Beyond COIN: Militias and Multi-Domain Operations
By Adam Wendoloski
U.S. thinking recognizes the role of proxy forces in Multi-Domain Operations (MDO). The MDO concept discusses the need to both employ, and counter proxy forces without specifically addressing the use of militias or how to employ them. In Syria and Ukraine, Russia heavily leverages pro-government militias to achieve its policy goals. The United States also leverages militias. The Sons of Iraq and Syrian Democratic Forces were used with great effect at the tactical and operational levels. However, the discussion on the role of militias in a near-peer competition conflict is lacking. The bulk of U.S. doctrine focuses on militias in a COIN role, however militia's have the capability for broader application in Multi-Domain Operations.
Multi-Domain Operations is a shift from Post 9/11 COIN doctrine. It encompasses threats posed by Russia and China. This isn't to say terrorism and insurgency are not part of MDO, however they are viewed in the broader context of great power competition and not singular ideological struggles by fringe groups.
There are both pro-government, and non-government militias. Pro-government militias are understood as having an interest in defending the state and formed directly by the government or through cooperation with the government such Syria's Pro-Assad militias. These militias formed with the intent of preserving the Assad regime and cooperate with the Syrian Armed forces and the militaries of other state actors in the region.
U.S. doctrine defines non-government militias as "outside the host-nation government's control". These militias may or may not have a vested interest in the survival of the state or host-nation government. The Sons of Iraq (SOI) sought to defend Iraq's Sunni communities by cooperating with the U.S. Military. The SOI effectively combated Al-Qaida but distrusted Iraq's Shiite government. The Syrian Democratic Forces are a non-government militia. While effective in clearing ISIS, they lacked formal recognition by any state actor.
Working Backwards: The End State and MDO
Militia's may seem like a convenient ad hoc solution to a problem set, specifically to combat insurgencies. Traditionally states create them to quell insurgent activity. In Multi-Domain Operations militias take on broader roles outside their intended area of operations. One example is the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The United States supported the FSA against the Assad government. U.S. support for the FSA waned and eventually ceased. The FSA shifted loyalties and now operates in support of Turkish interests in Syria and elsewhere. At times this opposes both U.S. and Russian interests.
Militias are not without risk. Dale Pankhurst discusses the risk of using militias and the potential for them to revert to criminal activity or terrorism. Competition between militias and the host-nation occurs when the government cannot control them. This risks malign, destabilizing influence. However, competition might be beneficial if it counters the ability of a near-peer adversary to influence the host-nation's policies. One example is pro-government militias in Ukraine following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. Pro-government militias supplemented the Ukrainian military but became a liability to the stability of Ukraine. Ukrainian reforms brought militias under control of the government. Unit's such as the Azov Battalion take a central role in the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian conflict, but the same questions of their relationship with the government will likely arise after the conflict.
Russian experiences in Syria and Ukraine demonstrates how near-peer competitors use militias in the context of Multi-Domain Operations. Additionally, Turkey, a NATO member, has demonstrated its capability to use militias beyond counterinsurgency. Turkey reportedly sent it's Syrian fighters to Libya against Khalifa Haftar's forces. Turkey also sent elements to support Azerbaijan against Russian backed Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.
With the deterioration of the Syrian Army defections and the Assad Regime on the edge of defeat. Russia intervened militarily to turn the tide of the conflict. The predominance of their effort was providing air support, however, Russia, in partnership with Iran, also provided advisors to Syrian ground forces. They created numerous pro-regime militias which heavily engaged in ground combat against the Islamic State and other rebel groups.
The use of such militias provided an advantage over Syrian conventional forces. Syria's conventional forces lacked capability and focused on preserving the Assad Regime, rather than offensive operations. Militia's organized on tribal lines mobilized rapidly without the needed pre-text of regime loyalty to defend the integrity of the state.
Russia took direct control of some militias placing them within their command-and-control structure. Reports identify the Syrian 8th Brigade, 5th Corps as actually under Russian control. Some 5th Corps fighters opposed the Assad regime and even served with rebel groups. Pro-Russian media promotes the 5th Corps as a melting pot of militias brought to heel under a jointly Syrian and Russian force. This formation serves as reconciliation measure because fighters would avoid retribution in return for their service.
Officially the force is under Syrian control, but this, and control of other pro-regime militias is at best nominal. The Russian announcement that Syrian fighters would aid Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine draws speculation of where such fighters might come from. Russian stewardship of formations such as the 5th Corps allows a ready pool of fighters for use in broader conflicts. The battlefield contributions of these forces are also questionable since deploying them invalidates the home team advantage offered by militias.
The Russian 8th Combined Arms Army likely controls separatist militias in eastern Ukraine. This serves to facilitate tactical objectives and these militias would work in conjunction with conventional forces. They also support Russian strategic goals in the region. This relationship likely makes coordination demobilization easier. Deployment of these militias to other theaters is plausible. It is not out of the question for Russia to use them in other conflicts.
In Multi-Domain Operations does not relegate militias to COIN. Militia's serve the interests of great-power competition in both competition and conflict through occupying key terrain and involvement in regional conflicts under direct stewardship of state actors.
These views are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
Special thanks to Rebecca Mowbray with the Mounger Writing Center at West Point for her assistance on this work.