A joint Arab military force is easier said than done
Washington - Creating a joint Arab military force is easier said than done. While Arab leaders, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, endorsed the idea at a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh late March, making that force a reality is highly problematic due to political and logistical issues. More likely, individual Arab countries might send contingents to a country facing an emergency — similar to what happened in the Gulf War of 1990-91 — but they will be reluctant to put their troops in a joint force given differences over command and control as well as when and where to intervene.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi first proposed the idea of a joint Arab military force in the wake of the brutal killings of Egyptian Coptic Christians by an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate in Libya in February. He took the idea to the Arab summit the following month.
He told the media before the summit that such a force is needed to “preserve what is left” of stability in the Arab world. And at the summit, he said that a joint force is warranted because of “great challenges facing our Arab nation”.
With the strong backing of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the summit endorsed the idea of a joint force “in principle”.
Egyptian officials have said the joint military force would be made up of approximately 40,000 elite troops and supported by jets, warships and light armour. Contributions to the force would be “voluntary”, meaning that no state would be compelled to join. Arab foreign ministers endorsed a resolution in favour of the force and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said the resolution “sends a clear message that the Arab states can agree on a plan to defend themselves”.
Cairo hosted a follow-up meeting of Arab armies’ chiefs of staff in April that dealt with how the force will be created, its role and financing along with tasks of each state, according to reporters who interviewed some of the participants.
Egypt has benefited from the publicity generated by the joint military force idea. At the March Arab summit, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, currently in exile, praised Egypt for being the “pulsing heart of Arabism” for supporting Arab security. Sisi may genuinely believe such a force is necessary considering the terrorist threats and other sources of instability in the region, but he undoubtedly also sees the benefit of pushing a proposal that is strongly backed by his Saudi benefactors.
That said, many questions remain about a joint force as similar proposals made several decades earlier never came to fruition. In 1950, in the wake of the Arab defeat in the first Arab-Israeli war, members of the Arab League signed the Joint Defence and Economic Cooperation Treaty that was supposed to create a joint military force, but nothing came of the idea.
Although some Arab states have inserted troops into troubled areas and have fought together, they have largely done so under their own commands or as part of a coalition force. Placing one Arab country’s troops under the command of a military leader of another Arab country is rare.
Such a proposed force would probably have either an Egyptian or a Saudi military leader, given that these two countries have emerged as dominant players in the region and are the main backers of the idea. But even though Egypt has supported Saudi attacks against Houthi rebels in Yemen with air strikes and the deployment of naval ships to the Bab el Mandeb strait, Cairo and Riyadh do not agree on every issue.
For example, on Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are cooperating to provide military aid to anti- Assad rebel forces, many of which are Islamist in orientation, whereas Egypt wants a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis and is opposed to Turkey because of Ankara’s support for the banned Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Elaraby has stressed that the joint military force would not be a new alliance or an “army hostile to any country, but a force to fight terrorism and maintain security, peace and stability in the region”. But not all Arab countries agree. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, for example, expressed misgivings about such a military force presumably because he sees it as potential hammer against Baghdad’s Iranian allies.
Hence, a joint Arab military force, if it comes together at all, may have difficulty even deciding where and when to intervene.