Emerging Patterns of Conflict
By Brig Narender Kumar (Retd)
The conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen were triggered in 2011 and they continue to simmer even after nine years. The human cost of these wars is unprecedented and there is no end to the conflict with regional and extra-regional powers stepping up the scale of violence.
These wars have become a ground for competition among the regional and extra-regional powers to fill the power vacuum created by collapse of states. In all three conflicts, non-state actors, state sponsored non-state actors, regional and extra regional powers and rebels from within the state are fighting to gain territorial control, natural resources and strategic lines of communications on land and sea.
These conflicts to a great extent has changed the character of war where drones, mercenaries, disinformation campaign, social media and political manipulation are new normal. These three conflicts are a curtain raiser how future wars will be fought. The conflict itself looks much different today than it did in 2011.
Another conflict that has made world to sit up and take note is a bloody war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In this conflict the scale was tilted by use of drones and role of Turkey, the new regional power in West Asia and Mediterranean.
Armenia relied on use of conventional forces and banked upon the experience of last war with Azerbaijan.It indeed was a miscalculation to adopt fixed defences and land based manoeuvre by Arminian Forces that led to their rout. Turkey took calculated risk and supported war efforts of Azerbaijan with men and material risking direct confrontation with Russia.
The credit to change the outcome of the war goes to Gen Yasar Guler for use of precision weapons over manoeuvre by land forces. There is a need to examine these four wars in the context of use of technology, evolving strategy, relevance of large co-national armies and large weapon platforms in modern warfare. There are some obvious questions that need answer.
Have the boots on the ground become lesser important or only relevant for mopping up operations under a technological umbrella? Should India continue to focus on development of conventional armies or should the focus be shifted on technology and change in the military strategy to fight new generation wars?
Geopolitical Fracture – Cause of Wars
The conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria have displayed that regional and extra-regional powers are intervening purely to protect their strategic interests instead of intervening to protect human rights. In Libya the Government of National Accord (GNA), is backed by Turkey, Italy and Qatar. The Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Gen Khalifa Haftaris backed by Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France, and Greece. Thus NATO and Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) members are split and supporting opposing forces in the conflict.
Turkey's Libyan gambit threatens to precipitate a broader crisis in the eastern Mediterranean that in turn could complicate Turkey's relationships with both Moscow on the one hand and Washington and key NATO allies on the other. It will make existing regional tensions worse.
In Yemen there is a three-way contest. President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) is backed by UAE and Saudi Arabia. Turkey initially supported Saudi Arabia but now Turkey and Qatar are backing military opponents of Saudi-UAE backed STC with the help of Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated al-Islah Party to create anti-Arab coalition.
At the same time Iran is backing Houthis in northern Yemen. Houthis almost crippled Saudi Oil export by 50% when they struck two major oil installation of Saudi Arabia by drones and missiles. The attacks by Houthis took war to the Saudi heartland and almost brought Iran and Saudi Arabia in direct confrontation with each other. In a carefully crafted strategy Turkey is avoiding direct confrontation with Iran in Yemen and have avoided targeting Houthi rebels.
The conflict in Syria is chaotic and cluttered. There are multiple warring factions. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are supporting President Bashar Al Assad led Syrian Forces and battling against Islamic State (IS) and Syrian Rebels. Syrian rebels are supported by Turkey, the US, and Saudi led coalition.There are reports that IS is also getting back door support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia,but both nations have vehemently denied this charge.
Kurdish forces and militias were being supported by the US against their fight with IS. After complete rout of IS in Syria, Turkey has launched massive operation against US backed YPG Kurdish militias in Northern Syria. The offensive has created tension between the US and Turkey and this may destabilise the region further.
The conflict in Syria has reached a stalemate and Arab coalition and Turkey is conscious of the fact that there are chances of spill over of this conflict into other states.Though Russia is boldly sporting Assad but the US has indicated that their foot prints on the ground and support to the moderate Syrian rebels and Kurdish forces may see drawdown in future.
Turkey made bold application of military power in Azerbaijan in the backyard of Russia. Though Russia failed to prevent the conflict but what it managed to do is to keep Turkey out of the brokered peace deal. There are risks involved in relapse of conflict since implementation of peace deal is precarious and loaded in favour of Azerbaijan.
However, if the agreed conditions of complete withdrawal by Armenian Forces from Nagorno-Karabakh is not implemented the pressure will be on Russia. Turkey has entrenched itself in South Caucasus and has announced its arrival in Central Asia undermining Russia.
Major take away from these conflicts is that national interests supersede the cooperative security. Turkey and Saudi led coalition are allies in Syria against Assad but competitors in Yemen and Libya. Similarly, Turkey supported Azerbaijan (Shia Dominant Country) in war against Armenia but opposing Shiite Government in Syria.
What is Changing?
Wars of Distance
At least in the immediate future, the notion of “wars of distance,” or fighting from afar, is becoming a new normal. Russia, the US and Turkey have employed technology, drones, mercenaries as a substitute to soldiers on the ground. Primary objective is to shield own assets and soldiers from physical harm. In addition, these nations can maintain deniability and detach from the conflict if the outcome of war is not favourable. This model is gaining momentum where heavy lifting is done by mercenaries coupled with proxy soldiers supported by technology and social media.
Non-State Actors - Spoilers of Peace
Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) fighters have found new areas to relocate post their rout in Syria and Northern Iraq. Al-Qaeda has quickly reorganised and regained control of areas in Southern Yemen. ISIS is still maintaining foot hold in Libya and Syria.
The contours of conflict emerging from Libya, Syria and Yemen indicate that non-state actors will remain important players where the power vacuum exist due to collapse of state.Despite the loss of control of territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is exploiting vulnerabilities of unstable states especially in Libya by synergised use of hybrid capabilities.
Hybrid War is Here to Stay
Conventional armies and large weapon’s platforms maystill be relevant in state versus state conflict but may not be as effective as they were in yesteryears especially in hybrid wars. ISIS swept through swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq by using hybrid warfare.
On the other side, it was a miscalculation of Syrian and Iraqi forces to rely upon conventional combat power to fight hybrid threat from ISIS which used irregulars, defected conventional army cadres and even mercenaries who joined from Europe, Central Asia and West Asia. Large conventional forces in Syria and Iraq collapsed to the ISIS that created a perception of invincibility and mirage of omnipresence by smart use of information warfare and brutal force. The conflict in Libya, Syria and Yemen displayed smart and synergised use of hybrid capabilities.
Boots on the Ground is a Must
Hybrid and Grey Zone conflicts may be driven by synergised use of technology and smart application of irregulars, but ultimately it required boots on the ground to drive away the ISIS, Al Qaeda and irregular forces from Northern Iraq and Northern Syria. Azerbaijani military showcased a good drone warfare performance, but its territorial gains remained limited due to lack of application of military force on the ground.Thus smart use of conventional military capabilities is important to physically occupy and deny the tactical battlefield and grey zones to regulars and irregulars.
Big Powers Cautiously Participating in Cluttered Wars
Some critics contend that Syria and Libya are not critical to US security interests any more. The US does not want to get bog down in small and irregular wars rather it would concentrate on countering a rising China. In this vein the Trump Administration slashed support for anti-Assad Kurdish fighters, and the Obama Administration shied away from a larger role in Libya.
At the same time, China’s involvement in Libya has focused on economic penetration and its most robust line of influence—and behind-the-scenes diplomacy. China as a strategy is avoiding to get involved in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, a global norm of intervention in sovereign countries on the basis of protecting human rights.
Russia has strategic compulsion to actively participate in Libya and Syria to maintain an access and presence in Mediterranean Sea. In fact, Russia has practiced the hybrid war to great effect in Syria where it managed to keep Assad in power and retain control over Latakia and Tartus the two major bases in Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Turkey – New Regional Power
The one significant common factor in conflicts in Libya, Syria, Yemen and South Caucasus is Turkey. It has made bold application of its proxies and Special Forces in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. On the other hand in Yemen, the Turkish proxies are fighting on the ground. Turkey’s drone warfare has made significant progress in Libya to thwart offensive by LNA, Haftar led forces on Tripoli. Interestingly in Libya, Syria and South Caucasus the real confrontation is between Russia and Turkey that may intensify further. Though Iran is also exerting its influence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to great effect, however, due to economic compulsions it is not able to announce its arrival as emerging regional power in South Caucasus and Maghreb.
Is Security Alliances Loosing Relevance?
The role of comity of nations and security alliances has been rendered ineffective due to lack of support from member countries. Any instability in Mediterranean Sea will have security implications to Europe and North Africa. But absence of consensus among the member states, NATO and even the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have not intervened as allies. In spite of knowing that the conflict in Libya, Syria and Yemen could lead to instability in Maghreb, West Asia and Caucasus, these organisations have avoided direct intervention. In fact, there could be a major refugee crisis for Europe if the conflicts continue to simmer or intensify.
Drone and Information War – Game Changers
- Information war and drones have played a dominant role in Syria, Azerbaijan and Yemen conflicts. The information and disinformation campaign have become a game changer. The drone attacks in Azerbaijan and release of videos both by Turkish media and Azerbaijan created shock and awe among Armenian forces. Similarly, ISIS used information warfare to great effect in Syria and Iraq during their offensive against Iraqi and Syrian forces.
- Drones are becoming new force multipliers against ground forces. Russia is fast developing the drone and anti-drone technology. It managed to outsmart the swarm attack in January 2018 by effectively destroying the drones by employing state of the art air defence system and anti-drone Pantsir systems. At the same time Russian specialists from the electronic warfare units are active in Libya and Syria to neutralise drone threat. Russia's Sapsan-Convoy anti-drone system is capable of detecting UAV at a distance of 10 Km and able to disable it at a distance of 6 Km. Turkish drones are in use from Libya to Azerbaijan and has been able to outsmart conventional air defence. Turkish drones are proving to be game changers in Libya, Syria and Azerbaijan.
Intelligence and Surveillance Precision Strikes
Precision attacks by Houthi rebels on Saudi oil installation were not possible unless they had intelligence of air defence gaps to reach the target. Similarly, it was electronic, and drone surveillance that identified the Armenian positions on the ground. Drone wars and precision missile attacks are possible only when there is space, air and electronic intelligence available to the attacker and even the defenders can neutralise threat if they have advance intelligence/ warning of imminent attack. Russian ground forces could defeat swarm of drone attack in Syria since they could detect in advance the incoming drones.
Character of wars is changing not only by technology but by visionary military leaders who are using technology in an innovative manner. Rise of Turkey as a regional power is because of political will and bold military leadership. Similarly, Russia in spite of economic limitations is competing to protect its strategic interests in four seas (Mediterranean, Red Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea) by bold application of technologically enabled hard power. There is lesson for India from these wars. Soon there is likely to be strategic nexus between Pakistan, China and Turkey to unleash lethal hybrid war against India. The corridor of peril is likely to be J&K. Thus development of technologically enabled hard power is imperative for India before it is too late.
*Author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed here are personal.
 Nathan Vest & Colin P. Clarke, Is the Conflict in Libya a Preview of the Future of Warfare? Defence One, June 2, 2020.
 Jonathan Marcus, Turkey risks falling deeper into Libya conflict as it deploys troops, BBC News, January 02, 2020.
Dr Anil Kumar Lal, Azerbaijan-Armenia war: Lessons for the military, The Times of India, December 3, 2020
 Colin P. Clarke, William Courtney, Bradley Martin, Bruce McClintock, Russia Is Eyeing the Mediterranean. The U.S. and NATO Must Be Prepared, RAND Corporation, June 30, 2020
 Frederic Wehrey, SandyAlkoutami, China’s Balancing Act in Libya, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 10, 2020.