Tag Archives: war

Re: The whole Syria thing

I’m hearing opposing accounts from Syrian expats living here. Granted, most Syrian expats, being dissident refugees from the Assad regime, tend to support the official international position that Assad is evil, he’s killing his own people, and he should be removed from power by God’s blessing and the strong hand of the resolute president Trump who’s now acting like a true Dear Leader.

However, one Syrian analyst argued the chemical attack was a false-flag, staged by the extremist “rebels” (there are indications that Assad had given up all his WMDs years ago, and that the WMDs used in this attack had a different signature from the ones Assad used to have). The idea was to get the US involved in the war and tip the scales away from Assad, who’s been winning since the Russians got involved. That makes a lot of sense, frankly. After all, Assad has no interest to antagonize the whole world by using WMDs now, when he has almost won. In the past, maybe. Things were looking rather grim for him a few years ago, and he could’ve had a rationale for using WMDs back then. But now?

Besides, where’s the proof that he had WMDs in that particular air base? Are we again jumping into a conflict based on an insinuation, like in Iraq? The media are cumming all over president Trump now, praising him for being presidential and even describing the bombing of that air base as “beautiful” and “poetic”. Are we going to play this game again now? And how many times can the same mistake be repeated?

Peculiarities Of The Hybrid Warfare

Scared of the little green men in green uniforms without any signs on them, are we? Don’t know where they’re coming from and what they want from us, eh? East Europe trembles with the shaking ground under their boots, and prepares to eat the dust from under their heels. The angry bear is stirring, and is preparing for a predator leap: RRRAWR! But this time it’s masked, it has no insignia, and it uses RT to convince the world that it’s actually not a bear, but a mere lamb. You gotta believe it, or else!

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“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”, Carl von Clausewitz’s famous “bottom-line” says. For those unaware, that was one of the preeminent military theoreticians of the 19th century. Now almost 2 centuries later, when we’re seeing direct stand-offs between standing armies belonging to nation-states more seldom than ever, the Prussian general’s argument is, paradoxically, more valid than back then. Even if it’s somewhat tilted upside down. Today, the boundary between war and peace is painfully smeared. The Anschluss of Crimea and the stirring of a separatist uprising in East Ukraine for the last few months is the best example of that.

Naturally, the various smartheads in the security & defense genre already have a name for that sort of conflict: hybrid warfare. The term gained traction in my country only recently, with the infamous “2020 strategy for European defense” memorandum, where Russia was initially painted as the epitome of evil, only to then be watered down to milder definitions, lest we anger Big Bear too much.

The new hybrid warfare, combining conventional methods and means of guerrilla, cyber and information warfare with actions contradicting international law, is putting an immense political, military and economic challenge to the region“, the initial draft version of the concept said. Eventually, the part about “information warfare” was tossed out of the document, and substituted with the somewhat more PC term, “propaganda”. And the nature of hybrid warfare was narrowed down to a single sentence. How sad. It would’ve made for a great action-movie script.

But what is this hybrid menace, after all? Many people have hastened to put an equation mark between this new beast and the already familiar asymmetric warfare. In practice, though, the hybrid approach is the next stage in the evolution of armed conflict. It came into the public focus somewhere in the mid 2000s with the Second Lebanese War between Israel and Hezbollah. That sort of conflict, on the one side, combines conventional with guerrilla methods, and on the other, it uses both military and non-military means for achieving its objectives.

The partial application of hybrid tactics is not that new, though. Granted, it did start to gain popularity after the end of the Cold War, when in most cases the protracted and aggressive conventional warfare in most cases would lead to catastrophic results for the aggressor. America has been learning that lesson time and time again since then. That’s why in many cases, non-government formations like guerrilla groups, terrorist organizations, revolutionaries, separatists, would be used around the zone of operation. Using anonymous troops without national uniforms, the so-called “little green men”, plus an aggressive information blitzkrieg of unprecedented proportions in the history of information warfare, has become part of the Russian operations in Ukraine. So, if anyone is to counter such action, they should probably be adapting to dealing with that sort of paramilitary formations, while preparing themselves to adequately counter possible cyber attacks as well.

Neither asymmetric nor hybrid warfare has a clearly defined frontline. It’s being conducted with all military and non-military means available, and the battlefields are actually several: in the conflict zone itself, among the ranks of the population (which is often being used as a human shield), and among the population back home (the constant struggle for gaining public support for the military campaign through propaganda, and inciting hatred for the enemy, dehumanizing the other side, eliminating internal opposition, silencing dissent, etc). The other battlefield is the international community, where the struggle is for gaining legitimacy.

A hybrid war involves one country or non-state “actor” who’s prone to using the whole palette of means and methods simultaneously, including regular armies, guerrilla actions, and tools for psychological influence on people’s perceptions on both sides. As of now, we’re at an intermediary point between the era of conventional warfare and asymmetric warfare, organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah simultaneously seeking political representation without even being a state, and conducting conventional operations. These are using all sorts of means to gain political legitimacy, while trying to maintain something resembling state organization in their controlled territories (as ISIL is doing), they have formations very much resembling regular army, but they also use their typical guerrilla tactics as well. On the other hand, they’re still giving priority to covert tactics and tools, which is a feature of asymmetric warfare. What we’ve seen in the recent months, shows that even some countries like Russia are prone to using a larger specter of instruments to achieve their goals.

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But perhaps the most important characteristic of hybrid warfare is the combination of military and non-military methods. Thus the country that’s the recipient of the aggression finds it hard till the very last moment to clearly tell whether it’s being subject to a coordinated assault or not. And even if that’s somewhat clear, the covert character of the hybrid tactics wouldn’t allow it to have a sufficiently legitimate justification for retaliating with open force without becoming the evil one, or seek military help from its allies without being accused of open aggression. In the case with Ukraine, NATO has been very hesitant to activate its collective defense, because that would be interpreted as a direct act of aggression. We should also note that using non-military means of pressure like (propaganda, appeal to emotion or outright lies), and imposing one’s political will upon another country doesn’t necessarily mean that these actions are explicitly aiming to provoke some sort of armed conflict, as opposed to merely being yet another tool for conducting aggressive diplomacy and gaining a more favorable position for possible future negotiations. Again, the borderline here is uncomfortably smeared.

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This unclear line between war and peace is actually the most dangerous consequence of hybrid warfare. The tricky part here is to refrain from using the term “war” too arbitrarily. If we take the case with Russia, it does have its interests regarding both the EU and NATO. Generally speaking, the idea is to provoke dissent within both organizations. But if we’re to conclude outright that pursuing those interests constitutes war, that would mean falling into the realm of constant paranoia, and no longer being able to make a rational distinction between diplomacy and warfare. There should be a clear line between potential threat and real conflict. One tends to evolve into the other, but when we’re talking of hybrid warfare, we’re seeing the use of regular armies.

Espionage, for example, does not necessarily mean war. On the other hand, when we’re talking of cyber security, the problem is that when we see such attacks, we should clearly establish to what extent they pursue military objectives, thus constituting a form of military action. For the time being, the premise is that the final assessment depends on the end result of the attack: when there’s a destruction of physical infrastructure and/or human life, that’s an act of war. So, when we’re talking of economic, financial or political influence, or funding of political parties and political engineering, or nation-building by a foreign state, that’s hardly an act of war. It doesn’t make it any less hostile an act, though. It’s just that the state and the national security services should be doing their job accordingly.

The usual escalation of hybrid threats and their evolution into real armed conflicts logically brings the conclusion that the key element for countering them is the adequate work of the secret services, particularly counter-espionage. It’s their job to get information about the intentions of other countries, and intercept any foreign attempts to meddle into domestic matters by infiltrating their agents at key positions of political and economic life, and thus manipulate the decision-making at a state level. When shit hits the fan, though, especially when external factors prove overwhelming, then there’s nothing else to do but to either submit to the pressure, or succumb to endless conflict, and go down to the level of the aggressor, starting to use their own tools against them. Something that’ll eventually come haunting ya afterwards.

Hybrid, But Still A War

When in the early morning of March 9, 1230, the Tzar of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Ivan Asen II decided to declare war on the short-lived Despotate of Epirus, he did that in an almost ritualistic way. He ordered the parchment of the peace treaty that had been violated by the Byzantines to be impaled on a spear. In the ensuing Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian ruler turned the enemy into retreat and routed the Byzantine army, he captured their emperor Theodore Komnenos, and restored previous territories to the 2nd Bulgarian Empire.

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That’s the picture that comes to mind to any pupil as they read the history studybooks, and all the novels and movies. It’s a conventional notion of war where one state directly attacks another, two armies meet at the battlefield, and the winner of this clash subdues their rival, either conquering their entire territory or parts of it. History abounds of such examples. But a fact that is little discussed is, such a development is more like an exception than the norm.

War has long ceased to be a separate act. The line between war time and peace time, between military and civilians is rather blurred. About two centuries ago, using Napoleon’s experience, Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz formulated the argument that war is a mere continuation of politics, but with different means. The military is but a tool in a much wider array of means, one that’s only limited by the available resources, the imagination of the commanders, and the willingness of the leaders to respect (or not) the established international norms. The Thirty-Year War for example was bloody, messy and full of atrocities (mostly because it was religiously motivated); the following War of the Spanish Succession was widely viewed as a refreshing reversal to “decency” and “honor” in war actions.

Military history is rich of examples where economic sanctions, blockades, and messing with the financial system of the rival state has been employed in addition to military means: for example, printing and fake money and flooding their economy with it, economic sabotage, propaganda, and psychological spec ops. These have targeted not only the military but also the population of the opposing side. The palette of not-so-military means also includes initiating and aiding rebellions against the ruling regime, “revolutionary” or “freedom-fighting” movements (like the one that ultimately triggered the end of 500-year Ottoman rule over my country), direct embedding of agents amongst the ruling elite, creating internal divisions and pitching one ally against another, etc, etc.

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The combination of military and non-military tools is what makes a war a hybrid war. The term is relatively recent. Various analysts of the military actions between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 introduced the term “hybrid threat” for the first time. The same year it appeared for the first time in an official document, the US defense overview report. Still, the analysts are able to trace the manifestations of hybrid warfare way back in time – back to the 1st century AD actualy, when the Jewish Rebellion happened, and the Jews used criminal gangs to undermine the Roman legions of Vespasian – these were used in combination with regular armies and voluntary guerrilla units, and the tactic included a series of ambushes, and even the use of stolen siege equipment. I suppose some future researchers will some day find even earlier examples of hybrid conflict.

Of course, the term “hybrid warfare” became particularly popular after the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Within hours of Yanukovich’s deposition, military units from the Russian military base at Sevastopol and from Russia-proper took control of the Crimean key infrastructure, including the main civil airport of Simpheropol, and also various communications infrastructure, radio and TV stations, etc. Pressured by the Russian special services and lacking clear instructions from Kiev, the Ukrainian army and security services in Crimea were unable to put up any resistance. The result of the ensuing pseudo-democratic procedures, which were later recognized by the parliaments of several EU member states (or at least some nationalist parties, which turned out to be funded by the Kremlin), gave more credence to the Crimean annexation, which was a de facto conquest of territory. This allowed Putin to consolidate his success, which had begun with the swift and resolute use of force, and then got legitimized. He then used the same model to launch a similar campaign in East Ukraine, which chopped large portions of that country away and practically put them under Russian control.

All of this has prompted some NATO countries to make their own analyses of the situation, the conclusion invariably being that Russia is a major threat for their national security, in part because of its skillful use of hybrid warfare as a viable method, in combination with conventional military actions, propaganda, economic (mostly energy) blackmail, etc. Russia has reciprocated since then, of course.

NATO’s response to the changing situation came in September 2014, when a decision was made to double the NATO Response Force, and create units with a high state of alert, like VJTF and NRF, which would be able to respond to urgent situations within a couple of days. A command and management infrastructure is to be created, which would direct the redislocation of military personnel and equipment to the sensitive regions in times of need, and the military exercises in the NATO border states with Russia were to become more frequent. These elements are part of the Readiness Action Plan, and most of them have already been completed. This complex of measures is considered sufficient for the time being to halt a potential advance of geopolitical rivals like Russia which do not shy away from using military force – if Russia is stupid (or desperate) enough to do such a step against NATO at all. This is all part of the realization that hybrid warfare is now a fact, and is being perfected and used on a regular basis by countries that can afford the resources for it.

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The conflict in Ukraine has shown that the methods are old, only their names tend to change. The mutual economic interdependence, the new information and communication technologies and the utter and complete dependence on them, plus the free movement of people and capitals, are among the factors that create new opportunities for expanding the variety of methods of hybrid influence. Apart from all that, the essence of war has not changed much. It remains an extension of politics, and aims at subduing an opponent and forcing them to accept terms and conditions that suit the aggressor.

Except, in order to achieve these goals, it’s not necessary to completely eradicate the entire military of the opponent, or conquer their cities, and murder all their soldiers. The hybrid instrumentarium provides opportunities for direct access to the “will of the opponent”, and manipulate it through financing political parties and proxy agents, blackmailing corrupt politicians, manipulating public opinion through the media, and embedding agents into crucial positions within that country’s elite.

For instance, in 2003 the Central military committee of China adopted a concept for information operations which includes three strategies: coordinated strategic psychological operations, overt and covert media manipulations, and defense policies targeting specific segments abroad. Although this sort of operations are mostly supposed to be directed at Taiwan, the 2014 annual report of the Czech intelligence notes that the Chinese administration and special services have directed their efforts toward ensuring the expansion of the Chinese influence over the Czech political and state structures, and collecting politically sensitive intel with the active participation of select members of the Czech elite, including politicians and state officials.

Another way of influencing is through taking control of key economic sectors (like the energy, finance, communications sector), and establishing monopolies. China gradually does that in Africa for example. This method makes it relatively easy to induce crisis situations and respectively to collapse the public trust in the rulers of the targeted country. This effect could be achieved through cyber attacks, and looking to influence critical infrastructure: financial, energy, transportation, communication. As well as limiting access to critical resources like water, essential foods, fuels, medicines.

An alternative approach is through propaganda and psychological influence on the populace. It can be done relatively easily, especially if the aggressor already has a strong influence on the traditional, electronic and online media, and when specific segments of the populace are associated with the aggressor along ethnic, religious, linguistic or other lines. This is practically the employment of non-military tools by specific groups – both prior to, for the duration of, and in the aftermath of the use of actual military force.

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It may just so happen that NATO does have the necessary potential to counter all major challenges of hybrid warfare – if it can use it wisely. NATO has already made steps in that direction by strengthening its conventional forces on the eastern flank, and raising their response capabilities if need be. In principle, the main question is how to determine the threshold beyond which they are to be deployed – for example when the potential aggressor uses non-military tools and keeps their military capabilities on high alert without using them. In other words, the question is how to achieve a level of understanding of the situation where adequate decisions could be made by all NATO member states, even if there’s no clear declaration of war and the moment of the start of that war is blurry.

NATO is gradually finding solutions on questions as complicated as these. One example is the alliance’s policy on cyber defense. It is also assumed that the creation of the VJTF is already having a deterring effect. But this still doesn’t remove the deterring effect of the nuclear arsenals of the leading NATO members.

EU’s ambitions in this respect are more limited, and its capacity for military response too, respectively, In light of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, JC Juncker has urged the member states to agree on the creation of European armed forces. But this remains just a long-term plan for the time being.

In the meantime, the EU is developing and using a wide array of policies, which by the way could serve as an antidote to the non-military tools of hybrid warfare. This includes policies aimed at transparency in political funding, the supremacy of law and countering corruption, policies for bolstering competition and busting oligarchic monopolies, energy security and diversification of energy sources, border control, free and pluralistic media, transparency in business and property relations, etc. We could say with a good amount of certainty that all these policies and measures will continue to be perfected as the risks and threats for EU’s functioning evolve, including the hybrid threat both for specific member states and the union as a whole.

As for my country, what it can do is to restore efficiency in the intelligence system, and make it capable of identifying illicit external influence, and come up with ways to counter it. We also need a working judicial system that could sanction such influences and deter future hybrid actions from potential aggressors.