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Can this joint Arab military force succeed where others have failed?

The Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheikh last weekend agreed to create a unified Arab command for a joint Arab military force. This is an old idea which has eluded the Arabs for decades. 

The Sharm summit brought together most— but far from all— the Arab heads of state. Among the most prominent no-shows were Morocco’s King Muhammad, Algeria’s President Bouteflika, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, and the UAE’s President Khalifah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Health reasons explain some— but not all— these absences. Syrian President Asad was of course not invited, and Libya has no government. 

The Arab leaders did endorse the air campaign in Yemen requested by Yemeni President Hadi, now in exile. The summit also called for a meeting of Arab military chiefs of staff to be held within a month to begin working out operational details and planning for a joint military force. The military chiefs will then report on their plans three months later to a meeting of the Arab League’s Joint Defense Council. Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco will lead the planning as the former, present and future chairs of the Arab League. The force will be voluntary— join if you want— not required of member states. 

There is much media speculation that the joint force will be used in Yemen. The Saudis are already leading a joint Arab air campaign in Yemen against the Houthi Zaydi rebels and the forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Given the timelines in the Arab summit resolution on the joint Arab force (four months or more) it seems unlikely it will be ready for use in Yemen if the Saudis decide to move from an air campaign to a ground war. 

The Arab League has a long history of failed experiments in joint military plans. The Joint Defense Council itself was created in 1950 after the disastrous experience of the 1948 war with Israel, when five Arab states completely failed to act jointly and were each defeated separately by Israel. 

The first Arab summit in January 1964 promised to create a joint Arab military command. The only material manifestation of that came in May 1967, when Jordanian King Hussein agreed to place his army and Air Force under an Egyptian commander General Abdul Munim Riad. General Riad then led the disastrous campaign that lost East Jerusalem and the West Bank to Israel in 72 hours. King Abdullah must have had bitter memories of that fiasco in his mind as he sat at the summit table in Sharm. 

Creating a truly joint military command has eluded the Gulf Cooperation Council since its creation in 1980. Some integration of forces has occurred, but even a joint air defense system has eluded the GCC. The most advanced work has been in the internal security field. In Yemen, one GCC member has opted out of the air war— Oman— which shares a border with Yemen. 

It is more likely that military cooperation will be more bilateral and episodic than the ambitious plans laid out in the Arab summit. Ad hoc arrangements blessed by Arab summits seem more likely than a NATO-like joint force and integrated command structure. 

Perhaps the most successful joint Arab military effort was the 1990-1991, Saudi-led campaign against Iraqi forces in the Kuwait war. Saudi Prince General Khaled bin Sultan commanded a Joint Forces and Theater of Operations “parallel command” to the American commander General Norman Schwarzkopf. It was more politics than anything, but it achieved its key goal of keeping allies together.

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