Saudis Form Muslim "Anti-Terror" Coalition; Ex-Soviet States Stay Out
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday announced the creation of a 34-country coalition of Muslim states aimed at fighting terrorism. Those 34 countries did not include the six Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union, though Azerbaijan said that it was considering joining in.
It's not yet clear what exactly the coalition will do: "It remains unclear what the Sunni kingdom is asking the other countries to do—whether it is a loose grouping to talk strategy and share intelligence or the first step to establishing a fighting force against the Sunni militant group," the Wall Street Journal reported.
The geopolitics of the new coalition suggest the emergence of a sort of new Cold War bloc arrangement in the region. The United States praised the creation of the new group. "In general it appears it is very much in line with something we've been urging for quite some time, which is greater involvement in the campaign to combat ISIL (Islamic State) by Sunni Arab countries," said U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Meanwhile some of the more prominent Islamic states missing from the Saudi coalition -- Iraq, Iran, and Syria -- are in a coalition with Russia that is defending the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad in its fight with various rebel groups including ISIS. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed skepticism of the Saudi initiative, as did Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, and the Russian state press was dismissive of the idea. Military analyst Aleksandr Perendzhiev told RIA Novosti that the plan was aimed less at defeating terrorism and more toward helping Saudi Arabia in its "competition" for influence in the region with (unnamed) other powers.
The five ex-Soviet Central Asian states, meanwhile, seem to be content to sit on the sidelines of this, in spite of their frequent denunciations of Islamist terrorism and their genuine fears of it affecting their countries. While they may be wary of signing on to Russia's initiatives, it also doesn't really benefit them to join anything that Russia clearly opposes for little obvious gain.
Curiously bucking that trend is Azerbaijan. While Azerbaijan wasn't on the Saudi list of 34 countries, foreign ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev said it was interested: "Currently, the issue (of joining the coalition) is under consideration. As a country that has suffered from terrorism, Azerbaijan strongly condemns all its forms and manifestations," Hajiyev told reporters Tuesday. Will Azerbaijan ultimately join? Will any of the Central Asian states? And will it matter other than being another name on list? Stay tuned.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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