Saudi Arabia forms Islamic military coalition


Saudi Arabia has formed a 34-member alliance "to fight terrorism" which largely comprises Muslim-majority states but excludes regional rival Iran and several countries facing ongoing violence. The coalition includes Arab, African and Asian nations. Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan are part of the group, according to a statement late Monday carried by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – all listed by the Saudis as suffering from terrorism – are not part of the new formation. The governments in Damascus and Baghdad are widely seen as closely allied with Iran, which is locked in a regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia.

The two powerhouses are engaged in a number of proxy wars against each other, including in Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia itself has been conducting airstrikes in Yemen for most of the year, an effort that is reportedly led by Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman.

"We will fight every terrorist organisation not only Islamic State," said bin Salman, who is often accused of having an aggressive approach to foreign policy. His address after the coalition was announced was broadcast on national television. The alliance would co-ordinate its efforts with international organisations and major powers, the crown prince said, but did not mention whether it would act with the approval of governments in places such as Iraq and Syria.

Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority state in the world, approved of the coalition but was not a member, the SPA statement said. The Islamic military alliance's joint operations centre will be based in Saudi capital Riyadh. The alliance was formed "to protect the nations from the evils of all groups and terrorist organisations ... whatever its religion and titles are," the statement said.

Each country will participate in the alliance according to its capabilities, the oil-rich Gulf monarchy said in announcing the deal. The United States underscored the alliance was not meant as a substitute to the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia is a member of that group and will continue to be a key player, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in Washington.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters in Turkey after touring a base from which missions targeting Islamic State are flown said the Saudi move was "very much aligned" with US calls for regional allies to do more to combat Islamic State. Despite the Saudis saying this was a Muslim coalition and the language of the statement used Islamic phrasing, some of the poorer African nations taking part have only minority Muslim populations.

Syria has become a major point of contention between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the former backing rebels, the latter backing the government and both reportedly supplying arms and cash. Saudi Arabia this month hosted the Syrian opposition and rebel fighters, including hard-line Islamist militias, and tried to get the various factions to agree on a common line in future negotiations. Reports indicate Iran supplies military advisors and helps recruit foreign fighters to aid President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran is a key supporter of the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah movement, which fights alongside Syrian government troops.    (dpa)

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