Ex­perts cau­tion on joint Arab force

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

The agree­ment at a week­end Arab sum­mit to es­tab­lish a joint mil­i­tary force has raised se­ri­ous doubts about prospects of such a force be­com­ing a re­al­ity on the ground, ex­perts say.

Egyptian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah el- Sissi an­nounced the ac­cord on Sun­day at the end of the sum­mit he hosted in the re­sort of Sharm el- Sheikh, set­ting a four-month time­frame for the 22-mem­ber Arab League to de­cide on the com­po­si­tion and rules of en­gage­ment of the joint force.

“The no­tion of a truly joint Arab mil­i­tary force still re­mains an as­pi­ra­tion rather than a re­al­ity,” said Fred­eric Wehrey, an ex­pert at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace.

He said it faced “in­ter- op­er­abil­ity prob­lems, po­lit­i­cal dis­trust amongst the states and a lack of re­al­is­tic train­ing.”

A host of ques­tions re­main unan­swered, start­ing with how many mem­ber states would par­tic­i­pate and the strength of the force.

Key de­ci­sions also have to be made on whether it would be a per­ma­nent force, on where it would be based and its com­mand struc­ture.

“I don’t think there is a lot of sub­stance to this force,” said James Dorsey, a Mid­dle East an­a­lyst with the Sin­ga­pore-based S. Ra­jarat­nam School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

“De­spite the state­ments of unity, there are vast dif­fer­ences be­tween the Arab states and that w a s ev­i­dent with the sit­uat i on in Ye­men,” he said.

The Arab League has for months stressed the “press­ing need” for a joint force to com­bat “ter­ror­ist groups” such as Is­lamic State group ji­hadists.

But the Saudi- led Arab air strikes l aunched l ast week against Ye­men’s Iran- backed Shi­ite Huthi rebels have high­lighted the diver­gent in­ter­ests and pri­or­i­ties of the League’s mem­bers.

For Sunni-ma­jor­ity coun­tries, the Huthis’ mil­i­tary ad­vance in Ye­men was a step too far, fol­low­ing the spread of Shi­ite Iran’s in­flu­ence in Iraq, Syria and Le­banon.

‘ Threat to na­tional se­cu­rity’

“The prob­lem is that this force can be seen as a Sunni Arab force. It must there­fore prove that its ac­tions will not be guided by sec­tar­i­an­ism,” said Mathieu Guidere, pro­fes­sor of Arab geopol­i­tics at France’s Uni­ver­sity of Toulouse.

“Some coun­tries will neg­a­tively view any in­ter­fer­ence in their do­mes­tic af­fairs, and per­ceive it as a threat to na­tional sovereignty,” Guidere said.

Iraq, whose Shi­ite- led gov­ern­ment is al­lied with Tehran, was the only Arab state to of­fi­cially ex­press reser­va­tions about the joint force at the Sharm elSheikh sum­mit.

“We will never al­low the in­ter­ven­tion of non- Iraqi forces on Iraqi soil,” Bagh­dad’s For­eign Min­is­ter Ibrahim al- Jaa­fari told re­porters on Satur­day. Aaron Reese of the Washi ng­ton­based In­sti­tute for the Study of War said the Ye­men coali­tion pro­vided “a good idea of what a po­ten­tial force might look like.”

Com­mit­ted states such as Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia are “likely to also be highly in­volved in a pos­si­ble joint force,” he said, but it would need longer than four months other coun­tries.

Egypt’s army is the largest in the Arab world and one of its best equipped, while Saudi Ara­bia uses its oil wealth to ac­quire highly so­phis­ti­cated equip­ment.

How­ever, Wehrey said, the Ye­men con­flict was likely to high­light chal­lenges faced by the use of tra­di­tional mil­i­tary power.

“Arab armies are or­ga­nized for con­ven­tional war­fare. Their pro­cure­ment has been fo­cused on high- end pres­tige items that are more suited to fight­ing a con­ven­tional ad­ver­sary than in­sur­gents.”

Egypt, at the fore­front of calls for a joint force, faces the threat of ji­hadists in its west­ern neigh­bor Libya and in its Si­nai Penin­sula in the east.

Reese said Libya was “a log­i­cal fu­ture mission” but also a case in point.

It does not bor­der Saudi Ara­bia and its con­flict does not in­volve Iran, mean­ing “it may be con­sid­ered a less ur­gent mission for some of the coun­tries that signed on to a joint force.”

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