Quelles perspectives pour l’industrie européenne des armements terrestres?

Wednesday, 2. April 2014 8:35 | Author:

FS50Ifri’s Defense Research Unit has just published the issue #50 of its Focus Stratégique series entitled:

Quelles perspectives pour l’industrie européenne des armements terrestres ?

Aude-Emmanuelle Fleurant is the Director of the Armaments and Defense Economics Program at the Institut de recherche stratégique de l’Ecole militaire (IRSEM).

Yannick Quéau is associate researcher at the Groupe de recherche et d’information sur la paix et la sécurité (GRIP, Bruxelles).

The issue can be downloaded here.

Abstract:

Over the last decade, the European land armament industry developed into a thriving market driven by growing demand from the BRICS, a new wave of emerging countries and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing sovereign debt crisis has put European countries under severe strain, prompting them to take fiscal consolidation measures affecting defence budgets. In this context, European land armament corporations have looked for buoyant economies beyond Europe to maintain their market shares and outlets. As the fragmentation of the industry is proving to be the key challenge faced by these firms, this article explores several scenarios that could allow them to address it.

Contents :

Introduction

Transition et incertitudes pour les forces terrestres occidentales

Le portrait de la demande

Les tendances affectant l’offre

Conclusion

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Between Allies and Rivals: Turkey, Nuclear Weapons, and BMD

Thursday, 20. March 2014 8:20 | Author:

kibaroglu picIfri’s Security Studies Center has just published the issue #48 of its Proliferation Papers series entitled:

Between Allies and Rivals: Turkey, Nuclear Weapons, and BMD

Professor Mustafa Kibaroglu (Ph.D., Bilkent University, International Relations Department, 1996) is currently the Chair of the International Relations Department at Okan University. He is a Council Member of Pugwash, and Academic Advisor of the NATO Centre of Excellence Defence Against Terrorism in Ankara. Professor Kibaroglu is the co-author of Global Security Watch – Turkey (2009), and has published extensively in academic journals such as Nonproliferation Review, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Arms Control Today.

His new Proliferation Paper can be downloaded here.

Abstract:

This paper discusses Turkey’s attitudes vis-à-vis nuclear weapons and Ballistic Missile Defense in the light of recent developments in the Iranian nuclear program and NATO’s evolving concept of extended deterrence. On the one hand, the long-standing forward deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in Turkey and the country’s role in the US Phased Adaptive Approach BMD architecture are still considered to be key elements of national security. On the other, security guarantees offered to Turkey by NATO and the US appear less and less credible in the face of rising regional threats. As this paper shows, there is a growing gap between official policy and public perceptions inside Turkey vis-à-vis the US, Iran, and nuclear weapons, as well as a growing Turkish aspiration to autonomy in its security and defense policy. While one should not expect Turkey to develop nuclear weapons anytime soon, an unchecked Iranian regional power could bring Ankara to hedge its bets in the long term. Turkey’s controversial recent decision to buy a Chinese system for its national air and missile defense rather than European or US equipment should be seen in the light of this search for autonomy.

Contents:

Introduction

Turkish Perspectives on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Turkey and NATO’s “Extended Deterrence”

Turkey and Ballistic Missile Defense: Between Assurance and Autonomy

Conclusion

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The Amphibious Endeavour: Tactical Risk, Strategic Influence

Thursday, 27. February 2014 17:19 | Author:

Focus stratégique 46 bisIfri’s Security Studies Center has just published the issue #46 bis of its Focus stratégique series entitled:

The Amphibious Endeavour: Tactical Risk, Strategic Influence

An officer in the French Army, Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Garnier is on a research assignment at the Defence Research Laboratory (LRD). He is a graduate of the French military academy Ecole Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr and of the Collège Interarmées de Défense (CID) (Joint Service Defence College).

His new Focus Stratégique can be downloaded here.

Abstract:

Despite a centuries-long history, amphibious operations were rarely in the spotlight before the Second World War. Meteorological constraints and joint planning challenges both emphasize their risky and complex character. Lessons learned highlight indispensable operational requirements such as superior naval power, favourable strength ratio for disembarked forces and the advantage of surprise. Nowadays, amphibious operations have adapted to new conditions by strengthening joint forces integration, and by taking advantage of the most modern naval and military technologies. Although amphibious operations remain a high-end perspective in a total war concept, they still represent a key capability for “forcible entry” in a world where 50% of the population lives by the sea. Stretching over the entire operational spectrum, amphibious operations will prove more and more their importance in low-to-medium intensity crisis scenarios, rather than in the hypothetical use of all-out force and wide-scale operations.

Content:

Introduction

The ineluctable principles of amphibious warfare

Amphibious operations in the face of modern anti-access strategies

Strategic utility of amphibious operations: forcible entry and scalability of force

Conclusion

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Poland and Ballistic Missile Defense: The Limits of Atlanticism

Friday, 7. February 2014 11:43 | Author:

Proliferation Paper No. 48 (2014)Ifri’s Security Studies Center has just published the issue #48 of its Proliferation Papers series entitled:

Poland and Ballistic Missile Defense: The Limits of Atlanticism

Łukasz Kulesa is the Head of the Non-proliferation and Arms Control Project at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). Since 2003 he has been working on the issues of international security at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, focusing on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, proliferation crises (North Korea, Iran), perspectives for nuclear disarmament, Russian security policy, nuclear and conventional deterrence, the role of missile defence, and the future of arms control systems. In 2010-2012 he was working as Deputy Director of the Strategic Analyses Department at the National Security Bureau, a body providing aid and support to the President of the Republic of Poland in executing security and defence tasks. Mr. Kulesa is a graduate of the Law Department of the Jagiellonian University (Cracow). He holds a Master of Arts degree in International Relations and European Studies from the Central European University (Budapest).

His new Proliferation Paper can be downloaded here.

Abstract:

Since Poland first expressed its willingness to host a critical part of the US Ballistic Missile Defense architecture, in 2002, the program has undergone several setbacks. Today, while Poland is still expected to host key elements of the US BMD capabilities, contributing to NATO’s territorial defense against ballistic missile threats, Warsaw does not enjoy the kind of special bilateral relationship that it was trying to secure with Washington. Domestic politics, changing threat assessments, the US ‘reset’ policy vis-à-vis Russia and the latter’s critics of BMD’s destabilizing character all contributed to this change, which, in turn, had strong consequences for Poland’s strategic posture. It sparked the recent Polish decision to acquire national air and missile defense capabilities, both as a strategic asset for the country’s own deterrence posture and as a national contribution to the NATO BMD system. It also influenced Poland’s attempt to reconcile its long-term national interests and threat perception with BMD’s greater role within the Alliance, both by emphasizing NATO’s collective defense mission and by ensuring that nuclear weapons would remain at the heart of NATO’s deterrence posture.

Contents :

Introduction

Poland in the US and NATO BMD Systems

Air and Missile Defense Capabilities for the Polish Armed Forces

BMD’s Strategic Challenges for Poland

Conclusion

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Unmanned Air Systems: The Future of Air & Sea Power?

Monday, 3. February 2014 12:54 | Author:

Focus Sratégique No. 49Ifri’s Security Studies Center has just published the issue #49 of its Focus stratégique series entitled:

Unmanned Air Systems: The Future of Air & Sea Power?

Paul Rogers  is a lieutenant in the United States Navy. From 2010 – 2013, he studied in Lyon and then in Paris as an Olmsted Scholar. He obtained the diplôme of l’Institut des Etudes Politiques de Lyon in 2013, and he earned a bachelor of science in economics from the University of Washington, in Seattle, in 2002.

His new Focus Stratégique can be downloaded here.

Summary:

Since their early use for primitive ISR and combined operations, UAS have developed into increasingly multipurpose instruments performing a wide array of missions (from limited strike operations, search and monitoring to time-sensitive targeting) and offering new maneuver options to the armed forces. These improvements in range, speed, endurance, situational awareness and payload, achieved through adaptive use of new information technologies, were catalyzed by the Afghanistan and Iraq testing grounds that proved critical in breaking institutional resistance.  Yet for all their contribution to the shaping of a quick learning curve, these developments have occurred in permissive airspace. After tracing back the history of UAS development, this paper argues that the US can overcome the different challenges to UAS brought by contested and denied airspace, as traditional power threats constrain force projection through A2AD strategies. To increase their force multiplier potential, the US will likely improve UAS capabilities in stealth, evasiveness, maneuverability and automation, strengthening both air and sea power.

Content:

Introduction

A Quick and Dirty History of UAS

Future UAS for Contested Environments

Conclusion

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China’s Nuclear Idiosyncrasies and Their Challenges

Tuesday, 3. December 2013 16:21 | Author:

Poliferation Papers No. 47Ifri’s Security Studies Center has just published the issue #47 of its Proliferation Papers series entitled:

China’s Nuclear Idiosyncrasies and Their Challenges

Jeffrey Lewis is the Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is also at affiliate at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation. Previously, he was the Director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation. Dr. Lewis is the author of Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (MIT Press, 2007) and publishes ArmsControlWonk.com, the leading blog on disarmament, arms control and nonproliferation.

His new Proliferation Paper can be downloaded here.

Résumé:

In many respects, the People’s Republic of China’s nuclear arsenal and posture appear unusual to Western eyes. From its “No First Use” policy to its nuclear warhead storage system, Beijing appears to think about nuclear weapons and their strategic effects in a way that differs with the West in general, and with the United States in particular. This paper offers an understanding of the sources of these idiosyncrasies and how they shape the Chinese nuclear posture. It then argues these differing conceptions can be a source of misunderstanding during negotiations and dialogues, which can be damaging to crisis stability and hinder bilateral cooperation and confidence-building with the United States. The paper finally outlines a proposal for a Joint Statement on Strategic Stability that might help both parties to better manage stability issues in the region.

Sommaire:

Introduction

China’s Nuclear Policies, Forces and Posture Today

Differing Conceptions About the Role of Nuclear Weapons

Challenges in Dialogue

Potential Misunderstandings in Times of Crisis

A proposed Joint Statement on Strategic Stability

Conclusion

 

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Jihad in Syria: The Thin Line between Insurgency and Terrorism

Friday, 11. October 2013 10:00 | Author:

According to the latest IHS Jane’s Intelligence report, moderate and radical jihadist groups are gaining the upper hand among the Syrian rebel groups. The report is  alarming not only because it begs the question of the likelihood that any of these jihadist groups, together or separately, might permanently gain control over the opposition, but also because it suggests that Al-Qaeda is gaining leverage over the Syrian conflict at a steady pace. This article will argue that even though there has been an increase in the overall number of jihadi fighters, not all jihadi groups share the same ideology and not all of them pursue terrorist tactics. In fact, the main jihadist groups cover a very broad understanding of jihad, and don’t always agree between themselves on its interpretation. This differentiation leaves place for both alliances and for fratricidal infighting.

There are three jihadi Salafist groups present in Syria. Two of them, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are radical and affiliated to Al-Qaeda through an oath (bayaat) and officially leading a transnational jihad. However, after a history of unification and separation, they still do not agree on their plans of establishing a transnational Caliphate: if ISIS is more ambitions in its scope, Nusra only restricts its ambitions to the toppling of Bashar Al-Assad. The third group, the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), often described as more moderate, is not affiliated to Al-Qaeda and leads a smaller scale national jihad. SIF sympathizes with Jabhat Al-Nusra, its radical “brothers and partners in the trenches and battles”, and is being led by the Ahrar Al-Sham Brigades.

Nusra and ISIS bring together some 10.000 fighters, with some 6,000 rebels belonging only to the Nusra Front, although reports diverge on this distribution. The two groups are less numerous than the 30-35,000 fighters that the moderate SIF counts, and this while considering the massive defections from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) towards the Nusra Front and ISIS. Over 1,000 foreign fighters have also joined the insurgency, but they are spread among Nusra, ISIS and SIF, with ISIS apparently being the most attractive destination group. Moreover, there seems to be a certain polarization going on in the transnational jihadist camp, as Nusra fears that ISIS might be gaining too much strength and that it defeats the purpose of the insurgency by fighting both the regime and the other rebel groups simultaneously. As a result, several jihadist groups, amongst them Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades, are trying to isolate ISIS by forming an alliance limiting its own goal only to the establishment of the rule of Shari’a over Syria above any other sectarian or international consideration (such as extending the fight over Shi’as, Christians and Iraq).

In terms of strategy and tactics, all three groups draw the bases of their strategic thinking from insurgency classical theorists such as Mao, Marighella and Che Guevara. They all use irregular tactics against the regime on one side, and try to win the hearts and minds of the local population on the other one. By providing humanitarian aid and social assistance, the jihadist groups are gaining the upper hand over the FSA who does not seem to have the capacity to take over the administration of the areas it has conquered. The three groups have (separately) put into place bus systems, regular and Islamic schools, insured the collection of garbage etc., which all contributed to gaining the acceptance and the support of even those locals who do not believe in Salafi Islam.

While both moderate and radical jihadist groups rely on seemingly common strategic principles, their tactics differ. On the one hand, as enumerated in a previous article I wrote on this blog, SIF’s tactics relate more to guerrilla warfare and fit better in the framework of a civil war in which there is no clear imbalance of power between the opposing sides. SIF gradually developed its methods from simple, sporadic improvised explosive devices (IEDs, the type that were/are used in Iraq or Afghanistan) to small-arms ambushes and other classic guerrilla tactics such as hit-and-run raids. Gradually, their growing forces and tactical proficiency eventually made them capable of conducting large-scale sustained assaults on multiple fronts (for instance at Hama, Idlib, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir al-Zour and Deraa), all the while keeping on resorting to remotely detonated bombs.

On the other hand, the tactics employed by the Nusra Front and ISIS, both radical jihadist groups, recall a lot of the transnational revolutionary jihadism employed by Al-Qaeda. Suicide attacks, assassinations of prominent governmental figures, car bombs against the Syrian Army and Hezbollah fighters, kidnappings of Westerners and wealthy Syrians for financial extortion, mass executions of Syrian Army soldiers, attacks over Christian settings, preventive strikes over weak tribes and even attacks on liquor stores were reported by the medias and overwhelmingly attributed to the Nusra Front. Over three quarters of the suicide attacks that took place in Syria over 2012 and 2013 are attributed to or claimed by the Nusra Front. In addition, a Nusra cell was discovered being in possession of 2 kilos of sarin gas last May. ISIS, which also operates in Iraq, and cooperates, at times, with Nusra, goes even further. Medias report attempts at kidnapping foreigners, fights against the fellow rebels of FSA, “liberations” of areas already liberated by the rebels, executions of Alawites, and attacks on Kurdish villages in Syria and of Shi’te places of worship in Iraq. ISIS also claimed responsibility for the successful operation of liberating prisoners from the Iraqi Abu Ghraib prison last July. Bearing in mind the recent surge in violence in Iraq and the porosity of the Syrian-Iraqi border, it is unsurprising that reports are coming from Baghdad blaming the Syrian conflict for the spread of conventional weapons and of fighters of Syrian origin present around the Iraqi capital.

In conclusion, giving up to the alarmist reports that the “terrorists are taking over the Syrian conflict” seems a bit farfetched. Ideologically, the power balance between the secular and the Islamists has indeed budged, but the Al-Qaeda associated radicals employing specific terrorist tactics still represent a small and disunited fraction of the opposition forces. Under such a scenario, it is Jabhat al-Nusra that emerges as the strongest group with an effective pivotal role – it is the only jihadist faction that has good relations with both ISIS and SIF, thus steadily becoming the “deal maker” and the “deal breaker” of the insurgency.

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What Future for French Military Interventions?

Friday, 6. September 2013 11:00 | Author:

Tandis que les discussions autour d’une possible intervention en Syrie se poursuivent, le moment semble parfait pour revenir sur cet article publié par Aline Leboeuf cet été, au cas où certains ne l’auraient pas vu passer. L’original de ce texte se trouve sur le site de l’International Relations and Security Network.

French strategic culture highly values military interventions as a means to defend national interests abroad. As a result, the French military has been involved in more than a hundred military operations since the end of the Cold War. Yet, France is also grappling with the same fiscal and economic problems as many other Western states. Future interventions could become a rare luxury rather than a widely used solution aimed at resolving international crises.

A Familiar Scenario

In keeping with other NATO member-states, the desire to reduce public debt has had a strong impact on French defense policy. In 2010, for example, Paris set a defense budget that was equal to defense expenditure in 1981. With the French economy remaining in the doldrums, the 2013 Livre Blanc also seeks to further reduce defense spending (it nevertheless managed to avoid a ‘worst case scenario’ of 10% cut in expenditure). Further substantial cuts may result in the swansong for French strategic ambitions and a possible change in its strategic culture. Perhaps with this prospect in mind, the 2014 defense budget has been set at 2012 levels (€ 31.4 billion), but nevertheless remains at the mercy of François Hollande’s “Dépenser juste” policies.

Yet stabilizing the defense budget is unlikely to allay the fears of France’s strategic community. The Livre Blanc, after all, outlines a requirement to cut personnel by 34,000 and reduce (if not completely close) several equipment programs. The reductions resulted in the Foundation for Strategic Research’s Camille Grand to revisit the familiar scenario of reduced capabilities leading to the creation of “bonsaï armed forces” across Europe.

Conversely, one thing that the white paper does not suggest is changing France’sstrategic ambitions. As the incumbent president acknowledges, France continues to see itself as a great nation “because this is what it wants itself to be”. Neither does the white paper appear to impinge upon a defense strategy that is based on the three pillars of protection, deterrence, and intervention. Instead, it emphasizes strategic autonomy and calls for investments that support France’s capacity to intervene unilaterally or play a key role in a coalition. With this in mind, the paper confirms Paris’ determination to fill capability gaps in such areas as air transport, in-flight refuelling and unmanned platforms. France will also maintain its military bases in Africa, which as the operation in Mali showed, may prove extremely useful for any future intervention.

Cloudy Future for Small Scale Operations

However, even if these gaps are filled over the coming years, France is nevertheless moving towards smaller, less ambitious external operations in fewer theaters. The most likely interventions will target what the white paper calls risks associated with failed or weak states and security challenges around the neighboring environment (Europe, Africa, and Near East). Such operations will typically involve a joint and immediate reaction force of 2,300 personnel that is capable of intervening within seven days and operating as far away as 3,000km from French territory. Multilateral crisis management operations could also take place in two or three different theatres, with France as the major contributor in one of them. In terms of capabilities, the force could mobilize up to 15,000 troops from the Army, up to 45 fighters, the aircraft carrier, two landing helicopter docks, frigates, one nuclear-powered attack submarine, and 12 fighters.

Yet while France is likely to retain the ability to conduct Mali-like operations for at least the next 5 years, limited “small-scale” activities may eventually become problematic.Mali demonstrated once again that where France is strong in terms of military operations, it is often weak when it comes to diplomacy, development and other elements of ‘soft power’ that are crucial for peace building and post-conflict reconstruction. Another problem is linked to discrepancies between French diplomatic discourse regarding the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) – which France officially promotes and defends – and strong resistance in the military towards such concepts. Maybe due to the Rwandan trauma, or because it requires many boots on the ground, there is a widespread vision within the French armed forces that interventions guided by these principles are not feasible.

The discrepancies between ideals and resources potentially inspired Admiral Édouard Guillaud, the current Chief of the Defence Staff, to insist “We will not be able to do as much; […] we will have to make choices and sometimes to intervene in a more modest way […] and be agile”. The French military has already learned the value of being “rustique” (employing simplicity in emergencies); it is now expected to be agile to solve the discrepancy between means and goals. Commentators have also tried to imagine new “light footprint” operations, requiring fewer resources, that would be coherent, mobile and compact. But this feels like squaring the circle.

The Bigger Picture

If small scale operations prove difficult, it seems pretty obvious that operations to face a heavily armed enemy will be even more challenging. Those “major coercion operations”, according to the white paper, would officially require six months of preparation, and would only take place within a coalition. In terms of capabilities for such an operation, special forces could mobilize up to 15,000 troops from the Army, up to 45 fighters, the aircraft carrier, two landing helicopter docks, frigates, one nuclear-powered attack submarine, C4ISR assets, and the tailored support units. Compared to the British troops deployed in Iraq (46,000 troops), or even to the French participation in the first Gulf War (16,000 troops, 55 fighters), such an effort may appear rather limited.

Another problem that such coercion operation will face is that France is not the only European country reducing its force levels and lowering its defence budget under 2% of the GNP (pensions excluded). As the defence white paper underlines, the combined defence budgets of China, South Korea, India and Japan is much greater than the European Union’s, and some EU members already have defence budgets under 1% of their gross national product. Capacity is one issue, but political will is another one, with some NATO members refusing to contribute to some NATO operations. Future French coercion operations may depend on a coalition of the unwilling and the unable”, although the United States’ pivot towards Asia will require Europeans to assume increasingly more responsibility for their own defence.

This trend would be less worrying in itself if France and its allies were not confronted by the emergence of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies. France has no dedicated Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) capabilities, which would be required in any major coercion operation, and does not intend, for now, to acquire any. It relies heavily on the United States to provide SEAD capabilities. Several scenarios demonstrate, however, that A2/AD capabilities may in the longer term lead to a form of “containment of the West”, that would put an end to the long lasting Western military superiority by strengthening defensive, counter-intervention capabilities. If such a strategic global trend were to take place, French interventions, already weakened by skimped spending, would be history.

As a result of this process, some French partner states may start to question the capacity of France to protect them. The core of the matter is how much one can cut spending without endangering the overall defence system and France’s capacity to build up new defence capacities within a few years after they will have been scrapped. According to Etienne de Durand of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), if there is no increase in the defence budget around 2016, France will lose the capacity to build up as it will have irretrievably weakened its defence industry and the resilience of its armed forces.

While France is far from being the only country whose military is subject to budget cuts, Paris faces a specific problem: much of its power comes from its capacity to intervene militarily. While for a country like Canada or the Netherlands military cuts may have limited consequences in terms of diplomatic influence, this is not the case for France. If that capacity disappears, French power will very likely vanish, especially as other sources of its influence (like development aid) are also negatively impacted by the decline of French economic power.

The author would like to thank Dominique David, Corentin Brustlein, Etienne de Durand, Aurélie Allain and Leyla Mutiu for their useful comments. Dr. Aline Leboeuf is a researcher within the Security Studies Center at Ifri (French Institute of International Relations). You can follow her on twitter @AlineLeboeuf.

 

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The IDF on All Fronts: Dealing with Israeli Strategic Uncertainty

Friday, 30. August 2013 9:15 | Author:

Ifri’s Defence Research Unit has just published the issue #45 bis of its Focus stratégique series entitled:

The IDF on All Fronts: Dealing with Israeli Strategic Uncertainty

Pierre Razoux is Director of Research at the Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l’Ecole Militaire (IRSEM). He has written a number of works on the Israeli-Arab conflict, including Tsahal : nouvelle histoire de l’armée israélienne (Paris, Perrin, 2008).

His Focus stratégique can be downloaded here.

Abstract of the article:

Facing threats on all its borders as well as social, economic and religious tensions, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are now under significant pressure in accomplishing their core mission: the survival of the State of Israel. While the post-Arab Spring Middle East appears driven by continuing political instability, endemic violence and terrorism, the IDF are attempting to maintain full-spectrum capability in order to respond to a variety of challenges, one at a time or all at the same time if need be. To that end, the IDF are considering both defensive and offensive strategies, the former involving a physical territorial fence, deterrence and missile defense, and the latter involving long-range strikes and raids by special operations forces. To deliver on that ambitious agenda, the IDF need to continue upgrading all their service components – ground forces, air force, navy, and increasingly important cyber force – in a way that is sustainable for both the country’s economy and its society.

Content:

Introduction

Uncertain politics,  fragmented society

Grounds for Strategic Non-choice

A Progressive? Military System

Conclusion

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The Syrian Islamic Front: What Third Way?

Tuesday, 27. August 2013 16:41 | Author:

Syrian_Islamic_Front_LogoThe Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) is one of the three major umbrella rebel organizations alongside the secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Salafi-jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra. By taking its pride through the promotion of “a third way” amongst the rebels, SIF upholds Salafi Islamist values, promotes religion and officially rejects transnationalist jihadism. This article will argue however that the Salafism promoted by SIF is not exactly “a third way”, but rather an incomplete second way as it still borrows elements of radical jihadism in its speech and methods, and is supportive of the jihadist movements, thus failing to detach itself fully from Jabhat al-Nusra.

Announcing its creation in a December 2012 video, SIF was described by its senior official spokesperson Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Suri as a “comprehensive Islamic front, representing Islam as a religion, a creed, a guiding path, and a conduct” consisting of roughly 30,000 fighters. However, this self-description is vague and subject to interpretation. SIF preaches the Salafi purist and fundamentalist version of Islam which aims at establishing an Islamic state and at extending Islamic morals through society. By employing the terminology used by scholar Fawaz Gerges in his book The Far Enemy, SIF is a religious nationalist group fighting the secular state (“the near enemy”) which rejects the transnationalist jihadists that fight for the re-conquest of the lost Muslim territories and against the Western values (“the far enemy”). For this end, according to its January 2013 charter, SIF has a military wing “which aims to topple the regime and extend security” and a civilian wing “from which springs missionary, educational, humanitarian, media, political and [public] service [movements]”. SIF Islamists make a clear distinction between themselves, Salafis waging a local jihad against their government, and Salafi transnational jihadists, the kind that Jabhat al-Nusra are. According to one of SIF’s political leaders, Abu Ezzedin al-Ansari of the Liwa al-Haqq Brigades, they “do not believe that [they] fit the description of what is popularly known in the West as « radical Islamists » or « jihadis »”, but without developing further on their exact understanding of jihadism. Moreover, SIF’s spokesperson Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Suri made clear SIF’s position towards democracy by stating that it is destined to end up in the “garbage heap of history”. From a tactical perspective, SIF avoids the use of those tactics which are frequently associated to the salafi-jihadist extremists such as suicide bombings, even though the information surfacing on this aspect is contradictory. There is little evidence of kamikaze actions, except for a video release from June 2012 of SIF’s largest faction, Ahrar Al-Sham which shows what appears to be a suicide attack, but which took place prior to the creation of SIF. On the same note, Ahrar al-Sham does not use the main means of communication used normally by the jihadi groups, such as Al-Qaeda affiliated web forums, but rather reaches towards the mainstream media through its official independent website, Facebook page and Twitter account. Furthermore, even though Ahrar al-Sham rejects Western-backing, it did take part in armed joint operations with the FSA.

Nonetheless, SIF is undermined by not being an effective alliance, but rather a conglomeration of local units which act as semi-independent subfactions. Its leading components are the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham Brigades (Harakat Ahrar al-Islamiya) which make up a third of SIF’s manpower and are reputed to be the most powerful individual armed group in the entire Syrian opposition, thus making the SIF itself one of the best fighting forces within the opposition. Even though a great lot of the factions SIF comprises are Salafi, its second largest faction, the Liwa al-Haqq Brigades, are more diverse and incoherent, comprising some extreme-Salafi jihadis, Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamists, and members of the local Sufi orders. SIF also takes on a few foreign mujahedeen fighters of European origin – usually a defining trait of transnationalist jihadi groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra.

SIF’s subfactions unite however their voice regarding their de facto attitude towards Jabhat al-Nusra which sounds at odds with its nationalist aspirations. Through one of its channels, SIF announced that the Al-Qaeda affiliated group is “our brothers and partners in the trenches and battles” and that they “only see honesty in their work as well as toughness and bravery”. Abu Ezzedin al-Ansari, of the Liwa al-Haqq Brigades, also defended them by stating that “the USA has classified a lot of groups as « terrorists » using criteria that are perhaps more suited to American interests, which are not necessarily our interests”. SIF is strongly opposed to any form of foreign intervention, with the leader of SIF, Hassan Aboud Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, declaring at a conference in Cairo in June that “any invading force that sets foot on Syrian territory under any pretext, whether to support the regime or to allegedly stop aggression, will be treated as an occupying force”. In addition, SIF’s main group, Ahrar al-Sham, reacted negatively to the April rapprochement between the Islamic State of Iraq (the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda) and Jabhat al-Nusra. Even though Ahrar al-Sham agreed in principle with the objectives of a possible Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, it believes that more realism and patience are required in such situations given that none of today’s Islamist factions is strong enough to assume religious leadership over the Muslim community (umma). By simply having an official opinion on the matter, Ahrar al-Sham is acknowledging the need for such a group, while simply disagreeing on the timing. This reaction places SIF’s leading faction in a position where its voice matters in a context involving the internal affairs of two transnational jihadi groups.

If SIF’s deeds and aspirations seem contradictory on the surface, their funding comes mainly from individuals supportive of radical transnational jihadism, and not from governmental sources. Little is known about SIF’s donors, but some of Ahrar al-Sham’s sources include Kuwaiti-based Syrian Salafi preacher sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajami (who uses strong language against Christians and Jews), Saudi-based Syrian preacher Adnan al-‘Arur (reputed for his rhetoric against non-Sunni religious groups and for his strong involvement in raising donations), Kuwaiti Salafi politician and ideologue Hakim al-Mutayri, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and individuals from Qatar.

In conclusion, it is difficult to agree with SIF’s declaration of promoting a clear and distinct third way in the Syrian conflict. Its unambiguous links with Jabhat al-Nusra say the contrary, while only the lack of ideological cooperation with the secular Free Syrian Army supports the idea of distinctiveness. Nevertheless, regardless of their ideological leaning, SIF are a major actor to be taken into account on the Syrian civil war theatre, which, logistically speaking, can actually provide for a second or even a third way. Since their creation in 2012, the tactics of Ahrar Al-Sham have developed from simple sporadic improvised explosive devices (IEDs, the type that were used in Iraq) to small-arms ambushes, classic guerrilla tactics (remotely detonated bombs, hit-and-run raids, and ambushes) until they were eventually capable of also conducting large-scale sustained assaults on multiple fronts (at Hama, Idlib, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir al-Zour and Deraa) – a promising tactical development only waiting to be matched by a clear ideological position.

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