Many in the West will take heart from the news that Egypt’s dictator, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is calling for a joint Arab military force to take on Islamist extremism in the region. Coming shortly after his air force carried out bombing runs in Libya against groups that have pledged fealty to ISIL, it is tempting to take Sisi’s proclamation as a call to arms against the monstrous terrorist organization that calls itself the Islamic State. It raises the prospect of Arab boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, taking on‚ with the help of Western planes and drones—ISIL.
Ready for the reality check?
It is one thing for the Egyptian air force to bomb ISIL—aka ISIS—from the air. But when it comes to ground troops, the ability of Arab militaries to fight an organized, motivated enemy is highly suspect. (That may explain why, only last week, Sisi was calling for a United Nations force to bring order to Libya.)
It has been decades since the Egyptian military has fought a full-fledged war, and the last time it was deployed in another Arab country—in Yemen in the 1960s—it was humiliated. Since then, Egypt’s rulers have used their army mainly to bully and beat up unarmed civilians protesting against oppression, and to fight homegrown terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula. They’ve been pretty good at the former, but not especially effective at the latter. Despite official claims of successes in the Sinai, terrorists attacks have been on the rise, and it is a bad sign that the Sisi regime feels it necessary to exercise strict censorship on reporting from the peninsula.
If Egypt’s recent track record is dismal, the history of Arab military cooperation isn’t especially reassuring, either. Some Western analysts hope that the GCC Peninsula Shield, a 40,000-strong force made up of countries in the Persian Gulf, can be brought to bear against ISIL. But like the Egyptian military, this mini-military was built mainly to protect Gulf regimes from internal political unrest. The Peninsula Force was most recently deployed in Bahrain in 2011, to stamp down civilian rallies against the royal family.
It’s worth remembering, too, that one of the most powerful Arab militaries—Syria’s—has been fighting against ISIL for nigh on four years. The forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad enjoy home-field advantage, and are not restrained by any concern for civilian casualties or such niceties as the Geneva conventions. Assad’s planes and tanks have flattened entire towns and cities, and still have failed to defeat ISIL, much less recover territory under the terrorists’ control.
The other Arab military in the war against ISIL, Iraq’s, seems to be leaving the hardest fighting to Kurdish militias and Iran-backed Shi’ite gangs. Last week, as the Pentagon talked up an Iraqi-led, US-guided offensive against Mosul, many Iraqi leaders were skeptical that their troops would be ready.
None of this is to suggest that the fight against ISIL will not require Arab military involvement—it will. But just as in the current air campaign against the terrorists in Syria and Iraq, regional forces can at best be expected to put in a token effort. When the time comes for a ground offensive against ISIL, expect the heavy lifting to be done by battle-hardened Western troops, rather than the tin soldiers who make up most Arab militaries.