Publication: The Military Balance 2016
09 February 2016
Regional security further deteriorated in 2015. The security and humanitarian situations in Libya, Yemen and Syria worsened, while Iraq saw no decisive improvement. Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) extremists remained in control of significant swathes of territory in both Syria and northwestern Iraq. Despite setbacks, and the attentions of an American-led air coalition that had been attacking ISIS in Syria since September 2014 (and in Iraq since earlier in the year), the jihadist organisation continued to resist and expand, surprising local and international audiences with its resilience, adaptability and brutality. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad clung to power. Assad received a boost in late 2015, when Russia deployed military force to assist its ally and, after the downing of an airliner over Sinai, increased attacks on ISIS, but the grinding civil war continued and large numbers of civilians – largely those from the middle class – decided to leave, compounding the difficulties that will be faced in eventually rebuilding the country. To this scenario was added the conflict in Yemen, where regional states grew increasingly concerned about the significant expansion of Houthi control and, it was alleged, Iranian influence, at the expense of the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
This confluence of crises meant that there were greater imperatives for cooperation among regional states. These countries decided to take action themselves, displaying their still-growing strategic extroversion. But the degree of cooperation, and how durable this would prove, remained unclear. Regional states’ military activity against ISIS in Syria were joined by another operation in March 2015, when Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states began a military operation in Yemen. The Saudi-led operations Decisive Storm and Restoring Hope saw a substantial deployment of ground forces, as well as air and naval capabilities. Regional armed forces, particularly those of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), also suffered what were for them significant casualties. The UAE’s approach to the repatriation of the dead and wounded, and how the conflict was portrayed at home, was indicative of not only a growing military maturity but also an acknowledgement of the risks inherent in military action – of the kind potentially valuable for states that increasingly see their military forces as a tool to be used in support of national-security objectives.