EGYPT, GULF STATES MULL JOINT MILITARY FORCE

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The alliance under consideration was not intended to intervene in Iraq or Syria but to act separately to address other “extremist hot spots.”  

Associated Press

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]gypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait are discussing the creation of a military pact to take on ISIS militants, with the possibility of a joint force to intervene around the Middle East, the Associated Press has learned.

The alliance would also serve as a show of strength to counterbalance Iran. Two countries are seen as potential theatres for the alliance to act, senior Egyptian military officials said: Libya, where ISIS militants have taken over several cities, and Yemen, where rebels suspected of links to Iran have seized control of the capital.

The discussions reflect a new assertiveness among the Mideast countries, whose governments — after three years of post-Arab Spring turmoil in the region — have increasingly come to see ISIS militants and Islamist political movements as a threat.

The US Arab allies’ consideration of a joint force illustrates a desire to go beyond the international coalition that the United States has put together to wage an air campaign against the ISIS group in Iraq and Syria. The officials said the alliance under consideration was not intended to intervene in Iraq or Syria but to act separately to address other extremist hot spots.

Three Egyptian military officials discussed details of the talks and a fourth confirmed their comments.

A Gulf official, who is aware of the discussions, said that the governments were coordinating on how to deal with Libya, and the talks were “ongoing on wider cooperation on how to deal with extremists in the region”. He and the Egyptian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks remain secret.

Talks on an alliance against extremists are well advanced, the Egyptian officials said. But the further idea of forming a joint force is more distant, and there are differences among the countries over the size of any force, funding and headquarters, and over whether to seek Arab League or UN political cover for operations, one of the Egyptian officials said. Past attempts at a pan-Arab military force have fallen apart.

Still, even if no joint force is agreed on, the alliance would coordinate military action, aiming at quick, pinpoint operations against militants rather than longer missions, the officials said.

Egypt’s president, former military chief Abdel-Fattah Al Sisi, has warned repeatedly that extremists must be dealt with in multiple places, not just in Iraq and Syria. In a September interview with the AP, he said “a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in the region” is needed.

In Washington, asked if the US was aware of the discussions, Pentagon Press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said: “We’re not privy to that. I wouldn’t speak to it.” He would not elaborate.

The spokesman for Egypt’s presidency, Alaa Youssef, denied that creating a joint rapid deployment force, complete with a headquarters, was part of the “routine” discussions between Egypt and its Arab allies on a strategy to combat extremism.

The Egyptian military officials said top generals from the countries — including at times, their chiefs of staff — have held multiple rounds of talks. Two of the Egyptian military officials said they had participated in the discussions, while the other two said they had been briefed on them.

Under consideration, they said, is the establishment of a core force made up of elite troops with aircraft and access to a pool of intelligence gathered by members of the alliance.

To prepare for such a force, bilateral and multilateral war games have been held over the past year among the countries to promote harmony among their troops and weapons systems, the Egyptian officials said. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have elite counter-terrorism units, and the Gulf countries have sophisticated air forces, largely purchased from the United States.

The officials said Jordan and Algeria had also been approached to join.

“It will only be announced when it is ready to go and we have an agreement on everything,” said the most senior of the Egyptian officials.

The countries involved intend to get a “nod” of approval from the United States, the officials said. However, the idea of a joint force reflects scepticism among the countries that Washington is prepared to pursue militants beyond the anti-ISIS group operation, they said.

In Libya, militants have controlled the capital, Tripoli, and the second-largest city, Benghazi, for the past two months. Islamist politicians in Tripoli have set up their own government and revived the previous parliament, where they held a majority.

The internationally recognised and most recently elected parliament and government have been relegated to the small city of Tobrouk near the Egyptian border, while its allied militias and army forces under Gen. Khalifa Hifter battle the militants. Sisi and Saudi Arabia have backed the Tobrouk government.

In Yemen, Al Qaeda has one of its most active branches, fighting the government for years. Also, Shia rebels known as Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa, in September, threatening the rule of Gulf-backed President Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia has intervened to fight the Houthis previously, in 2010, believing that the movement is a proxy for Iran.

The alliance would also be on hand to protect the Gulf from any incursions by the ISIS group, the officials said. Its existence would also be a symbolic show of unity against Iranian influence.

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