The first day began with a lecture from Director of the Strategic Studies Unit and organiser of the conference, Omar Ashour, who presented a breakdown the main patterns of non-state militias and state armies over the past century.
He noted that armed non state actors have been altering a historical trend whereby the state monopolizes violence and dominates the battlefield, with ANSAs developing combat capacities and political clout traditionally reserved for state actors.
He drew attention to rise of ANSAs in the Arab region, where traditional explanations can only partially explain the success of ANSAs that endure and expand in a regional context where extreme forms of political violence are committed by state and non-state actors and then legitimated by state media and/or religious institutions.
The military rise of armed non-state actors in the region are a symptom, not a cause, of the deeply dysfunctional politics in the region and only a sustained political reform and reconciliation process may eventually curb that rise.
Ashour stressed that the rise and victories of Daesh cannot be explained through traditional theories and models. His upcoming book attempts to meet this analytical gap by taking 20 battle samples from in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, looking at the command and control structures of the Daesh “provinces” as well as the state armies and other involved militias.
Larry Goodson, Professor of Middle East Studies at the US Army War College, followed with a keynote lecture on “The First Great War of the 21st Century: Hybrid Warfare from Syria to the South China Sea”.
Goodson began with his definition of a great war, which should involve multiple powers, cause great destruction and produce profound changes to the world order and gave eight examples from the Punic wars to WW2.
He believes that the United States, Russia, and China are now engaged in the first global war of the 21st century, which will lead to rise of China and decline of the US.
China and Russia use the strategy of hybrid warfare, which Goodson defines as the use of all instruments, elements, determinants of power in coordinated, comprehensive and holistic ways (including violence or threat) to achieve national ends.
The changing character of war has led to the rise of hybrid warfare and the introduction of new “domains” of war such as space and cyberspace to the traditional domains of land, air and sea.
War is no longer fought on a battlefield and so the traditional definition of war has become obsolete.
Goodson argues that neither China nor Russia wants to engage in any direct physical fighting with the US but instead target the superpower indirectly, with China moving to dominate Asia and Russia working to weaken NATO and Europe.
Goodson also insists that the concept of hybrid warfare is not new and was laid out in the writings of Sun Tzu and Chanakya Kautilya, and provides a history of the theoretical approaches to hybrid warfare.
Marwan Kabalan moderated the first panel session titled “Rebels Redux? Combat Capacities Against Status-Quos”.
The first speaker, Elias Farhat presented his paper, “Houthi Military Tactics” beginning with an explanatory description of the Houthis or, as they refer to themselves, “Ansar Allah”.
He went on to detail the opposing forces, the Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, President Hadi’s forces, and the Southern Movement, documenting existing military and new capabilities, as well as Houthi military tactics.
Metin Gurcan was the next speaker, presenting his paper, “The Rojava Effect: The PKK’s Changing Military Strategies after Its Achievements in Northeast Syria,” arguing that “The Kurdish campaign in northern Syria – run by the PKK-inspired PYD and its armed wing, the YPG – and the emergence of Rojava has transformed the PKK in the ideological, political, military, tactical, propaganda, and foreign relations domains.”
Kirstin Braithwaite followed with her paper “Subterranean Warfare: How Militant Groups Enhance their Combat Effectiveness,” which explored the military benefits and limitations of using tunnels.
She noted that while tunnels can be challenging to detect and difficult to completely destroy, they are extremely expensive and can lead to political problems on both sides.
Muhanad Seloom was the final speaker on the second panel, presenting his paper, “YPG Female Fighters: Ideology or Tactic?” examining the role of female fighters in the PYD and asking if the recruitment and deployment of the YPJ female fighters is ideological or tactical.
He noted that woman make up as much as 40% of the Kurdish militia fighting in Rojava and stressed the importance in understanding their motivations for joining. Through his fieldwork he sought to provide a more nuanced explanation for the military role of women in northern Syria.
The second and final panel of the day, moderated by Mahjoob Zweiri looked at “States’ Militias? Combat Capacities for Status-Quos”.
The first speaker, Massaab Al-Aloosy, presented “Deterrence by Insurgents: Hezbollah’s Deterrent Policy and Capability against Israel”, arguing that there will be no winner in a prolonged confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel.
Hezbollah recognizes its inability to destroy Israel and vice versa so strategic interaction between Hezbollah and Israel has paved the way for mutual deterrence.
Following this, Inna Rudolf spoke on “The Combat Capacities of the Popular Mobilisation Units,” contextualizing the power dynamics underlying the organization’s institutional trajectory.
She noted that Iraqi officials hailed the heroism and sacrifices of the PMU on an equal footing with the Iraqi army in all the letters of congratulations that followed the regional defeat of ISIS but that it remains essential to understand the volatile power dynamics underlying the complex relationship between the PMU and the Iraqi state, elaborating of the conditionality of their interim symbiosis.
Abdou Moussa presented the final paper of the day, “Hybrid Warfare Strategies and Tactics with Application to Tribal Militias in the Sinai,” which describes and analyses combat tactics employed by militias and introduces a preliminary model of hybrid war strategies and tactics that can be applied to tribal militias in the Sinai.