General Raheel Sharif, will head the IMCTC, a Saudi military initiative by Crown Prince MBS. Photo: Reuters / Mian Khursheed (File)
General Raheel Sharif, heads the IMCTC, an initiative by the Saudi Crown Prince. Photo: Reuters / Mian Khursheed

Pakistan’s Upper House last week made up its mind about what lies behind the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) and asked the government to recall its commander-in-chief, former Pakistan Army chief Raheel Sharif, in response to burgeoning anti-Iranian sentiment.

“The king of Saudi Arabia has said the alliance is against Iran,” Senate Chairperson Raza Rabbani said in the chamber on Thursday. “Has the government disowned Raheel Sharif?.” Rabbani demanded that the Terms of Reference (TORs) of the military alliance be presented before the Senate for scrutiny.

Earlier, Senator Farhatullah Babar, of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), said it was becoming “apparent” that the alliance had combative designs against Iran and asked the government to recall the retired general.

The Senate also called upon Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, to brief members on the issue of reports quoting Saudi authorities as saying the alliance would take action against rebel groups posing a threat to any of its member countries.

Moved by public opinion and media reports on the IMA’s shifting emphasis, the house asked that the government come clean on its direction. It said the message emanating from the Arab-US Summit held on May 21 in Saudi Arabia was loud and clear: attended by over 50 Muslim nations, that session turned to be heavy on the Iran-bashing, with US President Donald Trump the basher-in-chief.

Senator Aziz made efforts to allay members’ apprehensions – but in the process created more confusion. He assured the house that “it was wrong to say that the coalition was against Iran” but in the same breadth admitted, “It is unfortunate that Syria, Yemen, and Iran are divided along sectarian lines and the Riyadh summit may have deepened those divides.”

“It’s an unnatural alliance that has nothing in common insofar as coalition partners are concerned as every country which is named a partner has its own perception and specification of terrorism”

In the aftermath of Riyadh, the general perception in Pakistan about the IMA has changed. General Sharif has lost much of the popular support he once enjoyed while leading Operation Zarb-e-Azab, a military-led war against terror in Pakistan. He now commands a military alliance that does not have definite objectives and lacks unanimity and direction concerning the “targets” it is supposed to take on.

“It’s an unnatural alliance that has nothing in common insofar as coalition partners are concerned as every country which is named a partner has its own perception and specification of terrorism,” Professor Hamdani, an expert on international relations, told Asia Times on Sunday. He observed that a large part of Pakistan’s Shiite population did not approve of any Islamic force without representation from Shiite majority states, including Iran. The government could therefore land in trouble the moment this military alliance is operationalized against Iran or Iranian “strategic partners” in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, he added.

Media reports are already reporting cracks in the coalition as some partners, including Qatar – with whom several other Arab have just cut ties – have opposed linking Iran with terrorism. The emir of Qatar’s speech post-Riyadh signaled a widening split within the military alliance and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). His assertion that “the real danger lies in the behavior of certain governments which have bred terrorism themselves, by adopting an extreme version of Islam,” is indicative of a widening polarization within the Islamic world.

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