Beyond North Thunder
THE footage of troops from a score of Muslim countries - including Pakistan - marching shoulder to shoulder as a mark of solidarity in the concluding ceremony of the twelve-day North Thunder military drills was immensely impressive.
Held in the Saudi town of Hafar alBatin, close to the Iraqi border, the military manoeuvres sent out the message that the world of Islam is willing as well as capable of putting down the scourge of terrorism on its own. No less significant was the fact that North Thunder was hosted by the regime that is the custodian of the Muslims' holiest places - thus dispelling the widespread impression that the luxury-addicted Saudis are incapable of leading from the front. Be that as may, there are many ifs and buts.
The military exercises were conducted upon the heels of the formation of a 34-nation alliance of Muslim countries against terrorism last December. The coalition was put together amid mounting criticism that the Sunni Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf, were shying away from taking on the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh, the global face of Islamic militancy, leaving only Shia Iran and its allies as a bulwark against the march of the apocalyptic organisation. The North Thunder manoeuvres were conducted as a preparation for a likely attack on IS strongholds in Syria.
It was understandable why the Arabs twiddled their thumbs in the face of the onslaught of Daesh in the beginning. The two states, Iraq and Syria, in which IS carved out a territory for itself and set up
it its government, were allies of Iran. One was a Shia majority country, while the other was ruled by a Shia regime. Daesh, on the other hand, championed the cause of a puritanical sub-sect of Sunni Islam, which, like its predecessor Al-Qaeda, was doctrinally closer to Saudi Arabia and its Middle Eastern allies. The sectarian schism thus provided a fertile ground for the rise of IS.
The sectarian divide has been the principal driver of the conflicts in the Middle East. On the whole, it is a Sunni majority region, where substantial Shia populations also reside. In countries such as Iran, Bahrain and Iraq, Shias have been in the majority. However, until the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran was the only Shia majority country in the region where the government was in the control of the adherents of that sect. Syria stands out as a special case, where Shias - despite being in minority - have been at the helm since 1970.
Daesh, however, has another overriding characteristic. It believes in the caliphate - its head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was proclaimed caliph in July 2014 - which by definition is a transnational office to which Muslims all over the world owe allegiance. To put in place an all-encompassing caliphate, Daesh is committed to pulling down the reigning absolute monarchies in the Gulf through what it calls jihad.
IS also has considerable support in several Arab countries, which can be a source of internal instability. With such credentials, sooner or later, IS was bound to arouse the deepest Saudi concerns, notwithstanding the sectarian affinity between the two.
The Gulf kingdoms were thus put on the horns of a dilemma: they could join hands with Iran in crushing IS or they could take on Tehran with the support of the IS.
The kingdoms, with Saudi Arabia as their leader, resolved the dilemma by setting up a 34-nation military alliance against Daesh and other militant organisations. Iran, Iraq and Syria were not invited to be part of the alliance.
The exclusion of Iran and its allies from the Saudi-led military coalition strengthens suspicions that it will target not only Daesh but also the Assad regime in Syria, which, thanks to full backing by Iran, has defied multilateral efforts to topple it over the past half-decade. As Riyadh sees it, a Syria in which IS has been cut down to size but President Assad remains at the helm will substantially shore up Tehran's influence in the region. The recent thaw in US-Iran relations is a strategic victory for Tehran, which the Saudis believe will be at their expense.
These developments put Pakistan in an awkward situation. Among the 34 nations that are part of the coalition, Pakistan has one of the largest and best equipped armed forces. Therefore, the Saudis will be expecting Pakistan's active participation in a ground offensive in Syria. Islamabad had earlier turned down Riyadh's request to send its troops for operations against the Houthi rebels in Yemen since such a move would amount to taking sides in the Iran-Saudi Arabia tug-of-war.
For a country like Pakistan, which itself is in the throes of a sectarian bloodbath and has already been the site of a proxy war between the two Muslim counties, the decision to stay away was correct, as taking sides in the conflict would only sharpen the sectarian cleavage and make it even bloodier.