What’s in a Name? Syria, History, and Strategic Semantics

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.”


3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Syria, History, and Strategic Semantics

  1. Jill Russell says:

    The simple answer is that people don’t bother much with history. Even given America’s relatively short collection of wars to consider there has always been as much – if not more – that is “irregular” as conventional. That is a broad issue. The more specific and proximate cause is that Americans, at least, are out of practice thinking about war across a full and rich spectrum. The Cold War defined strategy in set terms – in fact, defined the terms of conflict, even if they did not well match the truth on the ground – for so long that it became easy to believe that there was only ever one answer to how to fight.

    Another problem which magnifies this failure to see the nuances of war is that we expect far too much from military action, far more than it can realistically achieve. “Victory” has come to be defined as the outcome on the field of battle, when in fact that is only ever one part of the calculus. Having forgotten to look past the armed effort for what needs to be done to achieve the policy objectives we’ve also lost the plot on how to use force effectively and well. If we don’t know how to use military action well then quagmires are more likely.

    At the end, though, I wonder whether anyone at any time has ever gotten things mostly right in war…and maybe this is the real truth about it, that even as it is omnipresent in every time and place it is the thing of mankind which cannot be well understood. Now that would be a real kick in the head, wouldn’t it?

  2. Neil says:

    I appreciate Anne’s post because, beyond the Syria, it opens the door to thinking about something like the contemporary aesthetics of state military positivism.

    Might we say that the durable historicization of conventional war itself functions to validate the fiction of sovereign prerogative and a state monopoly on violence? The emergence and rise of these normative liberal constructions, upon closer examination, have always relied (in discourse but also in material practice to secure law-preserving/law-creating power) on irregular, proxy, quiet, and ‘unconventional’ measures and on cellular, non-state, sub-state, etc., actors and agents to conduct military and political affairs.

    Fighting – or warfighting – has always been comprised of different streams and speeds of political violence, from the kinetic/acute/ballistic to the non-kinetic/ambient/biopolitical-social. This mixture undermines the adversarial duel and collapses the already tenuous distinctions between civil and military affairs – whether in foreign operating environments, domestic spaces, or somewhere indistinguishably in-between.

    I don’t mean that the ontology of war is characteristically unconventional always-already; rather, within institutionalized circles of military thinking, the epiphanic but-now-conventional narrative about the irregularization of warfare (the conduct of fighting) is rather selective, a narrative that self-referentially tells the truth about its ability (and its progenitors’) to nominate the very transitions, transformations, and shifts the line of thinking allows its users to identify and substantiate.

    While many of today’s elegant doctrinal innovations on the North Atlantic basin – contingency operations, the continuum of operations, comprehensive operations – respond to the inability and difficulty of state militaries define in their estimates and assessments, they also serve as rhetorical and linguistic-semantic innovations that historically obscure what has always been and what remains a wider footprint of political violence and fighting than the repertoire of sanctioned narratives allow

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