Our views of the military’s role in Middle East politics have largely been formed by the history of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in the region. Those years were the golden age of coups in the Arab world, a time when every Arab military officer could hope to become his country’s ruler some day. The armed forces were highly politicized and rulers generally failed to control them. During this period, too, the armed forces were the most effective national institutions and, at times, the only effective one.
Officers argued that politics were too important to be left to the politicians, who they saw–by no means inaccurately–as incompetent and corrupt. The 1948 defeat, failure to gain Arab unity, a perceived subservience to Western states, and the slow pace of the development process were among the grievances that motivated officers to seek political power.
At the same time, coups by military officers often, in fact, represented revolts by various ethnic, religious, class, and regional groups that were well-represented in the officer corps while largely excluded from the political and economic elite. Thus, these coups were actually social revolutions in the form of military takeovers. At the time, many Western scholars saw Arab militaries as the necessary instruments for creating governments capable of nation-building and mass mobilization.
The current era, beginning in the 1970s, was shaped by these military regimes and by the remaining civilian rulers who had learned how to survive this threat. They were determined to prevent military officers from staging any fresh coups. Indeed, governments did have a great deal of success in preventing their armies from intervening in politics. (1) They have also built militaries that can successfully maintain internal order. But the price of that accomplishment is severe damage to their ability to function as armed forces actually fighting wars. (2)
Perhaps the biggest asset of Middle East militaries is that they often have more influence than their Western counterparts in obtaining the level of financial support they seek. They need not worry about public criticism. At the same time, though, few Middle Eastern armed forces can equal the professional qualities and operational advantages enjoyed by counterparts in democratic states.
The limits placed on the regular militaries as a tool for fighting external wars have made it more necessary for states to develop other means of projecting power, ranging from sponsorship of terrorism to obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction. Certainly, the high level of conflict in the Middle East has led to periodic wars. Yet this history has also shown the risks involved in normal warfare and the frequency of defeat for Arab and Iranian armies. The possession of strong deterrence, especially by Israel, has also discouraged direct assault.
After the 1980s, the decline of one superpower sponsor in the region, the Soviet Union, and the relative strength and willingness to intervene by the sole remaining superpower, the United States, accelerated this trend. Consequently, such tools as the use of proxies, subversion, terrorism, and an attempt to obtain Weapons of Mass Destruction have become important means of power projection compared to the use of regular armed forces.
THE ARMED FORCES AND STATE POWER
The first requirement for any government is to ensure its own survival. In the Arab world, this has meant finding a way to prevent the armed forces from seizing power in a coup. Simultaneously, governments have given the armed forces privileges while also trying to weaken them in order to redirect their interests away from politics. Ironically, though, the armed forces have been kept out of politics only by measures that subordinate them to the government’s policy decisions, making the governments dependent on keeping the officers happy, and making the actual use of the armed forces a dangerous strategy that is likely to produce defeats.
Only two of the fourteen main Arab countries–Egypt and Libya–today have rulers who are in power because they were career military officers. (3) And even in these two cases, the chief executives (Husni Mubarak and Muammar Qadhafi, respectively) left active duty more than a quarter-century ago.
Two more peripheral and less developed Arab states, Yemen and Sudan, have military dictatorships more typical of the Middle East in the 1950s-1970s period. Sudan, which in many ways is different from other members of the Arab League, had military coups in 1958, 1969, 1985, and 1989. The current leader is Lieutenant General Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir and the government portrays itself as Islamist. Yemen had its latest coup in 1979 and is led by Ali Abdallah Salah, who promoted himself to field marshal. He is a Ba’thist with strong pro-Iraq sympathies. Both of these countries have turbulent histories and a lack of alternative civilian political institutions relative to other Arab states.
In order to ensure that the military did not try to seize power, Arab governments followed several policies. There were two general ways, by which politicians sought to win the armed forces’ backing: through material incentives for individuals and for the collective military institution:
–Officers are kept happy by high pay and special privileges. These benefits have included many varieties. In Syria, they can be said to include the right to smuggling and other illicit profits deriving from Damascus’s control over Lebanon. Special housing is another perquisite commonly seen.
Of course, while such privileges inflate budgets, the wage rates (especially for enlisted men) are relatively low. If economies were booming and a large middle class being created, professionals and hi-tech employees would be earning more than soldiers, creating problems of morale and retention. These problems exist especially in Israel. (4)
Arab military systems are still largely geared to recruiting and retaining less-educated, poorer people from the sectors most loyal to the regime. In many Arab states, military careers are still relatively lucrative compared to the other options open to rural and poorer people who can qualify for such jobs. Yet already urban, college-educated young people are reluctant to enter the armed forces. As time goes on, Arab militaries will have a harder time in keeping up with the growing importance of hi-technology, advanced communications, and other new features of warfare requiring highly trained elite personnel as well as innovation and flexibility.
This problem already exists in the Gulf Arab monarchies, where easier high-paying jobs are available, but is solved by employing foreign mercenary soldiers to protect them. These countries have also tried to manage their manpower shortages by cooperating through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), though efforts to develop a joint military force have had only limited success. (5)
–The armed services have been given high proportions of national budgets, thus detracting from development and social spending, in order to ensure the military’s loyalty.
That point, while obvious, may be often missed by Western observers who expect that the prospect of obtaining an economic “peace dividend” is an incentive for ending regional conflicts. Given their importance for maintaining domestic stability, as well as the threats from neighbors faced by every state, military budgets are unlikely to decline. A purely “rational” argument based on economics will not appeal to leaders who know they need a strong and happy military to survive.
Expensive weapons’ purchases are often undertaken based on the military commanders’ preference rather than on the nation’s need for these specific arms or the armed forces’ ability to maintain them. Again, the demand for top-of-the-line weapons is important for ruler’s egos, national prestige, and the deterrence of regional threats, yet these rationales, too, are often responses to the desires or decisions of military commanders.(6) Turkey has a similar situation since generals there can interfere in the budget process to ensure their demands are met. (7)
Nevertheless, as military budgets and the costs of specific weapons’ systems climb higher, governments are forced to apply the brakes on spending. This situation has already been seen in such countries as Syria and Turkey. The need to obtain financing for weapons’ purchases can also affect foreign policy. For example, Syria portrays itself as a frontline state battling Israel in order to seek money from Gulf Arab monarchies. Iraq used a similar approach in defining itself as the Arab world’s defender against Iran.
In the case of the Gulf Arab monarchies, another motive for huge arms purchases from the United States is to create additional links to make certain that country will play the role of a protector for the regimes. As a result of seeking prestige and protection, however, civilian and military leaders often waste huge amounts of money without creating a more effective military establishment. For example, the United Arab Emirates, buys advanced planes for which it does not have pilots or even, perhaps, suitable runways.
Governments employ six other successful methods designed to weaken and divide the armed forces’ ability to threaten the government. These policies also, however, damage the military’s ability to fight external adversaries:
–Multiple military branches and intelligence services are maintained to cancel each other out in terms of power and influence. This also leads to wasted resources and poor coordination among forces. It also corrupts the intelligence-gathering process, since a premium is put on information that pleases rulers and discredits rivals rather than on accurate data. A lot of the intelligence effort goes to gather information on the military itself, including officers’ attitudes and any dissent that might exist in the ranks.
Asked why he needed so many security forces for his Palestinian Authority (PA), Yasir Arafat replied: “The Syrians have 14, the Egyptians have 12. I only have 6 to protect me.” (8) Actually, he had as many as 12 different military agencies. These forces sometimes feuded and even fought among themselves.
For example, in 1998, Military Intelligence, led by Musa Arafat, a relative of Yasir Arafat, raided an office of the Tanzim, Fatah’s armed militia headed by Marwan Barghuti, Fatah’s leader in the West Bank. Barghuti then led a march on the Military Intelligence’s headquarters in Ramallah in which Musa Arafat’s men opened fire and killed one youth, nephew of a Palestinian Authority cabinet minister. Barghuti’s men then issued a leaflet stating: “Musa Arafat and his dogs suck Palestinian blood by dealing with stolen cars, whorehouses, and selling weapons. They prefer to be Israeli prostitutes, working here as the Israeli intelligence arm to separate the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people.” (9)
During the fighting against Israel in the intifada that began in 2000, different forces refused to share ammunition and supplies. (10) In doing so, they were not flouting Arafat’s instructions but fulfilling the divide-and-rule structure that he had deliberately created to forestall future coup possibilities even before a state was established. Of course, fully independent states created more order and discipline among their various forces but the basic principle of using multiple forces to enhance control remained the same.
In Arab countries, these units have overlapping responsibilities, spy on each other, and have no ability to coordinate among themselves. They are, then, deliberately put into competition with each other. While Arafat plays off different forces as more or less equal, in Arab states and Iran they form a hierarchy ranging from more apolitical and multi-ethnic regular units to elite forces more tied to the regime through communal and ethnic interests. To ensure this support, the elite groups are more dosed with ideology, as well as favored with more privileges. The concept is to make sure the special units and their officers feel their fate is closely linked to the regime’s survival.
In Iran, aside from the regular military, there is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia, both ideologically reliable and loyal to the regime, or at least the hardline faction. Given internal Iranian conflicts, these latter two forces are also in a sense a party militia that could be used in a factional civil war. (11)
Saudi Arabia has both its regular forces and the tribal-based “White Army.” A special feature of the elite units is that they are more likely to be used in quelling internal unrest since they can be considered reliable against anti-regime rebels who may come from a different religious, ethnic, and geographical background.
Within Iraq, this multi-force system is developed to its peak of complexity and specialization. Kurds are not drafted into the regular army–though there are pro-regime Kurdish militias. In the regular armed forces, there is a large proportion of Shia Muslims, who can even attain the rank of general. Beyond this, however, is a complex hierarchy. As Amatzia Baram has written:
“In the army, as opposed to the Republican Guard (RG), support for the president is far less staunch. Thus, the RG is placed between all army units and the capital city, and the Special Republican Guard (SRG) is stationed inside of Baghdad, and thus between the RG and the inner rings guarding the president. As long as the regime looks stable, the RG, the SRG, Special Security (SS), and the Palace Guard (or Presidential Guard, Himayat al-Ra’is) will remain essentially loyal to [President] Saddam Husayn. If he is removed they have too much to lose: power and prestige, higher salaries than those of their army counterparts, and other privileges that increase in relation to a soldier’s proximity to the president.” (12)
–Promotions and assignments are based more on political loyalty than ability. This approach can make a distinction between professionally able and politically correct officers. Those who devote more time to proving their pro-regime credentials can advance more quickly, and this priority can mean sacrificing military effectiveness for meeting the regime’s preferences and expectations. Such organizational politics exist in all the world’s armies, of course, but the question is how important such considerations are in the overall mix of decisionmaking.
At the top, key positions may also be given to those with special connections to the regime through family–as happens with many Saudi princes and several Iraqi commanders–or ethnic, geographical, or tribal connections.
To put a premium on political loyalty makes eminent political sense, of course, since the regime’s first priority is to stay in power but it also lowers the military’s quality. In the real world, less competent officers are often more eager to portray, or pretend, ideological zeal precisely in order to ensure their successful careers since they lack other assets for doing so. The point is whether apolitical officers–as opposed to ones antagonistic to the regime–suffer.
–Higher-ranking officers are frequently rotated to avoid letting them establish strong ties of loyalty with their troops or subordinate officers. Periodic transfers are also common in armies throughout the world, but other armed forces want to build good links within the officer corps and between officers and enlisted personnel. The issue here is to what extent such relationships might be deliberately curtailed as a matter of policy.
–Initiative among individual officers is discouraged, a doctrine that has high costs during battles and military campaigns. Indeed, mistrust can be encouraged, making officers reluctant to share information. Coordination among units can be inhibited and combined operations can be made very difficult or even impossible. These problems are increased by cultural tendencies but may be worsened by deliberate regime policies.
–Special formations based on ethnic and sectarian religious membership are used as elite forces and deployed in sensitive places, especially close to the rulers and capital.
As already noted above, Iraq’s elite units are overwhelmingly Sunni in composition and are recruited from tribes and areas close to President Saddam Husayn’s home. In Syria, the same practice is followed but with Alawites from the community of the ruling Asad family.
Jordan, in apparent contrast to other countries, has always relied on a highly professional military without competing alternative units. But since the regular armed forces are overwhelmingly comprised of “east bank Jordanians,” with only very limited numbers of Palestinians permitted, it does constitute an ethnic-communal force in its own right. Israel only drafts Jewish citizens as well as Druze and Circassian minorities into its army. Although Muslim and Christian Arabs are accepted as volunteers, it is perceived that the level of loyalty and reliability that can be expected is unsatisfactory.
Certainly, there are exceptions to such practices, notably Egypt, where religion does not seem to be a major criterion in assignments and promotions. Especially interesting are two other cases. Lebanon, where the country’s communal-democratic system makes a nominally multi-ethnic army a necessity, has the least effective armed forces in the entire region. Since it is so representative, the military is hard to use reliably against any given group.
As a result of this problem, as well as many other factors of course, the central government has remained weak. Ethnic militias sprang up, controlled most of the country’s territory, and fought a long civil war. Even after the fighting ended, Hizballah, a Shia Islamist militia, continues to operate independently and even to wage its own war against neighboring Israel.
The other interesting exception is Turkey, a country based on a strong unitary nationalism with a very large army based on a universal draft. Denying the existence of a separate Kurdish national group, Turkey never made any distinction among citizens even during the height of fighting against Kurdish separatists.
–Officers suspected of other political loyalties, or even excessive ambitions, are periodically purged. All the region’s armies, except Iran of course, try to keep Islamists out of the officer corps. A failure to do so can be costly, as shown by the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat by a small group of soldiers at a military parade. Turkey’s armed forces are so powerful and adamant on this point that it even forced Prime Minister Erbakan, leader of the Islamist party, to endorse the expulsion of his own supporters from the military.
Essentially, all of the above policies worked in preventing successful coups and even in avoiding serious attempts at takeovers. There has not been a coup or serious attempt to seize power by soldiers in Egypt since 1952, Syria since 1970, or Iraq since 1968. Syria had about 8 coups during 22 years (1949-1971), while Iraq had 3 within 10 years (1958-1968). As of the year 2000, neither had had such an event for 30 years. It is easy to forget that the last coup during which soldiers seized power for themselves in a major Arab state (outside of Yemen and Sudan) were those of Asad in 1970 and Muammar Qadhafi’s coup in Libya in 1969.
The reasons for this dramatic transformation are not hard to find. In the earlier period, the state system had not yet stabilized and institutionalized itself. The military was the one institution that had the cohesiveness and tools to take power. Thereafter, the officers who took power finally learned how to keep it or civilians discovered the same lesson. The new system made officers less eager and able to try to seize power while also defeating any plots more effectively before they could be well-organized.
As a result, the armed forces found a new role as the incumbent regime’s guardian rather than as its principal challenger. Of course, this is the proper role of the military, though in this function its political behavior may exceed that considered appropriate in the West. In Turkey, the armed forces have staged several coups to implement their interpretation of preserving the country’s unity and democratic system. Preserving the secular republic against Islamist rule motivated the generals to force Prime Minister Erbakan’s resignation.
A parallel situation took place in Algeria. When it appeared certain that Islamists would come to power through elections, the military seized power and canceled the balloting. This action set off a bloody civil war, though the armed forces preferred to hand control back to civilian politicians.
Of course, a key element in successful coup avoidance is an Arab leader’s personal connection to the armed forces. Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad were commanders of their countries’ air forces. King Husayn of Jordan was a graduate of the British military academy and devoted great personal attention to the army. Even some civilian leaders, like Saddam Husayn and Yasir Arafat, frequently appear in uniform.
As for the next generation, King Abdallah was an officer who was given command of Jordan’s important special forces’ units. If he had not become king at such a young age he would have continued in his military career. An interesting contrast that illustrates the same point is Syrian ruler Bashar al-Asad. An eye doctor with no military background, he was quickly made an officer and rapidly promoted after it became clear that he would succeed his father. (13)
Gulf Arab monarchies have developed a number of control mechanisms to ensure that the armed forces remain servants of the state. One key measure is to have members of the ruling family hold high military ranks and control key units. (14)
Of course, many Arab leaders are civilian politicians. In the Gulf Arab monarchies, except for Saudi Arabia, the governments depoliticize the militaries by hiring foreign mercenaries. While this raises a theoretical problem of their loyalty and willingness to fight, in practice the officers stay out of local politics. An excellent example is the fact that Gulf Arab monarchies preferred the presence of non-Arab and even non-Muslim cadre to that of Egyptian and Syrian units, even when encouraged to adopt such a solution after the 1991 Kuwait war. Having even allied Arab, Muslim forces on their soil was considered far more dangerous in political terms than any advantage that might be gained regarding external security.
Finally, there are some important, negative social and cultural factors that damage the capability of Arab armies. These are hard to measure and controversial to enumerate, as well as being intensified by some of the political factors identified above. They might include excessively rigid hierarchies, reluctance to take initiative.
An American army officer with extensive experience as an advisor to Arab armies, Norvell De Atkine, has concluded:
“Until Arab politics begin to change at fundamental levels, Arab armies, whatever the courage or proficiency of individual officers and men, are unlikely to acquire the range of qualities which modern fighting forces require for success on the battlefield. For these qualities depend on inculcating respect, trust, and openness among the members of the armed forces at all levels, and this is the marching music of modern warfare that Arab armies, no matter how much they emulate the corresponding steps, do not want to hear.” (15)
THE ARMED FORCES AND INTERNAL CONTROL
For Middle East governments, the armed forces play an important role in maintaining internal security. The requirements of this political objective have taken many forms and varied strategies.
On the political level, it should be noted that the armed forces’ loyalties lie with the regime more than with the general population, a democratic system, or the nation as an abstraction. The main exceptions here are Turkey, where the military sees itself as the guardian of the republic, and Israel. Of course, it should be emphasized that the program of most Arab governments over decades was designed precisely to break any such linkages. The only time that military formations are wedded to ideology is when they have been formed by regimes for precisely that purpose: for example, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to support radical Islamic rule and the Iraqi Republican Guard to support Ba’thist rule.
In general, outside of Iran (and perhaps even in Iran’s own regular army), professional military formations do not seem sympathetic to radical Islamist views. Does this indicate some inevitable orientation? To some extent, this may be due to tradition. In the 1950s, of course, the revolutionary officers in various countries were always tied to secularist views. Moreover, the armed forces had more contact with foreign ideas and personnel than virtually any other institution in Middle East countries. Perhaps the pragmatic and patriotic ethos of the professional militaries discouraged traditional piety. Unquestionably, too, Islamists and strong religious believers were attracted to other professions, while frequent purges in many armies kept their numbers limited.
Even Israel’s army was traditionally dominated by secularists. Observant Jews are now becoming a more important factor than ever before but are still quite limited in number in the higher ranks. Turkey’s armed forces are explicitly secular, viewing that as one of the Turkish republic’s most important values. Israel and Turkey are also relatively unique in explicitly stressing the military’s role in national integration: bringing people from different areas, backgrounds, and social levels together to forge them into a single nation. These two countries have a very broad draft policy to put a relatively large proportion of their citizens through some experience of military service.
Armed forces may also play an important socio-economic role. They absorb excess labor, which might otherwise be unemployed and thus politically disruptive. Egypt seems to fit this situation. As noted above, though, as economies develop the armed forces can be a drain on the workforce, removing people from potentially productive labor. The armed forces can also be used for development projects, and Egypt also furnishes a good example in this respect. (16)
To some extent, the military can be said to have lost its internal control function to security forces. At the same time, however, regular militaries often prefer such a division of labor, preferring not to be involved in conflicts which, they argue, detract from their prime function of protecting against external enemies. Such internal security problems, officers argue, require operations for which they are neither equipped nor trained. Among other reasons that military forces don’t like to engage in such activities, is the danger of creating friction between the armed forces and the citizens, opening up divisions in their own ranks, and detracting from training.
While each situation is quite different, the highest-level internal conflicts in which Middle Eastern militaries have participated include the following:
Algeria: a bloody, full-scale civil war against Islamists has been fought since 1992, after the army intervened to cancel the second round of elections that would have been won by that opposition group. The armed forces were easily able to prevent the rebels from taking power and apparently made some progress in battle against them. But the military also seemed to lack any strategy for achieving victory. During this period, the army had strong influence over the civilian leaders though it did not always determine their policies.
Egypt: A low-level military force, used mostly for guard duty, revolted in 1986 over pay and conditions but was put down by the armed forces within a few days.
Iran: The regular army crumbled during the 1978-1979 revolution due to soldiers’ refusal to fire on civilian revolutionaries, some dissension in its lower ranks, demoralization at the shah’s uncertain strategy, and key officers’ conclusions that the Islamist opposition was going to win. This outcome–though certainly by no means attributable only to the military’s behavior–was the greatest failure of any Middle Eastern military to maintain internal security in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Iraq: The army fought wars against Kurdish separatists in their mountain strongholds during the 1960s and 1970s which resulted in enough of a stalemate to provide the government with a victory. Following the 1991 defeat in Kuwait, the armed forces put down Shia and Kurdish rebellions with great bloodshed, though international intervention prevented them from occupying the Kurdish-populated areas of northern Iraq. (17)
Israel: Most of the “internal” activities of Israel’s army were conducted not within the country’s own borders (where police units have jurisdiction) but in the areas captured during the 1967 war–the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The army has been used to counter specific terrorist operations within Israel, for example hostage-taking incidents, from the late 1960s onward and especially during the 1970s. It was used extensively during the first (1987-1990) and second (2000- ) Palestinian intifadas. These activities involved tactics and restraints quite different from conventional war. The army also governed the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 1967 to 1994, and the areas retained by Israel, which were gradually reduced during the post-Oslo agreement peace process. (18)
Jordan: In 1970-1971, the Jordanian army fought and defeated PLO forces after some elements in the Palestinian organization became increasingly involved in a bid to overthrow King Hussein. The armed forces performed very effectively and won a total victory.
Lebanon: The most notable point about Lebanon’s army is its lack of involvement in internal security matters. It was not involved in the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, fought by ethnic-communal militias, and the government even refused to deploy it up to the border after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in the year 2000. The army did play a role, however, in policing the post-civil war situation, though its ability to act was always minimized by the more powerful Syrian military presence and the remaining militias.
Sudan: Since the 1970s, and especially since 1983, the army has been periodically involved in fighting secessionist rebels in the south led by a former officer, John Garang, a member of the Dinka tribe and leader of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The army has never been able to defeat the rebellion and there has been a complex mix of fighting and truces during this period.
Syria: After the army ceased seeking direct state power, following Asad’s coup of 1970-1971, its place in maintaining internal security was largely taken by Ba’th party and Alawi ethnic forces especially loyal to the regime. The most significant internal security operations included the war against Islamist rebels in the 1970s which culminated in the massive killings in the city of Hama in 1982 that crushed any armed opposition.
Turkey: The longest continuous and largest-scale internal security operations by regular armed forces was the Turkish struggle with Kurdish separatists of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) during the 1980s and 1990s. The fighting involved the country’s southeast provinces, terrorist operations in Turkish cities, and Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq. While fought originally by the gendarmerie, the army became increasingly involved over time in using counter-guerrilla warfare techniques. Aided by the capture of the PKK’s leader and his own call–under threat of a death sentence–to end the rebellion, Turkish forces had achieved victory by 2000.
Yemen: The country has a relatively “traditional” military regime ruled by a career officer, Field Marshal Ali Abdallah Salah, since 1979. Other members of the government are also officers and one of them, the minister of interior, controls a 50,000-man security force. The Yemeni army seized control of South Yemen in the 1990s–which could be viewed as power projection abroad or as the reunification of the country–and has fought border skirmishes with Saudi Arabia and Eritrea. Aside from the regular army, there are also tribal levies. (19)
Several basic conclusions can be drawn from this inventory of diverse events and operations:
Internal security forces are increasingly important. In part, this is due to the effort to depoliticize the army. But officers generally support their exclusion from having to deal with such problems, preferring to focus on external threats and more conventional military operations.
Regular armies can fight with a large degree of success in situations of ethnic-national (as in Iraq, Turkey and Israel) and Islamist (Algeria) rebellions, though only political solutions can end these conflicts.
In contrast to other regional states, the armed forces continue to play a full political role in Sudan and Yemen. In Algeria and Turkey situations have developed in which the military feels free to intervene temporarily as guardian of the state (and especially secularism), though returning power to civilians as quickly as possible.
The two great internal security failures of regular militaries were in Iran and Lebanon, though political constraints played an important factor in each case.
In general, then, armed forces remain reliable instruments for maintaining internal regime authority though they do not necessarily prefer this role. They also lack the training and equipment to perform such tasks.
NATIONAL DEFENSE AND POWER PROJECTION
While the armed forces have important duties regarding the preservation of regime stability and internal control, their main job is supposed to be the care of national defense and power projection. Regarding this task, the failure of Arab and Iranian armies is an important factor in the modern Middle East’s history.
Most obviously, Arab armies were unable to destroy Israel or even to inflict defeats on that country during the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1969-70 (war of attrition), 1973, or 1982 (Lebanon). While the Egyptian army can be said to have contributed to that state’s regaining of the Sinai peninsula through its successes in the early part of the 1973 war, this is about the sole gain that can be cited during the five decades of Arab-Israeli conflict. In power projection terms, the Arab states failed to eliminate, dominate, defeat, or force significant concessions from Israel.
A second area of general failure in Arab power projection was the efforts to use military force to promote Pan-Arab nationalist objectives or, to put it another way, to ensure one Arab state’s regional hegemony and absorption of neighbors. Among these cases can be listed Egypt’s failed intervention in the Yemen civil war and unsuccessful effort to stop Syria from seceding from the United Arab Republic (1961); Syria’s move (canceled due to Israeli threats) toward intervening in Jordan during the Jordan-PLO war of 1970; and Iraq’s wars against Iran (1980-1988) and Kuwait (1990-1991). The story of the Iraqi army shows an especially impressive contrast between a military that was highly successful in preserving the regime and remarkably unsuccessful in expanding its power through warfare. (20)
There are three cases, however, where such efforts can be said to have succeeded: Syria’s domination of Lebanon from the mid-1970s on through a 30,000-soldier expeditionary force; Morocco’s successful expansion into the former Spanish Sahara, defeating a local insurgency; and Yemen’s annexation of South Yemen.
In Iran’s case, the armed forces were able to repel an Iraqi invasion but not to defeat and destroy the Baghdad regime. Otherwise, though, the Iranian leaders have preferred to rely on more indirect efforts–including propaganda, terrorism, and development of surrogate client groups–to spread the influence of their state and ideology. Such groups have included Hizballah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, various organizations in the Persian Gulf, and also the direct covert operations of Iranian intelligence.
Israel can certainly be considered the most successful country in using power projection, though with two important reservations. First, Israeli objectives were always limited–far more so than most Arabs perceived them–and defense-oriented. These goals included: preserving the state’s existence, trying to prevent neighboring countries from letting their territory be used to launch third-party attacks on Israel, damaging the infrastructure of terrorist/guerrilla groups operating from other countries against Israel, and pressuring neighboring states to make peace or at least deter them from engaging in war. Another goal was to stop or slow down the development of nuclear weapons by Iraq, achieved in the 1981 raid on the Osirak reactor.
Within this context, Israel’s failures must be seen as more modest. Perhaps the most prominent would be the inability to defeat Hizballah through Israeli operations and support for surrogate forces in south Lebanon. From the standpoint of deterring and reducing attacks on Israeli territory during the 1982-2000 period, though, Israel’s military was able to achieve a far better result than had existed during the 1971-1982 period.
One possible lesson from all of these events is that if conventional war and direct engagement by national militaries seems too costly or unproductive, governments have turned to other means for projecting power. These instruments can include subversion, support for surrogate forces, terrorism, diplomatic solutions, civil insurrections (notably the two Palestinian intifadas), the development of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and seeking the help of external great powers to deter or fight wars. These last two factors will be discussed separately below.
WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION
At first glance, the efforts of various countries to obtain WMD equipment (missiles, nuclear, chemical and biological arms) seem to enhance the strength of Middle East regular armed forces. But it should be remembered that governments control such weapons very closely and give them only to special military formations deemed especially reliable and may view them as an alternative to using their regular armed forces.
In part, too, obtaining these weapons are attempts to overcome a perceived deadlock in the balance of power that reduces the power projection and deterrence of Arab and Iranian militaries. Clearly, WMD armaments add a new dimension to the doctrine and strategy of Middle East armed forces. These weapons have already been used in the Iran-Iraq war–with both sides firing missiles at the others’ cities and using, especially in Iraq’s case, chemical weapons with great effectiveness in battlefield situations. Iraq also fired missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel during the 1991 Kuwait war. Iran is developing missiles and nuclear warheads under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces. Israel has long had missile and nuclear capability but these weapons have had little effect on its doctrine and military structure.
It should be emphasized, of course, that even the presence of WMD in the Middle East would not supplant or render irrelevant the existing regular armies. On the contrary, if such armaments break the existing deterrence deadlock they could make the armed forces a more important tool for power projection. (21)
EXTRA-REGIONAL SOURCES OF TRAINING AND SUPPLY
Since no Middle Eastern military can supply all the arms and equipment it needs, finding a source for weapons and materiel is an important defining factor which has major political implications. In 1955, when Nasser’s Egypt turned to Soviet supplies, this was a major turning point in the region’s history, as was Egypt’s break with the USSR in the early 1970s and its move to the American camp in the late 1970s. The same can be said for Israel’s loss of French supplies in 1967 and its switch to U.S. equipment in the 1970s, or with Iran’s break with U.S. weapons necessitated by the 1979 Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis.
In addition to the weaponry used by the armed forces, the outside supplier has influence regarding training, doctrine, and the actual use of military force. Europe tried to pressure Turkey regarding Kurdish issues by denying it certain types of equipment imports. The U.S. boycott of Iran and, even more significantly, the international sanctions against Iraq following the 1991 Kuwait war, have profound effects on the relevant armed forces’ competence and style.
By the 1970s, the United States and the USSR were the only two powers able to supply all of a Middle Eastern military’s import needs. By 1990, the Soviet Union had largely dropped out of the picture, though Russia, its successor state, has returned to some extent. The end of the Cold War with the United States victorious penalized countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, that depended on Soviet weaponry.(22) The technological gap between the two main suppliers could also be expected to grow over time, with American equipment becoming increasingly superior to Russian armaments. There are important implications for an armed force’s political stand in this situation, since the officer corps is likely to favor maintaining good relations with the country that is its chief arms’ supplier.
To cite some examples of this factor, a U.S.-supplied Middle Eastern military today is less likely to stage a coup against a pro-U.S. government. Moreover, such an army would be less likely to attack Israel, since this would lead to the loss of U.S. spare parts. The loss of Soviet equipment and Russia’s unwillingness to provide arms on credit has crippled the capacity of the Syrian military. More broadly, the loss of Soviet aid, low prices, and reliable supplies greatly weakened the armed forces–and hence the power projection capabilities–of Syria, Libya, and Iraq.
The exception to the U.S. monopoly is most glaring in the area of WMD supply. Countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria can turn to alternative sources of arms and technology, notably China, North Korea and Russia. This situation also creates new policy dynamics for the armed forces of those Middle Eastern states. Since this WMD equipment is obtained without any political restraints, such arms might be more likely used, if not as weapons at least as strategic leverage for power projection. (23)
The decline in the Middle East armed forces’ tendency to seize power is not irreversible but is likely to remain the predominant trend. No rule can ignore, however, the views of his generals and the institutional interests of the armed forces. The militaries of various countries have a major role in terms of advising the government, setting budget priorities, and maintaining internal order.
Another strong but not inevitable tendency is the current deadlock among states in terms of deterrence and the lack of an extra-regional sponsor encouraging the use of force in international disputes. Given the ineffectiveness of conventional armed forces for power projection, alternative military means (surrogates, terrorism, WMD, subversion, etc.) remain attractive.
Certain structural flaws in regional–especially Arab–military establishments are also important factors in limiting their political role and utility. The growing importance of high technology, rapid communications, and flexibility in military strategy tend to play up the weaknesses of Arab and Iranian armed forces.
Politicization usually undermines professionalism. But government efforts to depoliticize the armed forces–often by bringing politicization into their ranks–can have the same effect. This is the paradox of Middle East states historically, and its legacy today. At the same time, governments can choose to accept the military’s internal autonomy–as long as it does not impinge on political matters–as a solution to this problem.
This chapter’s analysis is not meant to imply that the Middle East armed forces are unimportant factors in the region’s politics. On the contrary, in that part of the world where war and conflict is most likely–and most often evidenced–military power is relatively more important than anywhere else in the world. But in a place where, to cite the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, political power once directly grew out of the barrel of a gun, today the region’s countries embody a situation in which politics are definitely in command.
1. For an analysis of the social and institutional management techniques of such regimes, see Barry Rubin, Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants (NY, 1987).
2. For a discussion of the region’s overall issues, conflicts, and balance of forces, see Barry Rubin, “
3. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and Jordan. King Abdallah of Jordan was a career military officer but rules, of course, as heir of his father.
4. See Stuart Cohen, “Portrait of the New Israeli Soldier,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4 (December 1997). To view this and other MERIA Journal articles listed below, see .
See also Stuart Cohen, “The Israel Defense Force (IDF): Continuity and Change,” Barry Rubin and Thomas Keaney, Armed Forces in the Middle East (London, 2001).
5. Turki al-Hamad, “Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 1 No. 2 (May 1997).
6. These were factors, for example, in the military overspending of the Shah’s regime that was one factor contributing to its fall. See Barry Rubin, Paved with Good Intentions (NY, 1980).
7. Gencer Ozcan, “The Turkish Foreign Policymaking Process and the Influence of the Military,” in Barry Rubin and Kemal Kirisci, Turkey in World Politics: An Emerging Multi-Regional Power (Boulder, Co., 2001).
8. Shiham Bahatia, “Arafat’s Torturer’s Shock Palestinians” Guardian Weekly, September 24, 1995.
9. Palestine Report, October 30, 1998; Ha’aretz, December 22, 1998.
10. Gal Luft, The Palestinian Armed Forces,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, (June 1999); “Palestinian Military Performance and the 2000,” in MERIA Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 2000) and his chapter in Barry Rubin and Thomas Keaney, Armed Forces in the Middle East (London, 2001).
11. Darius Bazargan, “Iran: Politics, The Military and Gulf Security,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 1 No. 3 (September 1997).
12. Amatzia Baram, “Saddam Husayn Between His Power Base and the Community,” in Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 2000).
13. Eyal Zisser, “
14. Daniel L. Byman and Jerrold D. Green, “
16. See Hillel Frisch’s chapter in Barry Rubin and Thomas Keaney, Armed Forces in the Middle East (London, 2001).
17. The best account of the Iraqi military’s role in putting down the 1991 revolts is in Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, and Uprising in the Arab World (NY, 1994).
18. It could be easily argued that the Israeli military’s involvement in the West Bank and Gaza fit better under the power projection category. The discussion of these issues under the section on internal security is not meant to make any political point but seems more logical since the armed forces had already captured these territories and they were under Israeli administration for a protracted period of time.
19. Thanks to Eric Watkins for help on these points.
20. For an evaluation of the contemporary Iraqi armed forces, see Kenneth M. Pollack, “Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) News 1998 No. 4 (February 1998).
21. George Tenet, “
22. For a discussion of U.S. military capabilities in the region, see Michael Eisenstadt, “U.S. Military Capabilities in the Post-Cold War Era: Implications for Middle East Allies,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4 (December 1998).
23. See, for example, Bates Gill, “Chinese Arms Exports to Iran,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 2 No. 2 (May 1998); Barry Rubin, North Korea’s Threat to the Middle East and the Middle East’s Threat to Asia, BESA Center for Strategic Studies monograph, (Tel Aviv, 1997); Barry Rubin, “China’s Middle East Strategy,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (February 1999); Robert O. Freedman, “Russia and the Middle East: The Primakov Era,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2 (May 1998); Robert O. Freedman, “Russian-Iranian Relations in the 1990s,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2 (June 2000).
*Barry Rubin is deputy director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His recent books include The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-Building, (Cambridge, Ma., 1999); Revolution Until Victory: The Politics and History of the PLO, (Cambridge, Ma., 1994); Turkey in World Politics: An Emerging Multi-Regional Power (Boulder, Co., 2001); and America and Its Allies (London, 2000).
This article is based on a presentation made at the conference “Armed Forces in the Middle East: Politics and Strategy,” held on November 15-16, 2000. The conference was sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Foreign Policy Institute, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and the Bar-Ilan University Department of Political Studies. This article will also appear as a chapter in an upcoming book Barry Rubin and Tom Keaney (eds.) Armed Forces in the Middle East (Frank Cass, upcoming).