Necessity is the mother of invention: the adage applies perfectly to proposals to create a joint Arab force. The threats facing Arab states are too great for individual countries to handle alone and a joint Arab force is now a prerequisite for successful defence of the region.
Plans to establish such a force have gradually taken shape since it was first mooted during the Sharm El-Sheikh economic summit in March. An extraordinary meeting of Arab chiefs of staff held less than a month after the Sharm summit saw action taken to put the project into effect.
Planning was handed over to a committee of experts reporting to the Joint Defence Council, a body comprising Arab defence and foreign ministers. That it is on target to produce a framework agreement within four months illustrates how seriously the project is being taken.
General Mohamed Ali Bilal, the commander of Egyptian forces during the war to liberate Kuwait, stresses that the political, economic and military dimensions of the project demand a degree of political harmony among its founders.
“When President El-Sisi proposed the initiative it was first referred to the foreign ministry and then to the Arab summit. Subsequently it was discussed on the military level by chiefs-of-staff, after which it was submitted to the committee of experts.”
The Resolute Storm coalition, says Bilal, has been interpreted by some as a blueprint for the joint Arab force despite Cairo and Riyadh insisting this is not the case. Egypt had urged a political solution to the Yemeni crisis, something Saudi Arabia had discounted. Such divergence of views could easily undermine a joint force.
"Countries such as the UAE could work well with Egypt,” says Bilal. “The most likely scenario is that the force will comprise troops from a limited number of countries that agree on security matters.”
The project will face a number of challenges; the history of collective Arab action is rife with instances of projects crumbling before the first hurdle.
Although the recent meeting of the Arab chiefs of staff gave a positive impression - it was the first of its kind for more than five decades - similar experiments in the 1950s and 1960s, and even in the 1990s, met with failure. Arab states have singularly failed to forge a coherent defence bloc.
It should be noted that Egypt’s proposals received a lukewarm response at the Sharm El-Sheikh summit even though they were ultimately included in the resolutions. Riyadh saw hints of Nasserist pan-Arabism in the initiative and only reassessed its position towards Egypt’s proposals for a joint force when Pakistan and Turkey backed out of the Resolute Storm coalition.
Iraq expressed reservations despite the fact that it is the country that could best use the services of a joint Arab force. Baghdad chose to ignore the way Arab-Iranian tensions are playing out in Iraq and instead argued that the idea of a joint force had not been adequately discussed at the Arab level. Algeria, meanwhile, opposed the idea from the start.
There is a degree of ambiguity about the nature of the force. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and the Chief-of-Staff of the Egyptian Army General Mahmoud Hegazi agree that the aim is not to create an Arab alliance or a force that could be used against other nations. And while there are no differences over the name – what is being discussed is universally referred to as the Joint Arab Force – there are differences over its role.
Is the aim to create an Arab equivalent of NATO? Are the troops to serve as a rapid intervention force or a counter terrorist unit? If the latter is the case how is terrorism to be defined? Arabs have frequently been at odds about this. Egypt has designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation while Saudi Arabia has not. Saudi Arabia, but not Cairo, has branded the Houthis a terrorist group.
There are, too, legal aspects to be considered in setting up such a force, says Ayman Salama, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and a professor of international law.
“The terminology must be precise,” he says. “Perhaps the designation multinational force is best since the evidence suggests it will have a flexible composition and is unlikely to be a permanent force."
And when would the force be deployed?
At the chiefs-of-staff council meeting it was suggested that intervention would have to be requested by the leadership of the country concerned, and could only be undertaken without violating the sovereignty of that country and in accordance with the rules of the Arab League and the UN.
Yet such conditions could raise problems when it comes to dealing with future Arab uprisings. Should they be treated as insurrections if the authorities in the country concerned request intervention? Or should they be treated as mass demonstrations by populations aspiring to change?
Other problems emerge when addressing crises in the region. Arab states, after all, take widely divergent positions over a range of pressing concerns. Even the countries that are spearheading the project to create a joint force - Egypt and Saudi Arabia – hold divergent views over a number of issues, not least the Syrian crisis. Both oppose the regime in Damascus but disagree over how to deal with it.
Regional and international alliances further complicate the picture. Most Gulf countries are bound by international defence pacts with the US, the UK and France, delineating a zone of Western influence. And there are regional alliances, between Qatar and Turkey, and Iraq and Iran.
“Gulf and Saudi attempts to reevaluate their strategic alliance with the US in light of Washington’s support for the forces of rebellion in the Arab region were only ever halfhearted and they soon reverted to business as usual in the relationship,” says military expert General Talaat Musallam.
“Experience shows the US cannot be sidelined or neutralised. Storm of Resolve is the best testimony to this. The Fifth Fleet acted beyond its intelligence role, moving into operational mode when Iranian naval vessels entered the Gulf of Aden, moving close to Saudi and Egyptian naval vessels..”
Will any joint Arab force be contingent on US support? It is an important question given that Arab-US military manoeuvres are much larger than inter-Arab exercises.
The project could also attract accusations of double standards, especially from Arab nationalists who will press for the force to act as a deterrent to Israeli aggression.
“Any contention that a joint Arab force will have nothing to do with the Israeli threat to Arab states is unrealistic,” says Sobhi Esseila, director of the Israeli studies unit at Al-Ahram Centre of Political and Strategic Studies.
“The creation of such a force implies a deterrent concept against any potential enemy and, hence, against potential threats from Israel or Iran. In the past the Arab League was the focus of criticisms over its inability to confront Israel. Yet the joint force is being built under the Arab League umbrella. In the event of an Israeli attack against Arabs why shouldn’t intervention be an option?”?
There are also structural challenges in building such a force. It will comprise 40,000 to 60,000 troops drawn from participant countries according to their capacity. Sources close to the talks in the Arab League say offices will be distributed among Arab states along the same lines as the Arab League, with Cairo serving as the headquarters for the command and secretariat.
But while Cairo and Riyadh figure prominently in the picture, what of countries such as Iraq and Algeria that may not be represented due to their particular security circumstances ?
Flexibility over the make-up of the force also begs a number of questions. Is it possible for the force to reflect the way Arab political positions shift, overlap and diverge? Will countries be able to participate, withdraw and then rejoin? Making participation optional would certainly pose challenges in terms of training and the conduct of exercises.
Salama raises interesting questions over the mandate of the force. How will its tasks, duties, responsibilities and scope of activities be set? Structurally, there is a need to determine whether the force is subordinate to a regional organisation - the Arab League - or is a multinational force independent of such an umbrella. In the event of the former, would the Arab League secretary-general also be the force’s secretary-general, able to hold consultations at the highest political levels?
Salama also suggests that the Arab League should consider the substance of UN Charter Chapter VIII and, perhaps, amend its own charter accordingly.
Chapter VIII clearly states that nothing in the UN Charter precludes regional agencies acting to maintain international peace and security provided that such activities are consistent with the principles of the UN Charter. It also states that the Security Council will encourage the peaceful settlement of local disputes through regional agencies but that any enforcement by such agencies requires authorisation from the Security Council.
Problems could also be posed by the lack of regional structural homogeneity. The Arab world comprises the Gulf, North African and sub-Saharan states, with Egypt, at the locus of their intersection. Creating a joint Arab force means this asymmetry would have to be addressed.
Differences in the military creeds of Arab armies could also affect the performance of a joint force. Some national armies have been deeply shaken and weakened structurally and are unlikely to be able to offer much to an emergent joint force. The Iraqi army, for example, is still in the process of being rebuilt and continues to suffer from sectarianism in its composition. The Yemeni army was built on the basis of tribal and clan affiliations for which reason its regiments have been dragged into the civil war.
Military observers and analysts see three possible scenarios for the future a joint force. One is that it will evolve into a defence pact. The Arab region is clearly undergoing a process of reconstitution and a joint force, whatever its inconsistencies, could transform into a pact conditioned by internal and external threats. In this case any problems at the military and structural level are likely to prove less intransigent than political differences. With respect the latter, the possibility that countries opposed to a joint force might create counter defence pacts cannot be ruled out.
A second scenario is that the joint force will be held hostage to regional trends towards stability or crisis. The correlation need not be direct. Stability will not automatically herald the end of any joint force. Indeed, this could be when such a force is needed the most, providing a strategic guarantee for the continuation of stability. Conversely, tensions and crises are not necessarily conducive to the survival of such a force which could ultimately collapse beneath their weight.
In the third scenario a joint force ends up as little more than an outward form. Its institutionalisation within the framework of the Arab League freezes it into the condition of other institutions under the League’s umbrella - structures with no actual role.
Ultimately, a number of balances need to be struck, both political and military. Politicians are the ones who declare war and peace and they are the ones who must determine how the force is funded, give orders in the event of a threat and determine the administrative hierarchy of the force, all of which are potentially thorny issues. At the same time, strategic and military considerations obviously need to be observed in the force’s structure and composition
This article was first published in Ahram Weekly