Belmont Club

Chronic Conflict in the Global World: Right at Your Doorstep or on Your Computer

Chronic Conflict in the Global World: Right at Your Doorstep or on Your Computer
(IRIB News Agency via AP)

The attack on tankers in the Gulf of Oman according to the Jerusalem Post was a scripted outcome that fell apart.  It was designed to make Iran’s armed forces the heroic rescuers happening upon an anonymous tragedy, but IRGC flubbed its lines.

It seems that those who planned the attack believed that at least one ship would sink and that they could valiantly rescue the sailors…In addition they likely hoped the ship would sink with the evidence aboard, including the unexploded mine… The Iranians didn’t stop trying to get hold of both ships until June 14. An Iranian tugboat reportedly approached the Kokuka and even wanted to push it back towards Iranian waters before the Bainbridge interceded.

There’s some reason to think the Iranians were trying to goad the Trump admin into an escalation in the Middle East in the belief that would unleash an outbreak of anti-Americanism in the region and damage him politically. But the fish weren’t biting that day.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is focused on building international consensus following attacks on oil tankers in the Middle East that the United States has blamed here on Iran, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Friday. … asked later whether he was considering sending more troops or military capabilities to the Middle East, Shanahan said: “As you know we’re always planning various contingencies.”

But he then returned to the issue of building consensus.

Fears that the Gulf of Oman will be the new Gulf of Tonkin are unlikely to come true. It is much more probable that Iran’s decades-long low-intensity war with the U.S. will continue as usual. Iran killed 600+ U.S. troops during OIF, a fact downplayed by the previous administrations. But if that fact didn’t drive Trump to go openly kinetic, a few more attacks on third-country tankers are unlikely to.

Ryan Pickrell at Business Insider suggests the Iranians are deliberately signaling their intention to stay within the confines of limited war by placing the limpet mines above the waterline of the target ships or where they would do survivable damage. The reason for this is obvious. Iran has invested a great deal of effort in its asymmetrical warfare capabilities and would prefer to continue in that vein.

Iran has one of the largest fleets of mini-subs in the world. “Whereas Iran’s combined output of operational corvettes, frigates, and destroyers hardly exceeds 10, it currently fields a whopping 34 submarines. The vast majority of these are midget-class–or “littoral”–diesel-electric vessels, with roughly two dozen from Iran’s homemade Ghadir class and several more from the North Korean Yugo class.”

Its commitment to combat swimmer operations was underscored by a ceremony commemorating the death of 175 frogmen in its 1980-88 war with Iraq who were captured and buried alive by Saddam Hussein.

Pictures in Iranian media last month showed the bodies, still dressed in diving gear and their hands crudely tied with wire, being dug up from the Iraqi side of the river border, scene of some of the heaviest fighting, and returned to Iran.

A military spokesman said then that some of the bodies bore no signs of injury, leading him to believe they had been buried alive by their Iraqi captors.

The divers were taken prisoner in 1986 during Operation Karbala 4, an Iranian attempt to break a stalemate on the southern front by crossing the river border, called Arvand Rud by Iranians and Shatt al-Arab by Iraqis, to seize Basra.

It has even imported combat dolphins from Russia.

Just a few years ago, Ukraine restarted training the animals for military purposes, though it may have been close to phasing it back out just before Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula last year. In any case, Russia helped itself to Ukraine’s stable of combat dolphins after Moscow took over Crimea. And four Ukrainian military dolphins had actually been sold to Iran and transported by air in 2000, according to the BBC.

This interest in unconventional warfare has naturally led to military drones. “The Iranian drone program was established during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Despite years of sanctions and export restrictions, Iran has managed to develop and manufacture its own drones and possesses a range of surveillance and armed drones. … Iran aims at becoming a drone supplier and Iran might have supplied drones to Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas, as well as the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.”

Drones are serious threats. Recently they were used to attempt or perhaps simulate an attack on Maduro in Venezuela. “Commercially available (drones) may be used by threat actors to deliver hazardous payloads, including explosives, chemicals, or biological or radiological agents” according to the DHS.

Last but not least are its proxy armies, which are quite prepared to carry the war to mainland USA at the signal of the ayatollahs, but who are for the moment being held back.

the arrests in 2017 of Kourani and another Hezbollah operative, Samer el-Debek, led the U.S. intelligence community to revisit its longstanding assessment that Hezbollah would be unlikely to attack the U.S. homeland unless the group perceived Washington to be taking action threatening its existence or that of its patron—Iran. Following Kourani and Debek’s arrests, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center said in October 2017, “It’s our assessment that Hezbollah is determined to give itself a potential homeland option as a critical component of its terrorism playbook.” …

“While living in the United States, Kourani served as an operative of Hezbollah in order to help the foreign terrorist organization prepare for potential future attacks against the United States,” said U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers. These included buildings housing the FBI and U.S. Secret Service in Manhattan, as well as New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and a U.S. Army armory.

They have all the tools of the shadow trade. These all suggest we are likely to see more of the same: low intensity, hybrid, asymmetric warfare — whatever you want to call it — for the foreseeable future. While the Narrative can nostalgically hanker for a rerun of the Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate, Vietnam, etc., we are unlikely to have it. The future is a different country. They do things differently there, with multi-domain operations.

Modern warfare as practiced less resembles WWII than the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel or the shooting up of “Easter worshippers” in Sri Lanka. The goal isn’t the capture of geographical features but to gain media column inches, invitations to talk shows, followers on Twitter and the like. The objective is not the conquest of a state but its takeover by means of assisting to power the domestic political force most congenial to the attacker. “Collusion” and political effects are not the exception but the entire point of modern hostile operations. The 2020 election, not Sugarloaf Hill, is the new high ground.

In fairness, this is exactly the game America is playing against Iran. The U.S. doesn’t want to conquer territory but ensure that a “moderate” or “reformist” faction comes to power in Tehran. It would be silly to think China and Russia are not trying the same stunt on Washington. That’s why the cry “sappers are in the wire” is still valid even though it’s a different kind of sapper and a different kind of wire: the Internet and 5G.

Our conception of international conflict, molded by the events of the 20th century, may now be obsolete. Conflict is now “always on” in our brave new global world, occurring right at your doorstep or on your computer.  The universal liberty briefly promised by the fall of the Soviet Union has vanished, replaced by a chronic unease hidden just beneath the surface like a fire kept in check but never quite extinguished.

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