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Pact for stability: The Egyptian role in a joint Arab force

The history of collective ‎Arab action is rife with instances of projects crumbling before the first ‎hurdle

Ahmed Eleiba , Monday 11 May 2015
Saudi Arabia
File photo: Saudi soldiers fire artillery toward three armed vehicles approaching the Saudi border with Yemen in Jazan, Saudi Arabia. (Photo: AP)
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Views: 4307

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 

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