Syria’s new diplomacy

Jerusalem Post, 14/8

Iran and Saudi Arabia have tabled rival peace plans for Syria, but their aims are irreconcilable and no end to the conflict is in sight.

As the civil war over the ruins of Syria grinds on into its fifth year, the fighting seems nowhere near an end. Indeed, there is no longer a single war taking place in the country. Rather, as Syria physically divides into separate entities, so the conflict, too, further subdivides, spawning new conflicts.

There are today no less than five different conflicts taking place within the borders of the country: the contests between the Sunni Arab rebels and the Assad regime/Hezbollah/Iran (the original war which brought about the others); the Kurdish YPG’s fight against Islamic State; intermittent clashes between the Sunni Arab rebels and Islamic State; Islamic State’s own war against the Assad regime; and now also the renewed war between Turkey and the PKK, which is being played out partly on Syrian soil.

The presence of these five interlocking conflicts notwithstanding, efforts to make diplomatic progress toward some form of settlement, or at least freezing of the conflict, are under way.

Recent days have seen details emerge of two rival “peace plans” for Syria. One of these is sponsored by the Iranians, the main supporters of the Assad regime, the other is the handiwork of Saudi Arabia, which wants the removal of the regime and supports elements among the Sunni Arab rebellion against it.

Neither plan stands much chance of implementation. But the content of the plans and their very existence demonstrate that the Syrian situation is not static. They also indicate the extent to which the aims of the backers of the combatant sides are currently irreconcilable.

The Iranian proposal, according to a report in the Araby al-Jadid newspaper on Monday, constitutes a plan for the freezing of the conflict in place and the subsequent de facto partition of Syria. According to the newspaper, the plan is being promoted by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif during his current round of meetings with regional officials.

The plan proposes that each side would hold on to its current areas of control, except for the city of Aleppo, which would come under international supervision.

The regime and the rebels would then cooperate with the international coalition in the fight against Islamic State. Negotiations between the sides would continue, with the intention of forming a “national government, writing a new constitution and holding nationally monitored elections.”

The regime, according to the plan, would keep control of “Damascus, the Syrian-Lebanese border, Qalamoun, western Ghouta, Zabadani, Homs and the area to its west all the way to the Syrian coast, and Tartus Port.”

This is in essence the area controlled by the regime today. Yet the apparent willingness of the regime’s backers to “settle” for this area rather than to continue to hold out for the eventual reconquest of the entire country (Syrian President Bashar Assad’s aim throughout the war) reflects the declining military fortunes of the Assad regime.

The regime now controls only just over 20 percent of the area of Syria. In the north, it is reeling from the hammer blows inflicted by the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) rebel coalition. This coalition includes some of the strongest Islamist rebel forces in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida, is a component part of it, as is Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful of the “homegrown” Salafi groups on the Syrian battlefield.

It is supported by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi provision of US Tow antitank missiles, transported across the border from Turkey, is playing a telling role in the fighting, reducing the regime’s advantage in heavy weaponry.

As of now, Jaysh al-Fatah is attempting to destroy the final regime positions on the Al-Ghab plain. Loss of these positions raises the frightening prospect for the regime of the front line moving into the populated parts of Latakia Province, the heartland of its support.

Already, the Alawi villages in Latakia are within range of the rebels’ missiles. Entry into Latakia would effectively end Assad’s hopes of preserving intact a safe area of the country for the members of his sect and other supporters of the regime.

Should the pivotal Joureen base in Ghab fall to the rebels, the regime would then face the possibility of its supply lines to the city of Hama further south being cut off.

The regime is therefore fighting desperately to hold its positions on the flat, barren Sahel al-Ghab. Hezbollah fighters are there, fighting alongside Shi’ite “volunteers” from as far afield as Afghanistan.

The motley collection of regime defenders in Ghab reflect the key difficulty which Assad has faced since the commencement of the war. The narrow base of support of his regime has meant that he has faced severe challenges in mustering sufficient manpower to defend the areas under his control.

The solution until now has been to reduce these areas. At a certain point, of course, the shrinking size of the regime’s domain raises the question of its continued viability. This point may now be approaching.

The Saudis, however, have made clear that the current Iranian proposals are unacceptable. The sticking point, as Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir outlined in a statement this week, is that Riyadh wants Assad’s immediate departure from power rather than a continued role for him in any transitional phase.

“There is no place for Assad in the future of Syria,” Jubeir said, speaking in Moscow after meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Saudi counterproposals, as reported in the Al-Hayat newspaper this week, envisage the immediate cessation of Iranian and other outside support for the regime and the departure of Hezbollah fighters from Syria, followed by new, UN-supervised presidential and parliamentary elections, after the stepping down of Assad.

The differences are familiar and not yet close to being bridged. The diplomacy, as ever, mirrors the military situation on the ground. Assad’s fortunes have declined. This is leading to reduced ambitions and consequently increased flexibility on the part of his backers. But there are no signs yet that his allies are about to desert him, nor that their reduced demands are anywhere close to being acceptable to the forces behind the rebels. So the fight goes on.

More importantly, it should be remembered that the war between Assad and the Sunni rebels is now only one of the several conflict systems that have torn Syria apart. So even if Assad’s declining fortunes were to lead to his departing the scene, the war for Syria’s succession, and the suffering of its inhabitants, would almost certainly not be at an end.

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The Teheran Formula

PJMedia, 1/8

In late June, I traveled to Iraq with the purpose of investigating the role being played by the Iranian-supported Shia militias in that country.

Close observation of the militias, their activities, and their links to Tehran is invaluable in understanding what is likely to happen in the Middle East following the conclusion of the nuclear agreement between the P5 + 1 powers and Tehran.
An Iranian stealth takeover of Iraq is currently under way. Tehran’s actions in Iraq lay bare the nature of Iranian regional strategy. They show that Iran has no peers at present in the promotion of a very 21st century way of war, which combines the recruitment and manipulation of sectarian loyalties; the establishment and patient sponsoring of political and paramilitary front groups; and the engagement of these groups in irregular and clandestine warfare, all in tune with an Iran-led agenda. With the conclusion of the nuclear deal, and thanks to the cash about to flow into Iranian coffers, the stage is now set for an exponential increase in the scale and effect of these activities across the region. So what is going on in Iraq, and what may be learned from it?

Power in Baghdad today is effectively held by a gathering of Shia militias known as the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization). This initiative brings together tens of armed groups, including some very small and newly formed ones. However, its main components ought to be familiar to Americans who remember the Iraqi Shia insurgency against the U.S. in the middle of the last decade. They are: the Badr Organization, the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Kataeb Hizballah, and the Sarayat al-Salam (which is the new name for the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr). All of these are militias of long-standing. All of them are openly pro-Iranian in nature. All of them have their own well-documented links to the Iranian government and to the Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The Hashed al-Shaabi was founded on June 15, 2014, following a fatwa by venerated Iraqi Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani a day earlier. Sistani called for a limited jihad at a time when the forces of ISIS were juggernauting toward Baghdad. The militias came together, under the auspices of Quds Force kingpin Qassem Suleimani and his Iraqi right-hand man Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Because of the parlous performance of the Iraqi Army, the Shia militias have become in effect the sole force standing between ISIS and the Iraqi capital.

Therein lies the source of their strength. Political power grows, as another master strategist of irregular warfare taught, from the barrel of a gun. In the case of Iraq, no instrument exists in the hands of the elected government to oppose the will of the militias.

The militias, meanwhile, in their political iteration, are also part of the government.

In the course of my visit, I travelled deep into Anbar Province with fighters of the Kataeb Hizballah, reaching just eight miles from Ramadi City. I also went to Baiji, the key front to the capital’s north, accompanying fighters from the Badr Corps.

In all areas, I observed close cooperation between the militias, the army, and the federal police.

The latter are essentially under the control of the militias. Mohammed Ghabban, of Badr, is the interior minister. The Interior Ministry controls the police. Badr’s leader, Hadi al-Ameri, serves as the transport minister.

In theory, the Hashd al-Shaabi committee answers to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. In practice, no one views the committee as playing anything other than a liaison role.

The real decision-making structure for the militias’ alliance goes through Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and Hadi al-Ameri, to Qassem Suleimani, and directly on to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

No one in Iraq imagines that any of these men are taking orders from Abadi, who has no armed force of his own, whose political party (Dawa) remains dominated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his associates, and whose government is dependent on the military protection of the Shia militias and their political support. When I interviewed al-Muhandis in Baiji, he was quite open regarding the source of the militias’ strength:

We rely on capacity and capabilities provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The genius of the Iranian method is that it is not possible to locate a precise point where the Iranian influence ends and the “government” begins. Everything is entwined. This pro-Iranian military and political activity depends at ground level on the successful employment and manipulation of religious fervor. This is what makes the Hashed fighters able to stand against the rival jihadis of ISIS. Says Major General Juma’a Enad, operational commander in Salah al-Din Province:

The Hashed strong point is the spiritual side, the jihad fatwa. Like ISIS.

So this is Tehran’s formula. The possession of a powerful state body (the IRGC’s Quds Force) whose sole raison d’etre is the creation and sponsorship of local political-military organizations to serve the Iranian interest. The existence of a population in a given country available for indoctrination and mobilization. The creation of proxy bodies and the subsequent shepherding of them to both political and military influence, with each element complementing the other. And finally, the reaping of the benefit of all this in terms of power and influence.

This formula has at the present time brought Iran domination of Lebanon and large parts of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Current events in Iraq form a perfect study of the application of this method, and the results it can bring. Is Iran likely to change this winning formula as a result of the sudden provision of increased monies resulting from the nuclear deal? This is certainly the hope of the authors of the agreement. It is hard to see on what it is based.

The deal itself proves that Iran can continue to push down this road while paying only a minor price, so why change? Expect further manifestations of the Tehran formula in the Middle East in the period ahead.

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Erdogan’s Bait and Switch in Northern Syria

Jerusalem Post, 31/7

The latest events in northern Syria constitute a bold move by the Turkish leadership to deal with a most pressing problem, from their point of view.

That problem is not the continued existence of the Assad regime, far to the south. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would certainly like to see the end of this regime. But its continued truncated existence between Damascus and the coast and in isolated spots elsewhere does not constitute an immediate danger for the Turkish leader.

The issue is also not Islamic State. Certainly the killing of a Turkish soldier in a firefight on the border near the town of Kielis with Islamic State terrorists last Thursday will have angered Erdogan. But this alone cannot explain the sudden dramatic series of moves in subsequent days. After all, until now, the Turkish government’s attitude toward Islamic State had been one of tolerance and at times cooperation. Recent revelations indicate a laissez-faire attitude toward Islamic State oil-trading across the border, and to the transport of fighters across the border.

The strikes against Islamic State by the Turkish air force, and the decision to grant the US Air Force permission to use the Incirlik base near Adana constitute a feint.

Ankara’s stated intention of using its air power to create a 90-km. wide area of control between Jarabulus and Marea along the Syrian-Turkish border is directed against the ambitions of the Kurds, not those of Islamic State.

Why, then, has Erdogan decided to move against the Syrian Kurds?

Since January, Kurdish political stock has been steadily rising in the West. In the Kurdish YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units), the US found a reliable, non-Islamist ally that was willing and capable to act as a ground force against Islamic State in northern Syria. The combination of the YPG on the ground, and the USAF in the skies proved sufficient to save the besieged town of Kobani, and then to push the jihadis back to Tel Abyad in the east and to the outskirts of Jarabulus in the west.

These victories, however, were worrying from the Turkish point of view. First, as a result of their eastern advance, the Kurds were able to unite two of the three cantons they have established along the long Syrian-Turkish border. The creation of a corridor linking the Jazira canton, which stretches from the Syria-Iraq border to the town of Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain), with the reconstituted Kobani enclave gave the Kurds control over a long and contiguous stretch of border.

No less important, the favorable publicity accruing to the Kurds because of their fight against Islamic State, and the presence of women fighters and secular Western volunteers in their ranks, served to turn the Syrian Kurds from a forgotten minority into the recipient of favorable and growing Western attention.

Still worse, from the Turkish point of view, the entirety of the remaining border area not under Kurdish control (with the exception of a tiny enclave around the town of Azaz) was in the hands of Islamic State. The logic of the situation thus appeared to suggest that a Kurdish offensive west of the Euphrates to drive Islamic State from the region, with the help of US air power, might be in the offing.

An offensive of this kind would have driven Islamic State from the border in its entirety. But it would almost certainly have had the additional effect of enabling the YPG to unite the Kobani enclave with the third Kurdish canton in northern Syria, established around the town of Afrin.

This, in turn, would have given de facto control of the entirety of the 800-km. border between Syria and Turkey to a Kurdish autonomous entity ruled over by the PYD (Democratic Union Party). The PYD is the Syrian franchise of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The PKK is (or was) engaged in a stalled peace process with the government of Turkey. Core issues remain unresolved. Erdogan could not tolerate the emergence of a de facto Kurdish sovereignty stretching along the entirety of this border.

Hence the evident decision to intervene in northern Syria using air power. This is an attempt to mimic the successful pairing of US air power with Kurdish ground force that has driven the Islamic State back to the east and south. Erdogan wants to pair his air force with Sunni Islamist rebels in Aleppo and Idleb provinces, in order to destroy the Islamic State stronghold between Jarabulus and Marea. At the same time, as seen this week in the town of Zor Maghar, force will also be employed to deter the YPG from making any move west of the Euphrates.

The Sunni rebels in question will almost certainly be the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). This is a Turkish-, Qatari- and Saudi-supported gathering of Sunni Islamist forces, which includes Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida) and Ahrar ash-Sham, a powerful Salafi armed group.

If this venture is successful, the end result will be the removal of Islamic State from the border in its entirety, and its replacement, between Kobani and Afrin, by other Islamist rebel groups supported by Turkey.

This is the mission on which Erdogan is now embarked. It appears to have dimensions beyond northern Syria. The attacks on the PKK in Qandil and the threats to strip HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) parliament members of immunity may point to a broader political logic. Erdogan may be seeking to leverage the crisis with the Kurds for political gain, fanning the fires of Turkish nationalist sentiment to mobilize votes in a renewed general election.

He may be hoping to achieve the sought for parliamentary majority, which eluded him in elections earlier this year, and which he needs to bring about constitutional reform and expanded powers for the presidency.

But most urgently, the Turkish move into Syria is directed against the advances – physical and political – made by Syria’s Kurds in the course of the past year. Just how far Erdogan will go in pursuit of the goal of turning back the clock in Syrian Kurdistan remains to be seen. But contrary to much Western reporting, Turkey’s entry into the war in Syria does not constitute a belated reconciling by Ankara of a Western-led agenda vis-à-vis the war. Rather, Erdogan is carrying out a bait-and-switch move, founded on partnering with Sunni Islamist groups in order to reduce or destroy Kurdish aspirations.

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Lecture in Jerusalem, 23/7

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Opening the ‘gates of evil’

Sunni Arabs see deal as facilitating further Iranian regional subversion, confirming US withdrawal from the Middle East

Jerusalem Post, 18/7

The response in the Arabic-speaking world to the conclusion of a deal between the P5+1 countries and the Islamic Republic of Iran over the latter’s nuclear program has divided along familiar lines.

Among pro-Iranian elements, such as President Bashar Assad of Syria and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the news of the deal has, predictably, been met with jubilation. Assad described the agreement as a “historic achievement” and a “great victory.”

Among Sunni elements opposed to the advance of Iran, concerns have focused less on the nuclear elements of the deal – that is, whether it will effectively halt Iran’s march toward the bomb. Instead, attention has centered on the deal’s implications for Iran’s push for hegemony in the Middle East, and its interference in and subversion of regional states as part of this effort.

An editorial by Salman Aldosary, in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, summed up these concerns in the following passage:

“Western governments will be under great pressure to make the deal succeed and therefore turn a blind eye to many of Iran’s destabilizing policies as well as Tehran’s blatant interference in the domestic affairs of its neighbors. Moreover, the West will also have to neglect Tehran’s support of extremist militias, such as Iraq’s Popular Mobilization forces, also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, that have gradually become almost part of Iraq’s military. Iran has established a policy based on the equation of fighting terrorism with terrorism amid deafening silence from the West.

“Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states can only welcome the nuclear deal, which in itself is supposed to close the gates of evil that Iran had opened in the region. However, the real concern is that the deal will open other gates of evil, gates which Iran mastered knocking at for years even while Western sanctions were still in place.”

From this perspective a particularly notable and dismaying aspect of the deal is its removal of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Quds Force commander, Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani, from the list of those subject to sanctions by the West.

The ending of sanctions on the IRGC, and more broadly the likely imminent freeing of up to $150 billion in frozen revenue, will enable Iran to massively increase its aid to its long list of regional clients and proxies. Iran today is heavily engaged in at least five conflict arenas in the region.

The Iranian creation and proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon is the dominant political and military force in that country. The organization depends on Iranian support, training and funding to maintain this position.

In Syria, beleaguered dictator and Iranian client Assad remains in control in the west and south largely because of Iranian support and assistance – up to $1b. per month, according to some estimates. For as long as Assad remains, the war remains, allowing such monstrous entities as Islamic State and al-Qaida to flourish.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are unmatched in clandestine and proxy warfare, having effectively created an alternative armed force for Assad when his own army became unreliable in 2012. This force, the National Defense Forces, has plugged the gap in manpower which is the regime’s greatest vulnerability. But in addition, Iran has channeled others of its proxies, including Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite militias and lately increasing numbers of Afghan Hazara Shi’ite “volunteers,” toward the Syrian battlefield.

In Iraq, the Iranian-supported Shi’ite militias of the Hashd al-Shaabi are playing the key role in defending Baghdad from the advance of Islamic State. These militias are trained and financed by the Revolutionary Guards and organized by Soleimani and his Iraqi right-hand man, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, also thought to be an IRGC member.

In Yemen, the Iranians are offering arms and support to the Ansar Allah, or Houthi rebels, who are engaged in a bloody insurgency against the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Among the Palestinians, Tehran operates Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a client/proxy organization, and is in the process of rebuilding relations with the Izzadin Kassam, the powerful military wing of Hamas.

All this costs money. 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 population – other than those connected to the regime – to suffer the consequent shortages.

Still, in recent months, things weren’t going so well. Assad has been losing ground to the Sunni rebels. Hezbollah has been hemorrhaging men in Syria. The Shi’ite militias were holding Islamic State in Iraq but not advancing. Saudi intervention was holding back further advances by the Houthis in Yemen. Hamas was looking poverty-stricken and beleaguered in its Gaza redoubt.

The sanctions, plus these many commitments, were bringing the Iranian regime close to an economic crisis that would have confronted the regime with the hard choice of lessening its regional interference or facing the consequences.

No longer. The deal over the nuclear program is set to enable Tehran to shore up its investments, providing more money and guns to all its friends across the Middle East, who will as a result grow stronger, bolder and more ambitious. This, from the point of view of the main powers in the Sunni Arab world, is the key fallout (so to speak) from the deal concluded in Vienna. IRGC “outreach” to Shi’ite minorities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and to the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain, is also likely to increase as a result of the windfall.

It has been felt in recent years in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman 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 impression is compounded not only by the stance toward the Iranian nuclear program but also by the US response to Iran’s activities across the Middle East. In Iraq, the US appears to be acting in tandem with Iranian goals, with no apparent awareness of the problems in this regard. Similarly, in Lebanon the West is supporting and equipping the Lebanese Armed Forces, without understanding that the Lebanese state is largely a shell, within which Hezbollah is the living and directing force. In Syria, the US is pursuing a half-hearted campaign against Islamic State, while leaving the rest of the country to its internal dynamics.

The nuclear deal compounds and completes the picture. From the perspective of the Saudis and other Sunni Arabs, Iranian ruthlessness, clarity and advance combined with the flailing, retreating US regional policy now so much in evidence spell potential disaster.

The Sunni Arabs, along with Israel and other regional opponents of Iran, will now develop strategies independent of the US to stem this advance and turn it back. The outcome of that struggle will determine the fate of the Middle East.

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Coming of age in Sinai

Jerusalem Post, 10/7

The Sinai-based Islamic State affiliate Wilayat al-Sina (Sinai Province) claimed responsibility for the firing of three Grad rockets at Israel on July 3. This attack, which caused no casualties, came closely after a large-scale assault by the group against Egyptian security installations in the Sheikh Zuweid area of northern Sinai.

Both events served notice regarding the growing seriousness of the threat represented by the jihadists in northern Sinai.

The Sheikh Zuweid attacks demonstrated a level of tactical proficiency and sophistication hitherto not seen in Sinai’s Islamic State affiliate. The jihadists used sophisticated weapons systems, reportedly including Russian-made Kornet antitank missiles, and antiaircraft missiles. They also deployed suicide bombers as a weapon of war, rather than as terrorism, to telling effect against Egyptian Army positions.

These events in northern Sinai, in turn, followed on from the killing of Egyptian State Prosecutor Hisham Barakat in a car bomb attack in Cairo on June 29.

All this points to a number of worrying conclusions:

First, the notion that the former Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’s declaration of bay’ah (allegiance) to Islamic State was merely a formality, a proclamation devoid of content, should be abandoned. The tactical proficiency and the tactics utilized by Wilayat al-Sina in the Sheikh Zuweid attacks suggest that Islamic State fighters have been responsible for instructing the Sinai jihadists in their own way of war in the recent period. These methods have been responsible, of course, for Islamic State’s considerable successes in Iraq and Syria over the last two years.

Islamic State has never engaged with an enemy as serious as the US-equipped and US-trained army of Egypt. Still, as unveiled by the Sheik Zuweid events, a force comparable in ability (though not yet in equipment) to Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Anbar and Hasaka is now deployed in northern Sinai.

Second, the killing of Hisham Barakat indicates that the jihadi insurgency in Egypt is spreading, despite the efforts of the army to quell it. It is no longer confined to Sinai but, rather, appears to be able to strike in the heart of Egypt west of the Suez Canal. Barakat was killed in the upscale and well-defended Heliopolis suburb of Cairo, near a military academy.

The Egyptian government is determined to continue to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence. But Wilayat al-Sina had issued threats against the judiciary on the day prior to the attack, following the execution of a number of jihadists. It is far more likely that it was individuals from this organization who carried out the bombing, which was officially condemned by the Brotherhood.

But should an Islamist insurgency really take hold in Egypt, it is likely to attract the support of a considerable number of the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The way back to politics for the Muslim Brotherhood has been definitively closed by the Egyptian authorities. Its younger cadres are seeking other means of expression.

Third, the launching of missiles at Israel, though not the first incident of this kind, is a reminder that the jihadists hope to draw the Jewish state into the circle of violence. Israel has largely been successful in keeping Islamic State away from the area east of Quneitra.

The Sinaievents indicate that the jihadists appear set to increase efforts to attain a point of friction with Israel to its south, having failed so far to achieve one in the north.

Wilayat al-Sina first emerged in 2011 (under the name of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), following the military coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. But the presence of jihadists in northern Sinai long precedes this. In Taba in 2004, Sharm e-Sheikh in 2005 and Dahab in 2006, suicide bombers struck, taking a heavy toll on civilian life. The Egyptian authorities then tried to reimpose order on northern Sinai, from where the terrorists emerged. They failed.

Northern Sinai remained a playground for smugglers and formed an important staging post for Hamas as it armed itself via the tunnels into the southern Gaza Strip following its 2007 expulsion of Fatah from the Strip.

It is this latter factor that probably explains Israeli allegations of Hamas support for and cooperation with Islamic State affiliates in this area. If this support is indeed taking place (concrete proof has yet to be offered), it would be with the intention of utilizing the jihadists and their wide base of support among the north Sinai Beduin as part of Hamas’s attempt to rebuild smuggling routes into the Strip.

In the event of the jihadists establishing a de facto autonomous area, this would of course be invaluable to the beleaguered rulers of Gaza.

Ideological differences between the two would not necessarily trump practical cooperation. In any case, there is no clear, hermetic dividing line between Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas adherents and the Salafi trends that spawned Islamic State. Many Izzadin Kassam (Hamas’s military wing) fighters are themselves sympathetic with the Salafi trend. Certainly, Hamas’s crackdown on other, self-proclaimed Islamic State supporting groups in Gaza itself would form no barrier to working together with the officially acknowledged Islamic State franchise to the south.

So the events of the past two weeks mark the arrival of Wilayat al-Sina as an important new player in Islamic State’s ongoing effort to destabilize the region. Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation is already at an all-time high because of this joint threat. Jerusalem will be hoping that Egyptian efforts to root out the jihadists will bear greater fruit in the months ahead. Until they do, Islamic State is in Sinai.

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The Ghosts of Old Baghdad

market

Jerusalem Report, 8/7

A few hours in the Shorja open market in Baghdad can teach you a lot – about the Middle East’s past, its present and its apparent future. What’s to be found there is informative. What is absent – equally so.

My fixer Yusuf hadn’t wanted to take me to Shorja. I was in Baghdad for a reporting project on the Shia militias. Between heading for Anbar with Kata’ib Hezbollah and up to Baiji with the Badr Corps, we had a few hours of downtime in Baghdad so I suggested we make for the market area that had once formed the hub of the city’s Jewish community.

I am no expert on the Jews of Iraq.  But a friend’s Iraqi father back in Jerusalem upon hearing that I was heading for Baghdad had mentioned the Taht el Takia neighborhood in the heart of the market where he had grown up and asked me to take some pictures if I had the chance.

“Old Baghdad isn’t really safe anymore. We won’t be able to walk around,” Yusuf told me as we debated the issue. “After the Jews were kicked out in the ’50s, a load of poor Shi’a moved in and they have been running it ever since.”

I tried to ascertain what exactly the danger was. But, like much else in Baghdad, it wasn’t clear – just a general sense of foreboding, and maybe justified paranoia, of a kind that seemed pervasive in  the city.

Baghdad carried with it a tense and febrile atmosphere. Roadblocks everywhere. Muscular, armed men and light armored vehicles outside the hotels. Logos and pictures of armed Shi’a irregulars on every street corner. These latter were the forces defending the city against the Sunni fighters of the Islamic State.

ISIS was just 60 km. away, its black clad fighters waiting behind their positions. Amid the dust and the summer heat and the collapsed buildings.

So I understood Yusuf’s reluctance. His driver, an older man and recent refugee from Anbar, was tired, too, and clearly had no special desire to head out into the 40 degree heat of the afternoon – still less if the destination was a poverty stricken Shi’a section of the city.

All the same, I was paying them and didn’t feel like spending the whole afternoon sitting around drinking tea and smoking, so I persisted and finally Yusuf agreed. “Taht el Takia? Well, we’ll go there and see what’s there. But if I say it isn’t safe, we don’t even get out of the car.”

We set off back into the heat of the afternoon and began the drive to Old Baghdad. After a while, we reached al-Rasheed Street and began the search for the neighborhood. The market and area surrounding it were ramshackle and neglected, looking like they’d last been renovated sometime in the 1970s.

Yusuf began to ask passersby about Taht el Takia. Everyone seemed to have heard of it, but no one quite knew where it was. “The problem is,” Yusuf said, “that most of the people here belong to families that came in from the countryside when Baghdad expanded in the 1960s so they don’t really know all the names of these old neighborhoods.”

Finally, from al-Rasheed Street, we reached a warren of small alleyways and Yusuf declared that this, as far as he could ascertain, was Taht el Takia. The market had closed for the day; it was late afternoon and I made to enter the alley.

This had once been the vibrant heart of Baghdad’s Jewish community though not the slightest memory or indication of that was to be found. We wandered the deserted, silent alleyways filled with garbage from the market.

After a few minutes, a plump security man wearing a tatty army uniform with a maroon airborne-style beret on the back of his head, appeared and began to shout and gesticulate in guttural Baghdadi Arabic. “No pictures,” Yusuf told me.

Having established his authority with this arbitrary order, the guard then became friendly and inquisitive. I told him I had come to look at the area for the father of a friend of mine who had left in 1951 and hadn’t seen it since.

“Oh, a Jew , yes?” he said. I decided to answer in the affirmative, feeling vaguely that to have denied this would have been a sort of betrayal. “From Israel?” the guard persisted. This was going too far, and I replied that I had arrived from England.

The guard was amused by this, and with a show of magnanimity said we could photograph the adjacent mosque and the outside areas, but that he didn’t recommend going too far into the warren of alleyways, since it was getting dark.

“Anyone could see that you’re a foreigner and just produce a weapon and say ‘come with us,” he suggested, grinning broadly. “I don’t even go in there myself after dark.”

He brought us some bottled water by way of a consolation prize. “By the way,” he said as we parted, “ask your friend’s dad if he can get me asylum in Israel.”

There has been a market at Shorja since the Abbasid period in the 8th century. But for some time in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jews dominated trade in the area. It was the hub of a flourishing community.

In 1951-1952, the long story of Iraqi Jewry came to an end with the Arab nationalist agitation; the commencement of anti-Jewish laws from the mid-1930s; growing violence; the Farhud massacres in 1941; and the subsequent persecution and expulsions.

Almost the entire community was airlifted or smuggled out of the country from 1949 to 1951; Operation Ezra and Nehemiah brought around 130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel  from May 1951 and early 1952.

Some 60 years on, in Baghdad the Jews are a ghostly memory. The poor Sh’ia who moved into their vacated houses and the mass of the population that came later are neither moved by nor curious about their buried stories. There are, it is said, seven Jews remaining in the city.

The old synagogues are long since demolished or boarded up. The mezuzas long prised from the doorways. The Laura Kaddoorie Alliance Girls’ School, the Jewish Institute for the Blind, the shops of Yehezkel Abu al-Anba and Fattal. All gone.

As it turns out, the expulsion of Baghdad’s Jews was a portent of what was to come. The Jews were the first minority to be ripped from the fabric of Iraqi society. For a long, subsequent period, stagnation followed and dictatorships of unfathomable brutality imposed their will on the country. These ensured the dominance of the Sunni Arab minority while other communities lived an uneasy, truncated existence, visited by intermittent catastrophe.

That period ended in 2003 with the overthrow of Saddam  Hussein. Today, in Iraq, similar forces of tribalism and sectarian hatred to those that ended Baghdad Jewry’s long and illustrious history are tearing the whole country to pieces.

Nowadays, these forces no longer seek to cloak and disguise themselves in finery borrowed from the West. There are no claims to secularism, socialism or whatever. They come as they are ‒ sectarian, religious and set on revenge.

And with the irony that history favors, the primary victims of today’s sectarian agitation in Baghdad are the formerly ascendant Sunni Arabs ‒ the same dominant population for whom Arab nationalism was the chosen banner in the 20th century. That is to say, the population that produced those responsible for the expulsion of the Jews in the 1950s is today suffering a similar fate to their former victims.

This justifies nothing, of course. It is merely notable that the inexorable ethnic and sectarian hatreds that made Israel a desperate necessity for Jews and which have formed the basis of Arab opposition to it ever since are now, more and more, openly visible across the region. Few (outside of university departments, at least) bother to claim otherwise anymore. Populations are seeking shelter among their own kind. The splitting of states is the consequence.

“The government doesn’t trust Sunnis,” Hikmat Guwood of the Albu Nimr tribe tells me, “They only trust the Shi’a militias, who are armed by Iran.”

We are meeting with Guwood in a Baghdad hotel. It is our last chance because he is leaving the city.

Guwood is a leader of the Albu Nimr tribe of Anbar, who worked closely with the Americans during the “Anbar Awakening” of 2006-2007. This has made him a marked man for the Shi’a militias of Baghdad, who suspect that he is still operating for the US. A few days before our interview, he was attacked in his home by Shi’a militants. By Kata’ib Hezbollah he tells us, naming one of the most powerful and feared of the militia groups.

So he is going to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Guwood isn’t a Kurd, of course. But in Kurdistan, at least, there is something approaching a government, he says. In Baghdad, by contrast, “The government controls nothing. [Prime Minister] Abadi has no power. The real power in Iraq today is the militias, he says.

What of the future? In an opinion one hears a lot from Iraqi Sunnis, Guwood no longer wants the strong, unitary (Sunni-dominated) state that existed until the 1990s. Rather, he is calling for a “Sunni federation” in the majority Sunni areas to exist alongside the Kurdish area and the Shi’a-dominated south and Baghdad. The latter, he considers, has effectively become the capital of an emergent Shi’a state.

The problem for Iraqi Sunni Arabs, of course, is that the area of their own majority in the center of the country is currently under control of ISIS. As Hamed al-Mutlaq, an MP and former general in Saddam Hussein’s army puts it: “Iraq is now divided. In fact, worse than divided. The Kurds and Shi’a are safe in their areas, but the Sunni component of the society has no existence and is displaced. Those who remain are under the sword either of ISIS or of the Shi’a militias.”

As for the new and future masters of Baghdad, they too have a very clear plan for the direction of events. The Shi’a militias facing ISIS in Anbar Province west of the city, and in Baiji to its north sense the wind of history at their backs.

The men of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia are open in their allegiances and their intentions. “We rely on God and the family of Muhammad,” one bearded, red-eyed fighter declares to me, at a frontline position 10 kilometers from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, which fell to ISIS in May. Or, more prosaically, as Abu Mahdi al Mohandis puts it at a meeting of commanders near Baiji city, “We rely on capacity and capabilities provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Abu Mahdi is reputed to be the key figure alongside the Quds Force’s Qassem Suleimani in coordinating Iranian aid to and supervision of the militias. So he knows what he’s talking about.

The Shi’a militiamen I interviewed view themselves as the nucleus of a new, Iraqi version of the Revolutionary Guards, guarding the piety and Shi’a nature of their Iraq. As one Badr Corps commander expressed it: “In the future, our militias will form something like the Basij militias in Iran – under the control of the “Marjiya” (Shi’a religious leadership) alongside the army.”

This is what is in the ascendant in Baghdad right now. It is not surprising that Sunni Arab Iraqis find it hard to locate much place for themselves in it.

In the West, there is concern about the Islamic State and expansionist Iran. Rightly so. But what is underway is deeper than the ambitions of this or that player.

It is a fundamental, long awaited shifting in the basic contours of power across a large swathe of the Middle East (the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iraq-Iran border). A mighty, long suppressed ferment of religious and sectarian fervor.  It was a long time coming and now it’s here.

As for the buried, submerged history of the Jews of Taht el Takia, history will record that their expulsion was the first tug on a complex fabric that later unraveled in its entirety. They and their descendants shall live, nevertheless. But not here. In Baghdad, only the ghosts remain.

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