“War games” are forms of military drills generally performed in military academies and by armed forces in various combat formations, to train soldiers for similar combat scenarios in real life.
Often the exercises involve realistic simulations of such scenarios. In May and August 1973, when I was a recruit in the Egyptian Armed Forces, I personally bore witness to comprehensive simulations to train us for the crossing of the Suez Canal. It turned out that they closely approximated what actually took place in the war in October that year.
An article appeared in the 30th edition of Trending Events, published by the Future Centre for Advanced Research and Studies, with the title, “War games: Can a major armed conflict breakout in the Middle East?” As the author, Mohamed Abdel- Salam, observes, there have been numerous instances in recent years where there was the potential for an outbreak of war in this region: between the US and Russia because of the proximity of their military presences in the war theatres in Iraq and Syria, between Israel and Iran because of the latter’s provision of missiles to Hizbullah in Lebanon and because of the Iranian military presence in Syria and, more recently, between the US and Iran.
In these and other cases that Abdel-Salam cites, war did not erupt. Instead, there were various combinations of limited recourse to military force or military operations undertaken by proxies.
War games appear to have taken the place of full-scale wars engaging all main branches of the armed forces on land, sea and air.
They have become the alternatives to war for asserting pressure and influence since no one wants a full-scale war due to the high material and military costs, and perhaps also because experience in this era in this part of the world, at least, tells us that the wars that do begin never end, or that they drag on so long so as to alter the definitions of victory and defeat and leave nothing but bitterness and accumulated ruin that lasts generations.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine are among the current victims of chronic wars.
Mohamed Abdel-Salam’s article has much more to say, but what concerns us here is the return to Clausewitz’s famous maxim that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.
” These “other means” range from diverse uses of intelligence operations and covert action to inflict harm on the other side, to military manoeuvres intended to signal the intent to go to war and the readiness to make the necessary sacrifices, to major armed conflicts entailing the complete mobilisation and deployment of the state’s resources of military force.
There are various shades in between these points, to which testify the developments this year alone between Iran and US as a consequence of Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Military force was brought to bear to accomplish political aims from the very moment that the US sent in additional troops and military hardware in order to notch up the pressure on Iran on top of the pressure asserted by means of economic sanctions that seek to bring Iranian oil production to a halt.
Petroleum exports are the backbone of the Iranian economy (they account for 72 per cent of the country’s foreign currency income).
The US has essentially succeeded in this aim. Iran has been forced to cut back oil production from over two million barrels a day to around 100,000 barrels a day which, for all practical purposes, is the “zero” that Washington was aiming for in order to put a stranglehold on the Iranian economy.
The USs other uses of military force in this context include the participation of fleets from other countries alongside the US fleet in operations to protect maritime routes in the Gulf and moving naval units close to Iranian ports and maritime outlets. Such actions send signals that Iran cannot ignore.
It also appears that the “Jerusalem meeting” between Russia and the US gave a green light to Israel to go after forces allied to Iran in Syria and Iraq, such as Hizbullah and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Iran, too, has used forms of military force to assert political pressure. They include bombing or harassing oil tankers, indirect attacks on oil pumping stations and civilian airports using the Houthis and taking down two US drones with specialised missiles.
Tehran resorted to another form of military pressure using the nuclear card when it increased the level of uranium enrichment.
The move gave it greater flexibility to take low-level actions sufficient to nettle its enemies without provoking instant war or an Israeli strike against its nuclear installations.
Thirdly, Iran activated the groups subordinate or allied to it in other countries, such as the PMF in Iraq, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen. The aims are as much political as they are military. These groups are closer to political movements than to militia organisations.
They compete for power in their countries and they are also armed with totalitarian ideologies that aim to alter the map of the region in radical directions. The closeness between Iran and Hamas can, perhaps, be appreciated in this framework.
These military developments include war games because, on the one hand, they focus on attaining military aims whether virtual or real-life and, on the other, they are forms of the use of arms to attain political aims.
The US’s political aim is to destroy the nuclear agreement and to drive back Iran’s regional influence and control whether over governments such as that in Damascus or non-state organisations. Iran’s political aim is to continue to keep the nuclear deal separate from its political behaviour in the region.
The conflict between the two countries’ aims continues and so too does the escalation between them. The two countries are in a race to deploy and use arms and troops in various ways. This could propel them to the negotiating table.
The US tried to push in this direction when it attempted to induce Iran to cooperate in Afghanistan in pursuit of their common interest there.
But, so far, Iran continues to escalate because it has set its aim not at negotiating a new agreement, but at compelling the US to return to the agreement that is still in effect with the European and other cosignatories.
The only non-escalatory signal from Iran was its proposal for a non-aggression pact with the Gulf countries, a proposal made at a time it was attacking them.
Can war games work to serve the functions of war? We saw similar situations during the Cold War between the East and West. There was an arms race, a race to the moon, a mobilisation in military drills and manoeuvres, and proxy warfare using other countries or groups.
The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But while it was still being fought, the primary factor that kept the cold from turning to hot was the intensification in the production of nuclear weapons.
There came point when both sides — the US and the USSR — had an interest in reducing them in numbers and in range, albeit not in political effect and influence.
The Cold War was based on the balance of nuclear terror. In the Middle East we find a mixture between elements of cold war and some methods of hot war. The current “war games” may not be enough to satisfy tense nerves in the region.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.