Dim prospects for Arab military unity

Even if this force is created, it could end up exacerbating the very problems it aims to resolve.

    Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi attending the Arab League summit in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh [Getty]
    Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi attending the Arab League summit in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh [Getty]

    For those who have long yearned for Arab unity, Sunday's agreement at the Arab League summit to create a unified military force falls far short of such hopes. Similar plans in the past have been still-born, and given current regional tensions and divisions, this new initiative may face the same fate.

    Even if this force is created, it faces so many crises and hurdles that it could end up being not just ineffective, but exacerbating the very problems it aims to resolve.

    Two of the issues most affecting the region are over-militarisation and sectarianism. The creation of an additional force - one comprised of Sunni-majority or Sunni-ruled states - may compound those problems.

    Sisi: Arab nations to create joint military force

    Details so far are sketchy - the chiefs of staff of Arab League member states are to meet within a month to iron out details - but available information does not provide cause for optimism.

    Fundamentally, an effective unified military requires political unity, which does not exist. There are opposing alliances, and even disagreements within those alliances over certain issues.

    Inter-Arab divisions 

    The force will be voluntary, with Arab states deciding individually whether to partake in particular missions. The voluntary nature seems to be an attempt to stop the force from crumbling in the wake of inter-Arab divisions over specific operations.

    However, this jars with Egyptian officials saying it would comprise some 40,000 elite troops, supported by war planes, naval vessels and light armour. This resembles a standing army rather than a volunteer force. Either way, it cannot be effective in terms of organisation, training, coordination or combat if elements of it can be removed and added at will.

    Its effectiveness is also in doubt due to its proposed size, which would likely be insufficient with regard to any of the Arab world's worst crises individually let alone simultaneously. Furthermore, missions that are protracted or costly in terms of lives and resources will result in public backlashes among countries involved and those that are supposed to benefit.

    It will be viewed by many not so much as a truly pan-Arab military intended to solve regional issues, but rather as a tool for certain countries to throw their weight around.


    Egypt's foreign minister, whose president proposed the force, said it would undertake "quick and effective missions". However, none of the region's most pressing problems can be effectively tackled quickly. This raises questions about whether the force's clout is being overestimated, or whether it is intended to take on relatively minor missions.

    Between key states that have already opted out or expressed reservations (Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria), and other states that lack the economic or military resources to contribute, there will at most only ever be half of the 22 Arab League member states to choose from, and even among them there are tensions.

    Legitimacy of governments

    Most of the potential contributors are autocracies, which hardly lends credibility to the goal of defending the "legitimacy" of governments, as with Operation Decisive Storm vis-a-vis Yemen.

    And governments seem to be the primary beneficiaries, since only a state can ask for the force's intervention, not those suffering from state abuses.

    As such, it may embolden governments against domestic unrest, and contribute to an escalation of already prevalent internal abuses if authorities feel they have regional backing or an added sense of impunity due to the force's limited remit.

    The force is reportedly to be stationed in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and will likely be funded primarily by Gulf Arab states. As such, it will be viewed by many not so much as a truly pan-Arab military intended to solve regional issues, but rather as a tool for certain countries to throw their weight around.

    This impression of vested interests will be compounded by a US statement that it welcomes the creation of such a force and will work with it when mutual interests align, because "these are partners and security allies of ours".

    Actions and statements thus far raise questions about what, if anything, the force will be used for. The Guardian newspaper reported that "the move was aimed primarily at the ongoing threat posed" by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

    However, the governments of the two countries most affected by the jihadist group - Iraq and Syria - have expressed reservations about the force, and would not use it due to its likely composition and their alliance with Iran.

    Intractable conflicts

    Besides, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby has already ruled out the force intervening in Syria, saying: "Who will you intervene against? The Syrian situation is very complicated, and there are non-Arab parties in it."

    So between the need for a state request, an uncomplicated situation and no non-Arab parties involved, what is left for the force to tackle? In addition, Araby's statement implies, rather puzzlingly and contrary to the notion of Arab unity, that it is more feasible or preferable to use the force against Arab parties than external threats. The alternative, however - intervening in various intractable conflicts and facing an array of powerful enemies - is also unrealistic.

    The force will be of no use to those suffering from arguably the longest injustice in the region: the Palestinians. Intervention on their behalf was not discussed at the Arab League meeting, Araby said. Besides the force being no match for Israel's military, even the will would be lacking, with Egypt and Jordan at peace with Israel, and other states unwilling to risk their relationship with the US.

    In short, the prospects for the establishment of a unified Arab military is dim, and its chances of success even dimmer. 

    Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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