All eyes on Yemen, joint Arab military forces at Sharm El-Sheikh Arab Summit

Alia Soliman , Sunday 29 Mar 2015

Yemen dominated the Arab Summit held over the weekend in Egypt, with general agreement, though some reservations, on proposals for a joint Arab force to tackle grave regional threats

Arab Summit
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C) speaks during the closing session of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, in the South Sinai governorate, south of Cairo, March 29, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

As the 26th Arab Summit held in Egypt’s coastal city Sharm El-Sheikh wraps up its final day, Arab states unveiled in the closing session that they have agreed in principle to form a joint military force to respond to security threats in the region.

Even though all leaders agreed on the principle of forming the force, some states initially supported or pushed for the decision more than others.

To appease all Arab League member states, the final declaration of the summit came with a conciliatory tone, stating that joining the forces would not be considered binding.

Timing was very critical in this year's Arab Summit. With the situation in Yemen escalating to the point of a regional war, the crisis was on the top of the agenda. Saudi-led forces hammered Yemen, Saudi's southern backyard, in an attempt to control Houthi moves sweeping the war torn state.

Besides Yemen, many other issues were due to be covered in the summit. Arab leaders sought to tackle the most important regional issues of the moment, namely the threat of extremist groups, the Palestinian cause, and unrest in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Yemen in the spotlight

Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Hadi, who fled Aden Thursday after it was taken over by Houthi rebels, welcomed the Saudi-led operation, which he said would defend the Yemeni people against "dark forces" that have undermined popular legitimacy via a coup.

Hadi said the operation is in congruence with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which gives nations the right to collective self-defence, and called for the continuation of the operation until the “complete surrender” of the Houthis.

In an exclusive interview Saturday, Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin told Ahram Online Operation "Decisive Storm" has established new realities on the ground, changing the rules of the game.

Meanwhile, the final communique released Sunday by Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi stressed the need for an urgent response to Yemeni President Hadi's call for a conference in Saudi Arabia under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Egypt earlier announced it was providing military support  which could include boots on the ground  to the Saudi-led regional coalition to restore stability in Yemen "under legitimate leadership" and respond to the "demands of the Yemeni people", according to the Egyptian presidency statement.

"Based on Egypt's responsibility towards Arab national security of the Gulf and the Red Sea region ... it was necessary for Egypt to bear its responsibility," the Egyptian presidency statement read.

So far, Egypt has sent four naval vessels to Yemen, according to military sources, who also said the country is on stand-by for a final decision on military deployment.

Arab League chief Nabil El-Arabi asserted during the closing summit session Sunday that Yemen would be on the verge of destruction if the Saudi-led operation had not taken place.

"We will continue to fight the Houthi rebels until they surrender and hand over their weapons," El-Arabi said.

Although most Arab countries were supportive of the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen, many believed that a joint Arab military force needs to be discussed further.

A joint Arab military force?

Egypt has been highlighting the necessity of establishing a joint Arab military force. Egypt's President El-Sisi has called on several occasions for such a force to "fight terrorism," especially after the Islamic State group beheaded 20 Egyptian Copts in Libya in February.

On Saturday, Egypt submitted a draft resolution to form the joint Arab force and on Sunday announced agreement on the formation of the force.

Egypt’s El-Sisi explained in his closing speech that a "high-level" team will be formed and led by Arab army generals to study means of forming this force.

El-Arabi said in the closing session that the process of setting up a joint force could take five to six months.

Iraq, that opposed the Saudi-led air strikes on the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, was expected to be reluctant on the joint Arab military force.

However, Iraqi President Fuad Muasem clarified his stance on the force to Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat Sunday, saying Iraq supports a joint Arab military force.

"An Arab military force to combat terrorism is a vital issue for any Arab state calling for military assistance ... We have human resources and fighters in Iraq and we can even contribute in forming this force," Muasem said.

Iraq, however, reportedly voiced reservations over the decision that the joint forces are to intervene to meet challenges that threaten the security and safety of any Arab League member at the request of the concerned state.

Iraq’s close ties with Shia Iran gave rise to expectations that the war-torn country would be reluctant about the joint forces proposal, or might have reservations on many points.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari said Thursday that military intervention in Yemen is not the solution. Al-Jaafari, whose Shia-led government is fighting Sunni jihadists in Iraq with Western and Iranian backing, said he supported a "peaceful" approach to the Yemen crisis, AFP reported.

Saudi Arabia, which agreed on the importance of forming the joint force, said the issue requires more negotiations and talks. The kingdom proposed that the issue be discussed during an Arab chiefs of staff meeting to be held next month, a source told Ahram Online.

The summit beyond Yemen

Arab leaders persistently tackled the Palestinian cause throughout the two-day Arab Summit.

The final draft resolution called on Arab countries to support Palestine's budget for one year starting April, and also supported the Palestinian Central Council's resolutions calling for a review of political, economic and security relations with Israel to put pressure on Tel Aviv to respect signed agreements and international resolutions.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on fellow Arab states, during his opening speech Saturday, to protect Jerusalem and support the efforts of its people. He also called for a resolution on refusing any schemes that suggest dividing the Gaza Strip from the rest of Palestine.

El-Arabi underscored the centrality of a just two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during the closing session Sunday.

He discussed threats and civil war conditions in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, adding that these issues are usually tackled in recent Arab summits, yet no concrete action was taken so far.

El-Arabi said Arab countries must coordinate their efforts and exchange intelligence information to combat the threat of terrorism in the region. He also rejected attempts to link extremist groups to Islam, and called on moderate religious institutions to modernise their religious discourse.

El-Arabi stressed the importance of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, calling on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

He added that, "Iran's nuclear programme must be subject to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency."

Short link: