One united Arab army we can call our own

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It’s only logical that a joint Arab military force should go after Arab terrorists.

As the Islamic State continues it murderous rampage in the Middle East, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi says it’s time for more Arab countries to join forces against the terror group. The president’s assertion that a joint Arab military force was needed is reportedly the first public confirmation by an Arab leader that the creation of such a force was a possibility.

Al-Sisi’s statement came following last month’s beheading in Libya of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by Islamic State and which prompted Egyptian warplanes to strike IS positions in the eastern Libyan city of Derna just hours after the release of a video showing the beheadings.

US President Barack Obama has also called for other countries to step up their efforts in the fight against IS. So how feasible is a united Arab force?

The idea of a pan-Arab force has been talked about for generations. Just talk, mind you. In four wars against Israel, the Arabs could not muster a credible deterrent force. There was something called the Arab Liberation Army, or the Arab Salvation Army, an army of volunteers from Arab countries which fought on the Arab side in the 1948 war against Israel, but its only 6,000 troops could not prevent the creation of the Jewish state.

Past efforts by Arabs to unite under one military umbrella have been stalled by distrust among Arab nations. But now, for once, Arabs should agree on something. They now have a common enemy in IS, a formidable regional threat, currently more of a threat than Israel. IS is initially known for trying to establish an Islamic caliphate across parts of Iraq and Syria, and it has captured swaths of land in both countries. But the group is expanding its reach, having now spread to Libya and elsewhere.

As such, an Arab force is crucial because the world is not helping enough, militarily or politically. Note the recent UN Security Council meeting at which Libya, backed by Egypt, called for the lifting of the arms embargo so that the Libyan army could be properly equipped to combat the rise of Islamic State in that country. Egypt had originally also been pressing for an international mandate for military intervention against the terrorists. The argument was that logically the US-led air campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria should be extended to Libya.

But the US and the EU quietly blocked the Libyan and Egyptian initiative, wedded instead to the idea of a Libyan National Unity government, despite the fact that last summer Libyans voted for their present parliament in which Muslim Brotherhood candidates failed to secure many seats. As a result, the Brotherhood rebelled, chased the parliament out of Tripoli and revived the discredited old parliament. This had come to be dominated by the Brotherhood because the squabbling moderate politicians who make up the majority could not agree enough to form an alliance to combat them. As the country tumbled into civil war, Obama sought to engage with the Brotherhood in the fond conviction that it could, if it was willing, control and isolate the rising tide of extremists. By failing to back the legitimate parliament and government, which it nevertheless still claimed to recognise as representing Libya, Obama actually fostered the chaos in which the cancer of IS terrorism has bred. The obscene decapitation of the Egyptians was the direct result of the mess that the US and UN muddle has created.

Had Obama and his EU allies stood up from the very beginning for the government that the Libyan people had chosen in a free and fair election, the rebels would have been isolated, marginalised and probably by now driven to give up. Instead, by seeking to engage with those who were trying to subvert the democratic process, Obama actually helped plunge Libya deeper into chaos. The result is a rampant terror threat, not simply to Libya but to its neighbours on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Which is why an Arab army, less dependent on the West and its machinations, would better serve Arab countries. However, sustained, ongoing strikes by coalition partners against IS targets in Syria for the past six months have not terribly hurt IS as much as was hoped for. That is proof enough that IS simply cannot be defeated by killing as many of its members as bullets and rockets will allow. What must also be targeted are the underlying reasons why people join the group. It’s not because “they lack job opportunities” – thank you very much State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. It’s mainly because they have a twisted interpretation of Islam that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims.

In that respect, preachers of the Islamic faith must do more to counter jihadist ideology. To that end, they must weed out the false preachers promoting radical forms of Islam, while students of the faith but on the verge must understand Islam for what it is, not what they would like it to be. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque, recently declared that extremism was caused by “bad interpretations” of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

For example, extremists interpret jihad as mandating a holy war, when in fact jihad means striving to achieve peace and anything good in obedience to Allah. Extremists kill over takfir, whereby Muslims declare other Muslims to be apostates or unbelievers. The penalty is death, and IS takes takfir all the way. But takfir can only be pronounced on those who have openly professed unbelief, and can only be properly carried out by Ulema (a group of recognised experts in religious law and theology), which will first offer the opportunity to repent.

Obama says the fight against violent extremism is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds and can’t be won with force alone. Agreed. Muslims must do more to tackle extremism in their midst. Muslim communities need to be at the forefront of efforts to deal with radical Islam. Jihadist violence is often based on religious conviction, not just political or economic grievances, so it’s going to be the Muslim communities that are going to have to challenge this ideology. The only truly effective challenges to this reasoning must come from Islamic leaders and scholars who can make the theological case that ISIS is an aberration.

But this will take time, at least several generations ahead. Adult terrorists do not suddenly see the light and repent. For now, the Arabs have got to take the fight to them. Seeing how difficult this has become, there are serious doubts about whether airstrikes alone will eliminate IS. As any armchair general will tell you, airstrikes alone are not going to get the job done. And if they can help it, no Western troops will ever set foot on IS-held territory. Thus, Arab states might be the ones to eventually put boots on the ground. Al-Sisi did not specify exactly what he meant by a “united Arab force” and whether that means troops on the ground.

Some in the West will claim Arabs should do whatever it takes to defeat IS because this is a mess Arabs created and which Arabs have to clean up. While there is some truth in that, Muslims, all one billion of them, are certainly not supposed to be left holding the bag for the terror attacks of a few thousand Muslims. That Arabs are fully to blame for the blood that Islamist terrorists spill is like saying Christians are responsible for Oklahoma, Sandy Hook and Aurora.

Making a link is ridiculous, isn’t it? So why, when some people who find it ridiculous, start to connect the Arab dots, they apparently don’t find that same kind of connection so ridiculous?

Al-Sisi has said that the need for a joint Arab military force is growing every day as the region faces the escalating threat of armed factions. There is no doubt that joint Arab action in the face of terrorism is the right and most effective thing to do. Logically, the Arab countries most affected, who are fighting terrorism everyday – Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia and Libya – must help defend themselves.

Though several Arab countries are fighting in the anti-IS coalition, 80 percent of the airstrikes on IS in Syria have been conducted by the United States; the other 20 percent were launched by other coalition countries. We want an Arab coalition without the usual preceding two words: “US-led…”

Arabs do not have a NATO or the defunct Warsaw Pact. They have the Arab League and GCC but no standing army they can call their own. If Arabs could pool all their armies, even with those decimated by civil war and an American war — Syria and Iraq respectively — they would be a force to be reckoned with.

We need the creation of a military pact to take on armed terrorist groups, with the possibility of a joint force to intervene around the Middle East. It’s about time for one.

Despite some rumblings, Arabs in general are calling a spade a spade. Islamic State, composed of mostly Arabs, is a terrorist organisation. It needs to be dealt with by an Arab military force. Let’s fight fire with fire.

Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.