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Inter-state wars are won, on the whole, by the side with the strongest military forces and the deepest pockets. But in the conflicts and confrontations of the past 15 years, the West has not been able to defeat non-state groups such as Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Al-Qa’ida or the Taliban.
It has also not been able to prevent the expansion of Iran’s influence and military footprint in the Middle East – despite the West’s overwhelming military, economic, financial and diplomatic superiority.
This is the problem of hybrid warfare, a strategy that blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare, cyber warfare and subversion, as well as blurring the formal distinction between war and peace.
It is often characterised by the use of fictitious propaganda, deniable forces, espionage, the mobilisation of ethnic, linguistic or confessional minorities and terrorism.
While most often used to describe Russian tactics in their so-called ‘near abroad’, it is equally relevant to the current campaigns in the Middle East – and how the West might do better in them.
Most of the techniques our opponents use are not new; what is new is the way they are integrated, and the presence of the internet. The internet is a force-multiplier for many old techniques, and a key enabler for many new ones, not just in cyber attacks, but also for targeted propaganda, disinformation and for ‘grooming’ potential recruits.
This can be particularly effective in the Middle East, where education, especially for science and engineering, tends to make absolute views of the world attractive. Information and propaganda campaigns using ‘facts’ – be they invented or wrong – appeal to emotion more than to logic, and are hard for the West to rebut.
These are not military confrontations in which our superior military technology and organisation will prevail. We need allies – closer regional partnerships, which can reduce the need for direct Western military involvement, and also greater engagement with non-state groups.
This is hard work, and has political and legal risks, but we need to confront these and find ways of mitigating them.
To the extent that these conflicts are political, a key element must be strategic communications. While the UK cannot use ‘dirty’ techniques and tell outright lies like its opponents, it needs to both counter their propaganda and project a positive message, to do this 24/7, and at pace.
In addition, we can work to restrict access to extremist material on the web, at least in part by asking internet service providers to enforce their own terms and conditions.
Traditional deterrence, based on the threat of retaliation, doesn’t work against non-state groups as they have little we can target. However, there is scope to push back by undermining their support and restricting their actions — including their propaganda, military, terrorist and financial operations.
How the West uses violence sends a message: it needs to conform to Western values as well as to Western laws. Targeting the technical experts behind our opponents’ cyber/social media campaigns and military operations can bring long-term benefits.
Targeting the leaderships of terrorist groups has short-term impact, but may make political solutions less possible.
While the UK’s criminal justice approach to terrorism demonstrates British values, and has worked in the UK, it is difficult and resource-intensive. Legislation on how UK officials work against terrorism overseas needs clarification and improvement.
There is much to be gained from cooperation with the private sector.
However, in the absence of an existential threat to the UK, government needs to tread cautiously.
The financial sector, partly under regulatory compulsion, does on the whole cooperate well with the government against terrorism and organised crime, and in support of sanctions.
The tech sector is less inclined to cooperate, perhaps less influenced by the reputational considerations of financial institutions. Yet a harbinger of the sector taking more responsibility can perhaps be seen in comments by Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and co-founder of Facebook, who vowed to do more to prevent it from being used to promote terrorism.
Nevertheless, in cases of national emergency, governments would need to coordinate with the private sector; the planning for this should be done in advance.
For the UK to be able to counter hybrid warfare more effectively, ministers, officials and military officers need a shared understanding of the issues, with their reflexes developed through joint training and exercising, and the legal boundaries need to be clearly defined in advance.
To guide policymakers for the future, more research is needed into the psychological and cognitive aspects of conflict in the Middle East. In other words, what should the West do to promote political stability, economic and social development and a great reduction in the levels of violence? Because what we are doing now isn’t working.
These comments are based on a series of workshops and consultations commissioned by Professor Gordon Barrass of LSE Ideas, resulting in a detailed paper – see http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/pdf/Middle-East-&-Hybrid-Warfare.pdf
Banner image: US soldiers hand out leaflets in the village of Bini Ziad, west of Baghdad. Courtesy of US Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Kitt Amaritnant/Wikimedia.