Iranian threat, ISIS catalysts for joint Arab force
Dubai - The Arab League decided in its recent meeting in Egypt that it is time for Arabs to have their own joint military force and the chiefs of staff of Arab militaries gathered later in Cairo to discuss ways to bring this long-sought quest into reality.
Arab countries have a joint defence pact that was last put into action in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Previous calls by some leaders to pursue this objective fell on deaf ears but this time the geopolitical situation is quickly changing, heightening threat perceptions in most Arab capitals. Arab regimes feel endangered. Hence a joint military force could become a reality.
So what are the current driving factors to establish this force?
First is Iran’s expansionist policy. The demographic fabric and sovereignty of Arab states is under a strong threat posed by Iran’s attempts to export the Islamic Revolution to Shia Arab communities. Self-proclaimed victories by Iranian officials claiming that Tehran controls four Arab capitals (Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a) raised concerns of the oil-rich Arab Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia that is more or less the centre of gravity of the Arab world. Riyadh and other Arab capitals accuse Iran of enflaming the war in Syria by aiding the regime there in its fight against rebels. They also blame Tehran for the deteriorating conditions in Iraq and Lebanon.
Second is the heightened sectarian tension. Although this is related to Iran’s expansionist policies, it, however, constitutes a strong pressing element with the presence of extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS). This terrorist group has used sectarian rhetoric to mobilise thousands of Muslim Sunni young men to fight Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq and subsequently occupy large areas of the two countries.
ISIS is challenging Arab regimes as to who can better uphold and defend the interests of Arab Sunnis against the Persian-Shia invasion. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Arab regimes to combat terrorism in an escalating sectarian environment. ISIS and similar terrorist groups are as much of a threat to Iran as they are to the rest of the Arab governments.
Third are the improved relations between Iran and the West. The United States and the Europeans surprised their Arab allies with the deal they reached with Tehran over the Iranian nuclear programme. Arab countries have grown alarmed that the West was fine with Iran expanding its influence in the region and threatening them and they are worried that a deal with Iran would be at the expense of Arab interests. Most Arab countries have doubts in the reliability of Washington as a trusted ally that could be counted on to protect them from Iran.
Fourth is the vastly improved capability of Arab militaries. Arab Gulf states have invested heavily in their military over the past three decades and even made big donations to some of the poorer Arab states closely allied with them such as Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, to help them keep their military highly modernised and well-equipped.
The Arab Gulf countries grouped in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plus Egypt, Jordan and Morocco can put together an impressive military force with a formidable air power and navy as well as a sizeable land force. These countries have adopted a Western military doctrine and most of their hardware and systems are inter-operable. They can quickly form the core of a joint Arab force and any other country joining them would be a plus.
These same countries comprise a Saudi-led Arab alliance waging an air campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen to restore the deposed government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Also some of these countries are part of the US-led air campaign against ISIS and terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. So Arab militaries today are more experienced and self-confident than ever and are capable of forming alliances and working within coalitions.
It seems that if this force was to be created it will see action against ISIS and Iranian-backed groups in the Arab world. Therefore fear of Iran might eventually manage to do what the Israeli threat has failed to do, which is to prompt the establishment of a joint Arab force that could intervene in conflicts undermining Arab sovereignty.
Although political hurdles have to be overcome before this force is born — such as determining where the command be based, nationality of the commander, sovereignty questions, legal jurisdiction and so forth — however, common threats and increased fears might do the trick.