Be­yond North Thun­der

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Hus­sain H Zaidi

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.

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