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Andrew Leber

An army for the Arab League?

Will the Arab League ever command its own dedicated military force? [Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 10 March, 2015

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Analysis: An pan-Arab military force is likely to be largely comprised of Egyptian troops operating under the banner of the Arab League.
The Arab League made headlines this week when Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi called for the establishment of a joint fighting force, one aimed at combating the spread of extremist groups.

"There is an urgent need for the creation of a multi-purpose common Arab military force... able to intervene rapidly to fight terrorism and the activities of terrorist groups," he told a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo.

According to an unnamed Egyptian source quoted in the London-based daily al-Hayat, the unified command would be a multilateral rapid deployment force based in Cairo. Forces would be primarily Egyptian (the country has the largest standing army of any League member) "with symbolic participation from other Arab forces," whether in the form of troops, equipment, or logistical support.

As attractive as this might seem to some, it is unlikely to come to pass, at least not soon.

The creation of such a force will form a major topic of discussion at the March 28-29 Arab League Summit in Sharm al-Sheikh. The proposal follows months of Egyptian clamouring for such a force, particularly after the execution of 21 Egyptian Christians at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) in Libya.

Greater coordination

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has strongly advocated for greater security coordination against terrorism in numerous media interviews as well as Arab capitals from Algiers to Riyadh, especially after Western powers rejected Egyptian calls for a renewed UN intervention in Libya.

As attractive as this might seem to some - an Arab League fighting force to resolve regional Arab conflicts, on the model of the African Union's Standby Force - it is unlikely to come to pass, at least not soon. Even the far more regionally concentrated Gulf Cooperation Council has struggled to implement a common defense force, despite discussions on the topic stretching back to 1981.

The core issue is one of sovereignty, which the Arab League Charter holds sacrosanct. Any proposal would have to earn the backing of the fractious League's member states, overriding deep disagreements about how to prioritise threats to the region. Given weak enforcement mechanisms under the Charter's article 7, League resolutions are only binding for members that ratify them, requiring near-unanimity for broad action.

The resulting lack of coordination has plagued efforts toward collective Arab security since the League's inception.

Arabi, for example, has referred to the 1950 Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation, proposed in the wake of the disastrous Arab League effort in the 1948 war with Israel. Though the Treaty aimed to set up regional bodies for mutual defense planning, it took over a decade for it to be ratified by all member states.

From 1964, an Egyptian-led effort at forming a United Arab Command eventually foundered over issues of poor coordination, leaving partner nations Egypt, Jordan and Syria woefully underprepared for the 1967 war with Israel.

Even Article 2 of the 1950 agreement, which condemns acts of aggression against any of the League's member states, has failed to prove a unifying force. Ostensibly designed with an attack from Israel in mind, the Article has proved difficult to enforce with regards to other conflicts. The League failed to formulate a common position on the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the resulting Gulf war, or the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

Currently, the most prominent rift lies between Egypt and Qatar, with the two countries holding starkly different outlooks on the role of political Islam in the region. This divide erupted at a February League meeting, where Qatari reservations over Egyptian air strikes against IS in Derna drew Egyptian accusations of supporting terrorism.

Beyond this, it has not escaped the notice of regional observers that the top priority for such an Egypt-centric force would undoubtedly be Sunni extremists in Sinai and Libya, rather than addressing the conflict in Syria and Iraq or a brewing civil war in Yemen.

Who would support and Arab League force?

Any proposal to use force would have to earn the backing of the League's member states, which are deeply divided on how to prioritise threats.

It is difficult to believe that the proposal would attract much support beyond a core alliance of Sunni states, chiefly Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Even Saudi Arabia, a strong supporter of the Sisi government, would likely prefer Egypt joining a Saudi-Turkish alliance aimed at confronting Shia extremism in the region. Notably, it was Sisi who travelled to Riyadh to convince King Salman of the merits of the proposal, and not the other way around.

In the past, only exceptional events demanding at least some display of Arab unity, such as the Second Intifada, have provoked major joint action by the league. Hence the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative aimed at ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, unanimously adopted at the 2002 Beirut summit.

Likewise, the brutal crackdowns of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 compelled a rare degree of action from the League. The Libyan opposition was recognized at the League, at the expense of Qaddafi, while a joint resolution called for the Western-led intervention that resulted in his downfall. Likewise, the League suspended Syria's membership, imposed sanctions on the regime, and attempted to mediate in the conflict, though by 2012 it had referred the matter to the UN.

At best, the proposal might gain traction among a core group of countries within the Arab League, though it will remain a League entity in name only. Securing even this support, though, might require Egypt to at least outwardly play to Gulf fears of Shia expansionism and Iranian influence in Yemen. Given Egypt's own troubled military history in Yemen, and their concerns with unrest in its own neighborhood, it is unlikely that Sisi or Arabi would be willing to do so.

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