The Peace Process is Dead. Let it lie down.


PJMedia, 9/4. 

 The April 29th deadline has not yet been reached, but it may be said with confidence that the initiative by Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the ‘peace process’ between Israelis and Palestinians has already reached its final destination: failure. 

 The failure of this initiative was obvious from the beginning.  To everyone except, apparently, Kerry himself.  This reality lent an element of low farce to the entire proceedings. 

 By now, it should really be obvious to any serious observer that there is no chance that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process will produce a comprehensive peace between the two sides. 

 There are two core reasons for this.  One of them is of long-standing, the other is a development of the last decade. 

 The first reason is because the Fatah movement, headed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, is simply not interested in exchanging its historic goal of reversing the verdict of 1948 for the establishment of a small Palestinian state in the West Bank. 

 This is the reason why it has refused every concrete proposal to end the conflict along these lines – from the Clinton proposals of 2000, via then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s plan in 2008, to the recent refusal by Abbas to declare that any agreement reached would mark an end to the conflict and to further Palestinian claims. 

 The volume of proof supporting this contention is now so enormous that it is truly astonishing that this point needs to be made.  But illusions die hard, apparently. 

 So once more with feeling.  The Fatah movement considers the acceptance of any sovereignty west of the Jordan river other than Arab Muslim sovereignty to be unimaginable.  It will therefore never sign an agreement that includes the acceptance of such sovereignty.  It will always find a reason not to do so, while for tactical reasons where necessary pretending that the problem is with the precise details of the agreement. 

 As to why Fatah cleaves to this position.  On the more superficial level, mainstream Palestinian nationalism considers that the ‘imposition’ of Jewish sovereignty over part of former British Mandate Palestine (not ‘historic Palestine’, an entity that never existed) constitutes a crime of such horror and magnitude that it can never be accepted. 

 On a deeper level, this unusual refusal to compromise with reality derives from the movement’s Islamic roots (the very name ‘Fatah’ derives from a Koranic term meaning ‘Islamic conquest), which make it unimaginable that land once possessed by Muslims or Arabs can be accepted as having passed to another sovereignty.  This process is experienced as particularly humiliating when the other sovereignty in question is that of a traditionally despised people, the Jews, rather than some mighty foreign empire. 

 Thus far, so obvious. 

 The second, newer development, however, deserves closer attention. 

 The Israeli-Palestinian peace process also has no chance of success because there is no authoritative Palestinian Arab partner to the talks.  Why not?

 The first and obvious reason for this is because there is no longer a single, authoritative Palestinian national leadership.   

 Yasir Arafat, founder of Fatah, achieved little for his people and bequeathed them even less.  One thing which he did both achieve and bequeath, however, was a single, united Palestinian national movement. 

 This achievement did not long survive him. 

 Arafat died in 2004.  In 2007, the Palestinian movement split in two, with control of the Gaza Strip passing to Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

 Today, Hamas constitutes the more vigorous and formidable element in Palestinian nationalism. It presides over a small, sovereign Palestinian area.  And of course, it opposes the negotiations and remains openly committed to the goal of destroying Israel.   

 There is no prospect of Palestinian re-unification in the foreseeable future (though Fatah spokesmen are forever proclaiming that it is just around the corner). 

 But there is a deeper and more historic aspect to this disunity. The division in Palestinian nationalism appears to be a return to the normal state of affairs, in which the Arab population of the area west and east of the Jordan River is divided into a variety of groups, with widely varying interests and agendas.   

 Palestinian identity, it turns out, like the neighboring Syrian and Iraqi and Lebanese identities, turns out to be a far more flimsy and contingent thing than its partisans and spokesmen have claimed. 

 The Israeli Arabs, though they continue to elect nationalist and Islamist representatives to the Knesset, react with horror to the prospect of exchanging their citizenship of the Jewish state for that of a putative Palestinian sovereignty. 

 This renders absurd the claim of membership in a broader Palestinian identity made by the elected leaders of these Israeli citizens.  

  There are today Palestinian Arab populations in three entities west of the Jordan River, each with their own interests, and own incompatible agendas. 

 In addition to this, of course, there is also a large majority Palestinian population in Jordan, which today mainly accepts the continued rule of the Hashemite monarchy. 

 So  the very nature of the Palestinian political culture developed by Arafat and his colleagues precludes the conclusion of an agreement based on partition. But even if it did not, there is no single ‘pen’ with the authority to sign such an agreement on behalf of the Palestinians. 

 Israel will and should continue to make clear to both the PA leadership and to Jordan that it is willing to reach a solution based on partition with appropriate security guarantees, or a long term interim accord if this proves impossible. 

 Neither outcome looks imminent, however.  Many Palestinians and the many western supporters of the Palestinian cause are convinced that the gradual international delegitimization of Israel is the key to final strategic victory over the Jewish state and the reversal of the verdict of 1948.  This is an illusion. But it will need to work itself through, like the illusions that preceded it. 

 When it has, sadly, it is likely to be replaced by a new illusion. Thus the reckoning with the reality of Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty will continue to be avoided, and the Palestinian politics of subsidized fantasy  will continue. 



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Assad’s boasts vs. Syrian reality

Jerusalem Post, 11/4. 

Syrian President Bashar Assad this week said that he expects that in the course of 2014, major military operations in Syria will end.  Following this, all that will remain will be the need to deal with the ongoing problem of ‘terrorists.’ 

 The bullish confidence of the Syrian leader followed  recent remarks by Hizballah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah, who said in a speech that the danger that the Syrian regime could fall has now been averted. 

 What do such statements reflect?  Is the Syrian regime now within realistic sight of a strategic victory in the brutal three year civil war against the rebellion that rose to challenge it?  Or has Assad effectively resigned himself to being the ruler of the around 40% of Syrian territory over which he currently presides?

 First of all, it is worth noting that the two statements, while each expressing optimism, appear to reflect different analytical positions.

 Assad is talking about continued progress toward a general defeat of the rebels. Nasrallah is doing what Nasrallah does best – namely, taking the existing difficult reality and painting it in the colors of victory.  Nasrallah’s position is thus more reflective of the actual situation.  Assad’s reflects hubris and over-confidence.    

 The Iran-led regional bloc has indeed scored an impressive achievement in Syria over the last year. This achievement was crowned with the recent fall of the town of Yabrud, which brought the regime’s re-conquest of the Qalamun mountains area close to completion. This will effectively seal the border of Lebanon from the rebels. 

 The achievement is largely the result of the major mobilization of Iranian and pro-Iranian regional assets that took place from early 2013, in response to the serious rebel advances of late 2012. 

 The Iranians understood that Assad’s problem was a shortage of loyal combat soldiers.  Under the direction of Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani, a new, loyal, sectarian based force  – the National Defense Force – was created to fill this gap.  This, together with the greater number of Hizballah fighters deployed and the presence of Iraqi Shia volunteers helped to slow and halt rebel advances.  The regime has now completed a limited counter-attack.  

 This undoubted achievement does not, however, portend the imminent re-conquest of the entirety of Syria by the regime.   Rather, it serves to solidify and unite the main regime-controlled areas of the country – namely, the capital city of Damascus and its environs, and the western coastal area.  The latter is the ancestral heartland of the Assad family itself and of the Alawi sect from which it springs. 

 The regime has now established firm control along the highway linking Damascus and the coast.  The rebels, subsequent to the fall of Yabrud, launched a counter-attack against the northern border of the regime held enclave, in Latakia Province.  This attack has made minor progress, without in any way endangering the government controlled area. 

 But while the regime has demonstrably avoided collapse, the same problems that since mid-2012 prevented it from re-imposing effective control over the entirety of Syria remain. 

 First of all, it is worth noting that the rebellion too has not collapsed and shows no signs of doing so.  Despite its internecine struggles, and the absence of the kind of centralized, coordinated external aid that the regime enjoys, various rebel and jihadi elements remain firmly in control of the greater part of northern and eastern Syria, and also holds a section of Deraa Province in the south. 

 The Syrian Kurds, meanwhile, are maintaining their control over a large enclave in north east Syria, and two smaller areas further west.  These areas are held by the formidable YPG militia, which has shown itself willing and able to resist both government and rebel/jihadi forces when required. 

 The Kurds are currently engaged in a ferocious war-within-the-war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.  The latter, most brutal of the jihadi militias in Syria, is trying to force its way into the Kurdish held Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) area in northern-central Syria.  So far, the YPG has repulsed the ISIS attacks. 

 Secondly, despite the establishment of the NDF and the presence of Hizballah and other militias, the regime still does not have the manpower to effectively control these areas, and it knows it.  It is for this reason that Assad has avoided making any major incursion into the rebel heartland since his strategic retreat from the north in the summer of 2012. 

 When Qusayr fell to Hizballah fighters last June, pro-regime mouthpieces began to crow that rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo would be next, and that the regime would then roll up the rebel-held zones in Idleb, Aleppo and Raqqa provinces. 

 But no such move was even attempted.  The regime preferred to exercise effective control of a smaller area of territory, while continuing to proclaim itself the legitimate ruler of all Syria. 

 Meanwhile, Bashar Assad’s domination of the skies over Syria has been effectively utilized to prevent the emergence of any properly-governed area in the rebel-controlled zones.  This has been achieved through the  brutal tactic of mass bombing of civilian areas, to cause maximum civilian death and destruction. 

 So in short, the recent regime achievements, though notable, do not represent the kind of game changing development which could presage an end to the long stalemate in the Syrian civil war, and the beginning of a general rout of the rebels and a final decision in the war in favor of the Assads. 

 Rather, they represent the consolidation by the regime of its area of control and the ending of any immediate danger to it. 

 These achievements should be placed against the recent rebel offensives into northern Latakia, and the presence of US-made BGM-71 Tow anti tank missiles on the southern Idleb battlefield, suggesting that the US may be in the process of increasing its provision of weaponry to the rebels in terms of both quality and quantity.   

 Assad is inclined to boasting, and the regime controlled parts of Syria are this year due to witness the farce of a ‘presidential election’ which will no doubt see the dictator returned to power by his grateful people with a huge majority. 

 The dictator has, nevertheless, managed to stave off the prospect of imminent defeat.  The result is not an imminent victory, but rather the de facto partition of Syria into ethnic and sectarian enclaves. 

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War Across the Borders

PJmedia, 28/3

It has become a commonplace to claim that the unrest in the Arab world is challenging the state borders laid down in the Arab world following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

This claim, however, is only very partially valid. It holds true in a specific section of the Middle East, namely the contiguous land area stretching from Iran’s western borders to the Mediterranean Sea, and taking in the states currently known as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In this area, a single sectarian war is currently taking place. The nominal governments in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut may claim to rule in the name of the Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese peoples. But the reality of power distribution in each of these areas shows something quite different.

In each of these areas, local, long suppressed differences between communities are combining with the region-wide cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia to produce conflict, discord and latent or open civil war.

In each case, sectarian forces are linking up with their fellow sect members (or co-ethnics, if that’s a word, in the case of the Kurds) in the neighboring “country” against local representatives of the rival sect.

Let’s take a look at the rival coalitions. These are not simply theoretical constructs. The cooperation between the relevant sides is largely overt, and has been extensively verified.

On one side, there are the Shia (and Alawi) allies of Iran. These are the Maliki government in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, and Hizballah, the Iranian proxy force which dominates Lebanon.

Both Hizballah and the Maliki government, at the behest of Iran, have played a vital role in the survival of Bashar Assad and his current resurgence.

Hizballah’s role is well-documented. The movement maintains around 5,000 fighters at any one time in Syria. They have just completed a spearhead role in a nearly year long campaign to drive the rebels from the area adjoining the Lebanese border. They are also deployed in Damascus.

Assad’s Achilles heel throughout has been the lack of committed fighters willing to engage on his behalf. Hizballah, working closely with Iran, has played a vital role in filling that gap.

In addition, Hizballah is working hard to suppress any Sunni thoughts of insurrection in Lebanon itself. Its forces cooperated with the Lebanese Army in crushing Sunni Islamists in Sidon in June, 2013. It also offers support to Alawi elements engaged in a long running mini-war with pro-Syrian rebel Sunnis in the city of Tripoli.

Maliki’s role on behalf of Assad is less well-reported but no less striking.

It is first of all worth remembering that the Iraqi prime minister spent from 1982-90 in exile in Iran, and his political roots and allegiances are, unambiguously, to Shia Islamism.

Regular overflights and ground convoys have used Iraqi territory since the start of the Syrian civil war to carry vital Iranian arms and supplies from Iran to Assad’s forces in Syria.

A western intelligence report obtained by Reuters in late 2012 confirmed this, noting that “planes are flying from Iran to Syria via Iraq on an almost daily basis, carrying IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) personnel and tens of tons of weapons to arm the Syrian security forces and militias fighting against the rebels.”

It also asserted that Iran was “continuing to assist the regime in Damascus by sending trucks overland via Iraq” to Syria.

In addition, Iraqi Shia volunteers from the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades and other formations have helped to fill Bashar’s gap in available and committed infantry.

The Maliki government has made no effort to stop the flow of such fighters across the border – even as it engages in a U.S.-supported counter insurgency against Sunni jihadis in western Anbar province in Iraq.

So the Iran-led regional bloc is running a well-coordinated, well-documented single war in three countries.

The Sunni Arab side of the line is predictably more chaotic and disunited. On this side, too, there are discernible links, but no single, clear alliance.

Unlike among the pro-Iran bloc, only the most radical fringe of the Sunnis cross the borders to engage in combat. There is no Sunni equivalent to the Qods Force cadres active in Syria and Lebanon.

Among the Sunni radicals, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group now controls a single contiguous area stretching from eastern Syria to western Anbar province in Iraq, and taking in Fallujah city in Iraq.

Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, is now active also in Lebanon. It has on a number of occasions penetrated Hizballah’s security sanctum in the Dahiyeh neighborhood of south Beirut.

More broadly, Saudi Arabia is the patron of the Sunni interest in both Lebanon and Syria.

It is currently backing rebel forces in the south of Syria, and pro-Saudis dominate the Syrian National Coalition, which purports to be the political leadership of the rebellion.

It also supports and promotes the March 14th movement in Lebanon, and recently pledged $3 billion for the Lebanese Armed Forces – presumably in a bid to build a force that could balance Hizballah.

But both Qatar and Turkey also play an important role in backing the Syrian rebels, and have their own clients among the fighting groups.

Saudi and Turkish fear and distrust of radical Sunni Islamist fighting groups prevent the emergence of a clear “Sunni Islamist international” to rival the Shia international of Iran.

Still, it is undeniable that cooperation exists among the various Sunni forces in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

It’s just that it’s a complicated and sometimes chaotic criss-crossing of various rival interests and outlooks on the Sunni side, rather than a coherent single bloc.

And finally, of course, there is a single contiguous area of Kurdish control stretching from the Iraq-Iran border all the way to deep within Syria. This zone of control is divided between the Iraqi Kurds of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Syrian Kurds of the rival, PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Once again, it is a contiguous area of control based on ethnic affiliation.

None of this means that the official borders of these three countries are going to officially disappear in the immediate future. The U.S. administration and others are committed to their survival, so they are likely to survive for now, in the semi-fictional and porous state in which they currently exist.

This, however, should not obscure the more crucial point that the entire area between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea is currently the site of a single war, following a single dynamic, fought between protagonists defined by ethnic and sectarian loyalty.


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New Sunni Insurgency in Iraq

Largely ignored by the global media, Iraq today stands on the brink of a renewed Sunni insurgency.  The emergent insurgency in Iraq is following the same sectarian pattern as the civil war in Syria and the growing violence in Lebanon. It also involves many of the same local and regional players.

The rising violence in Iraq is not, however, simply the result of a spillover from the Syrian war. It derives also from internal Iraqi dynamics. But these are themselves in significant ways comparable to the Syrian and Lebanese situations.

Over 9000 people were killed in fighting in Iraq in 2013.  This is not yet up to the levels of violence just prior to the surge, in the very worst days of the insurgency against U.S. forces and the sectarian bloodletting that accompanied it.  But it’s the highest since 2007.  This year, more than 2000 people have already lost their lives as a result of political violence in Iraq.

As of today, a coalition of Sunni insurgent groups control the city of Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province west of Baghdad.  The city of Ramadi  remains partially in insurgent hands, though its southern districts have been re-conquered by government forces in recent days.

Nor is the violence confined to Anbar province.  Rather, car bombings have become a near daily occurrence in Baghdad, and insurgent activity against Iraqi security forces and non-Sunni civilians is taking place in Nineveh, Mosul, Kirkuk and elsewhere in areas of high Sunni Arab population.

So who are these insurgents, and why have events in Iraq reached this crisis point?

As in Syria, a myriad of insurgent groups have emerged. But there are two main forces. These are ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and the Naqshbandi Army.

ISIS emerged in Iraq in 2004, and for a time constituted the official franchise of al-Qaeda in the country.  Under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. forces in 2005,  it became renowned for its brutal methods.

ISIS experienced a resurgence during the Syrian civil war, and today it controls much of Raqqa province in eastern Syria, including Raqqa city.

In February, 2014, ISIS was “expelled” from al-Qaeda because of its insanely brutal methods in northern Syria, which have included, for example, execution of civilians for smoking, and for swearing.

This movement is now an active force on the insurgent council that now governs Falluja.  Its fighters also rove freely in the vast deserts of western Anbar, making the desert highways unsafe for travelers and government forces.

The Naqshbandi Army is a very different, and somewhat bizarre group.  It is headed by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, a former high official in Saddam Hussein’s regime.  Many of the Naqshbandi commanders and fighters are former officials or members of the Ba’ath party.

The Naqshbandis somewhat bizarrely combine their Ba’athist and pan-Arabist outlook with support for the Naqshabandi Sufi Muslim sect of Iraq, from which their name derives.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a UK based Iraqi researcher who has emerged as a leading analyst on the emergent Iraqi insurgency, cautions against dismissing the Naqshbandi outlook as a “total farce.”

Tamimi said in a recent interview that the Sufi orientation served to differentiate the Naqshbandi from the jihadi outlook of ISIS and other salafi groups. But he noted that the Ba’athist and Pan-Arab element is the dominant one, with the religious coloration perhaps an acknowledgement of the extent to which Iraqi society has become more religious in recent years.

In addition to these two groups, a variety of smaller militias are operating, including, notably, tribal forces previously associated with the “Sahwa” (Awakening) movement. This was the anti al-Qaeda trend whose emergence was a key element in the relative success of the U.S.-led surge in reducing violence after 2007.

So what lies behind the eruption of Sunni violence? I’ll explain on the next page.

The dawning insurgency is, on one level, the result of the increasingly sectarian  policies pursued by the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in recent years, which has gathered pace since the last withdrawal of U.S. forces in December of 2011.

Maliki has targeted senior Sunni politicians, forcing Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi into exile, and harassing Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi.

The increasing marginalization felt by the Iraqi Sunni Arab minority birthed a large protest movement in mid-2013.

Maliki’s uncompromising tactics against the protest movement in turn paved the way for the re-igniting of insurgency in January and February of this year.

Elections are due to take place in Iraq in April.  Some observers suspect that Maliki’s hard line against the Sunnis is in part intended to solidify Shia support for his party.

But the emergent violence in Iraq should also be seen in broader terms.  For Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime and its replacement by a Shia-led government represented an existential disaster — the toppling of the Sunni domination which had pertained in the area since the birth of the modern Iraqi state, and for centuries preceding its emergence.

Maliki’s clumsy policies notwithstanding, a reaction against the new Shia dominance was probably inevitable.

The Sunni uprising against the Assad regime undoubtedly provided an impetus to Iraq’s Sunni Arab population, showing that resistance was possible, even if in the Syrian context Sunni Arabs form a majority of the population, while in Iraq they constitute between 15-20% of the population.

In this regard, the Maliki government’s active and vital support for the Assad regime should be factored into the equation as an additional factor fueling Sunni anger.

Maliki has made Iraqi airspace and highways available for the transport of vital Iranian weaponry to the Assads. He has also turned a blind eye to the flow of Iraqi Shia volunteers heading to Syria to engage on behalf of the regime.

ISIS, the main component of the emergent Iraqi insurgency, operates in a contiguous area crossing the porous border between Iraq and Syria.

So in addition to its internal dynamics and origins, the Iraqi situation also constitutes a single front in a broader sectarian war.

Iraq, a decade after the western invasion that toppled Saddam, stands on the brink of renewed sectarian conflict.  The U.S. response so far has been to relate to Maliki as the legitimate government of Iraq, and to supply limited aid (including several hundred Hellfire missiles) to his “counter-insurgency.”

This is a misreading of the picture.  Maliki, though elected,  is engaged in sectarian warfare no less than are his Sunni opponents.

The Iraqi situation is driven by sectarian realities, Iranian interference and the weakness of any unifying, state identity or structure. Thus the reality of Mid-Eastern dynamics, in 2014 and for the foreseeable future.


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Israel-Syria Border Escalation

Jerusalem Post, 21/3


This week’s events on the Israel-Syrian border are testimony to the extent to  which the effective disintegration of the Syrian state is producing a new  security reality in the North.

Once, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s  regime sought to conduct its business via Israel’s border with Lebanon. The  Syrians would seek to place pressure on Israel by supporting paramilitary  proxies in Lebanon, which would launch attacks on Israeli forces and  communities.

At the same time, the direct Syria-Israel line would be kept  silent, out of fear of Israeli retribution. The precise reversal of this  situation now appears to be the reality.

On the assumption of Hezbollah  responsibility for the attacks, which at present appears the most likely  explanation, the movement is using the Syria-Israel border as a site for attacks  on Israeli forces.

For both political and military reasons, meanwhile, it  prefers to keep the Israel-Lebanon frontier quiet. Hezbollah played a  major part in the notable military successes enjoyed by the regime recently –  culminating in the capture of the town of Yabrud this week. Yet the Shi’ite  Islamist movement is not currently in great shape.

It has suffered a  major loss to its standing in Lebanon, because of its involvement in the  fighting in Syria. Its attempt to portray itself as a pan-Islamic,  anti-Israel force rather than a sectarian Shi’ite militia is now severely  tarnished. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of  Lebanese now view the organization unfavorably.

Sunni Lebanese are  growing increasingly unwilling to accept Hezbollah’s de facto domination of  Lebanon. In Tripoli and in Sidon, support among young Sunnis for the Syrian  rebels and for Salafi jihadi politics is rapidly increasing. And there  are around a million new Sunnis in Lebanon – refugees from the fighting in  Syria, whose attitudes toward Assad’s Hezbollah allies can be guessed  at.

The growth of Sunni Islamist violence in Lebanon means that Hezbollah  can no longer guarantee the safety of its own Shi’ite community. A string of  bomb attacks in the movement’s Dahiye quarter in south Beirut has led to a  depletion of the area population. Some Shi’ite Lebanese now prefer the  relative security of their south Lebanon villages close to the Israeli border to  remaining in Beirut.

For all these reasons, Hezbollah is evidently keen  to avoid using Lebanese soil as the launchpad for renewed strikes on  Israel. In addition, Hezbollah’s Iranian patrons are also likely to  oppose any provocation emanating from south Lebanon. Tehran has invested  enormously in replenishing and increasing Hezbollah’s missile capabilities (to  100,000 projectiles, we are told) since the 2006 war. This capability is there  to serve Iran’s strategic aims; it is not to be placed at risk for tactical  purposes.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah had a clear motive for striking at  Israel – in response to ongoing Israeli moves to interdict the movement’s  attempts to transport sophisticated weapons systems from Syria to  Lebanon. The February 24 raid on Janta in the eastern Bekaa was  particularly likely to generate a response from the movement, because it took  place a few kilometers onto Lebanese soil. This is the most likely  explanation for the recent string of attacks.

Hezbollah’s apparent  attempts at retribution, however, are cautious to the extreme.

They are  taking place from Syrian soil, not Lebanese. And they are not accompanied by a  claim of responsibility. Indeed, the roadside bomb placed in the Har Dov area on  March 14 was accompanied by a false claim of responsibility, which some media  outlets unwittingly broadcast.

This claim, supposedly from the Sunni  jihadi Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) group, did not emanate from  or appear on any of the sites or accounts officially associated with that  organization, according to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who tracks the activities of  ISIS and other jihadi groups.

ISIS, in any case, has no history of  activity in south Lebanon, no presence in southern Syria, and probably would not  have the ability to avoid both Hezbollah and IDF surveillance in order to  operate in Har Dov.

Israel’s response to the additional explosive device  placed on the border on March 18, which injured four IDF soldiers, was of a  scale and magnitude without precedent since the beginning of the civil war in  Syria.

For the first time, major facilities of the Syrian Arab Army were  targeted. These included, according to the IDF’s statement, “a training  facility, military headquarters and artillery batteries.”

Clearly,  Israeli defense planners have concluded that forces on the opposite side were  attempting to change the rules of engagement. Israel’s response – in a  manner familiar on the Lebanese border in the past and in Gaza more recently –  is intended to raise the price of increased aggression to a level sufficient to  cause the other side to desist from further provocations, without leading to a  general deterioration into armed conflict.

For many years prior to 2006,  Israel’s border with Lebanon was managed in such a fashion – first against the  PLO, then from the early ’90s, against Hezbollah. Periodic provocations would  result in “rounds” of violence, which would be followed by tense periods of  subsequent silence. It appears likely that the border between Israel and  Syria is now set to take on these characteristics, after a long period in which  only the conventional armies of Israel and Syria faced one another across the  border, and paramilitary activity was outside the rules of the game.

This  is testimony to how much the balance of power in relations between elements of  the Iran-led regional bloc has changed. Hezbollah has played a central role in  aiding Assad’s recovery. It is now evidently able to demand a return of the  favor.

Israel, meanwhile, is facing a complex new reality in the North.  While the claim of ISIS responsibility this time was almost certainly false,  there are al-Qaida type elements among the Syrian rebels and their Lebanese  supporters who seek to reach the border and commence action against the Jewish  state. Fighting against these elements are the Shi’ite jihadis of  Hezbollah, and various other components of Iran’s regional bloc. The task  facing Israel at present is to neutralize or deter both of these warring forces,  while at the same time avoiding if possible being drawn into a direct, unlimited  conflict with either.

It remains to be seen whether this week’s response will be  sufficient to bring the current “round” to a conclusion, or whether Hezbollah  and Assad’s army will seek a further exchange of fire. At present, the  former looks most likely.

But with the Syrian state in ruins, al-Qaida-  associated jihadis trying to reach the border, and the power balance between  Assad and Hezbollah severely shifted, a new reality in the North has been  born. The Israel-Syria border is now an active conflict zone once more.

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Shifting Mideast Sands Reveal New Alliances


A number of events in recent weeks cast light on the current intersecting lines of conflict in the Middle East. They reflect a region in flux, in which new bonds are being formed, and old ones torn asunder.


But amid the confusion, a new topography is emerging.


This was the month in which a long-existent split in the Sunni Arab world turned into a gaping fissure. On March 5th, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates announced that they were withdrawing their ambassadors from the Emirate of Qatar.


This decision was clearly a response to Qatar’s continued support and sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. This movement is regarded as a subversive threat by the three Gulf states. They are worried by the Brotherhood’s capacity for internal subversion.


Qatar, by contrast, affords generous subsidies to its tiny citizen body, and has little to fear from potential internal unrest. It continues to support the Brotherhood and to domicile key leaders of the Egyptian branch of the movement. The latter is now engaged in an insurgency against the Egyptian authorities.


Saudi patience was at an end. The removal of the ambassadors reflects this.


On March 7th, Saudi Arabia made the additional move of declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. A Saudi researcher and former general, Dr. Anwar Eshki, was quoted on the Now Lebanon website as asserting that the decision was made with particular focus on the Egyptian Brotherhood, which is involved in “terrorist” activity.


In the same week, an Egyptian court banned all activities by the Hamas organization in Egypt, and referred to the movement as a “terrorist organization.”


The proximity of these announcements reflects the very close emergent alliance between Saudi Arabia and the de facto Sisi regime in Egypt, which is likely to become de jure following presidential elections later this year.


This alliance is the core component of an emergent dispensation in the Sunni Arab world which also includes UAE, Bahrain and Jordan, as well as the fragile West Bank Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas.


This alliance is set to emerge as the strongest element among the Sunni Arabs.


It is opposed both to the Iran-led, mainly Shia “resistance” bloc, and to what is left of the Qatar/Muslim Brotherhood alliance that just a short year ago was proclaiming itself the wave of the future in the Middle East.


The Hamas authority in Gaza has no buy into the new Saudi-Sisi bloc. Formerly aligned with Iran, it put its bets on the Qatar/Muslim Brotherhood axis.


But this putative bloc was fatally damaged by the Sisi coup in Egypt of July 3rd, 2013, and by the departure of the Muslim Brotherhood-related Nahda party in Tunisia.


Hamas appears to be trying to find its way back to the Iranians. Gaza’s “foreign minister” Mahmoud al Zahar and Iran’s parliament spokesman Ali Larijani both made statements this week suggesting that relations had returned to normal between Teheran and Hamas.


It is not clear what this actually means. But Iranian funding to Hamas in Gaza was slashed following the latter’s failure to offer support to the Iranian client regime in Damascus. It is unlikely that Iran has either forgotten or forgiven. Al-Zahar, in any case, is among those Hamas officials most closely supportive of Iran and his statements should not be taken as representing the movement as a whole.


This means that Hamas is probably stuck between Qatar and the Iranians, with the support of the former no longer worth what it once was, and the support of the latter available only in a truncated and reduced form.


The week’s events in Gaza, meanwhile, showcased the continued vigor of the Iran-led camp.


The most staunch supporter of Iran among the Palestinians, and now apparently the main beneficiary of Teheran’s largesse, is the Islamic Jihad movement. This is a purely paramilitary and terrorist group, with no pretensions to mass political leadership. As such, it is a less complicated prospect from Teheran’s point of view than Hamas.


The recent apprehending of the Klos-C arms ship by Israel, as it brought a consignment of weapons evidently intended for Islamic Jihad in Gaza, was the latest indication of Teheran’s willingness to offer practical backing to those it favors.


Islamic Jihad’s furious response to the Israeli apprehending of the craft, and to the killing in recent days of a number of its operatives by Israel, was certainly done with Iran’s blessing and probably at its instruction (along with tacit permission from the Hamas authorities in Gaza).


The interrupted route of the weapons intended for Gaza (from Syria to Iran, to Iraq, to Sudan and then to the Strip) and the subsequent rocket fire should remind us that the Iran-led Shia bloc remains a potent gathering, capable of coordinated, region-wide action.


So three power blocs currently dominate the Middle East — the Iran-led Shia group, a rival emergent Cairo-Riyadh axis leading a group of smaller Sunni states, and a smaller, much weaker Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood alliance. Their competition is set to dominate regional affairs in the period opening up.


Israel, of course, will be a charter member of none of these groups. But Jerusalem is a de facto ally of the Saudi-Egypt camp.


Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, were in recent decades the main allies of the U.S. in the area. The former two countries are now in search of new friends, and have found each other. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have tried to lobby on Sisi’s behalf in Washington in recent weeks, though as yet with limited success.


The shifting sands of the Mid-Eastern strategic map are all the result of the perceived withdrawal of the U.S. from its role as a regional patron. This process is still underway and it’s too soon to draw any final conclusions regarding its results. But the current drawing together of Saudi Arabia and Sisi’s Egypt is surely among the most significant responses to it. It is likely to form the basis for the Sunni Arabs’ attempts to contain Iranian ambitions in the period ahead.


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Not Quiet on the Northern Front

New York Daily News, 11/3.  (Co-authored with Benjamin Weinthal)


The disintegration of the Syrian state into warring enclaves is bringing with  it new challenges and threats for Israel. Alarm bells have now been sounded on  Israel’’ shared northern border with Syria.

“For the moment, they [Jihadis] are not fighting us, but we know their  ideology. . . . It could be that, in the coming months, we could find ourselves  dragged into confrontation with them,” said a top-level Israel Defense Forces  officer.

In addition to the Jihadi threat, the Iran-sponsored terrorist entity  Hezbollah remains Israel’s most potent security threat in the north. Just last  month, Israel reportedly struck a Syrian weapons convoy on its way to  Hezbollah.

Evidence is now beginning to emerge of the methods the Jewish state is  adopting to meet this new reality.

Since mid-2012, Syria has been effectively divided into three enclaves. The  first of these is the area controlled by the Bashar Assad regime, supported by  Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The second is an area under the rule of a confusing  mass of rebel forces, mainly consisting of Sunni Islamist militias. The third,  in the far north-east, is an area controlled by Syria’s Kurds.

Israel’s new challenge derives from the second of these enclaves. Regarding  the first and the third, there is no confusion. Assad is an enemy, and his  Iranian backers constitute the most dangerous alliance currently threatening the  Jewish state. In February, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited an  Israeli field hospital treating wounded Syrians, placing the blame squarely on  the Mullah Regime: “All the children wounded, to say nothing of those killed,  were harmed as a result of Iran arming, financing, and training the Assad regime  in the mass slaughter it is perpetrating.”

The Kurds in the north, meanwhile, are generally favorably inclined towards  Israel and the feeling is mutual. This, however, has little practical  import.

The new security threat derives from the rebel-controlled zones, and in  particular those in southern Syria, close to the border with Israel. Three  powerful, Al-Qaeda-linked Salafi militias have emerged to a prominent position  in the rebellion. Two of them, Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq  and Syria) openly proclaim themselves to be franchises of the Al-Qaeda network.  The third, Ahrar al-Sham, is of similar Salafi jihadi outlook, but with less of  a clear connection with core Al-Qaeda leadership.


Major General Aviv Kochavi, head of IDF Military Intelligence, recently  estimated that up to 30,000 salafi jihadis were now fighting in Syria.

The main strength of the Al-Qaeda-linked and Salafi militias is in the north  and east of Syria, far from the border with Israel. ISIS controls a large swath  of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Nusra holds an area of the north.

The possession by Al-Qaeda-linked groups of a de facto sovereign area in  Syria is itself a matter of deep concern for Israel and the west. It enables the  jihadis to train and organize in the Levant in a way which has never been  possible before.

A recently apprehended jihadi cell in the West Bank was preparing to leave  for northern Syria to undergo training before striking at Israeli and U.S.  targets.

But the real nightmare scenario from Israel’s point of view would be if the  jihadis managed to take control of all or part of Syria’s border with Israel,  from where they could begin to carry out operations against Israelis.

Assad has ceded control of most of the border area of southern Syria facing  the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967. The border has  been largely quiet for nearly 40 years.

Assad’s main problem in fighting his war is a lack of manpower. He prefers,  therefore, only to hold those areas which are absolutely necessary, ceding less  vital stretches of territory.

ISIS has not yet reached southern Syria. Jabhat al Nusra is there, however,  controlling an area of Deraa province. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri has  appointed al Nusra as his chief fighting force in Syria. According to an Israeli  defense expert, al-Zawahri’s jihadist ideology seeks to first launch attacks  against Israel and then move onto the U.S. In sharp contrast, Osama Bin Laden’s  first target was the U.S.

Israel is not waiting for the jihadis to begin attacking it. Rather,  according to recent reports, the Jewish state has established channels of  communication with currently dominant non-jihadi rebel elements in the  south.

The care afforded wounded Syrians in Israeli hospitals has been widely  reported.

This assistance appears to form only part of a wider project, in which  Israel is quietly establishing lines of communication with non-Al-Qaeda rebels  along the border, with the intention that they should form a de facto barrier to  any attempt by the jihadis to create a presence there for the purpose of  attacking Israel.

It is obviously in the interests of non-Al-Qaeda rebels to prevent this,  since the last thing they need is for the jihadis to begin their own private war  against the Jews behind their backs — with all the potential for inevitable  Israeli retaliation that this would bring.

The links and communication with rebel elements in the south are unlikely to  lead to a broader Israeli involvement there.

Memories of the Lebanese quagmire, and the awareness that any open Israeli  embrace of this or that group of rebels would serve to instantly discredit them  are likely to keep the Israeli footprint in southern Syria exceedingly  light.

But what can be said with confidence is that Israel is quietly and carefully  establishing and managing the relationships necessary to keep a close eye on  developments, and to create a secure buffer zone against the jihadi threat.


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