Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Pondering a joint Arab force

While a process has begun on creating a joint Arab military force, not all Arab states appear enthusiastic, with significant questions pending as to its role and limits, reports Ahmed Eleiba from Sharm El-Sheikh

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Next week, Cairo will host a series of meetings on creating a joint Arab force to confront current Arab national security threats, according to decisions reached at the Arab Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, 27-29 March, announced in the Sharm El-Sheikh Declaration.

According to Arab League sources close to the issue, consultations will begin Sunday in a bilateral meeting between Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi and Egyptian Defence Minister General Sedki Sobhi. Meetings between the Chiefs of Staff of Arab armies and senior security and military defence officials are most likely to take place 6-7 April. This group will put forward country proposals on the issue, and later defence and foreign ministers of Arab states will sit together. There will also be a meeting for legal advisers who will review the Arab League Charter and agreements relevant to the matter, such as the Joint Arab Defence Agreement and National Security and Peace Agreement, and give their opinion. In the next three months, a meeting of the Arab Troika (Egypt, chairman of the Arab Summit, Kuwait, previous chair of the summit, and Tunisia, the next chair) will present the outcome and outlines of Arab coordination on the issue. There is also a tentative plan to issue a declaration on the results of these meetings and possibly create the Arab force in July.

From here, in Sharm El-Sheikh, it appears Cairo is taking the lead in creating this joint force and other parties are divided into three camps. One camp is cautiously supportive, such as Saudi Arabia whose monarch King Salman Bin Abdel-Aziz did not refer to the joint force during his speech at the inaugural summit session. Another camp cautiously opposes, including Algeria and Iraq, whose foreign minister, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, said his country is apprehensive because the issue has not been discussed thoroughly. A third camp is fully supportive, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Sudan and Libya. Other countries have not taken a clear position on the issue.

Of these elusive countries, the most notable are the UAE and Jordan. After Egypt carried out air strikes in Derna, Libya, Jordan’s King Abdullah expressed support for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s idea to create a joint Arab force. But he did not hold the same position at the Arab Summit. He piloted himself on his own military plane, but did not give an address at the summit. The same is true of UAE. Several senior UAE political sources said their country completely agrees with Cairo on this project.

Some made a link between the joint Arab force and the Arab coalition formed days before the summit for the war in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia and including eight other Arab countries. However, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri denied the connection.

President Al-Sisi said in his inaugural address at the summit that the proposed joint Arab force was not to confront anyone in particular, and that the goal would be to contribute to desired stability, maintaining the unity of the Arab nation and protecting its capacities. It would also aim to underwrite the aspirations and ambitions of the people, especially as the region is going through difficult times of instability and polarisation. Al-Sisi reiterated the same message during his meeting with a delegation of the German parliamentary majority in Cairo the next day, after the summit.

Some experts on the subject in Cairo believe Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not see eye-to-eye on the matter, and that Egypt still recovering after two revolutions is trying to restore its historic role of leading the region. Meanwhile, there is a belief that Saudi Arabia should lead in the current phase, and there are other details to work out on the founding mechanisms, role and duties of this force, and how it will be used.

Military experts and, most likely, Cairo believe the force will be formed by whomever is present at each step, depending on circumstances and positions on the issue. Cairo does not feel it needs to send its army to boost Gulf security under the umbrella of Gulf leadership, because the Egyptian army believes this should be done within an institutional framework to guarantee these countries will stand by Egypt, such as on the Libyan issue, when Egypt takes a military as well as a political stand. However, this is not the view of the majority of Arab states.

At the first meeting of the Saudi government after the summit chaired by King Salman, the idea was approved as “a principle for action”, which means, according to analysts, it will be considered until a proposal is finalised, and then a decision will be taken on it.

Meanwhile, the US made a point to declare its support for the initiative. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday that the US supports Arab plans to create a united military force to confront growing security threats in the Middle East. Ashton added that the Pentagon would cooperate with it on issues where US and Arab interests coincide.

Abdel-Khalek Abdullah, prominent political science professor at UAE University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that, “Arab and regional conditions are ripe for creating a joint Arab force. There are Arab countries that can no longer confront terrorist militia groups by themselves. We saw how the Houthis in Yemen were able to take over the capital, and the entire country. Another group is occupying territories in Iraq, while others challenge the state in Lebanon. There is a pressing need.”

However, inevitable and pressing needs have rarely translated into reality in Arab political history. The Palestinian cause is a case in point. “It is true,” stated Abdullah. “We do not expect 22 Arab countries who have varying capabilities and resources to agree on one thing.” Arab reality and the Arab League show that there are heavyweights, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait in the Gulf, and Egypt and Algeria in North Africa, that do not agree. “I believe the heavyweights in the Gulf agree on the broad idea,” Abdullah countered, “but they differ on the details: the size of the force, the level and size of participation, its main mission. Roles should be distributed and it is certain negotiations will take place during the process, and even bartering. It will not be a natural and easy birth.”

General Hossam Khairallah, former deputy chief of intelligence and head of the Assessment and Information Authority, told the Weekly that the idea should be viewed through the prism of joint Arab national security. Where does Egypt’s national security align with Gulf national security and Maghreb national security? “There is a dire need, but will this result in reality, that is the question one that can only be answered by collective Arab political will during the three months researching this issue.”

Khairallah, who fought in several wars abroad, most notably in Yemen, added: “It would be best for these troops to form a rapid deployment force and each contingent to be based in its own country, until they are called upon. This was the case of the naval forces that went to Yemen. There should be routine joint war games among members of this force. I believe everyone will benefit.”

For example, when Egyptian forces train on tornado planes or other forces train on special ops that distinguish Egyptian forces, it is certain to raise the competence of participating armies. Khairallah added that we must also ask important questions such as what is the size of the reserve forces that can be deployed to the joint force. “You must still have reserve troops as a precaution against surprises if other contingents are on a mission,” he said. Also, what are the capabilities of forces in turbulent countries, such as Libya?

Khairallah said US support will depend on the mission and that, “the US position on armament is silly. Planes on missions at minimum need maintenance, and we know Washington’s position, for example with Egypt, regarding weapons supplies.”

At the same time, if these troops carry out missions in Yemen will they be given smart bombs to end the war in the mountains and caves? “What will happen if these forces are considering an operation regarding Gaza or the Palestinians in general?” Khairallah asked. “How will Israel and the US react?”

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