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Is Saudi Arabia's 'Islamic Military Alliance' Spin or Gamechanger?

At least one of the 34 countries listed by Saudi Arabia appeared surprised to be included in the group spanning the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
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Saudi Arabia's newly unveiled "Islamic military alliance" might have strength in numbers but appears short on substance, according to analysts.

The kingdom's announcement of the 34-nation coalition to combat terrorism on Monday night offered few details beyond the names of those involved and that an operations center would be set up in Riyadh.

Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Lebanon welcomed the alliance and confirmed their roles. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, the only NATO member in the coalition, called it the "best response to those who are trying to associate terror and Islam."

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Most of the countries on the list, though, failed to publicly confirm their participation — and at least one appeared surprised to be included in the group spanning the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Palestinian Foreign Ministry spokesman Taisser Jaradat told NBC News on Tuesday that he knows "nothing about it" and only learned about the coalition through the media.

"How can we fight terrorism? We need some one to help us," Jaradat said.

There was muted reaction from Washington, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying the alliance wouldn't be a replacement for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS.

Saudi Arabia's announcement came amid criticism from the U.S. that Arab nations must do more to fight terrorism and was seen as part of the kingdom's longstanding push to cast itself as a leader in the Islamic world on critical global issues.

It also was issued with timing: Saudi Arabia has been leading an Islamic coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and the announcement of the coalition came just as a cease-fire there went into effect.

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"Some Saudis have had second thoughts about the Yemen war which has not produced the decisive victory promised early on," according to Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and who spent 30 years with the CIA. "A high-profile diplomatic and military event may quiet those doubts, at least for a time."

He said that in addition to countering criticism from U.S. officials that Saudis must do more to battle ISIS, the alliance could prove popular domestically with Saudis who want a "more energetic" foreign policy.

"An effective Islamic counterterrorism military entente could mobilize Islamic states against al Qaeda and the Islamic State," Riedel said. "It could also be a platform for more effective counter-measures in the ideological battle by mobilizing Islamic clerics."

Still, he added, "the Arab world has been talking about military alliances since the 1940s but has yet to produce a serious arrangement" — and some of the names both on and off this current coalition's lineup have cast doubt on whether this one will be effective.

The absence of Saudi Arabia's Shiite rival Iran from the list of participants — along with Iraq — has set off a few alarm bells.

Riyadh sees Iran as a patron state sponsor of terrorism for backing the Houthis in Yemen and Assad regime in Syria and considers Iraq's government a pawn of Tehran, Riedel said.

"For Riyadh the battle against Iran is as important as the battle against al Qaeda and Islamic State, perhaps even more important," Riedel explained.

The Shiite chairman of Iraqi parliament's security and defense committee dismissed the "sectarian" coalition by saying it "doesn't represent" Islam. Hakim Al-Zamili told local news agencies the coalition has an "agenda" to support the U.S. and Israel — not Arabs or Muslims. However, the Sunni bloc in Iraq's parliament welcomed news of the alliance and urged Iraq's government to join.

Meanwhile, Oman — which refused to join the war against the Houthis in Yemen and brokered this week's cease-fire there — also isn't on the list. Neither is Afghanistan — which has been waging war against Islamist extremists for years — or Algeria, the largest Muslim country in Africa.

"Algeria has been fighting al Qaeda for over a decade and has the largest and most modern army in Africa," Riedel said in an email. "Its absence weakens the clout of the alliance."

Several African nations with questionable military prowess are on the list while others — like Mali, Nigeria, Chad — already have their hands full battling Islamist extremism, according to analysts.

Saudi Arabia said the coalition is aimed at taking on all terror — not just ISIS — which gives West Africa particular incentive to get involved given the links between Boko Haram and ISIS in North Africa, along with the scourge of al Qaeda-linked groups.

Still, the sheer scope of the alliance might doom its success from the get-go.

The participants' "conflicting interests within the region reduce their ability to develop coherent policies against" ISIS, IHS Janes warned in an analyst note. It said the coalition is unlikely to have the desired effect unless the countries involved are willing to use ground troops.

Participants such as Egypt and Pakistan both have large and capable militaries — but previously have refused to offer up ground troops in support of Saudi-led operations in Yemen. It said others, like Qatar and Turkey, could be seen as Saudi rivals in Syria and Iraq.

Afghanistan, which is grappling with a resurgent Taliban and an increasing number of attacks by ISIS militants, said it had been invited but was still deciding on whether to join.

Meanwhile, participants such as Mauritania, Niger, Lebanon, and Libya, the Comoros Islands have "very little capability to project force outside their borders," IHS Janes warned in an analyst note.

"The Islamic State can only be defeated by the capture and proper policing of territories it controls and there is no evidence as of yet that the alliance will provide the forces necessary to do that," it said.