Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary:Enhancing North Thunder

The unprecedented joint military manoeuvres in Saudi Arabia belie the dangers that strategic planners say threaten Arab national security. One of those not addressed is intra-coalition disunity, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Military power is the ultimate type of power, of which there are many kinds. Between soft power, which influences, and hard power, which inflicts damage, there is considerable room for diplomacy, the media, ideology and religion.

But behind all these types of power there has to be credibility, and that comes from the ability to fight when recourse to arms is unavoidable. Often, credibility based on real might is more than sufficient to prevent the outbreak of a real war.

Building a credible military force occurs through various means: the acquisition of advanced weaponry, training forces until they attain the highest degrees of proficiency, and the creation of alliances and coalitions that balance and deter actual or potential adversaries. The North Thunder military manoeuvres, which were recently conducted in Hafr Al-Batin, Saudi Arabia, contain all the ingredients for building such credibility in the face of mounting threats in various domains.

Essentially, the threats fall into two categories. The first are of a nature that is geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-sectarian. Iran consummately embodies all these threats combined: geographically, as it sits on the eastern shore of the Gulf; strategically, through its designs to translate geography into influence that assumes different forms in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen; and, at the sectarian level, by attempting to represent all Shia people in the world, if not all Muslims.

The second type of threat is terrorism, which has expanded over the past four decades, evolving from a Muslim Brotherhood ideological and theoretical foundation into the barbarous phenomena of the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Qaeda and their subsidiary groups and organisations. Surprisingly, as much as the world complains of the threat of “Islamist” terrorism, it is rarely mentioned that 95 per cent of its victims are Muslims.

The historic environment in which the “Thunder of the North” manoeuvres were staged has several facets: the disintegration of Arab countries in the period that followed the “Arab Spring” and the resultant civil wars and weakening of central states, the Iranian offensive that has increased in the wake of the Iranian-Western nuclear accord and, the more dangerous product of this, namely the scheme to redraw the map of the entire region.

“Thunder of the North” conveys an important message at this juncture. The message is conveyed through the choice of location — Hafr Al-Batin, near the western shore of the Gulf, was the gateway to the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation — and through scale: 20 countries contributed a total of 350,000 troops to these exercises for a period of 20 days, along with 20,000 tanks, 2,450 airplanes, 460 fighter helicopters and other artillery and marine equipment.

This was one of the largest military exercises ever conducted in the world and the largest ever in the Middle East. This manoeuvre was not a “display” of might: it represents the might itself, as it is drawn from countries that, in both contemporary and earlier history, have known how to take crucial decisions in matters pertaining to war and peace.

Thunder of the North was not born overnight. It was the product of more than a decade and a half of operations that paved the way for the current force. These date back to the Peninsula Shield manoeuvres held by the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). These manoeuvres forged a strategic force that tested its mettle in the war to liberate Kuwait and in the intervention to prevent Iran from seizing control of Bahrain, and that grew more effective in the course of the operation to restore legitimacy in Yemen.

Then came the Saudi-Egyptian “Tabuk” manoeuvres in 2000. Bringing together ground force units from both countries, these exercises were staged in both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Riyadh also took part in Tabuk manoeuvres, along with other Arab and Islamic countries.

At a third stage, Egypt and Saudi Arabia initiated the Murjan (Coral) naval manoeuvres that they have conducted bilaterally and, in some cases, in collaboration with other countries. This series of military training exercises and manoeuvres could not take place without the sharing of intelligence, mutual understanding and cooperation in the development of collaborative expertise between field commanders and, indeed, political leaderships.

Most likely there were more preparatory steps and dimensions than those listed above. All of this will have been observed and noted by countries in this region and elsewhere, and all testify to the growing credibility of a deterrent power, or of an actual combat power if that proves inevitable.

It is important to bear in mind that the Thunder of the North operation was designed to train the participating military groups in how to operate in a particular theatre of operations in the event that a certain regional party attempts to invade from the east. The manoeuvre establishes that the balance of military power (not to mention economic and demographic power) is not in favour of that other party, which cannot sustain a conventional war beyond its borders.

But if such a confrontation is unlikely, it raises the possibility of other types of warfare in which the Iranian danger, intentionally or not, overlaps with the terrorist danger. The upheaval in Iraq was not, by any means, a coincidence. Nor was the destruction of Syria a mere twist of fate. The rift in Lebanese ranks via Hizbullah was no mere convergence of interests, and the encouragement of the Houthis in Yemen did not stem from a mere convergence between affiliates of the Shia sect.

All of the foregoing are part of the plans of a government that seeks to restructure a region in a way that not only promotes Iranian interests but that is also designed to secure Iranian control over it.

Thunder of the North responded in the negative to the question of whether Iran or not could intervene militarily in the countries of the Gulf, or in any of the countries that took part in the manoeuvre. Nevertheless, the danger still lurks through other possible means, whether by recruiting local forces, or through infiltrations by elements from the Revolutionary Guards or the People’s Mobilisation Forces, or by promoting revolutions or counter-revolutions, depending on the case at hand (at one point, Iran claimed that the Arab Spring revolutions were an extension of the Iranian Revolution, while at other times it was in the vanguard of the forces bent on undermining the Syrian popular revolution).

A front that poses these types of dangers requires other types of “Thunder of the North”. These would be based on the principle of “terrorising the terrorists”, as I discussed in a previous article, and on the need to deter Iran from intervening in the affairs of Arab states. Undoubtedly, strategic planners in the countries that took part in the recent manoeuvres have addressed this matter in one way or another.

What concerns us here is that while “Thunder of the North” embodies a strategic system that assumed a classical mode in the manoeuvre, it opens the door to other non-classical modes that are more appropriate to other types of danger. However, this requires political consensus and, frankly, the various strategies cannot achieve their optimal efficacy as long as a rift continues to exist between Egypt and Turkey and Qatar.

It is not necessary to probe the many details and wounds to realise that it is essential to keep our sights on the chief aim, which is to win the war against lethal threats. In this context, coalitions are obviously more effective when some of their constituent parties are not at odds with some of their fellow coalition members.

Certainly, reconciliation is possible if Ankara and Doha recognise that the government in Egypt derives its legitimacy from the Egyptian people, just as Cairo acknowledges that the governments in Doha and in Ankara derive their legitimacy from the Qatari and the Turkish people, respectively.

The time has come to end all forms of Muslim Brotherhood opposition and to revive normal relations between the two sides. What is happening in the wider region is far more important and more dangerous.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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