The birth of the 34-country Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) has been widely publicised by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The Saudi capital Riyadh will be the HQ for all coordination within the new structure.
On Tuesday, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud made a rare media appearance to stress that the goal of the Alliance is to fight against “all forms of terrorism”.
The hardcore of the IMA is made out of countries that presently fight the war in Yemen, known as the Arab Alliance. Most of the air and ground operations against the Shi’aa Houthi rebels are led by the Sunni KSA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Riyadh claims that the Houthis are supported by Iran. Notably, Shi’aa countries have been left outside the Alliance. Not just Iran, which is not surprising, but also Syria and Iraq which are the battle fields against Daesh.
But while most Sunni countries agree that Shi’aa Iran represents a threat to them, everything becomes more complicated upon closer inspection, especially since the Middle East is playing host to several proxy wars. The interests of the individual countries that form the IMA may diverge locally. Then the question is: “whose enemy is my friend?” Or vice versa.
Take for instance the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most widespread of Islamic organisations. It qualifies as a terrorist group in Egypt, but only recently in Saudi Arabia, in March 2014. After King Salman’s rise to power in January 2015 some of the Saudi intellectual and financial elite still support the Brotherhood.
The authorities in Abu Dhabi are also very suspicious about the Muslim Brotherhood because they have some influence in the less economically developed UAE-member emirates. At the same time, the Emiratis show a great deal of political and financial support to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
Libya is another troubling example. Libya is officially on the list of the founding IMA members. But which Libya? The answer may vary from the UAE – which fully supports the internationally-recognised Tobrouk government – and Qatar – which has been openly accused of siding with the Islamic militias. The UAE and Qatar are at odds on that issue. In August 2014, Abu Dhabi’s Air Force even led airstrikes against Islamist rebels in Libya, the first-ever such strikes not to be authorised by the UN.
The most controversial theatre of operation is obviously Syria, where multiple alliances face multiple enemies. The common enemy of the Gulf countries is Iran, its Shi’aa Hezbollah allies and the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Everybody in the Gulf agrees on that.
Enter Russia. Moscow is a close ally of (IMA-member) Egypt. At the same time, Russia and another IMA-member, Turkey, are close to a nervous breakdown over Syria. But Moscow also has more than friendly relations with Tehran, the Shi’aa arch-rival of the Saudis. Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Jordan, whose country is also part of the IMA, recently called during an interview with Euronews for closer cooperation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Even more sophisticated than the Syrian conflict is the messy political and military situation in Iraq. Only days ago, Turkey was accused by the mostly Shi’aa Baghdad government – another regional friend of Russia – of illegally deploying military forces in the north-east of the country. In the very latest move, Turkey has announced on Wednesday the opening of a military base in Qatar.
Since the game of local thrones appears to be too complex, no clear enemy – except “fighting terrorism” – has been named by the Islamic Military Alliance. Yesterday in Paris the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al Jubeir, made it clear that military action would be taken on an ad-hoc basis. The first military decision made by the new allies will be closely monitored and will tell a lot about who does what, when and against whom.