The Changing Military Dynamics of the MENA Region

The Burke Chair has developed a greatly expanded e-book version of its initial examination of the military dynamics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This version examines the full range of security dynamics, including internal security, security spending, and civil security – which involves the quality of governance, economic development, and unity at the civil level. A copy of the full e-book is attached to this email, and it is also available on the CSIS website at

The analysis highlights the fact that the security dynamics of the Middle East and North Africa have changed radically over the last decade and will continue to change for the foreseeable future. At the beginning of 2011, most MENA nations were at peace and seemed to be relatively stable. North African countries were at peace under authoritarian leaders. The Arab-Israeli conflicts were limited to low-level clashes between Israel and Palestine. Egypt acted as a stable major regional power.

Iran was a weak military power dependent on low-grade and dated weapons. Iraq’s Islamic extremists seemed to be defeated. The other Arab Gulf states appeared to be unified in a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Yemen was poor and could not meet the needs of many of its people, but it still seemed stable. Military spending and arms purchases were high by global standards, but they only presented a limited to moderate burden on local economies.

Today, none of those things are true. Regional rivalries, extremism, and the series of political uprisings and conflicts that were once called the “Arab Spring” have turned the MENA region into a fragmented mess. What appeared to be a relatively stable pattern of national security developments and outside support before the political upheavals that began in 2011, has now become the scene of local power struggles; internal conflicts; new battles with extremist movements; and major civil wars in Iran, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Civil wars and instability have become as serious of a challenge to the MENA region’s security and stability as military threats, extremism, and terrorism. Efforts at reforming governance and the economy have fallen short of the needs of most states. The Covid-19 crisis has made things worse, and a number of regimes have gone on with serious arms races at a time when such arms races have become even more unaffordable while their people have even greater needs for effective governance with freedom from corruption, for economic development, and for decent jobs and incomes.

Military threats and extremism have also grown. Iran has emerged as a far more serious military threat in the Gulf. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as well as its fight to defeat extremists and end factional struggles in Iraq that seemed to be ending in 2011, have led to two decades of direct U.S. participation in active combat and combat support of partner forces. While it resulted in the break-up of the ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq, it has left significant ISIS fighters in place while empowering pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces, creating serious uncertainties as to whether Iraq will end up as a U.S. strategic partner or under Iranian influence.

Non-state actors like the Hezbollah, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), and Houthis have become significant threats while the U.S. has used security assistance – and newly created Security Force Assistance Brigades – to create its own non-state actors in Syria. Other powers like Russia have provided support, combat troops, and mercenaries to support non-state actors in Libya and Syria. More broadly, Iran, the Assad forces in Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen have created a coalition of hostile powers that threaten both U.S. interest and U.S. strategic partners.

There have been other important changes in the role of outside powers.The U.S. faces challenges to its security relations with each state in the Middle East and North Africa as well as from nations outside the MENA region. The U.S. still is the major outside power in the region, and its European partners remain active in the Mediterranean as well as in North Africa. Britain and France still play a role in the Gulf, but their roles have been tentative, and their power projection capabilities have continued to slowly decline.

The U.S. commitment to the region has been undermined by “long wars” and the need to meet the challenge from China in Asia. Key strategic partners like Britain and France still play a role in the Gulf, but their roles are more tentative, and their power projection capabilities have continued to slowly decline.

Russia has reasserted itself as a major power and competitor, and it is now playing a major security role in Libya and Syria as well as increasing its share of regional arms transfers. China is emerging as the second ranking global power and as a potential competitor in the MENA region, and there are reports that China may play a major security role in Iran. Turkey is playing a more active military role in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and one that does more to rival U.S. efforts than support them.

At the same time, the military and security forces of every country in the Middle East and North Africa continue to change in size, structure, and force posture, and the results are mixed at best. Many MENA nations with large military and internal security budgets – and that are making massive arms buys – have limited real world warfighting and internal security capabilities. They are poorly prepared to deal with the changing nature of the warfighting threats in the region, and are highly dependent on outside powers.  

This means that major changes must now take place in the military and internal security forces of MENA countries and in every aspect of outside support and security assistance. Moreover, while many MENA countries still spend massive amounts of money on modernizing and expanding their military forces and their major weapons, they have also greatly expanded their focus on counterextremism, counterterrorism, and internal security. As a result, their dependence on the U.S., Russia, China, and other outside forces will steadily increase and continue to do so indefinitely into the future.

Yet, each MENA country must also develop its own approach to creating new systems of command and control, battle management, secure communications, and dependence on space systems. Moreover, some of these military changes will be destabilizing unless they are carefully managed and coordinated, and these challenges are further compounded by shifts to other new forms of warfare.

Several MENA states already have – or are seeking to acquire – advanced ballistic and UCAV or cruise missiles. Others seek to acquire a wide-range of precision guided weapons, integrated mixes of land-based air and missile defenses, and a wide-range of other developments in military technology and tactics. These systems have already begun to present new threats to neighboring states, require major shifts in military structures, and can increase the risk of uncontrolled escalation unless they are carefully controlled.

At the same time, gray area operations, hybrid warfare, and extremist/terrorist threats are forcing added changes. So are the threats posed by the support of rebel factions by neighboring and outside states. These changes mean that MENA states must continue to restructure their intelligence, counterterrorism, counterextremism, and counterinsurgency forces to deal with different kinds of threats.

This analysis focuses on these new security dynamics and on the role the U.S. and its European security partners must play in the MENA region. The U.S. is currently the leading outside power and source of military support for MENA states, except for the Russian presence in Syria. However, the roles of Russia and China are expanding. There are only three major outside powers – the U.S., Russia, and China – that can provide the full range of capabilities needed to help create the MENA forces that can operate at these levels and that are the ones the U.S. and its European partners must compete against.

This report has the following Table of Contents:

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.