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Despite US air strikes, Iraqi military offensives or the use of “improper” weapons by the Syrian regime, the ISIS's militias have continued to win battles and benefit from a growing popular support that has led flocks of foreign volunteers to join Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in his conquests. As things currently stand, the ISIS is still a role model that has gained in credibility and attracted proselytes. This means that their threat has become significant and to be accounted for.

Regardless of the atrocities committed by the ISIS, although some may “appreciate” a conflict fought without any rules or limitations, the media hype surrounding the terrorist group seems to have pushed Al Qaeda's current head, Ayman al Zawahiri, to seek an agreement and a synergy with al Baghdadi. In the eyes of the Islamic radicals, the failure of the US air strikes to produce any tangible results is itself a success, a sign of destiny, a victory of faith against impiousness, a feeling of invulnerability.

Frustration is instead the dominant feeling on the opposite front of those who would want to terminate the threat posed by the ISIS. But a war on terror will never be won with aerial bombardments, especially in the case of the ISIS and because of its widespread popular base, but only through a ground warfare. To date, apart from the countries directly involved such as Iraq and Syria, not one Arab country, the sole entitled to this task, has felt the need to deploy its forces on the ground to fight the ISIS's militias.

al sisi
Abdel Fattah Al Sisi

A Sunni coalition

Forced by the deterioration of the situation in Yemen, the issue of the creation of a Pan-Arab force to fight terrorism in the region has been brought forward by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have recently tried to form a coalition of Sunni Arab countries to halt the Houthis. The man behind the proposal is Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi for a number of reasons: he is facing the threat from the ISIS both at home (Ansar Beit al Maqdis in the Sinai has declared its allegiance to al Baghdadi) and next door (ISIS militias station in Derna and Sirte in Libya), he badly needs Saudi financing and to regain a key role in Middle Eastern affairs after the July 2013 coup and the repression against the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition that followed.

The issue of forming a Pan-Arab force was raised during the Arab League's meeting in Sharm el Sheikh on March 29, 2015 when events in Yemen were discussed. In that occasion, it was proposed that a high level committee be formed to study how to form a rapid intervention force of 40 thousand elite soldiers and how to share aerial and naval forces. It's not as clear instead how each of the 22 nations of the League will contribute to the force.

The discussions have moved forward from that first meeting in Sharm el Sheikh and embraced a wider array of objectives: the rapid intervention force could also be deployed domestically to quell internal instability, in this case the word “terrorism” includes any form of opposition and dissent, like the one that gave birth to the Arab Spring. The other target is the growing Iranian influence in the region that is pushing the Sunnis to join forces. The latter objective has become more and more important following the agreement on Iran's nuclear programme, that could lead to a lifting of the sanctions against Tehran and that could grant the Ayatollah's regime the resources and the international credibility to play a hegemonic role in the region.

A very long road

The creation of a Pan-Arab force has been discussed by the Arab League for some time already, but never saw the light. Working groups were created to draft a proposal, but to no avail. There have been temporary military alliances during the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel, while a coalition of Arab countries fought alongside the Americans during the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. But that's as far as it goes.

The plan is now to revive a 1950 Joint Arab Defense Treaty that was signed by the members of the Arab League following the disastrous 1948 conflict against the Israelis. Article 2 states that an aggression against a signatory country is to be considered an act of war against all parties member to the treaty. The problem with this treaty is its outdated functioning: a meeting of Defense, Foreign Affairs and Interior Ministers, the definition of the objectives, the role of each nation and so on.

But the road to a Pan-Arab military force is still very long. It is pretty evident already that the bulk of the forces will be provided by Egypt, due to its dominating demographics in the Arab world, while the funding would be left to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. The main difficulties derive from having to build everything from scratch: a Headquarter (given the main actors it could either be in Cairo or Riyadh), a unique command and control system, an organization tasked with training the forces to fight, various operational and logistical bases.

Basically, since it is a very ambitious project, there are many hurdles to clear. There will be practical and psychological difficulties to overcome, since mutual distrust has been accumulated over the decades. Problems will also arise on the decision on what the priorities should be: Egypt wants to eliminate the ISIS in Libya, Saudi Arabia is concerned with the Iranian and Shia menace in Yemen, while Jordan, together with Syria and Iraq, is worried about the ISIS spilling over from its neighbors. And even once the priorities have been set, the issue will revolve around when and how to intervene, given the different approaches different countries have in the Arab world.

Opposition to this plan could also come from within the Arab League. Member countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia could oppose the idea of a Pan-Arab force intervening on their territory. In case an agreement cannot not be brokered by the Arab League, seeking an alternative could mean separate and more limited military agreements could be signed bilaterally by member countries.

GCC member states

The example of the GCC

The closest we now have to a Pan-Arab force has been created in December 2013 by the Gulf Cooperation Council. For the first time, a unified military command controls 100 thousand men, half of which are Saudis. During a previous attempt in 1982, the force named “Peninsula Shield” was blocked by the Gulf's smaller countries that feared Saudi interference in their domestic affairs. The combined threat of the ISIS and Iran has pushed all objections aside.

Overall, the military coordination of six countries, like in the GCC, with similar weapons originating from the United States will not provide as many headaches as the idea of having to manage arsenals from 22 countries from the Arab League whose weapons come from both the Eastern and Western blocks. This would become a logistical nightmare.

The proposal by the Arab League, although still in its embryonic stage, has already met the favor of the United States. Washington is happy to support an Arab contingent that will fight the ISIS in its stead. That's why the CIA's chief, John Brennan, took a flight to Cairo on April 19, 2015 and showed up a few days before an Arab League's meeting on the issue. It was a tangible and visible sign of support at all levels. Other sources claim that during that visit Egypt also received the green light to strike the ISIS in Libya. It is in fact not a coincidence that US President Barack Obama has decided to lift the sanctions on weapons sales to Cairo just weeks ago.

A necessary dialogue

What the Egyptian and Saudi initiative cannot attain is an anti-ISIS cooperation with Iran. Tehran is helping out the regime's Pasdarans in Syria, it has provided volunteers to fight alongside Iraqi troops to retake Tikrit (and could do the same in the near future with Mosul), and is assisting the Hezbollah. If we had to single out a country that is currently fighting Al Baghdadi's militias, that would be Iran.

Clearly, no agreement between the Arab League and Tehran is now possible. Even though the Middle East is a volatile environment, there are too many diverging opinions on how to solve the different crisis in the region. Furthermore, the Sunni vs Shia divide cannot be overcome so easily. All of these elements combined mean the military elimination of the ISIS will be more difficult to achieve, unless the United States and Iran appease themselves. But this scenario will see the light only in the long term.

The formation of the Pan-Arab rapid intervention force would be an important step towards the definitive crushing of the different forms of regional terrorism. Muslim boots on the ground would deprive the ISIS of one of its main arguments and sources of consensus, like the fight against the “crusaders”, the “apostates” and the “impious”. The fact that these troops would have a similar mindset and the same culture as that of their opponents would also mean that no pity will be granted to those defeated. But, after all, there aren't that many followers of the Geneva Convention in this part of the world.

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