Why an Arab expeditionary force is needed
Dubai - Following the Camp David summit between US President Barack Obama and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leadership, many speculated whether the American leader addressed core issues of concern among Arab states regarding Iranian regional hegemonic aspirations.
The Americans reiterated their military commitment to come to the aid of GCC countries should they be on the receiving end of an Iranian military blitz.
The looming question remains however: What to do regarding Iran’s arguably as dangerous and capable unconventional force that poses a plausibly deniable and yet strategic threat to Arab interests in the region?
From the Gulf to the Levant, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards-al- Quds Force, the special external operations arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps is active in training, arming, politically indoctrinating and enabling a vast network of local Shia militant proxies. Arab states have no real mechanism that can match Iran’s capability in the unconventional warfare realm.
John Hannah, a former senior Bush administration official, wrote recently in Foreign Policy that “Gulf leaders came away with the understanding that Obama is ready to establish a very serious, high-priority US programme to train, arm and develop a dedicated force — drawn presumably from the militaries of the Arab and Sunni world — that would be capable of deploying to regional hotspots to do battle with Iran…”
The suggestion that Arab states could develop an expeditionary capability has long been a topic of discussion among military analysts but the geopolitical realities, intra-Arab distrust and a singular focus on procuring high-end, long-range standoff strike capability and munitions has overshadowed any substantive discussion on just what it would take for GCC and regionally allied states to develop a nimble and capable force that can match the Iranian network.
First, Iran enjoys a head start in this realm. Al-Quds Force has been steadily building its network among Shia Arab communities since the 1979 revolution. It is a network united by total adherence to the political and religious supremacy of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the Marja-i Taqlid (source of emulation). It is a network that deftly incorporates humanitarian, economic and educational aid to gain the support of civilians. Al-Quds Force essentially thrives in the art of state-sponsored insurgency (whether active or passive) on a grand scale to serve the strategic aims of Tehran throughout the Arab world.
Iran’s budding nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programmes offer tangible and easily identifiable targets. Al-Quds Force network, and its string of local auxiliaries, is more amorphous. In that sense, Iran has been steadily outflanking Arab states using relatively low technology and low cost means.
Nonetheless, Arab leaders recognise that the true nature of the Iranian threat will not culminate with a nuclear bang but will emerge at a low boil. It is an understanding based on al-Quds Force proliferation of Shia militant groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian Alawite National Defence Forces, Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah, and — closer to home in the Gulf — the Houthis in Yemen and elements of the Bahraini 14 February Youth Coalition.
So how can the Arabs begin to shift from the defensive and finally go on the offensive in the Middle Eastern version of the Cold War?
First, renewed dedication to inter-operability is required among GCC military forces. Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen surprised sceptics in the West by demonstrating that GCC states can, in fact, coordinate and operate new and advanced recently procured hardware. As crucial, was the establishment of a joint command that seamlessly integrated data-and-communication systems among GCC partners to enable effective targeting of Houthi forces and military installations.
A Sunni Arab model of al-Quds Force will require integration among special operations commands of the GCC. This will likely prove more difficult given varying regional political agendas but there is a model and precedence in place — albeit at a small scale — for successful asymmetric warfare cooperation.
The regional support provided to Sunni rebels in Syria from Jordan and southern Turkey offers a starting point. While Iranian al-Quds Force and Hezbollah officers oversee a unified chain of command that directs Shia foreign fighters and Alawite militias in Syria, there is yet a comparative Sunni Arab command that helps manage the Sunni insurgents.
Although, Sunni insurgents in northern Syria are increasingly unified under the banner of the Conquest Army, the Sunni rebel Southern Front remains wholly separate. Unifying the two will require a decisive political decision by Arab states. As Soviet forces and their proxies once succumbed to an initially weaker Afghan resistance, Iran and its Shia network in Syria is increasingly under strain.
In other words, Syria may prove to be the undoing of al-Quds Force if Arab states invest not just in the requisite resources in empowering Sunni rebels but in a bold vision to take a page out of Iran’s playbook and defeat it at its own game.
Despite sanctions, Iran has committed billions in its unconventional warfare efforts and proxy development. Arab states will have to match that by empowering capable local Sunni forces. The civilian-military divide will be a thin one when it comes to this arena. Aid efforts will have to be subsumed under military command. A central training centre and forward operating bases will have to be established. This will mean coordinating with Iraqi Sunni tribes, the Kurds and bypassing Lebanese armed forces in favour of a new Sunni-supported unit.
A Sunni expeditionary force will not be cheap but it will prove cost effective if Arab states are to avoid being trapped in the Shia vice that Iran is steadily erecting around the Arab periphery.
The Iranians will, of course, complain loudly of interference in the affairs of “sovereign” states that they nominally control — as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah does when he claims he is standing up for national interests of Lebanon.
An Arab answer to al-Quds Force and to its leader Qassem Soleimani is long overdue.