By Mustafa Bassiouni – Translator: Pascale Menassa – Source: AL-MONITOR –
The national anthem “Al-Watan al-Akbar” [“The Greatest Homeland”] was playing in the background when the Arab [League] Summit announced its approval of forming a joint Arab military force. History shall definitely remember this as one of the most important decisions of Arab summits, even though decisions that come out of Sharm el-Sheikh summits are usually few.
How this event will go down in history, however, is yet to be determined, depending on several details, such as the formation of a joint Arab force, the participating countries in this force, its objectives and courses of action, in addition to other details that will determine its place in Arab history.
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when talking about building a joint Arab force is that we are witnessing significant change in the regional balance of power. The main military powers regionally are Israel, Turkey and Iran. Consequently, forming a joint Arab force might mean the emergence of a new force that changes the situation, especially since uniting Arab military capacities might lead to one regional force that outdoes all other current ones.
Moreover, this might mean that the Arab nation, the Gulf one in particular, will no longer need a foreign military base on its territories and will replace it with a joint Arab force. This constitutes an immediate challenge to the interests of major powers such as the United States.
If the results and nature of the joint Arab force were indeed as such, then it would go down in history as a pivotal chapter in Arab emancipation.
However, the step to form a joint force — which directly preceded the Arab approval — shows that its intentions are completely different compared with the past.
The Saudi-led military offensive with the participation of Arab states in Yemen and the previous campaign that Saudi Arabia provoked to oppress the Bahraini revolution proves that joint Arab military work is subject to the interests of the wealthier and more influential regimes. It does not necessarily aim to protect the security of Arab states from foreign attacks, or defending the Arab people, for that matter.
Evidently, the wars waged by Israel against Gaza and Lebanon in the past were not marked by the same enthusiasm as the one channeled into the Yemeni crisis, in terms of military and political action.
If we recall the initial call of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in February to form a joint Arab force, we would realize that the main goal that gave rise to the idea was fighting terrorism. This is where it is important to understand the true nature and goals of the joint Arab force, far from the influence of national discourse. The occupation of Palestine and Iraq, the aggression against Lebanon and the deterioration of the situation in Libya, and Somalia before that, were definitely not the main instigators of this call. It was rather the ghost of terrorism that was threatening the Arab nation. Undoubtedly, the rise of the terrorist threat constitutes a strong incentive for military Arab cooperation, just as it had prompted the international powers to form an anti-terrorism alliance to protect their interests in the Arab region and prevent terrorism from seeping into their territories.
Therefore, the joint Arab force project has deviated from the objective of changing regional balances and doing without foreign bases. What countering terrorism needs is very different in its scale and nature.
However, the different Arab states still disagree on the notion of terrorism and on determining the parties that should be fought. They consider some groups terrorist Arab entities, while they see others as resistant or rebellious movements. Arab parties are seeking to integrate some forces into the political process, while other parties insist on uprooting them. How, then, can military cooperation be built amid such divergences in perspectives?
To complicate matters even more, the decision that was issued was quite general and referred the details to the meeting of heads of state participating in building this force.[Egyptian] Ambassador Hani Khalaf, a former assistant foreign minister, told As-Safir, “The proposal did not properly examine the difference in perspectives among Arab parties. Nobody tackled enough the difference between intervention due to deterioration of the security situation to protect society or intervention to the threat from legitimate regimes.” He noted that these “details are important because each option means a different military power.”
Khalaf added, “As for countering terrorism, there should be clear distinction between what is classified as terrorism and what isn’t. Carrying weapons is definitely different from protesting in the streets, even if the goal in both cases is to change the regime.”
He continued, “There is an obvious change in the theory of Arab national security. Historically, Israel was the threatening power for Arab security. But, the force to be built won’t work against Israel. This means that the notion of national security has changed. This force should also work within the foundational system of the Arab League, which states that no intervention in internal affairs or regime changing should happen. Will this force work to protect the regimes from change? This is a quintessential question and requires further probing.”
The truth is that the military campaign in Yemen took off after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi called for it. A similar scenario with minor disparities happened in Bahrain when the Peninsula Shield Force interfered to protect the regime.
Despite the differences, the similarities cannot be ignored. Under pressure of public uprisings, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had to escape Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had to step down.
Were these lessons enough for the Arab regimes to realize the importance of forming a military force that can come to their rescue in case one of them was threatened, whether by revolution or terrorism?
The devil is in the details, as they say. But what is hidden in the details can be revealed through experience. This joint military force won’t benefit Palestinians, and it won’t constitute an alternative for foreign military bases, either. Maybe if it had been formed in 2011, it would have been the salvation of “legitimate” regimes that were toppled by the revolutions.