Countries are increasingly wielding military exercises as a foreign policy tool, but they fall short of aspirations and threaten regional stability.
In September, Saudi Arabia and the UAE held joint military exercises with Egypt and Greece. The presence of Israel and risk for regional instability pushed Iran to conduct military drills on the borders of Azerbaijan in early October. The exercises did not stop here. Months after naval drills in January 2021, Egypt and Russia started conducting a military exercise this week.
The aim of a military exercise is to illustrate a “show of strength” against a third country, sometimes by national armies and in other cases with the participation of the regional allies. They exhibit the technical and tactical capacity of an army, demonstrate its competence in conflict processes and put possible war strategies into practice.
But the political rivalry between leading actors in the Middle East has led to the emergence of a new phenomenon: the use of military exercises as a foreign policy tool. Countries that tend to show power are increasingly using military exercises as a tool of deterrence. Armies with lesser capacities than those of a rival country, or whose operational capabilities are more limited, ignore these facts and diverge into exercises.
The rise of military exercises
The Iranian army’s "Khyber Conquerors" exercise near the Azerbaijan-Armenia border — due to Baku's close cooperation with Tehran’s regional rivals during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Israel, and possibly Turkey — has been one of the most provocative examples in the show of force among the competing countries in the Middle East.
The exercise could damage the already-fragile security climate and military balance in the region. The slightest military escalation may spiral into a war once more. But this time, the situation could have far broader regional and international implications.
While it is possible that military exercises will be somehow detrimental to regional security, it seems unlikely that countries will achieve their goals only through exercises.
Other recent military exercises are in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece, whose military capacity is significantly below the regional average, has been conducting military exercises in the past months to intimidate Turkey, with which it has diplomatic disagreements on many issues.
In August 2020, the Greek army conducted a military exercise with other Mediterranean countries like France and Italy.
Greece's use of military exercises as a tool has also included other Middle Eastern countries. On September 23-26, 2021, the special forces of Saudi Arabia, as well as the Emirati and Egyptian armies, conducted a military exercise in the Greek capital, Athens. The exercise aimed to facilitate and intensify military cooperation, training and experience-sharing between the countries.
In this regard, the military exercise, organised by four countries that are not traditional allies, but have come together due to their respective geopolitical positions against Ankara, can be considered as part of a containment policy towards Turkey.
Nonetheless, the main purpose of the military exercises of Greece and other countries is to emphasise military cooperation in the region against Turkey. In this sense, it is understandable for nations who rely on Western countries as their major source of defense industry to conduct joint military drills.
Since Turkey portrayed an effective use of air systems and defence capacity through its national inventory in conflict areas such as Karabakh, Libya and Syria, the countries in the region intended to show that they also possess similar capacity.
Egypt is another player aiming to establish military deterrence via military means. The Egyptian army has conducted a number of exercises with the military forces of regional allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Sudan as well as international actors including the US, France and Italy. Egypt and Russia have also carried out military exercises for years. Whereas exercises between Egypt and Russia could serve as a message to the US, Egypt and France’s joint activities aim to establish a coordinated positioning in the Eastern Mediterranean.
To deter or to escalate?
Every country participating in an exercise has their own objectives. The Middle Eastern states’ joint exercises with Russia are likely a show of power and serve as Moscow's response to NATO’s joint exercises conducted since 2018 near its sphere of influence.
The recent exercise between the navies of the US and Israel in the Red Sea, and the inclusion of Israel within the US Central Command’s operations have increased military activities in the region.
The participation of the US in the exercises with Israel led to regional countries increasingly viewing these routine exercises as a foreign policy tool and added an international dimension to its ongoing regional use.
Yet the goal of deterrence cannot be attained by mobilisation; it can only be achieved through the rational and effective use of military power in areas of actual conflict. So even though these exercises are intended to be held for this purpose, in the international system, there are major distinctions between military drills and the application of hard power. Most of the time, these disparities can be attributed to historical capabilities, present capacity and the successful administration of national forces.
In the contemporary Middle East, states often favour military tools of foreign policy over political tools. However, actors using exercises to display military influence and capacity are states that are weak in terms of military capacity; their military exercises include the effort to take on stronger actors politically.
In this sense, the actors try to draw the US and Russia to their sides. In the end, military deterrence can be achieved through rational and justified activities of hard power on the ground, that is why military exercises will likely remain as rehearsals that include the possibility of destabilising the military balance in the region.
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