Why Sunni Middle East ‘Powers’ Cannot Win Their Own Battles
From Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Turkey, the inability of regional states to effectively neutralize vastly inferior enemies has prolonged instability
The New York Times this weekend reported on Israel’s secret air campaign against Islamic State terrorists in the Egypt-controlled Sinai Peninsula, bringing into stark focus the close military cooperation that has developed between Jerusalem and Cairo. According to the Times, since 2015 Israel has conducted more than 100 strikes in the Peninsula, where the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province—formerly the Al-Qa’ida-linked Ansar Beit al Maqdis—has waged an insurgency since the counter-revolution that brought President Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi to power.
One of the report’s “bombshells” was the assertion that Israel’s actions in Sinai have come with al-Sisi’s total approval, albeit the president has been remiss to publicize the coordination given the Egyptian populace harbors near-universal negative attitudes towards the Jewish state. For its part, Israel has a significant interest in maintaining order in the vast Egyptian territory which borders the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, both to prevent the smuggling of arms into the Palestinian enclave and also to ensure that the Sinai Province cannot build up its arsenals—primarily with advanced arms originating from Libya and Sudan—to a level that could pose a significant strategic threat.
While much has been made about the rapprochement between Israel and Egypt—and, more broadly, the Jewish state’s burgeoning ties with regional Sunni countries driven by a shared goal to counter Islamist terrorists, in general, and Iran’s expansionism and potential nuclearization, in particular—less attention has been paid to Cairo’s inability to do its own dirty work; this, despite being led by a military regime supported to the tune of $1.3 billion in annual American aid.
The number of active Sinai Province members is believed to be between 1,000 and 1,500. By contrast, the Egyptian military has an estimated 450,000 active personnel and nearly a million reserve forces. It has some of the most modern weaponry available to it both on the ground and in the skies—some 4,000 combat tanks, 350 fighter jets and more than 250 attack helicopters—whereas the Sinai Province perpetrates most of its attacks using improvised explosive devices and automatic rifles.
Nevertheless, even as Egypt has increased its anti-ISIS operations only 150-200 terrorists were eliminated in Sinai in 2017 whereas some 100 Egyptian security officials and approximately 500 civilians were killed over the same time frame. Such a ratio, given Cairo’s military superiority, raises serious questions about the efficacy of its undertakings.
According to Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a Senior Researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the former deputy head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence, while Egypt faces a significant challenge in rooting out terrorists embedded within the local population, the army has nonetheless performed unspectacularly. “It took the Egyptians six years to even prepare a very limited war in the Sinai,” he explained to The Media Line, “which shows that the army is plagued by inefficiencies, which permeate all aspects of Egypt’s society. They have the right tools to deal with ISIS, maybe not to eradicate it completely, but at least to stop terrorists from perpetrating attacks like the one on the [al-Rawda] mosque [in November] that killed more than 300 people.”
Dr. Neriah believes the Egyptian military’s failures are even more concerning given that Israel permitted Cairo to deploy large amounts of personnel and heavy weaponry into the Peninsula in contravention of the 1979 peace treaty signed between the countries. He attributes the struggle primarily to an enormous bureaucracy that has made the Egyptian army inflexible, with decisions made extremely slowly and orders needing to go through multiple channels before they are carried out. And as regards President al-Sisi, “he is part of the system itself and cannot move too far against it as he has to manage the interests of many people.”
Egypt’s apparent deficiencies are mirrored by those of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen, which has made a mess of a three-year-long campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Riyadh, with tens of billions of dollars-worth of U.S.-made military hardware has been unable to overcome the vastly inferior Shiite force. Whereas Saudi Arabia has nearly a quarter of a million active military personnel, the Houthis have an estimated 100,000 total followers, including a large percentage of unarmed loyalists.
Dr. Yoel Guzansky, Senior Research at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies and a former Israeli National Security Council staffer, noted to The Media Line that the Saudis did not send any ground troops to Yemen and have instead relied upon local mercenaries whose alliances are fleeting, as evidenced by the recent fighting between Yemeni government forces and southern secessionists who were previously aligned with Riyadh. He also suggested that mistakes have been made at the political level, particularly by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) who has come under fire for his directing of the conflict.
“MBS may not have really thought this through,” Dr. Guzansky explained, “and if you look at other initiatives such as the boycott of Qatar and the forced resignation of [Lebanese Prime Minister Saad] Hariri, the Saudi leader appears a bit impulsive.” Moreover, he concluded, “while it is hard for any country to fight this kind of guerilla warfare, especially from 40,000 feet, it is amazing that the Saudis, with the fourth biggest defense budget in the world, need U.S. refueling of its planes as well as American intelligence and logistical help on the ground.”
Meanwhile, Turkey, which has the second largest army of any NATO member, has had dubious success thus far in its offensive against the Kurdish YPG in Afrin, Syria. Ankara launched the military campaign on January 20 against a largely isolated Kurdish force numbering approximately 10,000 fighters, who must be distinguished from units directly backed by U.S. forces located further eastward. On Saturday, the Turkish military incurred seven fatalities, as “Operation Olive Branch,” intended to extend Ankara’s buffer zone inside Syria to around 20 miles, risks spiraling out of control.
Specifically, the Turkish offensive places it on a collision course with Washington, whose NATO compatriot is taking on its main ally in Syria, the Kurds, who were instrumental in retaking the Islamic State’s de-facto capital of Raqqa. Furthermore, if the Turkish assault moves towards the town of Manbij, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned, there is a very real risk of direct clashes with U.S. troops.
In Turkey’s case, many analysts attribute the dysfunction to Erdogan’s purge of the armed forces in the wake of the July 2016 attempted coup. Hundreds, if not thousands of generals and officers were dismissed from their positions, leading to a situation whereby Turkey’s military—estimated at about 750,000 personnel, half of whom are reservists—today has more fighter planes than available pilots. Notably, the former head of Turkey’s Second Army, who was previously responsible for overseeing the border with Syria, is languishing in prison. And there have been numerous incidents of Turkish military miscues in Syria, leading some observers to postulate that the Kurds may stand a chance of defeating the Afrin offensive.
Some argue that the difficulties being encountered by regional countries are inherent to asymmetrical warfare and thus apply across the board, including the U.S. quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, both of those American campaigns were less eliminationist in nature than they were long-term military operations geared towards so-called “nation-building.” Even so, Al-Qa’ida was essentially routed by U.S.-led forces in the months after the 2001 invasion, albeit the Taliban, which controlled Afghanistan at the time and harbored Osama bin Laden, remains a potent foe (a reality which many blame on the Afghan military’s inability to pick up the slack following the withdrawal from the country of most foreign troops, as well as Pakistan’s alleged support for terrorist elements). Washington, moreover, has exhibited its ability, when committed, to decimate a lesser opponent by spearheading the extinguishing of the Islamic state’s presence from Iraq and Syria over the past year.
There are also those who point to Israel’s inability to fully contain Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon. But the Israeli military wreaked havoc on the Shiite Iranian proxy during the lop-sided 2006 war, in which most of southern Lebanon was destroyed, leading to 12 years of effective détente with Hizbullah. Likewise the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas devastated the terror group—and it may be that Jerusalem is opposed to completely eradicating Gaza’s rulers for political reasons, as doing so could force Israel to re-occupy the Palestinian enclave. Additionally, the Jewish state faces unparalleled international hostility every time that it engages militarily with its adversaries, which in the past has forced the government to abandon various objectives it may otherwise have been able to achieve.
Then there is Shiite Iran, which fights its battles through its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Gaza, seemingly insulating itself from the possibility of getting bogged down in any particular conflict while taking advantage of the inability of its Sunni nemeses to successfully wage war. There are no Iranian warplanes dropping bombs abroad, although the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force does have boots on the ground across the region to direct its underlings. It appears as though Iran’s military strategy is working, as it has consolidated its “Shiite Crescent” from Tehran, through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, to the Mediterranean Sea.
Overall, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which monitors global military expenditures, pinned Riyadh’s spending at some $63 billion dollars in 2016 (the last year for which the data is available), while Turkey shelled out $15 billion and Egypt $5.5 billion. By comparison, Iran spent some $12.5 billion over the same period and Jerusalem about $18 billion.
When taking into account Iran’s successes, coupled with Israel’s limited size and the fact that it is surrounded by aggressive enemies, the absence of proportional military prowess on the part of Sunni regional countries suggests they suffer from deeply rooted institutional problems that not only will be hard to overcome, but likely have contributed to prolonging violent instability across the Middle East.