Victory in Kobani: a major achievement –  but hard to replicate

Jerusalem Post, 301

The near-complete liberation of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani this week from the forces of the Islamic State is a remarkable testimony to the tenacity and courage of the Kurdish resistance on the ground.  It also showcases the awesome efficacy of US air power, when given a clear mission and properly directed.

It is nevertheless necessary to qualify some of the more hyperbolic  reactions to the announcement of the IS retreat.  The relief of Kobani in no way constitutes a general rout for the forces of the Islamic State. Neither does it signal a ‘beginning of the end’ for the movement and its quasi-sovereign entity.

Indeed, the expulsion of the jihadis from the town does not even conclude the task facing the Kurdish fighters in the immediate vicinity of Kobani.

Nor does it offer any general lessons regarding the possible efficacy of western support for  armed groups in Syria or Iraq.

The defeat does constitute one of a series of significant setbacks that IS has suffered in recent days.  All of these were at the outer reaches of its advance.  Iraqi government forces and Shia militias, for example, took Diyala province. The Kurdish Peshmerga are conquering ground outside Mosul.

Still, the ‘heartland’ of the jihadi entity, in Raqqa province in Syria and the greater part of its conquests in Iraq of last June are not yet under threat.

Regarding the specific issue of Kobani,  the town came close to falling in early October of last year.  Indeed, the fighters of the YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) appeared to be preparing for a last stand.

Civilians were long gone from Kobane.  But the YPG also sent out all personnel not essential for the fighting, and all journalists.  The assumption was that IS would surround the town from the north, and the Kurds would then fight to the death, street by street, until the inevitable conclusion.

That this did not happen is attributable, in the first instance, to the commencement of US and allied air attacks on the Islamic State forces massing around Kobani.  These began in mid-October and have formed by far the most intense aspect of the western air campaign against IS to date.

General John Allen, the retired US officer responsible for coordinating the campaign was initially circumspect about the goal of the air strikes. Allen describe them as a ‘humanitarian’ effort intended to buy time for the defenders to reorganize on the ground.

As the weeks passed, however, it became clear that a strategic decision that Kobani should not fall had been taken.  Evidently the intention was to crush the fighters of IS between the hammer of US air power and the anvil of ongoing, stubborn Kurdish resistance.  In so doing, a symbol of resistance would be created.

This appears to have paid off.  The reinforcement of the very determined but lightly armed YPG fighters with the artillery and mortar capability of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who entered Kobane in late October certainly played a role in stiffening the resistance on the ground.  But the raw courage of the YPG deserves top billing in this regard.

As a result of the Kurdish stand on the ground, the US was able to take a great cull of IS fighters.  The jihadis’ tactics in assault are simple (though often effective.) They involve human wave attacks.  The US were able to observe the jihadis massing for such attacks on Kobane, and to target them from the air.  IS found no effective response to this.  With regard to the IS armored capacity, the situation was the same.  The tanks were visible from the air and IS has and had no effective defense for them.  Hence the very heavy losses suffered by the jihadis in trying to take Kobani.

The victory, however, is only partial.  It is important to remember that Kurdish controlled Kobani prior to the IS assault in September did not consist of Kobani city alone.  Rather, ‘Kobani’ constituted an area stretching from Kobani city to Tel Abyad in the east, and to Jarabulus in the west, plus several tens of kilometers in a southern direction toward the Euphrates.   It was this enclave which IS sought to destroy last autumn. It wished to do this because the enclave jutted into northern Syria, preventing the Islamists from rapidly moving forces from east to west.  This stood in the way of any future ambition  to expand the territory of the Islamic State westwards into Aleppo and Idleb Provinces.  So Kobani had to be destroyed.

As of now, the Kurds and their allies have succeeded in saving the city of Kobani, very close to the border with Turkey.  This area became a symbol and IS wasted over 1000 of its fighters trying unsuccessfully to capture it.  But the larger task of re-conquering the 300 villages and the ground that once constituted the Kobani enclave remains before the Kurds.  One may assume that this effort will be under way in the weeks ahead.

Regarding the larger ‘lessons’ of the Kobani victory, it would be mistaken to jump to the conclusion that it shows that western support to anti-IS forces on the ground has discovered a winning formula which can now be replicated elsewhere.   This would be a rash deduction because of the specific nature of the Kurdish fighting organizations – YPG and Pesh Merga.

In Syria, as in Iraq, the Kurds have developed organizations which are pro-western in orientation, committed to the mission, and effective.

The problem with the Syrian rebels, as with the Iraqi militias and forces, is that they cannot manage all three of these.  If they are committed and effective fighters (like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, or the Shia militias in Iraq) they will be anti-western.  If they are pro-western, at least nominally, like the Iraqi armed forces or the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in northern Syria, they will tend to be corrupt or ineffective.

The reasons for this are manifold and open to debate.  But it is a clearly observable empirical reality.  This means that while the west should double down on its support for the reliable, secular and anti-Islamist Kurdish forces, now controlling a long belt of territory stretching from the Iraq-Iran border to deep into Syria, western policymakers should be wary indeed of applying any general conclusions from the achievement in Kobani to forces other than the Kurds themselves.

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Yemen Joins List of Collapsed Mideast States

PJmedia, 23/1

This week in Yemen, an Iran-backed Shia militia captured the presidential palace. The president has since resigned. It was the latest stage in the slow advance of the Houthis, who entered the capital Sana’a in September of last year.

The latest Houthi victories do not bring the Shia rebels undisputed control of the country. They do, however, ensure the undisputed presence of the Iranian clients in the central government.
The situation in Yemen exemplifies in acute form most of the phenomena which are currently tearing much of the Middle East apart: the fragmentation and weakness of central governments; growing sectarian divisions; the presence and power of a strong, Iranian backed political-military force; the importance of local and tribal power structures; Saudi support for the Sunnis; and the existence of a powerful Sunni Jihadi organization, committed both to local struggle and to terrorism against the West.

The uprising of the Houthis was launched in 2004. The movement derived its popular support from the 30% or so of Yemenis who belong to the Zaidi Shia community, concentrated in the north of the country.

While protesting undoubted discrimination against the Shia, the evidence of Iranian backing for the Houthi militia — officially known as “Ansarullah” (fighters of God) — was apparent from the outset. The stance of the Houthis is reflected in the group’s unambiguous slogan: “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, a Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.”

The physical proof of Iranian aid is also apparent. On January 23, 2013, the Yemeni coast guard 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.

As of this week, the Houthis have an accepted role in the government of Yemen. After fighters of the militia surrounded the presidential palace, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi confirmed the terms of an agreement signed after the Houthis entered the capital last September.

The disputed terms relate to a new constitution, to which the Houthis are demanding amendments. This is less important, however, than the now demonstrated fact that the Shia, Iran-backed militia is the real force in the capital, able to bend the president to their will after killing a number of his guards and threatening his palace.

The Houthis are not, of course, the only militia force active in Yemen. Further south, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains the most formidable local franchise of the global al-Qaeda network. It claimed responsibility for the recent terror attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.

Strong in southern and central Yemen, al-Qaeda has launched a campaign of violence against the Houthis. It also strikes at government and military officials. Operating under the name of Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP now effectively controls a number of provinces in the south and east of the country.

The presence of the Houthis in the capital and the Sunni jihadis in the lawless territories to its south is compounded by the weakness and corruption of the central government, which barely exists outside of Sana’a, and now only exists within it by the grace of a pro-Iranian Shia militia.

There are no easy solutions in Yemen. As of now, the U.S. is continuing with pinpointed strikes against AQAP, while largely preferring to ignore the no-less-potent threat of the Houthis. This relates, presumably, to the Obama administration’s larger policy of outreach to Iran. But in practice, there is probably little the U.S. or any other outside force can do.

The issues at stake in Yemen are the product of the profound failure of the Arab state which underlies all that is taking place in the Middle East today. The U.S. experience in the 2003-11 period in Iraq shows that nation-building from the outside is not going to succeed.

Fascinatingly, it is the Arab state, not the Middle Eastern state, which is in a process of eclipse. Israel, Turkey, and Iran, in their different ways, are functioning sovereign entities. Kurdish Northern Iraq is also increasingly coming to resemble a successful semi-sovereign concern. The Kurdish enclaves in the northeast are the most peaceful and best administered parts of the former Syria.

But from the Mediterranean coast, via Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and now down to Yemen, there is a single line of non-functioning (or in the Lebanese case, barely functioning) territories, in which the state has given way to wars between rival successor entities, usually organized on a sectarian basis. The Houthis and AQAP are the local Yemeni variant of this.

The Arab states which have not collapsed are ones which are homogenous in sectarian terms and/or possessed of a powerful, dictatorial central government. There are two states — Egypt and Jordan — where a real chance existed of jihadis gaining a foothold in the way that they have in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, but where this has not yet taken place. In both cases, an authoritarian central government at the head of a strong state apparatus has prevented the jihadis from establishing their mini-emirates (though in Sinai, the battle is surely still on).

Can these authoritarian regimes be a model for the future of the region, or are they simply a guarantee of its further stagnation? Perhaps the latter. But for the moment and for the foreseeable future, the choice is between leaders like Sisi, or situations like that of Yemen. Authoritarian clients, or the Houthis and al-Qaeda. No third way has yet made itself apparent.

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Game Not Over: the Quneitra Attack in Context

Jerusalem Post, 23/1.

In analyzing the significance and hence likely fallout from the  Israeli killing of a number of senior Hizballah and IRGC personnel close to the Golan border this week, a number of things should be borne in mind:

Firstly, the killings were a response to a clear attempt by the Iranians/Hizballah to violate the very fragile status quo that pertains between these elements and Israel in Lebanon and Syria.

Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in his interview to the al-Mayadeen network three days before the attack explicitly claimed that his organization was not engaged in ‘resistance work’ on the Golan.

The Israeli strike showed that this statement was a lie.

Some analysis of the strike has suggested that the mission the men killed in the attack were engaged in was the preparation for the placing of sophisticated Iranian missile systems on the Syrian part of the Golan.  Other accounts suggested that the mission was part of preparing this area for the launch of ground attacks across the border against Israeli targets, perhaps using proxies.

In either case, the mission was a clear attempt to change the arrangement of forces in the north, in such a way that could be expected to ensure an Israeli response.

Secondly, in the past, Hizballah has reacted differently to Israeli strikes on it or its Syrian allies by Israel within Syria, compared to strikes on Lebanese soil.  The difference again relates to the unstated but clear ‘rules of the game’ between the organization and the Jewish state.  Israeli strikes on materiel making its way to the organization from Syrian soil have elicited no response from the movement.

By contrast, an Israeli attack on a weapons convoy just across the border on Lebanese  soil near the village of Janta on February 24, 2014 provoked a Hizballah response . On March 18th, an IED was exploded just south of the border fence in the Majdal Shams area on the Golan Heights, wounding four IDF soldiers.

The rules of the game in question do not indicate a lessening of warlike intentions or a growing affection on the part of Hizballah toward Israel.  Rather, they reflect the acute need that this organization and its Iranian masters currently have to not be drawn into conflict with Israel unless this becomes unavoidable.

Hizballah is overstretched at the moment.  It has between  5000-10,000 men engaged in Syria.  It is engaged in a determined and fraying attempt to prevent Sunni jihadi incursions across the border into Lebanon from Syria, and bomb attacks by the Sunni groups further into Lebanon.

Hizballah is also an integral part of the Iranian outreach effort in Iraq, where members of the organization are engaged in training Shia fighters.

Even as far afield as Yemen, where the Iran-backed Houthi militia is engaged in a push for power, the movement’s fingerprints have been found.

All this reflects Hizballah’s nature as Iran’s primary agent in the Arab world.  Given all this activity, the last thing that the IRGC and Hizballah need is to be drawn into a premature conflagration with Israel.

This need to avoid a collision with the Jewish state is compounded by a shortage of Iranian cash, deriving from the collapse of oil prices.

The Iran/Hizballah/Assad side has long threatened to develop the Golan as a front for possible ‘jihad duties’ against Israel.  Both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Nasrallah in the course of 2014 made unambiguous public statements threatening the opening of military activity against Israel in this area.   Israel in turn has been very keen to make clear that such a move would constitute a violation of the status quo .

The strike on Sunday constituted a very kinetic further Israeli message intended to drive home this point.

What this means is that despite the death of a senior IRGC commander in the Israeli strike, the action by Israel should not be seen as a general casting aside of the rules of engagement by Jerusalem  on the northern border, but rather as an insistence on maintaining these, and a warning of the consequences to the other side of continued violation of them.

The thing which might be held to differentiate this action from previous events is of course the death of IRGC General Mohammed Allahdadi.

Allahdadi may not be the first senior IRGC figure to lose his life in Syria at Israeli hands in the last three years of war in that country.  That distinction arguably belongs to Brigadier-General  Hassan Shateri, assassinated on February 13, 2013, either by the Syrian rebels or by persons working for Israel, depending on which version you choose to believe.

But certainly the high visibility of Allahdadi’s demise, taking place unambiguously at Israeli hands, represents something new.  From this point of view, the quoting by Reuters of an Israeli ‘security source’ to the effect that Israel did not know who was in the car at the time that it was destroyed may be seen as an attempt to re-locate the action within the realms of the recognized rules of engagement (whether or not one chooses to accept the veracity of the statement by this un-named ‘source.’  The writer of this article does not.)

Responses by Lebanese political leaders and media to the event have been characterized by a sort of nervous, veiled request to Hizballah not to bring down Israel’s wrath on Lebanon.  The Beirut Daily Star, captured this tone in an editorial entitled ‘Don’t take the Bait.’

After a series of unflattering remarks about Israel, the paper’s editors noted that ‘While some naturally feel a desire for retaliation against Israel, Hezbollah must be vigilant against designs for it to be drawn into a larger confrontation. Lebanon has enough concerns of its own without falling prey to a plot against it.”’

Of course, Iran and Hizballah are strong enough to ignore such voices.   but given the tense internal situation in Lebanon at present, it is likely that the lack of enthusiasm of non-Shia Lebanese for Hizballah’s war in Syria and in particular their lack of willingness to pay any price accruing from it will factor into the Shia Islamist movement’s and its master’s decisionmaking.  Hizballah needs a quiet and quiescent Lebanese political scene, so that it may conduct its war against Sunni jihadis coming in from Syria under the guise of unified Lebanese action, rather than sectarian account-settling.

Lastly, as has been noted in previous analyses, Iran has armed and trained Hizballah so that it may be used to deter an Israeli response against Iranian nuclear facilities, or be activated as part of a response to such a strike. It is unlikely to wish to place this investment prematurely at risk.

So the strike on Sunday was a re-stating by Israel of previously clarified ground rules relating to what will be permitted in Syria, and what will not.  A response of some kind in the weeks, months or years ahead is likely.  But the Israeli action was not a disregarding by Israel of previously existing ‘rules of engagement’  in the north.  It is unlikely therefore to result in a similar upturning of the tables at the present moment by Iran and Hizballah.

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4 Jews Killed in Paris Attack Buried in Israel

Weekly Standard, 14/1

Under a cloudless Jerusalem sky, a crowd of thousands gathered at the cemetery at Givat Shaul on Tuesday, to bury the four Jews murdered at the Hyper Cacher in Paris. Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham, and Francois-Michel Saada were laid to rest in Har Hamenuhot, on the approach to Jerusalem from the west.

The families chose to make their funerals an act of defiance, firmly remembering that these lives were robbed by an Islamist murderer, because the four men were Jewish. The form this defiance took was a re-statement of identity—a joint funeral in Israel, in a place festooned with blue and white Israeli flags. The killer, Amedy Coulibaly, had been quite clear regarding the purpose of his attack on the supermarket. “You are a Jew, you will die,” he reportedly yelled at the owner of the store as he entered.

While much of the media coverage of last week’s Islamist killing spree appears to prefer to obscure or ignore the anti-Semitic message, the families of those murdered in the Hyper Cacher chose to listen to it. On Tuesday, at the funerals of their loved ones, they issued their reply.

The location of the funerals was political in another way too. They had originally been planned to be held at the beautiful, ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. But the Jewish graves in that cemetery, situated close to the Old City, have been the target of vandalism by Arab youths in recent months. Perhaps the families were concerned that such a resting place might lead to further indignities being visited on these murdered ones, even after the great indignity of the fact of their murder. It’s also possible that since the cemetery on the Mount of Olives is under Israeli control, the French government, and other governments who sent representatives to the funerals, conditioned their participation on the change of location. So Har HaMenuhot, as safe from the hands of enemies as a Jewish resting place can conceivably be, was chosen as the site.

“This is just the beginning,” said a woman I spoke with there, Linda Cohen. Originally from Paris, the 50-year-old Cohen came to live in Israel ten years ago. Speaking in rapid, fluent, and angry Hebrew, she said that “there are many more terrorists, and all of us think they are just preparing for the next attack.” I asked her what this will lead to. “Among French Jews,” she told me, “there is a saying: ‘better to make aliya [immigrate to Israel] in a seat, on a plane, rather than running for your life.”

A young man carried a placard in French that read, “I am Charlie, I am a Jew. I am Israeli. I am French. And I have had enough!” Shalom Cohen Saban, 30, the Israeli born son of French immigrant parents, told me that he had come to the funerals “to support the Jews of France, in this testing time.” And also, he continued, because a relative of his had worked with Yoav Hattab, on the Birthright program. Hattab, 22, was the son of the chief rabbi of Tunis, and had been in Israel just two weeks before his murder.

There were eulogies from Israeli politicians, of course. Each of them—mercifully—were appropriate and even dignified, despite the fact that election season is upon us. Benjamin Netanyahu used a phrase from the early days of Zionism—“may we be comforted in the flourishing of our people and the building of our country.” This was a phrase gently parodied by the poet Yehuda Amichai in one of his best poems “Seven Laments for the War Dead,” in which the poet, himself a veteran of Israel’s wars, expresses a quiet longing for the ending of the period of strife. Amichai passed away in 2000. It appears however, that the days of strife for the Jews, for Israel, and for the world beyond them will be with us for some time to come.

“Dad was a man who put others before himself,” Jonathan Saada, son of Francois-Michel Saada who was killed in the supermarket, told the assembled mourners. “He loved Israel. He always wanted to be here. And so he will be. He is here now and I am sure he is happy to be with you here.”

What was taking place in Har Hamenuhot was a Jewish, particularist response to the murder of four Jews. Nonetheless, it also carried a universal message: The business of physical resistance to those who wish to destroy us begins with a proud and unyielding recalling and assertion of our own identity, history, and values. Hopefully there are a few in tired and lost Europe who are listening. If there are not, the Jews of France at least have a clearly marked route to follow to Israel.

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Reflections on the Murders in Paris

PJmedia, 12/1

The Islamic world is currently in the midst of a great historic convulsion. This process is giving birth to political trends and movements of a murderously violent nature. These movements offer a supposed escape route from the humiliation felt at the profound societal failure of the Arab and to a slightly lesser extent the broader Muslim world.

The escape is by way of the most violent and intolerant historic trends of Islam, into a mythologized and imagined past. The route to this old-new imagined utopia is a bloody one. All who oppose or even slight it must die. The simple and brutal laws of 7th century Muslim Arabia are re-applied, in their literal sense. The events of last week in Paris were a manifestation of this trend.
These trends exist not only in the Arab and Muslim worlds themselves. Because of mass immigration from the Arab and Muslim world to western European countries, they are also powerful and present in immigrant communities in these countries. The Kouachi brothers and Amedi Coulibaly are the latest, and no doubt not the last representatives of this political world to impose themselves on us.

The political trend in question is called political Islam. It manifests itself in its most extreme form in the rival global networks of the Al Qaeda movement and the Islamic State. But these, alas, are only the sharp tip of a much larger iceberg.

Political Islam and its followers are not all, or mainly, young men from slums.

On the contrary, its adherents include heads of state, powerful economic interests and media groups, and prominent cultural figures. Some of these, absurdly, were even present at the “solidarity rally” in Paris.

They rendered this event an empty spectacle by their presence.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, for example, came to offer his solidarity to the victims of journalists murdered by Islamists in Paris, just two days after the Turkish courts sentenced a pianist to a 10 month prison sentence, suspended for five years, for the crime of “denigrating religion (ie Islam).”

More urgently, Turkey has been an active supporter of both Islamic State and al-Qaeda forces in northern Syria over the last three years. That is, Davutoglu was marching in condemnation of forces to which his own government has offered support.

Political Islam is a reaction to profound societal failure. It is also a flight into unreality. It has nothing practical to offer as an actual remedy to Arab and Islamic developmental problems. Economic, legal and societal models deriving from the 7th century Arabian desert are fairly obvious impediments to success in the 21st.

Where they are systematically imposed, as in the Islamic State, they will create something close to hell on earth. Where they remain present in more partial forms — as in Qatar, Gaza, Iran, (increasingly) Turkey, and so on — they will merely produce stifling, stagnant and repressive societies.

But the remedy for failure that political Islam offers is not a material one. It offers in generous portions the intoxicating psychological cocktail of murderous rage and self-assertion, and the desire to strike out and destroy those deemed enemies — infidels who transgress binding religious commandments, Jews and so on.

This is not the first time that Europe has encountered political phenomena based on murderous rage and utopias buried in the magical past. The European fascist movements produced precisely such a mix. But of course, this time around, the rage and the utopia derive not from European culture, but from an alien culture which has implanted itself among the Europeans.

Here is the second part of the problem. Arab and Muslim societies may be failures and basket cases, but they retain an exceptionally strong and vivid sense of themselves. It is the irony of history that this sense of self is precisely of a type that is bound to keep their societies mired in failure. But history favors irony, and this sense nevertheless remains powerfully experienced and hence politically potent. In this respect, the modern Islamic world resembles western Europe of 80 or 90 years ago, but not the contemporary continent.

In contemporary western European societies, political Islam meets a human collectivity suffering, by contrast, from a profound loss of self. No one, at least in the mainstream of politics and culture, seems able to quite articulate what western European countries are for, or what they oppose — at least beyond a sort of vapid belief in everyone doing what they want and not bothering each other.

The result is that when violent political Islam collides with the satiated, lost societies of western Europe, the response is not defiance on the part of the latter, but rather fear.

This fear, as fear is wont to do, manifests itself in various, not particularly edifying, ways.

The most obvious is avoidance (“the attacks had nothing to do with Islam,” “unemployment and poverty are the root cause,” “the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state,” etc etc).

Another is appeasement — “maybe if we give them some of what they want, they’ll leave us alone.”

This response perhaps partially explains the notable adoption in parts of western Europe of the anti-Jewish prejudice so prevalent in the Islamic world.

The ennui of the western European mainstream will almost certainly prevent the adoption of the very tough measures which alone might serve to adequately address the burgeoning problem of large numbers of young European Muslims committed to political Islam and to violence against their host societies.

Such measures — which would include tighter surveillance and policing of communities, quick deportations of incendiary preachers, revocation of citizenship for those engaged in violence, possible imprisonment of suspects and so on — would require a political will which is manifestly absent. So it wont happen. So the events of Paris will almost certainly recur.

And lastly, since the elites will not be able to produce resistance, it will come from outside of the elites. Hence the growth of populist, nationalist parties and movements in western Europe. But Europe being what it is, such revivalist movements are likely to contain a hefty dose of the xenophobia and bigotry which characterized the continent of old.

None of this can, at present, be discussed in polite European society. But all of it is fairly obvious. For this reason, Europe’s Jews are at present warily eying the door. As someone who was born in western Europe, and left it 25 years ago for Israel, I am happy to conclude that as a result of the efforts and sacrifice of many, Europe’s Jews are this time around neither defenseless nor alone. Nor will their blood be free to be taken with impunity.

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Doha Descending

Jerusalem Post, 11/1

Amid rumors of Mashaal’s expulsion, Doha trying to regain alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia

It is still not clear whether reports in Turkish newspaper Aydinlik concerning the expulsion by Qatar of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal are accurate. Hamas officials have indignantly denied that their leader is shortly set to quit his Doha home.

But certainly, Mashaal’s expulsion would fit with the broader pattern of recent events.

Recent months have witnessed a number of acts by Qatar suggesting it is seeking to repair relations with its fellow Gulf monarchies, and with Egypt. Hamas, the enemy of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Saudis, can have no part in this.

The expulsion of Mashaal, if it takes place, will be the latest concession by Doha to the wishes of Cairo and Riyadh.

Qatar’s latest moves are the fruit of partial defeat for Doha in its regional agenda; Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the winners. Lets take a look.

Qatar, in the first two years of the regional upheaval that began in 2011, appeared to be riding high. The tiny emirate backed the Muslim Brotherhood movement; its enormously influential Al Jazeera channel pumped out propaganda on behalf of the movement and against its enemies. In late 2012, at what was evidently its high-water mark, the Qatar-Brotherhood alliance appeared to be forming a new power bloc in the Middle East.

The Brotherhood had achieved power in the most populous Arab state – Egypt. It Tunisian iteration, al-Nahda, won elections there.

Militias associated with a Brotherhood-type outlook and financed by Qatar, such as the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo, were playing a key role in the Syrian war – and victory looked within reach. Turkey, under the rule of the Brotherhood-influenced AK Party, had drawn close to Qatar and saw itself playing a key role in the emergent Sunni Islamist alliance.

Two years on, nearly all of this is in ruins.

Most importantly, the army is back in power in Egypt and is engaged in an attempt to crush the Brotherhood. In Tunisia, Nahda lost elections in 2014 and has ceded power to its non-Islamist rivals. In Syria, a regionwide mobilization by Iran of its allies and proxies, and the determined support of Russia as well as rebel confusion and disunity, have saved Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

This has left both Qatar and Hamas somewhat beached. Doha had antagonized its fellow Gulf monarchies to distraction, in the service of a new power bloc that apparently is not going to come into existence after all.

Hamas, meanwhile, had also placed its bets on this emergent Sunni Islamist bloc.

The Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood had removed itself from Damascus, rejected the Iranian attempt to exhort it to declare its support for Assad, and suffered a major loss in Iranian funding as a result.

RECENT MONTHS have seen both Qatar and Hamas seeking to adjust themselves to this new reality, but in different directions.

In mid-September, Doha ordered several prominent members of the Egyptian Brotherhood to leave the emirate. They had been offered asylum after fleeing their country following the military coup in July 2013.

The first indication of improved relations with other Gulf states came after a surprise summit of Gulf Cooperation Council countries on November 16, 2014. As a result of this meeting, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates agreed to return their ambassadors to Qatar after an absence of eight months. In the days after, Saudi King Abdullah II received a phone call from Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The GCC summit in Bahrain in early December saw further Qatari concessions on Libya and Egypt, where Doha’s position had run in direct contradiction to that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Doha gave its full support to Sisi and his “road map” for Egypt at the summit; afterward, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Mohammed al-Attiya pledged Doha’s support for Sisi, and spoke of the importance of Egypt’s regional role.

Then, on December 20, Sisi met with an envoy of the Qatari emir, in a meeting brokered by Riyadh.

Thus, the Mashaal departure, if indeed it takes place, will be the latest in a string of concessions offered by Doha to the Cairo-Riyadh alliance – which is emerging as the key power arrangement among the Sunnis at present.

Qatar is of course enormously wealthy, but it is also a flimsy state, lacking hard power of any kind. For its economic and business activities to continue to flourish, it cannot afford to stray too far from existing power alliances, which will inevitably be dominated by states other than itself.

For a while, the Qataris thought they were set to be the financiers and cheerleaders of a new, Egypt-centered bloc – yet that bloc was stillborn. The Qataris are now accommodating themselves to this reality.

Hamas, too, must make its own new arrangements, and indications are that the movement is leaning in the direction of renewed rapprochement with Iran. The year 2014 saw a gradual thaw in relations between Hamas and Tehran, though all suspicion is unlikely to have dispelled.

Hamas’s needs are different from those of Qatar. And of course, Hamas has no way to align with the Cairo-Riyadh alliance – which regards it as an element of the Brotherhood they are seeking to defeat.

This leaves Tehran or Ankara as possible backers – or more likely, a hedging and a combination of the two.

Of course, one should not assume that Qatar will entirely end its support for Islamist movements. Doha has not fallen in love with Riyadh; it is repositioning out of necessity and through clenched teeth. The more extravagant Egyptian demands – such as that Doha expel prominent Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi – are unlikely to be fulfilled; Qaradawi has lived in the emirate since 1961.

Ultimately, what the Qatari concessions indicate is the burgeoning strength of the Cairo-Riyadh alliance, which has forced a Qatari realignment while appearing to offer no, or hardly any, gestures in return.

This new alliance (which has good, if largely silent, relations with Israel), is perhaps the most important diplomatic development in the region since 2011.

As of now, with the US seeking rapprochement with Iran, the main blocs facing one another in the region are the Iranians and their allies against the Saudis and their own.

The Brotherhood and the Salafists are a factor, to be sure, but for the moment a weaker one.

In sum, the travails and maneuvering of Qatar and Hamas reflect the disarray of the Sunni Islamist camp.

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How are Things in Kobani?

PJmedia, 9/1
The battle for the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani just entered its fourth month. It is now a fight for a heap of ruins. Four months of intense ground combat, involving tanks, mortars and RPGs as well as small arms, has reduced the city to rubble.

Nevertheless, Kobani matters. It is where the Syrian Kurds showed that with the right support, local fighters are capable of turning back the forces of the Islamic State.

Kobani also matters because as a result of the stand of the Kurdish YPG organization in the city, a potential reliable ally of the west in northern Syria has been identified. In the fight between rival successor entities over the ruins of Syria and Iraq, this is a relationship which deserves to be nurtured and developed.

I visited Kobani before the IS assault of the autumn. In March of last year, the enclave was under siege from four directions – the jihadis from south, east and west, and the Turkish authorities from the north. The Turks had a strange and ambiguous relationship with the ISIS jihadis. Sometimes the border gates would be opened to let them exit and enter. Wounded jihadis were treated in hospitals in Ceylanpinar across the border, with no questions asked.

Still, the Kurds were holding out. The positions near Tal Abyad to the east, and Jarabulus to the west, were well defended. In a place called Haj Ismail, I observed as the YPG responded swiftly and efficiently to the first signs of an ISIS attack.

Within the enclave, life was close to normal. There wasn’t a great deal of food. But the schools were operating, the hospitals were open. The Kurdish enclave had become a place of refuge for Syrian Arabs, too, seeking to flee the chaos of the fighting further west in Aleppo.

But the uneasy half-cold siege ended in September. The Islamic State, flush with new weaponry from the garrison in faraway Mosul, descended on the peaceful enclave. Their intention was to destroy it, so as to clear the way for their forces to move more easily between Raqqa province and Aleppo and Idleb.

They nearly succeeded. Despite the dogged defense of the YPG, the villages surrounding Kobani city began to fall. The civilian population was evacuated across the border. The YPG fighters prepared for a last stand within the city. What reversed the situation was the commencement of U.S. and coalition air attacks on the IS positions after October 6th. The air campaign evened out the YPG’s inferior weaponry, and the Kurds began to claw back control of the city.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Perwer Mohammed Ali, one of the Kurdish activists with whom I had worked back in March. Arrested by the Turks on leaving Kobani, Perwer made his way back to the enclave. I asked him about the current situation in the city.

“Right now its calm,” he told me. “The YPG control about 80% of the city. Daesh is still holding two neighborhoods – Kaniya Kurdan and Mikteleh. A couple of days ago, they tried to launch a counter attack. They had a tank with them, but they didn’t succeed.”

And are the coalition airstrikes helping?

“The coalition is good but we’d like them to target the tanks. IS has a bunch of them in Mikteleh.”

The liberation of Kobani seems near. The real task, says Perwer, will come afterwards. “Kobani is destroyed,” he told me, “so the big problem will be after the liberation.”

The liberation, nevertheless, seems imminent. When it comes, it will be testimony to the potency of U.S. air power, of course, but it will also be the result of the courage and determination of the fighters of the YPG.

The Middle East is the most dysfunctional political space on the planet. As has been amply demonstrated in recent days, ideas emanating from it and the bloody actions they inspire represent one of the most potent dangers to free societies anywhere.

The west cannot ignore the Middle East without abandoning it to anti-western forces. Engaging with the region, supporting allies, facing down dangers are all essential.

In the darkest days before the commencement of coalition bombing in Kobani, I sat in London with two leaders of the Kurdish PYD, the party that controls the Kurdish cantons in Syria. “Our situation,” they told me at that time, “is desperate.” The absence of even RPGs to deal with the IS armor seemed to presage doom.

Belatedly, Kobani was saved. The joint action of the U.S. Air Force and the YPG fighters who protected the town ought to be the start of a political relationship between the west and the Syrian Kurds. Dialogue with the PYD has begun. It should lead to a recognition of Kurdish national rights in both Syria and Iraq. In the ruins of these fragmented countries, there aren’t many reliable friends. There are some. The Kurds — in Syria as in Iraq — are chief among them. Their courage and their moderation deserve to be recognized and this recognition needs to be reflected in policy.

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