The Middle East, in our view, is still in a transitional period between the old order – which collapsed – and the new order – which has not yet stabilized. Like the seasons of the year, that transitional period is characterized by instability and uncertainty," says the Head of the Research Division at the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, Brig. Gen. Itai Baron, in a speech delivered during the 14th Annual Hertzliya Conference held in early June at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Hertzliya.
"In 2011, the old order began to collapse with the outbreak of the Arab Spring. In 2012 we saw new forces entering, (notably) the Muslim Brotherhood, which, through their strengthening reaped the fruits of the struggle of 2011. The other new force that occupied center stage is Global Jihad. In retrospect, it is fairly obvious that during 2013 we saw the reaction, the counterattack. A group of forces that operated with the intention of overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood and in Syria – a violent offensive by Bashar (al Assad) that included the employment of chemical weapons.
"When you look at a broad map of the Middle East, you can see four processes: in Syria – the struggle between Bashar (al Assad) and the secular opposition, but the religious and Islamic opposition as well. In Iran – a substantial struggle over the spirit of the country between Rouhani and the conservatives and the defense establishment. In Egypt – al-Sisi, recently elected as President, opposite the Muslim Brotherhood and senior leaders of Global Jihad. The common denominator of all of these on-going processes is that apparently, there is no single, dominant "Boss".
"Israel is not a part of this struggle, but the struggles project on it and permeate into its territory, and sometimes compel it to act in order to counter advanced threats. When you look at the current heat chart of the upheaval, you see a complex and difficult to interpret map with various types of occurrences. The state of some countries can be characterized, fairly significantly, as disintegrating countries with political rifts, refugee problems and blurring of the borders that had been drawn harshly and arbitrarily.
"In some theaters things have stabilized even in view of this upheaval – the upheaval had failed to offer any new ideas, so one phenomenon stood at its core – a substantial increase in the power of the public. The streets, which had kept quiet for many years, changed. People go out and affect the agenda. By this time it has become difficult to see images of widespread protest demonstrations, which led some of our analysts to consider the possibility that the phenomenon was not as significant as we thought it was. I still consider the increasing weight of the public as a significant phenomenon.
"We can see an increasing commitment of the authorities to public opinion, despite the decline of the public protest. The main cause of the public unrest was the economic factor, and as most of the economic problems are conceived as problems that cannot be solved, the public unrest will continue, so the characteristics of instability and uncertainty will remain present in the coming years as well.
"Hostility to Israel is a common denominator of those maintaining the old order as well as of those who support the new order, both Sunni and Shi'ite, and can definitely bring the masses out to the streets in the event of warlike processes. The low rate of growth mainly points to the fact that it is impossible to identify a recovery from the damage caused by the upheaval, with millions of young people banging on the doors of the employment market. In the background there are, naturally, such inherent problems as the massive unemployment among young people (which, in some countries amounts to one third of the young population), and the severe polarization between wealthy countries and poor countries."
The Main Axes
"Four primary camps may be identified within the circumstances that emerged in the Middle East," explains Baron. "The radical axis, which describes a period of recession with numerous challenges. Some analysts see, beyond the resistance, a possibility for the improvement of the radical axis. The moderate camp is re-emerging but still has a limited influence. The Muslim Brotherhood camp has disintegrated pursuant to the events in Egypt, but the concept according to which Islam is the solution still exists.
"Global Jihad has penetrated, all of the camps operate against it but it is substantial nevertheless. The highest numbers are in Syria and in other countries. In conclusion, the upheaval that created a vacuum enabled the consolidation of Global Jihad.
"Syria, to a considerable extent, is disintegrating. The terminology required in order to describe it is normally associated with failing countries. A constant war of attrition is under way, with no decisive overbalance in sight. Syria is splitting into separate areas of influence and its borders, mainly with Lebanon and Iraq, are becoming blurred. The rebels receive only limited support, and the regime relies on Hezbollah and Iran. The most notable point in this context is the fact that the plight of the regime leads it to relinquish its sovereignty, to give up territory and relinquish even partial control over the areas supposedly under its domination.
"The armed rebels have dominated most of the territories in the northern and eastern parts of the country. About 300,000 warfighters belong to the regime and about 120,000 warfighters operate against it. It is a bloody war. Between one third and one half of the Syrian civilians have left their homes, some seeking shelter in other countries.
"Here we are attempting to divide the various groups belonging to the opposition, to the rebels or to other armed elements.
"There are three Islamist groups. About eighty percent are warfighters who follow a significantly Islamic agenda. About 15,000 belong to the more radical group – the one we refer to as Global Jihad. 50,000 are Syrian Salafists. The second group aspires for Syrian nationalism, religious nationalism. The other group is identified with an agenda that is similar to the one of the Muslim Brotherhood. About 20% are secular warfighters," explains Baron.
Rebels on the Fence
"On the Golan Heights, a fairly dramatic development has taken place. The rebels succeeded in establishing territorial continuity from the border triangle to the Quneitra area. This area is dominated by the groups I mentioned earlier. These spaces have been generating incidents into our territory in recent months, even on the Golan Heights, which have thus far been regarded as a quiet area. Three incidents of rockets fired at Mount Hermon and three IED incidents indicate mainly that this area has become a frontier, and we have alerts regarding additional incidents.
"The bulk of the Syrian chemical weaponry arsenal has been taken out of Syria or destroyed in Syrian territory. The Syrians have used a major part of their missile and rocket arsenal against their own population. We have identified erosion in the state of the Syrian military with regard to the ground forces and the air force," Baron continues.
At this point, Brig. Gen. Baron went on to address the Issue of Iran. "The era following the election of Rouhani symbolizes, to our view, a struggle over the character of the state. The agenda is being promoted in three fields: foreign policy and the policy regarding nuclear power, regional policy and internal policy as well.
"It is likely that Iran and the superpowers negotiating with it will sign, later this year, the permanent agreement regarding Iran's nuclear power. We think that Iran's nuclear vision will remain in effect even if such an agreement is signed. Meanwhile, the build-up of operational force against Israel continues – mainly through the acquisition of missiles that enable attacks against Israel. Iran is the focal point of the development of weapons and the transfer thereof to Hezbollah and Gaza.
"And now to Lebanon – where Hezbollah is facing three fronts simultaneously – Syria, Lebanon and the front opposite Israel. Its forces have become a fixture in the areas dominated by the Syrian regime, among other things – in order to prevent the Syrian civil war from permeating into Lebanese territory. On the internal arena – there are one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Hezbollah's force build-up continues, with two primary efforts at its core: a substantial expansion of their missile and rocket arsenal, and primarily – improving the effectiveness and destructive power of those missiles and rockets."
Baron explained that Hezbollah's arsenal is being renewed following the losses it had sustained during the second Lebanon war. "Hezbollah has 100,000 short-range rockets, several thousands of missiles to ranges of up to 250 kilometers and several hundred missiles to longer ranges, capable of covering the entire territory of Israel. The second category can reach the central Dan region and the territory of Tel-Aviv," he explained.
"In the Sinai Peninsula, the number of terrorist attacks has decreased in the last year, mainly owing to the activities of the Egyptian regime, but the danger on the southern border still exists."
Baron addressed the substantial change in the operational environment. According to him, "What you can see is a mixed influence of the upheaval taking place in the strategic, operative and even tactical environment. There is a trend of reduction with regard to some of the threats, for instance the Syrian example of the process of disarmament of the chemical weaponry, the disarmament of the rockets in the context of the internal war, and on the other hand – a phenomenon of volatility, which reflects the increasing probability of escalation and deterioration scenarios.
"The more significant problem is the changing of the operational environment. They employ more accurate and destructive weapon systems with improved survivability. All of this is taking place in the context of a challenging operational concept.
"The most significant current phenomenon is associated with the effort to attain a precision attack capability. Significant changes on the battlefield were once our monopoly, and now the other side is developing them as well. Iran is the main source of knowledge. The concept of the change and the transition from the long-term attrition concept to precision warfare has stemmed from the negative lessons of past conflicts: the second Lebanon war, Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense. The idea is to attack massively with a lot of fire and prevent us from utilizing our technological capabilities.
"At the same time, materiel is being acquired in an effort to undermine our air superiority. Similarly, accurate shore-to-ship missiles come into the picture. The concept of tunnels intended to insert into our territory a large number of warfighters for the purpose of attacking military and civilian installations is a primary axis of the other side.
"Cyber warfare is evolving as an additional active warfare dimension. The confrontation with the other side produces various cooperative alliances. If I were to name a realm where surprises should be expected, it is the realm of cyber warfare, because of its unique characteristics.
"Israeli deterrence is maintained, but it is careful to avoid a large-scale confrontation. You may say that all of the power elements are not interested in a confrontation with Israel and deal. Under that threshold of war there is a space where the other side challenges us – which explains some of that uncertainty, instability and volatility."
Baron added that "there is a trend of a certain reduction in the severity of the threat, but the more basic phenomenon is the increasing severity of the over-all threat to the rear area, with regard to quantity as well as with regard to precision. This applies to Hezbollah as well as to Iran – our home front is severely threatened.
"Owing to all of these characteristics, in the next war, it will be difficult to implement the element of prompt overbalance. The operational environment will be highly diversified, and the various theaters and the various missions will have very few fundamental things in common".
Baron wished to clarify that "If it is necessary to conclude with just a few implications regarding the defense concept: early warning exists but is challenged, deterrence is complex, prompt overbalance is difficult and defense is challenged to an unprecedented extent."