Saudi coalition? Don't get too excited

Muslim nations vow to fight Islamic extremism
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  • Aaron David Miller: Newly announced Arab coalition unlikely to make big impact against ISIS
  • Saudi Arabia is likely more concerned about Iran than ISIS, he says

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The announcement this week that Saudi Arabia has organized a military coalition to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria might be taken seriously if the Arab and Muslim states participating had any kind of track record that demonstrated coherence, single-minded purpose or resolve in addressing any of the challenges that have confronted their broken, angry and dysfunctional region.

Unfortunately, that is not the case.
True, there have been collective organizations, alignments and coalitions before -- the still active, 70-year-old Arab League, the now-extinct United Arab Republic (Syria and Egypt), the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the somewhat more functional and modern Gulf Cooperation Council.
    Aaron David Miller
    But forgive me if I remain skeptical, because the reality is that this coalition of the unwilling, dysfunctional and self-interested is unlikely to make much of a difference either on the battlefield or in the politics of the anti-ISIS struggle. Indeed, if Arab and Muslim states really wanted to do something useful, they would take on the task of religiously and politically delegitimizing their own extremists and radical jihadis at home and in the region.
    The Saudi foreign minister, a guy who is surely too smart to believe his own talking points, actually asserted that "confronting the ideology of extremism" would be a goal.
    Here's why I am not convinced:
    First, what a strange collection of states. The Saudis announced that 34 states had agreed to join an "Islamic military alliance" to combat global terrorism. Not surprisingly, there was no real definition or characterization of the threat, no reference to radical jihad or Islamist terror, something the coalition (like the Obama administration) chooses not to describe.
    Of course, that's perfectly understandable for Muslim states that aren't going to stigmatize their own religion. What is less comprehensible is how the term military alliance can be applied to a collection of states that includes Togo, Guinea, Comoros and Benin.
    It's just as well that the Saudis went to considerable lengths to make clear that this coalition wasn't intended to replace the 65 nations the Obama administration has assembled. Actually, it's not even clear who's in this current assemblage; the Pakistani foreign minister apparently expressed surprise that the Saudis had identified his country in the so-called alliance.
    Second, divided we stand. If you take the 34 nations in the proposed anti-terror alliance and do a quick accounting, you'd probably end up with a half a dozen that had the capacity -- at least on paper -- to bring significant military and political weight to the fight against ISIS. Several of these, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, have participated in the air war against ISIS in Syria. But even that effort has been episodic and short-lived.
    As of November 19, the United States had conducted 6,471 of the 8,289 airstrikes against the Islamic State, according to the Pentagon. "American warplanes carried out about two-thirds of the strikes on Iraqi territory and 95 percent of those on Syrian territory," The New York Times notes.
    Other key states, such as Turkey, have their own agenda, in Ankara's case hammering the Kurds. Jordan is valiant but too small, while Egypt, which is struggling with its own jihadis, will not intervene militarily and shares a common goal with the Russia and Bashar al-Assad in preserving stability and state control against the Islamists.
    The Republican presidential candidates talk about Arab boots on the ground. But it's hard to imagine such a force, let alone an effective one.
    Third, are Saudis an ally or adversary? It is striking that Riyadh, which has been exporting a messianic radical Sunni Wahhabist ideology for years, is at the epicenter of this alliance. It's not that Saudi Arabia doesn't fear ISIS -- it does, and has been attacked by jihadis. But the inconvenient truth is that the country worries more about Iran and the Shia. Just look where it poured its military resources: into the fight against the Houthis in Yemen.
    And it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to believe that the country's primary motive in getting rid of Assad is as much directed at checking Iran as it is supporting fellow Sunnis. After all, how many Syrian refugees have the Saudis accepted into the Kingdom in comparison with much poorer countries such as Jordan and Lebanon? What the Saudis really care about is that Iran and the Shia don't end up with too much influence in Syria, Iraq and the region.
    Four, change starts at home. If the Saudis and other influential Gulf states want to do something for the anti-ISIS cause, they should encourage their imams, religious teachers, journalists and media to launch an aggressive campaign to delegitimize ISIS and present an alternative.
    But what should that vision be? Saudi Arabia isn't ISIS. But its own brand of Islam has a surreal and contemptible view of women, a prejudiced view toward Jews and Christians, a fundamental bias against Western openness and tolerance, especially over religion and freedom of conscience.
    Sunni Arabs will ultimately have to play a central role if the broken Middle East is ever going to be fixed. And it would nice to be able to hope that Saudi Arabia could be counted on to step up and lead the fight against ISIS with boots on the ground, valiant political leadership and a tolerant and progressive brand of Islam that would show the way. But don't hold your breath.
    Saudi Arabia is likely to remain a very problematic ally in what will prove to be the very long war against the forces of radical Islam.