Time to Put Arab Boots on the Ground

7 June 2015

On 17 December 2010 a Tunisian, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in an act of protest. This was followed in many Arab countries by widespread demonstrations calling for democracy, respect for human rights, a better life and more equitable sharing of national wealth. All that the world sees after nearly five years of Arab Spring is internal strife, war, displacement of people and suffering.

Underlying the current state of affairs are ideological differences, power struggles, tribal and regional conflicts of interest and above all sectarian divisions. But whatever the reason, Arab Spring’s constant feature is Arabs fighting Arabs in endless fratricide. This has created great opportunities for terrorist organizations such as Daesh, al Qaida and al Nusra to entrench themselves across the region and in the case of Daesh claim large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. In the face of such disaster Arab countries remain as divided as ever thereby rendering the concept of “the Arab nation”, once referred to with well-deserved pride and later aspired to with hope, a total myth.

Nevertheless, in the absence of other tools of policy, reviving “Arab identity”, restoring and raising it above other elements of identity can be explored as an instrument in bridging the sectarian divide. Today defeating Daesh and overcoming this divide are inexorably linked. The former may help facilitate the latter.

At the end of the 26th Arab League summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2015, participating leaders announced the establishment of a unified Arab force to address regional security challenges. The project was also addressed at the US-GCC summit meeting held at Camp David in mid-May. Leaders agreed to set up a senior working group to pursue the development of rapid response capabilities, taking into account the Arab League’s concept of a “unified Arab force” to mount or contribute in a coordinated way to counter-terrorism, peacekeeping and stabilization operations in the region.

Many observers are inclined to see this as a distant dream in the face of current Arab divisions. Others believe that if and when the idea is put into practice it would end up being a Sunni force thus exacerbating the sectarian division rather than mitigating it. To put it briefly, not many have much hope or optimistic forecast regarding its materialization.

Yet, since no external power is ready and willing to put boots on the ground, fighting Daesh with a unified Arab force may constitute a credible incentive for its creation and a test for the much desired political cohesion of the Arab world. It is hard to visualize a more imminent and present threat to their statehood than Daesh for them to mobilize their collective will and capabilities to fight it.

Iran would oppose the project and will try to scuttle it. Baghdad would be extremely uncomfortable. But Iraqi armed forces have not yet proven themselves as up to the task, given that Baghdad has failed even in dealing with the plight of those who had to flee Ramadi following Daesh takeover of the city. There would also be opposition by certain circles in some Arab countries and fears of a backlash. But Daesh has now given evidence of its reach inside Saudi Arabia by bombing Shiite mosques in order to provoke sectarian conflict. This should be a wake-up call for Riyadh. The people of Jordan could not possibly have forgotten air force pilot Kasaesbeh’s tragic end in the hands of Daesh militants. Egypt can make a major contribution to such an initiative.

To overcome such objections and other difficulties the US and Russia will have to act together; use their power of persuasion with regional countries; provide political guidance and technical support. Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov repeatedly refer to their countries’ ability “to make a difference”. This is the time and place to make such a difference and offer the international community the evidence. But encouraging Arab countries to collectively fight Daesh is only part of the problem. They would also need to work closely on Syria and encourage the founding of a transitional government. And they would have to overcome Iran’s objections. The attitude Tehran takes towards such a project will also shed light on its future intentions. Should the fight against Daesh prove to be successful then the all-Arab force may be employed in peace-keeping missions in Iraq and Syria to help political transition.

All of this may seem highly improbable not to say unrealistic. But there should be nothing wrong with searching for an Arab solution to what is essentially an Arab problem. President Obama’s meeting with Iraqi PM al-Abadi tomorrow provides a good opportunity to explore new options.

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