BEIRUT - Violent conflict is hardly new to the Middle East, but increasingly it is taking the form of unconventional warfare.
In the military dictionary, unconventional warfare means military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted by indigenous or surrogate forces that are organised, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source.
It includes guerrilla warfare and other direct offensives, low visibility, covert or clandestine operations, as well as subversion, sabotage and evasion.
"A major turning point for warfare in the Middle East came after the great defeat suffered by conventional Arab armies at the hands of Israel in 1967," says Firas Maksad, executive director of the independent research group, Lebanon Renaissance Foundation. "The loss of Sinai, the Golan and the West Bank convinced many in the Arab world that resistance groups had a role to play alongside conventional armies."
The analyst says that while the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was the primary beneficiary of such official and popular support, by the seventies and eighties other resistance groups had begun to mushroom. "Today some of these militant organisations - primarily Hizbullah and Hamas - have grown powerful enough not only to threaten Israel, but also the societies and state structures within which they function."
Guerrillas, who focus essentially on wearing down enemy troops, often cannot afford a sustainable type of engagement. "They generally rely on limited resources and thus try minimising losses as much as possible. Their primary concern is to live to fight another day," says Prof Timur Göksel from the American University of Beirut and former advisor to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). Regular armies are on the other hand more visible, have defined structures and lines of command as well as clear supply and recruitment approaches.
There certainly are strong similarities among non-state actors employing unconventional warfare techniques throughout the region, whether in Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine, although each has adapted its approach to its particular environment.
"All depend on strong financial and military backing from a neighboring state actor looking to increase its regional clout," says Maksad. "They all also need a relatively strong degree of popular support within their immediate environment to survive. This is usually achieved by adopting a strong nationalist or religious agenda that is difficult for more moderate forces to repudiate."
According to Göksel, the 2006 war (between Hizbullah and Israel) combined conventional and unconventional war characteristics, with Hizbullah resorting also to classical military techniques and using weapons such as anti-ship missiles.
In Gaza, Hamas has certainly been trying to apply the unconventional approach of Hizbullah. "Hamas has a less regular supply of weapons and is far less trained than the Party of God, but they benefit from the loyalty of their constituency," says Göksel.
Maksad says non-state actors are at different stages across the region, with some more violent than others in their targeting of civilians. "As they grow in political stature and popular support they generally tend to refrain from activities directly targeting civilians and easily characterised as terrorist." Maksad believes that although unconventional warfare and terrorism are often used interchangeably in reference to militant groups in the Middle East, they are not the same if unarmed civilian populations are not targeted. "In the late nineties Hizbullah refrained from activities described as terrorist, and instead focused its military campaign against Israeli soldiers in Southern Lebanon. Hamas has also recently refrained from using suicide bombings despite the recent conflict in Gaza. Both organisations, however, have repeatedly employed methods described as terrorist, and have not repudiated them." Such as the firing of rockets into civilian Israeli areas.
In conventional war, if an army's supply line is cut or its command centre destroyed, the military structure is left paralysed. "This approach was adopted in 2006 by Israel, which misjudged Hizbullah's centre of gravity and tried unsuccessfully to destroy its command centre and lines of communication," says Maksad.
All armies are by nature ill-prepared for unconventional wars. During the Israeli occupation of Lebanon (1982-2000) Hizbullah often attacked the Israeli army on Sundays when supplies were brought in and soldiers came back from leave. "Armies need to work more like an Amtrack train (known for its irregularity) and less like a Swiss train when fighting guerrillas," says Göksel. The Israeli army, he says, seems to be learning the lessons of unconventional warfare; it built a mock-up of Gaza to better prepare its soldiers.
"The human element is crucial for the survival of groups employing unconventional warfare and at times terrorist techniques," adds Maksad. Without the belief in a larger cause, a strong nationalist or religious fever driving militants to take up arms, many of these groups, which rely on indoctrination, would cease to exist.
The U.S. is now adapting to the new trend by bringing social scientists into the military. They have studied tribal and communication norms in Iraq to be able to reach out to the local society, the backbone of guerrilla movements. But as guerrilla warfare spreads with the rise of Islamic groups, will unconventional warfare become the norm?
"Given the growing asymmetry of power between Israel on one hand and conventional Arab armies on the other, some states will continue their growing reliance on violent militant groups employing unconventional warfare," says Maksad. "In addition to the military advantages of such an approach this also allows Syria, Iran and other regional state actors to act through third parties with relative impunity."
Göksel says more frequent uprisings, leading to changes of regime and the adoption of more radical ideologies, would allow new leaderships to resort solely to guerrilla warfare against Israel. "Nonetheless, there is still a long way before this scenario is implemented."