Arab summit agrees on unified military force for crises

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters, AFP) – Arab leaders at a summit in Egypt announced the formation of a unified military force to counter growing security threats from Yemen to Libya and as regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran engage in sectarian proxy wars.

“The Arab leaders had decided to agree on the principle of a joint Arab military force,” Sisi said in a speech at the gathering in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. Arab representatives would meet to study the creation of the force, said Sisi.

The decision was mostly aimed at fighting extremists who have overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria and won a foothold in Libya, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said ahead of the summit.

On Sunday, Arabi told the meeting that the region was threatened by a “destructive” force that threatened “ethnic and religious diversity,” in an apparent reference to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

Working out the mechanism and logistics of the unified force could take months. Previous similar schemes have failed to produce tangible results in the divided Arab world.

The dangers facing the region are stark and complex. While conflicts intensify in Yemen and Libya, the civil war in Syria is entering its fifth year.

Egypt, the most populous Arab state, faces an Islamist militant insurgency. ISIS militants have taken over swathes of Iraq and Syria and spawned splinter groups across the Arab world.

The United States and other major powers are seeking a final nuclear deal with Iran, in a process that worries many Sunni Arab leaders wary of Shi’ite Iran’s growing regional influence.

The summit final communique called for “coordination, efforts and steps to establish an unified Arab force” to intervene in countries such as Yemen. The move came after Saudi Arabia patched together a 10-nation Arab coalition against Houthi fighters and launched military strikes there on Thursday.

Arab leaders said the Saudi-led operation in Yemen would continue until the Iranian-allied Houthis, who have made rapid advances, withdraw and hand over their weapons and the country is united.

The Saudi-led operation in Yemen has underlined the rivalry between the predominantly Sunni kingdom and Shi’ite Iran and it could inflame sectarian proxy conflicts that have spread in the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Chaos in Libya may be one key test for the unified force if it intervenes in a country with factions allied to two governments, vying for control of territory and oil facilities.

Sisi has repeatedly called for concerted Arab and Western action against what he sees as an existential threat posed by militant groups operating in Libya and elsewhere. He ordered air strikes against Islamic State militants in Libya after the ultra-hardline Sunni group beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians there.