Is a new Arab Spring unfolding in the Middle East?

An Iraqi protester poses with a national flag during a demonstration in Baghdad on 29 October 2019Image copyrightAFP
Image captionProtests have been seen throughout the Middle East, including in Iraq

As the last of the Middle Eastern summer fades away, is the region slipping into a new Arab spring?

In Iraq, demonstrators are being shot dead in the streets. In Lebanon, protesters have paralysed the country and seem set to bring down the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. In recent weeks the Egyptian security forces crushed attempts to protest against the police state of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt have plenty of differences. But the protesters have grievances in common, and they are shared by millions of people, particularly the young, across the Arab Middle East.

A rough approximation is that 60% of the region’s population is under the age of 30. A young population can be a great asset to a country. But only if the economy, the educational system and the institutions of the state are functioning well enough to accommodate their needs, and with some exceptions that is not happening.

The young in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region are very often consumed by frustration that slips easily into rage.

Rampant corruption

Two of the biggest complaints are against corruption and unemployment. One leads to another.

Iraq ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to a number of indices of worldwide corruption. Lebanon is slightly better, but not by much.

Corruption is a cancer. It eats away at ambition and hope for those who become its victims.

Media captionThe eleventh day of protests in Lebanon saw an attempt to form a human chain 170km (105 miles) long

The losers in a corrupt system can get very angry, very quickly when even the educated cannot get jobs, and they see small cliques lining their pockets.

When the institutions of the state – the government, the courts and the police – are implicated, it is a sign that the entire system is failing.

In both Lebanon and Iraq, demonstrators not only want their governments to resign. They also want the entire system of governance to be reformed or replaced.

Live fire

One of the tragic realities of Iraq is that violence has become ingrained in society. When demonstrators, chanting against unemployment, corruption and the government, took to the streets, it did not take long for live ammunition to be used against them.

The demonstrations on Iraq’s streets, so far, seem to be leaderless. But the fear in the government must be that as time goes by, and casualties mount, they could become more organised.

Protestor silhouetted against flames in Karbala, Iraq (28/10/19)Image copyrightEPA
Image captionProtests have spread to the holy Shia city of Karbala in Iraq

Demonstrators have targeted bastions of government power, notably the walled off Green Zone in Baghdad. It used to be the centre of the American occupation. Now it is the place where government offices and embassies are located, as well as the homes of prominent people.

The demonstrations started in Baghdad, and have spread. Overnight in the holy city of Karbala there were unconfirmed reports of many killed and injured when demonstrators were fired on. Video has been posted on social media of men running from live fire.

Ever since the protests started, the casualty rate has climbed steadily. Reports from Baghdad say that some Iraqi soldiers have appeared wearing the national flag wrapped around their shoulders, showing what seems to be some solidarity with the protesters.

But reports also say that men dressed in black, some masked, have been opening fire. One theory is that they are from pro-Iranian militias.

Unfinished business

The demonstrations started in Lebanon on 17 October after the government tried introduce taxes on tobacco, petrol and WhatsApp calls. The new taxes were cancelled quickly but it was too late.

To start with, the demonstrations in Lebanon were good-humoured. But the very real tensions in the country are showing, with some outbreaks of violence.

So is it an Arab spring? More than anything it is a sign of the unfinished business left by 2011.

Protesters hold caricature of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo in 2011Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionRevolutions toppled regimes across the Middle East eight years ago

The uprisings of that year did not bring the freedom longed for by the people who demonstrated against tyrannical leaders. But the consequences of the upheaval are still being felt, among them wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, and a much tougher police state in Egypt.

And the grievances which fuelled the 2011 uprisings are still there, in some cases deepened.

The failure of corrupt systems to accommodate the needs of a large and young population guarantees that the anger and frustration behind the demonstrations will not go away.

The Guardian view on Lebanon and Chile: too little, too late for protesters

Anti-government demonstrator in Beirut
 An anti-government demonstrator shouts slogans after the main protest camp in Beirut was ransacked on Tuesday. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP

The events which have brought two countries to the brink were precipitated by apparently small policy shifts that proved emblematic of the ruling elite’s inability to answer or even understand their people’s basic needs while enriching themselves. Chile’s biggest political crisis since the return of democracy almost 30 years ago was triggered by a 3% rise in metro fares, the protests which have engulfed and paralysed Lebanon by a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls. But the underlying causes run far deeper, and have been building for much longer. There is deep anger at political and economic systems that have ignored most of the population.

These countries are, of course, very different. Lebanon has been staggering along for years, due to both political dysfunction and endemic corruption. The central bank governor warns that its economy – long shored up by remittances from overseas – is now days away from collapse. Recently it emerged that, before he became prime minister, Saad Hariri gave $16m to a South African model: a sum encapsulating the gulf between the lives of those at the top and the rest.

Meanwhile, Chile was seen as an economic success story, and its billionaire president Sebastían Piñera had portrayed the country as an “oasis” in a region of strife. But it is desperately unequal, a legacy of Pinochet’s dictatorship and of the neoliberal settlement it bequeathed the nation – with precarious access to basic services, and the poorest fifth of the population living on less than $140 a month. So while both governments dropped the offending proposals, the movements had already outrun their initial causes. Lebanon’s prime minister announced his resignation on Tuesday , though some suspect he is seeking political leverage. The Chilean president has fired hardline ministers, but protesters in Chilean cities lit fires and clashed with police following the announcements.

Hardline rhetoric and violence has further inflamed the public. Mr Piñera insisted that “We are at war with a powerful and uncompromising enemy that respects nothing and no one.” At least 20 have died, hundreds have been shot and beaten, and more than 7,000 arrested. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah – who holds no formal position, yet calls so many shots – warned of foreign “conspiracies” inflaming the movement. When hundreds of men ransacked the main protest site on Tuesday, demonstrators blamed Hezbollah and another faction, Amal. Lebanon is used to interim governments and political chaos, but the stakes are higher as the economic strains become ever less tenable. Chile faces the real prospect of social breakdown, or a return to authoritarianism.

Protest movements around the world are evolving at disorienting speed, partly thanks to technological developments and partly as they look to similar campaigns abroad. Meanwhile governments lumber along, unable to seize the initiative or even to respond at pace – not least because it is hardly in the interests of the powerful to offer the kind of fundamental concessions which will only weaken that power. But when things have reached this stage, there is no easy exit. Leaders may reach for sticks or sticking plasters, but there cannot be short-term solutions to long-term structural problems.

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This article was submitted in response to the call for ideas issued by the co-chairs of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, Eric Schmidt and Robert Work. It addresses the first question (part a.) which asks how artificial intelligence will affect the character and/or the nature of war.


Some takes on artificial intelligence (AI) can be over the top. Russian President Vladimir Putin believesAI is key to world domination. SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk thinks it will be more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Others warn that a dystopian future scenario of killer robots is closer than we think.

A more measured view, and one that I share, is that AI is an “enabler” rather than a weapon. When it comes to national security and defense, AI is best thought of as a suite of technologies and applicationsthat can help militaries solve concrete challenges across a broad range of missions.

One of the most important challenges facing the U.S. military is urban warfare. American forces have seen their share of urban fighting — in Manila, Hue, Mogadishu, Fallujah, Ramadi, Baghdad, and, most recently, as part of the coalition campaign against the Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa. But as urban warfare experts have pointed out, the U.S. military still needs to improve how it trains, equips, and organizes for operations in dense urban areas. Moreover, as cities grow even larger and more complex, these contested and congested environments will strain the U.S. military’s ability to maintain its technological and operational advantage. Urban settings, therefore, present a good test case for evaluating the benefits, risks, and implications of AI on the battlefield.

AI will amplify the existing characteristics of urban warfare rather than alter them. A closer look into how AI applications for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), command and control, force protection, logistics, and sustainment manifest on the urban battlefield bears this out. The speed of high-tempo combat engagements characteristic to urban warfare will likely increase due to AI-enabled ISR and rapid command and control. At the same time, advances in robotics and AI that improve force protection and sustainment are likely to draw out urban campaigns. With countries around the world increasingly investing in military applications of AI and a growing share of conflicts fought in cities, we are likely headed for faster fights but longer wars.

The U.S. Department of Defense should prepare for how the urban environment affects the use and utility of AI-enabled systems and capabilities. The Pentagon should also assess the cumulative effect of implementing AI and machine learning projects for command and control, intelligence, protection, and sustainment, considering these investments could interact in unexpected ways that inadvertently undermine the ability to achieve enduring political outcomes to military operations.

AI Will Lead to Faster Fights

AI-enabled ISR will increase the speed and accuracy of decision-making on the urban battlefield. ISR is one of the promising areas for AI applications in urban warfare because cities produce enormous amounts of data. With advances in high-fidelity sensing, image recognition, and natural language processing, military and intelligence analysts can exploit thousands of publicly available datasets for insights into the demographic, social, economic, and logistical characteristics of cities and their populations.

Automated intelligence processing can be a game-changing capability. Currently, analysts spend hours combing through images and videos captured by unmanned aerial vehicles. Accurate and timely intelligence about the capabilities, location, and activities of the adversary, as well as the city’s terrain, infrastructure, and population, is paramount to success in urban warfare. But the sheer amount of information is overwhelming. Automation has proven useful during the first phase of Project Maven, for example, where the team incorporated computer vision and machine learning algorithms into intelligence analysis and processing in support of the counter-Islamic State campaign.

AI’s potential to improve wartime decision-making through real-time actionable intelligence can also help reduce the risk of casualties, fratricide, and collateral damage in urban warfare. As military operations unfold, they radically alter the terrain. Walls, roofs, and entire buildings can collapse, leaving certain streets impassable. Loyalties and power dynamics change as hostile actors gain and lose ground. Information that was accurate hours or even minutes ago can become irrelevant in a split second. The ability to process information at machine speed, then, is a critical advantage.

The challenges of urban warfare have also pushed the U.S. Army to pursue greater autonomy and swarming capabilities in unmanned aerial vehicles. Such advances will increase the coverage, persistence, and duration of ISR missions, which in turn will enhance soldiers’ situational awareness and provide commanders with additional reaction time in high-stakes situations. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program, for example, envisions swarms of 250 collaborative autonomous aerial and ground systems providing capabilities to small ground military units in urban areas where tall buildings, tight spaces, and limited lines of sight hinder communications, sensing, maneuver, and mobility. Now on its fourth sprint, the program is looking to “identify applications of artificial intelligence to discover and learn novel swarm tactics.”

In addition to ISR, AI applications also have important implications for command and control. Ground operations in urban warfare typically become decentralized as forces need to advance through the city’s streets and alleys and enter buildings or underground tunnels, requiring small-unit leaders to make informed decisions independently. At the same time, urban warfare is a combined arms fight that includes light and mechanized infantry, armored forces, close air power support, and enablers such as special operations forces, snipers, and engineers operating in synchronized, close coordination. Flexible and streamlined command and control architecture is therefore not only an advantage but a necessity.

That said, decision-making in modern warfare is exceedingly complex. Soldiers at different levels of command receive information from a huge number of sources and platforms, in different types of formats, often with redundancies and inconsistencies. The Army’s most recent Unified Challenge war game, for instance, highlighted the need for a “real-time digital picture” to track the fast-moving and dispersed forces across domains and a command system that can keep up with the complexity. The Air Force has been working to address this challenge for some time now as part of its Multi-Domain Command and Control initiative. The effort, which aims to centralize planning and execution of air, space, cyberspace, sea, and land-based operations, is still a concept in development. But AI could be used to fuse data from different platforms and military assets and distill it into a common and comprehensive operating picture, which could then improve and accelerate wartime decision-making.

Having more information is only half the battle; people can only process so much. As AI systems mature, there is also potential for using recommender systems technology filtered through an existing political, military, economic, social, infrastructure, information, physical environment, and time effects model to provide commanders with options for action in complex environments. In the future, if AI-enabled recommender systems technology is able to propose courses of action based on real-time analysis of the battlespace (as opposed to past behavior which in complex systems may not predict future behavior), computational support could shift from being reactive to being predictive. This will enable faster adaptation and action in complex operational settings such as urban warfare.

By improving intelligence processing and analysis, AI can help refine collateral damage assessments and enable commanders to make better and faster decisions about target selection and engagement. With AI-enabled data fusing capabilities used to develop a common operations picture, leaders at different levels of command will be able to select and converge on a course of action more quickly. Taken together, these AI applications in ISR and command and control will impact the tactical tempo of operations, making the close-quarters, high-tempo combat engagements characteristic to urban warfare even faster.

But Wars Will Last Longer

Some advances in AI and machine learning may end up prolonging urban conflicts. AI-enabled technologies will improve force protection and sustainment, increasing survivability and reducing military casualties. Better protected and well-supplied soldiers can endure longer wars. And if public opinion remains positive, or even apathetic with respect to protracted missions, leaders will have fewer incentives to stop fighting until victory — whenever (or whatever) that may be. The use of drones, for instance, has enabled the United States to conduct lethal counter-terrorism operations around the world for nearly two decades. Despite conflicting evidence about their effectiveness and numerous instances of civilian casualties, American public opinion remains largely supportive because drone strikes don’t endanger the lives of U.S. military personnel and are considered relatively cheap. AI-enabled systems and capabilities that increase survivability in urban warfare could represent a continuation of this dynamic.

Harnessing the power of AI to improve support for and protection of U.S. service members is a consistent theme across the different strategic documents guiding Department of Defense AI plans. Indeed, across the services, efforts are already underway for the partial automation of ground and air resupply, casualty evacuation, predictive maintenance, and logistics. Human rights advocates have argued that by reducing risk to military personnel, autonomous weapons and systems could decrease the threshold for the use of military force, push leaders toward military adventurism, and even increase the likelihood of unlawful aggression. Less, however, has been said about the possibility that some military applications of AI can make wars last longer.

By shifting the burden of performing dirty and dangerous tasks from humans to machines, the U.S. military will be able to increase force protection and improve survivability in urban warfare. Urban operations tend to result in high rates of military casualties, and regardless of advances in military medicine and body armor, research shows a persistently heavy toll on infantry, a high number of deaths from sniper fire, and widespread mine injuries. Ground troops need armored protection, and hard-fought lessons from combat operations in Mogadishu, Baghdad, Fallujah, and Sadr City illustrate the utility of mobile armored vehicles. The Army’s Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) — its third attempt to replace the M-2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle — is therefore of particular interest.

While the M-2 Bradley has faced challenges in urban settings in Iraq — where vehicle and crew losses to mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and anti-tank rockets raised concerns about its survivability and effectiveness in future missions — the OMFV is specifically geared toward “dense urban terrain operations and mobility.” Technical problems with autonomous ground navigations remain a challenge. But with advances in AI, the Army envisions deploying robotic combat vehicles as “scouts” and “escorts” for the manned OMFV to deter ambushes and protect the flank. Using unmanned vehicles in this capacity can increase situational awareness and reduce casualties from sniper fire, mines, and IEDs during dangerous reconnaissance missions and patrols in hostile urban terrain.

Automated ground resupply can help address the intensive demands for supplies, manpower, and logistical and medical support in urban warfare. Reflecting on his deployment with the British Army in Basra, for example, Lt. Col. Ben Baker recently wrote that “urban operations hurt, and resilience — physical, moral and conceptual — becomes king.” Indeed, even for advanced and well-provisioned militaries, logistics delivery is both resource intensive and dangerous, especially at the end of extended supply lines. This is in large part why the U.S. Army is investing in an experimental fleet of robo-trucksthat will move in a “leader-follower” formation with manned vehicles in the lead that, with software improvements, should be able to navigate around obstacles and pull trailers. As a whole, autonomous vehicles — capable of moving “further, faster, with more payload, and into more-dangerous situations” – have the potential to reduce the number of soldiers in harm’s way and improve sustainment.

Overall, advances in robotics and AI for force protection, sustainment, and logistics can improve survivability and resilience under tough battle conditions over greater periods of time. But the decision to end a war is ultimately a political one. High military casualties tend to reduce public support for war, and in democracies, public opinion is an important factor influencing decisions about the use of force. Notably, authoritarian leaders are not immune to domestic pressures, either. Autocratic regimes like those of Syria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are in fact becoming less willing to send their forces into direct combat where they’re likely to suffer high casualties. Insofar as technological advances promise to safeguard soldiers’ lives, these breakthroughs could then also keep the costs of war from becoming politically prohibitive.

Key Takeaways

AI is a new and still quite vulnerable technology — it is susceptible to training data poisoning and manipulation by adversarial actors, may fail when confronted with tasks or environments different from those it was trained for, and behaves in unpredictable ways due to its opaque algorithms. And regardless of what Putin or Musk prognosticate about its effect on power and war, nobody can predict the future. Global urbanization trends and patterns of armed conflict, however, suggest that future conflicts will increasingly take place in cities. As the Department of Defense moves to implement its AI strategy, both civilian and military decision-makers should therefore explicitly address the role of AI in urban warfare. This should include an assessment of whether existing training, tactics, techniques, and procedures for urban operations allow for the effective use of AI-enabled systems and capabilities. Most importantly, defense officials need a comprehensive view of AI-related initiatives across the department to better anticipate the effects of fielding different AI-enabled systems and capabilities on tactical, operational, and strategic objectives.

AI technology will make a difference in urban warfare — but it is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. In urban conflicts, individual engagements tend to be high tempo, and AI will make them even faster through better ISR and rapid command and control. Fighting in cities is costly and protracted. Yet, by enhancing force protection, sustainment, and logistics, and, in turn, reducing the political costs of protracted military engagements, investments in AI could inadvertently make these wars last even longer.

This analysis has focused on how AI impacts the character of war — how wars are fought and evolve under the influence of major political, social, and technological changes and contextual factors. However, it’s worth noting a potential impact on the nature of war — the essence of conflict, a violent, inherently political phenomenon marked by friction and uncertainty, which most scholars still believe is unalterable. Some of the assessments that imagine AI will change the nature of war claim this will happen because the speed of engagement between autonomous systems fighting each other will effectively push humans out of the loop in life-and-death decisions. And without humans making political decisions, war could no longer be described as “politics by other means.”

Advances in autonomy and AI that help reduce the risk to military personnel and improve sustainment could potentially alter the political and economic calculus of continuing rather than starting wars. Thus, while AI could drive a wedge between politics and war, it’s not because AI will help replace humans with machines. Rather, it is because AI will change the relationship between different groups of humans, i.e., the military, the civilian leadership in charge of decisions about the use of force, and the public that either supports or censors these decisions.

War in the age of AI will remain the continuation of politics by other means. But as technology drives down the political price leaders pay for their decisions about war and peace, and war becomes cheap, then why stop fighting? The ethical implications of both gradual and disruptive technological innovations that could change civil-military relations, political power, and the ways wars are waged are profound. And it’s precisely these questions, rather than sensationalized depictions of self-aware terminators and self-directed drone swarms, that should keep us up at night.

Turkey, Russia to begin joint patrols in Syria

A Russia armoured 4x4 patrols in Syria

Turkey will begin joint military patrols with Russia in northwest Syria on Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Wednesday.

The patrols will initially begin within a 7 kilometer (5 miles) zone south of the Turkish border.

The statement comes a day after the expiration of the 150-hour agreement for Syrian border guards and Russian military police to remove Kurdish forces 30 kilometers from the Turkish border in northeast Syria.

Erdogan on Wednesday disputed the claim by Russian military police that the Kurdish YPG militia, which is allied with the US, had left the strip.

Turkey reserves the right to launch another operation against the YPG in the area, said Erdogan.

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Watch video02:58

Thousands of Kurdish refugees flee northern Syria

Read more: Opinion: Erdogan wins big as clock ticks for Syria Kurds

Turkey considers the militia, the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a terrorist group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a nearly four-decade war for Kurdish rights against the Turkish state.

According to a statement released by the Turkish Defense Ministry on Tuesday, the Turkish-Russian patrols “will be initiated in the west and east of the borders of current Operation Peace Spring at a depth of 10 kilometers.”

The joint operations will include mine clearances and reconnaissance activities.

The upcoming Russia-Turkey operations were initially agreed in talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan in Sochi on October 22, in addition to the 150-hour period that expired on Tuesday.

The leaders met to discuss a solution following Turkey’s offensive into the strip of land in northeast Syria.

Turkey entered the area to drive out Kurdish fighters after US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from the region earlier in October.

kmm/stb (Reuters/AFP)

Deadly attack on military base in southeast Niger

Niamey (AFP)

Gunmen launched a deadly predawn raid Wednesday on a military base in southeastern Niger’s Diffa region, which has been a target of Boko Haram jihadists, local sources said.

It is the latest in an increasingly brazen string of attacks near the west African country’s Nigerian border, where the radical Islamist insurgency has claimed hundreds of lives.

“The Blabrine military unit was targeted last night. The situation is ongoing,” a municipal source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Around 10 people were killed during the raid which was launched around 3:00 am (0200 GMT), the source said, adding that the situation was unclear and not yet under control.

“The local civil authorities are preparing to assist the population,” the source said.

A senior official in Diffa, where the Blabrine base is located, confirmed the attack.

“There have been deaths and military equipment has been torched,” the official said.

Diffa, which borders the birthplace of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, has been hit by repeated cross-border attacks by the Nigerian jihadist group since 2015.

There was a lull in the attacks late last year, but they have ramped up since March when 10 civilians were killed by a suicide bomber in the town of N’Guigmi, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Blabrine base.

The mayor of Kabalewa, a village close to N’Guigmi, and his wife were kidnapped by Boko Haram members earlier this month.

The jihadist group has also previously carried out large-scale assaults on military posts, including a raid on a base near the southeastern town of Bosso in 2016 in which 26 soldiers were killed.

– ‘Threat spreads to the south’ –

Boko Haram, loosely translated as “Western education is banned”, wants to create a hardline Islamic state.

A regional military coalition is battling the group, but the decade-long insurgency has killed at least 35,000 people in Nigeria alone.

Located in the Lake Chad basin in the middle of the Sahel, the Diffa region is home to 120,000 refugees from Nigeria fleeing the Boko Haram violence, as well as 110,000 people internally displaced within Niger, according to UN data released this month.

The region has also seen flooding after heavy rains caused the Komadougou Yobe river to burst its banks, affecting at least 40,000 people, the government has said.

As well as facing Boko Haram to the southeast, Niger is also battling jihadists — including those from the Islamic State group — in the west near the Malian border.

Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has repeatedly called on the West and the United Nations to help the country battle the jihadists.

But the presence of French, American, and German forces in Niger as well as the UN in Mali has not stopped the increasing attacks.

“Not a day goes by without loss of life,” Issoufou said last month, warning that the situation was urgent as “the threat spreads to the south”.