The case for focusing on development of special operations forces in the Middle East
Dubai - As state fragmentation begins around the Middle East, a growing range of non-traditional and non-state threats is being introduced. Armed non-state actors represent a complex and uncertain future military challenge.
Consider the spectrum and effectiveness of armed non-state actors, from Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda at the other end, with dozens of groups in between operating across North Africa, the Levant and the Arab Gulf.
The security challenge created by armed non-state actors will be profound and conventional forces, which are trained and equipped to fight a war of ends, will likely struggle to take on this new breed of opponents, which is fighting a war of wills.
Armed non-state actors often embrace asymmetric warfare as the heart of their strategy, seeking to lure opponents into a war of attrition with tactics designed to exploit the weaknesses of conventional forces while minimising retribution. They seek to sustain a conflict as long as possible since it makes them appear more resilient and robust.
Armed non-state actors have contrived a “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” contest to their opponents: Go to war and the outcome could be like Israel’s following its 2006 war with Hezbollah or the decade-long NATO fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Alternatively, stay away from the battlefield and the enemy becomes stronger, more dangerous and more confident, compounding the threat and making any future confrontation more challenging and costly.
Conventional military forces reflect the historical legacy of countering state-centric adversaries and typically have neither the training and doctrine nor the systems and equipment to address the complex, non-traditional threats arising today. The Soviet Union learned this in its ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan. Russia is applying those lessons in Syria by staying clear of counter-insurgency.
The cost, however, is that the Russian intervention can only go so far. Even if the Assad regime can initiate a political process with the moderate opposition, asymmetric threats will persist far into the future, creating problems for not only the future Syrian leadership but much further afield.
Militaries, which are typically conservative institutions resistant to change, have tended to view the development joint operational proficiencies as a substitute for developing special operations forces (SOF) capabilities. SOF have historically been small, elite units that were rarely called upon and overshadowed by traditional ground and air forces.
However, as the United States learned in April 1980 with an aborted mission to rescue its embassy staff held hostage in Iran, only a unified mission command for SOF can provision the appropriately trained and equipped force required for special missions.
The United States also realises that combating asymmetric threats is best done with an effects-based operational approach rather than through traditional methods of attrition and annihilation. The United States is dispatching SOF contingents to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and even Cameroon — destinations where the United States is not technically “at war” and where Americans are more disinclined than ever before to deploy troops in the traditional sense.
Aside from the United States, however, the general response from the international community to asymmetric threats in places such as Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Syria has been to rely on air power, which, although useful for suppressing threats such as the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda and the Houthis, cannot eliminate them.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and the Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah intervention in Syria were expected to meet their military ends. Now nascent political processes will determine timetables for drawing down forces but the next asymmetric threat is already incubating.
The paradigm of war has evolved and asymmetric threats ultimately need to be tackled with SOF that can deploy rapidly with a low logistical footprint for missions such as night raids, hostage rescue, sabotage operations, destroying weapons and logistics hubs and capturing high-value targets in high-risk environments.
Like much of the rest of the world, the strategic and operational enablers of special missions are in short supply across the Middle East, which has not confronted such a set of complex asymmetric threats previously. Militaries across the Middle East are enhancing their joint operational proficiencies, which is timely and positive, but SOF capability lacks the attention it needs, barring exceptions such as Jordan.
Middle East militaries have been pitted into an extraordinary position because, while they must continue maintaining capability and readiness against threats from conventional, state-based threats, they need to address the overwhelming asymmetric threat that has emerged across the region.
SOF around the Middle East require significant capacity-building at both the personnel and equipment level to the extent that they can be repositioned much further to the front of the coming 15-, 20- year fight against the asymmetric threats.