The move comes amid spreading Islamic extremism and Iranian muscle-flexing in the region.
The in-principle decision was made at an Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where the leaders agreed the envisaged force should respond quickly to threats, including terror threats, facing any Arab state.
A final communique called for “coordination, efforts and steps to establish an unified Arab force,” and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi was tasked to confer with member states’ military chiefs within a month to work out details. In acknowledgement that not all members are equally eager, it was decided that individual countries’ participation will be voluntary.
The main impetus for the initiative has come from the two most powerful Arab nations, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Recent months have seen both Egypt and Saudi Arabia launch military action beyond their borders – in the former case targeting Islamist militia and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists in Libya; in the latter case, as head of a coalition which last week began airstrikes against Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia in Yemen.
How much support the two can draw from other members of the 22-nation Arab League remains to be seen, although Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has indicated that Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are keen.
Even before Sunday’s decision, the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi militiamen who have sought to overrun Yemen succeeded in bringing together another eight Arab states – the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan – as well as Pakistan.
A communique issued by the leaders after the summit reflected the shifting priorities for many of them. Although the Israeli-Palestinian issue was discussed – as it invariably is when Arab leaders meet – the topics drawing the most attention were the joint military force proposal and the crises in Syria, Libya and Yemen, whose ousted President Abed Rabbo Mansour participated in the meeting.
Iran’s regional activities were also a focus. As an “external supporter” of the Houthis, Iran was accused of “arousing sedition,” dismantling Yemen’s social fabric, and threatening its security as well as the security of the wider region. Saudi King Salman called the Houthi rebellion “the biggest threat to the stability and security of the region.”
The leaders also slammed Iran’s conduct on three strategically-located Persian Gulf islands which Iran has controlled for 44 years in the face of UAE sovereignty claims.
On major reason for regional concerns about the anarchy in Yemen and perceived Iranian destabilization is the country’s location at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, triggering fears about the security of oil and other shipments through the Red Sea and Suez Canal.
Iran denies that it is supporting its fellow Shi’ites in Yemen but Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, does not buy the denials.
“The Houthis are ideologically affiliated with Iran,” Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “The Iranians have provided them with weapons. The Iranians have provided them with advisers and the Iranians have provided them with money.”
The mostly Sunni Arab states are also troubled by Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the influence it enjoys in Lebanon and Iraq.
The Arab League decision to move ahead with the joint force proposal comes as the U.S. and other world powers are pushing to finalize a framework agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.
Most of the Arab nations are leery of Tehran’s regional ambitions (Shi’ite-majority Iraq is an exception, as is Syria’s Assad regime, which as a result of the civil war has been suspended from the Arab League since 2011) and some have expressed misgivings about the prospect of a less-than-watertight nuclear deal.
“I believe everybody wants a deal, but everybody wants a good deal,” al-Jubeir said on the CBS show.
“We have been assured by the United States, by Secretary [of State John] Kerry when he met with the foreign ministers of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], that the deal that they intend to negotiate would prevent Iran from acquiring an atomic bomb,” he said.
“It would close all paths leading to an atomic bomb. It will limit substantially Iran’s ability to do research and enrich. And it will impose intrusive and continuous inspections on Iran in the future. Now, we hope this is – this will be the case. But we really will not know until we see the details. And I don’t believe the details have been worked out yet.”
In calling for a joint military force the Arab League is citing its Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation, drawn up in 1950 with seven original signatories – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. An attack on one would be regarded as an attack on all.
The original focus was on Israel, which two years earlier had defeated an attempt by forces from six of those countries to destroy the newly-declared Jewish state.
Over the ensuing decades conflicting interests and distrust prevented the initiative from taking off, and most Arab attempts at collective defense have been viewed as a failure.
But the instability resulting from the so-called “Arab spring” uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the rise of ISIS, and concerns about Iran’s behavior and strategic aims have breathed new life into the notion of a joint military response to growing regional challenges.