The All-Arab Army?

Why the Arab League's New Force Spells Trouble

Egyptian military helicopters fly around the congress hall during the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, March 28, 2015. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

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.

A Saudi soldier loads ammunition at his position along Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen April 6, 2015.
A Saudi soldier loads ammunition at his position along Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen April 6, 2015. Faisal Al Nasser / Reuters

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

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