Military in the Middle East

views updated


internal security and external conflict have heightened the importance of the military in most middle eastern countries.

The use of force and weaponry, including weapons of mass destruction, continues to play a large role in the Middle East. Aggravated by conflicts between and among Middle Eastern nations and their populations, military considerations are paramount in diverse situations ranging from the IsraeliPalestinian conflict to various international terrorist threats, such as that posed by the al-Qaʿida movement, to the fear that various "rogue" states will either use weapons of mass destruction to further their goals or provide them to terrorist movements.

The history of the military and the quest for security in the modern Middle East can be examined on three often interlocking levels: internal, regional, and international. The history of each nation reveals a variety of religious, ethnic, tribal, ideological, social, and economic conflicts that often result in violence and therefore also result in a prominent role for the military in internal security. At the regional level, the quest for hegemony by one state has often led to wars among Middle Eastern states, as well as to the exploitation of the internal problems of rival nations. Finally, the Middle East has been an important arena in the international rivalries of the great powers.

Military Organization

European nations and the United States have had a great impact on the training, organizing, and equipping of the military in the Middle East. This accelerated during the nineteenth century, largely due to rivalries among European countries. The result has been a tendency for Middle Eastern nations to organize their militaries along Western lines. More traditional tribal armies, such as that led by Amir Faisal (Faisal I, who later became King of Iraq) and T. E. Lawrence in World War I, continued to play a role but decreasingly so as they were eclipsed by modern forces. For instance, the Ottoman army had significant successes, including the decisive defeat of 200,000 Allied troops at Gallipoli in 1915, the surrender of an entire British army in Mesopotamia in 1916, and continued occupation of Medina throughout the war. The legacy of the Ottomans continued long after the end of the empire in the contributions of trained officers, Arab as well as Turkish, to the emerging nations of the Middle East. Foremost among these was Atatürk, but many Arab leaders, such as Iraq's Nuri al-Saʿid, were graduates of Ottoman military colleges and learned from Ottoman officers.

Active force levels
 1955 or 1956196519691975
CountryPopulation in millionForce level in thousandsForce as percentage of populationPopulation in millionsForce level in thousandsForce as percentage of populationPopulation in millionsForce level in thousandsForce as percentage of populationPopulation in millionsForce level in thousandsForce as percentage of population
Table 1 by GGS Information Services, The Gale Group.
Israel1.8250 13.88 2.637514.422.828010.183.41564.59
Saudi Arabia3.2451.416560.938.9630.71
United Arab Emirates0.461.50
Yemen, North5601.206.5320.49
Yemen, South1.310.50.841.7180.23

This trend toward Westernization of the military has continued to the point that most Middle Eastern militaries are mirror images of one or more Western models. The model chosen is normally a function of which of the great powers has provided the most support to a nation. Turkey, as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), organizes its forces along American lines, with doctrine, training, and equipment closely paralleling that of the U.S. military. Iraq, since the 1958 revolution, has traditionally looked to the Soviet Union for support, and its military has reflected this. It has often been said that the success of the United States and its European allies in the 1991 Gulf War stemmed from their fighting an enemy they had been training to fight for decades: the Soviet military organization. Political alliances with Cold War rivals have changed, often rapidly, but change in the military comes more slowly. The result was often a hybrid military.

Israel presents a unique case. At first glance, its military appears to be much like those of the NATO nations from which much of its equipment comes. Some factors, however, make Israel different. Much of its equipment is captured, and imported equipment is often dramatically modified; how else could World War IIvintage Sherman tanks have been successful in the ArabIsrael War of 1973? The successes of the Israeli military affect doctrine and organization, not only in Israel but in other nations whose militaries study those successes and in turn contribute to the Israeli military. Finally, the organization of the Israeli military is more reminiscent of the Swiss citizen army than of the armies of other countries. While most militaries have a reserve system, few have one as extensive as Israel's. Almost all males and many females of military age are in the reserves, on active duty at least thirty consecutive days annually, and available for mobilization in seventy-two hours.

CountryPopulation in millionForce level in thousandsForce as percentage of populationPopulation in millionsForce level in thousandsForce as percentage of populationPopulation in millionsForce level in thousandsForce as percentage of populationPopulation in millionsForce level in thousandsForce as percentage of population
aNumbers very problematic because of revolution and refugees
bNumbers very problematic because of overthrow of the Taliban by U.S. and Afghan forces
Note: Figures for Yemen after unification of North and South Yemen are reported in the line item for Yemen, North.
source: J. C. Hurewitz, Middle East Politics: The Military Dimension (1969); T. N. Dupuy, The Almanac of World Military Power (1970); and annual issues of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London: Oxford University Press).
Saudi Arabia864.50.8110.6131.51.2419.3162.50.8422.2201.50.91
United Arab Emirates0.925.12.781.7442.571.8664.53.472.665.02.50
Yemen, North7.536.60.4911.5650.5614.842.00.2818.954.00.29
Yemen, South1.920.81.11

Table 1 on active-force levels shows the impact of the military in the Middle East since the Sinai/Suez war of 1956. These figures reflect the many conflicts with which nations in the area have been involved. The figures for Israel are illustrative. In excess of 10 percent of the population was in the military through the 1960s because the military included citizen-armies. The figures after 1969 reflect only those reservists on active duty, but even here Israel has maintained the highest percentage of the population in the military of any Middle Eastern nation. This is a heavy burden but reflects the price that Israel has had to pay for the protracted ArabIsrael conflict. Arab nations around Israel have also maintained large military establishments. Egypt, for example, had almost 1 percent of its population in the military at the end of the 1970s, and both Jordan and Syria had more than 2 percent. By comparison, in 1990 the United States had 0.68 percent of its population on active military duty, with global force projection objectives far greater than any Middle Eastern nation.

Any reduction of force levels would have long-term benefits, including the minimization of the potential for conflict and of the destruction of lives and property that results from conflict. It would also free manpower for more productive activities. Table 2 on defense costs as a percentage of gross national product (GNP) or gross domestic product (GDP) illustrates the amount of fiscal resources that could be put to other uses. An example of this may be seen in the figures for Iran. As war with Iraq loomed, and as a carryover of the shah's perceived role as policeman of the Persian Gulf, Iran spent 13.24 percent of its GNP on defense in 1979. After the end

Defense costs as percentage of Gross National or Gross Domestic Product
CountryGNP (billions of U.S. $)Defense (% of GNP)GNP (billions of U.S. $)Defense (% of GNP)GNP (billions of U.S. $)Defense (% of GNP)GDP (billions of U.S. $)Defense (% of GNP)GDP (billions of U.S. $)Defense (% of GDP)GDP (billions of U.S. $)Defense (% of GDP)GDP (billions of U.S. $)Defense (% of GDP)
aBecause of the revolution, the ascendancy of the Taliban, its subsequent overthrow by U.S. Forces and Northern Alliance and the difficulties in establishing national control, any figures for Afghanistan are very problematic.
Note: Figures for Yemen after unification of North and South Yemen are reported in the line item for Yemen, North.
source: J.C. Hurewitz, Middle East Politics: The Military Dimension (1969); T. N. Dupuy, The Almanac of World Military Power (1970); and annual issues of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. (London: Oxford University Press).
Table 2 by GGS Information Services, The Gale Group.
Saudi Arabia1.528.62.4013.401252.9064.2022.0987.9736.2212510.5618510.11
United Arab Emirates0.49126.2533.677.69394.87585.86
Yemen, North0.522.701.505.277.9812.5393.836.47.78
Yemen, South0.2314.600.55.200.5011.20

of the war with Iraq and the subsequent weakening of Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, that percentage went down to 6.34.

The high force levels in the Middle East reflect more than the conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Internal conflicts tend to drive up the levels as well. The figures for Iraq illustrate this tendency. The Kurdish minority in the north was in a state of rebellion when the Baʿth came to power in 1968, forcing a growth in the force level from 0.68 percent of the population in 1955 to more than 1 percent in 1965, 1969, and 1975. The temporary end of the revolt in 1975 may have contributed to the force level reduction in 1979.

However, the relatively low force levels for strife-torn Lebanon may be deceptive since they do not reflect sectarian militias or the presence of Israeli and Syrian troops; if these were factored in, the Lebanese force levels would probably be much higher and more reflective of the level of civil unrest. The same could be said of any number of Middle Eastern conflicts, from the internal unrest in Iraq as it relates to Kurdish populations outside Iraq, who may look toward Iraqi Kurds as the vanguard of a Kurdish nation incorporating Kurdish populations in neighboring countriesa source of Middle Eastern tension that may well rival that between Arabs and Israelisto the desires of Shiʿite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere who resent domination

by Sunni minorities. These conflicts, and others, although perhaps not as well known in the West, will probably continue to foster an elevated level of military and paramilitary investment on the part of Middle Eastern nations.

Military involvement in the internal affairs of other nations also requires an increase in the force level; Egypt's dispatching almost 70,000 troops to Yemen by 1965 to support the military revolt there partially accounts for the increase in Egypt's level from 0.35 percent in 1955 to 0.61 percent in 1965. Conflicts among nations in the Middle East also tend to drive up force levels. This can be seen not only in the figures for Israel and its immediate neighbors but also for Iran and Iraq. After the fall of the shah in 1979, and before the long war between Iraq and Iran and the Gulf War of 1991, the force levels for Iraq increased dramatically.

Finally, the potential for conflict outside the Middle East has an impact on force levels. Turkey has maintained relatively high force levels because of its commitments to NATO and because of the dispute between the Greek and Turkish populations in Cyprus. The NATO commitment dates to the Cold War and the end of that conflict may change the force level requirements. Any change will, however, depend on the role of NATO in the future, and the troop levels that role requires. The conflict

Force structure: active and reserve troops in thousands (Army, Air Force, and Navy only)
 ArmyAir ForceNavyArmyAir ForceNavyArmyAir ForceNavy
Table 3 by GGS Information Services, The Gale Group.
Saudi Arabia30205140165.51.5352081.5
United Arab Emirates623.50.750.9
Yemen, North102030201.70.3352010.6
Yemen, South100.350.1515.22.50.3191.30.5
 ArmyAir ForceNavyArmyAir ForceNavyArmyAir ForceNavy
aDue to instability in the area reliable figures are not available
Note: Figures for Yemen after unification of North and South Yemen are reported in the line item for Yemen, North. Force totals may not match Table 1 because of differences in force structures regarding air defense, marines, coast guard, paramilitary forces, etc.
source: T. N. Dupuy, The Almanac of World Military Power (1970); and annual issues of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London: Oxford University Press).
Saudi Arabia4555189.570.018.013.575.020.015.5
United Arab Emirates402.51.559.04.01.559.04.02.0
Yemen, North60402337.
Yemen, South
Defense equipment
CountryMedium and Heavy TanksCombat AircraftNavel VesselsMedium and Heavy TanksCombat AircraftNavel VesselsMedium and Heavy TanksCombat AircraftNavel VesselsMedium and Heavy TanksCombat AircraftNavel VesselsMedium and Heavy TanksCombat AircraftNavel VesselsMedium and Heavy CombatNavel TanksAircraft Vessels
aWe need the same generic statement for all tables to the effect that Civil War, brief Taliban control, US/Northern Alliance control, continued disruptions, etc., make numbers unreliable
source: T.N. Dupuy, The Almanac of World Military Power (1960); and annual issues of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London: Oxford University Press).
Table 4 by GGS Information Services, The Gale Group.
Saudi Arabia184423175954350178134700253431,055313591,25534856
United Arab Emirates30529131100212011412648615025
Yemen, North30243012523211101,275101391,1251112291011918
Yemen, South1835027926010916

in Cyprus remains a stalemate, with no progress being made in United Nationsled talks between the two sides since January 2002.

Tables 3 and 4 on force structure and defense equipment reflect the increasing modernization of the military in the Middle East. With the exception of Turkey, naval forces are modest. Turkey's commitment to NATO has resulted in the largest navy in the area by far, not only in the number of ships but in their size. Egypt, Israel, and Libya have large numbers of naval vessels, but most of these are small and include patrol craft, which are more defensive than offensive.

Most area nations rely heavily on ground and air forces. For example, Israel in 2000 had 120,000 in its active army, 37,000 active air force, and only 6,500 active navy; Syria's figures were 280,000, 40,000, and 6,000, respectively. The equipment of the ground and air forces reflects modern force structures. Ground forces are heavily mechanized, as the figures for heavy and medium tanks show. Accompanying these tanks are large numbers of tracked armored personnel carriers for mechanized infantry, tracked artillery pieces, and modern rocket artillery. Most of this is imported, but an increasing amount is available from local industries. The Israelis have displayed ingenuity in weapons development with the Merkava main battle tank; reactive armor; small-arms weaponry, such as the Uzi sub-machine gun and Galil assault rifle; and a purported nuclear capability. Other nations have vigorous domestic programs aimed at producing weapons or upgrading imported weapons. Iraq not only tried to develop nuclear weapons, a program set back by the pre-emptive Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor in 1981, but also had a program for an ultra-long-range artillery tube. Iraq also was developing range improvements for its ballistic missiles before the invasion in 2003. Iran's nuclear program aroused alarm in the United States, fueled by its reticence to allow international inspection of its programs. Both Iran and Iraq have had vigorous chemical and biological weapons programs, and it is likely that other nations have done the same.

The Middle East has developed a modern, lethal military capability to wage war on the ground, including sophisticated air defense forces. Matching this modern capability to wage war on the ground is an equally modern air capability. A number of Middle Eastern air forces have fielded the latest American and Soviet aircraft and avionics, all of which are capable of destroying opposing aircraft and supporting ground forces.

A wide variety of weapons systems from an equally wide variety of sources gives the forces in the Middle East, at least theoretically. highly lethal capabilities. Training, maintenance, and supply issues do, however, temper that capability. Some examples of the weapons systems proliferating in the Middle East provide an illustration of the potential effectiveness of the forces. In 1996, well after the Gulf War, Iraq reportedly retained significant numbers of Soviet-bloc surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), ranging from the heavy SA 2, 3, and 6 to the lighter SA 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, and 16, giving it a capability of air defense from fixed-site SAMs, mobile SAMs, and hand-held SAMs. A wide variety also exists in surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missile capability. Iran used about 100 Scud B missiles in its war with Iraq. This missile, which is also in the inventories of Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and possibly Iraq and Yemen, has a pay-load of 1,760 pounds (800 kg) of high explosives and a range of 186 miles (300 km). Saudi Arabia has the Chinese-produced CSS-2 missile, which has a range of 1,740 miles (2,800 km) and a payload of 4,730 pounds (2,150 km).

One must also factor in nontraditional military forces when evaluating this aspect of the Middle East. These include the role of terrorist groups and paramilitary organizations that have no parallel in Western militaries. Tribal and ethnic organizations with military arms can also have a great impact. The recent conflict against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, in which the United States allied itself with tribal paramilitaries normally called the Northern Alliance, illustrates that conflict in the Middle East does not necessarily follow patterns familiar to the Western military. Because of this, the numbers in the various tables of this article cannot adequately reflect the role of nontraditional military forces; they can only roughly measure the order of magnitude of forces from a Western point of view and offer calculations that are useful mainly in estimating the results of conventional conflict.

Internal Conflicts

Middle Eastern military forces have been often been involved in internal conflicts such as domestic unrest, revolutions, and coups d'état. All Middle Eastern countries have police forces dedicated to internal security. Civil strife, however, has often overwhelmed the police forces of many nations. In such cases, the military has assisted in maintaining internal security. Success has been mixed. In Lebanon, the weak state-run army has usually been unable to guarantee domestic peace. This has led to the creation of militias by sectarian rivals, which have the role of maintaining order in their respective areas. Israeli (19822000) and Syrian armed forces have also assumed a role in maintaining internal security in parts of Lebanon, with mixed results.

Turkish, Iranian, and Iraqi Kurdish groups seeking increased autonomy or independence have presented internal security problems for those regimes, resulting in the use of the military to restore order. Turkey and Iran have usually been able to achieve a modicum of order through normal police powers and the occasional use of the military. Iraq, by the mid-1970s, had also restored order through military force, but this broke down during the war with Iran and again after the Gulf War (1991).

During its first months of independence, the newly consolidated Israel Defense Force (IDF) under David Ben-Gurion resorted to force to disarm rival Revisionist Zionist terrorist groups such as the Irgun Zvaʾi Leʾumi and the Stern Gang and to ensure their loyalty to a single command. From 1948 to 1965, the army was responsible for administering security and other restrictions on the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel. After the 1967 war, the IDF used military force to maintain security in the occupied territories, but the Israeli police forces have that responsibility within Israel proper. One branch of the Israel National Police is the border guard, which is deployed throughout Israel and the occupied territories. This branch, called the Mishmar ha-Gvul, is organized along IDF military lines and is available to augment the IDF as necessary. This organization is staffed by significant numbers of Druze, Circassians, Bedouin, and other minorities and is open to eighteen-year-old recruits who can choose service with the border guard instead of the IDF. Many commentators predict that military force may have to be used in the event of a peace settlement to control Jewish militants who oppose returning any territory to Arab authority, as was the case during the evacuation of the Jewish settlement of Yamit during the 1982 Israeli evacuation of Sinai, in conformity with the IsraeliEgyptian peace treaty of 1979.

Since World War II, Middle Eastern military establishments have differed from those of Europe and North America in the extent of their participation in revolutions and coups d'état. Some countries have experienced relatively few military coups. Iran has faced two changes of power since World War IIthe temporary assumption of power by Mohammad Mossadegh in the early 1950s and the overthrow of the shah in 1979but the military did not play a major role in either. In Lebanon, the central government has never been strong enough to develop a powerful military, and no coup by a government military has been feasible. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, and Morocco are monarchies that have shown remarkable stability in a tumultuous area, and none has faced a serious political threat from its military. The use of tribal levies loyal to the monarch to form large parts of the military may explain this. Tunisia also has not faced a military revolt, although its president, Habib Bourguiba, was deposed by a general serving as prime minister in 1987. Presumably, the military approved.

The experience of other Middle Eastern states has been different. Turkey, long viewed as a paragon of stability in the area, has had three military coups since World War II: in 1960, 1971, and 1980. In all three cases, however, power was eventually returned to civilian politicians. Elsewhere, military coups have resulted in governments run by military leaders, some retaining their uniforms, some shedding them for civilian garb but still relying on the military for their power. King Farouk of Egypt was overthrown in 1952 by a group of military officers led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Since that time, Egypt has been ruled by a succession of former military officers: Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, and Husni Mubarak. Algeria achieved independence from France through military revolt in 1962, and the Algerian military has played a primary role in governing the nation since that time. In 1965, led by Colonel Houari Boumédienne, it overthrew the government of Ahmed Ben Bella; in 1991 it obtained the resignation of President Chadli Bendjedid after elections appeared to presage a turn to Islamic fundamentalism. Syria, Iraq, and Libya have all had similar experiences with their militaries taking control of the government.

Conflict between States

Violence between countries is not uncommon in the Middle East. The Israeli declaration of independence in May 1948 triggered an invasion of Palestine by armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, with volunteers from elsewhere. These were repulsed by an Israeli military that was at the time, and has been since, underrated in terms of numbers and equipment. Since 1948, Israel and its Arab neighbors have fought a succession of wars. The first, in 1956, was fought in collusion with two aging empiresBritain and Franceand began with an Israeli quasi-blitzkrieg campaign in the Sinai. The 1967 war followed the pattern of the 1956 Sinai campaign, with a surprise attack and dramatic gains by Israel on three fronts, but without the collusion of European powers or the subsequent international pressure to withdraw from territories Israel won from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

After 1967, Israeli military successes were not nearly so spectacular. Caught by surprise in the war of 1973, the Israelis fell victim to their 1967 success. Ignoring some of the lessons of combined-arms warfare that led to a quick victory in the earlier war, particularly the need for infantry support of armor and the critical role artillery plays, Israel was eventually able to repulse the Egyptians and Syrians. The humbling of the Israeli military and the aura of Arab success created conditions that helped produce a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979. The lesson might be that a military force does not have to win to achieve political success, but the problem is how to engineer a loss that leads to success.

The Israeli experience in Lebanon in 1982 is also instructive. Israel has not faced a military coup since it was established, but the role of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon in this operation came close to being a coup. Sharon directed operations far beyond those envisioned by the cabinet headed by Menachem Begin, but was restrained by both international and domestic pressures. Given the potential power of the Israeli right, one cannot exclude the possibility that a militant general might one day become a threat to an elected Israeli government, much like the majors and colonels who have overthrown numerous Arab governments since World War II.

While ArabIsrael wars have captured international headlines over the years, they were not the only wars fought between nations in the Middle East. There have been several mini-wars, mostly border skirmishes between Egypt and Libya, Syria and Jordan, Morocco and the former Spanish Sahara, and others. During the 1960s, Egypt became involved in a protracted campaign in Yemen in support of a revolutionary regime against a royal counterrevolution. This involved thousands of troops, the use of chemical weapons, and the weakening of the Egyptian military to the point that it could not cope with the Israeli surprise attack in June 1967.

The most protracted military encounter was that between Iraq and Iran from 1980 to 1988. The causes of this war included disputes over the border between Iran and Iraq, exploitation of minority and sectarian unrest, particularly among the Kurds and Shiʿa, and the question of which nation would be the primary force in the Persian Gulf. The border dispute centered on the Shatt al-Arab and dated back to Ottoman times. The fall of the shah of Iran in 1979 gave Iraq an opportunity to assert primacy in the Gulf. This, along with the threat that Iran would export its Islamic revolution and the continued subversion of dissident groups in each country, led to an escalation of fighting along the border, and on 17 September 1980 Iraq declared the Shatt al-Arab to be a totally Iraqi waterway. The war that followed was costly. The cost to Iran was about $206 billion, while Iraqi costs were around $147 billion. Firm casualty figures may never be established, but Iranian casualties are estimated at between 1 million and 2 million and Iraqi casualties at between 500,000 and 1 million. Of these, the number of dead ranges from 450,000 to 730,000 for Iran and 150,000 to 340,000 for Iraq. The failure of both sides to force a decision may have been as much political as ideological in nature. In both countries, loyalty to the regime is a valued commodity for the leadership, and military promotions depend as much on loyalty as on military skill. In Iran, the fall of the shah was followed by the decimation of the officer corps and a reliance on religious fanaticism, which led to mass attacks by poorly trained soldiers and militia, with horrendous casualties. Finally, the war was controlled from Baghdad and Tehran with relatively little freedom of action for the commanders on the scene. It may be that victory was associated with a higher level of discretion by local commanders and defeat with strategic and tactical decisions made by the political or ideological leadership in the capitals.

The high cost of the IranIraq War, and the failure of either side to win a decisive victory in spite of the extensive use of chemical weapons, led to the cease-fire of 8 August 1988, brokered by the United Nations with heavy pressure from the United States, European nations, and Iraq's Arab neighbors. Both sides set about rebuilding their military establishments, embarking on ambitious programs to increase their chemical warfare potential and to develop nuclear weapons. There were also efforts to improve artillery and missile-delivery capabilities to provide a more accurate means of projecting munitions.

It was not long before one side felt strong enough to again challenge its neighbors. Less than two years after the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq, on 2 August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, precipitating American and international involvement in the form of operations Desert Shield and Desert Stormthe Gulf War of 1991. Within hours, an Iraqi force that eventually numbered 140,000, with 1,800 tanks, dispatched a Kuwaiti military of 16,000 troops and occupied the nation. Iraq began the invasion able to field an army of 1 million, seasoned by eight hard years of fighting with Iran. Iraq's potential enemies were initially not well situated. Kuwait's ability to fight had been destroyed. Saudi Arabia, viewed by many as Iraq's next target, had a force of only 70,000 troops, 550 tanks, and 850 artillery pieces, far smaller than Iraq's force. The Saudis did have a credible air-defense capability and 155 F-15 and F-5 fighter aircraft. The other Gulf states had some forces but not nearly enough to match Iraq's. Without outside intervention, Iraq had every expectation of retaining Kuwait and possibly threatening Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Contrary to Iraqi expectations, the building of that outside force began within hours of the invasion. The United States decided to implement Plan 100290, designed to defend Saudi Arabia. Within a week, the United States deployed 122 F-15s and F-16s to augment the air cover available to the Saudis. By the middle of September, almost 700 aircraft were in place. As the weeks rolled by, the United States, operating under the authority of the United Nations, set about building a coalition force to defend Saudi Arabia and expel Iraq from Kuwait. By January 1991, the coalition force included contingents from the Persian Gulf states, Egypt, Syria, the United States, and several European countries, including some from the old Warsaw Pact bloc. The numbers deployed were impressivealmost 800,000.

At the beginning of the ground war, Iraq had about 250,000 troops in the Kuwaiti theater of operations. These were backed by 4,000 tanks, 3,000 pieces of artillery, and 3,000 armored personnel carriers. Iraq also had Scud missiles capable of reaching Israel and chemical warfare capability. The Iraqi navy, however, was negligible, and the air force, although sizable, was not a factor after substantial numbers of American aircraft arrived in the area.

On 16 January 1991 (Washington time; 17 January in Iraq), Operation Desert Storm began with an intensive air campaign of four phases. The land war began on 24 February and lasted only 100 hours. The success of the air campaign may be seen in the numbers of tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery pieces remaining on 24 February. Of an estimated 4,280 tanks, 1,772 were out of operation. Iraq had only 53 percent of its prewar artillery and just 67 percent of its armored vehicles. The ground campaign was even more brutal. Total Iraqi losses in January and February were 3,847 tanks, 1,450 armored vehicles, and 2,917 artillery pieces. Although no firm numbers exist on Iraqi casualties and the original estimates of 100,000 killed were exaggerated, a total of 35,000 is not unlikely. This compares with 240 deaths for coalition forces.

Arab states, which had heretofore been notably weak in coalition warfare (as shown by their wars with Israel), were able to derive satisfaction from their successful performance against Iraq, under the tutelage of the United States, in 1991. The experience of the Gulf War may instill a confidence that can be transferred via the noncommissioned officer corps and the officer corps to younger soldiers. The status of the military in those Arab countries, especially the mechanized ground forces and the air forces, has been enhanced. As these are the most modern components of the forces, this may result in a more favorable view of modernization in Arab nations. If the prospects for peace in the area improve and the numbers in the military decrease, then more military personnel with this modern experience will return to civilian life.

Operation Desert Storm ended with the total military defeat of Iraq and its ejection from Kuwait. It left Saddam Hussein in power with considerable military forces at his command. In 2000 he had over 400,000 in his active force structure, with 600,000 reserves, over 2,000 tanks, and 300 aircraft. There were no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq, enforced by coalition forces, but only for fixed-wing flights. Saddam was able to suppress revolts by Iraqi Kurds and Shiʿa with ground forces and rotary-wing aircraft.

The defeat of Iraq did lead to the destruction of large amounts of chemical weapons and for several years UN inspections precluded the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)chemical, biological, and nuclear. These inspections were suspended for a time but resumed in 2002 because of pressure from the United States, which believed that Iraq had an active program to develop WMD, had secreted significant amounts of such weapons, and was improving its missiles for delivery of such weapons.

The inspection regime was cut short in 2003 when the United States and the United Kingdom attacked, acting on intelligence indicating the possession of chemical and biological weapons and a vigorous program to develop and field nuclear weapons. The United Nations withdrew its inspectors, and the United States and United Kingdom formed a coalition outside the aegis of the United Nations to topple Saddam's regime and destroy its WMD capability.

The coalition consisted of fifty-seven nations, but the United States and United Kingdom provided the overwhelming bulk of forces. The scope of the coalition can be assessed by the fact that it included Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, but did not include China, France, Germany, or Russia.

The coalition launched military action against Iraq on 19 March 2003 and declared victory on 1 May. The campaign included simultaneous operations by special operations units, mobile land forces, and air strikes. By 5 April, U.S. forces were in Baghdad, and Saddam's home base of Tikrit fell on 14 April. For the most part, the Iraqi military surrendered en masse or went home. Hussein and his top leadership went underground; several surrendered or were caught or killed over the next few months. Hussein was finally captured by American troops in December 2003.

The military campaign resulted in minimal coalition casualties: fewer than 400 coalition deaths during the campaign and the six months of occupation after 1 May. Use of precision weapons, the surrender of large numbers of the Iraqi military, and the defection of thousands more minimized Iraqi military and civilian casualties, although precise figures were not available at the time of publication.

The successful military campaign gave way to a torturous period of occupation and reconstruction after 1 May. Many of Saddam's military continued to resist the coalition through guerrilla warfare that included attacks on coalition personnel and sabotage of reconstruction efforts. These guerrilla activities were reportedly augmented by terrorist groups from outside Iraq, encouraged by al-Qaʿida and other groups. The failure of the coalition to find WMD or verify the WMD programs that prewar intelligence had indicated presented problems in gaining broader international support and eroded public support in the United States and United Kingdom.

Considerable criticism has been leveled at the intelligence upon which the coalition attack was based. The intelligence does appear to have led to a quick military victory. The criticism, however, centers on the actual threat Iraq posed with its alleged WMD, the ability of the Iraqi military and paramilitary forces to wage guerrilla war after coalition victory, and what would be necessary and actually available to reconstruct the country.

Conflicts with and among the Great Powers

In addition to internal conflicts and wars among area nations, the military in the Middle East has also been involved in conflicts with and among the great powers. In some cases, the local military has had to repulse the incursions of the great powers. They were not generally successful, but there are notable exceptions. The Afghans were formidable foes of the British during the nineteenth century and of the Soviets after 1979. Such success enhanced the status of those under arms and led to greater participation of the military in political decision making. The numerous conflicts in which the Ottoman Empire was involved until the end of World War I led to the increased power of the military in political life and effective control of the government by such military leaders as Enver Paşa. This pattern continued after World War I, with political leadership in the Middle East often devolving on military heroes. During both world wars, the military in the Middle East gained a great deal of experience. Many Arabs remained loyal to the Ottoman Empire and fought in its armies, while others joined forces with Britain against the Turks. French North African divisions fought in the trenches of the western front in World War I. Other European nations had levies of colonial troops in both world wars, and Jews from Palestine served with the Jewish Mule Corps at Gallipoli in World War I and with the Jewish Brigade in Italy in World War II. The experiences of these veterans were critical to the revolutionary movements that ousted Europeans from the Middle East after World War II, and many assumed leadership roles in the new governments.

The Role of the Military

Because of the level of conflict in the Middle East, the role of the military looms large. This is because large portions of the population and much of the national wealth are devoted to military establishments. One way of understanding the Middle Eastern military is in terms of the homogeneity or heterogeneity of the state. In a homogeneous state, such as Egypt, the military serves as a mechanism of upward mobility for the lower middle classes, as is seen in the careers of Nasser and Sadat. In a heterogeneous state, such as Iraq or Syria, the military serves as a way for a minority, such as the Syrian Alawites or Iraqi Sunnis, to achieve power.

Much as been made of the function of the military as the school of the nation. The military has been increasingly a modern segment of Middle Eastern society, and many believe that this modernization carries over into societies in general. This may be true, but it should not be exaggerated. As the military becomes more career oriented, fewer officers return to civilian life to influence society with their modern skills. Enlisted personnel may learn to operate sophisticated equipment, but if they do not have such devices when they return to their villages, that skill may be of little use. The experience of Israela heterogeneous society populated by peoples from all over the world, speaking different languagesis instructive. From 1948 on, the formative common experience of Israelis was their military training and service, during which they learned to share a common language and common values, emphasizing the need to unite in defending the existence of their state. This model could be instructive for other Middle Eastern nations with diverse populations. Whether it is, however, will depend on internal developments within the societies of the Arab, Turkish, and Iranian nations of the area. Whether it will continue to be the pattern in Israel is also questionable. In recent years, Israel has incorporated a large number of graduates from religious Zionist military academies into its military establishment. Not sharing the common experience of other, secularized Israelis in the military, these recruits may cause the military to become less of a school of the nation than it traditionally has been.

The Future

What does the future hold for the role of the military in the Middle East? As long as internal and international strife continue in the area, the military will continue to play a large role. National resources will be devoted to military affairs, and a large portion of the populations will serve. Economic and technological spin-offs will continue, sometimes beneficial but not without negative aspects. The end of the Cold War during the early 1990s seemed to hold out some hope for greater stability and a reduced role for the military in this volatile area. Yet, although there is no longer the intense rivalry between the United States and its allies and one hand the Soviet Union and its allies on the other, the economic resources of the region, not the least of which is oil, continue to result in nations outside the region pursuing their own economic goals and using the continuing regional conflicts to enhance their positions.

Other factors also point to a continuing preeminent role for the military in the Middle East: the eruption and duration of the al-Aqsa Intifada since September 2000, the American destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan following the al-Qaʿida terrorist attack of 11 September 2001, continuing sectarian strife throughout the area, and the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism, with violent terrorist acts extending far from the borders of the Middle East. All these serve to remind us that the region remains one with more than its fair share of unresolved, protracted conflict and instabilityand one in which we may expect a continuing prominent role for the military.

see also aqsa intifada, al-; arabisrael war (1948); arabisrael war (1956); arabisrael war (1967); arabisrael war (1973); arabisrael war (1982); gulf war (1991); iraniraq war (19801988); kurdish revolts; ottoman military; war in iraq (2003); yemen civil war.


Abdulghani, J. M. Iraq and Iran: The Years of Crisis. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Aruri, Naseer H., ed. Middle East Crucible: Studies on the ArabIsraeli War of October 1973. Wilmette, IL: Medina University Press International, 1975.

Asher, Jerry, and Hammel, Eric. Duel for the Golan: The 100-Hour Battle that Saved Israel. New York: Morrow, 1987.

Bar-Siman-Tov, Yaacov. The IsraeliEgyptian War of Attrition, 19691970: A Case-Study of Limited Local War. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Beeri, Eliezer. Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society, translated by Dov Ben-Abba. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Cordesman, Anthony H. Iran and Iraq: The Threat from the Northern Gulf. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

Cordesman, Anthony H., and Wagner, Abraham R. The Lessons of Modern War, Vol 2: Iran-Iraq War, and Vol. 3: The Afghan and Falklands Conflicts. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 19901996.

Dayan, Moshe. Diary of the Sinai Campaign. Jerusalem: Steimatzy's, 1966.

Fisher, Sydney Nettleton, ed. The Military in the Middle East: Problems in Society and Government. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1963.

Freedman, Lawrence, and Karsh, Efraim. The Gulf Conflict, 19901991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Friedman, Norman. Desert Victory: The War for Kuwait. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press 1991.

Haykal, Mohamed H. Cutting the Lion's Tail: Suez through Egyptian Eyes. London: A. Deutsch, 1986.

Hurewitz, J. C. Middle East Politics: The Military Dimension. New York: Praeger, published for the Council on Foreign Relations, 1969.

Joffe, Lawrence. "Research Guide: The Military in the Middle East." Middle East Review of International Affairs at Bar-Ilan University. Available from <>.

Karsh, Efraim, ed. The IranIraq War: Impact and Implications. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989; Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, in association with the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel-Aviv University, 1987.

Khalaf, Samir. Lebanon's Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Khalidi, Walid. Conflict and Violence in Lebanon: Confrontation in the Middle East. Cambridge, MA: Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, 1979.

Kimche, David, and Bawly, Dan. The Sandstorm: The ArabIsraeli War of June 1967: Prelude and Aftermath. New York: Stein and Day; London: Secker and Warburg, 1968.

Kurzman, Dan. Genesis 1948: The First ArabIsraeli War. New York: World Publishing, 1970.

Larkin, Margaret. The Six Days of Yad Mordechai. Tel Aviv: Maʾarachoth, 1965.

Lorch, Netanel. Shield of Zion: The Israeli Defense Forces. Charlottesville, VA: Howell Press, 1991.

Macleish, Roderick. The Sun Stood Still: Israel and the Arabs at War. New York: Atheneum, 1967.

Marshall, S. L. A. Sinai Victory: Command Decisions in History's Shortest War: Israel's Hundred-Hour Conquest of Egypt East of Suez, Autumn, 1956. New York: Morrow, 1958.

"Middle East." In A Dictionary of Military History and the Art of War, edited by André Corvisier and John Childs. Cambridge, MA, and Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1994.

Mohamedou, Mohammad-Mahmoud. Iraq and the Second Gulf War: State Building and Regime Security. San Francisco: Austin and Winfield, 1998.

O'Ballance, Edgar. No Victor, No Vanquished: The Yom Kippur War. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1979.

Pelletiere, Stephen C.; Johnson, Douglas V., II; and Rosenberger, Leif R. Iraqi Power and U.S. Security in the Middle East. Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1990.

Pollack, Kenneth M. Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 19481991. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Robertson, Terence. Crisis: The Inside Story of the Suez Conspiracy. New York: Atheneum; London: Hutchinson, 1964.

Scales, Robert H., Jr. Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, 1993.

Schiff, Zeʾev. A History of the Israeli Army: 1874 to the Present. New York: Macmillan, 1985.

Schiff, Zeʾev, and Ya'ari, Ehud. Israel's Lebanon War, translated by Ina Friedman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Schmidt, Dana Adams. Yemen: The Unknown War. New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston; London: Bodley Head, 1968.

Schubert, Frank N., and Kraus, Theresa L., eds. The Whirlwind War: The United States Army in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1994.

Schwarzkopf, H. Norman. It Doesn't Take a Hero: H. Norman Schwarzkopf, The Autobiography. New York: Bantam, 1992.

Sifry, Micah L., and Cerf, Christopher, eds. The Gulf War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions. New York: Times Books, 1991.

Thomas, Hugh. Suez. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Troen, Selwyn Ilan, and Shemesh, Moshe. The Suez-Sinai Crisis, 1956: Retrospective and Reappraisal. New York: Columbia University Press; London: F. Cass, 1990.

Watson, Bruce W., et al. Military Lessons of the Gulf War. Novato, CA: Presidio Press; London: Greenhill Books, 1991.

Wells, Samuel F., Jr., and Bruzonsky, Mark A., eds. Security in the Middle East: Regional Change and Great Power Strategies. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987.

Westwood, J. N. The History of the Middle East Wars. New York; London: Hamlyn. 1984.

Wiegele, Thomas C. The Clandestine Building of Libya's Chemical Weapons Factory: A Study in International Collusion. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

daniel e. spector

About this article

Military in the Middle East

Updated About content Print Article