Deterrence against Non-State Actors: Thoughts following Operation Protective Edge


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Recent years have witnessed the accelerated weakening of state actors in the Middle East. In turn, regular state armies are less able to grapple with an ensuing trend, namely, the strengthening of non-state actors and their heightened regional influence.

Semi-state actors such as Hamas and Hizbollah pose an immediate concrete threat to Israel; Islamic State (ISIS) can also be categorized as a semi-state entity. In contrast, there are organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Palestinian Islamic Jihad that have no connection to any geographic locale and feel no responsibility for the civilians under their control.

Organizations of this type are jihadist outfits operating seemingly unhindered, and they rely on the support of the population in which they operate less than semi-state entities. At present, there are not only semi-state entities along Israel’s borders, but also Salafist jihadist terrorist organizations along the entire border in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.

States, which bear responsibility for what happens in their territory and for the population under their rule, are relatively vulnerable, particularly when it comes to national infrastructures. In contrast, the deterrence of Salafist jihadist groups is a much more complex and difficult challenge.

The Concept of Deterrence

Deterrence against non-state – and especially jihadist – actors, lacks any academic or doctrine-based foundation. The IDF, like other Western armies, is forced to adapt the concept of deterrence, formulated for nuclear arms situations and refashioned for use for conventional weapons in the context of states and national and military coalitions, to the context of non-state actors.

Israel’s founding fathers developed the state’s security concept, in which deterrence played a major role. David Ben-Gurion stressed that Israel was incapable of achieving a strategic decision against all the Arab nations, and that it was therefore necessary that every military confrontation end with a clear outcome on the battlefield in order to postpone as much as possible the next round of fighting, ensure years of peace and calm, and allow the country to gain strength and prosperity.

Israel’s basic deterrence depends on two components: proven IDF capabilities and the leadership’s resolve to use force whenever necessary to create deterrence or undermine the enemy’s intentions to act against it. The IDF’s capabilities are a combination of military force, technology, and high quality manpower. The resolve of the leadership to use force when required and sometimes to maintain deterrence is necessary to complete and demonstrate the extent of the military capabilities.

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Over the years, Israel’s deterrence vis-à-vis the hostile Arab sphere was constructed with layers of force buildup and force application. The process generated a certain understanding among the region’s states that it was impossible to defeat Israel on the battlefield.

Israel’s deterrence consists of two levels: one, the strategic, with emphasis on deterrence against an initiated war against Israel because of the high cost in physical, economic, and social damage the enemy will have to pay for an attack; and two, the operational, intended to limit the impact of military and terrorist acts if the enemy decides to attack. In effect, the goal is convey that an attack that crosses the red line is tantamount to an attempt to change the rules of the game and will prompt Israel to respond with destructive force.

There is also an interplay of these two levels. For example, two decades ago the combined deterrence prompted Syria to stop building its offensive force designed to maneuver and seize control of the Golan Heights and transition instead to surface-to-surface rockets and missiles threatening the Israeli civilian rear in an attempt to deter Israel from initiating military actions against Syria. Hizbollah, with Iranian and Syrian help, did the same in its force buildup. As a result, mutual deterrence or a balance of deterrence developed. The situation is relatively stable because both sides, in tallying their cost-benefit analysis, choose to avoid the use of force.

The key to deterrence is the enemy’s understanding that the cost of losing in a military confrontation – as a result of severe damage to its capabilities, strategic assets, and economic and civilian infrastructures – is higher than any potential for gain in the confrontation. The start of a conflict by an enemy means that one’s strategic deterrence is gone, whether the conflict is initiated because of some long term goals the enemy feels justify the expected damage or as the result of erosion of Israel’s resolve to respond and risk escalation.

In this context, the time factor is critical: strategic deterrence must be effective for several years. Still, effective operational deterrence is supposed to limit the enemy’s use of force, as the enemy should have to worry about paying the full price for its actions should Israel choose to respond with the full use of its power.

Written by: Yair Naveh