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Saudi Arabia forms Islamic anti-'terrorist' military coalition

A total of 34 Muslim nations are part of the new coalition, but details of its scope and structure are for now scant

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that 34 nations have agreed to form a new "Islamic military alliance" to fight what it called terrorism, with a joint operations center to be based in the kingdom's capital, Riyadh.

The announcement, published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, said the alliance would be Saudi-led and is being established because terrorism "should be fought by all means and collaboration should be made to eliminate it."

As news of the coalition emerged, it was not clear what kind of military setup it would have and what its rules of engagement would involve. At a rare news conference, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman said the coalition’s efforts would not be limited to only countering the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

"Currently, every Muslim country is fighting terrorism individually ... so coordinating efforts is very important," Salman said, adding that the joint operations center in Riyadh will "coordinate and support military operations to fight terrorism" across the Muslim world.

The new counterterrorism coalition includes nations with large and established armies such as Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt as well as war-torn countries with embattled militaries such as Libya and Yemen. African nations that have been the victim of attacks from non-state actors — such as Mali, Chad, Somalia and Nigeria — are also members. All members are also part of the larger Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia, underlining the “Islamic” character that the coalition has billed.

Saudi Arabia's regional rival, Shia-majority Iran, is not part of the coalition, suggesting that the group will be used in part to counter Tehran’s influence in hotspot countries like Syria and Yemen – where the two support opposite sides in the wars. Saudi Arabia is leading a military intervention in Yemen against Shia rebels it considers Iranian proxies – the Houthis – and is part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

Last week Saudi Arabia hosted talks between opposition Syrian political and military factions, which agreed to negotiate with President Bashar al-Assad's government but insisted he step down at the start of any political transition. Saudi Arabia supports some rebels in Syria, and last year joined other Gulf states in a U.S.-led coalition bombing campaign against ISIL in Syria

Firas Abi Ali, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk, a consultancy in London, said Tuesday’s announcement was “an attempt at broadening the net of countries supporting Saudi Arabia, potentially as it prepares de-escalation in Yemen” after a cease-fire was struck on Tuesday.

The U.S. welcomed the announcement of the anti-terrorism alliance, with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter telling reports in Turkey: "We look forward to learning more about what Saudi Arabia has in mind in terms of this coalition.”

"But 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 by Sunni Arab countries."

Analysts, however, expressed skepticism that such a diverse coalition will be galvanized to fight ISIL given their often contradictory priorities in different countries where ISIL is present.

In Iraq, for example, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are wary of Iran’s assertive role in helping the Shia-led government in Baghdad roll back ISIL. In Syria, there are questions about how committed Arab nations are to the anti-ISIL campaign, given that efforts to degrade ISIL will benefit the Iran-backed Syrian regime.

Abi Ali noted that these dilemmas, as well as intra-coalition differences, will “reduce their ability to develop coherent policies against” ISIL.

Meanwhile, most of the 34 nations involved began to confirm their participation on Tuesday. Turkey, the only country in the alliance that is also a NATO member, welcomed the new coalition. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called it the "best response to those who are trying to associate terror and Islam."

Other Gulf Arab countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also in the coalition, though notably absent from the list is Oman, a neighbor of Saudi Arabia. In recent years, Oman has maintained a neutral role and has emerged as a mediator in regional conflicts, serving as a conduit from the Gulf Arabs to Iran.

A Jordanian government spokesman confirmed that the Hashemite kingdom is part of the coalition. Spokesman Mohammed Momani would not comment specifically on the alliance but said "Jordan is always ready and actively participates in any effort to fight terrorism."

A Lebanese official confirmed to The Associated Press that his nation was also part of the 34-nation coalition. Tiny Lebanon has seen frequent spillovers from Syria's civil war next door, as well as sectarian clashes and attacks by armed groups.

"Lebanon is fighting a daily war against terrorism ... Lebanon cannot but be part of the alliance that is combating terrorism," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements. Asked how Lebanon plans to contribute to the alliance, he said that "these are details that we haven't gotten into yet."

Iraq and Syria, whose forces are battling to regain territory taken by ISIL and whose governments are allied with Iran, are not in the coalition.

Salman said other countries including Indonesia have expressed support without yet joining the bloc, "but out of keenness to achieve this coalition as soon as possible, (this alliance of) 34 countries has been announced."

Wire services. Michael Pizzi contributed reporting.

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