‘Cunctator’ Part Three: the war feeds itself – civil logistics and modern-age siege warfare

By Erik A. Claessen.

In June, 2017 Yisrael Katz, the Israeli Minister of Transport released a video that presented a plan to create an artificial island off the Gaza Strip. The proposal calls for the construction of a seaport as well as facilities to generate potable water and electricity on an artificial island connected to the Gaza Strip by means of a heavily secured bridge. Katz concisely captured the reasoning behind his plan in one question:

“Why don’t we give two million Palestinians a humanitarian and economic outlet and a transportation base for ties with the world, which could bring about a great change?”[1]

In other words: Katz plans to create an ‘ostia’ – a logistic and administrative access into the global economy – for Gaza. As I explained in a part one of my series, the Romans were the first to grasp the conceptual approaches to urban warfare and governance. The ‘ostia’ is an administrative centre which enabled the ‘urbs’ permanent and direct access to the global economy. The ‘ostia’, now known by the name ‘logistic city’[2], is now a vital component of large urban centres because these centres are increasingly too large to draw subsistence from the surrounding countryside.

Although Katz’s plan – because of internal divisions within the Israeli cabinet – will not be executed in the immediate future, it nevertheless reflects a shift in thinking about urban warfare. In fact, the creation of an ‘ostia’ for Gaza is a pincer movement to cut Hamas from its source of power: popular support.  The Palestinian Intifada confronted Israel with the strategic reality that it is impossible to conquer a megacity without assuming the burden of administrating it. The implications of this reality led to its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. However, it is becoming more and more clear that withdrawal does not equate to disengagement. The successive military interventions in Gaza by the IDF testify to that.

The economical and logistical aspects of an ‘ostia’ are well known and they offer few surprises because they are intuitively evident. The sociopolitical impact of the lack of an ‘ostia’ is more subtle and provides a better explanation of the link between direct access to the global economy and the possibility to gain and maintain popular support. In fact, the lack of an ‘ostia’ in a major urban centre completely changes the opportunities for upward social mobility in a mega-urban area. The negative consequences in terms of frustration, despair and misery are best illustrated by analyzing the evolution of siege warfare in Syria.

In 2011, protests and demonstrations marked the start of what seemed to be another chapter in the book about the Arab Spring. Few gamblers placed their bets on Assad. After the toppling of long-standing dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, the days of the corrupt Syrian regime seemed numbered. Six years later, Assad still pulls the strings in Damascus.

Syria has always been a counterinsurgency disguised as a political system. Syria is a highly fragmented country. The current regime relies on the loyalty of the Alawite minority that makes up only 12% of the total population. According to an oft-cited study by James T. Quinlivan about coup-proofing, this represents the absolute rock-bottom minimum to guarantee regime security and continuity.[3] It is therefore no surprise that Assad’s regime is very innovative in the development of adaptive strategies and techniques to perpetuate its hold on power.  At first glance, Assad’s position seems desperate. His demographic power base is too narrow to raise and maintain sufficient security forces. Rebels hold the only source of rentier revenues – the oil fields – and the regular economy has collapsed. Yet, when one looks at Assad’s position through the conceptual prism of mega-urban administration, the resulting picture is much more nuanced.

As I outlined in earlier posts, it is my opinion that popular support, earned by controlling access to economic and logistic flows, is the main source of power in an urbanized environment. This control, in turn, secures the urban popular support base, while simultaneously securing access to one’s own. Decisive battle and the engagement of hostile forces must work to achieving this control. Assad’s shrewd use of military sieges shows how he succeeds in doing just that.

To make that point, it is important to emphasize some Syrian geographical and demographic realities. Although the population only numbers twenty million for an area of about two hundred thousand square kilometers, the country is densely populated. By necessity, the population has formed precursor ‘mega-cities’. That is because most of the country is made up of desert. The people predominantly live in the arable parts of Syria where the population density is about three times as high as in Belgium. Actually, because of the rapid demographic growth (the total population was less than three million when the country gained independence in 1946) “agricultural Syria” gradually morphed into “suburban Syria” where agriculture focused on high value products for urban consumption like dairy, meat, vegetables and fruits. Urbanization, the increase in purchasing power and the fact that they were exempt from official price control spurred cultivation of these products.

Assad’s strategy is best understood as a variant of the 17th century principle of the organization of logistics and military financing in siege warfare: bellum se ipsum alet. This phrase translates as “the war feeds itself”. Its application devastated Germany during the Thirty Years War. The main proponents in this war like Gustavus Adolphus or Wallenstein would – if somehow teleported from 17th century Germany to 21st century Syria – might recognize and understand the strategy of urban warfare in Syria save for one thing: the economic trade between the besiegers and the besieged. The explanation of Assad’s counterintuitive approach to sieges is that they have to solve his two main operational problems (his lack of both manpower and funds) as well as his strategic problem (cutting his opponents from their popular support base).

Historically, a siege has always been a military effort to force the besieged population to surrender – often through control of the ‘ostia’. In Syria, this is no longer the case. Throughout the conflict, regime forces have maintained uninhibited lines of communication between the capital Damascus and the main seaport of Latakia. The Syrian regime exploits its logistic and administrative access into the global economy (the Ostia or ‘logistic city’) to legitimize itself and to delegitimize the insurgents.

For Assad, a siege is a method to reduce the number of urban dwellers he has to care for while tapping into the dwindling wealth of those urban dwellers he no longer wants to care for. In this logic, the military siege effort creates a separation zone between the people who support the regime and the people who support the insurgents. The siege thus forces the burden of urban administration upon the insurgent in the areas under his control. Conversely, the siege diminishes the administrative burden of the regime and allows it to focus the provision of essential services for those people who are essential to its popular support base.

The cornerstone of the approach is the level of control over trade between the besiegers and the besieged; it is a case of ‘control the economy, control the war’. A study by Will Todman published in June 2016 analyses the Syrian war economy and estimates that the accumulative economic loss because of hostilities reached $254 billion by the end of 2015.[4] Yet, this does not seem to diminish the regime’s administrative performance. On the contrary “despite this economic destruction, President Bashar al-Assad has expended considerable resources to ensure that services are still provided to areas under regime control – a key element of his strategy of legitimization.”[5] One would expect that the lack of both a tax base and rentier revenues would quickly render this strategy financially unsustainable, but that is not true. Assad uses the proceeds of a sophisticated siege economy to fund the war effort as well as the regime’s survival. The empowerment of two types of people is vital in this approach: smugglers and guards.

The guards are those maintaining the siege. With a coherent set of checkpoints, the  guards severely constrain the flows of goods into and from the besieged areas. East of Damascus for instance, a few thousand Syrian soldiers besiege a 2000 km² area called Eastern Ghouta that is home to about four hundred thousand people. Although suburban, the area is also dotted with rich farmland. Its farms and dairy industry provided much of the milk, cheese, vegetables, fruit and meat consumed in the capital. Guard duties give the soldiers the opportunity to extract bribes for the passage of these products, and they never desert their posts.[6]

Furthermore, according to Todman, “businessmen can buy contracts from the highest levels of the regime in order to have an effective monopoly over the supply of a certain good into the besieged area.”[7] Such smugglers ship in cheap products like fuel, barley and wheat and sell them at high prices in the besieged area. Conversely, the ship out high value items like fruit, meat and dairy products and sell them in Damascus. Because the smuggler is the only access they have to the urban consumers, the producers are only paid the amount of money they need to stay in business plus a small profit that corresponds with the minimum he needs to survive and continue working.

The siege trade is not limited to agricultural products. Because Assad cut off their supply of electricity, the besieged “do not have the means to use electrical goods and so traders purchase and sell them on the outside.”[8] A third type of trade is human trafficking. Both smugglers and guards receive significant sums of money from those who want to leave the area. This type of trade is also lucrative in the long run, because those who leave the area often send remittances to those who stay behind. “Given extreme levels of unemployment and poverty in besieged areas, civilians are only able to pay for these goods as a result of money transfers from relatives or connections living outside the besieged area.”[9]

That modern international money flows now can reach any corner of the earth, whether besieged or not, is an underestimated factor in modern warfare. At bottom, these flows create a positive balance of payments towards the conflict area. By colluding with smugglers, the regime taps into these flows and effectively funds the war effort with foreign currency extracted from the besieged. Even aid convoys cannot disrupt the siege economy. Although the regime sometimes allows aid convoys inside the area, they often remove certain items like diapers, baby food or medication. “Removing other items helps ensure that favored traders maintain their monopolies over certain goods.”[10] The besieged will get the aid for free, but both the regime and the smugglers know that the besieged will use the purchase power they save to buy the items that were removed from the convoys. As such, the profits of the regime, the guards and the smugglers remain the same. It is extortion in the shape of magnanimity.

However, the profits from the siege economy are but an operational advantage for the regime. The more important, strategic advantage of the sieges lies in disruption of the insurgency. Sieges finance the regime’s legitimization that hinges on the provision of continued urban administrative services while simultaneously delegitimizing the insurgents by exposing them as war profiteers. In fact, by allowing the siege trade, Assad created a competition between smugglers and insurgents. Because smugglers need armed force to prevent people from simply steeling or looting the contraband, they hire fighters who – consequently – are no longer available to the insurgency. According to The Economist, one smuggler “can afford to keep a private militia of about 500 men . . . who are paid as much as $250 per month – more than the rebel commanders pay their fighters.”[11]

In response, rebels started digging tunnels to get into the smuggling business themselves, to the even greater misery of the people. “Besieged residents expressed widespread resentment at rebel groups for hoarding supplies, diverting humanitarian aid, and profiting from the smuggling. Riots and protests against rebels in besieged areas are common.”[12] More and more of the people in the area understand that everyone but them benefit from the seemingly endless siege. One citizen summarized his despair in the following quote: “There is no siege, this is a lie. How can there be a siege when the head of [Jaish al-Islam] can go in and out of Ghouta several times this year and appear in Turkey and Saudi Arabia? … There are arrangements in place to suck the best out of this area, allowing certain actors to benefit, while civilians suffer.”[13] The disruption of the insurgency in the besieged area is rooted in the frustration caused by the fact that sieges limit opportunities for upward social mobility to the corrupt and the violent while the zealous and the skilled remain mired in misery.

While the Syrian conflict proves that the lack of an ‘ostia’ allows a ‘cunctator’ to perpetuate conflict, the question remains whether the creation of an ‘ostia’ can end conflict. Is Katz’s plan, as introduced at the outset of the article, actually feasible?

The complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict should caution anyone who claims they can gauge the probability of success of Katz’s plan. There is a precedent though: Operation Vittles, the airlift that broke the Soviet blockade of Berlin between June 1948 and May 1949. Stalin’s objective of the blockade was to make sure that the whole of Germany would be both Soviet and communist. Berlin was key in this endeavor. According to Molotov, “What happens to Berlin happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

Against all expectations, the United States and its allies responded by airlifting in everything needed for the 2.8 million Berlin urban dwellers to survive and thrive, thus transforming Berlin’s Tempelhof airport into al Ostia. Within a year the western Berlin popular mood and – by extension – the popular mood in the area occupied by the Americans, the British and the French shifted towards complete support for the West, the contrary of the Soviet objective. Operation Vittles shows that a plan to offer a besieged megacity permanent and direct access to the global economy – if executed with resolute determination – can quickly deliver decisive geostrategic results.

Modern conflicts illustrate the strategic importance of control over the logistic and administrative access into the global economy for megacities in conflict areas. It’s a case of ‘control the logistics, control the war’. In this reasoning, logistics – both military and economical – is not just a force multiplier, but a strategic effect provider. This means that in more and more cases, the role of logistic operations to achieve political and strategic objectives exceeds that of armed force. In other words, urbanization requires armed force to take a supporting role than the provision of logistics, and control of administrative centres – ‘ostia’ or ‘logistic cities’ – must be central to military plans. As yet, the rules of this strategic application of logistics are not known. It is essential that this situation is corrected.

Colonel Erik A. Claessen is a Belgian Army logistics officer who publishes regularly on contemporary armed conflicts. Claessen is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, where he earned a master of military arts and sciences degree. He writes here in a personal capacity and can be found at https://www.linkedin.com/in/erik-claessen-87341530/.

[1] Barak Ravid, “Israeli Ministers Support Building Island Off Gaza, No Decision Reached Because of Lieberman’s Objection“ in Haaretz, June 17, 2017.

[2] See Deborah Cowen, The deadly life of logistics: Mapping violence in global trade (Minnesota Press, Mineapolis, 2014) p.20 “the logistics city provokes questions about the future of urban citizenship, circulation, and political struggle.”

[3] The core of the argument is as follows: “The practical measure of a group’s ability to control, by itself, the general population is the number of people the group can provide to the security forces per 1,000 of the total population … In internal conflict situations in which the security forces must forcibly maintain order, as many as 20 members of the security forces per 1,000 of population might be required … The essence of this argument by percentage is shown in the case of Syria. The Alawites make up 12 percent of the total Syrian population, so there are 120 Alawites per 1,000 of total population. If the security forces are restricted to men aged 20-39, and the Alawite population shares the age distribution characteristics of the general Syrian population (which has 11.4 percent in this category), then only 13.7 members of an all-Alawite security force would be available for every 1,000 of population if every Alawite male in this age range were devoted to the security forces.” James T. Quinlivan, “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East,” International Security, Vol. 24, No. 2. (Autumn, 1999), pp. 131-165.

[4] Will Todman, “Sieges in Syria: Profiteering from misery,” Middle East Institute Policy Focus 2016-14. http://www.mei.edu/content/sieges-syria-profiteering-misery

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Author unknown, “Dairy godfathers: For syria’s new elite, peace might be bad for business,” The Economist June 3rd 2017 p.34

[11] ibid, p 34

[12] Todman, 2016

[13] Resident of Douma, quoted in Rim Turkmani, Ali A K Ali, Mary Kaldor and Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic. “Countering the logic of the war economy in Syria; evidence from three local areas”, Security in Transition, LSE (July 30, 2015), 36-7. http://www.securityintransition.org/publications/countering-the-logic-of-the-war-economy-in-syria-evidence-from-three-local-areas/

[13] See Royal Airforce Museum, National Cold War Exhibition http://www.nationalcoldwarexhibition.org/documents/nc/Berlin_Wall_and_Berlin_Airlift_Quotes.pdf

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