Many of the wars of the 21st century will be asymmetric conflicts. There are multiple definitions of this term, so I won’t try to define it in great detail. Suffice to say that asymmetric warfare is often practiced in order to nullify the advantage of a belligerent that is much stronger than another.
Let’s look at the Arab-Persian aggression against Israel in particular and analyze the form taken by one asymmetric conflict.
One feature of it – at least in its present stage – is that it is a proxy conflict. Israel is not fighting Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even Syria. Her direct antagonists are Hezbollah and Hamas. This permits the real enemy, in this case primarily Iran, to deny any connection to atrocities committed by its proxies, and to avoid international sanction while still pursuing an aggressive course. Proxy warfare is a common asymmetric technique; the Vietnamese war comes to mind in which the US fought soviet-backed Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, or the Soviet-Afghan conflict in which US-backed Mujahideen returned the favor.
Another feature is that it is primarily a low-intensity conflict. Much of the time fighting is confined to skirmishes between small units or terrorist attacks against the civilian population. The aggressor attempts to calibrate the damage done by his attacks so that the conflict will remain at a low enough level that its victim will not be able to justify using its superior forces. From time to time, for short periods, it may erupt into more conventional conflict. But the aggressor will try to keep these periods short to reduce the amount of damage that he will sustain from his more powerful adversary.
Finally, it is important to realize the degree to which this stage of the war is primarily a propaganda battle. The goals for the aggressors are not the traditional ones of destroying armies and conquering territory. The main goal is to change attitudes and opinions among various groups of people in order to manage the outcomes of the more intense flare-ups and to lay the groundwork for a successful conventional assault, when the time comes. There are several main groups that are targeted:
1) The aggressor’s own population. Successful low-intensity warfare, combined with propaganda that vilifies the enemy, is an excellent tool to recruit personnel and funds for the cause.
2) The world in general. Although the aggressors may not have the power to force the victim to give up territory directly, it may be possible to manipulate the major powers who do have the ability to change fundamental geopolitical realities. The government of South Africa, for example, which was much more powerful militarily than the ANC, was forced to cede control by international pressure. The Second Lebanon War, a conventional flare-up in the midst of low-intensity struggle between Israel and Hezbollah, ultimately resulted in a better strategic position for Hezbollah – despite the fact that Israel had the military advantage – because of Hezbollah’s management of world opinion.
3) The victim’s population. The frustration of trying to fight a low-intensity conflict is highly damaging to the morale of a conventional army. The combination of terrorism with propaganda is also effective in causing a civilian population to doubt the rightness of its own nation’s cause, or in extreme cases to support the aggressor.
The strategy of the Arab-Persian war seems to be to press the propaganda attack at all times in every way and in every possible venue, all the while continuing low-level conflict. If it is possible to provoke Israel into escalation as happened in 2002 and 2006, then this more intense fighting is exploited for its propaganda value. Indeed, almost any response to terrorism can be exploited by simple exaggeration, because the ground has been made fertile by years of continuous propaganda.
This aspect of the war has been very successful for the aggressors, because of the effective way that they have managed to cast their actually genocidal struggle as one of anti-colonialism, thus appealing to Arabs and Persians who see themselves as victims of European colonialism and to Western and even Israeli members of the Left to whom colonialism is anathema. More recently, they have succeeded in convincing many that Israel is a racist, apartheid state – something ironic in the extreme, considering the truly racist and antisemitic nature of their own regimes and societies.
The war is being fought as a succession of periods of low-level and more intense conflict on several fronts. So on the Palestinian front we have the ramping up of terrorism in the Oslo period, followed by the explosion of the Second Intifada; during the Intifada Israeli responses – operation Defensive Shield, the building of the security barrier – were exploited as always. One example of an exploit that happened to fail was the invented ‘Jenin Massacre’; but others, like the staged death of Mohammed al-Dura were successful propaganda coups.
Hezbollah’s management of the 2006 war must go down in history as the classic case of successful exploitation of a military reaction to low-intensity conflict. Hezbollah was ready in the beginning to control the information flow from the battlefield almost completely, and enormous damage was done to Israel’s moral image throughout the world. Currently, Hamas is trying to turn an almost obviously aggressive position – firing missiles into Israel from Gaza – into a story about a ‘siege’ of Gaza which doesn’t exist. It remains to be seen if it will be successful.
On the more conventional side, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria have concentrated on development of rocket forces that can be used against Israel’s civilian population during periods of escalated conflict, and as a deterrent during periods of relative calm.
Over and over we see the cycle of
low-intensity provocations + Israeli response => Western intervention + propaganda
where the intervention usually seems to result in strategic concessions for Israel. For example, consider the Annapolis meeting and the beginning of the arming of Fatah by the US as a result of the 2006 war. As the process advances, Israel is less able to effectively fight its enemies the next time the conflict flares. For example, consider UN resolution 1701 which increased the UN presence in Lebanon, an intervention after the war whose effect has been almost entirely to protect Hezbollah from Israel.
The Israeli government seems to partly understand the process, but its efforts to deal with it are not consistent. A major problem is that insufficient resources are committed to fighting the propaganda war. Propaganda feeds itself, and the constant drumbeat of anti-Israel voices prejudices the outcome of diplomatic processes and reduces support for Israel by the major powers.
Israel sometimes tries to break the cycle by not responding to provocations, as it has done with Hamas rockets from Gaza. But this technique is ineffective for several reasons. For one, the aggressor maintains control of the process and can always ramp up the violence until it becomes intolerable. For another, the effect on the victim’s morale – the feeling of impotence created – is shattering. Non-response is always only a temporary palliative, and one which will leave the aggressor in a stronger position when it ends.
So how should Israel respond?
First, Israel will have to understand that as much or more of the battle that is to be fought will be in the arena of public relations and politics than in physical combat. Israel will need to make her story available and compelling, and will have to react instantly and convincingly to lies propagated by her enemies. To do this she will have to allocate lots of money and competent people.
Her message should be that Hamas, for example, is not a plucky band of Palestinian patriots, but rather a terrorist proxy massively supported by Iran and others in the Arab world. It is a racist, antisemitic, anti-democratic, anti-Christian, misogynist faction whose official policy is to commit genocide. Hezbollah is a lot of the same things, but it is also – as Caroline Glick once wrote – the expeditionary force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon. And Fatah is an entirely corrupt gang of bandits and murderers whose ideology – to expel the Jews from the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean and establish a totalitarian, kleptocratic Arab state in its place – has not changed since Yasser Arafat took control of it in the 1960’s.
Next, Israel must take the military threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah seriously. Although the damage that they can inflict may be relatively small – compared, example, with that caused by the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces in the Yom Kippur War, the process that they are facilitating is highly dangerous and must be considered an existential threat. Ahmadinejad has said that nuclear weapons will not be necessary to make Israel disappear, and that this will be accomplished by the ‘Islamic resistance’. I believe this to be a correct description of his intentions.
The process is intended to culminate in a regional war in which the ‘Islamic Resistance’, with help from Syria. Iran, and possibly other Arab states will combine to finally fulfill Ahmadinejad’s dream of wiping (a severely weakened and truncated) Israel off the map.
Israel must short-circuit the process by moving the struggle from the low-intensity frustration stage to a military conflict which she, today, has the capability to win. This will force the conflict to take place on Israel’s terms, not those of the aggressors.
Western intervention must be forestalled until a complete victory – one that results in the total destruction of the fighting capabilities of the proxies and their leadership – has been achieved.
In 2006, Israel allowed Hezbollah to provoke a war, a war for which Hezbollah was prepared. Nevertheless, Israel had an opportunity – the Bush administration wanted to see Iran pushed back – to use its military to destroy Hezbollah, and it could have done so. Unfortunately, a perfect storm of bad leadership prevented a military victory and accepted a very disadvantageous settlement.
The recent decision to accept a cease-fire with Hamas instead of mounting a military campaign is another example of a bad decision. Yes, it avoids conflict now, but the conflict will surely occur. Why should it happen according to Hamas’ schedule?
We expect that shortly Israel will have a new Prime Minister. I devoutly hope that he or she will better understand the nature of the existential war in which Israel is engaged and how to fight it.