Arab leaders agreed yesterday to form a joint military force after a summit dominated by a Saudi-led offensive on Shiite rebels in Yemen and the threat from Islamist extremism. Arab representatives will meet over the next month to study the creation of the force and present their findings to defense ministers within four months, according to the resolution adopted by the leaders.
“Assuming the great responsibility imposed by the great challenges facing our Arab nation and threatening its capabilities, the Arab leaders had decided to agree on the principle of a joint Arab military force,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi told the summit in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The decision was mostly aimed at fighting jihadists who have overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria and secured a foothold in Libya, Arab League chief Nabil Al- Arabi said ahead of the summit.
Yesterday, Arabi told the meeting the region was threatened by a “destructive” force that threatened “ethnic and religious diversity”, in an apparent reference to the Islamic State group. “What is important is that today there is an important decision, in light of the tumult afflicting the Arab world,” he said.
Egypt had pushed for the creation of the rapid response force to fight militants, and the matter gained urgency this week after Saudi Arabia and Arab allies launched air strikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen. Arabi, reading a statement at the conclusion of the summit, said yesterday the offensive would continue until the Houthis withdraw from regions they have overrun and surrender their weapons. Several Arab states including Egypt are taking part in the military campaign, which Saudi King Salman said on Saturday would continue until the Yemeni people “enjoy security”.
Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi at the start of the summit called for the offensive to end only when the Houthis “surrender”, calling the rebel leader an Iranian “puppet”. However, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the leaders to find a peaceful resolution in Yemen.
“It is my fervent hope that at this Arab League summit, leaders will lay down clear guidelines to peacefully resolve the crisis in Yemen,” he said. James Dorsey, a Middle East analyst with the Singaporebased S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that despite support for a joint-Arab force, “it would still take months to create and then operate on an ad-hoc basis. “I don’t think we will get an integrated command anytime soon, as no Arab leader would cede control of any part of their army anytime soon,” he said.
“Today we will have a formal declaration that would be negotiated every time during action.” Previous, similar schemes have failed to produce tangible results in the divided Arab world. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told a news conference the Arab force would be voluntary, meaning no one country would be forced to take part and it could give member states flexibility should differences arise. At least two countries have committed to the force, he added. The unified force would be supervised by the chiefs of staffs of Arab armed forces, Sisi told the summit. The summit final communique called for “coordination, efforts and steps to establish a unified Arab force” to intervene in countries such as Yemen.
Meanwhile, Saudi-led warplanes bombed Yemen’s main international airport and struck a renegade troop base in the capital. The raids on the country’s main air gateway came just hours after UN workers were evacuated following deadly fighting that has sent tensions between Tehran and other Middle East powers soaring. India and Pakistan also moved to airlift their citizens from the chaos-wracked country. Hadi has urged his Arab allies to keep up the bombing until the Houthi rebels are defeated.
His Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin said there could be “no negotiations and dialogue” with the rebels “until the legitimate government has control over all Yemeni lands”. The Houthis and allied renegade military units have overrun much of the country and prompted Hadi to flee what had been his last remaining refuge in the main southern city Aden for Saudi Arabia. Dozens of people have been killed in clashes in Aden in recent days, dimming prospects of Hadi returning any time soon.
At least 38 people were killed yesterday in fighting near the oil region of Usaylan in southern Shabwa province after tribesmen attacked rebel positions, security and tribal sources said. In the capital, witnesses reported hearing three loud explosions and seeing a large fire when Sanaa International Airport was bombed during a fourth night of Saudi-led air raids. “This was the first time they hit the runway” since the campaign began, an aviation source said.
“The airport is completely out of service.” A civil aviation official at the airport later told AFP that work to repair the runway had begun. More than 200 staff from the UN, foreign embassies and other organizations had been flown out from the airport on Saturday.
A jumbo jet sent by Pakistan flew out of Hodeida in western Yemen yesterdat with nearly 500 of its citizens on board, including the ambassador, officials said. India said it had received permission from the Arab coalition to airlift out its stranded citizens and would also send a ship. Overnight air strikes hit the headquarters of the rebel republican guard at Al-Subaha base in Sanaa, killing 15 soldiers, a military official said.
The Houthis are backed by army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in 2012 after a year-long popular uprising and is accused of supporting the rebels. The latest Saudi-led strikes also hit an airbase in rebel-held Hodeida, witnesses said. Other raids targeted a base of the First Artillery Brigade in Saada, the northern stronghold of the Houthis. Spokesman Ahmed Assiri told reporters in Riyadh that the “coalition operations will increase pressure on Houthi militia” who will “no longer have a safe haven within Yemen”. Russia has voiced concern that the clashes could undermine nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran in the Swiss city of Lausanne, although diplomats said a tentative deal was emerging.
In talks with Yassin in Egypt, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov called on “all sides of the conflict to cease military action in the name of preserving the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Yemen”, his ministry said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vociferous critic of Tehran, denounced the “Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis which is dangerous for all of humanity and which must be stopped”.
According to Saudi Arabia, more than 10 countries have joined the coalition defending Hadi. Washington and Britain have pledged logistical support. Late Saturday, anti- Houthi local fighters were reported to have taken full control of Aden airport with the loss of five men, and nine rebels killed. The rebels also set up a base in Dar Saad on the city’s northern fringe after clashes in which six people, including four Houthis, were killed, a military source said. Nearly 100 people are reported to have died in violence in Aden in recent days.