Saudi Arabia forms military coalition to fight terrorism

Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman holding a press conference on Dec 14, 2015, at King Salman airbase in Riyadh.
Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman holding a press conference on Dec 14, 2015, at King Salman airbase in Riyadh.PHOTO: AFP

Defence Minister says 34-state Islamic group will coordinate efforts, but offers few details

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia has formed a new military coalition of 34 countries - with participation from Middle-Eastern, African and Asian states - to fight terrorism in the Islamic world.

The alliance, based in Riyadh, does not include Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite regional rival Iran, or Syria and Iraq, the SPA state news agency reported.

Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman told reporters yesterday that the campaign would "coordinate" efforts to fight terrorism in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan.

"There will be international coordination with major powers and international organisations... in terms of operations in Syria and Iraq. We can't undertake these operations without coordinating with legitimacy in this place and the international community," he said.

However, he offered few concrete indications of how military efforts might proceed.

Asked if the new alliance would focus just on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he said it would confront not only that group, but "any terrorist organisation that appears in front of us".

The 34 members in the coalition, including Malaysia, all belong to the Jeddah- based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

More than 10 other Islamic countries had expressed support for the coalition, including Indonesia, the SPA said.

Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said it welcomed the initiative by Saudi Arabia. "It is not unusual for us (Malaysia) to be together in the initiative as it was always our stand (against ISIS)," he told reporters.

He added that the initiative would not involve the Malaysian military.

"There is no military commitment, but it is more of an understanding that we are together against militancy," he said.

The new alliance comes amid pressure from US President Barack Obama to do more in the fight against ISIS.

There is growing frustration in the administration that Saudi Arabia and other regional allies have yet to help the US build a Syrian-Arab coalition of ground forces to push back ISIS in Syria.

In remarks to reporters after his national security team met on Monday at the Pentagon, Mr Obama, flanked by Vice-President Joe Biden and Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, said: "Just as the United States is doing more in this fight, just as our allies France, Germany and the United Kingdom, Australia and Italy are doing more, so must others.

"And that is why I have asked Secretary Carter to go to the Middle East - he will depart right after this press briefing - to work with our coalition partners on securing more military contributions to this fight."

While he maintained that ISIS militants have lost around 40 per cent of the populated areas they once controlled in Iraq, the President said that progress against the group by the US-led coalition "needs to keep coming faster".

Saudi Arabia's announcement about the coalition is the latest in a more assertive foreign policy since King Salman ascended the throne in January and named his son as defence minister.

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 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 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but insisted that he step down at the start of any political transition.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'Saudi Arabia forms military coalition to fight terrorism'. Print Edition | Subscribe