By Murat Yetkin
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has praised a new “Saudi-led Islamic anti-terrorism alliance” as being “in line with U.S. calls for a greater Sunni role” in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He was speaking during a visit to Turkey’s İncirlik air base on Dec. 15, which came only a day after the Pentagon gave a conceptual briefing about the front to U.S. President Barack Obama. The visit also came just a few days after Carter on Dec. 9 expressed his “wish” that Sunni Arab nations would do more in the fight against ISIL.
It is probably no coincidence that right before Carter’s statement yesterday Turkey also announced that it had decided to join this alliance of 34 countries – despite not being an Arab country and being a constitutionally secular country.
The idea of establishing a “Sunni front” is not something that has just come up over the last few weeks. It is an idea suggested by King Salman of Saudi Arabia to international leaders, including Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, who went to Riyadh to congratulate him on his ascension to the throne in March this year. A Sunni front consisting of 10 countries was indeed formed by the end of March to take joint action in Yemen. The aim of that Sunni front was proposed by Salman as a stand against “Shiite expansionism backed by Iran” in the Middle East.
Now the new alliance led by the Saudis has set its target as the fight against ISIL and generally against terrorism. It does not consist only of Arab countries (also including Pakistan, Senegal, Malaysia and Bangladesh), and says it is in line with the “Sunni” nature of the U.S. call.
The alliance includes Lebanon, which is home to a strong Hezbollah presence, in line with Iran, the world’s most important Shiite power. However it does not include Iraq, which also has a strong Shiite presence, raising questions about how to fight against a force that occupies almost a third of Iraq without the consent of Baghdad. There are other questions too, such as over which government in Libya will participate, or how Egypt and Turkey will cooperate without having diplomatic ties.
It seems like the “Sunni front” idea is simply another public diplomacy effort, rather than an effective organization.
But apart from it being a bad idea to establish a Sunni front in the fight against terrorism, what the Middle East does not need is any new emphasis on the sectarian dimension of the existing turmoil. Why on earth does the U.S. feel obliged to take sides in the sectarian divide within Islam? And why does it praise the leading role of Saudi Arabia, which is currently ISIL’s main human resources pool, and from which many radical movements – from the Wahhabis to al-Qaeda – have emerged?
And why on earth is Ankara is becoming part of this futile but dangerous idea of a “Sunni front,” while at the same time repeating the rhetoric that Turkey is against and above sectarian differences?
It is understandable that President Obama wants a local, Arab collaborative effort against ISIL. But trying to do that along the lines of the already explosive sectarian divide within Islam is unlikely to help calm the rising regional tension.