x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Path to Middle East peace begins with a regional military alliance

If the Middle East wants to solve its own problems, it will need a region-wide army.

How gratifying it is to see two of the Arab world's toughest military forces fighting side by side, facing a common enemy. What a shame that the enemy in question should be Syrian rebels and civilians, fleeing before the combined guns of the Syrian army and Hizbollah.

The Middle East faces huge challenges at this moment, challenges likely to escalate into conflicts that will last for years.

The catalyst for this is the war in Syria, which has brought to the fore the borders drawn, with so little understanding of the region, after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. The war has also crystalised a wider struggle for leadership in the region and the use, particularly by Iran, of the religious identity of Shiism as a recruiting and organising principle for several alliances, particularly with Hizbollah.

And yet, although this war carries such grave implications for the region, the Middle East alone has been unable to solve it. This is despite the Syrian civil war becoming the worst conflict to affect the region since the darkest days of Iraq; despite the war, unlike Iraq, beginning to spill-over into neighbouring Arab states; despite it being clear since very early on in the uprising that the Syrian rebels could not defeat the Assad regime alone; and despite the fact that most Arab governments long ago concluded that the Assad government had lost political legitimacy, with the consequence that the Arab League handed its seat over to the Syrian opposition.

And this is despite the fact that at least three regional countries - Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia - possess militaries that could by force depose Bashar Al Assad.

Why, then, has the region remained so immobile? Why has the Arab world not been able to shoulder the military burden of removing Mr Al Assad, instead imploring western states to do so?

Part of the reason, obviously, is power: the US, whose money and military might buys it enormous leverage in the region, has been reluctant to let Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia further weaponise the conflict.

But a major part of this failure is the absence of military co-operation among the states of the region. The Middle East, alone among nations that share so many cultural and political ties, does not have a solid collective security alliance.

Without one, the reaction of many regional countries to threats such as Syria must be to seek an outside organising framework, generally the US or Nato. But if the Middle East is going to solve its own problems, it needs more military cooperation.

The toothless Joint Defence Council of the Arab League is insufficient for the troubles of the modern era. The League has signally failed to address or intervene in many of the most troubling incidents of recent years: the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; the violence in Darfur, and now the civil war in Syria.

In particular, the problem with the collective security alliance of the Arab League is that it has no equivalent of the UN Charter's Chapter 7, a provision that authorises the UN Security Council to use military force against a breach of the peace in a member state.

With no such provision, the Arab League cannot intervene in the affairs of any of its member states.

Although Arab states including Qatar and the UAE did involve their militaries in the Nato-led attacks that finally toppled Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya, they did so as members of the UN, under a UN resolution, not as members of the Arab League.

In the years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, but before the Arab uprisings, the Arab League proposed a beefed-up Peace and Security Council, to work under the leadership of the League. But since 2011, progress has stalled as the republics faced new challenges. In any case, the proposed council would have been limited to Arab League members.

What is needed instead is a new collective security arrangement for the Middle East, essentially an Arab Nato, but one that can incorporate Turkey and others. In that sense, the Arab world needs a collective security alliance that is more dependent on geography than on ethnic or cultural identity.

Such an alliance would not preclude members from having other collective security pacts - it would not affect Turkey's membership in Nato, nor the GCC's Peninsula Shield - but would mean that when threats arose that had the potential to severely affect the peace and security of regional countries, they would have a mechanism for addressing them.

Such an idea has been touted before. In the post-war era, the former prime minister of Iraq, Nuri Al Said, argued that the collective security treaty of the Arab League ought to include any country that wished to commit itself to the defence of Arab states. In particular, Al Said hoped Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, but also the US and Britain, might join.

Al Said wasn't especially a pan-Arabist - he was an Iraqist, so to speak, and rather too enamored of the historical British mandate over Iraq. But his logic was well-founded. (Indeed, subsequently Iraq did ally with those countries, although no other Arab nation, in the Baghdad Pact, which lasted from 1955 until the revolution in Iran.)

What Al Said realised was that the security of one part of the region depends on what happens elsewhere in the region. As the conflict in Syria turns into a regional conflagration, that is worth remembering. If the Middle East hopes to achieve regional peace, it must be prepared to go to war to defend its members.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai