On 23-24 May Cairo hosted the second meeting of the chiefs-of-staff of Arab states. Participants drew up the outline of the protocol for the creation of a Joint Arab Force (JAF). Twenty-one Arab League members were represented by their army chiefs-of-staff or their representatives, raising the level of participation since the last meeting a month ago by three. Syria was the only member of the Arab League not represented at the meeting.
Arab League sources say the next step is to refer the draft protocol to the Arab “troika” (Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco), and the Joint National Defence Council which comprises Arab foreign and defence ministers. These will then draw up the final framework of the protocol to be submitted for approval to the next Arab summit, scheduled to be held in March 2016.
Egyptian Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Mahmoud Higazi, who chaired the meeting, says chiefs-of-staff expect to finish their work on the project before 29 June. Sources say that a third chiefs-of-staff meeting will take place within the next two weeks to draw up a final draft after reviewing the feedback participants bring back from discussions in their own countries. The same sources note it was Cairo that developed the overall concept of the protocol before it was put to discussion in the recent meeting and stressed that “all observations from state parties will be taken into account.”
Discussions are not yet over with countries, such as Iraq, which have expressed reservations about the project. Arab League sources stress that negotiations will continue until a consensus is reached.
Some participants have raised concerns over the status of a country such as Syria which has no recognised government and constitutes a threat to Arab national security. Who will decide on any action taken with respect to such a state? Under the protocol the secretary-general of the Arab League would be empowered to act, but who actually issues a resolution calling for action remains a thorny question given the prevalence of inter-Arab disputes.
Ihsan Al-Shamri, professor of political science at Baghdad University and a political adviser to the Iraqi government, told Al-Ahram Weekly that while “Iraq is keen to participate in joint Arab action” the country’s “fragile security situation” means Baghdad is keen to ensure “utmost precision over the terms of engagement and mechanism of operation” of the joint force.
At the end of the meeting Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi lauded what he described as “an accomplishment on the path towards the completion of the construction of an Arab national security system.”
Professor of international law Ayman Salama raises several points concerning the draft protocol. The Arab League secretary-general, he says, will need to appoint an envoy to act as coordinator with the joint force. Salama also believes the protocol should be submitted to the UN secretary-general who could then act as a kind of informal guarantor of its legality.
The preamble to the draft protocol states that participation in the JAF is optional. The opt out clause, says General Talaat Moussa, military adviser at the Nasser Military Academy, is inevitable given the military and political circumstances of many Arab countries. Creating a joint force is a strategic necessity militated by the need to confront the dangers of terrorism and the threats to stability in the region. The Arab countries sponsoring the project - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan - will act as its engine from the outset.
The draft protocol also states that the JAF will engage in rapid military intervention to confront challenges and threats including those posed by terrorist organisations. It will take part in peace keeping operations in member states, safeguard relief and humanitarian assistance operations, and deploy to protect civilians in states of emergency caused by both armed conflict and national disasters. It could also be assigned to protect naval and communication lines, perform search and rescue operations and undertake other missions as deemed necessary by the Supreme Defence Council.
Mohamed Mugahed Al-Zayat, adviser to the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, notes that any counterterrorist mandate will require agreement over what defines terrorism. Will it be restricted to Daesh and Al-Qaeda and their offshoots and affiliates in the region, or will it include political and/or ethnic forces seen as a threat to stability in Yemen, Iraq, the Gulf and elsewhere on the basis of their sectarian agendas?
Ayman Salama raises another question. Given a large part of JAF’s mission will be “defensive and peace-keeping” some framework needs to be put in place to coordinate with other organisations performing the same tasks in the same areas. For example, if there were UN peacekeeping forces present, there has to be a mechanism to ensure coordination.
The draft protocol envisions four levels of command for the joint force. Two are permanent: the Supreme Defence Council and the Council of Chiefs-of-Staff. The other two are the Joint General Command, which is formed by appointment, and the Field Command, determined on a case by case basis. The Supreme Defence Council already exists but the protocol seeks to enhance its role and function. It will meet regularly as opposed to on the basis of need.
The Chiefs-of-Staff Council, on the other hand, is a new body in terms of its assigned functions. The Joint General Command is created by the Supreme Council which appoints a commander general for a renewable two-year term. He will be assisted by a joint chiefs-of-staff authority in which all member-states participate. The Field Command is formed by the Chiefs-of-Staff Council which appoints a field commander from the country in which any operation is carried out. The appointment is made on the basis of consultations with the commander general and the government of the country concerned.
On the creation of the force itself, the draft protocol stipulates that participant states will contribute troops in accordance with their capability and at a level that does not jeopardise the fulfilment of the duties of their national armed forces. The protocol also states that the force is to be equipped to confront threats, counter terrorism and safeguard strategic sites. In ordinary circumstances members of the force will be stationed in their home countries but prepared to be called into action wherever necessary.
There are stipulations with which military expert General Talaat Musallam disagrees.
“Experience tells us this is wrong. There has to be a clear and identifiable body of troops. These troops require practical experience which can only be gained by joint maneuvers. Otherwise they may end up in action not knowing one another. Three-quarters of the success of any operation is contingent on preparation,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
According to the protocol, a state party seeking assistance from the JAF must submit a request for intervention to the secretary-general of the Arab League who will then notify member states. The request will then be submitted to the Supreme Defence Council in order to take a decision. If, for any reason, a state party that is under threat is unable to submit such a request, the secretary-general may take the initiative and notify member states.
This point was discussed at length when it was presented, with some participants referring to the problem of cases such as Syria and others pointing to Libya where the generally recognised government in Tobruk is not recognised by Qatar. With regard to the Libyan crisis, Algeria was vociferous in opposing any foreign intervention. A source who attended the Arab League meeting told the Ahram Weekly that “though Algeria took part in the meeting its final position appears to be shifting towards not being a partner.”
The protocol states that the Supreme Council will set the rate for the annual contribution of each state party towards the JAF’s running costs, while the Chiefs-of-Staff Council is responsible for preparing the force’s annual budget.
The final article of the draft protocol stipulates that, before carrying out any mission, the Joint General Command must reach an agreement with the authorities of the relevant state to organise the entry and exit of troops, guarantee necessary immunity from prosecution, and meet any additional legal understandings.
There must be a contractual arrangement in keeping with the principle of national sovereignty, stresses Salama. How will members of the force be tried should they commit crimes against humanity or other criminal acts in the target country? That each state has its own legal and constitutional frameworks that need to be taken into account underscores how crucial it is to address such matters at the outset.
*This article was first published in Ahram Weekly