The case for focusing on development of special operations forces in the Middle East

Sunday 19/06/2016
Members of the Jordanian women’s police special operations team at the King Abdullah Special Operations Training Centre (KASOTC) in Amman.

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.