Senior military officials from Egypt, Jordan, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the US were scheduled to meet yesterday in Kuwait on Wednesday to discuss a preliminary plan for military coordination.
The plan, said an informed Egyptian official source, will address security issues in the Gulf, the Red Sea and maybe elsewhere in the Arab Mashreq.
Although the Egyptian source would not reveal details of the plan or whether or not it is making progress, a Cairo-based Western diplomat said the US is pushing its Arab allies to agree to share responsibility for regional security as Washington seeks to reduce its intervention in the region.
The source said the subject has been discussed in bilateral talks between the US and its Arab allies for a while now and some progress on a formula has been made.
The Kuwaiti military meeting is being held at the same time as the Bright Star drills. The military exercises began this week and included military units from all the states attending the Kuwaiti meeting.
“There are serious regional security issues that we share with these countries. Despite growing tensions we are not anticipating a military show-down between Iran and the US but Gulf security remains a major concern,” the Egyptian source said. He added that there are “deep concerns over Red Sea security”, given the failure of diplomatic attempts to kick-start a political process that might end the four-year war in Yemen in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are both heavily engaged.
“And of course there is the situation in Syria with a heavy non-Arab military presence, including Iran, along with militant groups.”
Issues related to regional security and stability were also up for discussion during the regular autumn Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Tuesday afternoon, as Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press.
While the ministerial meeting was not scheduled to examine any regional security arrangements it was expected to issue a statement underlining the concern of member states over instability in the region, and to call on parties to the many regional conflicts to end their disputes.
An informed Arab diplomat said the Palestinian issue remained central for the Arab ministerial meeting.
“It is very clear there will not be an agreement any time soon ending the Palestinian conflict,” he said.
Despite the continued obstacles faced by Egyptian mediators as they try to encourage reconciliation between Palestinian factions, sources say Cairo remains committed to pursuing an agreement.
Cairo, they add, has secured the cooperation of Hamas and most other factions and has been using the intervention of Riyadh, Amman and other capitals to persuade Mahmoud Abbas to show “more flexibility” towards Egyptian attempts to broker a partial re-connect between Gaza, which has been under the unilateral control of Hamas for over a decade, and Ramallah, under the control of the Fatah-dominated PA.
So far Abbas has not changed his position despite the US decision, announced earlier this week, to close down the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic mission in Washington, seen by many commentators as a crude attempt to punish the PA for refusing ideas that the US, in cooperation with its regional allies, is floating to end the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.
A PA source said that Abbas will not change his position. He does not find Cairo’s ideas compatible with a united Palestinian front; neither does he find the initial US peace plan compatible with the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.
On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, the PA source said, Abbas will underline his views on what it will take to move forward on the path of Palestinian reconciliation and restart the long stalled Middle East peace process.
“Closing down the Palestinian mission in the US capital after having moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, suspending the US contribution to UNRWA and having a US diplomatic team that issues orders and pressures regional players to push the PA towards embracing ideas that it finds detrimental to the peace process rather than engaging in talks is not what is needed to fix the situation,” the PA source said.
The US has so far failed to offer its supposedly comprehensive plan to end the Palestinian-Israeli struggle and it is expected that the issue will be subject to wide-ranging debate during the UNGA meetings that open next Tuesday at the New York headquarters of the UN.
“Of course it will be there, especially given the different views the US and most of its European allies hold on the matter, but it will not top the regional agenda. It will play second fiddle to Iran, Syria, Libya and Yemen,” says a Cairo-based European diplomat.
Egypt has always maintained that it cannot compromise its border with Gaza and will refuse anything other than a closed border policy as long as Hamas has no stable truce with Israel or a reconciliation plan with the PA.
During his talks in New York President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, scheduled to head the Egyptian delegation, is expected to ask all concerned interlocutors to move forward on a plan to improve the economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Al-Sisi will also discuss regional security ideas already brought up in the Kuwait meeting. Egypt’s president has repeatedly said no chances can be taken when it comes to the Gulf or Red Sea security.
During his meetings with regional and world leaders Al-Sisi, who has long advocated the need to prioritise security and the central role of strong national armies in the management of both Syria and Libya, is also expected to press Cairo’s take on its troubled neighbours, ie support for hands-on rulers Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and Khalifa Haftar in Libya.
The ability of “strong national armies” to bring stability to Libya and Syria is questioned in many world capitals and has been treated with scepticism by the UN envoys to both states.
Members of the delegations of both envoys say the UNGA will offer a venue for a new round of consultations on disturbing developments as fears grow of a bloody attack by Russian/Iranian supported Assad forces on Idlib and inter-militia fighting in Libya continues, with both Haftar and his rival Fayez Al-Saraj unable to bring stability back to war-torn Libya.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Pursuing regional stability