Defence Minister Khawaja Asif on Friday confirmed that former army chief General (retd) Raheel Sharif has been appointed the commander of the Saudi-led 39-nation military coalition to combat terrorism.

The purpose of the alliance is to “protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups… whatever their sect.” The coalition has stated that it will fight terrorists in “Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan”. However, the alliance has been criticised for enforcing the same sectarian and regional cleavages that have plagued the Middle East for decades.

For one, it does not include Iran and is “Sunni-only”. An international alliance that side-lines Iran is bound make the sectarian dimensions of the war in Syria and Yemen more pronounced. Iran, as part of the alliance could have been pressurised to moderate its positions. While the US has welcomed the alliance to combat IS, it has been called “a sectarian coalition” by Hakeem Azameli, a member of the Security and Defense Commission in the Iraqi parliament. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen also stressed that it should be a part of the Vienna process involving all countries fighting against IS like the US, Europe, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and also include Iran and China.

Secondly, Pakistan not joining and heading such a coalition may have been the last straw for Saudi Arabia. In 2015 the Saudi government asked Islamabad for warplanes, warships and soldiers to assist in the conflict against Houthi forces in Yemen besides joining the Saudi-led military coalition and was refused. The Saudi government was upset and stated, “The Kingdom felt betrayed”. While pledging military support to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heavy alliance feels a betrayal of our sovereign stand to not become part of the Middle Eastern quagmire, continually offending the GCC countries is not pragmatic either.

The combined strength of the alliance presents a formidable force. This strength is further bolstered with the intimidation value of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and Turkish industrial and military expertise. But the alliance may be unable to intimidate the enemy as most countries in the alliance have deep-rooted problems of terrorism, or supporting terrorism, or are tied to the direction the US or NATO forces want to take in the region.

While it is natural to be sceptical about an Islamic military alliance, at least the right man is in charge. Pakistan needs to clean up the mess of terrorism at home, before putting its soldiers in Syria or Iraq. Hopefully General Sharif can make sure Pakistan is not forced to take decisions that would make it a party to one of the bloodiest and most complex humanitarian disasters of our time.