Syria is in flames, Iraq is at war, Libya is unraveling, and Yemen has basically disintegrated. While it might not be novel to say that the Middle East is once again beset by crises, the collective response of Middle Eastern nations to this unique set of overlapping and interwoven conflicts certainly is. The Arab League is creating a new “response force” of some 40,000 military professionals from a variety of nations, and will reportedly be formally adopted in a couple of weeks at the next summit. While not remotely at NATO levels of professional capability, this is a fascinating and important development in the world’s most troubled region.
The initial force will be composed of troops mostly from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan (and a smattering of others from Gulf nations), and will be based in Egypt. It will be commanded by a Saudi general, and will boast a structured and permanent command structure. The idea is to pull together a multinational force that could be ready to react to future crises, in the same way that several Arab nations are currently conducting operations today in Yemen. Reports indicate that 500 to 1,000 men will be members in the air command; up to 5,000 service members will constitute the naval command; and roughly 35,000 will be part of the land forces. Like the NATO command structure, this Arab force will have specified warfighting components: air, sea, land, and special forces. The troops will be paid for by their respective countries, and the command structure will be financed by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
There is a fair amount of precedent for this type of operation, including, of course, the various Arab coalition attacks against Israel in the 20th century and the 1962 Arab coalition operation in Yemen.
Why is this happening and what should we in the West do about it?
It is clearly not simply because of events in Yemen, although that is the proximate trigger. In simple terms, the Arab League — essentially a Sunni club at this point given the political meltdowns in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria — is creating this army to face Iran.
This is particularly important for the Sunni Arab world given the distinct possibility of Tehran’s return to the world stage, if sanctions are indeed lifted. If that occurs, billions of dollars will flow into Iran’s coffers as its ability to trade freely internationally comes back online. While Iran may or may not be prevented from ultimately building a nuclear weapon, it most certainly will have a windfall of resources shortly, assuming the nuclear deal is finalized.
Iran will use those resources as it has for a couple of decades: to push the Shiite religious agenda, sponsor terrorism directed against Sunnis, Israelis, and the West (in roughly that order), and strengthen its already capable armed forces. Iran already effectively controls five capitals in the Middle East — Tehran, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and most recently Sanaa. The mullahs’ goal is to push their version of Islam and to diminish the stature and status of their Sunni opponents: notably Saudi Arabia (which they see as vulnerable), Bahrain (which has an oppressed Shiite majority), and the Gulf States (which are small and close enough to be dominated).
As I have written before, we are looking at an event in Islam not unlike the reformation in the Christian faith — which ended up killing huge numbers of Europeans in the wars between Catholics and Protestants. Such is the likely future of this part of the Islamic world, unless cooler heads prevail.
This emerging coalition operation in Yemen will include Saudis, Egyptians, soldiers from the Gulf States, and, very, possibly Pakistan. So far, the United States is supplying information, intelligence, and air refueling capacity. The announcement of the Arab response force — which builds on this relationship — is a startling new development, but a logical extension of the massive defensive buying program Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have been engaged in for two decades. They have significant technological military muscle, especially in the air and on the sea. And with Egyptian troops, they can mount a formidable campaign ashore.
What should we be doing about it?
The United States should support this emerging Sunni coalition, to include not only intelligence and logistics, but cyber, special forces training, unmanned vehicles, and other “new triad” systems that can be brought to bear without huge manpower commitments. Obviously, our well-developed military assistance programs — in the form of grants to Egypt and sales to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States — should continue. And our training and exchange programs should be strengthened as well.
Is there a role for NATO?
It’s too early to tell. But NATO does have warm relations with many of the Sunni states as part of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. At a recent conference in the region, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said, “NATO has a solid record of cooperation with countries here in the Gulf. The launch of our Istanbul Cooperation Initiative ten years ago was a strong demonstration that the security and stability of this region is of strategic interest to NATO — just as the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area matter to the Gulf region.” Building on existing ties (to include ongoing good work together in Afghanistan) makes sense. Granted, it is quite unlikely that these nations will be clamoring for NATO help, but the Western alliance should make itself available — no pressure, just an offer — for advice, joint exercises, shared intelligence, material support, and general assistance.
Finally, the delicate question of Israel should be considered. Is it possible that, over time, Arab concerns over Persian power grabs may actually supersede their antipathy for Israel? That seems unlikely, yet worth thinking about as this Sunni-Shiite divide unfolds. Egypt and Jordan have peaceful relations with Israel — and clearly the Gulf nations share Israel’s fear of a nuclear armed Iran. It is possible that, despite the nasty precedents of 1967 and 1973, a Sunni military coalition poised to counter Tehran might provide the basis for cooperation with Israel over threats from the Shiite world.
Sadly, it seems likely that we are headed toward a significant Sunni-Shiite war in the region, one in which much blood may be shed. And it is worth considering how the United States and NATO could interact with our friends in the region as they face a significantly strengthened Iran coming out of the nuclear negotiations.
Photo Credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP