Arab League approves creation of joint military force. But will it really happen?

The Arab League has some plans for unified military force. It is not a new idea, but in the light of the military operation in Yemen what’s your view on this, would you say this could lead to something concrete, could it have some impact on the regional dynamics? Read few comments.

Sean Foley, Associate Professor, Department of History, Middle Tennessee State University

Arabs have tried (and failed) many times to develop closer regional military ties through the Arab League and other organizations.  Even the most successful pan-Arab organization, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a union of Saudi Arabia and its small oil-producing neighbors, has failed to develop a unified military force. Indeed, the current Saudi-led multinational military operation in Yemen does not include Oman, a state that is a member of the GCC and has a long border with Yemen.

Were a unified pan-Arab military organization to come into existence, it could be an important new factor in regional politics. But it will face vast challenges in Yemen, which has frustrated foreign powers for years. The Turks still sing ballads about their soldiers who died in Yemen in World War I, while Egypt suffered catastrophic losses there in the 1960s. Those losses were so catastrophic that some historians ask whether Egypt’s experience there should be known as “Egypt’s Vietnam” or whether America’s experience in Vietnam should in fact be known as “America’s Yemen.”

Mehran Kamrava, Director, Center for International and Regional Studies, Professor, School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Georgetown University

The Arab League, similar to the GCC, comes together in moments of crisis, sets aside its multiple divisions and internal tensions, and makes grand declarations and plans about its unity and its determination to confront joint threats. The declaration to create a unified military that would counter various threats is no exception. Earlier in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, Saudi Arabia similarly proposed the expansion of the GCC to include Morocco and Jordan to strengthen Arab unity. The primary purpose of the proposed join military is for Saudi Arabia to rally the other Arab countries in its efforts to contain the supposed threat of Iranian influence, which appears to be growing at the expense of the Saudis. Also, the Saudis see a real threat in ISIS and in Yemen, which is close to or even inside their own territory. Whether or not the joint military force will actually become a reality or will mean anything if it does become a reality is an open question. Current circumstances have created conditions for a marriage of convenience among multiple actors with very different agendas. How long the marriage will last is anyone’s guess.

Michael Herb, Associate Professor of Political Science, Georgia State University

There is no doubt that the events in Yemen are having a major effect on the region. While Sisi has announced a joint military force, past experience suggests very strongly that the individual Arab states will retain control of their own military forces. This will not result in any substantial step toward Arab integration, of the sort discussed so frequently in the past.

There are a couple of other things that are notable.

First, I am struck by the degree of concern that the events of Yemen have produced in the Gulf. This is seen as a really serious crisis. Partly this is because of the sectarian dimension to events in Yemen, and the role of Iran.

Second, the coalition assembled by Saudi Arabia to respond to the crisis is impressive.

Third, in the Arab press the operation is called “Decisive Storm,” which is an awkward translation, but in Arabic has clear resonance with the earlier, American led, “Desert Storm.” The initial reliance on air power is also notable.

Fourth, air power might well blunt the advance of the Houthis. But it certainly will not achieve any sort of long term stability in Yemen, which is what Saudi Arabia, the US, and other regional powers would like to achieve. Given Yemen’s deep problems, we will likely be hearing a lot about Yemen for a good while to come.

Jean-Marc Rickli, Assistant Professor, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London and Qatar National Defence College

The record of creating a joint military force among Arab countries is fraught with failures. The only success is the GCC Peninsula Shield Force intervention in Bahrain. Yet, the forces deployed were mainly Saudi with a small contribution of Emirati units. The key problem of Arab military cooperation is the lack of trusts between the Arab states. Considering this poor record, the operation in Yemen is quite remarkable in its scope and in the number of Arab states contributing to this coalition.

The concomitant announcement of the creation of a joint Arab force is a response to several geopolitical transformations in the Middle East. Firstly since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Arab countries have lost confidence in the commitment of the USA in the region. The policy of Washington towards Syria and Egypt and the perceived so-called pivot to Asia of the US military have done nothing to reassure about the US commitment to the region. Secondly, the rise of Sunni fundamentalism through the establishment of the Islamic State represents a key threat to the survival of the Arab states. Finally, the active foreign policy of Iran using proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen has created a sense of urgency among the Arab Sunni states. These developments have contributed to the Arab states setting aside their differences (e. g. between Qatar and the UAE) and offer a united front to address these new threats to the survival of these regimes. Thus, the conditions for the creation of a truly Arab force have never been so good. Yet, major issues have to be solved before it materializes. The issue of lack of trust will have to be overcome not just temporarily but over the long term and this will not prove easy. From an operational perspective the Arab military forces completely lack interoperability, which is key for developing a joint force. Thus, massive investments in working with the same standards, principles and doctrines, and joint training will have to be done. If this project succeeds, which is very unlikely, if either Egypt or Saudi Arabia do not take the lead, then it could send a strong signal to Tehran that the Arab Sunni states are able to work together and that Iran will face a unified coalition. Yet, before this materializes, one has to see if the decision taken in Sharm el-Sheikh will be followed by concrete actions and if the Arab states will overcome their historical lack of trust for cooperation.

James M. DorseySenior Fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

Its an idea that has been floating around for many years. There is however no reason to believe that it has any more sustainability now. Even with the current dynamics, differences among the Arab nations are visible that make a permanent, effective long-term united Arab military force unlikely.

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