As the war against the self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq appears to come to a close, the greatest risk of regional conflict comes from Iran. The intervention of Iran’s forces and proxies in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq have emerged as imminent threats to Israel and Saudi Arabia that could escalate into the next major war in the Middle East. Iran may not be deterred by unilateral interventions by Israel or Saudi Arabia, so the U.S. must play a role in averting a catastrophic conflict.
The 1973 Arab-Israeli War provides an example of how even relatively inferior forces overcame similar threats from a more powerful adversary through a whole of government approach. Moreover, in an age of increasing emphasis on technological supremacy in warfare, Operation BADR proved that leveraging all elements of national power in crafting operations can yield an equally effective path to victory absent superior technology. There are, perhaps, lessons here for the U.S. and others.
Russian strategy in Syria and the broader Middle East consists of supporting what it considers legitimate institutions through extensive foreign aid programs, including economic and security assistance, political support and, as seen in Syria, direct military intervention. However, there are caveats to this strategy that include history, policy goals, and the ability to exploit lack of foreign attention to Russian activities and capabilities.
There are several bilateral and multilateral agreements among nations to support inter-intra agency coordination and cooperation. There are also global security institutions such as United Nations Counter Terrorism Centre and its sister agencies such as United Nations Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force. However, many of these agencies continue to operate independently. This is apparent in the case of the United Nations Security Council designated Counter Terrorism Directorate and the United Nations Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate that have few operational partners within the European Union and yet to begin meaningful interactions with NATO.
The question that must be faced is this: Can the EU manage its vast resources to maximise its information sharing with partner agencies and tighten its grip around radical Islamic factions returning to Europe? To answer this question and provide an appropriate response to various other underlying questions, we must better understand foreign fighter factions, their agenda, and their operational mechanism.
Judging from recent comments, the path the U.S. seems to be on—and it’s not a path all of our European allies and regional partners share—is withdrawal from Syria except for the occasional airstrike if Assad again uses chemical weapons. This path is not good. Withdrawal would yield the area to already expanding Russian and Iranian influence. Most likely, an American withdrawal would not help reduce ISIS capacities, nor would it reduce the capacities of al Qaeda and other radical jihadist organizations. The American withdrawal and the establishment of this Russian arc of influence will move Turkey, a key NATO ally, further towards Russia; put more pressure on Israel and Jordan; and push Iraq even closer to Iran. Withdrawal also abandons our Kurdish partners, or at least puts them in a more difficult position. And withdrawal further reduces America’s trustworthiness as an international leader. Finally, U.S. withdrawal de facto rewards Assad’s brutal and ruthless behavior toward the citizens of Syria. But the U.S. does have an alternative path.
While future insurgencies may be inevitable, they can be marginalized. It is incumbent upon the international coalition to commit to a sustained presence in Iraq and the freed areas of Syria for years to come. This presence must include substantive improvements to security forces, reconstruction of decimated communities, and reconciliation of Sunni populations at the national level. This effort may take up to a decade, if not longer, the United States must leverage members of the coalition to the greatest extent possible, and policy makers must be made aware of the sobering timeline and costs required.
Between 1963 and 1975 the Sultanate of Oman was the scene of one of the most remarkable, and forgotten conflicts of the Cold War. The British-led Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) would battle and defeat a formidable Marxist guerrilla movement based in the southern province of Dhofar. The Dhofar War remains one of the few examples of a successful Western-led counterinsurgency in a postwar Middle Eastern country.
Suicide Bombing has been the subject of scholarly works and studies in multiple campaigns. For the U.S. military, suicide tactics have been an integral part of the threat environment for well over a decade. Familiarity with the concept generates a bit of complacency, but this is a false familiarity obscuring the reality that suicide bombing has changed in the last decade.
War in the modern world is changing. Since the end of the Cold War inter-state war has declined globally, whilst even civil wars have become a relative rarity. But war is not becoming an obsolete element of human interaction. Governments and militaries around the world are simply changing the way that their strategic objectives are secured. This is the era of indirect war by proxy.
The international system is at the onset of a new period of transformation brought about by the interaction of two forces: increased democratization and the revolution in information technologies. There are more democracies than ever before, and there are more tools to easily influence public opinion. Even beyond Russia, there is little doubt other states will see its success and seek to mimic its capabilities. This will be true particularly in authoritarian states, whose bastioned societies ensure asymmetry and shield them from reciprocity. The more that democracies spread and the more their citizens connect online, the more vulnerable they will become to outside influence, subtly shifting international competition into the theater of public opinion.
Insurgency is an old concept. If you were to travel back to Iraq between 2334 and 2279 BC, you would find a man called Sargan. Sargan ruled a vast empire spanning from Southern Iraq to Southern Turkey, enforced by overwhelming military power. His Akkadian hordes, armed with high-tech composite bows and sophisticated logistics, laid waste to all before them. Their strategy was a simple one; ‘mass slaughter, enslavement, the deportation of defeated enemies, and the total destruction of their cities.’ For years their technological edge and brutal strategy allowed the Akkadians to dominate. When they inevitably fell, however, they did not fall to a superior empire. They were victim to a new phenomenon: a tireless, guerrilla-style attack from the unsophisticated barbarian hordes all around them. In 2190 BC the city of Akkad, near modern Baghdad, finally fell.
Democracy will always benefit from the requirement to persuade the public––to gain consensus on, and legitimacy for, the use of force in order to defend or pursue national interests. If this opportunity is ceded for fear of being unconvincing, or in fear of explaining the ugliness it will entail, then a society will find itself bereft of clarity in the political objective and therefore unable to craft strategy appropriate the task at hand. Furthermore, the failure to have these discussions leaves the populace underprepared for the brutality and sacrifice that war may require.
A recent article on The Strategy Bridge by James Dubik suggests U.S. policy on Islamic extremism suffers from Groundhog Day syndrome: endless policy repetition going nowhere. I wholeheartedly agree, but offer a different take on his argument. Islam is, at the most basic level, waging a war against itself, and we would do well to attend to this.
The current situation in Syria reminds us again that we are failing in our post-9/11 wars. We have accomplished neither the strategic objectives set forth by the Bush administration nor those of the Obama administration. Both administrations have had notable successes and achieved periodic tactical and operational progress, but neither created sustained strategic success...We must reset our thinking.
Policymakers and diplomats view ceasefires as a positive step toward peace because they present the conditions under which trust can be engendered between opposing sides in the Syrian civil war. Some academics have even found statistical evidence supporting this claim. But of the 44 ceasefires agreed to throughout Syria since 2012, only five preceded rebels surrendering, and only seven ceasefires in Syria have endured to the present. The remaining 32 ceasefires have failed. A survey of the failed ceasefires provides three logical pathways from ceasefires to offensives: leverage, buying time, and collapse of cooperation.
"Instead of posing the ‘boots on the ground’ question and the military focus it embodies, the question should rather be, “How does the U.S. stabilize Iraq and Syria?” This more refined question shifts thought to the wider array of political, cultural, and economic contexts, and to the long-term implications of the various possible solutions to the threat that ISIS presents. By focusing instead on the politically-charged decision of whether to send in troops, the U.S. instead creates a conversation that is emotionally charged—by two, decade-long wars—and hampers future solutions by drawing implicit lines in the sand."
The violence occurring in the Middle East is the result of a revisionist movement, namely the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which seeks to conquer the greater region and expand its caliphate. A group that knows no geographical boundaries, its rapid rise is a symptom of what is widely regarded as the post-Westphalian trend the world has taken. Further, the volatility accompanying years of sectarian division has only been exacerbated by western involvement in the region, a century-old pattern of attempts to dictate the direction of governance dating back to World War I.
The Islamic State group (ISIS) is running up against a wall. As national coalitions take a larger role in the fight against ISIS, the group will become increasingly unable to operate on as large a scale as it has in years past, and it will be pushed out of its previously held territories – its decline may take years or even decades, but it will ultimately decline. But although ISIS may deplete its resources and feel increasing pressure from the international community, its members will not simply disappear as the group loses momentum.
In the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy, the main character Luke Skywalker is prompted to enter a cave on the planet Dagobah by his teacher, the venerate warrior Yoda, as part of his training. Luke senses the evil within, and so, he arms himself before proceeding. Yoda, understanding the challenge before his pupil, counsels Luke to leave his weapons behind. Trusting prudence over wisdom, Luke arms himself and plunges into the cave where he is confronted by a manifestation of his nemesis, Darth Vader. Skywalker defeats his foe in a brief saber duel but his moment of victory is interrupted when Darth Vader’s mask disappears to reveal Luke’s visage.