Podcast: Dr. Aurel Sari on the concept of “Grey Zone War” – and more!

Today’s podcast, from our recently-completed 25th Anniversary National Security Law Conference, is by Dr. Aurel Sari, one of the world’s top experts on the legal aspects of what many are calling “grey zone” or “hybrid” war (terms Dr. Sari unpacks in his presentation).

As I said in my introduction of him, what makes Aurel different from so many academics is that “he not only is a brilliant lawyer, he has invested himself in understanding the armed forces, the weapons, the mindset, the strategies, everything else, to the point where he would be a match for any flag officer in any of the services.”

Aurel previews his presentation (watch/listen here) this way:

[I]n the time that I have available [I’ll] talk a little bit about the concept of grey zone war, hybrid warfare, draw some lessons and implications about what it means for lawyers, and then if we have time available, offer just a few hints, a few thoughts, about how we might respond to some of those challenges.”

Aurel begins his presentation by challenging the nomenclature of “grey zone” and hybrid” war. He contends:

“These are labels. So we have to look at the labels. But beyond the labels, there are some real world problems, which I think where we really need to get our teeth into and we need to understand what those problems are and the challenges that they pose to lawyers as well as operators”

Aurel walks us through how to think of these concepts, and explains:

“[T]he idea of grey zone competition, grey zone war is based on the realization that the dividing line between war and peace is becoming increasingly blurred. So it’s based on this notion that war and peace are obviously very, very, very different spheres of human activity. But they’re not really clearly demarcated.”

He later highlights the characteristics:

“So what is characteristic about grey zone competition is that there is hostility, antagonism. There is a tussle there. It is not peaceful. But at the same time, it doesn’t reach the level of full outright traditional warfare either. It can involve states, it can involve non-states.”

He maintains that:

“If law is being used by adversaries as a means of competition, we have to compete better. So other words, recognize that we are in a competitive environment internationally, that law is a major, major, major element [or] component of that, and we have to out-compete adversaries.”

Aurel cautions, however, that that “we  have to make sure that the way in which we compete doesn’t do further damage to the international system.”

Along those lines he tackled a tough question which was essentially this:  Where is that dividing line between using the law effectively and aggressively even against our adversaries versus abusing it?

His answer included noting that “we look at concepts like good faith, for example, versus bad faith, which I think helps us to some extent.”  He added that in his mind:

“[T]the most important thing is a degree of openness about this. And with openness and transparency comes accountability. So in other words, I think the best way to guard against crossing that threshold and going from effective use of…the law to abusing it, is to be open to our own societies about what we’re doing and why we’re doing.

And I think through having a discussion and having openness and debate, essentially, you exercise self-restraint, but also you open yourself up and you open the military, et cetera, to debate it. Now again, I’m saying a degree of transparency. Like, for obvious reasons, you can’t be open about all of these things.

I think that, to my mind, that’s the best way of avoiding ending up pretty much in the same camp as some of the adversaries that were facing.”

Aurel doesn’t just identify a problem, he concludes by outlining some prescriptions, centering on building on what he refers to as  “legal resilience”.  If you want to know more about his analysis and recommendations for policy actions, take a look at his new paper Legal Resilience in an Era of Grey Zone Conflicts and Hybrid Threats forthcoming in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.

You also may want to check out these articles by Dr. Sari: ‘Hybrid Warfare, Law and the Fulda Gap’, in Christopher Ford and Winston Williams (eds), Complex Battle Spaces (OUP, 2019), 161–190 and ‘The Mutual Assistance Clauses of the North Atlantic and EU Treaties: The Challenge of Hybrid Threats’, (2019) 10 Harvard National Security Journal 405–460.

Again, if you want to be conversant with one of the hottest topics in military legal circles, be sure to listen/watch this podcast!  It’s found here.

About Dr. Sari: Aurel’s scholarship focuses primarily on international conflict and security law and the law relating to military operations. He has published widely on the law of armed conflict, status of forces agreements, peace support operations, international human rights law and the legal framework of European security and defence policy. His work has been funded by the British Academy and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Dr Sari is one of the principal experts on the legal aspects of hybrid warfare. He has spoken and written extensively on the subject, including at the invitation of the Council of Europe, NATO, the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, US EUCOM and US AFRICOM. He has undertaken research and consultancy projects on behalf of the UK Ministry of Defence and the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.

The views and opinions in the podcast are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of any other entity.  Guest posts also do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

As we like to say on Lawfire®, gather the facts, examine the law and the arguments, and decide for yourself!





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