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A Provident Posture for Israel: Facing Nuclear Iran as an Intellectual Problem

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“Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” Sun-Tzu, The Art of War

Mitigating Trump-Policy Mistakes

Though Donald Trump sought to convince Israel that US withdrawal from the Iran pact would be gainful, the opposite was actually true. Subsequent to his artless American departure from JCPOA, Tehran merely accelerated its ongoing processes of nuclearization. Among other things, the former president’s argument that leaving a presumptively inadequate pact in place was worse than having no pact at all turned out to be evident nonsense. Prima facie, Trump’s politics-driven abrogation of the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement diminished Israel’s national security.[1]

To be sure, in such weighty matters, what’s done is done. Still, what is past here can also be prologue. By openly ignoring all proper considerations of history, logic and intellect,[2] Trump’s seat-of-the-pants strategic reasoning could only have exacerbated Israel’s security situation. But while these once-avoidable Trump-inflicted harms were not immediately remediable, Jerusalem could still act to prevent assorted worst case scenarios.[3]

Going forward, details matter. How, precisely, shall Israel best compensate for its Trump-accelerated losses of security preparation and strategic initiative? At this point,the odds of Israel launching any full-blown preemption against Iran,[4]possibly a proper act of “anticipatory self-defense”[5] under international law,[6] are understandably low.[7] Though Israel could still plan on undertaking intermittent episodes of Iranian nuclear reactor sabotage (e.g., along the lines of its earlier Stuxnet interventions and (probably) more recent cyber-attacks against Natanz enrichment processes), such a piecemeal strategy would display the significant defeats of any “infinite regress problem.”

This common problem is discoverable in science, engineering and philosophy.

 At best, this strategy would have to be regarded as a self-limiting option.

At worst, it could precipitate its own catastrophic consequences.

“The worst,” we may now be reminded by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt, “does sometimes happen.”[8]

The Primacy of Intellect in National Nuclear Strategy

What next? At this point, prudence dictates that Jerusalem back away from its traditional posture that Iran never be allowed to “go nuclear,” and replace this no longer feasible position with suitably intellectual preparations for comprehensive nuclear deterrence. The traditional Israeli stance was more impressively “hard-nosed” and seemingly steadfast, of course, but maintaining any such stance today would be crude, provocative and infeasible.

Back in 2003-2004, as Chair of Project Daniel (PM Sharon),[9] this writer(Professor Louis René Beres) was openly convinced that prospective irrationality could make an Iranian nuclear adversary intolerable. Today, this once-ominous prospect is substantially less credible. For various reasons concerning ordinary Realpolitik, it appears that the Islamic regime in Tehran would calculate in roughly the same fashion as any other rational state decision-maker in prioritizing national survival.[10] Initially, perhaps, there was ample good reason for Israel to fear a “suicide bomber in macrocosm,”[11] but this is no longer a convincing case.[12]

What should now be expected/calculated in Jerusalem? Earlier inclinations to Trump-style bombast and bravado notwithstanding,[13]Israel willmost urgently need to make appropriate preparations for sustaining long-term co-existence with an Iranian nuclear adversary. As part of any such necessary preparations, Israel will have to continue with its impressive developments in both offensive missile technology and ballistic missile defense (BMD.) Although Israel’s well-tested Arrow and corollary interceptors would never be fully adequate for “soft-point” or city defense, these advanced systems could still enhance the Jewish State’s increasingly vital nuclear deterrent.[14]

               The rudiments of Israeli nuclear deterrence are easy to identify. By forcing an Iranian attacker to calculate and recalculate the complex requirements of “assured destruction,” Israeli technologies could make it markedly unrewarding for Tehran to ever strike first. Knowing that its capacity to “assuredly destroy” Israel’s nuclear retaliatory forces with a first-strike attack could be steadily eroded by incremental Israeli deployments of BMD, Iran would likely conclude that any such attack would prove costlier than gainful. Any such relatively optimistic conclusion would be premised on the antecedent assumption that Iran’s decisions must always be rational.

               But what if such a promising assumption should not seemingly be warranted?[15]Inter alia, in such cases, irrationality would not be identical to madness. Unlike a “crazy” or “mad” adversary, which would have no discernible order of transitive preferences, an irrational Iranian leadership could still maintain a distinct, consistent and sequentially ordered hierarchy of “wants.”

               There are further relevant particulars. It is reasonable to expect that even an irrational Iranian leadership would hold in unwaveringly “high esteem” its own primary military institutions. Ipso facto, this leadership would remain subject to Israeli deterrence created by various compelling Israeli threats to these institutions.

               Civilian targets would be excluded from any relevant Israeli attack. Any such calculated exclusion would not only be in Israel’s overall strategic interests. It would also be necessary to ensure normal Israeli compliance with the authoritative law of war, that is, with a commendably exemplary adherence to binding military rules.[16] Law-based conduct is very deeply embedded in Israeli operational planning. This moral imperative is well-known to every soldier of Israel as Tohar Ha Neshek, or the “purity of arms.”

Rationality and Irrationality

 Iran needn’t be irrational to represent a lethal danger to Israel. A nuclear Iran could still be perilous to Israel if its leadership were able to meet all usual criteria of decisional rationality. Miscalculations or errors in information could sometime lead a fully rational Iranian adversary to consider striking first. In these worrisome circumstances, even the best anti-missile defenses could be inadequate in providing adequate population or “soft-point” protections.

               Among other things, if Iran were presumed to be rational in the usual sense of valuing its national physical survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences, Jerusalem could then consider certain more-or-less plausible benefits of pretended irrationality. Years ago, Israeli General Moshe Dayan warned prophetically:  “Israel must be seen as a mad dog; too dangerous to bother.” In this crude but potentially insightful metaphor, Dayan acknowledged that it can sometimes be entirely rational for beleaguered states to pretend irrationality.

               What if an Iranian adversary were presumed to be irrational in the sense of not caring most a bout its own national survival? In this aberrant but still conceivable case, there could be no discernible deterrence benefit to Israel in assuming a posture of pretended irrationality. Here, by definition, the more probable threat of a massive nuclear counterstrike by Israel would be no more persuasive to Tehran than if Iran’s self-declared enemy were presumed to be rational.

               “Do you know what it means to find yourself face to face with a madman?” inquires Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV. While this pithy theatrical query does have some residual relevance to Israel’s mounting security concerns with Iran, the grave strategic challenges issuing from that country will more likely come from decision-makers who are rational and who are not mad. Soon, with this clarifying idea suitably in mind, Israel will need to fashion a more carefully focused and formal strategic doctrine, one from which aptly nuanced policies and operations could be expertly drawn and reliably fashioned.

               Among other things, this doctrine would identify and correlate all available strategic options (deterrence; preemption; active defense; strategic targeting; nuclear war fighting) with all critical national survival goals. It would also take very close account of possible interactions between these discrete but sometimes intersecting strategic options. At times, these interactions would be authentically synergistic; here, the “whole” effect would be greater than the mathematical sum of all relevant “parts.”[17]

               Calculating these complex interactions will present Israel with a computational task on the highest order of intellectual difficulty.[18] In synergistic cases, it may develop that the anticipated entirety of Iranian-inflicted harms would be greater than the technical sum of their discrete components. For Jerusalem, recognizing this task as a preeminently scientific problem represents the necessary first step in meeting Israel’s variously imperiled survival goals.

               In broadest possible decisional terms, Israel has no real choice. Nuclear strategy is a “game” that sane and rational decision-makers must play. But in order to compete effectively, any would-be adversary must first assess (1) the expected rationality of each opponent; and (2) the probable costs and benefits of pretending irrationality.

               The issues are daunting. These are interpenetrating and generally imprecise forms of assessment. They represent challenging but vital judgments that will require accompanying refinements in both intelligence and counter-intelligence. Also needed will be carefully calculated, selectively partial and meticulously delicate movements away from Jerusalem’s extant national policies of deliberate nuclear ambiguity.[19]

Taking the Bomb out of the “Basement”

Soon, for Israel, it will no longer be sensible to keep its “bomb” in the “basement.”[20] Moving carefully toward selected levels of nuclear disclosure could usefully complement any renewed Israeli efforts at diplomacy, e.g., resurrecting or updating certain still-acceptable terms of the Trump-destroyed JCPOA agreement. It would be a delicate balance.

More than likely, Israel’s longstanding “red lines” posture notwithstanding, Iran will manage to join the “nuclear club.” At that point, how will Tehran’s key leadership figures proceed to rank order their country’s critical security preferences? To answer this question – and very precisely this question – should immediately become a primary policy obligation in Jerusalem.

To survive into the future, Israel’s leaders must first come to terms with the knowledge that noad hoc process of interminable preemptions could possibly keep Iran from achieving nuclear status. For Jerusalem, the only sensible option is to prepare for viable long-term nuclear deterrence vis-à-vis Tehran, and to base such necessary preparations on capable intellectual processes.[21]To Israel’s considerable benefit, the anti-science Trump Era of contrived US remedies is over. Accordingly, Israel now has a not-to-be-forfeited opportunity to undertake various still-meaningful strategic initiatives. Any further efforts at preemption, whether incremental (resembling Stuxnet and Natanz hacking) or “all-at-once,” (resembling Operation Opera and Operation Orchard)[22]would be transient and of limited utility.

Exploiting Regional Sunni-Shiite Geopolitics

There is more. The recent Abraham Accords and other bilateral agreements with certain Sunni Arab states are generally “good news” for Israel.[23]Still, these agreements may make Israeli security increasingly dependent upon consistent cooperation with newly-designated Sunni “allies” and simultaneously isolate the nuclearizing Shiite regime in Tehran. Whether or not such expected isolation would actually be net-gainful for Israel remains to be seen. Conceivably, it could at some point prod Iran to act more aggressively and more precipitously against Israel.

There are potentially intersecting issues. The now impending full withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will likely strengthen Taliban fighters and – reciprocally – certain militias and terror groups (both Sunni and Shiite) sometimes siding with Iran. This dissembling effect would give Jerusalem renewed and reasonable apprehensions about “spillover” Islamist adversaries acting in its own more immediate region. Of particular and prompt concern for Israel should be any related Palestinian resurgence of Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Fatah forces in Judea, Samaria and/or Gaza. In short order, such a resurgence could create its own escalatory momentum, generating not only additional instances of terror-violence, but also wars between states that become bewilderingly complex and more-or-less indecipherable.[24]

“Next door” to Afghanistan, in Pakistan, an already nuclear Islamic state in protracted nuclear standoff with India has expressly tilted toward “usable” Theater Nuclear Weapons (TNW). Since Pakistan first announced its test of the 60-kilometer Nasr ballistic missile back in 2011, that country’s emphasis on TNW appears intended to most effectively deter a catastrophic conventional war with India. By threatening, at least implicitly, to use relatively low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons in retaliation for major Indian conventional attacks, Pakistan seemingly hopes to simultaneously appearmore credible and less provocative to Delhi. Over time, though unintended, this calculated strategy to protect itself from any Indian nuclear strikes (whether as aggressions or reprisals) could elicit various Israeli imitations or replications. For the time being, however, it is plausible that Israel has not adopted any openly “warfighting” or “counterforce” nuclear strategy.

               “In war,” says Clausewitz, “everything is simple, but the simplest thing is still difficult.”Until today, in principle at least, Israel’s national nuclear doctrine and posture have remained determinedly ambiguous. Simultaneously, traditional ambiguity was effectively breached at the highest possible level by two of Israel’s former prime ministers, Shimon Peres, on December 22, 1995 and again by Ehud Olmert on December 11, 2006. Peres, speaking to a group of Israeli newspaper and magazine editors, affirmed publicly: “…give me peace, and we’ll give up the atom. That’s the whole story.”When Olmert later offered similarly general but also revelatory remarks, they were widely (but perhaps wrongly) interpreted as “slips of the tongue.”

               Today, a basic question should once again be raised and examined in Jerusalem: Is comprehensive nuclear secrecy in the verifiably best survival interests of Israel?

                The central importance of any codified military doctrine lies not only in the particular ways it can animate, unify and optimize national forces, but also in the efficient manner it can transmit variously desired “messages” to enemy states, sub-state enemy proxies or state-sub-state enemy “hybrids.” Understood in terms of Israel’s strategic nuclear policy, any indiscriminate, across-the-board ambiguity could prove net-injurious to the country’s national security rather than net-gainful. Though possibly counter-intuitive, this is likely because any truly effective deterrence posture could sometimes call for military doctrine that is at least partially recognizable by certain adversary states and by certain sub-state insurgent/terrorist group foes.

Moving Beyond Too-Much Secrecy and Excessive “Friction”

               There is more. In any routine military planning, having available options for strategic surprise could prove helpful (if not fully prerequisite) to successful combat operations. But successful deterrence is another matter entirely. In order to persuade would-be adversaries not to strike first – in these circumstances a manifestly complex effort of dissuasion – projecting too much secrecy could prove counter-productive.

               In the matter of Israel and both its historic and current enemies, any tangible military success must lie in credible deterrence and not in any actual war-fighting.[25] Examined in terms of ancient Chinese military thought offered by Sun-Tzu in The Art of War, “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” With this worthy dictum in mind, there are imaginable times when successful Israeli deterrence policies could require deliberate “loosening” of information that had formerly been “tight.”

               Such information could concern Israel’s capabilities, its intentions or both of these complex qualities taken together.               To be deterred by Israel, a newly-nuclear Iran or any other newly nuclear adversary (potentially, one of the major Sunni Arab states also worried about Iran) would need to believe that (at least a critical number of) Israel’s retaliatory forces would successfully survive any enemy first-strike and that these forces could not subsequently be stopped from hitting their pre-designated targets in Iran or elsewhere. Regarding the “presumed survivability” component of such adversarial belief, continuously reliable sea-basing (submarines) by Israel could provide  a relevant case in point.[26]

               Carefully articulated, expanding doctrinal openness, or partial nuclear disclosure could represent a distinctly rational option for Israel, at least to the extent that pertinent enemy states were made appropriately aware of Israel’s nuclear capabilities. The presumed operational benefits of any such expanding doctrinal openness would accrue from certain deliberate flows of information about assorted matters of dispersion, multiplication and hardening of its strategic nuclear weapon systems, and about certain other technical features of these systems. Most important, doctrinally controlled and orderly flows of information could serve to remove any lingering enemy state doubts about Israel’s strategic nuclear force capabilities and also its plausible intentions.

               Left unchallenged, such doubts could literally and lethally undermine Israeli nuclear deterrence.

               A key problem in purposefully refining Israeli strategic nuclear policy on deliberate ambiguity issues has to do with what the Prussian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz, famously calls “friction.” No military doctrine can ever fully anticipate the actual pace of combat activity, or, as a corollary, the precise reactions of individual human commanders under fire. It follows that Israel’s nuclear doctrine must somehow be encouraged to combine adequate tactical flexibility with a selective doctrinal openness. To understand exactly how such seemingly contradictory objectives can be reconciled in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv now presents a distinctly primary intellectual challenge to Israel’s national command authority.

Preventing Inadvertent and Accidental Nuclear War

               In the end, Israeli planners must think about plausible paths to a nuclear war that include relevant risks of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. It is entirely possible (even plausible) that risks of any deliberate nuclear war involving Israel would be very small, but that the Jewish State might still be more-or-less vulnerable to such a war occasioned by a mechanical/electrical/computer malfunction on one side or another and/or by assorted decisional errors in related reasoning (miscalculation).

               To properly assess the different but intersecting risks between a deliberate nuclear war and an inadvertent or accidental nuclear war must be regarded in Jerusalem/Tel Aviv as an absolutely overriding obligation. These risks could exist independently of one another, and could be impacted in various ways by Cold War II alignments. Moreover, Israel – like the larger United States – must increasingly prepare to deal with issues of cyber-attack and cyber-war; issues now to be considered together with the unpredictably destabilizing advent of “digital mercenaries.”

               There is one more core conceptual distinction that warrants mention at this concluding point of our assessment. This distinction references the difference between inadvertent and accidental nuclear war. By definition, any accidental nuclear war would need to be inadvertent. Conversely, however, an inadvertent nuclear war would not necessarily be accidental. False warnings, for example, which could be generated by various types of technical malfunction or sparked by third-party hacking/digital mercenary interference would not be included under causes of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.

               Instead, they would represent cautionary narratives of an accidental nuclear war.

               Most critical among the causes of any inadvertent nuclear war would be errors in calculation by one or both (or several) sides. The most blatant example would involve misjudgments of either enemy intent or enemy capacity that would emerge and propagate as any particular crisis would escalate. Such consequential misjudgments could stem from an understandably amplified desire by one or several parties to achieve “escalation dominance.”

               Always, in any such projected crisis condition, all rational sides would likely strive for escalation dominance without too severely risking total or near-total destruction. Where one or several adversaries would not actually be rational, all of the usual deterrence “bets” would be “off.” Where one or several sides would not be identified as rational by Israel, Jerusalem could then need to input various unorthodox sorts of security options, including some that could derive in whole or in part from prevailing alignments.

               Still other causes of an inadvertent nuclear war involving Israel could include flawed interpretations of computer-generated nuclear attack warnings; an unequal willingness among adversaries to risk catastrophic war; overconfidence in deterrence and/or defense capabilities on one or several sides (including Israel); adversarial regime changes; outright revolution or coup d’état among adversaries and poorly-conceived pre-delegations of nuclear launch authority among apparent foes.

               Markedly serious problems of overconfidence could be aggravated by successful tests of a nation’s missile defense operations, whether by Israel itself or by any of its relevant adversaries. These problems could also be encouraged by too-optimistic assessments of alliance guarantees. An example might be an intra-crisis judgment in Jerusalem that Washington stands firmly behind its every move during an ongoing crisis, up to and including certain forms of reprisal that are more reasonably imagined than genuine.

               Because a prospective nuclear threat from Iran might not be from a “bolt-from-the-blue” attack, but originate instead from a series of interrelated escalations, Israeli nuclear deterrence ought always to be viewed as part of afar wider spectrum of strategic dissuasion. In this connection, Israel’s military planners willhave to inquire whether nuclear deterrence could ever be meaningfully persuasive in cases of conventional military or large-scale terrorist threats. Although the plausibility/credibility of any Israeli threats of nuclear retaliation or counter-retaliation would be greatest where the aggression itself was identifiably nuclear, there could still be circumstances wherein a massive non-nuclear aggression would warrant a limited nuclear response. In these improbable but still conceivable circumstances, Israel would need to clarify all such inherently problematic reasoning “in advance.”

               Significantly, as any such situations would be unprecedented or sui generis, nothing prospectively remedial could be calculated by Israel with genuine measures of decisional confidence.

Concluding Summations

               In sum, though reluctantly, Israel will sometime have to accept a nuclear Iran as fait accompli, and then plan to suitably blunt corresponding or correlative security risks via refined deterrence. To accomplish this indispensable objective, Jerusalem will first need to back away from its traditionally successful preemption tactics and implement credible deterrence policies vis-à-vis Tehran at all levels of prospective conflict. These would range from major terrorist assault to country nuclear attack. Ipso facto, focusing exclusively on more explicitly immediate nuclear threats would ignore a core axiom of contemporary strategic planning: A “bolt-from-the-blue” nuclear attack is not the only way in which Israel could become vulnerable to a nuclear war.

                Left unreciprocated or unmanaged, even “only” a conventional military attack on Israel (including major terror attack) could conceivably escalate in increments to full-scale atomic conflict.

               Whether or not the parties to the 14 July 2015 JCPOA are actually able to renegotiate or reinvigorate the original agreement on terms more favorable to Israel, expert diplomacy could usefully complement Jerusalem’s multi-faceted deterrence posture. Here, however, the Trump-era “Abraham Accords” should be considered as conspicuously minor augmentations. In the final analysis, let this analysis be clear, Iran will not be deterred from steady nuclearization by any US-contrived coalition of Sunni Arab foes cooperating with Israel.

               Always, sensible defense policy requires vigorous antecedent thought.“Subjugating” Iran’s potentially nuclear assets “without fighting” does indeed represent Jerusalem’s only prudent and persuasive strategic option, but this sought-after subjugation must first be recognized as an inherently intellectual task.[27] For Israel, as for any other beleaguered state on planet earth, political measures that are conceptualized and initiated by an allied country’s openly anti-intellectual leaders are likely without any tangible advantage. In the case of recent Trump-negotiated pacts for the Middle East, they could even be destined to fail.


[1]See:  https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/05/08/iran-advances-nuclear-program-withdrawal-jcpoa/

[2]“It must not be forgotten,” instructs French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in “The New Spirit and the Poets” (1917), “that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.”

[3]For authoritative assessments of the probable consequences of nuclear war fighting by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd. ed., 2018); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington MA; Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, ed., Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[4] “Classical” examples of such a defensive first-strike are Israel’s Operation Opera(against Iraq) and Operation Orchard (contra Syria).

[5]See, on this issue: Louis René Beres and (Major-General/IDF/Res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, “Think Anticipatory Self-Defense,” The Jerusalem Post, October 22, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “The Limits of Deterrence,” Washington Times, November 21, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iran,” Washington Times, June 10, 2007; Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “Deterring Iranian Nuclear Attack,” Washington Times, January 27, 2009; and Professor Beres and MG Ben-Israel, “Defending Israel from Iranian Nuclear Attack,” The Jewish Press, March 13, 2013. See also: Louis René Beres and (General/USAF/ret.) John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?” The Atlantic, August 9, 2012; Professor Beres and General Chain, “Living with Iran,” BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Israel, May 2014.

[6]The most precise origins of anticipatory self-defense in customary law lie in the Caroline, an incident that concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally justified certain appropriately defensive actions. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require any prior military attack. Here, the jurisprudential framework permitted a military response to a threat so long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” See: Beth M. Polebaum, “National Self-defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 187, 190-91 (1984) (noting that the Caroline case had transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a legal doctrine). Still earlier, see: Hugo Grotius, Of the Causes of War, and First of Self-Defense, and Defense of Our Property, reprinted in 2 Classics of International Law, 168-75 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1925) (1625); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations, reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1916) (1758). Also, Samuel Pufendorf, The Two Books on the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, 32 (Frank Gardner Moore., tr., 1927 (1682).

[7]From the standpoint of international law, it is always necessary to distinguish preemptive attacks from “preventive ones.” Preemption is a military strategy of striking an enemy first, in the expectation that the only alternative is to be struck first oneself.  A preemptive attack is launched by a state that believes enemy forces are about to attack.  A preventive attack, however, is launched not out of genuine concern about “imminent” hostilities, but for fear of a longer-term deterioration in a pertinent military balance.  Hence, in a preemptive attack, the length of time by which the enemy’s action is anticipated is very short, while in a preventive strike the interval is considerably longer.

[8]Donald Trump did manage to move the US Embassy marker tile from a building in Tel Aviv to another building in Jerusalem, but no serious analysis could regard such a minor and superficial movement as authenticIsraeli “victory.” Similarly, the net benefit to Israel of Trump- negotiated agreements with a few minor Sunni Arab states must be assessed vis-à-vis the corresponding costs toIsrael-Iran relations. Even the appearance of a US-concocted Sunni-Israel alignment will further exacerbate already hostile strategic postures obtaining between Tehran and Jerusalem.

[9]See, by this author, Professor Louis René  Beres: https://press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters/vol37/iss1/2/In the considered words of the Project Daniel final report, Israel’s Strategic Future: “The primary point of Israel’s nuclear forces must always be deterrence ex ante, not revenge ex post.”

[10] Says Karl Jaspers in Reason and Existence (1935): “The rational is not thinkable without its other, the non-rational, and it never appears in reality without it. The only question is, in what form the other appears, how it remains in spite of all, and how it is grasped.”

[11] See, for example, Louis René Beres, “Religious Extremism and International Legal Norms: Perfidy, Preemption and Irrationality,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 39, No. 3., 2007-2008.

[12]Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different and sometimes overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[13]The belligerent nationalismof Donald Trump stood in marked contrast to authoritative legal assumptions concerningsolidarity between states. Thesejurisprudential assumptions concern a presumptively common legal struggle against both aggression and terrorism. Such a “peremptory” expectation, known formally in law as a jus cogens assumption, had already been mentioned in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 De Jure Belli ac Pacis Libri Tres, Ch. 20 (Francis W. Kesey., tr, Clarendon Press, 1925)(1690); and Emmerich de Vattel, 1 Le Droit des Gens, Ch. 19 (1758).

[14]Israel’s anti-missile defense shield has four recognized layers: The Iron Dome system for intercepting short-range rockets; David’s Sling for medium-range rockets; Arrow-2 against intermediate-range ballistic missiles; and Arrow-3 for deployment against ICBM’s and (potentially) satellites.

[15]On pertinent background issues of rational vs. irrational adversaries, consider Oswald Spengler: “`I believe,'” says the author of The Decline of the West, “is the great word against metaphysical fear, and at the same time it is an avowal of love.'”

[16]Crimes of War concern (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules.  Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions, and known thereby as the Law of Hague and the Law of Geneva, these rules seek, inter alia, to bring discrimination, proportionality and military necessity into belligerent calculations.  On the main corpus of jus in bello, see: Convention No. IV, Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, With Annex of Regulations, Oct. 18, 1907, 36 Stat. 2277, T.S. No. 539, 1 Bevans 631 (known commonly as the “Hague Regulations”); Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T.  3114, T.I.A.S.  No. 3362, 75 U.N.T.S.  85; Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T.  3316, T.I.A.S.  No. 3364, 75 U.N.T.S.  135; Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Aug. 12, 1949, 6 U.S.T.  3516, T.I.A.S.  No. 3365, 75 U.N.T.S.  287.

[17]See, by this writer, at Harvard National Security Journal, Harvard Law School:  Louis René Beres, https://harvardnsj.org/2014/06/staying-strong-enhancing-israels-essential-strategic-options-2/

[18] For this writer’s most recent and most comprehensive assessment of these complex issues, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 167 pp (2nd ed., 2018). https://www.amazon.com/Surviving-Amid-Chaos-Strategy-Destruction/dp/1442253258See also: https://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/surviving-amid-chaos-israels-nuclear-strategy

[19]The actual security benefits to Israel of any explicit reductions in nuclear secrecy would remain dependent, more or less, upon Clausewitzian “friction.” This refers to the inherently unpredictable effects of errors in knowledge and information concerning intra-Israel (IDF/MOD) strategic uncertainties; on Israeli and Iranian under-estimations or over-estimations of relative power position; and on the unalterably vast and largely irremediable differences between theories of deterrence, and enemy intent “as it actually is.” See: Carl von Clausewitz, “Uber das Leben und den Charakter von Scharnhorst,” Historisch-politische Zeitschrift, 1 (1832); cited in Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper No. 52, October, 1996, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Washington, D.C. p. 9.

[20] On identifying alternative nuclear disclosure options, see: Louis René Beres, “Israel’s Strategic Doctrine: Updating Intelligence Community Responsibilities,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2015, pp. 1-16.

[21] For earliest published writings by Professor Beres on the Iranian nuclear threat, see: Louis René Beres, “Israel, Force, and International Law: Assessing Anticipatory Self-Defense,” The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations, Vol. 13, No. 2., June 1991, pp. 1-14; Louis René Beres, “After the Gulf War: Israel, `Palestine,’ and the Risk of Nuclear War in the Middle East,” Strategic Review, Vol. XIX, No. 4., Fall 1991, pp, 48-55; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Prospects for Nuclear War in the Middle East,” Strategic Review, Vol. XXI, No.2., Spring 1993, pp. 52-60; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Nuclear War: A Tactical and Legal Assessment,” Jerusalem Letter, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem, Israel, November 1993, pp. 1-7; Louis René Beres, “North Korea Today, Iran Tomorrow,” Midstream, June/July 1994, pp. 5-7, co-authored with COL. (IDF/res.) Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto (former Chief of Planning, Israel Air Force); Louis René Beres, “The Security and Future of Israel: An Exchange,” Midstream, Vol. XXXXI, No. 5., June/July 1995, pp. 15-23, a debate between Professor Beres and Maj. General (IDF/res.) Shlomo Gazit, a former Chief of IDF Intelligence Branch (Aman) and later, military advisor to Prime Minister Shimon Peres; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Nuclear War: A Jurisprudential Assessment,” UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs, Spring 1996, Vol. 1., No. 1, pp. 65-97; Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Preemption: Choosing the Least Unattractive Option Under International Law,” Dickinson Journal of International Law, Vol. 14, No. 2., Winter 1996, pp. 187-206; Louis René Beres, “The Iranian Threat to Israel: Capabilities and Intentions,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 9., No. 1., Spring 1996, pp. 51-62; Louis René Beres, “The Iranian Threat to Israel,” Midstream, Vol. 44, No. 6., September/October 1998, pp. 8-11; Louis René Beres, “Security Threats and Effective Remedies: Israel’s Strategic, Tactical and Legal Options: A Comprehensive Master Plan for the Jewish State in the Third Millennium,” The Ariel Center for Policy Research (Israel), ACPR Policy Paper No. 102, April 2000, 110 pp; Louis René Beres, “Iran’s Growing Threat to Israel,” Midstream, Vol. XXXXVI, No. 7, November 2000, pp. 2-4; and Louis René Beres, “Israel and the Bomb,” a Dialogue with Professor Zeev Maoz, International Security (Harvard University), Vol. 29, No.1., Summer 2004, pp. 1-4.

[22] See https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/operation-opera-raid-on-iraqi-nuclear-reactor; and see also: Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Israel’s Strike Against the Iraqi Nuclear Reactor 7 June 1981, a collection of original articles and lectures by Yitzhak Shamir, Rafael Eitan, David Ivri, Yaakov Amidror, Yuval Ne’eman, Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto, and Louis René Beres. Also: Louis René Beres and COL. (IDF/ret.) Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto, “Reconsidering Israel’s Destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq Nuclear Reactor,” 9 Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, 437 (1995).

[23]See https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/ These agreements refer only to relations between Israel and Bahrain and Israel and UAE. Also to be considered as complementary here is the Israel-Sudan Normalization Agreement (October 23, 2020) and Israel-Morocco Normalization Agreement (December 10, 2020).

[24]Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s steady insistence that any Palestinian state remain “demilitarized” is not merely unrealistic; it is potentially inconsistent with pertinent international law. On this point, see: Louis René Beres and (Ambassador) Zalman Shoval, “Why a Demilitarized Palestinian State Would Not Remain Demilitarized: A View Under International Law,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal,Winter, 1998, pp. 347-363. See also, by Professor Beres and AMB. Shoval, at West Point (US Department of Defense): https://mwi.usma.edu/creating-seamless-strategic-deterrent-israel-case-study/  Zalman Shoval was two-times Ambassador of Israel to the United States.

[25] This was a major conclusion of this author’s Project Daniel Report (2003) to then Prime Minister Sharon. It was titled Israel’s Strategic Future. http://www.acpr.org.il/ENGLISH-NATIV/03-ISSUE/daniel-3.htm

[26]  See, on such basing imperatives: Louis René Beres and Admiral (USN/ret.) Leon “Bud” Edney, “Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: A Larger Role for Submarine Basing,” The Jerusalem Post, August 17, 2014; and Professor Beres and Admiral Edney, “A Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent for Israel,” Washington Times, September 5, 2014. Admiral Edney served as SACLANT, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic.

[27]In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked prophetically (Pensées): “All our dignity consists in thought…. It is upon this that we must depend…Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Similar reasoning characterizes the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Pascal’s 17th-century contemporary. In Book II of his Ethics Spinoza considers the human mind, or the intellectual attributes, and – drawing further from Descartes – strives to define an essential theory of learning and knowledge.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Su-57 = Next-gen Eurofighter

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Eurasian Air-Power

As I have demonstrated on other occasions, the “best” US combat aircraft for export, the F-35, is basically worthless. The decades old F-16 and F-18 in updated configurations are better. F-22 is truly remarkable but is in limited numbers, will not be built anymore (tools destroyed), and is not for export. The EU Eurofighter is behind in the generation race for modern combat aircraft. The French too. The West is losing out.

The EU wants has now embarked on the creation of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) which includes a next-gen Eurofighter. The initiative is right – but the EU is hopelessly behind.

France is laughable. A paper linked to in a Euractiv article (link now removed) described France trying to even develop an aircraft-carrier able next-gen fighter aircraft. For one single French aircraft carrier? Ridiculous.

To have a truly competitive next-gen combat aircraft, we need an aircraft with superior flight and combat parameters for tomorrow – and we need an integrated electronic & human combat-system with a generic package with avionics, sensor, weapons control & battlespace to put into not one but a range of aircraft platforms (manned and unmanned). The EU has neither.

The EU will never reach the finish line even in 2040

UNLESS

the EU teams up with Russia.

Russia has a big vital part of what is needed: A truly superior aircraft platform, the Su-57. The EU has what it takes to develop the rest and turn that into a true No.1 global leader in combat. Together, the EU and Russia can and will do it.

This will be a game changer. It will not only revolutionize combat. It will also be a peace project for the EU and Russia – sharing with each other some of the most sensitive technologies in security. The EU would grow independent of US military technology, and Russia would stay independent of Chinese military technology. Both will be boosted up in the global tech-race. Win-win.

Pakistan and India are vital to both Russia and the EU. Two important countries with immense human resources.

India is vulnerable because of the lack of remarkable next-gen aircrafts for export from the West. And though extremely strong in R&D, India cannot lift such a project on her own. India needs a truly competitive combat aircraft to balance China’s great products, the J-20 and the FC-31/FC-35.

Pakistan needs superior combat aircraft too. The only thing which should keep Pakistan away from buying next-gen combat aircraft from China (J-20 and FC-31/FC-35) should be, if there is a better combat aircraft available to Pakistan, than what the Chinese can offer. And that is exactly what this idea is all about.

I sense that Russia (and probably the EU) in such a project would be willing to export a possible EU-Russian combat aircraft to both Pakistan and India. But we must think further.

We should put this into the frame of peace between Pakistan and India. Peace between Pakistan and India means that they are not enemies which should fear each other’s air forces. But more than that. A peace agreement is a step – a crucial one – but still a step to bring lasting peace. Lasting peace means peace in the minds of people on both sides – and cooperation.

Can you imagine a better area to cement peace between Pakistan and India than establishing joint work-teams on a common defense project? A lot of the knowhow needed (incl. IT & communication) is readily available in both Pakistan and India. So why not involve it for the common good?

In the frame of peace between Pakistan and India, there should be every reason to involve both Pakistan and India as development partners in a joint EU-Russia defense system. That will speed up the development-cycle widely beyond what the USA and China are capable of. It will also make the project much more affordable and expand the total sales-basis to pay for much more R&D.

Going further. The F-35 has a ridiculous short range of operations, no super-cruise to overcome long distances in a short time (key in modern warfare), and modest payload. The Su-57 as platform is superior in all these and more parameters. A Su-57-nextgen-Eurofighter will because of its vast range and speed widely make aircraft carriers obsolete. Together, Pakistan and India will command the Arabian Sea and the oil-lanes with such an aircraft. No foreign aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean could operate against Pakistan-India safely out of reach of such a Pakistan-Indian air force. It will of course be integrated with space-assets and surface/subsurface assets. Imagine for yourself the game-change that this could bring in the Pacific and Arctic too.

The EU and Russia will remain the core. And this project will have to start in practical ways. Starting by gaining trust between the EU and Russia by working on concrete sub-projects. Small beginnings for big ends. The same with involving Pakistan and India – together.

Small beginnings for big ends.

Comments are welcome.

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Afghanistan: The US Withdrawal, India and the Future Possibilities

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Afghanistan is the worst affected state due to the great game, cold war politics and now emerging Asian power rivalry. The latest US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 has led to the speculations over the anarchy and terror rule that may engulf the country.

The division of India was triggered not only by the internal political dynamics but by the external factors too. The ‘Churchill Plan’ that envisaged a trifurcated India in order to protect the future interests of Britain in Indian subcontinent has still its vestiges alive. Churchill wanted to ‘ensure the continuation of British hold over India through a division of the sub-continent into three independent constituents under British hegemony in one form or other. Besides India and Pakistan it had the option of ‘Princestan too’ (Krishna Balraj). As part of the ‘great game’ in the post-world war II era the state that has suffered the most at the hands of cold war actors is Afghanistan which is still struggling for a free and responsible government devoid of the civil war nightmare.

The Afghan politics has remained divided over the decades between the tribal forces and the political institutions and the failure of the unstable political institutions have provided a space for tribal groups, Islamic organizations and the local warlords to throw stakes in state power. The disintegration of USSR in a more fragmented world led to the revived interest by global and regional powers in the Central Asia and Afghanistan which provide a significant outreach to Indian subcontinent, China, Russia and the natural resource reservoirs of Central Asia. Now Afghanistan has turned into a centre of power rivalry not only between the old cold war actors but also with the stakes from India and China, the newly emerged powers in the continent.

The Background of the Current Syndrome

Since the fall of monarchy in 1973 and the interim period of political instability (that saw assassinations of Afghan leaders like Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan and his family, President Nur Mohammed Taraki and President Hafizullah Amin) and the fall of Afghanistan to communists under Soviet invasion in 1979 that ended in 1992 with the resignation and assassination of President Mohammed Najibullah several centers of power have emerged. There have been several ethno-linguist groups (about 14 major groups, mostly Sunni and some smaller ones) which have emerged against the communists and in the post-Najib era for grabbing power. Taliban, founded by Mohammed Omar, a fanatic commander emerged as a major force that according to Carole Hillenbrand (2015) rose from ‘the US-Saudi-Pakistan supported mujahideens’ and grabbed power in 1996 from Burhannudin Rabbani (who had found Islamic States of Afghanistan in 1992) and controlled about three quarters of Afghan territory till 2001 when US Coalition forces dethroned them in view of 9/11 for the establishment of a democratic government.

Taliban’s rule, though recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE only, from 1996 to 2001 has been the worst phase in Afghan history on account of retrogressive policies and was opposed by Northern Alliance. United Nations and OIC never recognized the Talibani government that controlled around 90 p.c. of the territory in 2001. Northern Alliance that controlled rest of the area is the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan formed against Taliban and is a group of leaders like the former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud, leaders of several other ethnic groups like Karim Khalili, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Abdullah Abdullah, Mohammad Mohaqiq, Abdul Qadir, Asif Mohseni and others. After the removal of Taliban a transitional government was founded under Hamid Karzai who got elected in 2004 and ruled till 2014 when the current President Ashraf Ghnai replaced Karzai on the issues of failing to check corruption and illegal drug production.  The flourishing of democracy in Afghanistan has been a welcome development and the National Assembly represented Islamic fundamentalists, reformists, communists, and many Talibani leaders too.

The Return of Taliban

Since the interim government of 2001 till 2021 the Taliban has grown stronger and the US has lost interests in stemming its tide and decided to withdraw. Since invading Afghanistan in 2001, the United States has spent $2.26 trillion on the war, which includes operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Taliban has still a stronghold in the southern and eastern Afghanistan and US troops who have suffered over 2442 causalities over a period of two decades and have failed to crush it and are left with no option but to go for negotiation table and settle for Taliban’s share in governance (Watson Institute Report). “Sealing the border would be politically difficult, and the burden of doing so would fall primarily on the United States. In addition, it would take time, since the Taliban have the momentum. Defeating the Taliban would require at least 100,000 new reinforcements as long as the Afghan–Pakistani border remained open to insurgents. Neither the United States nor NATO is willing or able to pay the human and fiscal costs of reinforcements at this level” (Gilles Dorronsoro 2021). So a convenient withdrawal of US forces marks the return of Taliban.

Democratic Institutions and the question of Legitimacy

Since 2004 democracy in Afghanistan has failed to earn legitimacy and has been going though testing times against the insurgents and retrogressive forces. While the Karzai government completed successful two terms and engaged in great reconstruction project it couldn’t earn legitimacy among the diverse sections due to different reasons. The Ghani government has also performed moderately since 2014. The National Unity Government (NUG) under Ghani failed to deliver what it had promised in uniting all power groups in Afghanistan, reduce conflict and bring stability in military situation and begin a peace process with the Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have so far failed in meeting the objectives. Taliban’s gaining control over Kunduz, Farah and Gazni has dwarfed the status of Ghani government to the extent that US itself bypassed the government to enter into an agreement with Taliban in Feb. 2020. As part of that agreement, the US committed for the full withdrawal of international forces and the Taliban promised to prevent other groups like Al Qaeda from the use of Afghan soil against the US, a major US security concern.

Keeping to the words, ‘US president Joe Biden announced in April 2021 that all American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021’. NATO allies have said they would do the same, and troops have already begun leaving. The Pentagon has said there were about 2,500 US troops there in recent months, and General Milley said in an interview that the total rises to 3,300 if special operations forces were counted. Military commanders feel that additional forces would flow in temporarily to help with security and logistics for the drawdown (The Guardian). However, as the US troops start withdrawing Taliban has increased pressure by targeting government forces which are left on their own to fight with Taliban.

US Secretary Antony Blinken’s March 2021 counsel to Afghan government regarding forming of a united front and planned diplomatic efforts for negotiation of peace and formation of a ‘transitional interim government’ as it happened in 2001 has met a rejection from President Ghani. In fact he forwarded a counter ‘ceasefire plan’ to Taliban and appealed them to take part in elections promising an early conduct of elections too. The primary issue is negotiation of the nature of future government. While the government looks for strengthening of the hard earned democratic institutions, Taliban looks for a Sharia based state based on Islamic laws that scares the Afghans, especially women who still remember the retrogressive conservatives exhibited by Taliban in its previous tenure.

The US Withdrawal, India and the Possibilities

The US decision to withdraw its forces reminds of the 1988 agreement between the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan and USSR though which USSR had committed to withdraw its troops (completed in 1989) so that Afghanistan could return to normalcy, nonaligned status and democracy. However, various rebel groups joined by several rebellious government troops conquered Kabul in April 1992 and overthrew President Najibullah’s government. Consequently Afghanistan fell to Taliban (a force strengthened after the failure of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in meeting the US-Pakistani ends) and entered into a permanent state of civil war. It also reminds of the failure of US to sustain against longer wars as Taliban has proved to be another ‘Viet Cong’ for them.

The withdrawal of US troops implies several possibilities ranging from sustenance of democracy to derailing of it by the Islamic forces. Afghanistan may fall to the same old power rivalry of eighties as Russia this time sides with Taliban, a force created by US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Russo-Chinese understanding over the BRI and South Asia of which Pakistan appears to be an important partner excludes the Indian role. India has played a significant role in reconstruction of the war torn state but its presence has not gone well with Pakistan, China and now Russia. While Russia and Iran have been strengthening Taliban against US India’s role in future negotiations of Afghanistan has been overlooked by Russia recently, perhaps under the pressure from China and Pakistan. One more thing that didn’t go well with US was India’s opposition to deferring of the elections and forming of the ‘interim government’ as proposed by US.

Indian concerns also emanate from the fear that once Taliban gets a free sway in Afghanistan they might create problem in Kashmir, as they have done in the past. However, the recent US initiative of March 2021 when Secretary Blinken suggested a six member panel of the foreign ministers of China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States under United Nations to develop a “unified approach” to peace brings India to the discussion table which will definitely help it safeguard its interests in Afghanistan (The Hindu). For India it’s a time of taking some tough preemptive measures in order to plug the vent of terrorism against India. The consolidation of the Afghan government’s security alignments that includes the possibility of the revival of a ‘new national security alliance’ engaging the anti-Taliban warlords against the 70000 strong Taliban contingent is the need of the hour.

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Prospects for a Settlement of the Libyan Conflict: Three Scenarios of the Mid-Term Forecast

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More than ten years ago, in February 2011, the Arab Spring began in Libya. The armed uprising quickly escalated into an armed conflict that had Muammar Gaddafi overthrown. Since then, the civil war has not stopped in the country. At the heart of the current conflict in Libya is the confrontation between the Government of National Accord (GNA), located in Tripoli, and the Libyan House of Representatives, located in Tobruk. The government in Tobruk is supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In April 2019, the LNA attempted to seize Tripoli, but it was forced to retreat following months-long siege of the city.

Current developments

2020 was marked by unprecedented efforts by international organizations, world powers and regional players, as well as attempts by both sides of the Libyan conflict, to resolve it by political means. On January 19, 2020, an international conference was held in Berlin, the participants of which called for the disarmament of all paramilitary groups and devised specific mechanisms for controlling the arms embargo. However, neither the conference resolution nor the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic led to—at least—a cessation of hostilities.

On October 23, 2020, representatives of the GNA and LNA signed a ceasefire agreement in Geneva, which the UN labelled historical. In November 2020, the Joint Military Commission, composed of representatives of the warring parties, agreed on practical steps to implement the agreement. In particular, agreement was reached on the creation of a military subcommittee to monitor the withdrawal of troops. On December 27, 2020, an official Egyptian delegation arrived on the first visit to Tripoli since 2014, where they discussed the prospects for mending Libyan-Egyptian relations as well as the economic agenda and security issues. Parliamentary elections in Libya are scheduled to be held in December 2021. Besides, there was agreement to hold a referendum on the Constitution in 2021.

Some politicians, scientists, and representatives of the expert and analytical community are optimistic about an early settlement of the Libyan conflict, but many of their colleagues, on the contrary, are quite skeptical. On the one hand, the escalation of hostilities that began in April 2019 has indeed subsided. On the other hand, experience shows that setting any specific dates for the electoral processes in Libya and provisions for transparent mechanisms to establish legitimate government bodies do not mean that elections will be held and their results will be subsequently recognized.

When predicting what the Libyan conflict will be in the medium term, it is necessary to take into account that the war in Libya is an absolute disequilibrium system. While the existing trends are susceptible to change sparked by the course of how things unfold, the conflict may take on new trajectories.

Scenario I. Political settlement

The civil war in Libya has been going on for more than ten years, and there have been repeated attempts to come to a political solution to the conflict over this time. The hope that this will happen remains. The efforts undertaken in 2020 to reach national consensus may not have been in vain as they could become a solid foundation for a political settlement of the conflict. The country may well manage to hold all-Libyan elections, with the people who will come to power enjoying relative legitimacy, both in the eyes of the world community and among ordinary Libyans.

Libya has 44.3 billion barrels of proven oil reserves[1]. Cessation of hostilities will allow counting on Libya’s oil exports partially restored and, possibly, on new oil pipelines constructed. The long-awaited reconstruction of the transport infrastructure, oil production and oil refineries will ensue, which will play an instrumental role in the economic renaissance of the united Libyan state.

The new Libyan authorities will face a number of important tasks, including restoring production facilities, infrastructure and the housing stock of the country. Russian and foreign companies will have the opportunity to participate in the restoration of the Libyan state. At the meeting of the Minister of Industry and Trade of the Russian Federation with the Libyan delegation on January 28, 2021, they discussed not only the prospects for diversifying trade between Russia and Libya but also avenues for participation of Russian companies in restoring energy, agriculture, industry, social and transport infrastructure in Libya.

China will certainly show its interest in the post-war revival of Libya. The GNA has welcomed the possible participation of China in reconstructing the country’s infrastructure once the war is ended. Over the past few years, Chinese diplomats have repeatedly met senior officials from the GNA to ultimately sign a Memorandum of Understanding under the Belt and Road Initiative.

There will be an opportunity to resume the deliveries of Russian weapons to the country. However, although the economic situation in the country will stabilize, the Libyan leadership is unlikely to have enough financial resources to pay for military imports. Competition with manufacturers from Europe and the USA may lead to a forced decrease in export profitability[2].

At the same time, there is a strong imprint of tribal relations on the Libyan society[3]. Even if political peace is established in Libya, it will be quite fragile. The society will remain fragmented, which means that the risk of social tensions growing will remain. Extremist and terrorist organizations operating in Libya can use this to destabilize the situation in the country. Weapons proliferation (mainly small arms)—which for many years were virtually freely distributed throughout the country—will serve as an additional factor in a hypothetical social explosion.

Scenario II. Escalation

It is possible that the establishment of even a fragile peace in Libya will not take place at all. One of the possible scenarios may be another escalation of hostilities. There can be many nominal reasons for the opposing sides to bring forward mutual accusations. These range from provocations during the pre-election period to non-recognition of the results of electoral processes. As a result, this can lead to a sharp escalation of tensions.

As Stephanie Williams, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, noted, every time the situation in Libya seems to have reached its lowest point there is a surge of violence. In September 2020, the UN announced that the LNA and the GNA—despite the relatively calm situation on the front line—will resort to receiving help of allies from abroad, thus accumulating modern weapons and military equipment. In two months, some 70 aircraft with suspicious cargo for the LNA landed at airports controlled by Khalifa Haftar’s army, and three cargo ships stopped in the ports in the east of the country. 30 aircraft and nine cargo ships delivered cargo for the GNA.

At a meeting on the Libyan political dialogue on December 2, 2020, Stephanie Williams announced that there are ten military bases in Libya that are fully or partially occupied by foreign troops and that host about 20,000 foreign mercenaries. The cessation of hostilities was used by the government in Tripoli and the LNA to cement their positions and enhance the combat effectiveness of their troops, including through assistance from abroad. In January 2021, it was recorded that the mercenaries were building a defensive line and fortifications—presumably, in order to repel a possible attack by the GNA troops on the LNA-controlled territory.

Against the background of the confrontation between Russia and the United States likely to intensify, the degree to which the conflict is internationalized may increase, much as the control over the arms embargo tighten and the role of private military companies as a foreign policy asset of individual states expand. Private military companies help reduce political risks that a state’s engagement in the war in Libya entails, while actively supporting one group or another by sending weapons, military instructors or mercenaries.

There is a danger of destroying the remnants of Libya’s oil infrastructure, the backbone of the country’s economy. Artillery shelling of residential areas will cause additional interruptions in water and electricity deliveries to Libyan cities. Illegal migrants attempting to enter the EU countries, especially Italy, will become more frequent.

The Republic of Turkey, which claims a leading role in the region and seeks to revive the “former greatness” of the Ottoman Empire, is sharply intensifying its actions[4]. Most likely, Ankara will support the government in Tripoli, not only with weapons, but also with troops, as it happened in January 2020. Egypt will continue to support the LNA, as it hopes this can minimize Libyan weapons being smuggled into Egypt. At the same time, the possibility of direct military intervention by Egypt remains extremely low. Even if Turkey sends large military units to help the GNA, Cairo will be reluctant to enter into a protracted military conflict, the outcome of which is unclear. Moreover, a direct military clash between Turkey and Egypt is practically impossible on account of their belonging to military and political blocs. Rather, in response to Ankara’s decisive actions in Libya, Cairo will deploy troops on the border with Libya or transfer part of its units to the LNA-controlled Libya’s eastern regions. However, the prospect of the Egyptian troops advancing further to the West seems unlikely.

Scenario III. Maintaining the status quo

Despite attempts by both sides to embark on political dialogue, official statements by representatives of the opposing sides contain aggressive, accusatory rhetoric. For example, in a video message to the delegates of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, Faiz Saraj referred to Khalifa Haftar’s offensive in Tripoli in April 2019 as “a tyrannical attack of the aggressor.” In addition, he urged not to compare foreign support for the “militants of Khalifa Haftar” with the help provided to the government in Tripoli “within the framework of legitimate agreements.”

In today’s conditions, it will be rather difficult for the main political forces in Libya to organize the work of the central electoral commission and other bodies in preparation for the elections. Besides, it should be borne in mind that the GNA, the LNA and a number of independent armed factions operating in Libya can control the electoral processes and, if necessary, sabotage them. One of the parties may try to disrupt the elections altogether. At the same time, the escalation described in scenario II seems rather unlikely to occur, as the world community is paying greater attention to the war in Libya.

The war in Libya provokes conflicts in at least 14 countries in Africa and Asia, mainly due to weapons smuggling[5]. Despite the possible strengthening of international control, maintaining the existing balance of power in Libya will provoke new conflicts and serve as a hotbed of destabilization in the neighboring countries, such as Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. Should the next plan for a political settlement of the conflict fail, Libya risks becoming another Afghanistan, close to Europe.

What of the Libyans?

The last two scenarios seem to be the most likely. In 2019, the Arab Barometer[6]. conducted a sociological study that clearly shows how Libyans themselves perceive the situation in their country and what they see as key problems [7].

Top challenges (Figure 1) cited include foreign interference (19%), fighting terrorism (16%), corruption (14%), security (13%), economy (12%), internal stability (9%) and political issues (8%)[8].

It also turned out that Libyans have little confidence in political institutions (Figure 2). Among the most trusted institutions are the army (59%), the police (46%) and the judiciary (37%), while the least trusted are the government (10%), parliament (9%), and political parties (4%)[9].

Figure 3 offers an interesting view of the surveyed Libyans on democracy. According to the polls, democracy is always the preferable political system (58%). At the same time, many rated democracy as indecisive (37%), unstable (34%) and bad for the economy (34%)[10]. With this in mind, it is possible that the Libyans are unlikely to trust their single government.

No matter how the conflict’s landscape changes, there is reason to believe that the Libyan society will in any case remain divided for quite a long time. Its further fragmentation will almost certainly occur against the backdrop of hostilities coupled with the pandemic and a decrease in Libya’s oil exports. Socio-economic problems will create additional space for radical sentiments growing. The Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have high mobility as well as an ability to regenerate, which means that an attempt may well be made to revive a new Islamic Caliphate, albeit not as large as it is was a few years ago.

In the report of the Valdai International Discussion Club “The Middle East: Towards an Architecture of New Stability?”, Vitaly Naumkin, Scientific Director of the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, and Vasily Kuznetsov, Head of the RAS Center for Arab and Islamic Studies, noted that the situation in Libya will affect the entire Maghreb in the foreseeable future[11]. It is almost certain that Libya and the neighboring countries will be overwhelmed by a new wave of radicalization. According to the Arab Center for Research and Political Studies report, 2% of Arabs have a positive attitude towards ISIS and other radical groups, with another 3% having an extremely positive attitude towards them. This is the highest percentage since 2014–2015[12].

The situation in the region may aggravate, and it is necessary to increase effectiveness of the control over the transportation of weapons to and from Libya. In October 2020, the UN Security Council, chaired by Russia, adopted a resolution that extended the permit to inspect ships on the high seas off the Libyan coast. Indeed, this was the right step. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, humanitarian aid to Libyans also remains relevant, and it may include supplies of the necessary medical equipment to equip hospitals as well as personal protective equipment, of which Libya is now experiencing a shortage.

From our partner RIAC

  1. Fedorchenko, A. Krylov, D. Maryasis, N. Sorokina, F. Malakhov. The Middle East in the Focus of Political Analytics: Collected Papers: on the 15th Anniversary of the Center for Middle East Studies, 2019. P. 49.
  2. Ibid. P. 452.
  3. Ibid. P. 12.
  4. V. Avatkov. Ideological and value factor in Turkish foreign policy [Vestnik MGIMO], 2019, no. 12(4). P. 124.
  5. Fedorchenko, A. Krylov, D. Maryasis, N. Sorokina, F. Malakhov. The Middle East in the Focus of Political Analytics: Collected Papers: on the 15th Anniversary of the Center for Middle East Studies, 2019. P. 24.
  6. Arab Barometer is a nonpartisan research network that provides insight into the social, political, and economic attitudes and values of ordinary citizens across the Arab world.
  7. Libya Country Report /Arab Barometer V. 2019. P. 2.
  8. Ibid. P. 3.
  9. Ibid. P. 5
  10. Ibid. 2019. P. 7.
  11. V. Kuznetsov, V. Naumkin. Middle East: Towards a New Stability Architecture? 2020. P. 16.
  12. The 2019-20 Arab Opinion Index: Main Results in Brief, Arab Center for Research and Political Studies. P. 58.

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