitarian crises.
Said simply, the downsides of the coalition might outweigh its benefits, if concrete parameters of the alliance are not drafted. It has failed to defuse the heightened tensions between KSA and Iran. If left unaddressed, the rift might turn into a deadly conflict.
The lack of strategic objectives casts doubt on the operational neutrality of the alliance. Thus, instead of uniting the Muslim countries, it may eclipse the existing loose Muslim unity. If lacunae in the agenda of the alliance are not deciphered and plugged in the now-wary states may become part of the Islamic military bloc, which would lead the alliance — and, hence, the Muslim countries — to the unprecedented level of unity and prosperity.
IMCTC CORE PRINCIPLES
Recognize the pan-Islamic legitimacy of the coalition that has the respect and support of the international community
Enable culturally appropriate regional and local solutions to counter terrorism
Partner with external CT organizations and friendly countries to increase impact
Facilitate the contribution of member countries to funding of initiatives, based on their means
Operate in a streamlined fashion, with the ability to make timely and quick decisions
Align on the Coalition mandate and its strategic objectives
Recognize and protect the sovereignty of member nations while guarding their national interests and sensitive information
Work together to reach a common purpose deriving joint benefits
Engage Member nations in the Coalition’s planning and decision-making process