30 November 2018

The Future of War: What the Syrian War Portends for Tomorrow’s Conflicts

Week by week, month by month, the horrific war in Syria grinds on, killing Syrian civil war combatants from many countries and, most tragic of all, Syrian civilians—the unintended or, in many cases, intended victims of the warring parties. It’s easy to look at the Syrian war as uniquely horrible, the catastrophic result of geography, Bashar al-Assad’s craven brutality, the spread of jihadism and its malignant ideology, and foreign intervention. But in reality, Syria represents a frightening window into the future of war. If, in fact, Syria is the model, future wars are likely to have several defining characteristics. 

The first and perhaps most defining characteristic of the Syrian war is its intricate and deadly complexity. Rather than two nations or alliances pitted against each other, multiple interconnected fights occupy the same space and time. Second, the Syrian war suggests that future conflicts will involve a situation-specific configuration of forces, rather than enduring alliances, as one insurgency blends into the next. Third, the conflict shows that despite the massive and well-publicized human costs of contemporary wars, the international community has lost its stomach for humanitarian intervention. Fourth, Syria demonstrates something that has been evident for decades: The United Nations is unsuited to play a major role in complex, modern wars, particularly when permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, each with a veto over its actions, are involved.

Civilians Pay the Biggest Price as Pockets of Insurgency Turn Into Urban Warfare

In today’s wars, most combatants make little effort to avoid killing civilians and, in fact, often do so deliberately. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Syrian civil war and its offshoot in Iraq, now winding down. A tragic combination of factors has led to violence that wantonly targets and victimizes civilians. One element is the geography of the conflict. In both Syria and Iraq, most people live in cities, so that is where the violence is concentrated. Syria and Iraq illustrate what Margarita Konaev and John Spencer call a “growing trend in global conflict” where wars “are being fought in densely populated urban areas, at a tremendously high cost to the civilians living there.” 

The U.S. May Be Winning Battles, but Is It Losing the War?

Wars resembling Syria’s civil war will share other attributes both on and off the battlefield, with profound and troubling implications for the United States. As is all too clear today, the U.S. is unequipped to fight or resolve insurgency-style conflicts. America may be unsurpassed at waging a traditional, unambiguous war where the antagonists and battlefield are clear. But it is a different story for operations that are not defined by the law of armed conflict, where battlefield victory not does equal strategic success, and when the conflict doesn’t last a relatively short time with a clear beginning and end: in other words, the war in Syria, and the future wars it signals. 

Why the U.S. Military Needs a New Approach to Psychological Warfare

Warfare has always been both physical and psychological. In the modern era, militaries turned to communication technology and psychology to weaken the will of their adversaries and anyone who might support them. Soldiers were trained to craft and transmit messages and propaganda, while psychological operations became a particular military specialization. Over time, the U.S. military got quite good at this. But now, much has changed. Technology gives individuals the ability to share images of or information about a conflict with global audiences, potentially shaping perceptions more than any traditional psychological operations specialist ever could. Psychological warfare has become dispersed and democratized, and the target audience for psychological warfare has expanded globally. Social media is the linchpin of this seismic change in the character of conflict, and to remain effecive in this new environment, the U.S. military needs a new capability to shape the narrative of conflict.

You can learn much more about how Syrian civil war combatants and the fight against a seemingly endless insurgency reflect the future of war, and a wide variety of other issues, in the vast, searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR): 

The future of war is here, and it doesn’t look good, in What Syria Reveals About the Future of War 

Civilians are in the crosshairs of Syrian civil war combatants, in Today’s Urban Battles in Syria and Iraq May Be a Preview of a Grim Future of War 

The U.S. military will be fighting wars it isn’t prepared for, in The United States Isn’t Ready for Future, Syria-Style Wars 

The U.S. military's approach to information operations needs updating, in Social Media Has Democratized Psychological Warfare. Can the U.S. Military Adapt? 

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