Four rival factions pick over Syria’s bones

PJmedia, 5/3

In the latest blow to supporters of the “moderate” elements among the Syrian rebels, the Harakat Hazm “Movement of Determination” this week announced that it was disbanding.

Hazm was never a large group. It never possessed more than around 5,000 fighters and was active only in northwest Syria. But for a period of time, it was held up by those who supported arming the Sunni Arab rebels as the kind of militia that the U.S. and the west could get behind.

It had ties neither to the Salafi jihadists nor to the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor was it given to the kind of open and florid corruption favored by some of the other “secular” groupings in Syria’s north.

As a result, Hazm was the recipient of a number of U.S.-made BGM-71 (TOW) anti-tank missiles in the spring of 2014.

Its demise comes in the same week that the U.S. plan for beginning a program to train and equip a force that will fight the Islamic State is set to commence. The timing is not auspicious.

Hazm’s act of self-destruction appears to be an act of capitulation, undertaken in response to threats from the powerful Jabhat al-Nusra militia, and the capture by the latter of its headquarters. Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al Qaeda, is in the process of solidifying its control over north-west Syria. In so doing, it is slowly isolating and swallowing up these smaller fry.

Among the victims are a number of elements that once featured large in western hopes for the rebellion. In late October, Nusra destroyed the Syrian Revolutionaries Front of Jamal Ma’arouf. Ma’arouf had a fair run enriching himself as a petty warlord in his native Jebel Zawiya region, making deals with regime garrisons and smuggling across the border into Turkey. In late 2014, the jihadis took him on and soon it was over.

Nusra and Hazm then clashed in February. Hazm sought refuge by joining the Jabhat al-Shamiyah (Levant Front), a coalition of rebel groups in the northwest supported by Turkey.

However, in recent days, Nusra continued to issue accusations that Hazm was guilty of the murder of a number of Nusra fighters. The Levant Front, meanwhile, made it clear that it would not stand between the two groups if Nusra attacked Hazm. And that appears to have been that. Left exposed without the help of its new friends, Hazm quietly took itself out of existence.

This not very uplifting tale nevertheless contains within it a number of lessons.

As of now, what constitutes the rebellion in northwest Syria is Nusra, plus the Salafi Islamic Front, plus the Levant Front, whose most significant members are also Sunni Islamist. But it is the jihadists of Nusra which are the key element.

Jabhat al Nusra receives less media attention than the rival jihadi group, Islamic State. Nusra has not declared the area it controls to be a sovereign state, much less a “caliphate.’ But in the longer term, it may well be Nusra that establishes itself as the key armed group representing Syria’s Sunni Arabs. There are number of signs that the smartest local players are seeing the situation in these terms.

Israel turns a public blind eye to the prominent role played by Nusra among the rebels in south west Syria. The Jewish state is determined to prevent either the Assad regime/Iran/Hezbollah or the Islamic State from gaining a foothold along the border with the Golan Heights.

Privately, Israeli officials are well aware that there is no clear dividing line between Nusra and the rest of the rebellion in the southwest. Indeed, Nusra is one of the most active elements when there is fighting to be done.

As a result, Israel has made its pragmatic peace with the presence of the jihadists. Presumably, Israel sees no alternative to accepting their presence if it wishes to keep both the Iranians and IS from the border. There are voices within the Israeli system that are well aware of the dangers lurking along this road. It is safe to assume that Israel will venture no further down it than it perceives to be absolutely necessary. But it is testimony to the extent that Nusra has made its presence a fait accompli in the southwest of Syria no less than it is in the northwest, where it has just swallowed the hapless Hazm militia.

Walid Jumblatt, Druze leader in Lebanon, is a good figure to watch if you want to know the direction of the winds at any given moment in the Levant. Jumblatt always knows to make his peace with rising forces, and to oppose weakening ones, in the classic survival strategy of his Druze people.

Five days ago, Jumblatt in an interview with a regional newspaper reiterated earlier statements according to which he does not consider Nusra to be a terrorist organization. The latest reports suggest that he may also be negotiating with Nusra over the fate of a very small Druze community in northwest Syria.

What is the significance of all this? It is the following. As of today, there are four serious forces on the ground in Syria. They are the Iran/Hezbollah/Assad side, the Islamic State, the Kurds, and Jabhat al-Nusra. What used to be Syria is divided between them.

This is the unpleasant reality to which prudent local players are adapting, after making their own careful calculation of their interests.

Bigger powers which could change this reality, meanwhile, appear to be flailing in every direction. The U.S. “train and equip program,” which aims to put 15,000 men in the field against the Islamic State over the next three years, is unlikely to make much of a difference to the picture. Indeed, given the clear tendency among the rebels to favor Sunni Islamism, it seems quite likely that the U.S. is about to begin arming Sunni Islamists in Syria, even as it gives air support to their rival Shia Islamists in Iraq.

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Heartbreaking Times

Jerusalem Post, 7/3

Kobani refugees faced a bitter winter on the Turkish-Syrian border, yet there was one bright spot: The fight to rid the Kurdish Syrian town of Islamic State jihadists was officially declared over on January 27.

The Kurdish YPG militia, with the vital assistance of the US Air Force’s 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron and additional coalition air power, drove the last of the jihadists out and planted the Kurdish flag once more over Kobani.

They have kept up the momentum; more than 160 additional villages in what once formed the Kobani enclave have been liberated. The Kurds are now pressing up against Tel Abyad to the east of the city, and Jarabulus to its west.

Yet for the civilian residents of Kobani, the story is far from over.

Around 200,000 displaced people remain on the Turkish side of the border; they form the overwhelming majority of the families who fled Kobani last autumn, before US air support began, when it looked like the city was doomed. Concentrated in and around the border town of Suruc are 67,200 of the refugees, where a number of makeshift refugee camps have been established.

Refugees have also taken up residence in any available space, swelling the population of the town. Many of the structures are exposed to the elements, and lack even the most basic facilities. It is an acute humanitarian crisis – one largely ignored now that the fighting fronts have moved elsewhere.

Last week, this reporter visited Suruc and the border area, seeking to gain a clearer picture of the reality facing both refugees and returnees.

For the 4,000 or so who have returned to Kobani and environs, the main problem beyond the sheer physical destruction visited on the city is booby traps. Islamic State forces, before leaving, wired explosives to much of what remained intact in the city – including furniture, doorways and toys.

“We need experts to come in and remove the unexploded bombs,” Mustafa Alali, a Kurdish activist who was among the first to return to Kobani, tells me, “and then we need a humanitarian corridor for helping the people as they begin to return, with food, water and electricity.”

Most of those who have returned were formerly residents not of Kobani town itself, but of villages surrounding it. The villages were rapidly abandoned by the jihadists once Islamic State ceded the goal of conquering the urban area. As a result, houses in the rural points of settlement were less badly damaged in the fighting than those in the city.

In Kobani town, little remains. Yet impatience to return is growing among the refugees.

“Just yesterday, a seven-year-old girl here in my office was asking her father why they haven’t gone home yet to Kobani,” says Mustafa Dogal, head of Kurdish relief efforts in Suruc, speaking in his cluttered office there. “And of course, he doesn’t know how to tell her that their home simply doesn’t exist any more.”

“People are running out of patience to return to their homes,” Dogal continues.

“There is an urgent need to rebuild houses, schools and hospitals, and for clean water and electricity; Kobani now has none of these. We are living in heartbreaking times.”

But Alali and Dogal’s hope for a “humanitarian corridor” from Turkey into Kobani runs up against the political reality of Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

The Turkish government appeared content to allow Kobani to fall to Islamic State; Turkish forces assembled to the north of the enclave during the battle made no move to intervene. This is because the Kurdish cantons in Syria are controlled by the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – which has been engaged in an insurgency against the Turkish government for over 30 years.

The conflict has left a legacy of extreme distrust between the Turkish authorities and Kurds on both sides of the border, and this is having a direct impact on the plight of the refugees. In January, AFAD (the Disaster and Emergency Management Organization of the Turkish republic) opened a new camp, offering accommodation for 35,000 refugees; thus far, only around 4,000 people have taken up residence there.

“People are worried about going to the government camp,” says Ferzad Daniel, an Iranian Kurdish relief worker in Suruc. “You need to remember that many of the refugees are Kurdish activists on one level or another; they’re worried about retaliation from the government after the ‘foreigners’ leave.”

The absence of facilities for education in Kurdish under AFAD auspices is another reason given for avoiding the government camp. Lack of food is the main problem facing the refugees who prefer to remain outside of Turkish jurisdiction, says Ferzad. “Food not controlled by the government isn’t reaching the camps; so the refugees live on a meager diet of just rice and beans. There are urgent health issues, too – flu is everywhere; 40 percent of the children have diarrhea; and there are skin diseases too, brought on by lack of nutrition.”

Despite the shortages, the camps maintained by the Kurdish relief organizations offer basic but adequate facilities – tents, washing areas, schooling in Kurdish for the children.

Disused houses in Suruc have also been occupied by some refugee families, seeking shelter from the elements. Conditions here are primitive in the extreme. In one structure I visited, four families – 40 people in total – were living together in one large room, with just a blanket placed over the open doorway.

One of the families, the Shaikhos of Sheran village, are still mourning the loss of their eldest son, 19-year-old Mahmoud, who was killed when he stepped on a land mine while crossing the border to escape the advance of the jihadists last October.

Mahmoud’s younger brother, Fadel, 13, was with him when he was killed; Fadel survived the explosion, but lost both legs. Now he lives with his family in the large, empty shell of a house in Suruc, a thoughtful-looking boy who tries but does not quite succeed in smiling.

The plight of the Kobani refugees is just one element of the vast problem of people displaced by the Syrian war. No end to the war appears in sight, and spring looks set to bring little respite to the refugees on the Turkish- Syrian border.

Heartbreaking times, indeed.

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All is not quiet on the northern Front between Israel and Syria/Lebanon.

PJmedia, 27/2.
Co-authored with Benjamin Weinthal
The recent Hezbollah attack on an Israel Defense Forces convoy in the Har Dov area close to Israel’s border with Lebanon, in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, was the latest move in a dangerous and high stakes game that is now underway on Israel’s northern frontier. Israel and Hezbollah are not the only players. The Islamic Republic of Iran, which the U.S. defines as the leading state-sponsor of terrorism, is also a key presence as Hezbollah’s strategic partner.
The attack at Har Dov was the second move by Iran/Hezbollah in response to the Israeli operation on the Syrian Golan Heights on January 18th.  In the Israeli operation, a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer, Mohammed Allahdadi was killed, as was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of a famous Hezbollah commander.
 Israel appears to have chosen not to immediately respond to the Hizballah attack.  As a result, fears of an imminent escalation to full conflict between the Jewish state and the Lebanese Shia Islamists have diminished.  But the silence is deceptive.  The border incidents cast a sudden light on an ongoing war between Israel and Iran which is more usually played out in the shadows.
The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aerospace force Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh announced  on February 2 that his country has exported technology to Hezbollah “for the production of missiles and other equipment, and they can now stand against the Zionist regime.”
A little over a week ago, the IRGC, Hezbollah and Assad’s soldiers launched an offensive in the direction of the Golan Heights to reclaim territory seized by Syrian rebels and jihadis. The offensive seems to have stalled amid the February snow for now.

But the Iranian/Hizballah determination to drive the Syrian rebels away from the border area is clearly intact.  This ambition lies at the root of the tensions on Israel’s northern border.

The Israeli strike on January 18th was a response to an attempt by Iran and Hezbollah to re-write the delicate ‘rules of engagement’ that pertain between Israel and the Shia Islamist organization in Lebanon and now in Syria.

The Iran/Hezbollah/Assad troika has long threatened to develop the Golan  as  a front for possible “jihad duties” against Israel. Syria is in chaos. The area east of the Israeli-held Golan is precisely the kind of lawless territory from where Iran’s regime and its proxies would find it suitable to launch acts of violence against Israeli communities.

Both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, in the course of 2014, made unambiguous public statements threatening the opening of military activity against Israel in this area.

Iranian General Allahdadi, Mughniyeh and the others were in the Golan Heights as part of the effort to make these statements a reality.  They were, it appears, in the process of preparing an infrastructure for attacks on Israel.  Israel acted to prevent this, but also to send a broad and clear message to Iran/Hezbollah that it would not tolerate the establishment of a second springboard for attacks on Israeli communities, just east of the Quneitra Crossing.

Israel does not want to be drawn into the Syrian civil war.  The emergence of a terror infrastructure facing the Golan, with regular attacks from Hezbollah or (more likely) un-named proxy groups could lead the Jewish state to face the alternative of accepting a war of attrition against northern communities or entering to prevent it.  So Israel is determined to prevent the emergence of that reality.

In pursuing this mission, Israel relies only on its own capabilities.  This is a stance born from bitter experience.  The guarantees of the ‘international community’ have proven to be an ineffective barrier to the ongoing march of Teheran’s ambitions.  Just north of Israel’s border with Lebanon, Iran and Hezbollah have constructed a powerful war machine.  The existence of a UNSC Resolution – 1701 – intended precisely to prevent this has done nothing to prevent or even seriously hinder this process.

Since Hezbollah last attacked Israel during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, a beefed-up UNIFIL’s (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) mandate has been to restore peace to the border and assist the Lebanese Armed Forces in disarming Hezbollah. The mission has failed.  Hezbollah has likely amassed over 100,000 rockets. It has also infiltrated Lebanon’s armed forces, to the point wherein many ways  it can no longer be reliably discerned where Hezbollah ends and the Lebanese Armed Forces begin.

By way of background, the U.S designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1995. The long bloody trail of Hezbollah’s terrorism can be traced back to 1983. Hezbollah launched a suicide bomb attack against U.S and French military barracks in Beirut. The terror attacks resulted in the deaths of 241 American military personnel and 58 paratroopers. Hezbollah’s jingoism against the U.S. did not end in Lebanon; its operative Ali Mussa Daqdug played a key role in murdering five U.S. soldiers in Iraq in 2007.

Recently, the Washington Post published details of US-Israel cooperation in the assassination of Hezbollah’s terror mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus in February, 2008.  The latest revelations cast light on the extent of ongoing behind the scenes cooperation against the common threat represented by Iran and Hezbollah.  This campaign is a marathon, not a sprint, with achievements and setbacks, moments of greater intensity and periods of waiting.

Deterrence, as Admiral Eliezer Marom, former commander of the Israeli Navy, put it in an interview on Israeli Channel 1 News following the Har Dov attack, is not an exact science. It is an art.  Israeli decision-makers have apparently decided to bring the current episode to a close with no further immediate escalation.

This decision was presumably not easily reached.  Silence is not necessarily cost-free.  With the Iranian ambition very clear, Israel needs to consider whether accepting Hezbollah’s signal to the UNIFIL may mean that the organization and its backers will now feel emboldened  to continue to regard the Golan as an ‘open’ front, in the knowledge that Israel’s responses, though kinetic, would be limited.

The broader picture, in any case, seems clear after the latest events.  The eight years of relative quiet that followed the Second Lebanon War of 2006 are over.  The northern border is back to being an active arena in the Israel-Islamist conflict.

Lastly, Iran’s growing role in destabilizing Israel’s borders should debunk any idea that its President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate leader within the Middle East. The Iranian effort to open a ‘second front’ against Israel in the Golan should be seen as part of a larger regional picture in which the Iranians are actively interfering in conflict areas throughout the Middle East – in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank/Gaza, and now once again across Israel’s northern border.

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Hizballah, Iran, Assad offensive against southern ‘buffer zone’ near the Golan Heights  

Jerusalem Post, 13/2

A force consisting of Hizballah fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Syrian regime soldiers launched an offensive this week  south west  of Damascus, in the direction of Quneitra province and the Golan Heights.   Their aim is to regain territory lost to Syrian rebels and jihadis over the past year, and to establish a strong defensive line before the capital.

In Quneitra and  Dera’a  provinces, close to  the borders with Israel and Jordan, the Syrian war is characterized by significantly different dynamics to elsewhere in this fragmented country.    The area is completely closed off to reporters, which may partially explain the absence of media attention.    In addition, the Islamic State is not a major factor among the forces opposed to the regime.

In this area, a de facto, undeclared buffer zone has been established by both Israel and Jordan,  as part of a broader effort which includes western and regional players.   The regime and its allies are currently attempting to claw back ground in this area.

The war in the south is fought between a ‘government’ side which includes a very high presence of Hizballah and Iranian personnel, and a ‘rebel’ side whose components have significant links to neighboring, and western, governments.

The absence of IS does not mean that the southern rebels constitute only the moderate, non-Islamist fighters long sought after by supporters of the Syrian opposition.   Rather, they are a mixed bag.

The ‘Southern Front’ led by Bashar al-Zoubi, is the last powerful gathering of non-Islamist fighters on the rebel side in Syria today.  Zoubi is a former senior officer of the Syrian Army, who defected to the rebels early in the war.

But the Salafi ‘Islamic Front’, which supports the establishment of a state based on Islamic Shari’a law is also active in these areas, as is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al Qaeda.

The contours of a complex web of support structures for the rebels in the south, involving agencies of a variety of both regional and western governments, may be discerned.  The existence of an ‘operations room’ in Amman bringing together representatives of 14 countries to coordinate assistance to the rebels in the south has been reported by a variety of regional media sources.  Among the countries represented are the US, France, Jordan, United Arab Emirates  and Saudi Arabia.

Rebel units within the Southern Front vetted by the US have been the recipients of sophisticated weapons systems, including BGM-71 TOW anti tank missiles.

The southern front has clearly been selected by the west and its local allies as its favored area for the injection of aid and active support for rebels.  There are a number of reasons for this.

On the simplest level, the southern area is the only one in which non-jihadi  Arab rebel forces have managed to keep themselves in existence.  In the early stages of the war, southern Turkey was a focal point for regional efforts to assist the rebels.  But in northern Syria today, the significant forces today are Jabhat al-Nusra in the north west, and the Kurdish YPG and the Islamic State further east.  Nusra, in the last months, has made significant gains against the remnants of the non-jihadi rebels in Idleb Province.

In the east, there is only the Islamic State.  In the western border area, Nusra and IS combine in an effort to take the war into Lebanon.  This leaves the south, where tribal and family associations have for a while formed a bulwark against the jihadis.

In addition, however, western, Jordanian and Israeli aid to the rebels in the south derives from urgent necessity.  Iran and Hizballah on the one hand, and IS on the other, form looming dangers.

On the regime side, the Assad regime is no longer able to dictate the direction of events.  The dictator is in power today in the parts of Syria he controls because of the assistance afforded him by the Iranians and their Hizballah proxies.

This means that the Iranians are seeking to develop the area east of the Golan as a potential springboard for operations against Israel (contrary to the historic practice of the Assad regime, which was to keep that area quiet and apply pressure elsewhere).  The killing of the IRGC general and the others on January 18th was a move in the Israeli effort to prevent this.

Islamic State, meanwhile, may have been kept out of the south for the moment, but this is probably only a matter of time.  Its potential emergence in this area is an alarming prospect for the Jordanians and also for Israel.  So both countries have an immediate and pragmatic interest in developing a de facto buffer zone against both these hostile forces, in the adjoining border areas of southern Syria.

Hence the keen Jordanian interest in supporting the Southern Front – and hence the Israeli effort to build and maintain communication and afford aid and medical treatment to rebel fighters  east of the Quneitra Crossing.

The Israeli establishment is divided as to the wisdom of this policy, and as to the preferred extent of it.  The concerns relate to the blurred divisions between non-jihadi and jihadi fighters active in the south.  Jabhat al Nusra is not an enemy, but rather a comrade in arms both of the Islamic Front and of the Southern Front in the military effort against Assad, the Iranians and Hizballah.  It is strong across rural Dera’a and Quneitra and up to the border.  For the moment, at least,  the main focus is the shared enemy.  But this moment will not necessarily last.

These concerns have helped to keep the Israeli engagement with the rebels to modest proportions, focused on the goal of keeping the regime and hence Iran and Hizballah as far away from as much of the border as possible.

These modest proportions are relevant to the broader western campaign of support for the Southern Front.  Contrary to some predictions, there is no likelihood any time soon of a rebel push from this area in the direction of Damascus.  The rebels do not have  the heavy arms and cohesion that would be required to challenge the regime for the capital.  In any case, as is now clear, the US Administration which co-ordinates the support has no interest as of now in seeing Assad’s departure.

The offensive now under way may gain some ground for the regime, but it is unlikely to fundamentally alter the picture on the southern front. As of now, Israel has succeeded in creating a de facto buffer zone along most of the border, designed with the modest but significant goal of keeping both the Iranians and the Islamic State at as great a distance as possible.  The establishment of this zone reflects Israel’s desire to keep the regional chaos at a safe distance.  Careful management of it, however,  will be required to prevent it from having the opposite effect.

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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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