Anne Miles is an American doctoral student and teaching fellow in the Defence Studies Department at KCL researching the conceptual history and development of Conventional Warfare.
A battle-tested and professional military commander responds to a familiar call: enemy troops are attempting to seize the high ground. If they succeed, it will be difficult to defend the contested areas below. The commander rallies his troops and proceeds with all haste to the makeshift base where they await the onslaught. Out on the hill, the defenders can see the attackers streaming towards them, and fire is exchanged. Suddenly, the commander realizes that this is not going to be a simple skirmish: the enemy has far more fighters than anticipated and a tank to back them up. The commander and his men are outnumbered and outgunned, and soon they will be outflanked. The day is lost. It will be a serious setback for his nation’s objectives in the conflict.
While this seems like it could be a scene from Band of Brothers, it in fact comes from official yet officially-denied footage commissioned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and captured by Syrian rebels after this battle. The unfinished documentary, as reported this week by the BBC, shows state-sanctioned Iranian involvement in the ongoing Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime.
Consider a second scene. After an initial display of overwhelming force and subsequent withdrawal of enemy troops, another commander considers the political-military landscape he faces. The local puppet government has collapsed and the local military leaders seem open to switching allegiance to the commander’s side, but there is a question of legal and political legitimacy. The commander must also take into account the network of indigenous tribes that inhabit the desert region, being careful not to accidentally find himself in the middle of ancient familial grievances or fan the flames of popular Zionist conspiracy theories. Finally, the commander must balance his assessment of military requirements on the ground with the complex demands of leading a multinational coalition.
This, of course, was the problem that General Eisenhower faced in North Africa, as he vividly recalls in his war memoirs.
The way we strategists, both academic and real-world, classify war is a serious problem. Now is the time of the year when students in the War Studies BA at KCL are first exposed to Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force, and it is clear from reading their essays that the idea of a paradigm shift in warfare is a seductive one. “Oh, if only we could fight an old-fashioned Industrial [Conventional, Regular, etc.] War! But sadly we live in a time of War Amongst the People [Unconventional, Irregular, Asymmetric, New, Hybrid War] and must dispose of our preconceived notions accordingly.”
Why do we persist with this false dichotomy?
There are, of course, obvious differences between older conflicts like World War II and more recent ones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. To ignore these differences would be negligent: nuclear weapons, technological and communications revolutions, the erosion of the state and other factors have undoubtedly altered both strategic and tactical landscapes. But there are also key similarities if you look closely, though in the current intellectual environment, acknowledging these often can be disregarded as a sign of outdated, “conventional” thinking.
It is true that the view presented in this BBC report shows only one aspect of a complex war, which involves some of the hallmarks more closely associated with “unconventional” conflicts. But this is precisely the point. Eisenhower, in his own words, faced the prospects of terrorism and guerrilla war in a conflict regarded as the archetype of old-school warfare by modern strategists. Categorizing wars within this conventional/unconventional (or old/new) dichotomy may be useful from a parsimonious point of view, but it can be highly problematic when used as the basis of policy.
Casting Syria in the light of quagmire is an easy out for policymakers and academics alike who cannot find a good solution to this horrendously difficult and complex problem. The BBC’s superb report reminds us that the tragedy in Syria involves Assad’s state military apparatus, organized militias, and outside state intervention that play into a larger regional political game. Perhaps we might think seriously and honestly about these more familiar facets of strategy and foreign policy and not simply consign Syria to the dustbin of “unsolvable sectarian violence.”