Mediterranean

The value of war studies and wargaming to decipher strategic dilemmas in the Levant – par Pierre Razoux

 

While the strategic consequences of the Covid-19 crisis still seem uncertain in the Levant and the fighting continues methodically in the Idlib pocket in Syria, several Israeli experts, commentators and politicians took advantage of the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon[1] (June 2000) to question the relevance of the strategies applied since 1982[2]. Was it necessary to invade Lebanon and stay there? Would it not have been better to favour an air campaign without the presence of ground troops, with the exception of occasional raids by special forces? Was it not preferable to maintain a buffer zone in southern Lebanon?

These debates obviously echo the strategic dilemma that Israel faces today with Iran and Hezbollah, both in Lebanon and in Syria[3]. For some, the frontal approach being inevitable in the long run, the Israeli army must be ready to invade, if necessary, portions of Syrian and Lebanese territories. For others, the air approach, based on regular air and cruise missile strikes, would be sufficient to stem the challenge posed by Iran and Hezbollah. For others however, an indirect approach based on clandestine actions, cyber warfare and economic sanctions should be favoured. Finally, for a minority, the solution to this strategic dilemma will necessarily involve a discreet dialogue with Tehran which will make it possible to reconcile the minimal expectations of all sides, which does not, moreover, prevent the parallel conduct of “kinetic” operations, to use a term which is fashionable among Anglo-Saxon thinkers[4].

Two other dilemmas divide the community of experts examining the short-term evolution of the Levant. The first concerns the outcome of the Battle of Idlib in Syria, which stigmatises all the rivalries between the present and influential players in the Levant. The second concerns the possible outbreak of a third Intifada to unblock the Palestinian file, after the announcement of the probable annexation of the Jordan Valley and new parts of the West Bank.

In the face of these dilemmas, war studies and wargaming are two distinct but complementary academic approaches that provide empirical answers.

What do war studies and recent military history teach us?

War studies, a fashionable term developed by Anglo-Saxon academics[5], are a broader approach of a classical military and battle history – popularised at the end of the twentieth century in France by the Military History Centre of the Paul Valéry University of Montpellier under the auspices of Professor André Martel, then by the Chair of Defence History at the IEP of Aix-en-Provence. Since then, several universities and associations have taken up the torch and are developing teaching and research programmes devoted to polemology. Within the Ministry of Defence, the Institute of Strategic Research of the Military School (IRSEM) strives to federate studies on war, as this discipline is not recognised by the French university nomenclature, unlike in Anglo-Saxon countries. This discipline is nevertheless very useful in deciphering the contemporary conflicts in the Levant.

Let us first look at the military interventions conducted from Palestine, then Israel, towards the north (current paradigm). Since the British breakthrough in Palestine in 1918 against the Ottoman army, the fundamentals remain unchanged. Given the highly compartmentalised topography, there are only three axes of progression from what is the Israeli territory today: the first runs along the coastline to Beirut; the second diverges slightly north-east from the Golan Heights to reach Damascus after having meandered through the basaltic high heights; the third sinks between the first two, along the Beqaa valley, between two mountain ranges, to cut the transversal axis linking Beirut to Damascus. Each time, strategists had to arbitrate between these three axes. In 1941, when the British troops launched an assault on the territories of the Levant managed by Vichy France, they chose to advance in parallel along these three axes; encountering fierce resistance, their progression proved slow and costly, but the disproportion of forces and British air superiority left the French troops, who had no reinforcements, no chance.

During the War of Independence of 1948-49, Haganah, on the defensive on the northern front, was unable to break through the Lebanese and Syrian fronts. In June 1967, during the Six Day War, the Israeli army favoured the Syrian axis, seizing the Golan Heights without too much difficulty. During this war, the Israeli air force gained air superiority and opened the way for infantry and armoured vehicles. It was a remake of the Second World War blitzkrieg. For the price of its passivity, Lebanon had to accept the massive presence of Palestinian feddayin on its soil, starting the vicious circle of a long and deadly civil war that only ended in 1990.

In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, the Israeli army counterattacked in the direction of Damascus, ignoring Lebanon. This time it was its tanks and commandos that opened the way for the air force by destroying the batteries of ground-to-air missiles that challenged Israeli air superiority. It is a question of piercing what is today called an A2/AD bubble. The lesson for the Israelis is that no ground-to-air defence is invulnerable if one accepts to put a price tag on it by agreeing to a certain level of losses. Despite everything, the Israeli counteroffensive was bogged down by the wear and tear of the combatants, limited logistics and pressure from the Soviets making it very clear to Israel that they would not tolerate a direct threat to the Syrian capital. In fact, Tsahal had to retro-pedal and return the portions of Syrian territory that had been conquered (except for the Golan Heights annexed eight years later).

In 1978, the Israeli army cautiously launched a punitive operation against the PLO entrenched in South Lebanon (like Hezbollah today) along the coastal axis to the Litani River, but had to withdraw under UN pressure.

In June 1982, this same army, considerably modernised, set off in the direction of Beirut, this time along the two parallel axes of the coast and the Beqaa Valley, after having clearly indicated to the Syrian authorities that it did not intend to carry the hostilities into Syria. In fact, the Syrians, the Israelis and the various Lebanese and Palestinian militias were fighting each other only in Lebanon. Once again, the Israeli air force conquered air superiority by playing cleverly with the combination of means, making massive use of UAVs drones (for the first time in the region) and electronic warfare, preventively destroying SAM batteries and curbing the Syrian aircraft after having blinded it. This operational success will not prevent a strategic defeat, similar to what the American armed forces will experience in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

After three years of presence in Beirut (1982-85), followed by 15 years of occupation of a buffer strip at the Israeli-Lebanese border (1985-2000), the Israeli authorities, exhausted by incessant harassment hostilities and by the deterioration of their image on the international scene, threw in the towel and withdrew from the land of the Cedars, taking in their luggage their suppletives from the South Lebanese Army[6]. Opposite, the Hezbollah fighters claim victory and feel their wings spreading, multiplying the provocations that will lead to the Second Lebanon War.

In the summer of 2006, Tsahal resumes and once again launches an assault on Lebanon, voluntarily abandoning the Syrian front. The Israeli strategists were hesitant about the strategy, the path, the choice of means and the best way to coordinate them. For the first time, Israeli fighters refuse to open fire against the entrenched positions of Hezbollah and the Shiite militia, even if it has to give ground, inflicts heavy losses on Tsahal, while harassing the Israeli population with rockets and ballistic missiles. The Israelis discover at their expense the effectiveness of an asymmetrical war that they have long practised and mastered. Like the Americans against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, but also against Serbia in 1999, air power shows its limits; it cannot win a war on its own, even if it wears out the adversary. At some point, its action must be combined with that of ground troops, involving the crucial decision to engage fighters on the ground.

Since then, Israeli strategists who have launched a discreet war of attrition against Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards deployed in Syria have not stopped preparing their revenge. They are wondering how to reconcile both the Lebanese and the Syrian fronts. For the time being, they are content with a mixture of occasional air strikes, clandestine actions, information and cyber warfare, but above all economic warfare. As long as neither of the two belligerents wishes to escalate, this recipe seems to work; but what would happen tomorrow if one or the other, for reasons of prestige, national cohesion or political survival, chose escalation?

Let us now turn to the Idlib pocket in northwest Syria, the second hot spot in the Levant. The intensive fighting there seems to signify the end of the civil war that has been bloodying the country since 2011. In many ways, this conflict is reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). It started with a rebellion and an attempt to overthrow the regime in place, then became international and ideological through the gradual involvement of regional and global players. Each of them cynically – but pragmatically – pushed their own interests, including economic ones. The forces of each are intertwined in a puzzle that resembles a kaleidoscope rather than a tidy battle. As in Spain, it is the most implacable camp, mobilising the majority of the population and the most militarily supported, that will undoubtedly win in the end.

What’s at stake in the battle of Idlib today? Quite simply, the future of the balance of power in the Levant[7]. As in Spain in the late 1930s, everyone is pushing their own pawns. The Syrian regime wants to reconquer its territory. The rebels and the jihadists, discreetly supported by Ankara, are challenging Bashar el-Assad and pushing their radical Islamist agenda, hoping to resurrect guerrilla warfare in other parts of the territory. The Turkish government sees it as a tool of harm and negotiation to force the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian supporters to make concessions in Syria[8], but also in Iraq (as demonstrated by the Turkish operation ”Eagle Claw”) and in Libya (against Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates). For their part, the Iranians are seeking to secure a land corridor towards Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast to more easily supply their Lebanese affiants and to export their hydrocarbons to the Mediterranean by freeing themselves from Hormuz, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal. Maintaining the status quo allows them to justify their military presence in Syria to help Bashar el-Assad, while maintaining a power of harm against Israel, Turkey and especially Russia. The presence of jihadists in the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin’s troops does not displease them, as long as it does not threaten their own positions.

For its part, the Kremlin seeks to push back as far as possible the jihadists of all kinds who threaten the Russian bridgehead in Syria rooted between Tartus and Latakia. It also seeks to demonstrate that the Syrian regime cannot win without the decisive support of the Russian army, while at the same time preventing Iran from gaining access to the Mediterranean. For their part, the monarchies of the Gulf are divided. Qatar firmly supports the Turkish position out of empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood. The United Arab Emirates has resolved to support Damascus out of hatred of the same Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is torn apart; tempted to support the Syrian rebels, it does not wish to favour Turkish President Erdogan who poses as a herald of the Sunni cause and who remains a fervent advocate of the Islamic republics, a vital threat to the absolute monarchies of the Gulf.

Let us now go down a little further south. The upcoming commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the outbreak of the second Intifada (September 2000) raises the spectre of a new insurrection in reaction to the famous “Peace Plan of the Century” conceived by the Trump family. Here again, what do war studies teach us? That while the first Intifada (1987-1993) led to the Oslo Accords (now buried) because violence had remained below a certain threshold, the second Intifada (2000-2005), which had shattered that threshold, only resulted in the mutual weakening of both sides. In each case and given the reality of the balance of power, the Palestinians could not win and the Israelis could not lose. This seems more than ever to be the case today.

What does wargaming teach us?

Let us briefly recall what a wargame is: it is an elaborate form of strategic simulation in the form of an interactive board game that reproduces a crisis situation or armed confrontation past, present or hypothetical. By identifying with a camp, whatever it may be, each side understands what the other is really looking for, thereby contributing to anticipation and foresight[9]. It is a question of learning and reflecting by playing, testing options and strategies with a right to make mistakes since no life is really at stake[10]. The Anglo-Saxons[11], Russians and Israelis have been practicing this discipline for a long time, which has not prevented them from making mistakes in certain operations, because wargaming is neither a crystal ball nor a magic wand. It is a tool designed to stimulate participants’ intellectual agility by forcing them to think like their opponents and rivals, in a context marked by extreme uncertainty and unpredictability. It is therefore a pedagogical tool that contributes to forging leadership by forcing participants to make decisions while prioritising their actions.[12] In France, wargaming did not really emerge in institutional circles until 2014 following a series of strategic surprises[13] (annexation of the Crimea, territorial extension of Daech, Russian and then Turkish interventions in Syria) aggravated in 2016 by the election of an impetuous and unlikely American president.

Since 2017, the wargame FITNA – GLOBAL WAR IN THE MIDDLE EAST, conceived by the author of this article, is used by analysts, military, institutional experts and academics to think about the evolution of conflict and power relations in the Middle East[14]. The illustration below provides an overview of the state of forces prevailing today between Israel and its Lebanese and Syrian neighbours.

Some 50 test parties replicating a large-scale Israeli air-land offensive towards Lebanon and Syria in an attempt to annihilate Hezbollah and push the Iranian contingents present on the ground northwards, came to the following conclusions:

  • Within a few weeks of a determined air-land offensive backed by intensive bombing, the Israeli army reached the suburbs of Beirut or Damascus (and in only 60 per cent of cases if both Beirut and Damascus are targeted) without major difficulty, albeit with significant losses.
  • Tsahal can only seize one of these two capitals if it chooses to forego the other. In other words, conquering both Beirut and Damascus is almost impossible for it, especially since the Syrian capital rapidly benefits from multiple reinforcements coming from Iran, Russia and the Arab world, supported by a significant number of militias of all kinds, as shown in this second illustration.

  • The seizure of Beirut by the Israeli army usually leads to direct military intervention by Iran, as well as a flurry of UN Security Council resolutions.
  • The assault or siege of Damascus provokes direct military intervention by Russia supported by China and Iran. Under these conditions, the conquest of the Syrian capital by Israel becomes very complicated.
  • As always in recent history, an offensive targeting both Beirut and Damascus (or their southern suburbs) requires progress along three key axes, thereby dividing its forces into three. It is thus extremely difficult for the Israeli army to be sufficiently powerful along these three axes while protecting its rear bases in the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee. Israel’s opponents can therefore counter-attack with a certain degree of success in the direction of the weakest axis.
  • If, on the other hand, Israeli strategists limit their ambitions and renounce from the outset the seizure of Beirut and Damascus, they can easily make progress along these three strategic axes to establish a buffer zone large enough (but not too large) to protect Israeli territory from ground attacks and rocket fire from their main adversaries, especially Hezbollah. But this buffer strip does not protect them from ballistic missile launches. It is therefore understandable why the Israeli government is determined to integrate the Iranian ballistic arsenal into the negotiations between the international community and Tehran.
  • If it reaches the suburbs of Beirut and Damascus, the Israeli army does not have the means to remain there permanently as soon as Israel’s adversaries massively engage their militias to harass and exhaust the spearhead units of Tsahal. Quite rapidly, the level of Israeli losses increases and this war of attrition forces the Israeli staff to castle from one front to the other (Syria-Lebanon) and to carry out a gradual withdrawal towards Israel in order to shorten both its defence and logistical lines.
  • The Israeli army manages to maintain itself sustainably in the suburbs of Damascus and Beirut in only 10% of cases, as a result of gross mistakes by the Syrians, Russians and Iranians. On the other hand, it remains in southern Lebanon in two-thirds of cases if it has not simultaneously launched an offensive towards Syria.
  • In the event of an Israeli offensive in Syria, the Syrian army can only survive if it carries out a rapid strategic retreat towards Syria’s centre of gravity (Quseir-Homs-Palmyra-Bir Basin quadrilateral), entrusting the defence of Damascus to the Republican Guard and the 4th Syrian Armoured Division, Russian paratroopers and the Iranian Al-Quds force.
  • In any case, Russia has the means to challenge Israeli air superiority locally, limiting the impact of Israeli air power and forcing Israeli strategists to rapidly exhaust their stock of cruise missiles and other long-range missiles. Similarly, the presence of Russian ground troops acts as a deterrent shield, as Israel is reluctant to directly confront a nuclear-weapon state, which is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
  • In two-thirds of the cases in which Israel invades Lebanon or Syria, the Palestinians take advantage of the dispersal of Israeli forces and the emotion of the international community to trigger a third Intifada, weakening the Israeli strategic position and forcing Tsahal to make crucial choices.
  • If the Israelis choose a strategy of harassment of Hezbollah by refusing a ground offensive and favouring massive recourse to their firepower (aviation, cruise missiles, armed drones, artillery) combined with cybernetic offensives and airborne raids by their elite troops (apparently the top option of the strategy chosen for the moment by Tsahal’s GHQ), they can stand up to Iran and Hezbollah as long as these two actors deploy only a fraction of their forces against Israel. If Hezbollah commits most of its forces to a confrontation with Israel, regardless of which side is responsible for the outbreak of hostilities, and if Iran sends substantial reinforcements to Syria or even Lebanon, this strategy is no longer sufficient to reduce the threat. All the more so as the massive use of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s ballistic arsenal generally attracts the Israelis into a massive air-land intervention (see above).

There is no doubt that Tsahal’s GHQ, which has been practicing wargaming for a long time, has drawn its own conclusions from the many simulation sessions it has been conducting for years.

Let us now focus on the ongoing offensives around the Idlib pocket for the control of north-west Syria. The illustration below shows the state of the forces present at the beginning of 2020, before the Covid-19 crisis.

The results of about 40 test games involving more than 200 participants in total lead to the following findings:

  • If Turkey stops supplying the Idlib pocket, the Syrians and Russians will inevitably regain control. Reconquering Idlib takes less than a year (usually six months) once the rebels and jihadists entrenched around Idlib are effectively isolated.
  • While Turkey continues to assist entrenched fighters in the Idlib pocket, the Syrians and Russians regain control in 80 per cent of cases. By counter-attacking, the Turkish army and its local auxiliaries reconquer Idlib in two out of three cases, opening a new cycle of confrontation that prolongs the conflict and brutally increases international tension, with Turks, Russians and Syrians coming face to face. In most cases, the Syrians and Russians eventually reconquer and secure the Idlib pocket sustainably, albeit with heavy losses.
  • As long as the Idlib pocket is active, the Syrians, supported or not by the Russians, do not have the military means to drive the Turkish army out of its bridgeheads in Afrin and Jaraboulous (in Syrian territory).
  • Once the Idlib pocket is reconquered, the Syrians, discreetly supported by the Russians or even the Iranians, regain control over one of these two Turkish bridgeheads in two-thirds of cases; they reconquer the two bridgeheads in only 10% of cases. In other words, the Turkish government has a 90% chance of retaining at least one military hold in Syria, regardless of the course of the fighting. This is certainly what Turkish President Erdogan is aiming at in order to flatter the nationalist ego of his people, occupy his army and stay in power until 2023, when his country will celebrate the centenary of the Turkish Republic born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
  • In eight out of ten cases, Russia is the key player in the conflict and manages to achieve its objectives: saving the Syrian regime, eradicating the Idlib pocket, securing its military bases as well as the Aleppo-Damascus axis while preventing Iran from accessing the Syrian coast.
  • The longer the conflict lasts, the more likely it is that Iran will be able to maintain itself in Syria by improving its positions there.
  • In the end, it is the Syrian regime that has the most difficult job in achieving its objectives of victory to remain independent. It can only win by remaining closely allied with Russia and Iran. If it loses one of its two supporters, it can no longer win, even if it can still avoid defeat by securing the “useful Syria”.
  • Once the battle of Idlib is over, the only way to durably eradicate Daech from Syria (and thus to prevent it from gangrening Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey) consists in an agreement between the Syrian regime, the Kremlin, Tehran and Ankara (the Astana process).
  • The big losers in this strategic aggiornamento are the Kurds, who in any case have no means of breaking their enclavement and logistical isolation. For in the absence of a major port, neither Syria, Turkey, Iraq nor Iran, which surround them, will ever allow anyone to supply them on a long-term basis.

Of course, beyond the confrontations mentioned in this article, wargaming can be applied to many other theatres of tension or conflict, be it in the Strait of Hormuz, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula or closer to Libya and the Sahel-Saharan strip. The French armies have understood this, since they are setting up wargaming programmes adapted to their needs.

This is why the FMES Institute (https://fmes-france.org/) will, from the start of the academic year in autumn 2020, organize monthly workshops on strategic wargaming for students, academics, industrialists, institutions, the military, elected representatives or journalists who wish to acquire different keys of understanding in order to better decipher the complexity of current conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin. The FMES will also organise, on request, tailor-made wargaming sessions.

Finally, in order to contribute to strategic thinking, the FMES proposes to bring together in a dedicated section articles, studies and research papers from academics and military officers who analyse current or potential conflicts and who question past wars in order to shed new and original light on those of the present.

 

***

[1] In June 2000, Ehud Barak, Prime Minister and Minister of Defence of Israel, ordered the withdrawal of the Tsahal from southern Lebanon occupied since the “Peace in Galilee” operation launched on June 6, 1982. This first Lebanon War demoralised Israeli society and caused 1,220 deaths, and nearly a thousand more to its auxiliaries of the South Lebanese Army.

[2] Efraim Karsh, “Israel’s flight from South Lebanon 20 years on”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1577, May 22, 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/israels-south-lebanon-withdrawal/ ; Gershon Hacoen, “Israel’s frustrating experience in South Lebanon”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1581, May 25, 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/israel-south-lebanon/ ; Udi Dekel, “Unilateral moves as game changers: 20 years since the withdrawal from Lebanon”, INSS, May 26, 2020, https://www.inss.org.il/publication/annexation-and-the-withdrawal-from-lebanon/ ; Hanan Shai, The 1982 Lebanon “War and its repercussions for Israel’s National Security”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1596, June 4, 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/1982-lebanon-repercussions/

[3] Yaakov Lappin, “Gantz’s challenges and agenda as Israel’s new Defense Minister”, BESA Perspective Paper n° 1582, May 26, 2020, https://besacenter.org/perspectives-papers/benny-gantz-defense-minister/.

[4] “Ex-Mossad Chiefs discuss the Iranian threats”, Atlantic Council, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/q-a-ex-mossad-chiefs-discuss-the-iranian-threat/

[5] Jean-Baptiste Jeangène-Vilmer, « Le tournant des études sur la guerre en France », RDN n° 800, May 2017, pp. 51-61.

[6] The SLA includes a majority of Lebanese Christians, but also a significant number of Shiite fighters from the villages of southern Lebanon, who today live in Israel.

[7] Pierre Razoux, « Quelle sortie de crise au Levant ? », RDN n° 822, Summer 2019, pp. 71-76.

[8] Notably the preservation of the Turkish army’s bridgeheads at Afrine and Jaraboulous (on Syrian territory), as well as the establishment of a corridor to isolate the Kurdish fighters in Syria from those of the Turkish PKK.

[9] Pierre Razoux, « Le wargaming, outil pédagogique pour une réflexion innovante », Défense n° 198, IHEDN, pp. 36-37.

[10] For a complete overview of wargaming, see the excellent work by Antoine Bourguilleau, Jouer la guerre : histoire du wargame, Passé composé / Ministère des Armées, 2020.

[11] As evidenced by the Wargaming Handbook published in 2017 by the Development, Concepts & Doctrine Centre of the British Ministry of Defence (UK MOD).

[12] Guillaume Levasseur, « De l’utilité du wargaming », Note n° 47 of IRSEM, 2017, https://www.irsem.fr/data/files/irsem/documents/document/file/2449/NR_IRSEM_n47_2017.pdf

[13] This was evidenced by the debates held at the Ecole Militaire on the occasion of the two Serious Games Forum organised on 9 November 2018 and 27 January 2020 by the Serious Games Network France association (https://sgnfr.wordpress.com/) and sponsored by IRSEM et l’IHEDN.

[14]https://www.dropbox.com/s/btjhjht69i0wynt/Bon%20de%20commande%20Fitna%20-%20Flyer%20fr-en.pdf?dl=0 ; https://www.nutspublishing.com/eshop/fitna-en ; the rules and maps in French can be downloaded from the publisher’s website. This wargame expects to simulate today what the iconic Gulf Strike (Victory Games) used to di in the 1980’s and 1990’s.