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Saudi Arabia's New Islamic Military Alliance Isn't Going to Be Effective Any Time Soon

The newly minted, Saudi-led anti-terrorism coalition, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, could amount to something eventually, but has an immense amount of work ahead of it first.
Amel Pain/EPA

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the Saudi-led alliance of Muslim countries as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation or OIC, which is in fact a pre-existing international body founded in 1969. The story has been amended to remove those references.

Yesterday, the official Saudi press agency (aptly named the Saudi Press Agency) issued a statement calling for the creation of a 34-nation alliance organized to go kick terrorism's ass. Sort of an Islamic Justice League, if you will.


But the devil is in the details.

On paper, so far, the group is an alliance of nations many of which are majority-Muslim, banding together to fight terrorism wherever and whenever it can be found. Better yet, another 10 countries are said to be expressing their interest but have yet to make formal commitments.

The 34 nations that Saudi Arabia has announced are part of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

If the organization materializes as advertised, it would fold in a slew of countries from Africa and Asia, as well as netting two critical regional players: Turkey and Pakistan. Both countries are regional military heavyweights. Moreover, Turkey is a NATO member, and therefore can connect the organization with that notable alliance, while Pakistan has nuclear weapons, perhaps giving a theoretical nuclear deterrent to what is essentially most of the Arab world.

In the more immediate term, this alliance could be the answer to the thousand and one pundits who insist that the Islamic State can only be driven out by the use of Sunni Muslim Arab troops on the ground. Sunni Arabs? Check. Alliance to defeat terrorists? Check. What more could you ask for?

In the most ambitious take, this emergent would-be Islamic/Arab version of NATO could grow into an incredibly powerful player in global affairs. In the longer term, it could be the first step to unifying the Arab world and establishing a truly legitimate global caliphate!

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, it's not clear that all the guys who have signed up for the alliance actually know that they've signed up. Ostensible founding members Pakistan, Lebanon, and Malaysia have all backed off from the announcement with varying degrees of bafflement. And this isn't the first time that Pakistan has read the morning newspaper to discover that the Saudis had yet again signed them up for a military alliance. Meanwhile, potential members, such as Indonesia, have said they might give a proposal a gander, but they'd need to actually see a proposal before doing anything hasty.


Watch VICE News' The Islamic State Vs. Lebanon

But, assuming everyone can agree that they're really, actually in this alliance, it offers some potential for promise. In the short term, this is a picture-perfect way for member countries to conclusively, decisively slam the door on any last lingering remnants of the Arab Spring or other simmering civil unrest. That wave of social movements, uprisings, and revolutions that left the Syrian and Libyan civil wars in its fun-filled wake has, by and large, petered out. But if the group develops into anything even remotely robust, the alliance can mimic their European cousin in NATO by characterizing any of those movements as a type of hybrid or insurgent threat to stability. Voila! Diplomatic cover to crush uprisings? Achieved!

The question of whether this alliance becomes an exercise in fancy stationery and crushing protest movements or builds into a global military titan sitting atop huge swaths of the world's energy reserves gets to a common issue with alliances. In its infancy, all an alliance provides is a mechanism for people to cooperate; from a military perspective, it doesn't provide a lot of "alliance" benefits. But the real value comes only if the whole can be made greater than the sum of its parts. It's something like the children's story about stone soup or the corporate buzzword "synergy."

I mean, this could end up being one departmental "memorandum of understanding" after another, all pledging indistinct, theoretical, future cooperation, bound together with furious abuse of the transitive property and pushed out the front door as an alliance. That doesn't mean it's quite dead on arrival; the widely heralded League of Nations showed up with all kinds of serious pageantry and heartfelt declarations early on, only to become a historical punchline.


In the meantime, it'll be a billion things like radio frequencies, tactics, and intelligence sharing procedures that will need work. A grand total of 34 alliance partners means up to 544 different interfaces between equipment, bureaucracies, and communications that need to be hammered out. An organization like NATO spends a huge amount of its time simply making sure all its stuff and people play well with each other.

Should the alliance actually get on top of that huge problem and get its act together in a meaningful way, it could lead to the formation of a power bloc to counter the Iranian leadership of the Shia. Much of the current fight in the Middle East is, at least after a fashion, a long, drawn-out grind of a war between the two dominant sects of Islam, the Sunni and Shia.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two regional powers in the Gulf Region, and their battle for control is driving many conflicts throughout the region.

The first hints of successful coherence will be if the involved countries walk the walk. If there's one thing that the armed forces and intelligence communities of 34 nations have in common, it's absolutely nothing. There's no good, functional way for them to operate together cohesively on anything more complex than a panty raid.

So, the likelihood that the group will gel into anything with substance and heft will be likely be indicated by whether there's a ton of military exercises, joint working groups, and meetings, plus all the other arcane and tedious minutiae that you typically associate with soulless, grey, bureaucratic Europeans. You simply can't stitch that many countries together into a whole (cohesive or not) without bloodshed unless you spend a lot of time on really boring crap.

If there's not very much groundwork and boring coordination, you can expect the alliance to fare as well against IS (and Iran) as the last few Arab coalitions did against the Israelis.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan