Despite the visible role played by some Arab countries — particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia — in the Syrian crisis, the key players in Syria’s ongoing conflict, one must admit, are not Arabs. Even when the Arab countries try to expand their role, and by extension their sway on the course of events in Syria, they tend to do it without coordination, sometimes they act against each other.
The normal clash of interests may provide a simple explanation for this phenomenon, yet, the key reason lies in the lack of an inclusive mechanism for regional cooperation and security in the Arab world. In fact, the Arab world is the only world region that lacks any form of collective security formula to deal with conflicts in and among its member states.
To be fair, however, the idea of creating some sort of a regional approach to enhanced cooperation and security in the Arab world has been contemplated since the establishment of the Arab League in 1945. It gained increasing interest in recent years; at least amongst experts and academics. The unpredictability and instability of the region’s security dynamic has led to several wars between regional states, occupations, the proliferation and even use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, foreign military interventions and to growing problems of terrorism and weak/failed states. The US invasion of Iraq and its repercussions made the issue more pressing.
The first Arab attempt to establish a collective security system came after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Dr Abdul Rahman Azzam, the first Secretary General of the Arab League suggested an Arab defence pact. It was approved by all member states of the Arab League in 1950.
The pact was invoked with mixed results in three occasions: during the Tripartite invasion of Egypt in 1956, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and more successfully during the 1973 war.
Conflicting interests and Cold War alignment undermined the Arab defence pact, relegating it to the dustbin of history. During the Iran-Iraq war, Syria, Libya and to an extent Algeria sided with Iran against Iraq; while the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan supported Iraq. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991 shattered the Arab world, putting the last nail in the coffin of Arab solidarity.
Apart from a modest attempt by the GCC countries to establish a regional security system in the Arabian Peninsula, there has been one official attempt to develop a regional approach to security and arms control negotiation; the Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group (ACRS) of the Multilateral Track of the Madrid peace process. The Group produced some notable achievements, but persistent pressure from the US to include Israel led to its failure.
After the US invasion of Iraq, several papers have been published on the idea of a new approach to regional security and cooperation in the region and several projects have been launched to study this idea. However, there are, as yet, no conclusive models of what such a system might look like. Some argue for a model which would stress a region-wide approach to Middle East security. Others argue for an approach which would stress a sub-regional model, at least in the first instance, beginning in the Gulf.
Moreover, there are considerable differences between the kind of security which any future system might try to achieve. Some argue for a security system based on the notion of collective defence, which would see a few regional countries banding together, often with an outside power, to deter aggression by other regional countries.
Others are interested in more cooperative security concepts, which would stress the idea that all regional states should come together to develop a set of rules of regional conduct and then should enter into an ongoing process of dialogue to cooperatively give life to those rules.
These are two very different concepts of regional security. By way of examples from other regions, collective defence models follow the ideas inherent in such regional organisations as Nato in Europe. Cooperative security models are more akin to such bodies as the OSCE, also in Europe.
The emergence of civil conflict in several Arab countries — Iraq, Sudan, and Syria — has further complicated the task. Yet, it is mainly because of the bleak future of the region’s security; Arab states must work harder to approach this issue in a more pragmatic manner. The alternative is continuing foreign incursions, persistent occupations and may be the disappearance of complete states and entities.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.