Arabs to consider joint military force at Egypt summit

AFP , Thursday 26 Mar 2015

Yemeni Foreign Minister Riad Yassin
Yemeni Foreign Minister Riad Yassin, center, arrives to the conference center for a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, Thursday, March 26, 2015 (Photo: AP)

Saudi-led strikes on Yemeni rebels are set to dominate an Arab summit that will consider forming a joint military force as several countries in the region teeter on the brink of collapse.

For years Arab states had contented themselves with directing proxies in regional struggles.

But advances by jihadists in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and Shiite rebels backed by Iran in Yemen, have led to growing calls for direct intervention.

Egypt, the most vocal advocate of a joint Arab force and host of his weekend's summit, has announced its support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and said it would commit ground troops if needed.

Saudi Arabia said more than 10 countries, including five Gulf monarchies, had joined the coalition to prevent the fall of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The Arab League states signed a military defence pact in 1950 to counter the recently created Israel, but with the spread of jihadists the bloc's chief Nabil al-Arabi has said a new type of force is needed with a new mandate.

The long-floated idea was revived by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to combat jihadists from the Islamic State group who have established a foothold in neighbouring Libya and control large parts of Iraq and Syria.

Sisi, a former army chief elected after the ouster his Islamist predecessor, ordered air strikes on jihadists in Libya following the beheading of Egyptian hostages in February.

The joint force proposal has also been thrust into the spotlight by Yemen's call for regional intervention to protect Hadi from rebels who have seized the capital and advanced on his southern stronghold.

Saudi Arabia carried out air strikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen on Wednesday, launching an operation by a regional coalition that has received a pledge of logistical and intelligence support from Washington.

Arab League chief Arabi, who has been tasked with overseeing a report on a joint military force to present to the regional leaders, told AFP that the summit's main focus should be the "terrorist" threat.

"The most important and what I hope will be the major concern of the summit is what to do about the unprecedented threats throughout the Arab word... (from) terrorist organisations," he said.

The two-day summit will start on Saturday in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Sisi said in a recent interview that the proposal for a joint force was welcomed especially by Jordan, which might participate alongside Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

"Each of these countries would bring a different capability," said Aaron Reese, the deputy research director at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

"The Jordanians are well known for their special forces capability," he said. "The Egyptians of course have the most manpower and bases close to Libya."

Prior to the Egyptian air strikes in February, the United Arab Emirates, which shares Cairo's antipathy towards Islamists, had reportedly used Egyptian bases to launch its own air strikes in Libya.

Egypt had sought UN backing for intervention there, dismissing attempted peace talks between the rival governments in Libya as ineffective.

But Reese said shared regional interests might not be enough to overcome the many hurdles to forming a joint force.

"There is a long way to go from pledging support or even coordinating forces toward a truly joint force with a unified command," he said.

Iran, and possibly the United States, might also take umbrage, said Mohamed al-Zayat, the head of the Cairo-based National Centre for Middle East Studies.

"Iran, which is part of the crisis in Syria (by backing President Bashar Al-Assad) and gaining influence in Iraq and Yemen, could be provoked by such a force," he said.

He also questioned whether Washington "can accept a regional force that is not under its control".

*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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