Saudi Arabia to Lead Military Coalition Against ISIS

Royal Air Force Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia to Lead Military Coalition Against ISIS

| published December 15, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor


To battle ISIS and other terrorist organizations with violent or radical agendas, Saudi Arabia says it has formed a coalition with other Islamic-majority nations to combat the Islamic State. The coalition would include both conventional military components and covert operations, and the alliance will include some 30-plus countries spanning multiple continents.

In a statement released early Tuesday, Saudi Arabian officials tell reporters that the military operations center will be based in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Among the many nations included in the coalition: Qatar, Turkey, Malaysia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The coalition also includes dozens of predominantly Islamic countries in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

“This announcement comes from the Islamic world’s vigilance in fighting this disease so it can be a partner, as a group of countries, in the fight against this disease,” said deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who also serves as Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister.

Bin Salman said that the efforts of the new coalition would not be limited to the Islamic State, but would also be directed when necessary to any and all terrorism or radical militant threats as they emerge or evolve throughout the Muslim world. ISIS controls a vast swath of territory across northern Syria and northern Iraq, along with pockets of territory in Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan and several African countries. Groups with direct pledges of loyalty to ISIS have also thrived in several African countries—including Mali, Niger, Chad and Nigeria.

Though the announcement included the plan to base operational control of the coalition’s military in Riyadh, the statements by Saudi Arabia and the crown prince did not offer many specifics regarding how the combined armies and air forces of those nations would proceed. And the announcement came with no immediate indication that ground forces would be deployed in Iraq or Syria, the two countries claimed by ISIS as its home.

Many Arab countries and Muslim-majority nations have been under extreme pressure—both internationally and internally—to craft a proactive response to the threat of Islamic extremism, especially in the wake of terror attacks in a half dozen countries, including France, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Mali, and just weeks ago in the United States.

Bin Salman stressed that without a true pan-Arab, pan-Islamic international coalition, military efforts against ISIS were pointless.

“There will be international coordination,” he explained, “with major powers and international organizations…in terms of operations in Syria and Iraq. We can’t undertake these operations without coordinating with legitimacy, in this place and [within] the international community.”

Also not clear from the statement: what role would the United States, or its closest military and economic allies—the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Belgium, Germany—play in either direct or indirect support in the coalition. Military analysts agreed that U.S. and British intelligence will certainly play a key role in the operations of the Saudi-led coalition.

U.S. President Barack Obama has faced criticism for the ineffectiveness of the air campaign against ISIS, a military operation now more than a year old. During that time, as the combined air power of the U.S. and a dozen other countries have pounded ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has continued to thrive. Though according to U.S. estimates some 8,500 militants have been killed since the start of the air campaign in 2014, Pentagon and intelligence officials concede that ISIS has continued to grow in numbers and strength. ISIS has also extended its footprint into Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Afghanistan—even challenging al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and seeking to subdue Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The U.S.-led coalition includes air power from the United States, Canada, Australia, Jordan and Kuwait, with limited air support also coming from the United Kingdom, Qatar, the UAE, and other countries. France recently expanded its participation in the air campaign, sending the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle into the eastern Mediterranean, where it will add some two dozen jet fighters and bombers to the coalition’s efforts. Last week, British lawmakers debated whether to greatly expand the U.K.’s role in the air campaign. Russian air power is also included in the skies over Syria, but it not considered part of the U.S.-led coalition, though American military commanders provide some targeting data and help to maintain “deconfliction” between the busy air components in Syria.

Notably absent from the nations included in the Saudi-led coalition: Iran, a predominantly-Shiite Muslim nation currently engaged in proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Iranian-backed militants and rebel groups have been fighting Saudi-backed groups in Yemen for more than a year. This prompted Saudi Arabia and some of its Gulf States allies to begin waging an air campaign along the southwestern rim of the Arabian Peninsula.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Russian Bomber Incident May Pose Challenge for NATO; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 25, 2015.

Islamic Militants Storm Hotel in Mali, 27 Dead; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; November 20, 2015.