Middle East wars go underground
Beirut - Fighters of the Islamic Front rebel group blasted the large Syrian Army base at Wadi al-Deif in Idlib province in March 2014 from an unexpected quarter: They detonated an estimated 60 tonnes of explosives stacked at the end of an 850-metre tunnel they had spent weeks digging.
The huge explosion, which killed dozens of Syrian officers and blew an entire hillside hundreds of metres into the air, may have demonstrated a new way of fighting in a war that was then 3 years old and had already descended into barbarity. Tunnelling, however, is a battle tactic that goes back more than 2,000 years.
Witness a clash in Syria in the Roman city of Dura-Europos in about 256AD in a battle against the powerful new Sasanian Persian empire thrusting in from the east.
British archaeologists concluded in 2009 that remains of 20 Roman soldiers unearthed in a tunnel beneath the town’s ramparts had been killed in a clash with the invading Persians seeking to dig their way into the fortress in what may have been an early use of chemical warfare — pumping in a poisonous mix of burning sulphur crystals and bitumen that killed the Romans in minutes.
Across the Middle East, it seems that everyone’s going underground again — Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic State (ISIS). Iran has constructed extensive nuclear facilities in underground bunkers and inside mountains to protect them from Israeli or US air strikes.
Even the Syrian regime is doing it. In February, the Jaysh al-Islam coalition released a documentary that it says reveals a self-contained underground complex constructed in the bowels of Damascus under the Harasta quarter as a bolthole for Syrian President Bashar Assad and his inner circle. It was said to include an intelligence centre and chemical decontamination chambers.
The Syrian conflict has moved subterranean warfare to the forefront and provided a physical link to the use of these tactics that go back to ancient times.
Most of Syria’s modern cities are built on layer after layer of ancient structures. Aleppo, for instance, is believed to have been continuously inhabited since the Copper Age, around 6000BC, and Damascus was an urban centre 2,000 years before Julius Caesar.
According to the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization, there have been more than 50 major tunnel bombings in Syria and Iraq in the last three years as insurgent groups resorted to a primitive combat strategy to counter the technological superiority of the state military forces.
Some of the bombings have been pulverisingly powerful. The March 4th, 2015, tunnel bombing of the Syrian Air Force headquarters in Aleppo was so strong that it was registered as a 2.3-magnitude earthquake by the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre west of the city.
“There’s never in the world been such a thick network of tunnels as there is in Syria,” observed Syrian academic Salim Harba. “It started in Homs in 2012.” Military analysts estimate that the Syrian rebel groups have dug between 500 and 1,000 tunnel systems.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which used a pioneering tunnel system in south Lebanon during its 34-day war with Israel in 2006, may be pinned down fighting in the Syrian war but it is also preparing for another conflict with its old enemy with what knowledgeable sources call “an advanced tunnel network” on Israel’s northern border.
This reputedly includes assault tunnels snaking deep into the Jewish state, just like Hamas’s infiltration tunnels into Israel’s southern desert.
Tunnelling in the rocky terrain of the Lebanon-Israel border is much tougher than in the sandy ground along Gaza’s border with Israel but the Israelis are working on the assumption that Hezbollah is doing just that.
In Gaza, Hamas has been confounding the Israelis for years with an elaborate labyrinth of tunnels for infiltrating fighters into the Jewish state, launching rockets or sheltering commanders during combat. This has triggered three controversial invasions of the densely populated coastal strip.
In Operation Protective Edge, the incursion in summer 2014, Israel said it destroyed 32 Hamas tunnels but Palestinian sources said Hamas has more than 1,000 people working underground building a new network.
In March, Israel’s military chief of staff, Major-General Gadi Eisenkot, who commanded the Northern Front forces that failed to crush Hezbollah in 2006, declared that the tunnels “are at the top of the Israel Defence Force’s priority list”. On August 3rd, the Israeli Defence Ministry said it had issued tenders to build a concrete barrier “several storeys below ground” and studded with anti-digging sensors along the 60km border with Gaza.
This veritable Levantine labyrinth runs from the honeycomb of tunnels under the besieged Gaza Strip, which Hamas uses to confound the Israelis and launch rockets, to western Iraq, where ISIS has dug elaborate tunnel networks under cities it conquered to hide its fighters and weapons from detection by aircraft and unmanned surveillance drones of a US-led air coalition.
So far as is known, no Middle Eastern military force has built a network as extensive as the Viet Cong tunnel system used to move troops and establish massive underground logistic bases in the Vietnam war.
ISIS has built extensive networks under cities it has conquered to evade round-the-clock air strikes by the United States and its allies and used tunnels to pump oil from captured fields, a key source of funding.
“We found 30 or 40 tunnels inside Sinjar,” an Iraqi town captured by the jihadists in 2014 and retaken in November 2015, said Shamo Eado, a Kurdish peshmerga commander.
The network, much of which appeared to have been carved out of the rock with pneumatic drills, included prayer rooms, sleeping quarters and electrically powered fans to keep the air circulating through the underground system. “It was like a city under the city,” Eado said.
Israel’s military has been seeking ways to counter this old-new form of warfare, which has redefined the concept of the front line, but has not come up with a foolproof system.