New forms of conflict and arms control in the Middle East: Return to the future?

Middle East Arms Control Conflict

New forms of conflict and arms control in the Middle East: Return to the future?

This paper could be entitled: “Return to the Future”. Indeed, its main point is that, despite abundant talk and literature on ‘new forms’ of conflict in the Middle East, in fact we are witnessing types of warfare that have existed for centuries and, even when highly developed technologies are available, major setbacks are occurring in the protection of civilians that has been a constant preoccupation of the international community in the past and current centuries. This is where the role of arms control has been eroded and should be restored for two main objectives: reduce the risk of conflict between states and mitigate the consequences of conflict for the civilian populations.

According to most experts, the new forms of conflict that are taking place in the Middle East can be characterized by three main features: 1) asymmetry, 2) a growing role for non-state actors; and 3) a dangerous erosion of the laws of armed conflict protecting non-combatants.


  1. Frequent Cases of Asymmetric Conflict:

The Middle East region has traditionally been associated with conflict. We tend to focus for a number of legitimate reasons on the Israeli-Arab or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But let’s keep in mind that, since World War II, many other conflicts were fought mostly between or within Arab or Muslim countries: inter-state wars between Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, between Turkey and Iraq, between Iraq and Iran, between Syria and Lebanon, between Iraq and Kuwait, between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas-led Gaza, between Saudi Arabia and Iran; civil wars or violent coups within Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Oman, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, etc. While the causes, context and modalities of such conflicts are diversified, in many cases, they were or still are characterized by a form of asymmetry. One can admit that while this concept is often in the eye of the beholder and related to each country’s threat perceptions, it is a frequent feature. In the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars Israel claimed that it was surrounded by hostile Arab enemies enjoying superiority in population ‒ thus military forces ‒ and conventional armaments. It is this threat perception, real or exaggerated, that led Israel to develop nuclear weapons as a means of restoring some balance. Now Israel possesses not only this superiority but also conventional and technological superiority with regard to all Middle East countries. And vis-à-vis much smaller and weaker entities such as the Palestinians or Hezbollah in Lebanon, it is of course Israel that is perceived as superior, abusing its force or using it in a disproportionate manner. So David and Goliath can said to have changed camps.


  1. A Growing Role for Non-State Actors

Two major phenomena have marked conflict in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century: one has been called ‘surrogate’ or proxy warfare, and the other is privatization of warfare. Regarding the first phenomenon, as my GCSP colleague Jean-Marc Rickli, explained in a recent book, surrogate warfare describes a patron's outsourcing of the strategic, operational, or tactical burdens of warfare, in whole or in part, to human and/or technological substitutes in order to minimize the costs of war. This phenomenon ranges from arming rebel groups, to the use of armed drones, to cyber propaganda. But, apart from the new technology, this resort to non-state actors is far from being new: it dates back to the Middle Ages when kings bought the services of mercenaries to fight for them. In the Middle East, one famous example of the use of proxies was the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire fought by Arab regular forces subsidized by France and Britain with the use of irregular forces led by Lawrence of Arabia while the Ottoman Empire also resorted to loyal Arab troops equipped by Germany. Today, we can witness an extensive use of non-state armed groups, para-military forces or militias funded and armed by states of the Middle East and members of coalition such as Western countries or Russia in civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, or Libya.

The second phenomenon, privatization of warfare, is a growing feature of developed nations, whose societies no longer accept mass conscription or mobilization of national forces, and prefer to spend part of the state’s military budget on private contractors or private military companies that do not only provide support to national or foreign forces but are increasingly active in combat zones, using offensive force. According to some studies, whereas the ratio in the 1990s was 50 regular personnel for 1 contractor, now the ratio is 10 to 1 and contractors operate in some 50 countries. In Iraq in 2006 there were some 100,000 contractors working under the United States Department of Defense, i.e. ten times more than in the first Gulf War just over a decade earlier. Now President Trump has announced that the United States withdrew its forces from Syria, but this will only mean 2,000 regular forces while some 6,200 contractors, including 3,000 Americans, will remain deployed between Iraq and in Syria, where Russia also used thousands of private soldiers.


  1. A Dangerous Erosion of International Humanitarian Law

The main problems associated with resort to surrogates, proxies, militias, mercenaries or private military companies lie in the loose control or total lack of control exercised by the states involved in the conflicts and the lack of accountability of such armed groups. Those groups may be led to commit war crimes or serious violations of international humanitarian law, and in case such crimes would be prosecuted, the responsibility of the states that provided such armed groups with funding, equipment, training or instructions would need to be established. Over the past decade, there have been a large number of accusations of war crimes or attacks against civilians by private contractors, but very few prosecutions.

Another worrying trend in so-called ‘new’ conflicts is the resort, by state- and non-state actors to indiscriminate air strikes or bombings of populated areas by artillery or explosive weapons just like during World War II. Therefore, images of devastated cities such as Aleppo or Mosul bear a striking resemblance with the infamous photos of cities like Warsaw or Dresden, completely razed in air raids that killed millions of civilians. In 2018, the United Nations Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen considered that “individuals in the Government of Yemen and the coalition, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and in the de facto authorities have committed acts that may, subject to determination by an independent and competent court, amount to international crimes.” Of course, one cannot ignore the outrageous resurgence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria against civilians by both the regular forces and non-state armed groups, as documented by the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Such attacks have been conducted as acts of terrorism without any military necessity, to force populations out of cities or perpetrate ethnic cleansing.


  1. What Role for Arms Control?

In this situation of resort to ancient forms of conflict (mercenaries, indiscriminate strikes against civilians) despite the available advanced military technology for long distance, precision-guided attacks against military targets, it is crucial to reaffirm the existing rules of international humanitarian law so grossly disregarded by most parties to the Middle East conflicts, whether state- or non-state actors and regional or external states. New, stricter rules should be developed in particular for the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. All states are already legally bound by UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004) to prevent and criminalize any access or use of weapons of mass destruction by non-state actors. Regarding their access and use of conventional weapons, states would be in a better position to regulate them, especially illicit trafficking in such weapons, and reduce the impact of such weapons on civilians if they all were party to the existing international instruments (Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – CCW– and its Protocols, Conventions on Antipersonnel Landmines and Cluster Munitions, Arms Trade Treaty). It is a sad paradox that the Middle East states are the most affected by those weapons but are still so few to adhere to such treaties.


Finally, external states exporting conventional arms to the Middle East, whether party or not to the Arms Trade Treaty, should exert the maximum efforts to assess the risk that those arms would be used to commit international crimes and to prevent their diversion to uncontrolled non-state actors that would also use them against civilians.


The author is Senior Advisor and Head of Arms Proliferation, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). He presented this paper to an event organised by the Italian Institute for International Affairs (IAI) on 16 July 2019.


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.