Hamas’ offensive against Israel on October 7 and the subsequent Israeli retaliations that are going on in Gaza have rekindled the debate on the efficacy of asymmetric/hybrid/irregular warfare.
At first glance, Hamas seems to have achieved many of its strategic objectives. But, on closer scrutiny, its ultimate objective of destroying Israel continues to remain a distant goal.
The hybrid war is a complex phenomenon, given its changing dimensions time to time. It is becoming increasingly important in the strategic planning of all the countries and military alliances. For instance, NATO has made countering “hybrid threats” a core priority of its strategy since 2015.
The establishment of the European Union Partnership Mission in Moldova as a part of the European Union Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) in April this year has been said to be primarily motivated by the idea of defending against hybrid threats from Russia.
Even Russia, worried over the hybrid warfare “unleashed by the West,” has justified a 70 percent increase in military spending in 2023 by claiming the need to counter it. China is also said to have resorted to promoting such warfare, which it prefers to describe as “cognitive warfare,” as a critical component of its military doctrine.
Let us see what Hamas has proved this time, unlike its previous attacks on Israel in 2008/9, 2012, and 2014. On those occasions in the past, its primary “modus operandi” was the indiscriminate shelling of Israeli towns, inviting defensive and retaliatory action by Israel, which took place mainly in the air domain with only limited land operations.
But this time, Hamas’ terrorist acts have included the mass murder of Israeli civilians and the taking of hostages. And it seems that has been done deliberately to invite much stronger counterattacks from Israel. This strategy, obviously masterminded by Iran, Hamas’ mentor, had dual but interrelated aims.
One was to make Israel find itself in a bind, in the sense that it did not have any option other than military means to deal with Hamas. But in the process, Israel is now causing collateral damages by wreaking Gaza civilians’ lives and civil infrastructure, which, in turn, are causing severe fallouts for Israel’s domestic as well as foreign spheres.
Domestically, not only has Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s image as the country’s most potent political leader been dented by the intelligence and military failure in preventing the Hamas attack, but doubts over the strength of Israel’s democracy, a lone praiseworthy feature in otherwise an autocratic region of the Middle East, have also arisen.
Viewed thus, among many goals of the Hamas attack, one was to manipulate political decision-making and outcomes and break societal trust and cohesion in Israel. It targeted the erosion of democratic values of coexistence, harmony, and pluralism on the one hand and the decision-making capability of the political leaders on the other. It attempted to hit at the writ of the Israeli state and its very legitimacy.
Internationally, the Hamas attack has been proven to be a very clever use of cognitive warfare in influencing public support for the Palestinians’ cause and reigniting hatred for Israel.
We have seen the “victory” celebrations not only in all the Middle Eastern countries but also in Western cities like London, Berlin, New York, and Toronto, not to speak of the mounting hatred against Israel in the Left-dominated Western universities. The protests and demonstrations are turning increasingly religious with solid Islamist overtones.
What is most significant is that the Hamas attack, which invited Israeli retaliations in Gaza, has successfully disrupted the Israeli peace process with the Arab world. The USA-brokered peace deals among Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt have come under strain. The normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia has thawed.
After all, stability in the region with Israel and leading Arab countries at peace with each other would have been bad news for Iran and its terrorist proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. Such a rapprochement would also significantly impact the continuation of political and economic support for the Palestinian cause. Thus, the Hamas attack has proved to be a significant “diplomatic victory.”
Some other noteworthy features have also been reflected in the Hamas attack this time, though these are essentially reinforcements of the already visible trends in similar asymmetrical attacks elsewhere.
The attack has proved that low-tech innovation methods, tactics, and capabilities by using drones, paragliders, bulldozers, motorcycles, and rockets can neutralize, when applied in a combined, coordinated, multidimensional, and asymmetric fashion, the adversary’s much superior military muscles.
Ukraine has proved this already by turning commercial drones into explosive-bearing weapons that have damaged much more expensive Russian equipment.
Experts are saying that, as in the ongoing war in Ukraine, Hamas’ offensive is replete with lessons on irregular warfare that other countries can take or are taking note of.
This is particularly true of Taiwan, which is said to be carefully observing to distill lessons that can help the island nation defend itself against a future Chinese attack. Taiwanese leaders are reportedly highly impressed with the concept of asymmetric warfare that can make the island nation harder for China to capture.
However, all said and done, irregular or hybrid wars, whatever their manifestations, have never been successful in attaining their ultimate objective of defeating the adversary in the ultimate analysis.
As Lennart Maschmeyer, a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich, where he focuses on cyber conflict, power politics, and subversion, has argued, in contrast to prevailing fears, such wars’ actual track record is relatively modest.
Few regimes have been changed, and fewer territories have been acquired through such wars. Though his study is primarily based on the failures of a series of “irregular” attempts of the erstwhile Soviet Union and then Putin’s Russia to change “the Western policies,” he seems to have a point.
Pakistan has not been able to snatch Kashmir from India by resorting to such warfare. Or, for that matter, Islamists, though supported tacitly by significant powers, have not been able to change the regimes in the Middle East.
Even in the present case, the Hamas attack has not led to the immediate ouster of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Hamas has no doubt humiliated and horrified Israelis. Netanyahu may pay a political price for this, but that does not seem to be happening right now.
On the contrary, Israelis are uniting, from left to right, liberal to Haredi, though none of the domestic fractures have been healed and none of the political problems resolved.
Hamas seems to have made the Israelis realize “the intolerable weakness of a divided Israel.” And now they all are united to fight desperately to ensure that there is not another October 7.
As an Israeli commentator said, “A wounded, weakened Israel is (now) a fiercer Israel.”
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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