Last week, Sharm el-Sheikh hosted the 26th Arab League summit. It ended with a bang. In the final communiqué, the organization of 22 Arab states announced the establishment of a "unified Arab force" to address regional security challenges.
At first glance, the Arab League’s decision seems laudable. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hailed the decision as a historic step to fight extremism and "to protect Arab national security." Arab League General Secretary Nabil Elaraby celebrated the resolution as a watershed given the "unprecedented unrest and threats endured by the Arab world," and U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter endorsed the plan as "a good thing." The Saudi pro-government daily al-Riyadh even proclaimed the rebirth of the Arab League as a “resurrected breathing, speaking, acting body."
However, the envisioned Arab League military force would have severe negative repercussions for sectarian relations in the greater Middle East. After all, the announcement was made as a Saudi-led military force continued to bombard alleged Iranian-backed Shia insurgents in Yemen and as Western negotiators raced to finalize a framework nuclear agreement with Iran.
So far, details of the proposed Arab force remain vague. The summit formally requested participating nations’ chiefs of staff to draft a comprehensive plan to be presented to the Arab League's Joint Defense Council within three months. Until then, the scope and character of the envisioned force can be assessed only through press statements. Officials have described it as comprising up to 40,000 elite troops, supported by naval and air capabilities. Saudi Arabia is expected to provide most of the funding, and Egypt is likely to contribute the bulk of the personnel. Other Arab countries, such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, will make smaller contributions. The headquarters will probably be in Riyadh or Cairo.
In an article on ForeignAffairs.com a year ago, I wrote about the Arab League’s diminishing role in regional politics. I argued that the Arab League needed to “transform from an ineffective forum for debate into a venue for genuine decision-making." At the time, I expressed some hope that the ongoing disaster in Syria would “do for the Arab League what the Rwanda genocide did for the African Union.” In 2004, spurred by the humanitarian disaster, the African Union had parted from its principle of nonintervention and state sovereignty by establishing a 15-member Peace and Security Council for the “prevention, management and resolution of conflicts.”
In a sense, escalating tensions with Iran and the unprecedented rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham did energize the Arab League. But some skepticism is in order about the new force’s ability to serve as a pillar of regional stability.
Essentially, last week’s announcement resulted in the factual exclusion of Shia Arabs from Mesopotamia to the Levant from the heart of the organization, and has thus greatly increased polarization within the Arab world. As a consequence, the Arab League might become more effective, but it will certainly become less comprehensive and inclusive. Action will come at the expense of division.
Already, the cracks are plain to see. The Arab summit based its call for new force on the Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation agreement, signed by the founding members of the Arab League in June 1950. Confronted with defeat in Israel’s War of Independence, the signatory states pledged "to draw up plans of joint defense." The implicit target was the newly founded Jewish state, and Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen raised no formal objection, although they never followed up with significant concrete steps.
Today is a different game. Damascus was already suspended from the Arab League as of the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and thus could not object to the proposal, but both Beirut and Baghdad voiced serious reservations. That is unsurprising, given that both countries are home to significant Shia populations and powerful Shia political parties. Thus, on the final day of the summit, General Secretary Elaraby was obliged to announce Iraqi objections "due to the lack of preliminary dialogue about the initiative." Only shortly afterward, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraqi minister of foreign affairs, warned of “Arab-Arab conflict” and the opening of “a new page of war,” referencing the intervention of Saudi King Salman in Yemen. Similarly, the government of Lebanon urged the Arab League to carry out only “unanimous Arab decisions,” which echoed Hezbollah’s earlier criticisms of the intervention in Yemen as "unjust aggression."
The Arab League does require unanimity for binding decisions, so supporters of the joint Arab force were forced to label contributions as voluntary. As a consequence, any future joint Arab force under the umbrella of the Arab League is likely to look very much like the coalition of Sunni states currently engaged in Yemen. Thus, instead of becoming a forum for pan-Arab unity, the force may very well transform the Arab League into a tool of Sunni sectarianism.
That is, if the force ever becomes a reality. Even among Sunni states, decadelong tensions have hardly been resolved. Certainly, a rapprochement between Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia is noticeable. For years, they had remained at odds over Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt withdrew its envoy from Doha in January 2014, and only last week, the Qatari ambassador returned to Cairo. On the one hand, the closing of Sunni ranks in Yemen could prove to be a lasting anti-Iranian front between the different Sunni states. On the other hand, the question of how best to act in Libya, Syria, and the areas under de facto ISIS control in Iraq, for instance, will remain hard to answer with one common voice.
And that isn’t even accounting for the political difficulties in pooling sovereignty in the sacrosanct field of Arab security apparatuses. Given the weak track record of Arab cooperation even on less controversial issues, setting up comprehensive and formalized hierarchical military structures will be a substantial political challenge. Consider the track record of military and security cooperation of the Arab League’s northern neighbor: the European Union. Despite comprehensive political integration including a common market, a common currency, and myriad other institutions, the European Union still regularly struggles to find a common voice on foreign and security issues. That is not, however, for lack of trying; the very notion of a joint European military predates even the founding of the European Community. Winston Churchill called upon the Council of Europe in 1950 to create “a European army under a unified command," a call echoed two months later by French Premier René Pleven. More recently, similar plans resurfaced in calls from EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to set up “a joint EU army.”
No such institution has ever materialized. Although member states have enlisted EU “battle groups” for humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, these forces have never been deployed. The reason: a common European military would have to be the result of a common European foreign policy, not its initiator. Imagine how much greater the challenges will be for the Arab League.
Against this backdrop, the Sharm el-Sheikh summit appears not so much a breakthrough or a breakdown but, rather, a public celebration of sectarian confrontation against Shia Arab communities and Iran. Although the establishment of a truly representative Arab force operating under the auspices of a reformed and comprehensive Arab League and in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter would be a welcome addition to the region, the suggested “unified Arab force” is not. Such an approach might be helpful in glossing over underlying tensions among Sunni states, but it has the potential to weaken the Arab League as a whole and to fuel already broiling Arab-Iranian tensions. Just like his role model Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sisi concluded his summit remarks by exclaiming “long live the Arab nation” three times. In the new Arab League, however, the Arab nation seems to only extend to Sunnis. Welcome, then, to the Sunni League.