Egypt to press summit for Arab force

Egypt to press summit for Arab force

The Arab summit is the first such major leaders’ gathering in Egypt since El-Sisi took office and Cairo is using it to push for a joint Arab force, writes Salah Nasrawi

Arab countries should forge closer military and security ties, including a security task force to fight terrorism, according to an Egyptian proposal to be discussed at an Arab leadership summit in Sharm El-Sheikh this weekend.

The summit comes amid unprecedented turbulence in the region since the Arab League was founded seventy years ago this month to safeguard members’ independence, national integrity and security.

Turmoil has spread across the Arab world since a series of popular uprisings in 2011 and many Arab countries now face heightened terror threats which have underlined the need for closer regional cooperation to stop the menace.

Ahead of the Summit, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi told the Wall Street Journal that his proposal for a counterterrorism force will be the centerpiece of the summit. He warned that the new force is needed “to preserve what is left” of the stable Arab world.

El-Sisi has become increasingly vocal about the need for Arab military cooperation after jihadists in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and in neighbouring Libya declared their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group, which has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

El-Sisi has clearly stated the goals behind the proposal to form a unified force to fight terrorism in the region. Still no firm details on the proposed alliance, apparently to give other Arab governments a chance to discuss the plan.

The proposal, however, has been subject to a good deal of debate in Arab political circles, including the Arab League. One idea which has been under discussion is the “reactivation” of the League’s Arab Defence and Economic Pact to confront jihadist terrorism and other security threats.

 Under the 1950 agreement member states consider “any attack against one of them as an attack on all” and allows them to use “all steps available, including the use of armed force, to repel the aggression and restore security and peace.”

Ideas to create a joint force have been floated before, but a pan-Arab military alliance has always proved difficult to implement as security policies remain largely a national issue for Arab governments.

The last time Arab Leaders discussed such an idea was at an Arab summit in Riyadh in 2007 when Egypt proposed “a comprehensive concept for pan-Arab security.” The proposal was aimed at creating a “mechanism” to resolve regional conflicts “without foreign intervention.”

The proposal never came close to enjoying the support of a majority of the Arab countries due in part to bickering over competition, sovereignty and national security and defence strategies.

This time it is not expected to be much different even though the hope for closer security cooperation is crucial in confronting the terrorism challenge. Those who oppose the collective counterterrorism project offer several arguments.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Araby has downplayed the idea of reactivating the Arab Defense and Economic Pact. Instead, he suggested “a comprehensive” counterterrorism approach that includes “renewal of the religious discourse” and combating religious extremism in the media.

“The defense pact was signed in 1950 with perceptions which are different from the ones prevailing today. It was meant (to help) Arab countries which face a threat by another state, ostensibly Israel,” El-Araby was quoted as saying in an interview with the Middle East News Agency.

“Now the perceptions about wars and armies have changed. What is important today is that there is a unanimous resolution by the Arab states to confront terrorism,” he said.

Other key disagreements have emerged. Saudi Arabia, for example, is reportedly in favor of a broader defense alliance which includes non-Arab Sunni countries, such as Pakistan and Turkey to contain Iran and its regional Shia allies.

These views underscore sharp differences between those in the Arab governments who want the new security strategy to focus on fighting terrorism and others who give priority to efforts to confront Iran and its Shia allies.

These differences are expected to reflect on the leaders’ discussions on the conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen where they are required to take unified stands on how to confront turmoil in these countries which threatens to spiral into their neighbours.

While Iraq, Syria and Yemen remain wracked by sectarian divisions and political uncertainty, surge of violence and a brutal power struggle in Libya raise the specter of another civil war in the Arab world.

Yet, differences on priorities between the Arab governments are making a unified Arab stand on resolving these conflicts a mission impossible.

One major difference is over Syria’s bloody conflict. While several Arab countries, including Egypt, support a diplomatic solution for the four year old war in Syria, which implicitly means that the negotiations should involve President Bashar Al–Assad, Saudi Arabia leads the camp which pursues a course in which Al-Assad has to step aside, even by force if necessary.

Similarly, the Arab leaders are unlikely to offer tangible solutions to chaos in Iraq and Yemen where the conflicts are increasingly turning into to sectarian wars with wide ranging consequences for the region.

In Libya, Arab countries in North Africa have yet to come to agreement on how to deal effectively with the terrorist groups who have taken advantage of the vacuum of central power and threaten regional stability.

With Iran and the world powers are believed to be close to an agreement on Tehran’s nuclear programme, Iran is expected to top the summit’s discussions.

Here again the summit may be overshadowed by members’ disputes over a potential deal with Iran with Saudi Arabia and some of its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) expected to hold the toughest stance vis-a-vis Iran.

For the kingdom, ending fear of developing nuclear weapons is not going to be the end of the troubles with Iran. Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni governments remain concerned about a larger bargain that will allow Iran to increase its regional influence at their expense.

While a grand deal with Iran will have vast implications on the regional balance of power, options for the Arab countries to confronting Iran seem limited without risking further sectarian division in the region.

Leaders are also expected to ponder on the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process following this month’s re-election of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has disavowed the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his elections campaign.

Efforts to convince Israel to accept an Arab peace initiative, which was endorsed by the Arab summit in 2001 and offers Israel recognition by all Arab League members in return for Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution, have been met with repeated Israeli rejection.

The Palestinian Authority is expected to seek support from the summit to its move to ask a new UN Security Council resolution endorsing Palestinian statehood. El-Araby, told Al-Ahram over the weekend that such a decision has a better chance of winning passage now that the Obama administration is conducting a “reassessment” of its Middle East peace policies.

Among the main topics at the summit’s agenda will be the overhauling the Arab League, including amending its founding document. El-Araby, has repeatedly blamed the League’s failure on its member states, which he accuses of solely making its decisions and forging its policies without much participation from the secretaries or the civil society associations.

One of the main reform suggestions by El-Araby is to amend the League’s charter which he has described as “unsuitable” to meet the challenges faced by the Arab world today.

A committee which was formed to suggest reforms has presented its report to El-Araby. Its conclusions which have been kept secret are expected to be reviewed first by the Arab foreign ministers who meet Thursday before they were submitted to the Arab summit.

Arab diplomats, however, told Al Ahram Weekly that recommendations to rewrite the League’s charter, which was pressed by El-Araby may be deferred for now for further deliberations.

Recommendations to activate the Arab Peace and Security Council which was established in 2007 to boost the League’s work in the prevention, management and resolution of disputes, may be adopted by the summit, the diplomats said.

Though this year’s summit coincides with the 70th anniversary of the Arab League no events have been planned for this important milestone in Arabs’ modern history. The lack of official celebrations probably reflects not only the grim mood in the Arab world but also the low expectations from the summit.

Also, it remains to be seen if any of the key heads of state and government will skip the summit aimed at forming a united front line in the war against terror and other security threats to the Arab world.

 While leaders of Algeria and Oman are expected to stay away for health reasons, chaos in several Arab countries may impact the level of their participation. Among the most notable absentees will be Al-Assad whose country’s membership in the League was suspended after the 2011 uprising.

This article appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on March 26, 2015

The Arab League at 70

The Arab League at 70

The Arab League marks its 70th anniversary this month, but is there much to celebrate, asks Salah Nasrawi

It is 70 years ago this month that Arab leaders agreed to set up a political entity in the midst of a fierce struggle by their peoples for independence from the First World War colonial powers. The goal of the League of the Arab States, as this entity was officially named by its founding fathers, was to propel a united Arab world towards liberation, sovereignty and economic prosperity.

A major objective for the then seven-member organisation was also to help the Palestinians in their struggle against the Zionist Movement and its Western-backed endeavours to create a Jewish State in Palestine.

Yet, 70 years after the founding of the organisation the Arab world today is at a dangerous crossroads. Too many Arab countries are involved in armed conflicts, and political turmoil can be found across the region stretching from the Arab Gulf in the east to the Atlantic coast in the West.

Israel ended up controlling virtually the whole of Palestine after four major wars with the Arabs, leaving generations of Palestinians stateless inside their historic homeland and millions of others homeless around the world. Seven decades after the creation of the pan-Arab organisation, some 360 million Arabs remain trapped either in stagnant repression, poor governance or cycles of strife that rule out the possibility of progress.

Today, the case can be made that the League, founded on a charter to which have been added numerous agreements that have taken it from seven to 22 members, has failed to effectively and actively take the initiative, leading the Arabs facing daunting challenges and many of their countries finding themselves in a state of chaos.

Founding the League: Distinct from a project of federation, confederation or union, the Arab League was established to provide a legal and institutional framework that would bring the Arabs together and provide a platform to serve their interests.

Under its charter the main purpose of the League was to boost relations between the member states, to coordinate their policies in order to achieve cooperation between them, and to safeguard their independence and sovereignty.

However, while many Arabs hoped that the charter had laid the foundations for a strong and effective organisation, the League was ultimately a creature of the post-colonial era which divided the Arab world into separate entities. It could do only as much or as little as the Arab regimes permitted.

One of the main weaknesses of the League lies in its nature as a voluntary association of states, with members refusing to sacrifice some of their sovereignty in favour of closer integration. Its effectiveness has been further hampered by political divisions, rivalry and competition in key areas such as foreign policy and defence.

A key constraint on the Arab League system has been its tightly knit institutional structure which was based on its founding documents that gave decision-making power to the Arab regimes, many of them unelected.

According to the charter, a council composed of representatives of member states is tasked to make decisions and supervise their execution. Each state has a single vote, irrespective of the number of its representatives. This rigid and undemocratic system has made the League captive to the visions and decisions of the representatives of autocratic regimes, rather than to those of the Arab peoples and their civil societies.

A major constraint in the work of the League lies in its institutional capabilities. Its secretary-general and bureaucracy are considered to be “employees” who do not initiate plans or make decisions. The League lacks mechanisms to compel member states to comply with its resolutions, a void that has made it unable to function effectively.

Recognising the need for a more systematic approach in order to ensure the League’s role as a pan-Arab organisation that safeguards the Arab peoples’ interests, several attempts have been made to reform the system to enable the organisation to function more effectively. The current secretary-general, Nabil Al-Araby, has called for institutional reforms to revive the organisation, including of its structure, economic cooperation and citizen participation.

Al-Araby, a former Egyptian foreign minister and international lawyer, has repeatedly blamed the League’s failure on its member states, which he has accused of making its decisions and forging its policies and not the League’s secretariat. His main proposal has been to amend to organisation’s charter, described as being “unsuitable” to meet the challenges faced by the Arab world today.
A committee formed by Al-Araby to make recommendations for reforming the League is expected to submit its report to the Arab Summit in Egypt later this month.

One area where the League has been seen to have failed is in its attempts to help the Palestinians achieve their own independent state. From the outset, the League failed in its attempts to prevent the creation of Israel when a coalition of Arab armies fighting under the League’s military command lost the 1948 War. Subsequent wars and peace overtures have failed to bring a just solution to the problem.

The consequences have been devastating. The Arab-Israeli conflict has become a catalyst for wars and struggles that have exacerbated regional instability and added political challenges to existing economic and other hardships.

Inter-Arab disputes, whether border disputes or power and influence struggles, have also prevented closer cooperation in the political, military and economic spheres, contributing to regional instability and creating more conflicts.

The invasion of Kuwait carried out by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1990, for example, acted as the catalyst for a polarisation that split the Arab world, opening the door to foreign interference that deepened divisions and mistrust between the Arab countries.

A poor harvest: One of the League’s notable failures has been in the field of the economy. According to its charter, the organisation is tasked with coordinating economic cooperation between its member states with the aim of an integrated Arab market.

At its outset the League set up specialised agencies to promote cooperation in the fields of telecommunications, postal services and finance. Later, it established the Arab Common Market in 1965 to provide for the eventual abolition of customs duties on natural resources and agricultural products, the free movement of capital and labour among member states, and coordination of economic development.

But this never happened, and by 2014 inter-Arab trade did not exceed 10 per cent of member state trade volumes, with the rest mostly going to international partners such as China, Japan, the European Union and the United States.

The Arab countries sit atop perhaps half the world’s oil and a third of its natural gas reserves, yet the economies of the region are among the most stagnant in the world because of a lack of sufficient capital. Hundreds of billions of dollars in hydrocarbon wealth from the Arab Gulf countries have been kept in foreign banks instead of being used for badly needed investment in poor or lower-income Arab countries.

Sovereign wealth funds belonging to the Gulf countries were estimated to contain about $5.6 trillion at the end of 2013. They have become key players in world markets, but they are scarcely used for investment purposes in the Arab world.

Overall, economic growth in the Arab countries remains weak. According to the International Monetary Fund, growth in per capita income among the Arab countries has lagged far behind Asia, Latin America and Africa during the past 30 years, and even major oil powers such as Saudi Arabia have fallen behind.

In its 2009 Arab Human Development Report, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) found that, as of 2007, the Arab states as a whole were less industrialised than they were in 1970, with governments using revenues from oil, gas and other outside receipts to sustain unproductive economies that maintain large public sectors and import foreign goods.

In addition, mismanagement, corruption and the dependency of ruling cliques on foreign powers have remained key reasons behind this poor economic record. Economic growth rates have been consistently too low to keep pace with population growth, and most of the Arab countries remain deadlocked and struggling to make ends meet.

Unemployment, particularly among young people and women, remains high, and the size of government is staggering. In its Fourth Unemployment Report, released in September 2014, the Arab Labour Organisation disclosed that unemployment in the Arab world had risen from 14 per cent in 2008 to 16 per cent in 2013.

The phenomenon that helps to exacerbate this problem is the lack of a common regional labour market that would allow nationals of the Arab countries to be able freely to take up employment and settle in other Arab countries. The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are the largest recipients of migrants in the world and host some 16 million workers, but the majority of these are not Arabs.

As a result, Arab economic integration has turned into a ghost of what it could have been, and the Arab League has failed to achieve the minimal goals of the “joint Arab action” wanted by the League’s founders and promoters.

Another dismal shortfall has been in the field of knowledge. Statistics on knowledge indicators such as spending on science, technology and innovation have revealed Arab deficiencies on a major scale. According to the “Overview of the Knowledge Economy in the Arab Region,” written by experts at the United Nations University, the “Arab region is lagging far behind the comparable range of the other world regions and advanced countries, and even behind those of the developing countries.”

Of the top 500 educational institutions in the world, only five are based in the Arab world. In its Academic Ranking of World Universities 2014 (ARWU), the Institute of Higher Education of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) rated two Saudi and one Egyptian university among the 150 to 500 of its top 500 research universities worldwide.

In comparison, Israel has six entries in the top-500 university list, including three among the top 100.

Scientific and university-based research critical to the economic and social development of Arab societies has never been a priority for most Arab governments. The first Arab Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation, or STI, was signed just last year. It remains to be seen if Arab scientists will be able to overcome political and other hurdles and create showcases in their fields.

Several world development and governance indicators also show the Arab world to be in a horrible state of regression. Nine Arab countries came among the 50 fragile states worldwide, according to the Foreign Policy Index of Fragile States for 2014. The 2014 Corruption Perception Index also ranked seven Arab countries among the most corrupt in its 174-country list.

However, Arab countries top the list of the World Happiness Report 2013, which provides critical data on how the world measures economic and social development.

At the edge: The dramatic events that have been unfolding across the Arab world since 2003 are seen by many as being apocalyptic and the result of a collective failure by the Arab countries to advance the Arabs’ political, economic and security goals.

Across the Arab world, countries that were once strategic pillars of the Arab political order are now unravelling, and the whole region seems to be heading towards a massive geopolitical shift that will have far-reaching consequences. The magnitude of the changes that are taking place could barely have been imagined some years ago even by the most pessimistic of Arab world observers.

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and its capture of large chunks of land in Syria and Iraq and proclamation of an “Islamic caliphate” has been a turning point. The group has abolished the borders drawn at the creation of two modern Arab states and raised its black banners over areas stretching from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean.

The war front against terror goes beyond the territory IS has captured in Syria and Iraq, however. Numerous terror groups from Egypt, Algeria, Libya and other countries have now pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and operate in unstable areas like Derna in eastern Libya and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt.

Civil wars are raging in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, while several other Arab countries have been wracked by communal divisions and political uncertainty. In Iraq and Syria the chances are slim that the two countries will remain intact even if IS is defeated. Kurds in both countries are moving toward self-rule, while Sunnis are resisting Shia and Alawite domination.

In Libya, the popular uprising against the former regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has now evolved into a war that could tear the country to pieces. While a civil war is raging in many parts of the country, some parts of eastern Libya have declared their autonomy. The Tuareg tribes in the south are looking for closer bonds with neighbouring countries.

Yemen has entered a turbulent era as Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels now control much of the country after an uprising in September that has deepened divisions among tribal, sectarian and provincial communities fighting over the sharing of wealth and power. A federal system proposed by a UN-led national dialogue following the overthrow of the country’s long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh is in tatters, with southern Yemen now pressing to break away from the north.

Elsewhere, the Arab countries are suffering from the repercussions of regional wars and do not seem to be immune from the ripple effects of Middle East balkanisation. With sectarian strife escalating all around them, governments and large segments of the populations fear that they might be the next ones to be hit by the turmoil.

It has never been plain sailing, but 70 years after the establishment of the League that was intended to safeguard its security and interests, the Arab world now seems to be heading towards a tectonic shift that could redefine its political landscape and century-old national borders. Such changes may take time, but if the momentum continues there will be no Arab world like the one we have known for the past seven decades in a few years.

In many ways, the new political map and the new regional order it will create will be a major setback and an invitation to transform the admittedly imperfect existing order into a chaos in which ethno- and sectarian-based new countries will be pitted against each other.

If the Arab world were to fall apart and be remapped in this manner, it would in many ways be the result of the failure of the Arab League to establish a political order, a security system and a common market that serves Arab interests.

Above all, the League has been unable to give the citizens of its member states an Arab identity alongside the national identities that preserve the region’s diversity. Unlike the citizens of the European Union who can see identity markers in the EU flag, the single currency and the free movement of goods, people, capital and services, the overwhelming majority of Arabs can see nothing of that sort when they look at the region.

Instead, in many cases Arab governments perceive Arab integration to be a threat to national identity.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on March 19, 2015

Caught up in Iraq

Caught up in Iraq

Can Saudi Arabia stop Iran in Iraq, asks Salah Nasrawi

“Iran is taking over Iraq,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal decried last week while slamming Iran’s “hegemonistic tendencies in the region.”  “We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq and God knows where. This must stop if Iran is to be part of the solution of the region and not part of the problem.”

The blunt words by the usually reserved Saudi top diplomat made waves with its most scathing criticism for Iran’s support to Iraq‘s Shia-led government and raised a host of difficult questions about the kingdom’s strategy in dealing with the region’s simmering crises.

Prince Saud broke no new ground on Saudi doctrine on Iraq. Since the overthrow of the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 2003 US-led war Saudi Arabia has viewed Iraq as falling under Iran’s influence and remained reluctant to establish full diplomatic and political ties with the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

But Prince Saud strongly-worded remarks reflect the Sunni Arab powerhouse’s anxiety over Shia Persian Iran’s close and increasing involvement in the sectarian-divided and war-torn country.

Since the stunning territorial victory of the militants in June and their seizure of nearly one third of Iraq’s territories, Iran has escalated its role in Iraq, especially in building the Shia militias. It has mobilised its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to build a massive and effective Iraqi Shia paramilitary force through funding, training and weapon supplies.

Iranian commanders are also spearheading the Iraqi attacks on the IS-held towns, providing tactical expertise to Iraqis. Major-General Qassim Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force, the IGRC’s special operations arm, is directly overseeing the offensives against IS.

Echoing fear of sectarian reprisals during operations to drive IS’s militants out of Sunni towns, Prince Saud had referred to the ongoing offensive in the Sunni-populated Tikrit as an example of the overt Iranian involvement in Iraq.

A combination of some 30,000 Iraqi security forces and the Shia Popular Mobilisation Units launched an offensive to retake Tikrit from the terror group this week. Tikrit, the hometown of former President Saddam Hussein, is viewed as a key foothold for a widely expected assault on Mosul, the IS’s self-declared capital.

Members of Iran-backed Shia militias who are part of the Popular Mobilisation Units have been accused of abuses against civilians in areas Iraqi forces have retaken from Islamic State. Human rights groups also are fearful the campaign in Tikrit could lead to atrocities.

Perhaps the most worrying sign to Saudi Arabia about Iran’s influence in Iraq remains rhetoric by Iranian leaders which reflect Tehran’s ambitions in Iraq.

On Sunday, Ali Younesi, a senior advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani boasted that Iraq has already become part of Iran.

“Iran today has become an empire as it was throughout history and its capital now is Baghdad in Iraq, which is the center of our civilization and our culture and identity today as it was in the past.”

Right now Iran is only helping Iraqis in battling IS. Still, Saudi leaders are wondering how much influence will Iran have in Iraq if the militants are evicted from all of the country and if this cozy relationship between the two countries is anything to be concerned about.

In short, Saudi Arabia believes that by increasing its control over Shia communities in Iraq and the region and through the persistent expansion of its influence, Iran is pursuing a power politics of the national interest. This has created enormous problems to Saudi Arabia which finds its leadership role in the Muslim Sunni world is being challenged by Iran.

In order to confront Iran, Saudi Arabia has tried a four-pronged approach to influence events in Iraq, without much success.

First, Saudi Arabia believes that empowerment of Iraqi Sunni Arabs is key to not only to put an end to their exclusion following Saddam’s ouster but also to resist Iranian influence in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia has largely relied on its traditional checkbook diplomacy to cement close connections with Iraqi Sunni tribes and political and religious figures to bolster their capacity politically and financially.

However, despite its generous support no viable and credible Iraqi Sunni leadership has emerged. Until the Sunni minority develops a united voice and platform to engage with Shia majority, Saudi Arabia will find it difficult to effectively push for meaningful change in Iranian pro-Shia policy in the country.

Moreover, accusations that Saudi Arabia’s policy somehow plays a role in supporting jihadi-style extremism has undermined the kingdom’s ability in advancing the Iraqi Sunni’s interests.

Second, Riyadh had resorted to oil as a weapon to have more latitude over Iran and the Shia-led government in Iraq. As the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia can threaten the Iranian and Iraqi economies if it chooses to keep production high and prices low.

One way to do that is to continue its hands-off policy toward falling oil prices to screw its arch enemies in the region, the Iranians and the Iraqi Shia government.

But while the lower oil prices have harmed Iran’s and Iraq’s economic short term prospects their governments have worked hard to repair the damage caused by falling revenues.

Still, there is no doubt that Iran will continue military and political backing of its Iraqi Shia allies in the confrontation with IS even if it has to grapple with economic difficulties caused by oil prices’ slump.

Indeed, Tehran is showing no signs of battle fatigue and it is probably ahead of the game in clash with Saudi Arabia over other regional disputes, such as Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

Third, Saudi Arabia has been trying to block a possible rapprochement between Iran and the United States following a potential nuclear deal with Iran. Knowing that the deal is neither directly nor exclusively about the nuclear issue Riyadh has been seeking assurance from Washington that there will be no “grand bargain” with Iran.

Here again Riyadh’s choices seems to be limited. Although the Obama administration tried to ease the kingdom’s concerns about a “comprehensive” deal with Iran, a nuclear agreement now seems more likely.

The United States also does not seem to see to eye to eye with Saudi Arabia about Iran’s role in Iraq. Last week top US general Martin Dempsey said Iran’s involvement in the fight against IS in Iraq could be “a positive step”, as long as the situation does not descend into sectarianism.

The military chief also claimed that almost two thirds of the 30,000 offensive were Iranian-backed militiamen, meaning that without Iranian assistance and Soleimani’s guidance, the offensive on IS-held towns may not have been possible.

Finally, Saudi Arabia has been trying to build a broad regional Sunni bloc to curtail Iran’s and Shia’s rising influence. A great deal of this Saudi effort is to engage largely Sunni-populated Turkey in shaping this bipolar regional sectarian system.

Nevertheless, such an alliance will have vast implications on the regional balance of power and has the potential to reshape relationships throughout the Middle East. Turkey which has succeeded in staying away from regional sectarian polarization may find it counterproductive to be part of a Sunni bloc against its powerful eastern neighbour and the entire Shia world.

As many Turkish commentators wrote following a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Riyadh last month an anti-Iran or anti-Shia front will only escalate sectarian tensions in the region and has no benefit for Turkey and any other country.

In addition, such an alliance will put Ankara’s key strategic interests such the Kurdish issue and its relations with its vast Allawite minority at risks.

Any assessment of Iran’s role in Iraq since Saddam’s downfall will show that Tehran has exploited Iraq’s 12 year old conflict to weaken the country and create outcomes that are likely to give it leverage over its Sunni neighbors and deprive them of strategic advantages and create new sources of threat.

Yet, Saudi Arabia and other Iraq’s Sunni neighbours have equally failed to come up with a viable plan to stop Iraq’s ethno sectarian conflict staying on a steady boil to threaten regional stability.

Unfortunately, the prospect of sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is expected to escalate, with sources of tension evident across the region. Nowhere this competition for power and influence is more evident than in Iraq which is expected to bear most of its devastating consequences.

This article first published in Al Ahram Weekly on March 12, 2015

In quest of an Arab force

In quest of an Arab force

Egypt is pressing ahead with proposals for a joint Arab force to counter the threat of terrorism, writes Salah Nasrawi

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi flew to Riyadh this week to discuss with Saudi King Salman his proposals for a joint Arab force to combat terrorism as the Middle East continues to be overtaken by political unrest.

Thus far there have been no signs that Salman, who succeeded his half-brother King Abdullah, a staunch supporter of Al-Sisi, earlier this year, has endorsed the proposals, raising questions about the new monarch’s strategy to manage regional turmoil.

Ahead of his visit, Al-Sisi told two leading Saudi media outlets that he hoped Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries will join the military alliance, which he described as badly needed to safeguard the region’s security and stability.

“We have the capacity to form a credible force and [send] a strong message to potential adversaries that they cannot threaten us if we remain united, and terrorists cannot hurt us unless we stay disunited,” Al-Sisi told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in an interview.

“We are presenting this proposal to our brothers, and there is an opportunity to start a discussion on how to achieve the security and stability of our countries,” Al-Sisi told the Al-Arabiya television network in another interview

While Jordan’s King Abdullah has supported the proposals, Al-Sisi said, he hopes that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates will join in.

Al-Sisi has become increasingly vocal about the need for Arab military cooperation after Islamist radicals in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and in neighbouring Libya declared their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group, which has seized large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

He has urged Arab countries to form a unified force to fight terrorism in the region after Egyptian air strikes last month targeted IS jihadists in the Libyan coastal city of Derna in retaliation for the slaughter of 21 Egyptian Christians.

The proposals are expected to top the agenda of an Arab League summit in Sharm El-Sheikh later this month. Arab League Chief Nabil Al-Arabi said the summit, which will be headed by Al-Sisi, will discuss the “re-activation” of the Arab Defence and Economic Pact to confront jihadist terrorism and other security threats.

Under the 1950 agreement setting up the Economic Pact, the 22 League members consider “any attack against one of them as an attack on all” and allows them to use “all steps available, including the use of armed force, to repel the aggression and restore security and peace.”

Ideas to create a joint force have been floated before, but a pan-Arab military alliance has always proved difficult to achieve as security strategies remain largely a national issue for Arab governments.

At an Arab summit in Riyadh in 2007, leaders discussed an Egyptian proposal to adopt “a comprehensive concept for pan-Arab security.” The proposal was aimed at creating a “mechanism” to resolve regional conflicts “without foreign intervention.”

A year earlier at an Arab summit in Khartoum, Arab leaders made plans to set up an Arab Peace and Security Council that would be tasked with settling inter-Arab disputes, including the use of peacekeeping forces in hotspots.

The plan has never been implemented due in part to squabbles over sovereignty and national security and defence policies.

Separately, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has already set up the Gulf Shield Defence Force. The six-member council has also decided to create both a joint naval force and a common counter-terrorist body.

So far, these and other security-related agreements have largely proved ineffective or have remained unenforced.

But security in the Arab world has become a key concern in the current transformations that have swept across much of the Arab world after a series of popular uprisings in 2011 against some of the region’s worst autocratic regimes.

Political turmoil and the failure of state rebuilding that followed have given rise to chaos, violence and terrorism, prompting regional governments to search for better security frameworks.

Though A-Sisi has firmly and clearly stated the goals behind the proposals, Egyptian officials have disclosed few details about the envisioned military alliance.

On 27 February, the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat quoted a “well-informed” Egyptian official as saying the proposed force would be largely Egyptian with “symbolic participation from other countries.”

“The troops will be based in Cairo but will have units that depend mostly on commandos and rapid deployment forces with a joint command,” the official was quoted as saying.

The joint operational command will draw up plans, supervise training and prepare the force to be deployed in hotspots, he said.

Countries with armies will provide troops, while other partners will provide logistic support, the official said.

It is also not clear how the potential partners in the Egyptian-proposed alliance will shift from unilateral anti-terrorism approaches to a multilateral policy. While most Arab governments agree on the need to combat terrorism, they do not see eye to eye on how to eliminate its threats.

Saudi officials have not publicly reacted to Al-Sisi’s proposals or to the report in Al-Hayat. Following Al-Sisi’s talks with King Salman, the official Saudi Press Agency reported only that the two leaders had “reviewed regional and world developments.”

But several Saudi commentators closely connected to the royal family and usually reflecting official Saudi views have been outspoken about evidence of differing Egyptian and Saudi priorities over regional security issues.

A key disagreement revealed by these writers concerns the kingdom’s preference for an alliance that brings together Egypt and the rest of the Sunni Arab countries with Turkey to confront Iran and its regional Shia proxies.

Writing in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper on the same day Al-Sisi visited Riyadh, prominent Saudi columnist Khaled Al-Dukheil said the kingdom is interested in Egypt joining a Saudi-Turkish-led alliance.

“Under current circumstances, this triangle is a strategic necessity that will restore some of the balance after the fall of Iraq and Syria. In addition, it will form a defence against the destructive Iranian role,” he wrote.

“Turkey is a pillar of this region,” he added. “Will Egypt be moving, even a bit, in the direction started by Saudi Arabia?” Al-Dukheil asked.

Another Saudi writer, Jamal Khashoggi, questioned Egypt’s strategy against jihadists in Libya and warned Cairo against getting “carried away” by its air strikes on Derna.

“Those who love Egypt should prevent it from falling into the trap of Da’esh and going into a war in Libya,” he wrote in Al-Hayat, using IS’s Arabic acronym.

In a Twitter posting, Khashoggi even denied earlier reports that Egypt had already sent troops to the Saudi-Yemeni border to help the kingdom secure the restive area, saying that the Saudis can defend themselves.

These views underscore sharp differences between Cairo and Riyadh in approaching regional security problems. While Egypt feels threatened by the jihadists and believes that Turkey’s support for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood fuels unrest, Saudi Arabia seems to give priority to wooing Turkey in its efforts to confront Iran and its Shia allies.

The arguments of the Saudi writers show another fundamental difference between Cairo and Riyadh over the validity of the US-led international coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria.

Cairo has repeatedly talked about double standards in the way the coalition is dealing with IS in Iraq and Syria militarily, while insisting on a political solution for the crisis in Libya.

Though Egypt has backed the alliance, it has not taken part in the coalition’s air strikes in Syria. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which wants to oust Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Egypt calls for a political solution to the crisis in Syria.

Speculation that the Obama administration is trying to forge a grand Middle East peace settlement with Iran through its nuclear negotiations have sent ripples of alarm through Riyadh and other Gulf capitals.

Saudi Arabia, which has long relied on US protection, seems still to be hoping that the international coalition will be a positive force in curtailing Iranian influence.

To be sure, the differences over how to confront the growing threat of terrorism and other security challenges paint a grim picture of the Arab world. Much of it is in a mess, with the instability worsening.

Nevertheless, the region’s leaders remain as divided as ever, even as they admit that they face an existential threat as never before since the modern Arab states came into being some one hundred years ago.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on March 5, 2015