Military force The Arabs Rise Up

By moving to establish its own military force, the Arab League wants to demonstrate to the United States that it is capable of policing the Middle East, and especially Iran, itself.
Can Saudi Arabia stop the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from overrunning Yemen?

Sunni Muslims, the dominant Islamic group in Middle East countries, want to defend themselves against Iran, their common enemy. For that reason, they made a decision of fundamental importance at the Arab League Summit last week: They are considering the establishment of a military strike force.

Will it ever come into existence? Numerous obstacles would first have to be overcome. But the fact that the Arab states are thinking about setting up a joint military force is quite remarkable.

The initiative to establish an Arab strike force is a result of dissatisfaction with American passivity in the Middle East. In Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi, Washington is reproached for taking no action against growing Iranian influence and militancy in Arabian countries.

Above all, American concessions to Iran at the ongoing negotiations over its nuclear ambitions have triggered mistrust, and thoughts are being aired in public about developing an Arab nuclear capability.

By building up their own fighting force, the Arabs want to demonstrate to Washington that they plan in the future to rely on their own, and not American, military might.

By building up their own fighting force, the Arabs want to demonstrate to Washington that they plan in the future to rely on their own, and not American, military might.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the main architects of the plan. Both the new Saudi king and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi want to reassert their country’s dwindling regional influence, and both feel that they are ready and able to take on the role of regional policeman.

Their muscle-flexing comes at an important time. Alarm bells have been sounding in both countries recently over Iran’s growing regional influence, gained with the assistance of proxy groups.

In Lebanon, it supports the Hezbollah militia; in Syria, it is helping President Bashar al-Assad to fight insurgents; in Iraq, Tehran backs the government in Baghdad; and in Yemen, Iran is arming the Houthi rebels that are currently overrunning the country. Like Iran, all of these proxies are dominated by Shia Muslims, the minority Islamic sect in the Middle East.

Up to now, the predominantly Sunni Saudis have generally reacted discreetly to Shia-dominated Iran’s provocations by making similar use of proxies, to whom they give money and weapons. For example, Saudi Arabia provides the Lebanese army with financial aid designed to help to keep Hezbollah in check.

The Saudis and the Iranians have up to now waged a cold war in the Middle East through their proxies. But the Saudis' intervention this month in Yemen, where they are leading air strikes against the Houthis as part of a ten-country Sunni-Arab coalition, could now lead to an open conflict between the two regional powers.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to risk a direct confrontation fell to its young and inexperienced defense minister: Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. The king’s favorite son has been in office for only two months. Sources put his age between 27 and 35. He has no military experience.

But his actions in Yemen do not automatically mean that he would pursue similar moves against other Iranian strongholds — for example, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. In several respects, Yemen is a special case.

The Sunni coalition's current actions against Yemen could serve as a model for the Arab military force.

Saudi Arabia shares a 1000-mile (1,600-kilometer) border with Yemen. Moreover, Yemen, which lies at the south-west tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has strategic importance. Whoever controls the country also controls the Bab el-Mandeb strait, and with it access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

Syria and Iraq are of less strategic importance to the Saudis. Riyadh, however, considers Yemen to be its back yard. Saudi Arabia wants to prevent hostile troops from taking control of the country.

Unity in the Arab world has not yet developed so far that an effective strike force can be expected in the immediate future. Even under the most favorable conditions, it will take several weeks, most likely months, until troops are ready for action.

The military force is supposed to be based on voluntary participation. That leaves much room for possible spontaneous decisions on actions, decisions that are not dependent on approval from all the member states of the Arab League.

No matter what the outcome, Arab countries are demonstrating a clear intent to assert their regional interests militarily in the future.

The Sunni coalition's current actions against Yemen could serve as a model for the Arab military force. It shows that even without laborious decision-making processes, troops can be provided very quickly, if Saudi Arabia desires it.

 

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