Iran and the Shia militias advance in Iraq

Tower Magazine, December, 2014.

(Co-authored with Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)

The United States and its Western allies have recently undertaken airstrikes and other military measures against the Islamic State (I.S., also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq. Contrary to the spirit of most statements coming out of Washington, however, this military action cannot be properly viewed as simply an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State—mainly because the Western actions are limited only to air strikes, which would be ineffective on their own in achieving that end. Rather, this campaign is quite obviously meant to help the main ground forces currently fighting the I.S.—namely, the Iraqi government and Shia militias in Iraq—in the hopes that the Islamic State may be defeated through their combined efforts.

What has been very little discussed in the West, however, is that it is the Shia militias who are quickly eclipsing the Iraqi government forces in importance in Iraq; and that these militias are largely dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, many are Iranian proxies.

In other words, the U.S. and its allies have launched an air campaign whose most important effect, if successful, would be to advance Iran’s agenda of dominating Iraq and eventually becoming the hegemonic power in the region.

How did this happen, and what might its consequences be?

The fall of Mosul in June to a Sunni insurgent offensive spearheaded by the I.S.—which quickly asserted decisive authority in the city at the expense of its allies—revealed the incompetence of Iraq’s conventional armed forces, which are plagued by the same rampant corruption and nepotism that are pervasive in Iraq’s post-Saddam political order.

Iranian aircraft have carried out strikes against the Islamic State. Photo: TomoNews US / YouTube

The Shia militias, backed and coordinated by Iran, are now filling the vacuum left behind by the regular army. This phenomenon was rapidly if unintentionally bolstered by a fatwa from Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, on the obligation to defend the country in the face of the I.S. threat. While Sistani had intended to encourage people to enlist in the official security forces, in practice his fatwa midwifed the broad umbrella of Shia militias conventionally dubbed al-hashad al-sha’abi (“the popular mobilization”) in the Iraqi press. The militias themselves, however, like to call themselves, somewhat ominously, al-muqawama al-islamiya (“the Islamic resistance”).

Due to the wave of enlistment set off by Sistani and the weakness of the official security forces, there is scarcely a single area in which at least some of the Shia militias are not operating. In many cases, such as the recent successful offensive to clear the I.S. out of Jurf al-Sakhr—a predominantly Sunni area of Babil province, south of Baghdad—and the ongoing fighting to dislodge the I.S. from al-Muqdadiya in Diyala province, it is clear that the fighting has been or is being led by Shia militias.

The growing importance of the Shia militias’ resistance to the I.S. in Iraq is not simply the result of their own combat skills. It is very much a product of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Iranian regime’s elite paramilitary force, whose role in regional conflicts—and, it should be noted, terrorism—is large and expanding. The Shia’s success in Iraq reflects the effectiveness of IRGC doctrine regarding the construction, support, and use of sectarian political and military proxies as a central tool—sometimes the central tool—of Iranian policy in the region.

Iran has displayed a peerless ability to harness and utilize forces of this kind in the Middle East. It is a major factor in Iran’s ongoing success in building political influence in surrounding countries.

The prototype for this approach was the establishment and sponsorship of the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Following the end of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in 2005, Hezbollah rapidly emerged as the dominant political actor in the country, able to conduct its own military policy of aggression against Israel without any need to consult with other Lebanese factions.

For a considerable period, Iran’s success in Lebanon appeared to be unique. Its clients elsewhere were far less powerful and influential. However, the current unrest in the Middle East, characterized by the contraction or collapse of state authority in a variety of countries, has created an environment in which Iran’s skills have become extremely effective.

As a result of the weakening of the central government in Yemen, for example, the Iran-supported Houthi militia is now the decisive force in the capital, Sana’a, and looks set to determine the makeup of the next government.

Most importantly, however, and most relevant to Iraq, the Iranian ability to utilize sectarian paramilitary formations was perhaps the crucial factor in turning the tide of the Syrian civil war and preserving the Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The darkest days of the Assad regime were the closing months of 2012. At that time, with the rebels having succeeded in entering the city of Aleppo and the eastern suburbs of Damascus, it looked as though the regime’s days were numbered.

The use of sectarian political and military proxies is the central tool of Iranian policy in the region.

The problem for the Assad regime—similar to the current government of Iraq—was that, while the Syrian dictator possessed a large army on paper, the loyalty or reliability of many units was suspect. Hence, only a certain percentage of the armed forces could be reliably deployed. Assad’s power base is Syria’s Alawi minority, which is relatively small in numbers. Because of this, many analysts thought that the defeat of the Assad regime in Syria was simply a matter of time, because the narrow sectarian base of the regime meant that Assad would simply run out of men willing to take a bullet on his behalf.

The Iranians, however, spotted something different: On both sides, the number of men actually engaged in the fighting was relatively small. The Syrian civil war was one of small militias, not massive conventional armies. This meant that the establishment or insertion of a relatively modest number of committed men could make a major difference. In early 2013, under Iranian supervision, the number of Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria was increased. In tandem with this, the Iranians and Hezbollah began to train members of the Alawi paramilitary groups known as the Shabiha, which were reformed into a group called the National Defense Forces (NDF).

The NDF was a light infantry force of about 40,000 men that was deployed in the spring of 2013 alongside Hezbollah and reliable elements of the Assad-controlled Syrian Army, as well as some Iraqi Shia paramilitary forces. This closed the Syrian regime’s gap in manpower, and played a key role in pulling it back from the precipice.

In the summer of 2014, the army of another Iranian ally—the Iraqi government—faced a similar situation in regard to the Islamic State. At that time, a number of analysts predicted that the Iranians were likely to follow a similar strategy to that of Syria. It is now clear that Iran has pursued precisely such a policy, and with considerable success.

Almost immediately, Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC—the agency tasked with the creation and use of proxy political and military forces—was sent to Baghdad. Very clearly, his task was to coordinate the Iraqi response.

Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade of the 14th Iraqi Army Division graduate from basic training in Besmaya. Photo: Erica R. Gardner / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia

His influence appears to have been decisive in shaping the Iraqi response. Predictably, it involves the use of militias and Shia sectarianism along the lines pioneered in other countries. As an Iraqi official quoted byThe Guardian put it, “Who do you think is running the war? Those three senior generals who ran away? Qassem Suleimani is in charge. And reporting directly to him are the militias.” Since then, Suleimani has guided much of the fighting against the I.S., and has even been physically present at a number of key engagements.

Alongside the Quds Force leaders, there are reliable reports of dozens of IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah advisers on the ground in Iraq. In addition, Iraqi paramilitaries deployed in Syria have been returned to Iraq in order to join the fight.

So, what is happening in Iraq today is directly analogous to what happened in Syria. The Iran-aligned, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is being protected from Sunni insurgents through the efforts and methods of the IRGC’s Quds Force, the most effective instrument of Iran’s regional policy. This, of course, has major implications for Western policy, which at the current time is acting as the air wing for this campaign.

Precisely who are these militias, and how is Iran aiding them?

There are, at the very least, dozens of Shia militias in Iraq. The oldest date back to the days of the U.S. occupation prior to 2011 and are clearly proxies of Iran. They receive training and weapons from the IRGC, and are dedicated to implementing Iran’s ideological system of governance in Iraq.

Iran, however, does not want any of these groups to become powerful enough to break off and follow its own agenda. To prevent this, it maintains multiple proxy militias competing against each other. Among the main proxies in question are Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which developed particularly close relations with ex-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; Kata’ib Hezbollah (with its front group Saraya al-Difa’ ash-Sha’abi); and the Badr Organization. All three of these organizations have deployed fighters to Syria to assist the Assad regime, and have also been participating in the Iraqi government’s military efforts in Anbar since the beginning of this year, when Fallujah and parts of Ramadi first fell out of government control.

Besides these three important actors, other Iranian proxies exist, including Saraya al-Khorasani, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, and Harakat al-Nujaba’, all of which have also deployed in Syria. These groups make no attempt to hide their ideological affinities with Iran, featuring portraits of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei on their social media sites and “martyrdom” funeral banners for slain fighters.

Besides the direct Iranian proxies, a number of other Shia militias exist, the vast majority of which can be tied to one Shia political figure or another. The most well-known of these is undoubtedly Saraya al-Salam [“The Peace Brigades”], the reconstituted Mahdi Army of Islamist political leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Another interesting case is a militia known as Liwa al-Shabab al-Risali, which claims legitimacy through the Najaf-based cleric Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and ties itself to the legacy of Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr. Also of interest are Sadrist-leaning militia brands that first emerged in Syria but have since withdrawn to Iraq, such as Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar.

A graphic from the “Official Press Outlet” of Saraya al-Khorasani, an Iranian proxy militia fighting in Iraq. Photo: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Elsewhere on the mainstream Shia political spectrum, there are militias linked to figures from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a Shia Islamic political party. These include Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda, led by Sheikh Jalal ad-Din al-Saghir, and Saraya Ashura’, led by Ammar al-Hakim. These militias appear to be an attempt by ISCI figures to create their own military forces to rival the Badr Organization, which originated as a break-off from ISCI.

Other militias exist that can be tied to figures known for strong pro-Iranian tendencies, for example Kata’ib al-Ghadab, which is tied to the pro-Iranian Da’wah Party (Tanẓim al-Dakhil). Still other groups can be readily identified as clear attempts to emulate Iranian proxies or other Shia militias, such as “Kata’ib Hezbollah – the Mujahideen in Iraq” led by Abbas al-Muhammadawi of the Abna’ al-Iraq al-Ghayyara political bloc, and the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, based on the famous Syrian Shia militia, Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas.

Naturally, the Shia militias are by no means a monolithic ideological bloc. The most obvious tension is between the Iranian proxies and those who follow the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr. This is the case even though their rhetoric often overlaps. They both emphasize the “defense of the homeland and the holy sites,” and attempt to claim they are unified behind the common cause of “resistance” and Shia sectarian pride. Nonetheless, the groups that are not explicitly aligned with Iran are by no means outside Iranian influence or control. Their relationship with the Islamic Republic is simply more complex and ambiguous than others.

An Iraqi T-72 tank fires during a live fire training exercise at the Besmaya Gunnery Range near Baghdad. Photo: Jacob H. Smith / U.S. Army / Wikimedia

It is clear, however, that the overall leading role in the militia movement is played by the Iranian proxies, something that is most apparent in the appointment of Muhammad al-Ghaban of the Badr Organization as Iraqi Interior Minister under the new Abadi government. Under Badr’s leadership, Operation Ashura was launched to expel the I.S. from Jurf al-Sakhr. As a source in the Interior Ministry put it to the pro-government outlet al-Masalah, “The factions of the Islamic Resistance – Kata’ib Hezbollah, Badr, AAH, recruits and the popular mobilization, along with Saraya al-Salam, participated in Operation Ashura which was launched today under the leadership of the Interior Minister Muhammad Salim al-Ghaban to cleanse the Jurf al-Sakhr district in north Babil from the Da’esh [I.S.] gangs.” [emphasis ours]

In an interview with Aws al-Khafaji after the capture of Jurf al-Sakhr, the Shia militias that participated are listed as “The heroic brothers of Badr, Saraya al-Salam, Asa’ib [Ahl al-Haq], [Harakat] al-Nujaba, the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces … and some of the other Islamic factions.” That Badr was mentioned first seems to confirm the group’s leading role in the operation.

Needless to say, the proliferation of Shia militias in Iraq, with Iranian proxies as the strongest players, has important implications.

Due to the security situation in Iraq, the Shia militias will be necessary for the foreseeable future in the fight against the Islamic State. It is also highly unlikely that these militias will simply disband even if told to do so. Thus, it is worth assessing the implications of their rise to prominence and power.

First, it demonstrates the extent to which Iran considers the government of Iraq a client or proxy regime; one that Tehran will not allow to develop its own powerful, independent institutions and military. The government in Baghdad, like the regime in Damascus, is to be saved from those who would destroy it, but only in such a way that its future is to be an instrument of Iran’s will. The Iranians’ innovative use of sectarian militia power and the cultivation of a variety of paramilitary clients ensures that, if they get their way, no Iraqi government will be in a position to disobey them.

Moreover, Iran’s role in Iraq is clearly part of its desire—tracing back to the regime’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini—to spread its ideology throughout the Shia population of the Middle East. What this means is that, while the new sectarian military formation being developed by the Iranians in Iraq is likely to prove sufficient to stem the advance of the overstretched I.S. forces, they are also part of Tehran’s larger regional strategy to produce a contiguous line of pro-Iran states between the Iran-Iraq border and the Mediterranean Sea.

The fragmentation of Iraq and Syria may well thwart that ambition. But Iran has shown that its practice of creating and utilizing proxy political and military forces as a key instrument of policy is sufficient to defend its own interests—if not always to entirely defeat or destroy its Sunni enemies. The Quds Force is now proving this once again in Iraq.

For the U.S. and its allies, this may represent a short-term advantage, but it is a long-term threat. The Iranian proxy militias, quite naturally, also embrace Iran’s ideology, which is intensely anti-American, anti-Western, and indeed, anti-Semitic. They parrot, for example, Iran’s official propaganda line, according to which the I.S. is supposedly a creation of “the Great Satan” (i.e., the United States) and/or the Jews.

Nor does the eventual creation, or attempt to create, an Iranian sphere of influence across the Middle East bode well for American or Western interests. However effective they may be in fighting the I.S., Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq are part of this agenda and are helping Iran pursue it.

Thanks to current Western policy, this time they are doing it with Western air support.

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Sunni Political Islam: Engine of the ‘Israeli-Palestinian’ Conflict

PJmedia, 23/11

An oft-repeated sentiment currently doing the rounds in discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is that it is imperative that the conflict not become a “religious” one. This sentiment, guaranteed to set heads nodding in polite, liberal company, stands out even within the very crowded and competitive field of ridiculous expressions of historical ignorance found in discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

This sentiment is connected to the recent wave of terror attacks in Jerusalem, which are the result of Palestinian claims that Israel is seeking to alter the “status quo” at the Temple Mount. As this theory goes, up until now this conflict had mainly been about competing claims of land ownership and sovereignty, but it is now in danger of becoming about “religion,” and hence turning even more intractable. So this must be prevented.
In objective reality, the conflict between Jews and Arab Muslims over the land area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has been, from its very outset, inseparable from “religion.”

On the Arab/Palestinian/Muslim side, recent events in the Levant (specifically in Syria and Iraq) ought to have taught us just how very flimsy and contingent the supposed “secular, national” identities of the local populations are. Both these identities have now largely been eclipsed, replaced by sectarian, ethnic, and religious markers of loyalty. As Professor Mordechai Kedar pointed out in a recent article, there is no reason to think that a “Palestinian” national identity is any stronger or more durable than either of these neighboring constructs.

This does not mean, of course, that the Arabic-speaking population of the area is not mobilized for struggle. The events of recent days suggest a murderous commitment to the fight. The engine for this commitment, however, is a religious one.

The engine is the determination to prevent the Jews from in any way, be it ever so minor, infringing on the situation of de facto Arab Muslim domination of the Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif area. This commitment is not a new development; it has in fact been the driving force of the conflict throughout.

The very first major instances of Arab Muslim violence against Jews in the 20th century were related to this self-same area. In 1929, it was precisely an attempt by Jews to assert Jewish prayer rights at the Western Wall that led to a furious Arab and Muslim counter-reaction. This reaction led to the slaughter of over one hundred Jews and the destruction of an ancient Jewish community (in Hebron).

The supposed threat to the mosques at the Haram al-Sharif and the alleged desire of the Jews to build the Third Temple continued to form a staple in Arab propaganda against the Zionists in the 1930s and 1940s. This was a time when the nascent Palestinian “national” movement was led by a man holding a position of religious authority: Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini.

This centrality of religion continued to fire the various movements fighting Israel. The very name “Fatah,” for example, which is often – absurdly — described as a “secular” movement, is a religious term. “Fatah” is in Arabic a term literally meaning to “open,” but is used in context to mean “to conquer a land for Islam.”

The central role of religion in this conflict has served to prevent the eventual resignation to and compromise with Israel’s presence, which many early Zionist leaders predicted. This prediction was based on similar national conflicts elsewhere, where after a period of struggle the two sides grow tired and settled their difference, cutting a deal.

But religious sentiments have a way of not growing tired.

And in the case of Israel and its Arab Muslim enemies, the core energy on the Arab side is one of religious rage — a feeling that the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in parts of the land formerly ruled by Muslims constitutes a crime against god. Such a crime cannot be forgiven or compromised with.

In a recent article on the Hamas website expressing support for the recent terror attacks, Palestinian columnist Dr. Issam Shawer summed up the issue in an admirably succinct way:

We maintain, and believe, that our battle against the occupier is fundamentally religious, not geographic, historic, or economic.

Allah the Exalted mentioned [in the Koran] our [current] conflict with the occupier, when he told His servants that they would enter Al-Aqsa Mosque as they had entered it the first time, and told us [also] that everything that “Israel” had built in order to establish its fragile entity would be destroyed. … Therefore, we must stop arguing that our battle against the enemy is political, waged in the arena of the UN, the Security Council, or negotiations. All this nonsense contradicts the Koran and the Hadith. (Translation by MEMRI).

Shawer grasps the dynamics of the conflict far better than most Western observers.

On the other side, the Jewish idea of the “Return to Zion,” the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the renewing of the days of old are deeply embedded in Jewish religious tradition and inseparable from them.

Modern Zionism may have been secular in nature, but it drew from these wellsprings in Jewish self-perception.

The difference throughout has been that the Jews have, since the onset of the modern struggle, demonstrated a willingness to accept political plans proposing a sharing of the land under discussion: in 1937, 1947, 2000, and 2008. The Arab Muslim side has demonstrated no similar capacity.

The Jewish self-perception is that of a small nation, cautious, uncertain, defensive.

Arab Sunni Muslim identity, by contrast, is one predicated on triumph and conquest as the natural state of affairs, now accompanied by the humiliating, bewildering current state of failure and subjection. Hence the enormous, murderous rage at the present state of defeat to a people seen as naturally subordinate: the Jews. Hence the absolute refusal to accept history’s apparent verdict, and the latest furious attempt to dislodge the enemy.

Religion, specifically Sunni political Islam, is driving it, as it has driven all previous attempts. It shows no sign of running out of energy, despite the meager results so far. A deep sense of its own superiority and the inevitability of its eventual victory informs its adherents. It is past time that the many obsessive Western observers of this conflict grasp the essential, religious driving force. Political religion, specifically Sunni political Islam, lies at its heart. It has always been there.

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Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem

New York Daily News, 13/11

The current atmosphere in Jerusalem is reminiscent of the Second Intifada’s opening days, in the autumn of 2000. Tension and fear. A sense of foreboding.

“I can feel it in my bones, what’s coming,” says Daniella, a native Jerusalemite who owns a restaurant in central west Jerusalem, and whose sister was killed in a suicide bombing in 2002.

What’s coming, she and many others think, is more violence.

There are fewer pedestrians on the streets. People have become cautious and alert in public places. Most of all, a familiar, stoic melancholy has returned.

The wave of shootings, automobile attacks and stabbings that hit the city this month has had a profound affect. The faces of the innocents murdered are all over the news. Talk of a Third Intifada is everywhere.

Yet atmospherics notwithstanding, in a number of substantive ways the current reality differs sharply from the time of the two intifadas (1987-92 and 2000-04).

The new violence, though indiscriminate, brutal and murderous, is more narrowly focused. It is limited, for now, to specific areas of the country and to specific parts of Jerusalem.

But the West Bank, the cauldron of so much violence and hatred during the last two intifadas, has so far stayed largely quiet.

Why? Because the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank appears to be playing a double game.

On the one hand, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is engaging in incitement, spreading fear and anger about supposed Israeli plans to upset the delicate rules for Jewish worship on the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque area. Abbas has spoken of Jews “desecrating” and “contaminating” the site — the holiest place in Judaism.

According to the status quo arrangement, Jews may visit at certain times but cannot pray at the Temple Mount.

Whether such an arrangement is fair or just is a different question. But there are no plans to change it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to it.

Meantime, while Abbas spouts incendiary rhetoric, his security forces are continuing to cooperate with the Israelis in ensuring relative quiet on the West Bank. This reflects the general lack of Palestinian enthusiasm to provoke another mass confrontation with Israel.

This is a dangerous double game. While the attacks on Israeli civilians have been presented in some news reports as spontaneous acts of rage, an examination of the biographies of the perpetrators so far suggests something quite different.

All of them are or were committed members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, both groups that have been fanning the flames of anger over the trumped up threat to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.

It’s unlikely that the terrorists who carried out the attacks received specific and personalized orders. But clearly a general green light has been issued. The Palestinian Islamists want to leverage Muslim concerns regarding Al-Aqsa into a violent uprising with themselves at its head.

Why now?

Things have not been going so well for the Islamists in recent months — what with the inconclusive campaign in Gaza, a chronic shortage of money due to the Egyptian government’s closing of the tunnels into Gaza and general Arab concern for more pressing regional matters.

Maybe Hamas and Islamic Jihad hope to launch themselves back to regional and global attention by trumping up an Israeli threat to a Muslim holy site.

The memories of the recent past have produced a mood of gloom in Jerusalem. This, amid the stories of the latest lives to be snuffed out, is entirely understandable. But as of now, the spark set by Hamas and the Jihad has yet to fully catch. Let us hope it never does.

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The Emerging Pattern

A pattern emerges, dear friends. The names of the five Palestinian Arab terrorists who have murdered or sought to murder Israelis in major incidents in the last couple of weeks are: Nur a Din Hashiya, Maher al Hashlamoun, Ibrahim al Akari, Abd al Rahman al Shaludi and Mutaz Hijazi.

It is interesting to note that all these men are not simply members of the Arab Muslim public, with no prior affiliation, who suddenly committed acts of terror (there have been a number of incidents involving such non-affiliated individuals in recent years.) Rather, all are members of Palestinian organizations. Hijazi and Hashlamoun are/were Islamic Jihad members. The others are/were Hamas members.

So it should be understood: what we are in the midst of is an orchestrated campaign, a declaration of war, if you will, whereby members of these organizations appear to have been given a general instruction to go out and kill Jews. I doubt there is anything more direct than this general instruction (except in the case of Hijazi, who tried to kill Yehuda Glick, where I suspect an organizational guiding hand may have been involved. This was the only instance involving the use of firearms and a clear target). So this is not, in my view, simply an outbreak of strange, spontaneous fury. It, and the whole hysteria around the ‘contamination’ of the Temple Mount by a Jewish presence is being whipped up, by political organizations.

As to why the Palestinian Islamists might seek war at the present time – here, one can only speculate.  The Palestinian cause has been rather neglected in recent years by the Arab and Muslim worlds, because of matters of far greater historical weight taking place in the Arabic-speaking Mid-East.  Perhaps the Palestinian Islamists – on the rope financially, isolated, and having achieved nothing in a recent military contest with Israel in the Gaza Strip – hope to re-galvanise their venture through draping it in the pan-Islamic symbol of the al-Aqsa Mosque.

If so, it is a project unlikely to succeed.  There are more important matters to be attended to in the region right now than the Palestinian cause, once the flagship of Sunni Arabism.  The more important issues being the collapse of states and the war with the Shia/threat of Iran.  Still, the current effort is likely to find echoes in the west. More importantly, and tragically, more Israeli lives are likely to be terminated on the way to defeating this latest aggression against the Jewish heritage and presence in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

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Iran-backed Shia rebels push forward in Yemen

PJmedia, 5/11:

The Middle East is currently the arena for a cross-border sectarian war.  The weakening or collapse of repressive regimes has unleashed a fierce war for succession between rival populations, with Shia and Sunni Arabs the main protagonists.  This process is playing itself out in Iraq and Syria, with Lebanon increasingly drawn into the vortex of conflict.

The regional rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia further fuels this conflict.

The Iranians are the central pillar of the united and cohesive Shia-dominated bloc which includes the Assad regime in Syria, Hizballah in Lebanon and its allies, the government of Iraq and the Shia militias in that country.

The Saudis are now the main force seeking to stem the Iranian advance.  The  anti-western Turkey-Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood alliance is also an important element on the Sunni side.

The clash between Shia and Sunni and between Riyadh and Teheran is not limited to the geographical area comprising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.   A largely ignored but vital additional arena in this conflict is Yemen.

In this regard, the Iranian-backed Houthi militia has made very significant gains in recent weeks, largely ignored by the western media.

The Houthi militia, which has been engaged in an insurgency against the government of Yemen since 2004, launched an offensive in September.  The movement’s fighters advanced rapidly, and on September 21st the Houthis entered the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.

The Shia militia then announced an ultimatum to Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, giving him 10 days to form a new government (that would include representation for the Houthis) or face unspecified ‘other options.’

As of now, the situation is unresolved, and Houthi militiamen remain deployed across the capital.  They are deployed, according to reports, outside the central bank and a number of key ministries.  The Houthis have also taken a large port town on the Red Sea and have seized a border post on the frontier between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

The government of Yemen, which was installed three years ago as part of a peace plan backed by Riyadh,  has been exposed as helpless by the actions of the Houthis in recent weeks.

In addition to the Shia rebellion coming out of the north, Yemen is beset by a powerful al-Qaeda Sunni insurgency in the south. There is also a  separatist movement in the south, that seeks to break away from Sana’a.

Fighting has now broken out between Houthi rebels and Sunni tribesmen backed by al-Qaeda in the area south of the capital.  The town of Radda has emerged as a point of contention.  Over 250 people have been killed in the fighting, according to a report by Associated Press.

Yemen has a 1,100 kilometer border with Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh’s concern at the advance of the Houthis is not hard to understand.

The links between the movement and Teheran are clear. For public consumption, the Houthis deny links with Iran.  A senior leader of the Houthis, Hasan al-Saadi, told Bloomberg news earlier this week that the Houthis ‘respect Iranian resistance and the movement of Ayatollah Khomeini,’ but do not agree with Teheran in all respects.

In reality, there is ample evidence of direct Iranian aid to the Houthis.  Most tellingly, on January 23rd, 2013, the Yemeni coastguard apprehended an Iranian ship, the Jihan 1, which was carrying weapons, explosives and other military equipment from the Revolutionary Guards Corps, intended for delivery to the Houthis.

Iran has a number of reasons for supporting the Houthis.  Alliance with a restive armed Shia group that controls border areas facing Saudi Arabia is a useful tool of pressure on Riyadh.

Also, Yemen has a significant section of the Red Sea coast which Iran seeks to control as part of its broader goal of acquiring control of the sea lanes from the Persian Gulf.

The latest events in Yemen are once again testimony to the unsurpassed skill that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps displays in the practice of political and paramilitary warfare in the Middle East.

This ability to develop and maintain proxy political-military forces has been an asset in Iranian hands since the birth of the Islamic Republic – with the Lebanese Hizballah the first fruit of it.

In the current context of the break up of formerly strong regimes in a number of Arab countries and the outbreak of war between would be successor groups, this ability is at a premium.  The Iranian skill in this regard is what preserved the Assad regime through the creation and mobilization of sectarian military groups in Syria against the Sunni insurgency there.

Teheran appears currently to be repeating this process in Iraq, where brutal Shia militias are playing an ever more important role in the fight against the Islamic State.

In Yemen, a similar dynamic is emerging.

The Saudis simply have no parallel ability to use clients.  They consequently prefer to invest in regular state military forces.  Where the state is a real and a strong one, as in Egypt, this orientation can pay dividends.  Where the state is largely a fiction, as in Yemen, Riyadh and its money power is of limited use.

This applies also to the Lebanon example (in Iraq and in Syria, the ‘state’ is on the pro-Iran side. )

Events in Yemen ought to concern the west because they demonstrate once again the skill and determination of the Iranians in the game that matters most right now in the Middle East.

At the same time, Teheran appears to be well on the way toward nuclear weapons capability, because of the fecklessness of western policy. This will pave the way for a yet more aggressive Iranian push to hegemony in Yemen and beyond it – throughout the Gulf, Iraq and the Levant.

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Jabhat al-Nusra: the Sunni Hizballah?

Jerusalem Post, 7/11

Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist group which constitutes al-Qaeda’s ‘official franchise’ in Syria, last week carried out a successful offensive against western-backed rebel militias in northern Syria. Key areas were captured.

The Islamic State  and its activities further east continue to dominate western media reporting on the war in Syria.  But in north west Syria, in Lebanon and in the area immediately east of the Golan, it is Jabhat al-Nusra which is becoming the main Sunni jihadi force on the ground.

There are significant differences in the praxis of these two movements, despite their near-identical ideological stances.  IS prefers to rule by straightforward terror – see its slaughter of 322 members of the Al-Bu Nimr tribe north of Ramadi this week.  Nusra is no less brutal when it deems it necessary, but this organization is following a different, more sophisticated trajectory.

This requires Jabhat al-Nusra at times to cooperate with other Sunni groups (including IS), at other times to fight them.

The assault against rival rebel groups began on Saturday and was mainly focused against the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, led by former construction worker Jamal Ma’arouf.  Ma’arouf, who hails from the Jebel Zawiya region of Idleb Province, emerged as a successful warlord in one of the heartlands of the Syrian Sunni rebellion.   According to sources in northern Syria, however, Ma’arouf is seen by many as a corrupt figure who has personally enriched himself in the course of the Syrian war.

The tensions between Nusra and the SRF in the north are of long standing and have claimed lives on both sides.  They are concerned with power, and the control of populations, land and resources.

Nusra’s forces made rapid progress into Jebel Zawiya, capturing Ma’arouf’s home village of Deir Sunbul.  In addition,  the smaller Harakat Hazm militia also abandoned a number of villages in the wake of Nusra’s advance.   Nusra is now just a few miles from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey.

Jamal Ma’arouf was known to have been in contact with western officials, though the extent of western aid to his movement is not clear.  Hazm, however, which numbers only around 5000 fighters, was the recipient of direct western help, including a number of BGM-71 TOW anti tank systems delivered to it in the spring of 2014.

These systems may well now be in the hands of the Al-Qaeda associated Nusra, following Hazm’s abandonment of areas of northern Idleb province in the wake of Nusra’s advance against the SRF.

The future of Hazm and the SRF in the rebel heartland of north west Syria now looks uncertain.  Nusra appears uninterested in proclaiming an ‘Islamic state’ of its own any time soon.  But it is clearly deeply interested in capturing and holding ground in this area, and it is doing so.

Oddly, in other areas, Nusra cooperates with the very forces that it fights in the north.  In western Syria and the Lebanese Beka’a, for example, Nusra and IS work together in the Qalamun mountains area, and in the frequent forays into Lebanon. They seek there to secure a link between pro-rebel Sunni towns in the Bekaa and the jihadi fighters in the mountains, so as to ensure a supply route throughout the winter.

Nusra recently killed around 10 Hizballah fighters in a hit and run raid on a position near Britel.  It also took part together with IS in a large scale raid on the town of Arsal in August, capturing a number of Lebanese soldiers.

Nusra leader Mohammed al-Jowlani issued a statement on Tuesday, promising further incursions into Lebanon.  Addressing Hizballah directly, Jowlani said “The real war in Lebanon is yet to begin and what is coming is so bitter that Hassan Nasrallah will bite his fingers in remorse for what he has done to Sunnis.”

Further south, Nusra is a key element in the rebel forces that have been enjoying considerable success against the regime in recent weeks.  The organization played the major role in the capture of the Quneitra Crossing at the end of August.

Some reports have since suggested that the organization has ceded control of areas bordering Israel to other rebel forces.  But if this is so, it has taken place not by coercion, but because Nusra appears to be aware of the general rebel desire for western support, and to be willing to adjust its own positions accordingly.

The movement also continues to enjoy contacts, and probably also support from the Emirate of Qatar, a key backer following Nusra’s emergence in 2012.  Certainly, the Qatari role in paying ransoms to Nusra for the release of 45 Fijian soldiers captured by Nusra in the taking of Quneitra would seem to attest to at the very least ongoing contacts between Doha and the jihadis.

So in three key fronts – Idleb province, Qalamun and Quneitra/Deraa – Jabhat al-Nusra is playing a pivotal role, challenging both Assad’s army and other rebels where it deems it profitable.

By avoiding targeting westerners, the group has largely managed to avoid the hostile attention of the west.  By adjusting its activities to local realities and power structures rather than challenging them immediately head on, it has also avoided the fear and hostility which IS engenders among many Sunni Arabs in both Syria and Lebanon.

So what happens next?  Jowlani clearly has his eye on Lebanon, where 1.5 million Sunni Syrian refugees may provide willing recruits to the movement, particularly if that group begins to feel itself needing some kind of sectarian defense against local Lebanese Shia hostility.  Nusra is becoming the controller of rebel north west Syria.  It is likely, however, to continue its more cautious path in the south, where its rivals are stronger.

It is also by no means impossible that Nusra could at a certain point turn its attention to Israel.  Certainly, the current attempt by Palestinian organizations to re-focus attention on their struggle through the prism of Pan-Islamic concerns for the al-Aqsa mosque makes such an outcome more likely.

Jabhat al-Nusra seems determined to emerge as a kind of mirror image of the Shia Hizballah – combining an uncompromising jihadi ideology with tactical flexibility and an ability to work with its own public (Sunni Arabs) rather than simply to terrorize them into submission.  Israeli and western governments should be watching the organization very carefully.

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The Jihadi Connection: Sinai, Gaza and the Islamic State

Jerusalem Post, 1/11.

What kind of relations do the jihadists of northern Sinai and Gaza have with Islamic State, and with Hamas? Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a three-month national emergency this week, following the killing of over 31 Egyptian soldiers in a suicide car bombing carried out by jihadists in northern Sinai.

No organization has issued an authoritative claim of responsibility for the bombing, but it comes amid a state of open insurgency in northern Sinai, as Egyptian security forces battle a number of jihadist organizations. Most prominent among these groups are Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen; the attack on the Sinai military base came a few days after an Egyptian court sentenced seven members of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis to death for carrying out previous attacks on the army.

In subsequent days, Egyptian officials pointed an accusing finger at the Hamas rulers of Gaza, asserting there is “no doubt that elements belonging to Palestinian factions were directly involved in the attack.” Cairo is now set to build a new barrier separating the Strip from northern Sinai.

In a number of Arabic media outlets, unnamed Egyptian government sources openly accused Hamas members of aiding the assault, assisting with planning, funding and weapons supply.

Are the Egyptian claims credible? Are there links between Hamas or smaller jihadist movements in the Gaza Strip and the insurgents in northern Sinai? And no less importantly, is the armed campaign in northern Sinai linked to Islamic State? First, it is important to understand that jihadist activity in northern Sinai is not a new development. Long before the military coup of July 3, 2013, and indeed before the downfall of president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, this area had become a lawless zone in which jihadists and Beduin smugglers of people and goods carried out their activities.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis emerged from this already existing jihadist milieu in the period following Mubarak’s ouster.

At this time, Egyptian security measures in the area sharply declined.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has not confined its activities to the Sinai area; rather, it has directly engaged in attacks on Israeli targets. Recently, the group beheaded four Sinai locals who it accused of being “spies for the Mossad,” also carrying out two rocket attacks on Eilat this past January.

The claim of links between Hamas and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has been raised in the past. In September, Egyptian security forces claimed to have found uniforms and weaponry identifiable as belonging to Hamas’s Izzadin Kassam brigades.

It is worth remembering that the current Egyptian government has, since its inception, sought to link salafi jihadist terrorism with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as part of its strategy of marginalizing and criminalizing the Brotherhood.

The current statements seeking to link Hamas directly to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis may form part of this larger strategy.

For its part, Hamas indignantly denies any link to this week’s bombing.

But what can be said with greater confidence is there is, without doubt, a burgeoning and violent salafi jihadist subculture which encompasses northern Sinai and southern Gaza – with various organizations possessing members and infrastructure on both sides of the border.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis itself and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen both have members in Sinai and Gaza. Working tunnels smuggling goods and weapons exist between Gaza and northern Sinai, despite Egyptian attempts to destroy them.

It is also a fact that Hamas is aware of these tunnels and makes no attempt to act against them, benefiting economically from their presence.

From this standpoint, Hamas authorities in Gaza are guilty by omission of failing to act against the infrastructure supplying and supporting salafi guerrillas in northern Sinai, whether or not the less verifiable claims of direct Hamas links with them have a basis.

Given this reality, it is also not hard to understand the Egyptian determination to build an effective physical barrier between the Strip and Egyptian territory.

What of the issue of support for Islamic State? Should these jihadist groups be seen as a southern manifestation of the Sunni jihadist wave now sweeping across Iraq, Syria and increasingly, Lebanon? From an ideological point of view, certainly yes.

From an organizational point of view, the situation is more complex.

According to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert on jihadist groups currently based at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and the Middle East Forum, neither Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis nor Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen have formally pledged their allegiance to the caliphate established by Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Nevertheless, Tamimi confirmed, both organizations have expressed “support” for Islamic State and its objectives, while not subordinating themselves to it through a pledge of allegiance.

Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is known to maintain contacts with Islamic State, which has advised it on the mechanics of carrying out operations. Islamic State, meanwhile, has publicly declared its support for the jihadists in northern Sinai, without singling out any specific group for public support.

Tamimi further notes the existence of two smaller and more obscure groups in Gaza with more direct links to Islamic State.

These are Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis (The Group of Helpers/ Supporters of the Islamic State in Bayt al-Maqdis), which carries out propaganda activities from Gaza and helps funnel volunteers to Syria and Iraq, and the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Battalion, a Gazan contingent fighting with Islamic State in these countries.

So, a number of conclusions can be drawn: Firstly, Hamas, in its tolerance of and engagement with smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai, at least indirectly permits the jihadists networks operating these tunnels to wage their insurgency against Egypt – even if the claims of a direct Hamas link to violent activities in Sinai have not yet been conclusively proven.

Secondly, the most important organizations engaged in this insurgency support Islamic State, and are supported by them, though the former have not yet pledged allegiance and become directly subordinate to the latter.

Islamic State is not yet in northern Sinai, but its close allies are. Their activities are tolerated by the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip – as long as they are directed outward, against Egypt and Israel.

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