Drones, Disinformation and Proxies: What the Middle East’s ‘Forever Wars’ tell us about the Future of Conflict

Ten years after the Arab Spring, the shockwaves from the surge of democratic protests across the Middle East continue to reverberate throughout the region in the form of smouldering multidimensional proxy conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Great and regional powers’ increasing employment of drones, disinformation and local proxies are exacerbating broader global trends associated with hyper-globalisation, emerging technologies and societal fragmentation. Collectively, these trends fuel the multidimensional geopolitical contest being played out across the Middle East; an ominous harbinger of the murky shadow wars representing the new face of conflict in the twenty-first century. 

President Biden’s decision to finally withdraw U.S forces from Afghanistan has prompted widespread speculation that the era of the ‘forever wars’ – which defined American foreign policy since 9/11- is winding down. However, Washington’s desire to recalibrate America’s strategic priorities and focus on great power competition with Moscow and Beijing at the expense of counterterrorism campaigns in far-flung corners of the globe fundamentally overlooks how geostrategic competition will play out in a multipolar era and how conflict has changed over the past decade. In light of seismic global shifts, from hyper-globalisation to unprecedented technological change, smouldering conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and beyond do not reflect the spasmodic death pangs of the post-9/11 era but rather foreshadow the chaotic, undeclared and multisided shadow wars which are set to represent the future of conflict in the twenty-first century.

Drones, Deniability and Proxy Conflict

Prolonged wars of attrition characterised by strategic stalemate, from Syria to Libya, have become extremely difficult to resolve due to their multidimensional nature, a trend catalysed by the reduced opportunity costs for foreign intervention. Nowadays, the heavy footprint ‘boots on the ground’ military interventions which characterised the first decade of the twenty-first century, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, appear to be a thing of the past. Increasingly cheap and advanced drone technology encourages states driven by competing geopolitical and humanitarian imperatives to wage remote aerial warfare. Given the relatively low costs of waging a drone campaign, plausible deniability and absence of costly casualties which fuel domestic opposition to foreign intervention, states are incentivised to meddle in myriad conflicts with few vital interests at stake. 

Libya’s decade-long civil war is indicative of this trend. The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) depends on Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones whilst General Haftar’s rival Libyan National Army (LNA) elicits support from rival Egyptian and Emirati fleets. In 2019, unmanned aerial vehicles were responsible for over 1,000 individual strikes in what the UN Special Representative to Libya described as the ‘largest drone war in the world’. Cheap models such as the Chinese-built Wing Loong enable even relatively minor powers to sustain large fleets. Non-state actors are proving capable of modifying increasingly advanced commercially available models to launch their own drone attacks, as evidenced by a mysterious drone swarm attack conducted by unknown Syrian militants against a Russian airbase in January 2018 or the Houthis’ destruction of oil pipelines hundreds of miles inside Saudi Arabia. 

Similarly, states embroiled in war zones have become increasingly dependent on proxies, effectively outsourcing ‘boots on the ground’ responsibilities to local fighters whilst avoiding the associated casualties and risk. For example, Turkey famously employed Syrian militants to do Ankara’s bidding fighting General Haftar’s forces during the 2019-20 Battle of Tripoli. Similarly, Moscow and Washington increasingly depend upon private security companies such as the Wagner Group and Academi (formerly Blackwater) to exert strategic influence abroad with little or no official oversight. Notably, Wagner Group mercenaries have established footholds in shadowy conflicts from Syria to Libya to Sudan, allowing Moscow to shape the course of events whilst maintaining plausible deniability. Given that drones and proxies essentially insulate foreign powers from damaging casualties, there exist few incentives for such states to desist from intervention, thus leading to the internationalisation of already complex conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. By backing rival sides, foreign intervention enables local factions to sustain campaigns for longer, thus drawing out conflicts and preventing any side from attaining a decisive advantage.

Disinformation and the ‘War of Narratives’

Perhaps the most significant development underscoring the new face of conflict in the post-Arab Spring Middle East was the integral role played by social media platforms in shaping conflict narratives and influencing outcomes in the physical battlespace. In 2011, Facebook and Twitter represented a key vector of mobilisation during the mass demonstrations which toppled regimes from Tunisia to Egypt. Throughout the past decade, however, social media has morphed from a liberation technology to a malign influence allowing domestic and foreign actors to infiltrate the information space and blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. 

The inherently polarising dynamics of socially mediated discourse are driven by the algorithmic amplification of divisive content which siloes different demographics into distinct echo chambers. This makes it easy for foreign powers to conduct expansive yet covert psychological operations through cyberspace, aimed at shaping conflict narratives and influencing attitudes on the ground. For example, Moscow stands accused of conducting disinformation campaigns against Syria’s White Helmets, the emergency search and rescue organisation nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. Conversely, Russian sources accuse the British government of conducting information warfare operations seeking to undermine the Assad regime. In Libya, disinformation campaigns are waged by multiple states utilising bots, trolls and paid influencers to algorithmically amplify manufactured fake news and hopelessly distort the infosphere in ways that exacerbate tribal and sectarian divides. 

Given the cheap, covert and deniable nature of disinformation, such tactics are inherently attractive for state actors. However, this weaponization of information for strategic objectives comes at the expense of long-term societal cohesion, fomenting mistrust and exacerbating sectarian divisions. This facilitates social fragmentation and inhibits conflict resolution, leaving behind fractured, dysfunctional countries with a broken social fabric. The long-term damage to social cohesion wrought by disinformation across the Middle East’s most fragile states is likely to be profound, increasing sectarian Sunni/Shia/Kurdish divides in Syria and Iraq whilst exacerbating tribal and regional tensions in Libya. Even after the violence ends, such dynamics have unleashed centrifugal pressures which are likely to have lasting implications for post-conflict statebuilding. For example, Libya, Yemen and Iraq may fragment along historical fault lines in a way which leaves fundamental grievances unaddressed and increases the likelihood of future conflict. Moreover, non-state actors have proved particularly adept at harnessing social media as a tool of asymmetrical warfare. Notably, ISIS waged sleek and highly professional propaganda campaigns designed to target both local and international audiences, persuading thousands of vulnerable Muslims across the West to travel to Syria. ISIS propaganda has been credited with inspiring a spate of lone wolf terrorist attacks over recent years, from Orlando to Westminster Bridge, starkly illustrating how in the age of social media, everywhere is a battlefield. Going forward, disinformation is likely to become an integral feature of twenty-first conflict. Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning will lead to the increased deployment of techniques such as deepfakes and psychographic targeting by an increasingly crowded field of state and non-state actors alike, thus further blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction.

What does the Middle East demonstrate about the future of conflict?

The messy, smouldering shadow wars being played out by regional powers in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and beyond provide a looking glass into the future of conflict in the twenty-first century, and not just across the Middle East. Similar dynamics are already playing out in geopolitical hotspots across the globe, from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa. The intersection of seismic global trends, including the Arab Spring, hyper-globalisation, violent extremism and emerging technologies, with historically entrenched sectarian divides and localised conflict dynamics, has created a toxic kaleidoscope plunging the region into a spiral of violence leaving behind hopelessly fragmented societies. Going forward, exponential technological advances in artificial intelligence are only likely to exacerbate these destructive dynamics, as emerging technologies become cheaper and increasingly democratised, lowering the barriers to entry in a way which allows even minor states and non-state actors to deploy advanced deepfake campaigns, autonomous drone swarms or cyberattacks on critical infrastructure to advance their strategic interests. 

Inevitably, this increasingly crowded battlespace will make such shadow wars inherently more complex as more players seek to advance their geopolitical interests, rendering multidimensional conflicts like those seen in Syria and Libya the norm. Crucially, this form of postmodern surrogate warfare allows states to harness drones, disinformation, local proxies and other arms-length capabilities at the expense of ‘boots on the ground’, divorcing such shadow wars from democratic oversight and enabling countries to engage in foreign interventions without the knowledge or consent of their own populations. Whilst the United States’s ‘War on Terror’ may be drawing to a close, the ‘forever wars’ it spawned are likely to morph into arenas through which great-power competition between Moscow, Beijing and Tehran is fought out. Ultimately, what the Middle East’s inextricably complex shadow conflicts demonstrate is that the era of ‘forever wars’ is far from over.

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