The Middle East’s ‘Game of Drones’ Could Mean More Battles But Fewer Wars

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP Photo: Saul Loeb

The skies over the Middle East are getting crowded. A two-week long escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah (now ended) was sparked by a drone. Israel bombed Iranian forces inside Syria, saying Tehran was preparing “multiple killer drones” to send across the border into Israel. It then sent its own drones into Lebanon, which crashed and exploded in mysterious circumstances in Beirut. The result of this operation was a days-long war of words and cross-border skirmishes between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah – one that ended, however, with far fewer casualties than the last war the two fought in 2006.

Such a difference in outcome can be traced, curiously, to the drones that first sparked the conflict. Had Israel used a different method of attack, Hezbollah might have responded rather differently. The use of drones potentially spared more lives. In the tense reality of the Levant’s conflicts, this “game of drones” has its advantages, limiting the potential for escalation. It is an ugly reality, certainly, but in a region where warfare has too often been the way of settling political arguments, drones may actually offer a hit-and-run strategy that avoids greater conflicts.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are ubiquitous in the region. Surveillance drones are everywhere. Armed drones, capable of flying long distances and firing missiles or dropping explosives, are becoming common. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel all build them. Hezbollah and even ISIS use versions of them. The US and China supplies them to Middle East states.

Certainly, the use of drones makes violence less costly and therefore more likely. They are easier and cheaper to use than missiles or fighter jets. There are no soldiers who might be taken captive and their use is more easily deniable. Even when it is known who carried out an attack – as with the tit-for-tat attacks with Iran and Israel, where both sides want the other to know it was them – drone attacks are too big to go unanswered, but too small to go to war over.

They can indeed make wars less likely. Certainly, there is more chance of a miscalculation with drones being used regularly. But they give countries like Israel and Iran ways of retaliating that are sufficiently low-level to be containable. Countries and movements in the region have publics they need to satisfy and public opinion can often create a momentum of its own, culminating in military action that political leaders might wish to avoid.

Certainly, any skirmish that resulted in a fighter jet being shot down and a fighter pilot captured would create a much more complex situation than the shooting down of a drone. That was exactly what happened in April 2001, when a US fighter jet was forced down on to Chinese soil and the American crew members detained. The incident created a serious diplomatic rift. By contrast, in 2016, when China seized a US drone off its coast, the whole thing was handled quietly. The lack of a human element calmed public sentiment.

This week’s conflict between Israel and Hezbollah perfectly illustrates this. After the mysterious attack in Beirut, Hezbollah’s leader said Israel “must pay a price,” and the group fired anti-tank missiles into Israel, destroying an army vehicle. But in a sign of how both sides would prefer the skirmish to be limited, the Israeli press later claimed, somewhat improbably, that Israel’s military had “faked” casualties from that attack, staging the wounded soldiers that had already been broadcast on Israeli TV. The idea, apparently, was to “trick” Hezbollah into thinking it had inflicted damage.

It is stretching credulity slightly to imagine Israel willingly handing Hezbollah a propaganda victory simply to calm the situation. A more likely reading is that Israel does not want Israeli public opinion to clamor for a reaction, and so is playing down the genuine injuries. Overall, Hezbollah’s response sent a message and Israel’s de-escalation sent one too. Both understood each other, without needing to fight a war.

But imagine if, instead, Israel had used fighter jets or helicopter gunships in Beirut, as it did in January against Gaza’s captive population. That would almost certainly have brought a more serious response from Hezbollah that could have tipped both countries into war.

Curious as it sounds, having more drones could actually be a good thing, offering countries ways of retaliating that stop short of wide-scale conflict. (The US last year relaxed restrictions on armed drone exports, in order to better compete with China.)

In a region as tense as the Middle East, having a low-level method of retaliation that doesn’t involve human assets could end up causing fewer conflicts. If the choice is between sending in drones or tanks, soldiers and fighter jets, the drones seem a better option.

To be sure, that may seem an excessively pragmatic thing to argue. The use of armed drones, apart from causing death and destruction, can also be a form of psychological warfare. US drones that hover for hours over towns in Pakistan, occasionally firing missiles that destroy houses or cars, collectively punish the population, who don’t know when the car next to theirs or the house across their street may be targeted. But if the use of drones prevents wider conflicts, pragmatists should pay attention. The human and material consequences of recent wars in the Middle East have been horrific: wars have devastated parts of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Palestine, just in the past few years.

Until pragmatic politics becomes the default in the Middle East, the awful reality is that more drones flown in the air could mean more lives saved on the ground.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.