As the Middle East and North Africa enters the second decade of the millennium, special operations forces (SOF) witness evolutionary change as operational requirements extend from ongoing counter-insurgency (COIN) campaigns to include mission sets associated with the Great Power Competition (GPC).
According to defence sources, the GPC encompasses emerging threats across both contemporary and future operating environments from near peer and peer adversaries including the People’s Republic of China; Islamic Republic of Iran; and the Russian Federation.
Main efforts across the MENA region include ongoing operations in Iraq and Syria to defeat remnants of Daesh in coordination with a multi-lateral coalition of SOF and conventional forces in addition to deterring the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Additionally, MENA SOF components are also positioning themselves to respond to more conventional threats from higher capability state opponents.
As the US Central Command’s General Kenneth F McKenzie described in his posture statement on 10 March 2020, Daesh has “potential to reconstitute in Iraq and Syria in short order”.
“Syria remains a dynamic situation with multiple parties and agendas involved. The Syrian regime, with support from Russia and Iran, continues to seek a military victory. We are seeing this play out in northwest Syria as the Assad regime, Russian, and Iranian campaign of violence has escalated since December, resulting in almost one million more displaced persons, innumerable people injured or killed, with many more in critical need of assistance, and dangerous clashes between our NATO ally Turkey and the Syrian regime.”
Referring to Iran, McKenzie also warned: “The Iranian regime’s quest for nuclear weapons, coupled with its hegemonic ambitions, misbehaviour, and threats to the United States and its regional partners have been consistent elements of its policy for decades. Deterring Iran from its destructive and destabilising activities in the military domain underpins everything we do, and is CENTCOM’s top priority.”
Emerging threats include Iranian SOF who continue to extend their reach and influence across the region.
NOHED special forces remain highly active both at home and abroad, often in collaboration with the country’s Quds Force and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Saberin SOF units.
Iranian special mission units continue to conduct expeditionary missions beyond its own borders in Syria with a particular focus in the North West and South East of the country. Operations are focused on countering the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Kurdistan Free Life Party.
Iranian SOF also continue to disrupt maritime traffic in the region. On 12 August, SOF conducted a visit, board, search and seize operation on board a tanker vessel in international waters, close to Khor Fakkan in the Gulf of Oman.
According to CENTCOM reports, SOF “overtook and boarded” the surface vessel, fast roping onto the deck from Sea King helicopters. Such aggression in the region appears to be augmented with a growing collection of special mission craft, observed by satellite imagery in May.
Platforms are understood to include a variety of surface and sub-surface vessels including high speed interceptor craft; swimmer delivery vehicles; unmanned underwater vessels; and rigid hull inflatable boats.
Elsewhere in the region, the UAE Special Operations Command looks set to benefit from a significant uplift in materiel as part of a giant USD23bn agreement with the US State Department agreed in November.
Specific procurements have yet to be confirmed. However, the UAE SOCOM could benefit from an uplift in capabilities including V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor air frames.
In the meantime, the UAE SOCOM continues to enhance interoperability with the US SOCOM and partner forces around the region.
Over the course of November, UAE SOF worked alongside partners from Cyprus, Greece, Jordan and Saudi Arabia during Exercise Saif al-Arab in Egypt. Similary, in August UAE SOF worked with the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and CENTCOM to hone close air support capabilities, particularly when seeking to destroy high speed intercept craft.
UAE SOF joint terminal attack controllers cooperated with US AC-130W gunships with a US exercise source confirming how “integration operations between UAE and US maritime forces are regularly held to maintain interoperability and the capability to counter threats posed in the maritime domain, ensuring freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce throughout the region’s heavily trafficked waterways”.
In May, the UAE SOCOM’s Group 18- its tier 1 air force component- also conducted maritime special operations with the US Navy’s USS Lewis B. Puller in the Arabian Gulf. The exercise provided Group 18 operators to fly their own UH-60M and CH-47F air frames.
Elsewhere, Turkish SOF continue to conduct operations against Kurdistan’s PKK with the 13th phase of Operation Lightning launched in October. SOF from the Gendarmerie and Army Special Operations Commands are focused on COIN operations to find, fix, capture or kill high value targets from across the PKK.
On 8 October, Turkish SOF conducted a joint operation with law enforcement which resulted in the neutralisation of the PKK ‘Special Forces’ commander, Mazlum Demir in north Iraq.
Referring to the ongoing operation, official sources confirmed: “In order to neutralise the PKK and other terrorist elements threatening our people and our borders, our air force, along with fire-support equipment, helicopters and our commandos, supported by armed and unarmed drones, have mobilised to the region with air operations”.
Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service remains a critical and strategic partner to state actors across the MENA and further afield. Iraqi SOF Brigades continue to hunt down remnants of Daesh across the country, often in partnership with the US-led Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force.
As CENTCOM’s 2020 posture statement declared, the end state for Iraq’s CTS will be to “develop and enable the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to contain and defeat ISIS without external assistance”.
Finally in Egypt, SOF continue to be engaged with internal security operations at home although in June, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the armed forces were capable of executing expeditionary operations further afield.
The president specifically described how Egyptian SOF were involved “activities in the western region” along its border with LIbya. According to the preesident, special forces are working with border forces and the air force to ensure stability particularly in North and Central Sinai.
SOF are being tasked to find and fix high value targets, triggering ground assaults to capture or kill key enemy combatants and destroy training bases and weapons caches.
As we move into a new year, the strategic importance of SOF across the MENA looks set to remain critical in the future, particularly as governments and kingdoms seek to optimise their force multiplying nature and cost effectiveness.
Particular focus will be given to increasing amounts of bi- and multi-lateral training opportunities in order to further extend interoperability and cooperation across CT and COIN campaigns while also remaining prepared to conduct more conventional operations against state adversaries.