The years preceding the Arab Spring were rather calm ones for the armed forces of the Arab world: two major conventional campaigns (Iraq 2003 and Lebanon 2006) barely involved the military, and terrorism was mostly under control in Algeria and Yemen. Elsewhere all was quiet on the Arab front. The Arab Spring changed this in more ways than one: to start with, it turned the militaries of Tunisia, Syria and Egypt into political actors, and split those of Yemen and Libya in two. But that was not all there was: as large-scale unrest engulfed the region in the years after 2011, Arab armies have been forced to adapt to the context they operate in. As a result, they have been involved to entirely new degrees in war-fighting, had to change internally, and cooperate more with other Arab forces. Although 2011 made them more political in the short run, it might very well make them more professional in the long run.
In the line of fire
The year of 2011 had a crucial side-effect initially overshadowed by the political events: gradual implosion of security all over the region. There were three reasons for this: the overstretch of the forces suddenly tasked with ensuring public safety in the face of large-scale demonstrations, the empowerment of opposition forces following the fall of the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, and later on the spreading of weapons out of Libya into the rest of the region.
This became first apparent in Libya and Syria, where the opposition movement turned into a full-blown civil war. But while the Libyan military was quickly defeated, the Syrian one managed to maintain structure and operational capability despite significant manpower losses until the time of writing. Since 2011, it has fought an intense campaign involving airpower and heavy artillery; in the process, it has suffered about 50% loss in manpower – 50,000 soldiers died in the conflict, and at least 100,000 more deserted – and severe damage to its equipment and morale, but its command structure and offensive capacity has remained operational.
Elsewhere in the region, the fight against terrorism takes different forms but involves now almost every Arab force to some extent:
The Egyptian military launched ‘Operation Eagle’ in 2011 (later replaced by ‘Operation Sinai’) against terrorists on the peninsula; the Iraqi Army, which had never had to fight an urban guerrilla conflict, faced the Islamic State since 2013 in a very violent campaign; Tunisia’s military, which had never seen combat action until 2013, suddenly found itself the target of terrorist attacks in Mount Chambi; the Lebanese army, after just having recovered from its disastrous campaign against militants in a Palestinian camp in 2007, faced a similar opponent in the town of Arsal. Even Algeria’s armed forces, which had experienced a large-scale campaign in the 1990s, saw the return of more grandiose attacks, starting with the one in the oil installation of Ein Amenas in 2013.
And military activity in the region has not been limited to ground operations; the air forces have been involved as well – whether Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, or Jordan in Syria, the involvement of air power has reached levels not seen since at least the 1970s.
Seven years after the Arab Spring, the military forces of the region are therefore much more active than they were before. As a result, they had to change.
Adapting to a new strategic context
With the exception of Algeria, and some extent Egypt, Arab armed forces did not have the operational experience and capability to deal with an asymmetric threat in an urban, mountainous or desert landscape. The intensity of combat however triggered the necessary changes.
This is perhaps best visible in Tunisia: while the armed forces used to be kept on a short leash in budgetary terms, the necessity for new equipment and training let the defence budget grow faster than any other, by on average 21%. As a result of some of these changes (for instance, the purchase of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles), the military has been able to limit the lethality of attacks, including during night-time operations. At the same time, the military has strengthened its intelligence capacity to prevent attacks in the Directorate for Military Security both in legal and in capacity terms.
Algeria, albeit already quite experienced in counter-terrorism, altered some of its procedures as a result of the Ein Amenas attack. While the threat of the 1990s superficially resembles the one of today, there is a distinct qualitative difference: whereas it was then limited, both in terms of personnel and equipment, to Algerians, it has now morphed into a regional affair linked to Libya, Mali and Tunisia. In addition to closing its borders and deploying troops along them, the Algerian military has reshuffled its intelligence system to reflect the nature of the change. The Special Forces devoted to anti-terrorist operations not only implemented personnel changes, but also became an independent body in its own right. In Lebanon, the operational capacity to act in mountainous terrain in particular has increased dramatically, in part pushed by the acquisition of equipment allowing for aerial surveillance and night-time operations. Similarly, the Iraqi Army managed to recover from its 2014 debacle, increasing cohesion impressively as well as the capacity to act in an urban terrain.
Perhaps the greatest learning curve has been that of the air forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, both of which had very limited operational experience before the Arab Spring. Both are now capable of conducting air strikes and sustain an operation over an extended period – despite lacking significantly in keeping collateral damage low.
The two forces that have changed the least in the face of adversity are the Syrian and the Egyptian forces; both have continued largely on the same escalatory path leading to prolonged terrorist activity and destruction. Neither has been capable of defeating the opponent singlehandedly, and has suffered from important casualties and loss of equipment. Maybe as a result of their static postures, both forces have struggled to achieve their objective.
Doing more together?
Perhaps the most unexpected change in military patterns in the region is the surge in military cooperation. Although larger-scale projects – such as the Joint Arab Force or the Islamic Military Alliance – appeared to be more political than operational in nature, smaller-scale cooperation has increased to unprecedented levels. Egypt in particular has launched a series of joint military drills with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait that aim at increasing capacities in urban warfare and the fight against terrorism. In 2016, Saudi Arabia conducted military drill “Northern Thunder” involving 20 Arab and Islamic countries - a first in scope and ambition. Tunisia, too, has signed agreements with the UAE and Qatar. And military exercises do not solely have the purpose of bolstering military cooperation, they can have a power purpose as well: in 2017, the UAE conducted the very public “Union Fortress” exercise solely for the consumption of its citizens.
The forces emerging from the post-2011 changes as more adaptable and more operational ones are hence those which have used the upheaval to test capacities, reform capabilities, and review strategic postures to specific threats: those of Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The forces of Egypt and Syria, however, continue on a doctrinal path that is identical to the one embarked on in 1990, and therefore unlikely to succeed.
Florence Gaub, Senior Analyst, the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS)
 Hosmer, Stephen, Why the Iraqi Resistance to the Coalition Invasion was so weak (Santa Monica: RAND, 2007)
 See chapter on Syria in Gaub, Florence, Guardians of the Arab State: When Militaries intervene in Politics, from Iraq to Mauritania (Hurst: London, 2017), pp.146 - 154