Born in Lebanon, dying in Syria?  

Jerusalem Post, 29/5

Hizballah shoulders new responsibilities in the Syrian war

The latest reports from the Qalamun mountain range in western Syria suggest that Hizballah is pushing back the jihadis of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.  The movement claims to have taken 300 square kilometers from the Sunni rebels.

The broader picture for the Shia Islamists that dominate Lebanon, however,  is less rosy.

The Iran-led alliance of which Hizballah is a part is better-organized and more effectively commanded than are its Sunni rivals.  Its ability to marshal its resources in a centralized and effective way is what has enabled it to preserve the Assad regime in Syria until now.

When Assad was in trouble in late 2012, an increased Hizballah mobilization into Syria, and the creation by Iran of new, paramilitary formations for the regime recruited from minority communities was enough to turn the tide of war back against the rebels by mid-2013.

Now, however, the numerical advantage of the Sunnis in Syria  is once more reversing the direction of the war.  With the minority communities that formed the core of Assad’s support no longer willing or able to supply him with the required manpower, the burden looks set to fall yet further on the shoulders of Assad’s Lebanese friends.

What this is likely to mean for Hizballah is that it will be called on to deploy further and deeper into Syria than has previously been the case.

In the past, its involvement was largely confined to areas of particular importance to the movement itself.  Hizballah fought to keep the rebels away from the Lebanese border, and to secure the highways between the western coastal areas and Damascus.

The movement’s conquest of the border town of Qusayr in June, 2013, for example, formed a pivotal moment in the recovery of the regime’s fortunes at that time.

But now, Hizballah cannot assume that other pro-regime elements will hold back the rebels in areas beyond the Syria-Lebanese frontier.  This means that the limited achievement in Qalamoun will prove Pyyrhic, unless the regime’s interest can be protected further afield.

Hizballah looks set to be drawn further and deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Movement Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged this prospect in his speech last Sunday, marking 15 years since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

In the speech, Nasrallah broadened the definition of Hizballah’s engagement in Syria.

Once, the involvement was expressed in limited sectarian terms (the need to protect the tomb of Sayida Zeinab in Damascus from desecration.)  This justification then gave way to the claimed need to cross the border precisely so as to seal war-torn Syria off from Lebanon and keep the Sunni ‘takfiris’ at bay.  On Sunday, Nasrallah struck an altogether more ambitious tone.

Hizballah, he said, was fighting  alongside its ‘Syrian brothers, alongside the army and the people and the popular resistance in Damascus and Aleppo and Deir Ezzor and Qusayr and Hasakeh and Idlib. We are present today in many places and we will be present in all the places in Syria that this battle requires.”

The list of locations includes areas in Syria’s remote north and east, many hundreds of kilometers from Lebanon (Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor), alongside regions previously seen as locations for the group’s involvement.

Nasrallah painted the threat of the Islamic State in apocalyptic terms.  He described the danger represented by the group as one ‘unprecedented in history, which targets humanity itself.”

This language sounds fairly clearly like a preparing of the ground for a larger and deeper deployment of Hizballah fighters into Syria.  Such a deployment will inevitably come at a cost to the movement.  Only the starkest and most urgent threats of the kind Nasrallah is now invoking could be used to justify it to Hizballah’s own public.

The problem from Hizballah’s point of view is that it too does not have inexhaustible sources of manpower.  The movement has lost, according to regional media reports, around 1000 fighters in Syria since the beginning of its deployment there.  At any given time, around 5,000 Hizballah men are inside the country, with a fairly rapid rotation of manpower.

Hizballah’s entire force is thought to number around 20,000 fighters.

Faced with a task of strategic magnitude and ever growing dimensions in Syria, there are indications that the movement is being forced to cast its net wider in its search for manpower.

A recent report by Myra Abdullah on the Now Lebanon website (associated with anti-Hizballah elements in Lebanon) depicted the party offering financial inducements to youths from impoverished areas in the Lebanese Bekaa, in return for their signing up to fight for Hizballah in Syria.

Now Lebanon quoted sums ranging from $500 to $2000 as being offered to these young men in return for their enlistment.

Earlier this month,  Hizballah media eulogized a 15 year old boy, Mashhur Shams al-Din, who was reported as having died while performing his ‘jihadi duties’ (the term usually used when the movement’s men are killed in Syria).

All this suggests that Hizballah understands that a formidable task lies before it, and that it is preparing its resources and its public opinion for the performance of this task.

As this takes place, Hizballah seems keen to remind its supporters and the Lebanese public of the laurels it once wore in the days when it fought Israel.

The pro-Hizballah newspaper al-Safir recently gained exclusive access to elements of the extensive infrastructure Hizballah has constructed south of the Litani River since 2006.  The movement’s al-Manar TV station ran an (apparently doctored) piece of footage this week purporting to show Hizballah supporters filming a Merkava tank at Har Dov.  Nasrallah in his speech also sought to invoke the Israeli enemy, declaring that ISIS was ‘as evil’ as Israel.

The Israeli assessment is that with its hands full in Syria, Hizballah will be unlikely to seek renewed confrontation with Israel.

It is worth noting, nevertheless, that a series of public statements in recent weeks from former and serving Israeli security officials have delivered a similar message regarding the scope and depth of the Israeli response should a new war between Hizballah and Israel erupt.   IAF commander Amir Eshel, former IAF and Military Intelligence Head Amos Yadlin, Major-General Giora Eiland and other officials speaking off the record expressed themselves similarly in this regard.

Hizballah, clearly, has little choice regarding its deepening involvement in Syria, Nasrallah’s exhortations notwithstanding.  The organization is part of a formidable, if now somewhat overstretched regional alliance, led by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This alliance regards the preservation of the Assad regime’s rule over at least part of Syria as a matter of primary strategic importance.

Hizballah and the Shi’ites it is now recruiting are tools in this task.  It would be quite mistaken to underestimate the efficacy of  the movement. It is gearing up for a mighty task which it intends to achieve. Certainly, many more Hizballah men will lose their lives before the fighting in Syria ends, however it eventually does end.  Given the stated ambitions of that movement regarding Israel and the Jews, it is fair to say that this fact will be causing few cries of anguish south of the border.

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The March of Folly in Iraq

PJmedia, 19/5 (published under the title ‘Did US Policy Allow Ramadi to Fall?’)

The fall of Ramadi to the fighters of the Islamic State is a disaster for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The taking of the city brings IS to just over 60 miles from Baghdad.

In addition to showcasing the low caliber of the Iraqi security forces, the events surrounding the fall of the city lay bare the contradictions at the heart of Western policy in Iraq.

Prime Minister Abadi had ordered the garrison in Ramadi to stand firm. He hoped to see a successful stand in the city as a prelude to a government retaking of Anbar province, over half of which is still in IS hands. But in a manner reminiscent of the fall of Mosul in June 2014, Iraqi security forces ignored orders to defend Ramadi, and fled eastwards to the neighboring town of Khalidiyeh.

This left Ramadi to the tender mercies of the fighters of the Islamic State, who have reportedly since slaughtered at least 500 people.

It is important to note that even U.S. airstrikes were not sufficient to prevent the debacle.

As of now, Shia militias are heading for the city’s outskirts. A militia-led counterattack is expected in the coming days. A further advance eastwards by the Sunni jihadis, at least in the immediate future, is unlikely.

So what is behind the failure of the Iraqi security forces and the continued advance of the jihadis?

On the simplest level, the greater motivation and determination of the IS fighters explains their continued successes against the Iraqis. The jihadis are all volunteers. Not all of them are highly skilled fighters, but their level of motivation is correspondingly very high. By contrast, Iraqi soldiers are often serving far from home, defending communities for whom they have little concern. Most joined the army for the salary. Their unwillingness to engage against the murderous jihadis of the Islamic State is not hard to understand or explain.

However, this problem has now been apparent for nearly a year, ever since the Sunni jihadis first crashed across the border from Syria last June. So why has it not been addressed? The blame for this cannot be placed at the feet of low ranking Iraqi soldiers.

The blame lies at the policymaking level.

The United States is committed to the territorial unity of Iraq. It therefore is determined to relate to the government of Haider al-Abadi as the sole authority in the country.

The problem with this stance is two-fold.

Firstly, it precludes providing arms directly to the elements who are most willing to use them against the Islamic State (namely, the Kurdish Peshmerga and further south, the elements among the Sunni tribes whom the U.S. aided during the “surge” in the 2006-2007 period).

In the north, this has not prevented the Kurds from successfully defending the area west of Erbil (with the vital assistance of coalition air power). But it has served to keep the Kurds militarily dependent on the coalition, thus reducing the possibility of their making a bid for independence from Baghdad in the immediate future.

Secondly, and more importantly, the U.S. commitment to the territorial unity of Iraq is leading to a willful blindness regarding the actual nature of the government in Baghdad and its true sources of strength and support.

The supposedly legitimate armed forces of Baghdad are, as has been witnessed again in Ramadi, not fit for the purpose. The true defenders of Baghdad and of the government are right now heading toward Ramadi. They are the forces of the “Hashd al-Shaabi” (popular mobilization). They are the Shia militias, supported by Iran. These militias are the wall behind which the Amadi government shelters.

The West insists on maintaining the illusion that the government in Baghdad is something other than a Shia sectarian-dominated entity in the process of entering a de facto military alliance with the Iranians. This stubbornness is producing the current absurd situation in which Western air power is being used in support of Shia Islamism.

It is important to understand that this is not taking place because there is no other option for stopping the advance of the Islamic State. There is another, more effective option:  direct aid to the Kurds, and to the Sunni tribes further south.

This support of Shia Islamism is taking place because of the conviction in Western capitals — most importantly, of course, Washington, D.C. — that the advance of Iran and the building of Iranian strength in Lebanon and in the collapsed states of Iraq and Syria is not a phenomenon to be prevented.

Rather, Western capitals believe that growing Iranian influence can be accommodated and perhaps even allied with.

This conviction combined with the desire to maintain the fictions of “Iraq” and “Syria” are the foundations of current policy. For these reasons, in the coming days we will witness U.S. and Western air power, astonishingly, supporting Shia Islamist militants as they battle with Sunni Islamist militants. Meanwhile, overtly pro-Western forces further north lack arms.

The Islamic State just took Ramadi. In Western capitals where Middle East policy is made, folly is engaged on a similarly triumphant march.

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A tremor in Iranian Kurdistan

Iranian Kurds break their silence

Jerusalem Post, 15/5

The events this week in the Mahabad area of Iran’s Western Azerbaijan province cast light on the difficult situation faced by one of the region’s least-noticed minorities – the Kurds of Iran.

The apparent attempt by an intelligence officer in Mahabad to rape an Iranian-Kurdish hotel worker, 25-year-old Farinaz Khosrawani, and the latter’s subsequent suicide by jumping from a fourth-floor window, led to furious protests by Kurds in both Mahabad and beyond.

The hotel was burned by protesters; authorities responded heavy-handedly, using rubber bullets and tear gas.

There is currently a media and social media blackout from the area, but word-of-mouth reports suggest the situation remains tense.

Soran Khedri, a former official of the Iranian-Kurdish Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) organization, told The Jerusalem Post that at least one demonstrator has died, and that in the last 48 hours, PJAK guerrillas had attacked an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps checkpoint in the area, killing two IRGC personnel.

The Kurds of Iraq and Syria have become highly significant and visible players on the regional stage over the last decade. Turkey’s Kurds, of course, have long been noted internationally – because of the insurgency of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) against a succession of governments in Ankara.

But the Kurds of Iran have been the most silent of Kurdish populations.

Numbering around 8 million in total, they are mainly resident in the Kordestan province of western Iran (adjoining Iraqi Kurdistan), one of the country’s most impoverished regions; Kurdish populations are also to be found in Western Azerbaijan, Ilam and Kermanshah. Unemployment in Kordestan Province stands at 28 percent; there is little local industry.

The Iranian Kurds were not always politically silent. Mahabad was the location of the short-lived Mahabad Republic – the only example of full Kurdish sovereignty in the 20th century. The republic was declared in January 1946, and destroyed by the Iranians in December of that year.

But under the Islamic Republic, the Kurds have faced repression of the most severe kind. A large-scale revolt against the new regime, led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iran (PDKI), was crushed with great severity in the period immediately following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The IRGC killed over 10,000 Kurds as it fought to destroy the nascent Kurdish independence movement; the insurgency was largely defeated by 1983.

The suppression of any hint of Kurdish separatism has remained in place ever since. Education in Kurdish remains forbidden; any sign of attempts at political organization is ruthlessly suppressed by the Revolutionary Guards.

The hostility of the Iranian regime to the slightest hint of separatism derives not solely or mainly from ethnic tensions between Persians and Kurds. Even the most modest Kurdish demands for greater local autonomy raise the specter for the regime of ethnic separatism. Iran is a divided society ethnically, with only 49 percent of the population consisting of ethnic Persians; the rest are a mixture of Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds and Arabs.

Thus, the brutal and total repression of Kurdish demands is an indication not of the regime’s strength, but of its potential weakness. Tehran fears that were the demands of one minority ethnicity to be accommodated – even partially – this would risk opening the floodgates for other demands.

In 2004, a new Iranian Kurdish insurgency began. This was led by PJAK, PKK’s franchise among the Iranian Kurds. From the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, PJAK sought to strike at the Iranian authorities while its cadres worked among the population, seeking to build clandestine support.

A shaky, on/off cease-fire has persisted between PJAK and the Iranian authorities since 2011, after a large-scale incursion by the IRGC into Iraqi Kurdistan led to fierce battles. But PJAK remains armed and deployed along the border, able to exploit any breakdown of regime control in the Kurdish areas.

Alongside PJAK, the PDKI remains active, as do a number of parties claiming the mantle of the Komala Movement, a once-influential leftist force among the Iranian Kurds.

Severe repression, divided politics and a long period of apparent quiescence were followed by sudden, unexpected anger precipitated by an unforeseen event. This is what is currently taking place in Iranian Kurdistan; it sounds, in all particulars, a familiar story in the Middle East of the last half-decade.

So, are the events in Mahabad a prelude to some larger movement or unrest among the Iranian Kurds?

An Iranian-Kurdish lawyer with good connections in the Mahabad area told the Post that the current wave of acrimony looked set to “ebb away.” He noted that the protests “in support of Mahabad spread only to a few other cities, like Sardasht and Mariwan.”

Nevertheless, he also asserted that the protests were an indicator of “vast anti-regime sentiments” among Iran’s Kurdish population.

As of now, the Mahabad situation appears to have been contained by the Iranian authorities, yet the events are an indication of the inner fragility of the Iranian regime. Even as Tehran invests in spreading its influence across the region, Mahabad is a reminder that its position at home is by no means secure, or consolidated.

Rather, it rules over large swathes of the Iranian population by force and coercion alone. It is therefore vulnerable to internal subversion – and the more it spreads its assets thinly, by involvement in ever-more regional arenas, the fewer resources it will have available for dealing with internal unrest.

Rodi Hevian, a Kurdish journalist at the online Kurdish Daily News, likened the Mahabad events to the short-lived uprising by Syrian Kurds in the city of al-Qamishli in 2004. Though quickly (and bloodily) repressed by the Assad regime, the Qamishli events were in retrospect a first tremor for what was to come in Syria.

“It could also be a wake-up call for the Iranian regime interfering in Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” Hevian told the Post, “namely, gaining ground in other countries can lead to losing ground at home.”

Of course, for the Iranians to begin paying a price of this kind, it is necessary that the Iranian Kurds and other minorities begin to receive the attention and support of regional enemies of Iran, and of the West.

For this to happen, in turn, there needs to be a recognition of the urgent necessity of containing and turning back Iranian regional ambitions; no such awareness currently exists in Western capitals.

Following June 30 – should a nuclear agreement between Teheran and the P5+1 world powers be concluded – the pressure on the Iranians may be vastly reduced. Abandonment of sanctions would enable the regime to begin to channel greater resources to areas of instability, and to seek to buy off discontent.

Still, in Middle Eastern capitals, both the Iranian threat and the Iranian vulnerability do not go unnoticed. The mullahs and the IRGC are not all-powerful; the tremor in Mahabad indeed reveals just how notably shallow their rule is.

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Assad Not Finished Yet

Jerusalem Post, 1/5

A number of reports have been published in recent days suggesting the tide of the war in Syria may finally have turned decisively against the Assad regime.

The reports cite a series of successes the Syrian rebels have achieved in recent weeks, and suggest the dictator and his allies will have difficulty reversing these setbacks. So is the game really finally up for the bloodstained regime of the Assads? A close examination of the evidence suggests that President Bashar Assad’s eulogizers have once again spoken too soon.

To understand why, let’s first of all look at the nature of the undoubted successes the various rebel coalitions have achieved.

The Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) rebel coalition has conquered significant ground in northern Syria from regime forces in recent weeks. Idlib City, the second provincial capital to be prised from Assad’s grasp, fell on March 29. The alliance has since scored additional victories, taking the pivotal town of Jisr al-Shughour close to the Syrian-Turkish border, and in its latest advance, capturing a regime base at Qarmid.

Jaish al-Fatah, whose two main component groups are Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahral al-Sham, now appears ready to begin attacks on the regime stronghold of Latakia Province and on the Hama area.

Further south, it has been a similarly poor few weeks for the regime. The much-trumpeted February offensive of the Syrian army, together with Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, intended to drive the rebels from the area south of Damascus, rapidly ran aground in the winter snow. The Southern Front rebel coalition and Jabhat al-Nusra went on to score a series of achievements in subsequent weeks. The town of Bosra al-Sham, a historic site close to the border with Jordan, fell on March 25; then the last regime-controlled border crossing between Syria and Jordan, at Naseeb, also fell to the rebels and Sunni jihadists.

This is the list of rebel successes to date; it is certainly considerable. Just a few months ago, many analysts were pronouncing the side of the rebels to be in its death throes. Their inability to unite, or to stem the influence of Sunni jihadists and corrupt warlords in their ranks, seemed to presage their failure.

The regime’s woes have been compounded by the appearance of fissure in its ranks. The firing of two security chiefs – Rafiq Shehadeh of Military Intelligence, and Rustom Ghazaleh of Political Security (who has since died) – adds to its travails.

So what has changed? The rebels have gone through a kind of process of natural selection in which larger units have devoured smaller ones, leading to greater cohesion. The rapprochement of Saudi Arabia with Turkey appears to have enabled more coherent organization, support and supply to the rebels in the north.

In the south, meanwhile, a similar process is occurring with regard to Western and Sunni support for the Southern Front. The latter, unlike Jaish al-Fatah, is not dominated by Salafi Islamists.

Nevertheless, it would be premature to pronounce the regime’s imminent demise.

The regime’s main and oft-noted problem throughout the war has been lack of manpower. The Assad regime has throughout been able to depend on the more or less firm support of only a very small section of the Syrian population – namely the Alawite minority, at 12 percent of the populace. In recent months, there have been signs that even the support of Assad’s own sectarian community is growing frayed.

This core defect in Assad’s position has been apparent throughout, but the regime has been able to deal with it in a number of ways.

Firstly, unlike the rebellion, the regime possesses strong and committed allies. Most importantly, Iran has been willing to mobilize its regional proxies and its own assets in order to offset Assad’s shortage of manpower. Hence, the prominent place of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters on the Syrian battlefield – along with Iraqi Shi’ite militiamen, local Alawite irregulars and Shi’ite volunteers from as far afield as Afghanistan.

There is no reason to believe that the well of potential volunteers from outside Syria has dried up.

As fewer Syrians enlist, it is likely that as in the past, their places will be filled by foreigners. To be sure, this means that the Assad side is today a mixed bag of mainly Shi’ite volunteers assembled by Tehran, rather than the army of a coherent state regime. But this does not make its defeat more likely.

Indeed, given the greater determination and cohesion the Iranians have shown throughout the region, when compared with the confused and flailing Sunnis and the largely absent West, the opposite might well be the case.

Secondly, since mid-2012, the Assad regime has sought to offset its shortage in numbers by reducing the area of territory it seeks to hold. This was the logic behind its abandonment of much of northern Syria in July 2012. Assad understands that he must continue to hold Damascus and its environs, the western coastal area and the area linking the two in order to survive.

In addition, it is a cardinal interest for him to hold Homs and Hama provinces; none of these are as yet under threat.

Until this point, the despot has suffered setbacks in areas whose loss poses no threat to his control of the area of Syria over which he rules. Iran, which is as much the protagonist of the regime’s war as is Bashar himself, does not require the totality of Syria to preserve its vital interests in the country. It needs a contiguous area of land linking pro-Iranian Iraq with pro-Iranian (Hezbollah-dominated) Lebanon.

If and when this interest comes under threat, we will discover just how much fight the regime has left in it.

Lastly, if the nuclear negotiations currently under way produce a deal to Iran’s liking on June 30, this is likely to improve the fortunes of the Assads. That is because the Islamic Republic will demand immediate sanctions relief. This will free up vast sums to flow into Iranian coffers – as much as $50 billion, according to one estimate.

It may be assumed that these funds will be made available for a friend in need. Given the fecklessness of the Western approach to the negotiations and the desire to avoid conflict with Iran, it is quite possible that such a deal will emerge.

In closing, the Assad/Iran/Hezbollah side in the Syrian civil war has not yet begun to be tested in the areas where it must prevail to survive. Thus far, it has suffered only a number of limited setbacks; it has certainly morphed from a centralized regime war effort into the kind of proxy militia arrangement in which the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps specializes.

But this is not an argument for its vulnerability. Reports of its (imminent) demise have been much exaggerated.

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The Islamic State Comes to Damascus

 Jerusalem Post, 18/4
The latest reports suggest that Islamic State fighters have largely withdrawn from the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, on the outskirts of Damascus.

The jihadis have returned to the district of Hajar al-Aswad, from where they launched their assault into the camp on April 1; the strongest element in the camp now is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida.

Islamic State does not seem to have suffered a major defeat in Yarmuk.

Rather, their intention was to strike a blow against the Hamas-affiliated Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis – and this appears to have been achieved.

But the broader significance of the week’s events far transcend the boundaries of the Yarmuk refugee camp. Most important, the Yarmuk fighting marks the definitive arrival of Islamic State into the arena of the Damascus battlefield.

This battlefield is itself heating up amid growing difficulties for the Assad regime; Iranian, Hezbollah and regime forces have suffered setbacks in recent days to the combined forces of Nusra and the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army. The rebels are seeking to establish a secure line south of Damascus from where they can launch strikes directly into the city.

Islamic State has lost some of the areas of Iraq it conquered last summer.

The general direction of the fighting there points toward a slow retreat by the jihadis (though not exclusively – the town of Ramadi close to Baghdad is now threatened by the movement).

But while locked in a largely defensive posture in Iraq (and while continuing to lose ground in northern Syria to Kurdish forces backed by US air power), Islamic State is proving it is able to push forward in areas where it needn’t concern itself with attacks from Western planes.

The regime-controlled areas of the southwest are in this regard a natural choice for Islamic State. Yarmuk is the first evidence of this commitment.

The Yarmuk events also point to the ambiguous role being played by Jabhat al-Nusra regarding its relationship with Islamic State. Nusra has a longstanding rivalry with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis in Yarmuk, relating to issues of turf and control as much as ideology. The Islamic State attack on Yarmuk began from areas close to those controlled by Nusra; other Palestinian factions accused Nusra of colluding with Islamic State.

Certainly, Nusra did not join in the fighting against Islamic State. Moreover, the movement’s withdrawal from Yarmuk leaves Nusra the strongest faction in the area. PLO envoy Anwar Abd-al Hadi told Reuters that “they [Islamic State and Nusra] are one. They are changing positions.”

Nusra, for its part, denies claims of collusion and says it remains committed to the defense of the people of the Palestinian refugee camps from “extremists.” Yet the facts of the situation suggest at least an agnostic attitude toward Islamic State from the powerful Nusra, and perhaps something more.

So what lies ahead? It is not clear whether the fighting in the camp has completely ceased. But even if it has, Islamic State has not been defeated, having merely withdrawn back to its stronghold in the Hajjar Aswad neighborhood adjoining the camp.

The emergence of Islamic State close to the Syrian capital may have become suddenly apparent with the attack on April 1. But in a way now familiar from the group’s practice, first in Raqqa and then in its assault on Iraq last June, the movement is adept at quietly building its presence through clandestine networks of supporters, before suddenly and abruptly announcing its arrival.

If this is taking place in the Yarmuk area, it may be assumed it is happening elsewhere, too – in a way that is likely to become apparent in the period ahead.

In parallel, the regime is getting weaker in southern Syria, and the relationship between the potent forces of Nusra and the other Western-backed rebel formations is declining.

Yarmuk is not the only evidence of this. Rebels affiliated with the Western-backed Southern Front this week released a statement condemning Nusra’s ideology and rejecting cooperation with it.

Bashar al-Zoubi, one of the leaders of the Southern Front, told Reuters that “neither Nusra nor anything else with this ideology represents us… We can’t go from the rule of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to [al-Qaida chief Ayman al-] Zawahiri and Nusra.”

Tensions are growing between Nusra and the Southern Front elsewhere in the south. On April 1, the rebels took the Nasib border crossing from regime forces; it was the last regime-controlled crossing between Jordan and Syria. Nusra and Western-backed rebel elements have been competing over credit for the capture of this area.

This raises the possibility of further tactical cooperation between Islamic State and Nusra in the south, of the type seen in the Qalamoun area, and also apparently in Yarmuk.

And finally, last Saturday fighters declaring loyalty to Islamic State launched an unsuccessful assault on the Khalkhalah military airport in Sweida Province, south of Damascus. This is a further indication of the emergent Islamic State presence on the southern battlefield.

What all this means is that the period in which Islamic State could be assumed to be at a safe distance from the part of Syria closest to Israel appears to be drawing to a close.

And as the regime weakens, the prospect is opening up for a three-way fight between the Assad regime/Iran/Hezbollah, the jihadists of Nusra and Islamic State, and the weaker Western-backed rebels.

The strange events in the blighted Yarmuk refugee camp this week may well represent the opening salvo in a new phase of the Syrian war.

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The Middle East Battle Lines are Drawn

Jerusalem Report, 16/4.

In the last decade, the Middle East has been living through a political convulsion of historic proportions.  Regimes that once appeared immovable have been destroyed or have receded.  New forces have risen up and are making war over the ruins.

The result of the effective eclipse in recent years of the states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has been the emergence of a large and chaotic conflict in the contiguous area once covered by those states.  The failure to develop coherent state-loyal national identities in the areas in question has meant that once central authority disappears, a political-military competition based on forces assembled according to ethnic and sectarian identity emerges.  A  sectarian conflict is as a result now raging between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean.  This dynamic of conflict has now extended to Yemen.

In this maelstrom, the Iranians and their clients have emerged as the single most formidable alliance.  Why is this? What are the particular advantages enjoyed by the Iranians and their proxies in this contest?  What explains the belated but determined Saudi-led Sunni reaction to the Iranians’ advances in recent days?  And what are the implications of the apparent moves towards a nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions on Iran toward Iranian actions in the region?

Iran’s partially successful advance across the region

Iran has, in the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods force, an instrument perfectly suited for the moment that the region is currently passing through.  The IRGC is an organization specifically created for the prosecution of proxy war, and the mobilization and sponsorship of paramilitary clients.

The Sunni Arabs (or indeed any other regional actor) do not possess a comparable force.  The result of the centralized commitment of Teheran and the skills of the IRGC is that the Iranians have been winning in a number of conflict arenas in the Middle East,  and the Saudis and other Gulf countries have been becoming increasingly alarmed.

In Lebanon, the effective parallel state maintained by Hizballah remains the strongest player in the country.  Hizballah is the prototype and still the strongest of Iran’s proxies in the Arab world.  Its strength, the absence of a military tradition among Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanon’s small size have enabled the movement to maintain its dominance in spite of the sectarian ferment to its east.

Hizballah has played a vital role in the Syrian civil war and in the Iranian effort to keep its client in Damascus in power.   The movement has lost around 1000 fighters in Syria, including a number of prominent veteran commanders.  It is thought to have around 5000 men committed in Syria at any given time.  Hizballah’s Syria commitment is testimony to the extent that the movement can ignore the wishes of any other Lebanese factor when answering to the call of its Iranian patrons.  It is also, equally importantly, testimony to the ability of Iran to martial all its regional assets to work together in a coordinated fashion for the interests of any one of them.  This centralization is one of the greatest advantages possessed by Iran in its drive for the domination of the region.

In Syria, Iranian commitment to the Assad regime has preserved it.  Assad has not been doing well in recent days.  In the south, rebels and Sunni Islamist fighters have captured the historic town of Bosra al-Sham.  More importantly, in the north, a force led by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Qatar and Turkey-supported franchise of al-Qaeda in Syria, in late March captured Idleb City, the second provincial capital to be wrested from government control.  The Islamic State, ominously, is now gaining ground close to Damascus.

Despite this, the regime, a long term client of the Iranians, remains the single most powerful element in Syria. It controls around 40% of the area of the country and around 60% of the population.  The continued provision of Iranian funds – reputedly at a rate of around $1 billion per month , and of Iranian manpower and of Iranian military expertise is the single most significant factor in ensuring the Assad regime’s survival.

The key problem for Assad throughout has been the shortage of reliable manpower willing to engage on his behalf.  The commitment by Iran of its own personnel and that of its Lebanese and Iraqi proxies, and the creation by the Iranians of sectarian proxy militias for the regime (the National Defense Forces and others) have to a considerable degree addressed this problem.  Assad is not close to reconquering the entirety of Syria’s territory.  But he is also not in danger of falling.  This is an Iranian achievement, not a Syrian one.

In Iraq,  the Iranians are taking a key role in the fight against the Islamic State.  Some observers only half-jokingly  now refer to Qods Force commander General Qassem Suleimani as the true ruler of that country.

Suleimani has been intermittently present in Iraq, directing the mobilization of Shia militias before the IS threat, since August of last year.  The three most powerful such militias, the Badr brigade, Asaib Ahl al Haq and the Ktaeb Hizballah, answer to his command rather than that of the Iraqi government.  The government, meanwhile, is itself dominated by the Shia Islamist and pro-Iranian Dawa party.

The Shia militias have been playing the key role in the fight against the Islamic State.  They were responsible for the first setbacks suffered by IS, in the town of Amerli in Salah al-Din province. Ethnic cleansing of local Sunnis followed the ‘liberation’ of the town. They have been crucial in subsequent engagements. The militias also played a key role in the recent victory against IS in Tikrit.

Among the Palestinians, Iran has been the sponsor of the Islamic Jihad movement since its emergence.  Since the mid 1990s, Teheran was also engaged in constructing a strategic relationship with Hamas.  Hamas bet on the wrong horse in the 2011-2013 period. It assumed, as did many others, that a Muslim Brotherhood-led new regional alliance was coming into being, centered on Morsi’s Egypt and bankrolled by the Emirate of Qatar.  Hamas saw itself as a natural member of this alliance.  As part of its move toward it, the movement closed down its headquarters in Damascus.  Its activists relocated to Doha, Turkey or Cairo.

But of course the Muslim Brotherhood led alliance proved a fleeting episode. The military coup in Egypt in July 2013 put paid to it.  Since then, Hamas has been engaged in trying to rebuild its bridges to the Iranians.

Teheran has a natural interest in the sponsoring of Palestinian opposition to Israel.  As non-Arabs and non-Sunnis, the Iranians are outsiders twice-over in the largely Sunni, Arabic-speaking Middle East.  Sponsorship of Palestinian ‘resistance’ organizations is designed to contribute toward rectifying this outsider status – the Palestinian cause being still the great cause celebre of the Sunni Arab world.

The latest evidence suggests that Iranian-Hamas rapprochement is proceeding apace.  Tens of millions of dollars have been transferred to the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip, to help the movement re-arm and rebuild its damaged infrastructure.  A new network of tunnels is under construction.  Hamas really has no choice but to return to the Iranians if it wishes to continue its war against Israel.

Lastly, in Yemen, Iranian support for the Houthis is of long standing.  But the toppling of the then dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 has paved the way for the growing strength of both Sunni and Shia militias in the country.  Iranian support for the Houthis has been constant, but has become far more overt since the movement took Sana’a in January, 2015.

The Houthis in February signed a civil aviation agreement with Teheran for direct flights between Sana’a and the Iranian capital.  This will make the process of supplying Iran’s allies in Yemen exponentially easier.  In addition, an Iranian ship unloaded 180 tons of weapons for the Houthis at the port of al-Saleef earlier this month.

So across the region, where state authority has effectively broken down, it has been the Iranians who have been gaining the upper hand.

Nevertheless it would be simplistic to conclude that the Iranians have simply swept all before them, and that they dominate Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen without serious competition.  The Iranians are providing effective support to one side in a civil war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.  But in none of these countries have they destroyed all opposition to their clients.  In both Iraq and Syria, Sunni Arab and Kurdish elements remain in control of significant sections of the country, and in no imminent danger of losing these to the clients of the Iranians.

Similarly, among the Palestinians, Iran appears to be rebuilding its links to Hamas and therefore to the Islamist half of the Palestinian national movement.  But the Ramallah Palestinian Authority is backed by the government of Egypt, by the west, by Jordan and by the Gulf Arabs.  Its security forces are trained in Jordan, under western professional supervision.  It is in no danger of ceding ground to Hamas at any time in the future.  In Gaza, the Sisi government’s closing of the tunnels for north Sinai to southern Gaza is leaving the Hamas enclave impoverished, forlorn and  isolated.  So while the Iranians have an entrée to the Palestinian national movement, their clients are not within sight of defeating their enemies and are at the moment in a somewhat beleaguered position.

Even in Lebanon, where Hizballah is without doubt the single dominant actor in a military sense, the movement does not exercise open, exclusive rule. And were it to attempt to do so, the likely result would be to plunge the country into civil war.  Rather, Hizballah maintains a parallel state structure created and financed by the Iranians.  This structure acts without consulting the organs of the ‘official’ state, sometimes in cooperation with them and sometimes in defiance of their wishes.  But it does not seek to openly and entirely supplant the state.

So the Iranians are embarked on an attempt at regional hegemony.  The effective creation and mobilization of local proxy political-military organizations constitutes a central part of this project.

Iran’s ability to mobilize its proxies toward unified goals, and its skill in creating and training proxy political-military groups has brought it considerable achievements in a variety of conflict arenas – but not yet total victory in any of them.

Sunni mobilization to resist the Iranians

A Sunni coalition which seeks to mobilize to challenge the Iranian advance toward regional domination is now in the process of being established.  Saudi Arabia stands at the head of this effort.

The current Saudi-led Sunni mobilization against an attempt by an Iranian proxy to conquer southern Yemen has been the precipitating factor in galvanizing this Sunni response.  It has an importance far beyond the narrow reaches of Yemen.  It represents the next stage in a process which began with the military coup in Egypt on July 3rd, 2013.  That process is the emergence of  a Riyadh-Cairo axis as the central element in current Sunni Arab diplomacy, in opposition to the mainly Shia alliance led by Iran.

Three factors contributed to the emergence of this axis.  The first is the apparent abdication of the United States from its role as the guarantor of regional security and the leader of the most powerful group of states in the Middle East.  The second is the advance across the Middle East of Iran and its allies.  The third is the challenge to status quo Sunni powers posed by Sunni political Islam, in both its Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi forms.

The successful brokering by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud of a united Sunni response follows the push by the Iran-supported Ansar Allah militia (popularly known as the Houthis) towards the city of Aden and the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb straits.  This move to unite Yemen under their control is the natural next move for the Houthis and their Iranian backers following their capture of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.

For the Saudis and their allies, it is a step too far.  Yemen shares a 1500 km poorly-guarded border with Saudi Arabia.  Control by an Iranian proxy of this border would afford Teheran an additional means of direct pressure on the Saudis.  Nine other Sunni states (Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and United Arab Emirates) joined the Kingdom in committing to prevent the further advance of the Houthis.

So what explains this sudden apparent success of Saudi diplomacy, after a long period in which Sunni attempts to hold back the Iranians and their allies appeared piecemeal and unco-ordinated?  Is the new united Sunni response likely to hold?  What results is it likely to achieve? And what might all this mean for Israel?

It is strongly felt in Riyadh and other Sunni Arab capitals that the United States is determined to withdraw from active involvement in the region and in pursuit of this goal is currently pursuing a dangerous path of appeasement of Iran.  This is most notable, of course, in the nuclear negotiations, where Washington now appears to be willing to countenance Iran becoming a ‘threshold’ nuclear power.

But this impression also derives from the US response to Iran’s activities across the region. In Iraq, the US appears to be acting in tandem with Iranian goals, with no apparent awareness of the problems in this regard.  In Lebanon, similarly, the west is supporting and equipping the Lebanese Armed Forces, without understanding that the Lebanese state is largely a shell, within which Hizballah is the living and directing force.  In Syria, the US is pursuing a half-hearted campaign against the Islamic State, while leaving the rest of the country to its internal dynamics.

From the perspective of the Saudis, Iranian ruthlessness, clarity and advance combined with the flailing, retreating US policy spells potential disaster.

As a result, a fully fledged Sunni alliance against the Iranians is emerging for the first time, independently of the United States.  The resulting prospect is for a long Sunni-Shia conflict in the region to come.

What will be the implications of the current nuclear diplomacy between the west and Iran for the emergent Sunni-Shia conflict?

Even under the impact of sanctions imposed because of its nuclear activities,  Iran nevertheless managed to support its clients and allies.  It has continued to support Hizballah, its clients in Iraq, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinians.  In a pattern familiar to the experience of totalitarian regimes under sanctions in the past, Iran has preferred to safeguard monies for use in service of its regional ambitions, while allowing its non-regime connected population to suffer the consequent shortages.

Nevertheless, with increased commitments in recent months deriving from the collapse of regimes in the Middle East, many observers have had a sense of looming Iranian ‘overstretch.’  Iran is now committed to supporting its allies and/or engaging directly in active wars in three Middle East countries – Syria, Iraq and Yemen.  It is also heavily committed to supporting its clients in two other fraught arenas – Lebanon and Israel/the Palestinian territories.

In recent weeks, Hizballah in Lebanon has closed down a number of projects, such as the English language website of the al-Akhbar newspaper. It has, according to a recent article in the Now Lebanon website, also reduced salaries to employees, stipends to political allies and wage payments to relatives of wounded fighters.

All these are indications of financial distress, as its patron Iran seeks to support an ever widening list of regional commitments.

However, should sanctions be substantially lifted in the months ahead, this would allow the freeing up of billions of dollars.  It may be assumed that a considerable part of the funds freed will be put into the service of Iranian regional ambitions.

The ‘New Middle East’

The emerging strategic picture in the Middle East is defined by the coming together of a number of factors.

The collapse of authoritarian regimes, resulting in the opening up of chaotic political spaces as would be successors do battle over the ruins.  These successor entities, in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Gaza are usually based on local ethnic, tribal and sectarian identities.  In the absence of a firm and crystallized national identity in these areas, these more primordial identifications have come to the fore.

The Iranian ambition for hegemony in the Middle East, underlying Teheran’s attempt to benefit from the burgeoning regional chaos.  Iran controls a tight, centralized alliance of client organizations.  Its clients control Lebanon, and play a dominant role in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Gaza.

The Sunni reaction, deriving precisely from the fear of a rampant Iran inheriting the regional order.  The Sunni interest is preventing overall Iranian victory in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, but is not sufficiently strong to entirely defeat or push back the clients of Iran.

Lastly, the absence of the United States from this picture.  Washington is working according to an erroneous reading of the regional map.  It imagines that Teheran is amenable to ‘engagement’. The result of this is to encourage Iranian expansionism, and also to encourage the independent Sunni organization to resist Iran which is now under way.

So the direction of events in the Middle East is toward an ongoing conflict on several fronts between a bloc of mainly Shia forces led by Iran, and a looser, more disparate gathering of Sunni forces in which Saudi Arabia, (and probably also Turkey and Qatar) are set to play central roles.

This conflict is set to define the next chapter of the troubled history of our region.

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ISIS Pushes West

PJMedia, 10/4

The conquest by the Islamic State of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus confirms the resilience of the jihadis and is an indicator of their current strategy.  Islamic State has lost considerable ground in Iraq, with the recapture of Tikrit constituting its latest setback.  IS has no real response to coalition air power, when it is combined with a competent and determined ground force.  This was first demonstrated in the organization’s defeat at Kobani in January, and it is now becoming apparent in Iraq.

However, Islamic State is responding to this reality in a shrewd and calculated way.

Just prior to its eruption into Iraq last June, ISIS carried out a strategic retreat in north west Syria.  In retrospect, this was clearly a preparation for the push into Iraq.  In so doing, the movement demonstrated its ability to concentrate its forces and to plan beyond the merely local and tactical.

When I interviewed two ISIS fighters in the border town of Kielis in spring, 2014, I asked them about the reasons for this retreat.  “If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back,” one of them told me.  “And perhaps in the future I will return again.”

It now appears that that moment has arrived.

As Islamic State contracts along its easternmost borders in Iraq, it is seeking to expand to its south and west, in Syria.   This week witnessed the movement battling against Palestinian militants near Damascus, and handily defeating them to take control of around 90% of the Yarmouk refugee camp. Despite its name, Yarmouk is in fact to all intents and purposes a functioning suburb of the Syrian capital.

Further north, the Islamic State hit at rebel positions near the town of Marea in northern Aleppo province this week.  Two car bombs detonated by the movement killed several rebels and injured many more.  Heavy clashes followed between IS forces and members of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official franchise of al-Qaeda in the country.  Nusra is thought to be supported by Turkey and Qatar.

The battles in Yarmouk and Marea show that the Islamic State remains far from defeat and is still able to go on the offensive.

More specifically, what this shows is that IS has understood the limits of the US and western commitment to the war against them, and is planning accordingly.  If the Islamic State were to attempt an assault in an eastward or northern direction, local ground forces plus US airpower would soon stop them.  But south and west, because of the different political situation, there will be no western help from above.

To the west, IS is challenging other Islamist and jihadi forces, who are no less anti-western than the Islamic State.  Indeed, Nusra is quietly building a parallel de facto jihadi sovereign entity across Idleb and Aleppo provinces.  The al-Qaeda franchise recently conquered Idleb City, giving it control over a provincial capital, as IS controls Raqqa city.  Nusra has already begun to introduce its own brutal brand of Sharia law into Idleb, including the practice of public executions for a variety of crimes

In the Damascus area, meanwhile, the Islamic State is battling against a coalition of Palestinian forces supported by the Assad regime.   The most significant element among the Palestinians seeking to challenge IS in Yarmouk is Hamas.   The Hamas fighters in Yarmouk go under the name of ‘Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.’  They are cooperating with the rebel  Jaysh al_Islam  and pro-regime forces and of course there will be no western help in that battle either.

What all this means is that while it is suffering real setbacks in Iraq, the Islamic State is at the present time not being seriously degraded, nor it is anywhere close to being destroyed (the two goals of the west with regard to the jihadis).

Rather, it is continuing to push forward in areas where western air power will not be brought to bear.  It is not clear what, if any, will be the western response to this.  But it shows the extent to which the western campaign in Iraq remains poorly defined and lacking in clear goals.

The various other protagonists in the single war now raging in Iraq and Syria all have clear objectives.

The Iranians want to preserve their clients in Baghdad and Damascus, and if possible to reunite these countries under their rule.  Islamic State and al-Qaeda want to preserve and expand their domains.  The Kurds want to hold what they have and maintain their de facto autonomous enclaves in both countries.

All of these are judiciously using the forces available to them to achieve these objectives.  Only the western coalition, in a microcosm of more general western Mid-East policy, appears to be flailing, lacking clear goals and beset by confusion.  The Islamic State is far from destroyed.   And as it is degraded in one area, it is expanding in others.

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