Israel and Hamas: a strategic analysis

The recent military operations between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas at Gaza triggered a flow of comments and analysis. Of course, given the fact that that conflict is highly politicized even in western audiences, many skirmishes between pros- and cons- occured, sometimes leading to  blur the question even further.

Whereas many could argue about what they think is « objective reality » (is Hamas an existential threat to Israel? Is Israel a colonial state willing to oppress the Palestinian people?), I deem it more enlightening to focus on a more nuanced approach that could take into account actors’ logic and perceptions. In addition to be more accurate in dealing with the strategic and political issues, it is also more relevant as it is really analytic and neither descriptive nor normative. Furthermore, such an analysis would have to gain a better understanding of the way those logic act in a dialectical way toward each other.

Hamas:

After « Cast Lead », it is highly plausible that the Hamas leadership understood that is was in its own interest to avoid any provocation toward Israel. Since it has become the ruling party in Gaza after the 2006 elections, Hamas had to navigate a very narrow line. On the one hand, avoiding any reprisal from Israel, fearing that the latter would be able to devastate the strip and endanger Hamas’ capability to provide public services and to act as an effective government. That explains why the number of rockets fired on Israel decreased significantly. At the same time, Hamas struggled to prevent the rise of more extremist groups (like the Islamic Jihad) and even cracked down on Salafis. On the other hand, those groups openly challenged Hamas whose legitimacy relies on its status as the representative of the Palestinian people’s resistance to Israel.

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, the hypothesis would be that Hamas attempted to seize the opportunity presented by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in neighboring Egypt. In addition, the demise of ruling powers in that very area meant that it became a path for funneling weapons and cash to Gazan Salafis. Thus, they were able to strike Israel and put Hamas in front of an alternative: relying on coercion in order to suppress the rising and competing Salafis groups (but with the risk of losing its credibility as a « resistance movement »), or tolerating the attacks in the hope that Israel would not retaliate (but with the risk of being held accountable by the latter).

Thus when Israel zeroed in on Hamas, the rank and file in the organization pressured the leadership to give up restraint and to resume attacks. If president Morsi officially condemned and criticized Israel, his support to Hamas did not go further. At the end of the day, the changing internal and regional environment was perceived by Hamas leadership as an incentive to act. Internal contest and regional changes seemed to provide the organization with new opportunities to exploit in order to gain a better position in the confrontation with Israel. The goal was not to break the siege of Gaza, since in many ways that siege is useful for the organization’s political aims and financial interests. But it was certainly to force regional actors to act in order to demonstrate to the Israeli leadership that it would not be able to break Hamas’ rule on Gaza.

Israel

To some political elites, Hamas’ political goals pose an existential threat. In addition, if the size of Gaza makes it vulnerable, that is also true for Israel, whose territory can be hit by rockets launched from the coastal strip.

Facing such a threat, strategic calculus coupled with strategic culture led to a strategy of attrition. That strategy aimed to further pressure Hamas as well as more radical groups in order to disrupt those groups’ capabilities to hit Israel with medium-to-short range missiles. At the same time, that strategy was coupled with an information campaign designed to frame the narrative of the conflict for both domestic and international audiences. Showing its willingness and its determination to act, Netenyahu’s government proved able to manage the threat posed by Hamas. Lastly, even if that system is not totally perfect, the Iron Dome deflected the threats posed by rockets and missiles on the Israeli population.

There’s an important point here: that strategy is not aimed to win « decisively’ against the Palestinian organization. That is nearly impossible, since there’s only two courses of action that could lead to that outcome: either Israel would prove capable to cut Hamas’ support among the Gazans (which would necessitate an « hearts and minds » campaign directed toward the Palestinians , which doesn’t seem possible given the growing gap and cleavage between the IDF and the population and which is also not deemed desirable nor achievable by the Israeli government), or Israel would decide to cut a deal with the organization (which is highly improbable given the fact that the latter’s legitimacy relies on its rejection of any long-term deal with Israel). Put otherwise: there’s little hope for Israel to achieve any decisive political objective against  Hamas, or at least this is the main perception.

In short, Israel’s strategy consists in dealing with Hamas thus opening the question of what to do on the long run. There’s a lesson to draw from that short (and sometimes questionable) analysis. The alternative in war is not necessarily between winning and losing. Sometimes, it is more reasonable and more rational to deal with a threat or with an adversary by preventing him to reach his political objectives. Attrition is particularly well suited for that kind of strategic attitude. It can either lead to the adversary’s exhaustion (or isolation) or to its complete annihilation. More probably, it is able to maintain a high level of pressure against him, thus preventing him to hit and to harm. It is also truer when combined with deterrence, both by reprisals and by interdiction. Of course, that cannot replace a long-term reflection on how to put an end to the conflict. In that particular case, and given the role played by mutual perceptions, it is unlikely to see that outcome before minds are able to change in a deep way.

Stéphane Taillat

Perils and promises of drones: a strategic appraisal

A short post to outline several ideas and thoughts about the use of drones in the US strategy against Al Qaeda.

1) we have to grasp the political significance of Obama’s choice to rely on drones and SOF in order to « disrupt, dismantle » Al Qaeda:

The president narrowed its political goals: fighting Al Qaeda and its allies or affiliates without relying on state building, and without committing too much troops on the ground in a comprehensive counterinsurgency approach. Instead, Obama understood his role as fighting the jihadist organization in order to deter further attacks against the US.

2) that goal led to a new strategy:

Using drones strikes as well as SOF raids (or other more conventional assets) is done through an attrition strategy. The main mechanism through which attrition is supposed to work is to inflict casualties to the enemy organization faster than it can replace it. It is not primarily intended to exhaust the adversary, but to raise its costs to pursue the war. In other words, exhaustion is only one possible outcome. At the other end of the spectrum, complete annihilation is another one.

3) physical and psychological effects of drone strikes:

Drones are not used only to inflict physical casualties, thus undermining the operational capabilities of AQ/its affiliates to control effectively a territory, to keep safe havens or to prepare further attacks. They also have psychological impacts, mostly on the networks, and especially on its weaker nodes, that is those actors amenable to leave the fight, or to hide in order to escape the strikes. As such, the strategy which relies on drones is not only an attrition strategy, but also a part of a more comprehensive deterrence strategy. That’s what « disrupting » means: inflicting systemic blows that undermine the operational capabilities of a given network as a whole.

On the material side of the effects, drones have proven highly effective as a decapitation tool. On the psychological one, it’s difficult to really assess the effects, but it seems that drones, used in addition to other tools, may have produced subversive effects.

4) Pressuring Al Qaeda?

The problem is the relevance of such a strategy on the long run. A « pure » attrition strategy would likely lead to a slaughter, since AQ and its affiliates have been able to reinforce or to replace the losses. What could be the threshold that would trigger an annihilation, or exhaustion of AQ? The « search and destroy » experience in Vietnam should remember us that relying only on measurable metrics (especially in terms of « body count ») is fraught with cognitive biases.

On the other hand, a « pure » deterrence strategy is difficult to wage against non-state actors, and especially « irregular » organizations. It is thus possible to limit AQ’s capabilities to wage a campaign of attacks, but up to a point. Zero-risk is not really a realist option.

That’s why using drones strikes – both more precise and less costly than conventional counterinsurgency i.e. as much efficient as a strategy can be – should prove more relevant on the long run if used as a way to sustain the pressure against AQ and its affiliates. The goal would not be to dismantle or to disrupt (not to speak of neutralize), but instead to compel AQ to stay on a defensive stance (or, at least, a less offensive one).

In addition, relying on drones and SOF raids, while highlighting other potential costs (in diplomatic terms since it is necessary to achieve an agreement with the host nation, with the very exception of failed states maybe; in terms of domestic support since both the military institutions and the public opinion could raised several political obstacles, in terms of local support since drones may have a negative impact on the local population), should not be thought as a silver bullet. Furthermore, relying on such an indirect way to deal with AQ should not let the military institutions to forget its institutional experience from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In short, that strategy has to adapt to the evolving character of the war, which is both conditioned by internal calculus and political bargaining and of course, by the adversary’s strategy.

Stéphane TAILLAT

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