Proxies in Hybrid Wars

Sub Title : A possible war scenario in the Middle East involving asymmetric warfare

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 3 Jul/Aug 2019

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 24

Category : Geostrategy

: July 31, 2019

Highly advanced countries like the US and some others of the western world continuously prepare for conventional conflicts involving the application of organized and highly technical forces with lethal firepower and effective force protection. These help to strengthen deterrence.  In current times the possibility of conventional conflicts between nations with balanced capability appears to be majorly receding. No doubt future wars will involve a great deal of technology; the inclusion of cyber-attacks, attacks on satellites, long range destructive missiles with conventional but lethal warheads, aerial attacks with precision weapons and munitions, electronic attacks to suppress systems, and more;  the list of the likes of which continues to grow. Aspiring powers attempt to buy such systems off the shelf and adapt their doctrines to absorb the same. Not too many can afford them. However, wars are hardly ever symmetrical; asymmetry rules and the ways of asymmetric warfare can be quite different. The Islamic State (IS) proved just how basic it could be in terms of human resources and yet so highly technical. It taught the world the first real lessons of modern information warfare involving networks and social media.

The First Modern Proxy War

Even as a super power the US chose to fight the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion of the eighties, not by direct confrontation but by proxy prompting one of the first major proxy wars of recent times. The US-Saudi combine had their respective concerns about the southward Soviet expansion. They thus merged resources and employing Pakistan as the frontline state, launched a disparate army of transnational mercenaries from various Islamic nations into Afghanistan in a classic irregular war, duly funded and provisioned by them. It helped defeat and drive out the Soviet Army after almost 8-9 years of vicious bloodletting. The lessons learnt from there and the availability of rump elements of the mercenaries at the end of the war came handy for Pakistan in launching its proxy effort in J&K in 1989; Bosnia was the other region where the remaining elements moved to fight a proxy war without identified sponsors.

As the unending drama involving the US-Iran standoff in the Middle East unfolds the feasibility of Iran falling back on a carefully crafted strategy involving the use of proxies is likely to emerge. How proxies fit into the genre of modern warfare is an important aspect to analyze to assess emerging threats in the Middle East? In fact, if such a war does take place it may become another game changer in the post-World War II run of wars, much like the Gulf War I.

Basics of Proxy Irregular War

Weaker nations choose to fight through proxies who are not exactly unorganized and undisciplined elements but it’s their ability to fight quasi guerilla style which adds to their effectiveness. They owe allegiance to the sponsor state which caters for their higher leadership, technical aspects of intelligence, supply chains of wherewithal, finances and ideological motivation; all ingredients of classic irregular war. Since the eighties war employing proxies has become far more refined leading to new labels such as ‘fourth generation warfare’ (4GW) or ‘new terrorism’ primarily due to infusion of technology. Information technology, networks, secure communications, lethal explosives, weapons and means of psychological war plus training have all helped proxies in their effectiveness in fighting organized armies. The demarcation of boundaries remains just lines on maps and paper; they can be crossed at will despite modern surveillance systems. Afghanistan and J&K have been single nations and sub regions respectively targeted by proxies, but the Middle East has already witnessed multiple nations and regions under their effective influence and the future promises to see much more of it. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has its tentacles spread through the region. It controls Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Houthi militias in Yemen, the Shia militias in Iraq and can muster much Shia support in eastern Saudi Arabia where the crucial energy belt exists. Its influence over Hamas in Palestine is also profound. Thus, it’s a cluster of countries where Iran’s influence exists and geographically the strategic space of the Levant is in its virtual control. The New York based Ali Soufan group, a think tank on transnational terror, says “Iran’s playbook starts with arming mostly Shiite groups that evolve into political movements that acquire political legitimacy, seats in national parliaments and cabinets, and, over time, major roles as national decision makers. It essentially seeks to nurture its allies and proxies to the point where they, and by extension Iran, can take over state power from within”. The defeat of Islamic State (IS) can very largely be ascribed to Iran’s proxies although in that effort the US and Iran were ranged on the same side.

The scope for diversity of operations in the employment of proxies as part of hybrid war is almost unlimited. It is best exemplified by the IS methodology although it is clear that IS was also not anyone’s proxy; it demonstrated a capability which state sponsored proxies would like to adopt. It possessed the capability of fighting using single suicide bombers, small groups of fighters to kidnap or execute acts of terror and large scale conventional warfare defending cities with a civilian population as hostage. The reach of the IS was well beyond the Middle East. It demonstrated a capability of setting up sub proxies as far away as Marawi in Philippines. Without state support it had financial networks and imposed taxes. The only thing it did not have was a set of diplomats to negotiate because negotiation was never a part of its doctrine. The IS created networks in Europe with disaffected people and could mastermind terror strikes in Brussels, London and Paris demonstrating how difficult it may be to counter a determined organization which could act as a proxy for a state; the IS was yet an irregular organisation. Unlike conventional state entities which have structured control with hierarchies going back to a headquarters, organizations based upon the IS model have indeterminate structures; the first casualty therefore is monitoring. State intelligence organizations are used to making an entry into a network and worming their way through to important functionaries and monitoring them. Their actions often indicate organizational intent. However, in flat organizations there is minimum control and least direction after tasking and providing resources.

The manner in which pitched battles were fought at Fallujah, Mosul and many other locations in Syria with the last being Baghouz, displayed the fact that human resources, military wherewithal and organization were professionally put together for defensive battles. What the IS lacked and something which could well be a part of future large irregular entities was limited air power, armed drones and missiles. All three will be available if irregulars have state support. The potential for defensive capability will be manifold higher while an offensive capability would also be prevalent. Where the IS displayed a very high potential was in the use of social media and networks for information warfare and influence operations. This will also continue to improve with technical advancement thus enabling better coordination, ideological and military technical training, and communication. The existence of the black net forecloses much of the potential to suppress network based communication.

Although the Al Qaida is also no one’s proxy but yet its actions as a terror group against the USS Cole in Yemen in Oct 2000 revealed the vulnerability of conventional military resources to acts perpetrated by irregulars who could well be proxies.  The recent attack on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and the Saudi energy pipeline without any ownership diffuses responsibility and immediately starts getting labeled a ‘false flag operation’ confounding confusion and making the situation even more tenuous and risk prone. In fact, none are sure whether the attack on the Saudi facilities came from Houthis in Yemen or by militias from Iraq.

State in Control of Proxies

Now imagine with all the above if a state decides to support modern irregulars through a system of proxies how would the state of things look. It would be a far cry from the employment of proxies forty years ago when transnational jihadis fought the Soviets in the mountains of Afghanistan with US and Saudi sponsorship under Pakistani control. It is believed that Iran’s IRGC has progressively been designed to fight beyond the borders. The IRGC includes an air force, land force, navy, IRGC (Quds Force), and Basij. The latter is an auxiliary militia that is engaged in activities such as conducting internal security, enforcing state control over society and policing morals.

The Quds Force (QF)  has sections devoted to specific countries and regions, such as the Ramazan Corps (Iraq), Levant Corps (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel), Rasulallah Corps (Arabian Peninsula), and Ansar Corps (Afghanistan). The QF also has active and growing cyber capabilities. While the IRGC as a whole has over 125,000 personnel under arms, there are more than 15,000 QF soldiers; this latter force fought in Iraq and Syria alongside the Russian presence to defeat the IS. Over 5000 QF trained Iraqi militiamen died fighting the IS. As per the US based Centre for Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – “Today, the IRGC-QF is active in building, funding, training, and partnering with a growing number of actors in the region—a testament to Iran’s commitment to irregular warfare. The IRGC-QF’s relationship with these actors varies considerably, and in many cases is more of a partnership than a malleable patron-client relationship”.

Examples of forces supported by the QF include Lebanese Hezbollah; the Hashd al-Sha’abi in Iraq (including groups like the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and AsaibAhl al- Haq); militia forces in Syria, including Lebanese Hezbollah; the Houthis in Yemen and several groups in Palestinian territory like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. As stated, earlier land borders do not appear an obstacle and Iran has succeeded in establishing corridors for secure movement of all resources required to fight irregular or partially regular. This includes Yemen to which movement of wherewithal has been by sea. Most distinct are the missiles which as per Israeli sources are in such numbers that if they were to collectively target Israeli territory the famed Iron Dome defensive system designed for security against missiles would be unable to deliver.

The QF has provided military and non- military aid to partners, boosting their capabilities and increasing Tehran’s influence. Among the most important activities is the ‘Precision Project’ in Lebanon:  a program to upgrade Hezbollah’s inventory of rockets, missiles, and drones. Hezbollah has amassed a range of weapons and systems, such as the Fateh-110/M-600 short-range ballistic missile, Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 short-range ballistic missiles, Toophan anti-tank guided missiles, Kornet man-portable anti-tank guided missiles, M113 armored personnel carriers, T-72 main battle tanks, Karrar unmanned combat aerial vehicles, and Katyusha rocket launchers. Hezbollah’s armed drone capabilities are also among the most advanced of any irregular group in the world; Karrar armed drones were used to destroy Islamic State targets in Syria. The Hezbollah proved an efficient fighting force in 2006 in the war against Israel adding to its confidence. (source: CSIS Report of 11 Mar 2019)

Concept of Employment – an Assessment

With proxies at its calling how can Iran employ them effectively?

Against Israel, it’s the Hezbollah operating from both Lebanese and Syrian territory. However, it may not be as simple as 2006. Israel learnt its lessons and with the US too at war, there would be no qualms about entering Syrian territory to look for a regime change there too. The Syrian forces although far more experienced and battle hardened today may not have an answer for Israeli air power. The Russian presence in the North could prove tricky for Israel. Unlike in the past when the Israel Defence Forces bludgeoned the Syrian Army the latter could take a leaf from the resistance of the Iraqi militias after 2003 and prevent any Israeli consolidation. The Hezbollah’s missiles will remain the focus of Israeli offensive plans. However, remnants of these in mobile state could yet prove devastating against the Israeli civilian targets.

A surge in US deployment in Iraq could invite response from Iraqi Shia militia suicide bombers, IEDs and other irregular means to tie down large forces, if deployed even as land threats. The same could be experienced in Saudi Arabia’s restive east where the Shia presence is large. The Houthis of Yemen have already been active and have demonstrated their capability by targeting Saudi energy pipelines. Many more squads may have been readied for this. Maritime resources would also be vulnerable to the USS Cole type of missile attacks in the plethora of waters that make up the Middle East’s maritime zone.

Where the proxies could be devastating in effect would be one area which has yet not seen armed turbulence, the Gulf countries. These collectively make up the commercial heart of the Middle East. Metropolises like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Kuwait City along with smaller commercial centres would remain vulnerable to calibrated actions by proxies who can bring to these urban centres the chaos of Iraq and Syria. A zero sum game, in terms of destruction by air and missiles which the US may bring to bear on Iran, could be countered by thus far unseen turbulence in the Middle East’s richest urban centers.

The proxy war against the Soviets through the Eighties continued for almost 8-9 years. The feasibility of a long drawn conflict in the Middle East appears remote. There may be war by accident which may not last long. However, a war by intent could last a little longer. The evacuation of expatriates could add to the chaos since there are 8 million Indians alone although all may not wish repatriation.

A complete ban on commercial aviation which is very likely will further exacerbate the situation. For the weaker side, that is Iran, all this plays to advantage.

Given the circumstances which could arise a cease fire too may be early. However, once proxies taste blood it’s usually difficult to hold them back. A persisting irregular war situation could well continue for some years without a clear victor or vanquished. The resultant effect on international commerce and energy would be immense; something the world will take long to recover from.