CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – An old saw has it that “Arab unity” is an oxymoron on par with “military intelligence.” Read not as racial essentialism but as a critique of pan-Arabism, the observation has been true in the modern era. Yet Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s announcement of an agreement “in principle” by the Arab League to create a joint military force may just be different. Because the Islamic State group is unlikely to be defeated by air power alone, the United States should probably welcome the step — as should Israel.
The specific politics that generated the proposal have to do with Egypt’s desire to re-establish its stature in the Arab world post-Arab Spring, and with Saudi Arabia’s desire to keep an Iranian-backed regime from gaining a foothold in Yemen.
Start with Egypt’s interests. It was no coincidence that the announcement coming out of the Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh was made by Sisi. It’s not just that he was the summit’s host. Foreign policy is part of Sisi’s effort to solidify his domestic legitimacy after the Egyptian Army’s coup against the elected government of Mohamed Mursi.
United Arab military action with significant Egyptian leadership has symbolic meaning for Egyptians. Historically, the linchpin of militaristic pan-Arabism was Egypt. Gamal Abdel Nasser gained tremendous international prestige and influence for his country by projecting military power and simultaneously depicting Egypt as the geographic and geostrategic center of the Arab world. Briefly between 1958 and 1961, Nasser managed a union with Syria — which is not, obviously, contiguous with Egypt — to create the United Arab Republic.
There’s even a connection with Yemen. In 1962, after Syria had withdrawn from the United Arab Republic, Nasserist officers deposed the monarchy of what was then the kingdom of Yemen and declared the Yemen Arab Republic. Egyptian troops supported this North Yemeni regime for five years in a civil war against royalists supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
This time, Saudi and Egyptian interests correspond. The Houthi rebels who, for now, control the Yemeni capital of Sanaa belong to a religious denomination known as the Zaydis. Zaydis are religiously distinct from the Twelver Shiites of Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, but they are Shiite in the general sense that they accept a line of the caliphate that passed through Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law. (Zayd ibn Ali was a great-grandson of that Ali.)
That connection was close enough for the Iranians to provide enthusiastic support for the Houthis. Iran’s affinity for the Houthis is, of course, geopolitical more than it is religious. The Iranians see the Saudis as their adversary across the Persian Gulf, and any foothold on the Arabian Peninsula is a potentially important chess piece to use against Saudi Arabia. In any case, the Islamic Republic of Iran hasn’t insisted on a precise overlap of Shiite beliefs when choosing Arab allies.
Conversely, the last thing the Saudis want is an Iranian-supported regime in Yemen. That’s why they’ve been bombing Sanaa — to dispossess the Houthis. The challenge of the Saudi bombing is that, from a regional perspective, it looks simply as though Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in a proxy war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia can only gain from Egyptian and other Sunni Arab cooperation in fighting the Houthis. From one side, it makes their fight look more legitimate if it has outside backers. From another perspective, it shows Iran that Saudi Arabia has other allies from the Sunni Arab world.
The U.S. might have no stake in this latest turn in the Sunni-Shiite struggle if it weren’t for Islamic State. The bottom line is that Islamic State’s recruiting abilities and prestige derive from its ability to hold territory and act as a sovereign within that territory. For Islamic State to fail, both conceptually and practically, it needs to start losing territory. So far, U.S. bombing on its own hasn’t been able to achieve that strategic goal.
Ground troops appear to be necessary if Islamic State is to be beaten back. Kurdish peshmerga have made some progress in this fight, as have Iraqi Shiite militias that are backed by Iran.
In the long run, however, Sunni Arab ground troops will be needed to defeat Islamic State in Syria. The Saudis are clearly loath to provide such ground troops on their own. Jordan has launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets, but also seems unlikely to provide the bulk of a ground force.
If Egyptian-Saudi-Jordanian military cooperation succeeds in Yemen, then it becomes conceivable that Egyptian troops could provide the main body of an eventual ground force against Islamic State. Egypt would get money from the Saudis — but, more important, Sisi could help Egypt regain some of the international prestige it has lost in recent decades. This could help his domestic legitimacy considerably. It could also occupy the Egyptian Army in a military task, which would enable Sisi to consolidate his control of the military.
Even Israel would be unlikely to object. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, and Saudi Arabia has shown openness to such a treaty in the past. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly sees Iran as the major geopolitical threat. In the Sunni-Shiite struggle, Israel increasingly looks like it’s on the side of Sunnis.
The Alawite Assad regime in Syria is much less religiously simpatico than Zaydism with Iranian Shiism, and yet the Iranians have maintained close ties with Bashar al-Assad.
Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and the author of six books, most recently “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.”