An In-Depth Review of “Arabs at War”

“Arabs at War” is among the great books on conflict and history regarding the modern Middle East. In this work Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, sets out to answer a simple question; “why have Arab armies since 1948 generally performed so poorly in warfare compared to Western, Israeli, and even Iranian and African armies?” He studies the performance of Six Arab armies (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria) in countless conflicts over the last 5 decades and tries to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Using traditional theories as to why Arab armies are generally ineffective he breaks down Arab combat effectiveness according to certain criteria. These include generalship, tactical leadership, unit cohesion, cowardice, morale, information management, technical skills and weapons handling, logistics and maintenance of weapons, and training. Analyzing these military conflicts to see how these factors influence Arab combat effectiveness, or lack of it, is how Pollack tries to answer “why Arab armies fight so poorly?”

The result is a brilliant, informative, and enlightening work that effectively answers what it sets out to and also doubles as an authoritative, if brief, military history of the Middle East since 1948. Being a former CIA analyst Pollack is skilled at delving into the most important details as well as coming back to the bigger picture when needed. Yet whereas some would perhaps criticize this work as overly academic and dry his arguments and points are simple enough for anyone with basic knowledge of military matters and the Middle East. While admittedly it is not the easiest, or shortest, of reads, anyone with a mediocre level of patience can navigate through it. If the campaigns and battles can sometimes seem confusing Pollack compensates by listing the main points at the end of each conflict as well as relating them to the criteria he uses to assess Arab military effectiveness.

As for the case studies themselves they include a menagerie of well known and lesser well known conflicts, and combat ranging from conventional wars, to counter-insurgency, to low scale skirmishes and aerial combat. The “Arab-Israeli Wars” the “Iran-Iraq War” and the “Gulf War” are all here while more forgotten conflicts such as the “Chadian-Libyan Conflict,” Egypt’s intervention in Yemen in the 1960s and Jordan’s suppression of the PLO in 1970-71 are covered as well. Aerial combat has not been neglected either; the surprise attack that crippled the Egyptian Airforce in 1967, the slaughter of the Syrian Airforce over the Bekaa Valley in 1982, and the hopeless plight of the Iraqi Airforce during the “Gulf War” are all vividly detailed.

Pollack does a great job of showing how the Arab armies learned, or didn’t, from their mistakes and the methods they used that increased, or once again didn’t, their military efficiency. Obvious methods included switching the primary task of the armed forces from regime protection (often the preference for illegitimate authoritarian governments) to focus on fighting actual wars, to selecting officers and generals on the basis of merit and competency instead of political loyalty, and to encourage initiative, flexibility and innovation among the junior officers in their armies. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, these and other reforms usually resulted in only marginal improvements in Arab military effectiveness.

While it is never directly stated, and thus remains one of the main faults of the book, it is implied that certain cultural or organization factors in Arab society somehow prevents Arab military leaders, despite their best efforts, to create and maintain effective armed forces. Whether or not this is due to the lack of separation of Church and State (or at-least downplaying the former’s role in society) in the Arab world, the inherent mistrust among differing levels of society that precludes harmonious working in organizations, the result of poor education systems, the supposed Arab psyche to save face and avoid confrontations or competition, or all of these and more in combination we are not told. While the author suggests that he was originally going to write a book that included such insights and factors he claims that such a book was not allowed to be written due to how long it would have been (more than twice as long as the 600 page book that “Arabs at War” became).

Perhaps this is reasonable enough in itself; certainly a book of over 1200 pages is a real trial for even the most dedicated reader, and arguably unbearable for such a complicated work that would include such seemingly diametrically opposing fields as military matters and sociology. However, are we to believe that in a 600 page work the author could not have devoted a single chapter, or even 5 pages to the supposedly crucial cultural or organizational factors in Arab societies that arguably are responsible for the poor showing regarding the criteria he sets out to prove how Arab armies have performed so poorly in combat? More likely commenting critically on such hot topics as Arab culture and Islam would have been met with being labelled as politically incorrect at best, or having Pollack threatened with violence at worst. Given how even a cartoon in a Danish newspaper can inflame the masses in the Middle East and lead to bloodshed this consideration should not be discounted.

Anyway, putting this aside Pollack does a great job narrowing down which of the criteria he initially selected is primarily responsible for the poor showing of Arab arms since 1948. While not always universal in all Arab armies, and it varied at certain times, the following could reasonably be stated:

Regarding unit cohesion, logistics and cowardice the Arab armies rarely suffered from such issues. Generally their units held together despite considerable pressure, being flanked or even surrounded. There were countless examples from the Egyptians in the Falluja pocket to the Jordanians at Ammunition Hill of Arabs fighting and dying instead of retreating, or surrendering, despite hopeless odds. Additionally, Arab logistics were almost always outstanding. Egyptian forces fighting in the hostile Negev or Sinai deserts rarely suffered shortages while the Libyans adequately supplied their forces not only more than 2000 kilometres away from Tripoli to the interior of Chad, but as far away as Uganda! Finally most Arab forces could never be considered cowardly; few forces would have continued to advance to certain suicide as Iraqi tanks did on the Golan Heights in 1973 or few pilots would have kept coming as the Syrians did in 1982 when the Israelis slaughtered their jets so brutally that they lost nearly 100 planes to none against the Israeli Air Force.

Regarding morale, training and generalship Pollack suggests that the Arabs were generally mediocre in these categories; being quite capable sometimes and very poor at others. Morale is difficult to gauge but certainly the Arab armies fluctuated from intense optimism to fatalistic defeatism. In 1948 the Arabs were enthusiastic in their goal of eradicating the nascent Jewish state, and in 1973 the Egyptians and Syrians were well motivated after intense training and preparations for war. Yet there were just as many low points for the common Arab soldier such as the tired, and confused, Egyptian soldiers being constantly moved around the Sinai in 1967 before the “Six Day War” to no apparent purpose, or the thoroughly demoralized Shiite conscripts of Saddam’s army in 1991 that had being abused by the Sunnis in power, bloodied by the Iranians in the recent “Iran-Iraq War” and psychologically devastated by the Coalition air campaign.

Training was generally the same story, with the Jordanian army in particular being praised. Apparently the average Jordanian soldier, tank crew and pilot were often as good as their Israeli counterpart. Factors which influenced the quality of training generally included if the political leadership wanted the army to focus on regime protection or fighting real wars, whether the officer and generals were more selected due to competency than political loyalty, if the soldiers were allowed to train in large groups with live ammunition (Arab regimes were afraid these forces could overthrow them), how often and how thorough the soldiers were trained in a particular task, etc. When these conditions were met Arab training could produce above average results.

Certainly Jordanian units consistently inflicted more casualties proportionately on Israeli forces than other Arab forces in 1948 and 1967 as well as in other smaller skirmishes. Likewise the constant Egyptian training leading up to the “Yom Kippur War” lead to perhaps the greatest tactical reverses the Israeli army has ever received in battle. Finally, improved Iraqi training late in the “Iran-Iraq War” helped their army inflict quick and decisive victories in 1988 which broke the stalemate and ended the conflict.

Yet Arab training has been just as often, or more often, atrocious and poor. Regarding the overly politicized army the Egyptians sent to the Sinai and their comprehensive defeat in 1967 Egyptian General Zaki remarked “Israel spent years preparing for this war, whereas we prepared for parades.” The Syrian army on the Golan heights in the same war had been so decimated by years of coups, of its officer corp being purged repeatedly and of its lower formation being neglected and forgotten that few soldiers had any idea of what war was supposed to be like. Libyan forces were probably the worse off with Gaddafi refusing to allow live fire training exercises or establishing formations larger than brigades. How else could you explain his considerable army of tanks, planes and half-tracks being defeated by Chadian rebels with Toyota pick up trucks, a few anti-tank weapons and no air force in the late 1980s?

The Arabs have also had an uneven track record with generalship. Yet again much of this had to do whether or not they were chosen due to competency or political loyalty. Another factor was whether or not competent generals were given leeway to do their jobs versus being subject to unnecessary political constraints, and at least as was often the case in the Iraqi or Syrian armies, the fear of summarily execution. While they never produced any Alexanders, Napoleons or Rommels the Arabs surprisingly had a decent amount of competent, and sometimes brilliant, generals. Egypt’s generals arguably would have won the “Yom Kippur War” had they not being overruled by Sadat to overreach themselves and get clobbered by the Israelis in the open Sinai desert. The Iraqi generals, once freed from Saddam’s paranoia, also performed well in first stopping the Iranian offensives in the middle part of the “Iran-Iraq War” and then leading Iraq to victory at the end of the conflict. Even in such a lost cause as the “Six Day War” the Jordanian leadership was competent, correctly identifying the Israeli axes of attack as well as the enemy’s intentions.

As for bad Arab generalship the poorly planned and dismissive way the Egyptian generals fought Yemeni rebels, the Iraqis generals fought the Kurds, and Jordanian generals initially attacked the PLO in 1970 all make America’s conduct in Vietnam appear credible. Iraq’s initial strategic conduct of the “Iran-Iraq War” was also subpar, being excessively slow, not focusing on any critical objectives, and not effectively using the various numerical and material advantages the Iraqi army possessed. Not surprisingly the worst showing, given that the Egyptians had significant advantages in both the quantity and quality of equipment, and could concentrate against Israeli whereas the latter was forced to watch 3 fronts, was probably the Egyptian generals during the “Six Day War.”

Despite the fact they were poor at maneuver warfare they deployed their forces in areas with poor static defences and concentrated far too close to the Israeli border which meant that once the Israelis broke through the Egyptians would have to retreat and fight the kind of war they were ill-disposed at. They also decided to retreat too early and did so in such a poor fashion that it quickly turned into a rout. Perhaps most unforgivable is how many of their generals simply abandoned their troops and were the first to flea across the Sinai.

Finally, regarding maintenance of weapons, technical skills and weapons handling, information management, and tactical leadership Arab armies more often than not did poorly. Arab maintenance of sophisticated weapons such as tanks and warplanes were so bad that such units generally operated at 50-67% operational readiness levels, which were considerably lower than in Western, or Israeli, forces. While once again Jordan was an exception and her weapons generally well maintained, the other Arab countries not only neglected such maintenance but often relied on foreign contingents, such as Cubans and East Europeans to do what they considered dirty and demeaning tasks.

Technical skills and weapons handling were also generally subpar. American and Western military advisors noted that Arab soldiers, tank crews and pilots took much longer to familiarize, or master (if they ever did) their equipment versus Western or even third world soldiers in other armies. Additionally, much of the time Arab soldiers used their weaponry inefficiently. Marksmanship and accuracy seems to have been generally poor even when they had better tanks such as Jordan’s Pattons in 1967 or superior artillery as some as Iraq’s were in 1991. In aircraft most Arab pilots were notoriously poor at close air support and aerial combat. According to many sources during the “Arab-Israeli Wars” the Israelis shot down at least 20 warplanes for every 1 they lost in dog fights (which doesn’t even count the 100s of Arab planes that the Israelis destroyed on the ground). Artillery was also a constant problem for Arab forces; while it did well if they had considerable time to pre-register their targets, as in 1973, it was hopeless whenever it had to fight a fluid and unscripted battle.

Regarding information management the Arabs misuse of information has been sometimes laughable and other times tragic. Such misuse has included the lack of sharing, or even gathering, intelligence, exaggerating the strength of enemy forces, and down right lying.

Arab forces have generally proven reluctant to gather intelligence by patrolling on the ground while their airforces have proven unable, or unwilling, to gather much from aerial reconnaissance. Sharing information is also difficult as knowledge is often seen as power by higher officials and due to the often complicated communications networks set up by Arab leaders to keep their armed forces fragmented and easy to control. This can be contrasted by the American practice in network centric warfare where information is shared among rank and file and allowed to move quickly wherever needed in order to facilitate quicker decision making on the battlefield. Decisions that could be made quickly, and on the spot, by lower officers in Western or Israeli forces were usually made at the highest level in Arab Armies after they had first been passed all the way up and then later pushed all the way down in a process that often lasted hours. How could this ever be an effective way to wage war?

The exaggeration of enemy forces is hardly new in military history, but the Arab armies in the last few decades arguably perfected the art. Nearly every time units fled or were defeated in battle they said they had been grossly outnumbered, which is amusing considering most of the time Arab enemies such as the Israelis, Chadians, or even the Iranians, were usually the ones who were outnumbered.

Yet nothing is more comedic than when Arab leaders have lied to each other with disastrous results. Instead of admitting that the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed on the first day of the war in 1967 Nasser told the Jordanians and Syrians that the Israeli Air Force had been destroyed and this fooled them into joining the war and sharing Egypt’s defeat. The Egyptians lied again during the run up to the 1973 War telling the Syrians they would advance deep into the Sinai when they merely intended to occupy a small part of the East Bank of the Suez Canal. They even made fake plans and showed them to the Syrians in order to get the latter to attack Israel. The Syrians also lied during the 1967 war when they claimed that the city of Quneitra had fallen which caused their forces in the Golan Heights to flee and allowed the Israelis to secure the heights before the ceasefire.

Yet according to the author it was the poor showing of Arab armies at the tactical level more than any other factor which explains why they did so poorly in warfare. In general Arab NCO’s were poor regarding initiative, innovation, using maneuver in warfare, executing combined arms operations, and found it nearly impossible to adapt to unforeseen circumstances on the battlefield. As such the strategic leadership of Arab armies could not rely on their smaller tactical formations to gain them success in order to accomplish their goals during warfare.

Typical occurrences included a tendency to conduct costly frontal assaults (such as the Iraqi tanks on the Golan Heights or Syrian tanks in Jordan in 1970), to fight off attacks from fixed positions even when launching a counterattack was the best option (such as the Syrians on the Golan heights in 1967 and the Jordanians fighting around Jerusalem during the same war), and an inability to effectively coordinate tanks, infantry, artillery and airpower as a team (often tanks and infantry would fight separately while artillery and air support would be notoriously inaccurate).

However, this was not always the case. The Jordanian Arab Legion had brilliant tactical leadership during the 1948-49 war and stopped the Israelis from conquering the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Yet Pollack shows us that this was actually the result of the Arab Legion having seasoned British officers and that once these officers had been kicked out of Jordan in 1956 Jordanian forces slowly degenerated and suffered from the same tactical handicaps as other Arab armies.

These key flaws, especially lack of effectiveness in tactical leadership have proven so detrimental that it has caused the Arab armies to lose many battles and wars despite having considerable advantages in numbers and quality of equipment. In the Sinai in 1967 the Egyptians had 100,000 troops, 1000 tanks and 450 planes vs. Israel’s 70,000, 700 and 200 respectively. Regarding quality the Egyptians also generally had better tanks, APCs (armoured personnel carriers), artillery and even infantry weapons. Yet during the war Egypt lost perhaps 15,000 casualties and 500 tanks while the Israelis lost 1400 and 60.

Likewise during the same conflict the Syrians on the Golan Heights outnumbered the Israelis at least 2-1 in troops, and the same in tanks. Additionally they had formidable defences built into the excellent terrain of the heights as well (and the Israelis had no other option than to launch a frontal assault). Regarding quality the Syrian tanks were also more modern than the Israeli ones. Yet the Israelis took the the heights in a mere 2 days and inflicted a 10-1 casualty ratio on the Syrians.

Iraq also failed to make significant gains against Iran in 1980 despite the chaotic state of the latter country after the Iranian revolution and enjoying a 5-1 advantage in tanks, a 4-1 advantage in artillery, and 3-1 advantage in aircraft. The Iranians also had significant problems with personnel and equipment as many of their soldiers and pilots had been arrested and embargoes by Western powers denied Iran crucial supplies for their weaponry. Yet Iraqi forces were slow, indecisive and failed to secure any notable objectives in the first year of the war and were eventually thrown out of Iran by mostly ill-equipped Iranian forces of fanatical soldiers who enjoyed few modern weapons.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is in describing how certain Arab leaders recognized the flaws of their officers and soldiers and developed plans and means that led to some improvement in their tactical prowess, and thus more success in war.

The first step, as constantly noted above, was a gradual de-politicization of the armed forces, where generals began to be selected more by merit than by political loyalty. This worked better in Egypt and Iraq than in Syria. This allowed better generals to take command and formulate war plans that took into account the inherent flaws of the NCOs and soldiers in their armies. The main problems according to the generals was that the lower officers were unskilled in combined arms operations, had little initiative and flexibility, were atrocious at managing information (as in they constantly lied or exaggerated) and poor at maneuver or fluid battles where they had to adapt quickly to unseen difficulties.

It is fascinating how Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian generals found ways to compensate for these flaws. In essence they micromanaged set piece assaults that were suppose to be quick, decisive, and last no longer than a few days. The battle plans, the preparations and even the most tedious and small tactical movements to be executed by privates were planned down to the lowest details. The generals did their best to plan combined arms operations and maneuver into the NCOs’ and soldiers’ orders to compensate for their inefficiency in these matters. The obvious flaw in this was that as Moltke the Elder said “A battle plan never survives contact with the enemy.” In other words in a fluid and unpredictable endeavour such as warfare it is nearly impossible to plan for everything and unforeseen circumstances will always unravel the best preparations.

Yet the Arab generals understood this and they tried to compensate using a few stratagems. To them the keys were establishing complete surprise, attacking in overwhelming numbers and to launch and finish their operations in a short time. Obviously the former two considerations would keep the Arab’s enemies off balance and on the defensive while the latter one would hopefully deny the enemy the chance to regroup and regain the initiative.

They also realized that given how poorly their lower formations collected intelligence that they needed to make a sincere and collective effort at the higher end to do so in order to be able to have enough information on the enemy’s strength and disposition, and the battlefield to plan quick, local and decisive attacks.

The best examples of such attempts by Arab generals to win wars by compensating for the inefficient tactical leadership of their lower officers were demonstrated by the Egyptians, and to a lesser extent the Syrians, during the 1973 war and the Iraqis during the final stages of the “Iran-Iraq War.”

These campaigns featured the best means by which Arab forces found a relatively effective way to wage conventional warfare in modern times.

This included:

-the micromanagement of lower formations to guarantee they could accomplish basic tactical procedures with an acceptable degree of competency
-constant and thorough training of troops down to the lowest level regarding even the simplest of task in order to guarantee they could execute their tasks by familiarization and memorization
-quick, limited and decisive operations to allow their forces the best chance of success before the enemy had time to regroup and attack and because longer offensives were simply too unrealistic to plan given the limited means of Arab tactical leadership
-robust intelligence gathering to allow adequate planning
-establishing strategic surprise and attacking with overwhelming numbers so that the enemy was kept off balance and had little chance to upset the delicate micromanagement of the Arab war effort

The first instance, that of the Egyptians in the 1973, is perhaps the best known and the most celebrated, especially by the Arabs. Not only did the Egyptians quickly seize the East Bank of the Suez Canal, but they also thoroughly bloodied the Israeli army during the latter’s initial inept counterattacks as well as bringing the Israeli Air Force close to the red line by shooting down and damaging a disproportionate amount of their planes. As stated above the Egyptians probably could have held onto their initial gains and won the war if Sadat had not ordered the army to overreach themselves and get slaughtered in the open desert.

The Syrians also managed a better than average showing of Arab arms in 1973 when they nearly succeeded in re-conquering the Golan Heights. While they did not show the same tactical prowess or thoroughness of the Egyptians they did manage to achieve strategic surprise and overwhelming numerical supremacy at the point of attack. In fact the Israelis managed only stem a Syrian breakthrough into Northern Israel by incredible bravery, brilliant tactical leadership and luck.

Finally, the Iraqis managed to end the 8 year “Iran-Iraq War” by a series of well planned and executed set piece assaults. These offensives were designed to be local, just over the Iranian border, to last a matter of days, and to focus on destroying what remained of the heavy equipment of the Iranian army. Iraqi intelligence and staff work was impeccable and the Iraqi forces followed the detailed instructions from their generals to the letter and routed the Iranians forces time and again until the latter, being war wearied, low on weapons and internationally isolated, agreed to a ceasefire.

This was the best that Arab arms, with the aforementioned exception of Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948-49, ever accomplished. There were to be no brilliant Blitzkriegs like the “Battle of France in 1940,” no spectacular coups such as “Inchon” in 1950, or innovative ad-hoc efforts such as the British re-conquest of the Falklands in 1982. Arab military performance from 1948-91 (the period Pollack covers in his work) in general was below average with a few notable instances of slightly above mediocre results.

If I can be forgiven for going off topic and going beyond Pollack’s work for a while events in the 21st Century would suggest that Arab armies have continued to stagnate. Syria and Iraq, arguably the two Arab countries with the most experience of warfare, are currently on the brink of collapsing to a menagerie of Al-Qaeda diehards, ISIS zealots and other terrorist or guerrilla groups all with different motives and capabilities. Despite Syria’s experience with crushing internal dissent and insurgencies, most notably the massacre of tens of thousands of people in Hama in 1982, her army seems destined to lose the war in the end. Iraq’s situation is more shocking given all the money, aid, weapons and training (in billions of dollars)
given to it by the United States. Apparently most of this was for naught considering a very small force of ISIS fighters has repeatedly beaten Iraqi forces who have had massive advantages in numbers, weapons and firepowers. It cannot help but make any rational person wonder what all the American money, blood and effort in Iraq was for?

Given the poor showing of Arab armies it is not surprisingly that there has been a transition from confronting Israeli, American or even Arab regimes with conventional warfare to terrorism and guerrilla warfare. While such groups have rarely succeeded in winning militarily they have scored several political victories such as briefly establishing the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, forcing the Israelis to withdraw from Southern Lebanon in 2000 due to public fatigue, and have arguably brought the regimes in Iraq and Syria to the brink as of 2015.

Yet it is doubtful whether this switch to reliance on unconventional means will ever yield decisive results for the Arab states or insurgent or terrorist groups. Their best accomplishments are in fact far behind them as Arab rebels in Algeria, Aden, and Lebanon forced colonial or western nations with little political capital for their Middle Eastern adventures to pack up and leave but unfortunately for guerrilla fighters and terrorists across the region the Arab regimes and Israel have no where to go and will fight to the death rather than surrender to them. As Norvell B. DeAtkine noted in a smart piece about Arab insurgencies “while the success of Arab insurgents against Western armies or those assisted by Western powers has been minimal, the success rate against their own governments has been zero.” This follows the logic that insurgents and terrorists rarely win, especially against domestic regimes (such as the Arab ones) or prosperous democracies (like Israel), that their victories are usually the result of a foreign occupier losing political will, and that it is extremely rare that they physically overthrow their oppressive government by military means.

This last point is especially true if the government has considerable foreign backing. Indeed South Vietnam and the Soviet backed regime in Afghanistan were never close to collapse as long as the superpowers supported them but quickly did once they stopped doing so. Given that the Russians are still propping up Assad and the Americans are still supporting the small minded politicians in Baghdad there is no reason that ISIS should triumph any time soon.

However, and while all of this has nothing to do with Pollack’s work (though he suggested near the end of his book that “someone else will have to write the long history of Arab unconventional forces in combat since 1948”) there is little doubt that Arab insurgents and terrorists have shown much more success in warfare than their conventional brethren; generally prolonging conflicts, eroding Western, Israeli and even Arab political will, and costing their enemies more money, blood and effort than the best Arab armies managed to.

Certainly even the traumatic experiences of “Israel’s War of Independence” and the “Yom Kippur War” have not been as divisive or caused as much soul searching for the Israelis as their long occupations of Lebanon and the Palestinians territories along with all the terrorism, counter-terrorism and questionable methods that have come with it. Meanwhile Saddam Hussein’s “Mother of all battles” in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 was quick, cost America less than 500 deaths, resounded in an outstanding victory and was not economically ruinous for the United States. Yet the proceeding “Iraq War” was much longer, much more costly in financial and human terms and so far the overall results would seem to be… less than satisfactory. Finally, it is obvious that Arab leaders have always been more afraid of their own people and subversive groups than being toppled by the Israelis or Americans considering whereas the only time any of them were overthrown by the latter was in 2003 whereas there have been too many revolutions, popular uprisings and coups in the Arab world to count on even 20 pairs of hands.

“Arabs at War” is a key book to understanding the modern Middle East. Besides the obvious way in which it shows why the Arab armies have consistently failed to beat American, Israeli or other armed forces it also raises important questions as to the legitimacy of Arab leaders and governments given the underlying problems that plague the Arab world which prevent it from attaining political, economic or societal success (though this is done mostly indirectly). While the Arab world enjoys mocking Americans and Westerners for failing to learn from history Pollack shows the reader convincingly that given how Arab armies have consistently and irredeemably made the same mistakes since 1948 that the Arab World doesn’t exactly merit an A+ in history itself.

Yet despite the brilliant way Pollack uses his case studies and criteria to analyze Arab military effectiveness, no matter how accurate and damning are his conclusions, and no matter how vital his work is there are some notable flaws.

The most blatant, as noted above, was the failure, or reluctance to either thoroughly, or even cursory articulate the underlying cultural or organization factors in Arab society which facilitates the poor showing of their armed forces. This has already been explained but it is a significant hurdle nonetheless.

Perhaps a more annoying flaw of the book is its repetitiveness. While military history buffs will find the back to back case studies fascinating the casual reader could be forgiven if they quickly got bored of the same formula in each chapter of describing war after war and battle after battle and then describing how things more often than not went wrong for the perennially hapless Arab soldiers.

More amusing is that it is obvious halfway through the second chapter (regarding Iraq) not only what the main constraints on Arab military effectiveness probably are but that these will also be (and they are) the same in each country for the subsequent chapters. Chapter 3, regarding Jordan, is a bit of an exception as the Jordanian forces were generally more competent than their peers, but in the end Pollack reminds us that Jordanian’s better performance was ultimately not decisively better vs. the Arab average.

Frankly some readers will get so tired of the Arabs being beaten again and again that they will begin cheering for them to beat the more qualified Israelis and Americans at least once. There is something inherently perverse of wanting to see illegitimate, backwards and non-democratically regimes triumphing in wars that more often than not they provoked, or started for reasons of grandeur and vanity, instead of self-defence or legitimate grievances. No one likes America or Israel more than myself but at certain points in reading the book even I wanted the Arabs to win an outstanding victory and humiliate their enemies. Surely this is not what Mr. Pollack had in mind when he wrote this book.

One personal pet peeve I have is Pollack’s portrayal of General Sa’d ad-Din Shazli, the Chief of Staff of the Egyptian armed forces during the 1973 war. Whereas most Western and Arab accounts of the war generally credit him as one of the key architects of the planning and execution of Egypt’s war effort that nearly defeated Israel Pollack diminishes him ruthlessly. Instead of being one of the few Egyptian generals who acquitted himself well in 1967 he apparently was among the first to run. Instead of being a good strategist and a methodical planner he was actually picked to be Chief of Staff due to his charisma. Instead of opposing Sadat’s I’ll-fated offensive into the Sinai in 1973 he supposedly endorsed it. While I would never suggest that after having read a few dozen books on Middle Eastern Military History that I am in a better position to make a judgement on a key commander during one of the conflicts versus an ex-CIA analyst such as Pollack it is confusing that that his is the only book, indeed the only source, I have read that has questioned General Shazli’s competency.

Yet all of these flaws are minor compared to the considerable strengths of the book. Ultimately his main arguments are unchallengeable, his criteria and minute details are exhaustingly thorough and his case studies are both simple and illuminating. This work, along with Michael Oren’s “Six Days of War,” are arguably among the top 5 most important books on modern Middle Eastern conflicts to be written in the last 15 years.

“Arabs at War” is vital towards understanding the armed forces of the Arab nations in the Middle East. It proves, almost singlehandedly, that for all the significant numbers and quality of their soldiers, equipment and weapons platforms, for all the money and effort spent on training and maintaining their armies, and even with the almost unparalleled experience these forces have had in warfare, that in the end the Arab conventional military threat towards America, the West, Israel, and often even among themselves, is ultimately small and negligible. As Mao would say, Arab armies are like a “paper tiger.”

One can only imagine how different things could have been if they had decided to invest in education, healthcare, social programs and stable, inclusive and democratic institutions instead of waging pointless and debilitating wars that inevitable ended in defeat. After “World War 2” several former colonial possessions in the Far East, later nicknamed the “Four Asian Tigers,” did this and in 2 generations generally caught up to the West in regards to democracy, economic prosperity and standard of living instead of relying on incessant warfare and unnecessary confrontation. It is obvious which method of statecraft is superior.

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The implications of the End of the Assad Regime in Syria

As high ranking officials begin to desert and others are being blown up, and now that the Red Cross has finally admitted that the current violence in Syria now constitutes a “civil war” some may wonder whether or not the rotten regime in Damascus is finally about to reap the whirlwind and be consigned to the “ashbin of history.” While there are questions as to whether or not any succeeding government in Syria would be democratic, let alone benign, and keeping in mind that the Assad regime has weathered major crises before, there is little doubt that the current uprising constitutes the greatest challenge to its survival. Despite the fact that the Syrian regime supposedly has a similar infamous reputation at being ruthless at quashing dissent as the late Baathist regime in Iraq, it seems as though it can no longer retain control through brute force for much longer. Is this the beginning of the end of more than forty years of rule by the Assad dynasty in Syria?

Based upon empirical evidence betting on the Assad regime holding onto power indefinitely seems like a poor wager indeed. Most of the indicators of a doomed tyranny are present. Besides high level defections and the fact the Syrian opposition is gaining greater capabilities (as seen by the bombing attack that killed four high ranking Baathist officials recently) and increasing in numbers, the fighting has now reached Damascus itself. Given that the regime’s insincere efforts to appease and negotiate, combined with the use of force to stop the Syrian opposition has come to naught, the only chance it has now would be to launch a vastly disproportionate massacre such as it did against the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 when it killed between 10,000-40,000 people in the city of Hama. However, even if the Syrian regime decided to up the ante such bloodlust would probably force the U.S. and NATO to finally intervene, at least via Airpower, and the result would probably be a replay of the successful campaign to overthrow Colonel Gadhafi in Libya last year.

Indeed such a move towards such excess violence against the Syrian people would probably move Russia and China to abandon their support for the Assad regime, cutting off whatever significant materially aid Syria is getting abroad, as well as isolating it on the world stage. In fact it could be argued that Russian and Chinese support is the last hope Assad has left. There are precedents here; it was the removal of Russian diplomatic support, not the air campaign against Serbia, that ultimately ended the Kosovo conflict, and America’s decision to abandon Batista that led to Castro’s take over of Cuba. At the risk of sounding presumptuous it is likely that the Assad dynasty would crumble in a matter of days if the neo-commies (Russia and China) withdrew their support.

Of course there is the chance that even under these circumstances Syria’s leadership would fight to the death regardless. If one looks at the composition of the Syrian elite they would not be blamed for thinking the end of the regime would result in sectarian violence. Most of the political, military and economic elite in Syria is composed of the small Alawi (an offshoot of Islam) and Christian minorities as well as a segment of the better off Sunni population. Meanwhile the vast majority of Syrians are relatively poor Sunnis that have little share in the economic success or notable positions within the military or political institutions. Of course the fears of sectarian violence are fueled by the horrible excesses that occurred between the Christians and Muslims during the “Lebanese Civil War,” and even more recently the triangle of violence between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein during the “Iraq War.” Much of the violence in these two conflicts was initiated by the elites (the Christians in Lebanon and the Sunnis in Iraq) who were afraid of losing their power base. There is no evidence to suggest that the Syrian Alawi and Christians’ response to losing their preeminence would be any more enlightened or humane.

As for the potential of the Americans, NATO, or even Syria’s neighbors intervening in the conflict, with the possible exception noted above, the most likely any of them would do (or more likely are doing right now) would be to offer the rebels safe havens, intelligence, weaponry and supplies. Despite countless pundits stressing that an attack on Syria would be a more difficult task than the late war against Gadhafi most estimates regarding Syrian military capabilities give the Assad regime more credit than it deserves. In one of my earlier papers I pointed out that during the last sixty years the Syrians have not won a war, let alone a battle, of any significance. This despite the fact they have often outnumbered and outgunned their enemies.

However, the same pundits usually point out the massive umbrella of SAMs (surface to air missiles) and anti-aircraft assets deployed across the country, noting their dense concentrations and relatively modern capabilities. While such defenses should not be taken lightly, they are certainly not as potent as they are made out to be. Thirty years earlier the Israelis destroyed all of Syria’s SAMs in the Beka Valley (which was then the largest concentration of anti-aircraft defenses in the world) without loss and even recently the Israelis somehow shut down the whole air defense system in Syria when they bombed a suspected nuclear site in the northeast of the country. Even more amusingly Israeli planes buzz Assad’s presidential palace without fear of consequence from time to time. There is no reason to believe that the even more technologically superior American air force, and arguably NATO forces as well, would not be able to defeat Syria’s air defenses, albeit probably needing more time and effort to do so versus the campaign in Libya.

Of course there is the fact that the Syrians recently shot down a Turkish fighter jet, which cannot be discounted out of hand. However, there have been suggestions it was relatively easy for the Syrians do so because of the fallout of military ties between the Israelis and the Turks. Basically, the Israelis and Turks collaborated closely on the F-4 Phantom fighter jets in the Turkish air force with the Israelis continuously giving the Turks upgrades (including electronic countermeasures to defeat Syria’s air defenses). However, it is apparent that the latest upgrades were never given to the Turks since they unilaterally broke military ties with the Israelis after the controversial Israeli decision to forcibly stop the international flotilla heading to Gaza a few years ago. This has undoubtedly hurt Turkey more than Israel, and was a very stupid decision on the behalf of the Turkish government which was motivated by an erroneous belief in moral superiority regarding Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. I say “erroneous” because Turkey’s historical treatment of the Armenians and the Kurds has not been any more humane than Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Turkey is lucky that the Kurds do not have the lobbying power at the U.N, or among other governments, than the Palestinians do.

Anyway, were the U.S. or NATO to intervene in the Syrian conflict it would most likely resemble the Libya intervention of last year. It would arguably be more difficult due to Syria’s superior military power vs. Libya’s, the lack of NATO bases close to the country and the fact that the conflict is more concentrated among urban centers rather than open desert. Once again being almost exclusively an air campaign it would probably prove more difficult in hitting tanks, trucks, artillery pieces and other conventional targets and also result in far more civilian casualties. On the other hand it could arguably lessens the length of the Syrian conflict as Western intervention would probably lead to the end of Russian and Chinese diplomatic support to Assad, boost the morale of the Syrian opposition while undermining that of the regime’s, and severely degrade the capabilities of the Syrian armed forces. While it is unlikely, and probably unwise for the West to intervene, it would surely not be as difficulty to do so as the skeptics claim.

Perhaps the most important question regarding the likely collapse of the Syrian regime is what would follow it? The naive optimists usually say a more democratic successor, while the cynical realists would bet on a newly rejuvenated Muslim Brotherhood or some equivalent. Yet either of these would be better than the third potential option; sectarian strife on a comparable scale to what happened in Iraq. While it is tempting to look at the latest outcomes in Egypt and Libya, the circumstances in these two countries are far different than in Syria.

In Egypt there was little violence when Mubarak was overthrown and the transition between military governance and the new pseudo democracy has been relatively smooth, if not ideal. Also, the Egyptian people generally respect their military despite the fact they have provided the last three presidents and were just as responsible for oppressing the Egyptians as they were. Finally, despite some violence between Sunnis and Coptic Christians there is little chance of Egypt descending into sectarian strife as in Iraq and Lebanon (not least because the Christian minority has little power to oppose the Sunnis). While the new Muslim Brotherhood President Morsai has not endeared himself to the West by stating he wants closer ties to Iran and is reviewing the peace treaty with Israel, there is no immediate reason to be overly concerned and it is possible the new government in Cairo will find some accommodation with the West (not least because of the significant amount of foreign aid Washington still gives to Egypt).

Libya’s path to freedom was admittedly more violent, but despite some concerns it has not been overly unstable since the overthrow of Gadhafi. It is hoped that NATO’s role in finishing off the regime won the West some points with the Libyans, but it seems as a rule that whereas anything bad the West does in the region is usually remembered, anything positive it does is generally forgotten. However, to be fair relatively moderate candidates did better in the recent Libyan election than the fanatics. Either way, Libya’s geographic, political, and ethnic composition is too different from Syria’s to make it a valid comparison. It is no doubt frustrating for Arabs and Muslims to be pigeon holed into countless stereotypes. In fact many of the their countries are very different despite having a similar religious and cultural background. It would be like saying that the French, German, and British people are all the same.

Which once again leaves us as to the likely fate of Syria as soon as the Assad regime implodes. Unfortunately, based on Middle Eastern history in general and Syrian history in particular, the prospects are not entirely hopeful. Since its independence in the late 40s’ until the early 70s’ Syria arguably went through more coups and governments than any other country in the region, if not the world. In fact, one of the reasons the Baathist party was popular, at least initially, was it finally gave the country some stability. However, that stability came at a cost and the Syrian regime, like its former secular counterpart in Baghdad was probably more bloody and repressive than the religious zealots in Riyadh and Tehran. While most of the countries in the region have initiated some reforms regarding personal liberties and economic incentives, Bashar al-Assad introduced only a few the first year or so he came to power and then quickly went back on them. No doubt the remnants of his father’s entourage, and the preferential treatment of the Alawi and Christians, quashed any serious chances of reform.

Unfortunately, this leaves Syria with very few options. The ideal situation would be for the Sunni majority to offer amnesty to the Alawi and Christian minorities and give them a future role in the next administration. This would probably require allowing these minorities to retain a significant amount of power, at least in the economic sphere, to discourage them from turning to violence if they felt slighted. There are precedents here, as Boris Yeltsin allowed the old Communist elites (an obvious oxymoron) to retain much of their clout after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and while it undoubtedly led to the powerful mafias that control much of Russia today, it was obviously preferable to a protracted civil war. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood would be wise not to overly challenge the military elite in Egypt, who control much of the economy and still have a monopoly on the use of force, as long as they allow it to govern the country. Seeing as though these officers care more about enriching themselves than promoting any ideology, it is possible they will ultimately reach an agreement.

However the chances of this occurring in Syria are slim. More likely the Sunni majority, oppressed for decades under the Assad dynasty will want to dominate the next government and seek revenge on the Alawi and Christians minorities. There are simply too many instances of this happening in the Middle East, from the exodus of the pied noires from Algeria in the 60s’, the bloodletting of the Lebanese Civil War, Hamas’s treatment of Fatah after they conquered the Gaza Strip, to the near genocidal tendencies of the Sunni-Shiite strife in Iraq after the American invasion. The only exception the author can think of was the amnesty Hezbollah gave to the South Lebanese Army after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, and they certainly did not offer them a share in power. Perhaps the only way to avoid such a situation would be for the U.S. and the West to offer material and trade incentives to the new power in Damascus in exchange for leniency regarding treatment of the minorities. Whether or not this would work remains pure speculation.

As to what faction would come to power in lieu of a collapse of the Assad regime given how little moderates are respected in the region, and given how organized and popular it tends to be in many nations it would be no surprise if the Muslim Brotherhood eventually came to power, as it did in Egypt. For some reason the masses in the Middle East, if not pretty much everywhere, hate educated moderates and tend to respect relatively extremist factions who have no qualms regarding oppressing other points of view and advocating violence. While some would point out that the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt at least, has renounced violence, it may have had something to do with the fact the Assad dynasty butchered the Muslim Brotherhood, along with 10s of thousands of civilians in Hama in 1982. Certainly, its Syrian equivalent is engaged in the brutal fight against the regime now that it has had a resurgence (it is typical of subversive groups to denounce violence when they are weak, as Fatah and Hamas have done at times when Israeli pressure has become overly coercive).

There is also the potential that other less savory elements, such as Al-Qaeda or foreign guerrillas or terrorists that have gone to Syria to join in the fight, could have an impact on the next government in Damascus. However, this is unlikely as similar factions in the “Iraq War” and Libya ultimately failed to win any significant power in these respective nations. In the case of Al-Qaeda its extremist views, and often atrocious excesses, alienated most of the population, and the other movements were either too small or fragmented to be politically effective.

No, the only real contenders are the slowly recuperating Muslim Brotherhood or some moderate faction that would be useful at courting Western aid and support in the aftermath of the Syrian Civil War. While some hope that the moderates could ultimately win due to the fact that Syria, like Iraq, is more secular vs. more fanatical countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, this is no guarantee any successive regime would be more moderate, tolerant, or even friendly towards Israel and the West. In fact, secular countries or movements have often been as hostile, indeed sometimes more so, than their religious counterparts. Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Fatah were no less determined to destroying Israel and opposing the West than the Ayatollah, Al-Qaeda, or Hezbollah. In fact one could argue the secular movements have killed more people, especially their own, than the religious nut jobs.

Anyway, the moderates, who are generally more peaceful and pro-west, are usually seen as puppets of the Israelis or the West. This is why Fatah, once at the forefront of the Palestinian cause, has become hated by the masses in the region ever since it took control in the occupied territories and become less radical. Likewise, the Pro-West regime in Beirut has less teeth in Lebanon than Hezbollah, and the Shah of Iran is still seen as a traitor despite the fact the theocracy in Iran has been more bloody and oppressive. Put another way, there is a reason only two countries in the region have made peace with Israel; Egypt and Jordan. In the case of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, the man who signed the peace treaty was gunned down by extremists, and the late King Hussein of Jordan survived countless assassination attempts, squabbles, and even a civil war by elements that questioned his resolve to fight Israel. Being accommodating to the West in the Middle East is simply too dangerous of a game for factions in the region to attempt earnestly.

This leaves the Muslim Brotherhood, or some other extremist faction, as the likely successor to any Assad regime. This by itself is not necessarily bad for Western interests. So far the relationship between Egypt and the West has not faltered after the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in that nation (no doubt the billions of dollars in aide provided by Washington has played a significant part). Even unstable elements such as Colonel Gadhafi, the Taliban, and the late Hafez al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s father) have all at one time or another proven able to do business with the West, as long as it has been in their interest. The key words are “in their interest” as they have all ultimately ended up as implacable enemies of the Israelis and the West.

This implies that after the wanton destruction of Syria in lieu of the civil war, it is likely that whoever is in charge, even the Muslim Brotherhood, will probably seek good relations, at least initially, with the West, if only to rebuild and get the country back on its feet. While it is possible that the successors of the Assad regime could instead seek continued relations with its usual supporters, the Russians and Chinese, it is unlikely given that their unequivocal support of Assad has probably made them targets of hatred among the Syrian populace. Either way, such a pro-west stance could arguably only last as long as it is was convenient for the new power in Damascus. Given the likely chance that a Muslim Brotherhood administration would arguably be no less democratic or tolerant to women, and given that such policies have inevitably led to disenchantment and economic backwardness in nearly every single government and country in the region since independence of European hegemony, the end result would probably be an angry and resentful population looking for someone to blame. Without exception, not wanting to be blamed themselves, the Muslim Brotherhood would play the usual card of Arab despots and pin responsibility on the Americans and the Jews.

This practice, sad and predictable as it is, seems to be the circle of life regarding every new ideology, faction, or regime that is introduced into the Middle East. At the risk of being labelled a cynic, I cannot see how the Muslim Brotherhood, which served as the forerunner of Al-Qaeda, could possibly break this cycle.

Anyway, considering the Assad regime is most likely going to fall, and since the West and Israel will have to work with whoever comes to power in Damascus, the only sensible thing would be to embrace the new leadership and make earnest attempts to try to come to some sort of an accommodation. While it is by no means probable that any new regime would be pro-west or reciprocate such efforts, in the end no serious person would be able to say that the Israelis or West did not at least try to do their best to try to work with the new regime. I say “no serious person” because there is always going to be some people who think everything in the Middle East is the fault of the West or the Israelis, and that the Russians, Chinese, or the many undemocratic and bloodthirsty elements in the region could never do no wrong.

Besides the debate as to who will inherit the throne in Damascus, there is the larger question as to what will be the wider impact upon the region, if not the world. While optimists and fear mongers often exaggerate the likely effects regarding their extreme preferences, it is admittedly easy to consider the best and worse case scenarios. Regarding the best case scenario, as I noted in a previous paper a new power in Syria could at first seem intoxicating. A Syrian-Israeli peace treaty, a Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty, the weakening of both Hezbollah and Hamas, and an increasingly isolated Iran (as Syria is her only significant ally in the region) are all potential benefits of a post Assad Syria.

However, it goes without saying that such developments would probably only ensue in the event of a moderate, pro-west faction, coming to power in Damascus. Considering the first two statements of the new Muslim Brotherhood President of Egypt involved wanting closers ties with Iran and reviewing the peace treaty with Israel it is simply not plausible to think the Islamists would be the “pro-peace party.”

Now if we look at the potential worse case scenario regarding a post Assad regime we are suddenly faced with perhaps the most calamitous period in modern
Middle Eastern history since the late 1960s. The absolute worse outcome would be a war between Israel on one hand and Syria, Egypt, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas on the other. As unlikely as this seems it should be noted that most recent wars in the region have originated from stupid catalysts from the Kuwait ambassador telling Saddam Hussein that Iraqi women are whores, to Israel bombing Lebanon into rubble over the kidnapping of two soldiers. Being more realistic, negative effects would include an increase of support for Hezbollah and Hamas, closer ties with Iran, and perhaps Syria joining Iran’s attempts in constructing nuclear weapons. Obviously, all this implies the Muslim Brotherhood or some other extremist faction winning power in Damascus.

While it is too simplistic to suggest a pro-west faction would result in near perfect relations with Israel and the West and an Islamic faction would result in all out war, there is little doubt that depending upon who takes power in Syria we could see a vastly more stable, or chaotic, Middle East. Either way, no matter who succeeds Assad, relations are likely to be amiable at first considering they will probably need Western assistance to rebuild Syria.

However, as cautious as the author is about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Syria, one should not conclude that he has the least amount of sympathy for the Assad regime, nor that he would prefer it to the Muslim Brotherhood. Considering the current regime in Syria is likely to fall, it would be wise for the West and the Israelis to do everything to curry their favor and try to allay their fears of duplicity. While the undemocratic regimes and movements in the region have done much to warrant Western suspicion, it is also the case that Israel and the West have done just as much to warrant Muslim and Arab suspicions. While the author is not idealistic or naive enough to think that the current civil war in Syria will ultimately result in a more peaceful Middle East, perhaps it would not be a sin to hope it could.

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