A joint Arab coalition against whom?

The Egyptian foreign affairs minister has brought back to the table the idea of establishing a joint Arab force

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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Establishing joint Arab institutions, a joint economic market and a unified currency and passport have always remained mere wishes. Nothing was ever achieved on this level and this is why Arabs become desperate when it comes to the Arab League.

The Egyptian foreign affairs minister has brought back to the table the idea of establishing a joint Arab force at a time when this is specifically-needed as millions of Arabs are pleading for foreign help in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Somalia. As a result of what’s happening to them, the desperation of some Syrians’ has led them to turn to Israel seeking refuge or a cure.

What if there’s a force capable of imposing Arab League decisions by force if that’s what it takes? What if the characteristics of the Arab League membership include the commitment that when threats are posed, members are protected via military power and not just via a powerless joint defense agreement? What if this force’s tasks also include confronting terrorism, chaos and whatever threatens stability of the 20 member states?

Preventing the catastrophe

Arab countries have since the 1940s sought military cooperation to confront Israel. However they didn’t succeed at preventing the catastrophe. They tried but they had poor capabilities and political coordination among them was weak. The Arab League established a deterrent force only once. This force was formed of many Arab forces, mainly Syrian troops, to intervene in Lebanon and end armed confrontations.

However the Syrian regime exploited the Arab League and its power jurisdictions to invade Lebanon under the slogan of protecting it, and it did not exit Lebanon until it further divided it and enhanced the concept of militias in it. The concept of an Arab force is constructive and significant as it gives value to the concept of the League and it also helps the latter gain international significance. Such a force is also required in a region where chaos reigns and at a time when foreign governments and international organizations have enough of military intervention in it after its human, financial and political costs increased.

The concept of an Arab force is constructive and significant as it gives value to the concept of the League

This is how our region is and its fate is for struggles and chaos, which obstruct development and spread fear in the entire world and not just among Arabs, to continue. It’s normal to have the desire to cast away this monster behind all current strife. Intervention and wars are of course difficult tasks and a dangerous risk every time they are launched; however, they are a necessity for survival and they are also one of the tasks of major institutions like the Arab League.

There are many difficulties confronting the establishment of a military power that raises the flag of the Arab League and they mainly concern the decision mechanism and its limits in order to prevent this Arab force from turning into an armed group used to settle political accounts or serve regimes’ interests at the expense of their own people, like the regimes of Syria and Sudan.

‘Imposing stability’

Establishing a force, funding it and leading it are complicated issues which require thinking about all future possibilities and considering all status quos. The first case (Arab intervention in Yemen) enjoys legitimacy and a majority of Arab governments support this military intervention. We can say that intervention in Yemen is a rare case where there is semi-consensus over a huge military operation aimed at protecting the legitimacy of the Yemeni regime as recognized by the Arab League and the United Nations.

The second case is Libya. There’s legitimacy there represented in parliament and the army. However there are many heavily armed opposition groups who took over vast areas of the country and thus besieged this legitimacy. Imposing stability will only be achieved by fighting armed rebellious and extremist groups, and this requires huge Arab military intervention. The problem is that there’s no country that is willing to do what Saudi Arabia did in Yemen - that is ready to launch a direct and large military operation.

The third case is Iraq, where there’s a stronger legitimate government which is in more control than others. However it’s helpless due to the domination of armed parties and above all it’s also subjected to foreign intervention by Iran. In this case, an Arab force could not be included due to sectarian differentiation and the government’s incapability to keep its promises. This has reached the extent where Iraq refused to allow Arab aerial forces to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and only allowed Iran and the U.S.-led western alliance to do so.

The fourth case is Syria where there’s a government that’s no longer legitimate and which has been excluded from the Arab League. Should intervention here be in favor of a besieged regime who committed hideous crimes against its people or should it be in favor of the Syrian people whose tragedies have doubled after more than 10 million were displaced and around a quarter of a million were killed? If the Arab League does have a military force, it’s illogical for it to intervene in favor of the regime. It’s also irrational to watch the tragedy continue, and in this case, there are big legal and logistical problems.

Anyway, the concept of a joint Arab force will confront many difficulties; however, an Arab force which represents one camp in particular may succeed with attaining a permit from the Arab League when necessary.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Friday, March 31, 2015.


Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.

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