RESIDENT PERCEPTIONS: Why being cognizant of resident perceptions in a conflict is key for third parties

By Pat Stogran

Last month I introduced some of my ideas about strategy in the context of combat and war versus how the term might apply in the business world. I embrace the definition of strategy as the art of advantage. In the business world, a strategy, I submit, engages the skills of an organization and is dependent on good fortune in accomplishing simultaneous and/or successive objectives that are often mutually dependent. While such applies to military organizations also, strategy in the context of conflict hinges on interdependent antagonistic decision-making. In other words, in combat a commander’s strategy seeks to optimize the quality of one’s decisions in terms of timeliness and impact while denying or degrading the same capability of the enemy.

A very important axiom in the theory of strategy in war is that what you don’t know can and probably will hurt you. Sun Tzu introduces a useful concept to characterize that axiom in what has been translated as “orthodox” and “extraordinary” forces. I use the term “force” in the a philosophical sense as in the “power of persuasion,” although there often must be a physical component to that philosophical force in order to achieve the desired effect.

Sun Tzu tells us that the general should seek to “engage” the enemy with the “orthodox force,” which is what the enemy would expect to be engaged by, and inflict defeat upon the enemy via the unexpected extraordinary force. In the example I gave last month of the strategy I employed in training at the tactical level, the fire support base for my platoon attack became the orthodox force, while my assault force infiltrating onto the enemy’s position was the extraordinary force. My enemies were effectively “defeated” the moment they were convinced that my fire support base was my main effort and focused their combat power against it. That opened the door, so to speak, for my assault force to gain lodgment on the objective virtually unopposed.

In war, like so many other aspects of life, perceptions are reality, and the masterful general will seek to shape the enemy’s perceptions, which can only be accomplished when the general truly understands the enemy. I was recently contacted by an irate reader who objected to me referencing a State of Palestine in my discussion a couple of months ago on the Balfour Agreement and the expressed intention of the British to establish the State of Israel. Indeed, the United Nations did not exist back in the day to offer any formal recognition of the sovereignty of the region, and the imperialist powers were busy hacking up and apportioning statehood to the various areas despite the ethnic, tribal and religious divisions that already existed in the region with self-serving glee. So I was in fact incorrect to refer to the Palestinian homeland as a state.

Truth be told, as I write this I am hesitant to refer to the region as the Palestinian homeland for fear of causing further angst amongst readers because I am not familiar with the migrations that have taken place over the preceding millennia. And please don’t interpret that as trivializing the issue. When I was a United Nations military observer during the war in Bosnia I heard the territorial disputes between the warring parties going back hundreds of years when they were contextualizing some of the aggression that they committed against one another. I think that my personal feelings reflect those of many if not most Canadians. My relatives emigrated from Ukraine to create a better life for their family. Although I am proud of my Ukrainian heritage and concerned about the crisis today in that country, I share my grandparents’ commitment to the future of my children. Notwithstanding, I learned to treat the opinions and perceptions of the warring parties with sincere deference.

With the irritated reader I acknowledged how I had erred regarding Palestinian statehood at the turn of the last century, but blew it off as inconsequential to the point I had tried to make. The reader would have none of it and demanded that I make a disclaimer to that effect in my column. I was not surprised by the reaction and saw it as an opportunity to learn, so I sent the reader a list of questions regarding the situation in the Middle East. I learned a lot in the email exchange that ensued. Part of that learning process was to pose the same questions to a Palestinian gentleman I had met following a presentation I once made at the University of Ottawa. Needless to say, the opinions this gentleman offered in response to my questions were different from those I received from my disgruntled reader.

I did not seek to confirm this juxtaposition of interpretation in order to draw my own conclusion, but rather to highlight another gravely important consideration that must be made before attempting to intervene in a regional conflict: Warring parties are very clearly entrenched in their own interpretation of the roots of their conflict; indeed, they are prepared to die for it! Hence, any foreign third party to a regional conflict had better be fully cognizant and respectful of the resident perceptions in order to avoid becoming part of the problem.

There are so many competing ambitions and intentions in the region that I am loath to open that Pandora’s Box. I am not sure the average Canadian has ever taken stock of the complexity of the situation we have thrown our troops in to combat ISIL so I will open that box but a sliver, but I am quick to remind readers that I am not passing judgement in any way, shape or form. Clearly Israel’s right to exist is a point of contention in the region — enough said about that. Then there are the other sovereign states in the immediate conflict area and the deadly grudges they hold against one another or the detentes and alliances they embrace. Of course, we are all well aware of the religious rivalries between the Shia and Sunni, Muslims and indigenous Christians, and between the various sects of their respective militias.

On top of that there are the ambitions and interests of the superpowers — U.S., Russia, China. Clearly Russia has a key concern that their superpower rivals do not, in that this conflict is virtually on its front porch. Sandwiched between Russia and the conflict area is the Caucasus, where ISIL is allegedly fueling an insurgency, particularly in the north. And then, of course, Armenians hold a particular grudge against Turkey, not to mention Azerbaijan, who in turn is in a conflict with the Kurds with whom Canadian troops are fighting ISIL. Saudi Arabia and Iran are avowed enemies, and their client militias — considered by some as terrorist organizations — further complicate the crisis, not to mention the various rebel groups, some of which have been labelled as “moderates.”

Sound complicated? It is, even though my description is grossly over-simplified. In trying to better understand the situation I have constructed a 20 x 20 matrix trying to capture the various rivalries endemic to the region that could impact on our intervention, the accuracy of which I cannot vouch for so I do not offer it here. Given that alliances and detentes can be fleeting as a matter of convenience and that, as Sun Tzu also told us, deception is fundamental to all warfare, the general must always be suspect of what is “understood” about any conflict. That is why I am dumbfounded when Canadians, be they mainstream citizens or elected officials, suggest that joining the fight against ISIL is really going to make Canadians safer at home and abroad, especially when some of the sovereign nations that we are allied with, at least on the surface, are not only not antagonistic towards ISIL but may secretly be empathetic with them.

Now for the “So what?” Is what we are doing in the region going to achieve the aim? More importantly, are there any measures or factors we can or should be considering that have not as yet entered our consciousness? What are the orthodox forces at play in the conflict, and what extraordinary forces might there be available to us? I am not holding an ace up my sleeve that I intend to spring upon you as the ordained solution to our problem. To the contrary, in fact, given the interdependent antagonistic decision-making nature of strategy in conflict, a course of action that might work today can become completely irrelevant tomorrow so it behoves us to keep an open mind and adapt to new or unforeseen realities.

In this column I am trying to spur a structured discussion without leaping to any spurious conclusions, so I am really interested to hear the opinions of Esprit de Corps readers. The offer stands of a copy of my book Rude Awakening: The Government’s Secret War Against Canada’s Veterans going out to anybody who offers thought-provoking commentary even if I can’t use it verbatim in an article. Until next month, I look forward to hearing from you!