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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Egypt’s Sisi revives call for joint Arab military force

The dream of an Arab army has floated around a crisis-prone Middle East for decades, but the rising threat of ISIL in the region has prompted Egypt's president to declare once more such a force for the region.
File picture of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi during a tour of the border area with Libya on February 18, 2015 - days after Cairo bombed ISIL targets there. Photo courtesy of the Egyptian defence ministry/Reuters

CAIRO // When Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah El Sisi declared that there was a pressing and growing need for a joint Arab military force, his words recalled days long gone when Arabs spoke of one nation extending from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

The dream of an Arab army, or even just a joint Arab military force, has floated around a crisis-prone Middle East for decades, mostly because it has been perceived as an effective way to fight Israel.

The closest they got perhaps was during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war when the Egyptian and Syrian armies coordinated their strategy and fought that war with participation from several Arab nations — including Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Morocco — eager to fight against a common enemy.

Dreams and sentimentality aside, there is indeed a growing and pressing need for such a force.

Mr El Sisi’s call in an address to the nation nearly two weeks ago followed persistent media reports since November about the creation of a military alliance and a joint rapid deployment force comprising elite troops backed by fighter jets and helicopter gunships.

The objective of such a force would be to deal with the threat posed by the extremist group ISIL and other militants in places such as Libya, Syria and Iraq.

To Egypt, the threat from Libya, where militant groups recently declared their allegiance to the ISIL, is existential.

So much so that when ISIL released a grisly video that showed the beheading of more than 20 Coptic Christians on a beach, Egyptian jets struck 13 positions belonging to the group in the eastern city of Derna within hours.

For some potential members of the group, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the threat comes from Iraq and Syria.

Mr El Sisi, the only Arab leader to speak publicly on the issue, returned to the subject of a joint Arab force in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television, reassuring everyone that such a force would have a defensive mandate to safeguard its member nations.

“We want to defend our nations and this is the time when we join our hands together,” Mr El Sisi told the Dubai-based television channel on the eve of a brief visit to Saudi Arabia on March 1. “There is a good opportunity now for us to start a discussion about it.”

Already, there has been a marked increase in the number of military exercises involving the nations supposedly interested in joining the proposed force. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have taken the lead on this, with a number of joint ground and naval exercises over the past year.

The proposed force’s mandate — to contain the threat of ISIL — was expanded recently to include a threat no less imminent or dangerous: Iran. Tehran has been winning a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula since September through aiding the Shiite Houthi rebels who overran Yemen’s capital Sanaa.

If militants in Libya are an existential threat to Egypt, a Yemen plunged into chaos and bloody strife with Iran at the centre of it is one for Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, other Gulf Arab nations.

With Iran already wielding vast influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, its presence in Yemen gives the non-Arab, mostly Shiite nation a geopolitical clout that is hard to ignore.

Most importantly, Iran in Yemen gives it effective control over the Bab Al Mandab waterway at the southern entrance of the Red Sea — the second most important waterway in the region after the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has repeatedly threatened to close over the years if there is an outbreak of hostilities.

Mr El Sisi may have wanted to put on a fast track the creation of a joint Arab force, possibly with some western participation. Days after the beheading of the Egyptian Christians, he told a French radio station that a UN-backed force to intervene in Libya was the way forward.

At the time, countries across the sea from Libya, such as France and Italy, appeared to be keen on the proposal. But they were talked out of it by Washington and decided that a UN-sponsored political settlement was the best way out of Libya’s crisis.

The Egyptians lowered their expectations, calling instead for lifting the arms embargo on the Libyan government so the internationally recognised administration that Cairo backs in eastern Libya can be better equipped to fight the militias that took over the capital Tripoli. That too had to be dropped in the face of opposition from western nations such as the UK and US in the UN Security Council.

Now Mr El Sisi and his allies will have no choice but to look to the Arab League for a mandate to intervene in Libya. The Cairo-based grouping may oblige the Egyptians, with its chief Nabil Elaraby calling frequently in recent weeks for the activation of a dormant Arab defence pact adopted by the organisation in the late 1940s.

What no one has yet spoken about publicly, however, is the size of the proposed force and the weapons it would use, as well as its command structure and the location of its headquarters. Other equally vital questions to be answered are: where the force would be deployed and which country would take priority — Yemen, Libya or Iraq and Syria?

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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