JURIST Guest Columnist Kevin Govern, of Ave Maria School of Law, considers the ramifications of the recent Arab League agreement to form a joint force in the context of historic efforts on joint defense and economic cooperation …
JURIST recently noted the 22-member League of Arab States (a/k/a Arab League) formation of a voluntary but unified military force to oppose growing threats to its members, especially the intensifying instability in Yemen. This effort is consistent not only with the Arab League’s September 2014 resolution to combat extremist groups like the Islamic State (IS), but reflective of 65 years of varied cooperation under the Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation.
During the waning days of World War II, six nations formed the nascent Arab League in Cairo on March 22, 1945; Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan (Jordan after 1946), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria. In May 1945, Yemen joined the group, joined as a member on May 5, 1945. Amongst its first security actions, Arab League members Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon invaded Israel during the 1948 War of Independence / Palestine War, and, less formally, Arab volunteers forming the Arab Liberation army joined Arab League forces. While armistice agreements were concluded with Israel, conditions for sustainable peace never resulted especially in light of 400,000 Palestinian Arabs fled from Israel to refugee camps in Arab League nations Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
By 1950, the six original Arab League nations concluded the Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation, ostensibly to “consolidate relations” between member states, “maintain their independence and their mutual heritage,” and “to cooperate for the realization of mutual defense and the maintenance of security and peace” as well as “consolidate stability and security.” Article 6 of that treaty, then as now, provides for a Joint Defense Counsel, assisted by the Permanent Military Commission under Article 5, to draw up plans of joint defense and their implementation, and by two-thirds majority vote, to bind Contracting States regarding joint defense decisions.
This alliance would be tested some six years later when Israeli forces launched air and ground assaults into Egypt’s Sinai peninsula after Egypt’s first President of the Republic, Gamal Abdal Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Not only did this become an Arab League security matter, but also a proxy conflict with an Anglo-French reinforcement of Israeli gains and Soviet support of Arab demands.
The predecessor to the currently proposed Arab League Military Forces was the Joint Arab Command (a/k/a United or Unified Arab Command), under the guise of the Treaty of Joint Defense and Economic Cooperation, established by the then-thirteen member states of the Arab League during their January 1964 summit in Cairo.
That 1964 summit would also set conditions for future conflict, rather than conflict resolution. That summit gave rise to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) , which would sustain an insurgency in Lebanon, reaching an intense level of conflict in the 1982 War in South Lebanon, and acts of terror and violence in Israel and beyond, until Israel and the PLO agreed to mutual recognition in 1993 in an historic bid for peace.
Two conflicts shortly thereafter would show the Joint Arab Command as ineffective in joint defense. Notwithstanding King Hussein of Jordan’s years of secret meetings with Israeli leaders, and assurances that Israel had no intentions of attacking Jordan, in November 1966, Israel undertook Operation Shredder incursion into the Jordanian-occupied West Bank.
By mutual defense pact, Jordan and Egypt placed the Joint Arab Command under command of the Egyptian military’s chief of staff in May 1967 as both Arab League nations built up forces along their borders with Israel. The June 1967 Six-Day War was marked by simultaneous Israeli attacks against Egypt and Syria, and resultant Israeli gains in the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab League member Egypt attacked across the Suez Canal, and Syria maneuvered from the north, in efforts to reclaim territory lost to Israel during the 1967 war. The final 1974 cease-fire resulted in Israel withdrawing back across the Suez Canal and a portion of the East Bank, and relinquishing some territory to Syria.
In the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, eight leaders of the Arab League set the conditions for continued strife with Israel with the September 1967 Khartoum Resolution’s Three No’s: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it.” The 1978 Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel resulted in an abiding peace between the two nations but also Egypt’s suspension from the Arab League until its readmission in 1989 and the Arab League headquarters moving to Cairo.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has lauded the Arab League’s common security consensus over the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, yet lamented the League’s failure to coordinate its policy over both the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War.
In more recent years, the Arab League did not intervene in most of the Arab revolts throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, but called for the UN Security Council to impose a no fly zone over Libya to protect civilians from air attack. Notable recent Arab League changes bode well for stronger, more cohesive efforts with the appointment of the renowned Egyptian diplomat and foreign rights lawyer Nabil Elaraby, and member nations Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates joining as part of the coalition to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
The CFR has also noted that since those actions, the Arab League’s efforts towards security included suspending Syrian membership, attempting to broker an agreement with the Assad regime and, for the first time in its history, assembled a team of observers to monitor the implementation of its plan and officially calling for Assad to step down in January 2012 and requested a resolution from the UN Security Council to support this proposal.
Most recently, in March 2015, 14 of the Arab League’s 22 nations assessed the success of ongoing Saudi-led allied air strikes against Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen. Those operations are part of a 10-nation military coalition against the coup by Arab League members Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, joined with nonmember Pakistan. The Houthis are seeking to reinstate the ousted past Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was replaced in a February 2012 referendum that formally ushered in Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, previously Yemen’s vice president, into the role of transitional president.
Reports quote US President Barack Obama has reaffirmed his support for the military action taken in Yemen, and Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi saying he “backs calls for a unified Arab force” to confront security threats in the Middle East and North Africa. Yemen’s President-in-exile Abd-Radu Mansour Hadi has said that the Houthis are “Iran’s Puppet” that has “destroyed Yemen with political immaturity.”
In the words of William Shakespeare from his play The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” Considering the historic cohesion, or lack thereof, of past Arab League mutual defense efforts, this future Joint Military Force will do well to study past efforts when it faces this new proxy war between a military force led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, against the Houthi militia, whose allies number Iran, Russia and China, as well as future challenges to mutual defense and the maintenance of security and peace. It should also develop capabilities not only for space, sea, land and air, but the fifth dimension of warfare, cyber warfare, since present and future adversaries are likely to pose threats in each of those domains.
Professor Govern began his legal career as an Army Judge Advocate, serving 20 years at every echelon during peacetime and war in worldwide assignments involving every legal discipline. In addition to currently teaching at Ave Maria School of Law he has also served as an Assistant Professor of Law at the US Military Academy and teaches at California University of Pennsylvania and John Jay College. Unless otherwise attributed, the conclusions and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense, or Ave Maria School of Law.
Suggested citation: Kevin Govern , The Arab League Joint Military Force: Countering Extremism and Political Instability , JURIST – Academic Commentary, Apr. 1, 2015, http://jurist.org/forum/2015/04/kevin-govern-arab-league.php
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