‘Mr. Erdogan has settled your bill’

Jerusalem Post, 30/11

Turkey’s Burgeoning Strategic Relationship with Pakistan raises Nuclear Concerns

President Recep Tayepp Erdogan of Turkey, in an address on September 4 this year to his ruling AKP party’s governing body, spoke openly of his country’s nuclear ambitions.

“Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. I, however, am not supposed to have missiles with nuclear warheads. This, I cannot accept,” the Turkish leader said.  ‘And right next to us, there is Israel, right? With everything (it has), it is frightening (other countries)”.

Turkey already has the major elements for acquiring a nuclear capability – rich uranium deposits, and the TR-1 and TR-2 Research Reactors maintained by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority.

The greatest challenge in acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity is obtaining fuel. A civilian nuclear power program, as in the Iranian case, can  often serve as a ruse for making that fuel, and building a clandestine nuclear arsenal.

Turkey is currently building its first major reactor to generate electricity with Russian help. The Russian Rosatom company in September won a $20 billion contract to build four civilian nuclear reactors in Akkuyu, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Turkey, meanwhile, has over the decades shown great interest in learning the formidable skills needed to purify uranium as well as to turn it into plutonium, the two main fuels needed.

Ankara’s strong and burgeoning strategic ties to Pakistan are causing international concern regarding the possibility of a transfer of nuclear weapons knowledge between the two countries.

Turkey already has the will and the raw materials.  This knowledge is the factor it currently lacks.

In the 2000s, Turkey was a covert industrial hub for the nuclear black market of rogue Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan’s network offered buyers a menu of both technical expertise and the materials to make a bomb. The electronics parts of the  centrifuges, the most important items in this covert trade,  were from Turkey, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

Centrifuges, whose name has become familiar to the broader public because of the Iranian nuclear effort, spin at supersonic speeds to purify uranium. Their output, depending on the level of enrichment, can fuel reactors or nuclear weapons.

According to “Nuclear Black Markets” a report on the A.Q. Khan network by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, companies in Turkey aided the covert effort by importing materials from Europe, making centrifuge parts and shipping finished products to customers – Iran, Libya and North Korea.

A riddle to this day is whether the Khan network had a fourth customer. A former German defence official quoted in the New York Times on October 24 this year noted that Turkey could possess “a considerable number of centrifuges of unknown origin.”

The idea that Ankara could be the fourth customer “does not appear far-fetched,” he added.

These concerns regarding a possible emergent Turkey-Pakistan nuclear link exist within the context of an acknowledged emergent strategic alliance between these countries.

Turkey and Pakistan’s burgeoning defense relationship is a matter of record. It has experienced a sharp upward trajectory since current Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power.

Recently, Pakistan’s naval ship PNS Alamgir and LRMP P3C aircraft participated in the Multinational exercise “Dogu Akendiz 2019” in South-West Turkey. An additional bilateral exercise took place earlier this year in the Indian Ocean.

In October, the Pakistan Navy commissioned a 17,000-ton fleet tanker that it has built in collaboration with a Turkish defense contractor, STM.

In July 2018, Ankara won a multi-billion dollar tender to supply four corvettes to the Pakistan Navy, a deal dubbed as the biggest export for Turkey’s defense industry in history. As per the agreement, two ships will be built in Istanbul and two others in Karachi.

Growing Turkish naval power is an emergent concern also for Israel, given Turkish ambitions regarding natural gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean and specifically in Cyprus.

But maritime affairs are only one part of the picture.

During the failed July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, Pakistan displayed its unequivocal support for Erdoğan. In a show of solidarity, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called the embattled Turkish President in the midst of the coup and visited the Turkish parliament shortly after it was put down.

Following the 2016 coup attempt, for which Erdoğan blamed Fethullah Gülen and his Hizmet movement, the Turkish leader began to demand that other countries follow his lead by branding Gülen and his supporters as terrorists and shutting down their schools.

The government of Pakistan also responded by refusing to renew the work and residence visas of the Pak-Turk schools’ Turkish staff. Some were refused entry to other countries and subsequently returned to Turkey to face indefinite imprisonment.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court later ordered the government to designate the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) a terror group.

In February 2018, Turkey together with Saudi Arabia and China blocked a move by the U.S. and the U.K to put Pakistan on a list of countries which have failed to stem terror financing.

The Financial Action task Force (FATF), a global terror-financing watchdog, put Islamabad on its gray list after Saudi Arabia and China did not oppose the U.S move in June 2018. Turkey, however, was the only country that stood alongside Pakistan and opposed the move.

Pakistan, in return, launched a “support Turkish Lira” campaign across the country by buying the Turkish currency after the U.S. imposed unilateral sanctions on two Turkish ministers in August amid a row over the detention of American Pastor Andrew Brunson.

Erdogan is the only foreign dignitary to have addressed a joint session of the Pakistani parliament three times. As Prime Minister, he addressed the Pakistani lawmakers in 2009 and 2012, and as President in 2016.

Air power is also part of the story. Turkey is selling its T129 Advanced Attack and Tactical Reconnaissance(ATAK) multi-role combat helicopters to Islamabad. Pakistan is set to receive 30 T129 ATAK  helicopters from Turkey under a deal finalized in July 2018. Ankara is, meanwhile, buying MFI-17 Super Mushshak aircraft from Pakistan.

The flourishing defense relationship – with its possible nuclear connection – in turn takes place within a broader context.  Turkey under Erdogan is embarked on a historic journey away from its former orientation towards Europe and the west.  Its face is now turned toward the Islamic world, and the path of political Islam.  The advisability of this course is of course radically questionable.  But once decided upon, Islamabad becomes an obvious, natural ally and a model for emulation.

In the run-up to Turkey’s April 2017 election, the AKP ran a commercial that fantasized about Turkey’s popularity in a grateful Sunni world under Erdogan’s rule. In the scene depicting Pakistan, a Turkish couple sits in a café. The manager hands the waiter a note, which he then hands to the couple. “Our treat to Turkey,” the note reads. The confused couple looks up at the beaming Pakistani waiter who says “Mr. Erdogan has settled your bill.”

The true relationship between Islamabad and Ankara is somewhat more reciprocal than in this Erdogan-centric depiction.  It is also a lot less pacific and harmless. Israel should be paying close attention.

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Revolt Against Iran’s ‘System’ in Iraq and Lebanon

Jerusalem Post, 1/11

The Middle East is currently witnessing the first examples of popular rebellion in countries dominated by Iran.  In the very different contexts of Iraq and Lebanon, the protests now under way have a similar focus on political and economic corruption, mismanagement, and limited popular access to power and resources.  In both cases, despite this focus, the demonstrators are being confronted with the fact of the domination of their country by an outside imposed structure.

In Iraq, demonstrations began on October 1st.  The protests took place in Baghdad, and rapidly spread to a number of cities in the southern part of the country, including Nasiriya, Diwaniya, Babil, Wasit, Muthanna, and Dhi Qar governorates.  The immediate cause was the firing by Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi of a popular general, Abd al-Wahab al-Saadi, from his post as deputy commander of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS).

Saadi’s firing, however, was from the outset redolent of broader issues.  A Baghdad Shia himself, Saadi is known for his anti-sectarian positions and professionalism,  The CTS, in which he served, is a force established and trained by the Americans.  His removal from his position was thus widely interpreted as an effort by the Iran-linked Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)  to rid themselves of a potential rival.

So while the focus of the demonstrations rapidly shifted to economic and social issues – in particular lack of access to affordable housing for young people – from the outset the issue of the unelected and unaccountable Iranian power that lies at the heart of governance in Iraq was implicitly present.

One demonstrator, 28 year old Moussa Rahmatallah of Baghdad described this process in an interview published by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, ‘The problem was community and economic issues, but it got bigger now.  Now, the main demand and call from the demonstrations is that they want the regime to fall.’

This, of course is the old slogan that echoed through the public squares of Arab states during the short-lived ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010-11.  But there is a significant difference. In Bin-Ali’s Tunisia, Mubarak’s Egypt, Assad’s Syria and so on it was clear what the regime was.  Iraq, however, has a formal system of democracy, a parliament, regular elections.  So what is the ‘regime’ that Rahmatallah and his fellow demonstrators were referring to?

One demonstrator expressed it in the following terms in a Facebook post: ‘Democracy alone while the country is being looted is not enough! What is the use of being able to participate in an election while seeing militias intimidate the actual winners cause of threat of a civil-war or whatever and then allow them to have much greater control over the government?!’

Iran and its allies appear similarly in no doubt that the ‘regime’ in question (the Arabic word ‘nizam’ also translates, perhaps more appropriately here,  as ‘system’) is the one whereby within the structures of formal democracy, Teheran maintains its own independent political and military power structure, against whose decisions there is no appeal.  That the Iranians are convinced in this regard may be gauged not by statements, but rather by deeds.  From the beginning, the armed power of the Shia militias has been mobilized alongside and in cooperation with the official security forces of the state, with the intention of brutally suppressing the demonstrations.  IRGC Qods Force commander flew into Iraq on October 2nd, to coordinate the operation, according to a report by Associated Press.

The result is that in just four weeks of demonstrations, over 250 demonstrators have lost their lives.  An October 17 Reuters report detailed the process in which snipers belonging to Iran-backed militias were deployed on rooftops in areas where protests were taking place, with orders to shoot to kill.  The operation, according to Reuters, was directed by one Abu Zeinab al-Lami, a senior official of the PMU closely linked to Iran.  Iraqi security sources quoted by Reuters claimed that the snipers were ‘reporting directly to their commander (presumably al-Lami, or Suleimani) instead of to the commander in chief of the armed forces.’

The precise chain of command, and the extent of collusion remain disputed.  But the role of the IRGC-linked forces as the cutting edge of the attempt to crush the protests is clear.

The situation is continuing to escalate and no end is in sight.  On Wednesday, live fire was used against protestors in the iconic Shia city of Kerbala.  18 people were killed.  Iraqi sources say that the Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Ktaeb Hizballah militias were active in the city.  The largest demonstrations are taking place in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.

In the different conditions of Lebanon, an essentially similar dynamic is under way.  A protest initially concerned with opposing new taxes on tobacco, petrol and internet phone services rapidly escalated into a generalized challenged to the entrenched and deeply corrupt political order of the country.

The grievances of the protestors are socio-economic. They are not directed specifically against Hizballah and its Iranian masters.  The protestors want the current coalition of corrupt, entrenched sectarian interests replaced by a government of technocrats.  They are motivated by Lebanon’s dire economic state, its massive unemployment, and its soaring national debt.

But as it turns out, this current order is to the liking of the Iranian structure which is the true ruler in Lebanon.    It affords the convenient administrative cover beneath which Hizballah is able to preserve its own power undisturbed.  Consequently, since October 20th, when Hassan Nasrallah first spoke against the protests, and with increasing force after October 25th, Hizballah and Amal thugs have been harassing the demonstrations and seeking to provoke violence.

As of now, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has tendered his resignation. The demonstrators have vowed to stay in the streets.  They are demanding a government of ‘experts’ and the abolition of the Lebanese sectarian political system which enables the entrenched elites who they hold responsible for the current economic malaise.  As the true decisionmaker, it is now Hizballah’s move, with regard to the new government to be assembled.

The essential point in both the Iraqi and Lebanese cases is that any protest or public manifestation must eventually pose the question of power: namely, who decides, and is there a right of appeal? In both the Lebanese and Iraqi situations, once the decorations, fictions and formalities are stripped away, the protestors are faced with an unelected, armed, utterly ruthless political-military structure which is the final decider and wielder of power in the country.  This structure, in turn, is controlled from Iran, via the mechanism of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Iran in its rhetoric likes to call its regional bloc the ‘Resistance Axis.’  The notion is that it is bringing together oppressed and authentic regional forces against the machinations of the US, Israel and their puppets.  In reality, as current events in Iraq and Lebanon are showing, the Iranian system most resembles a colonial one, in which the ability of local populations to decide for themselves disappears, and an Iran-controlled structure places itself in rule over them.  This rule is then conducted in a manner intended to benefit Teheran, with indifference to the economic and other interest of the subject population.  The subjects in Iraq and Lebanon are now in revolt against this system.  It is not at all clear, however, whether they have the means available to issue it a serious challenge.

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Some Further Thoughts on the Situation in Northern Syria

9/10

The way appears to have been cleared for an invasion of north east Syria by Turkey and its allied Sunni Islamist militias.  If such an invasion takes place, it will end one of the more successful partnerships achieved by US military diplomacy in recent years- namely that between the United States Armed Forces and the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG).  It will also  have profound implications, both strategic and tactical, for the US in the Middle East, and for the strategic balance in the region as a whole.

In June, I sat with a senior Syrian Kurdish official in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Suleymaniya.  Did he expect, I asked him, that US forces would withdraw from the area under de facto joint US-Kurdish control?  The man’s answer avoided emotionalism or rhetoric.  ‘I don’t know. We hope not. But they may well leave,’ he said, before adding:  ‘If they do, we have made it clear that the following day we will make a deal with the regime.’

In April 2017, I asked a Palestinian activist supporter of the Syrian regime in Aleppo how Damascus would secure the return of the lands then and currently under the control of the Syrian Kurds and the US.  ‘We don’t know,’ was his honest reply.  ‘But we know that we will be returning there.’

Both men now have an answer to the questions that were perplexing them.  Only the regime supporter is likely to be pleased with the outcome.

If Turkish and allied forces enter northern Syria, the immediate Kurdish concern will be at the prospect of widespread ethnic cleansing.  The fear is well founded.  Around 200,000 Syrian Kurds fled the advancing Turkish army and its Sunni allies when Erdogan destroyed the Kurdish Afrin canton in north west Syria in January, 2018.  The Kurds expect that a repeat of this operation on a larger scale is currently brewing to the east.

To avoid it, they are likely (as my interlocutor in Suleimania suggested) to permit the Russians, the Assad regime and its Iranian allies to enter the areas presently under their control.

There is no love lost whatsoever between the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds. But Assad, the Russians and the Iranians have no interest in a large scale ethnic cleansing of Kurds, of the type a Turkish invasion is likely to produce.

Following the US announcement, there were already reports of a movement of regime and Russian forces toward the city of Manbij.  An unseemly race for the spoils between the regime/Russians/Iranians and the Turks/jihadis appears set to start.  The latest confused reports from the area suggest that a Turkish force has already penetrated the border in the Tel Abyad-Ras al-Ain area.  ISIS, meanwhile, has emerged in Raqqa and is attacking SDF positions in the city.

Should the  southern part of the area east of the Euphrates  fall to the regime and its allies, the result will be the consolidation by Iran of its ‘land bridge’ from the Iraq-Iran border to Lebanon, the Mediterranean and the border with Israel.  With pro-Iranian militias currently suppressing dissent in Baghdad, this will leave the Iran-led regional alliance as the major victor of the turbulent events in the Levant over the last decade.

A large movement of populations is a real possibility.  At the UN General Assembly, President Recep Tayepp Erdogan declared his intention of creating a ‘safe zone’ stretching eventually to a line between Raqqa and Deir e Zur, around fifty miles into Syria.

Such an area, Erdogan suggested, would enable the resettlement of up to 2 million Syrian refugees.  Life for the remaining Kurds in Turkish-controlled Afrin (200,000 have been displaced) has become a daily round of humiliations at the hands of the thuggish Islamist groups whoare the allies of the Turks in the area.  If Turkey seizes control of areas close to the border such as Kobane, Amude and even the city of Qamishli, (all within the area proposed by Erdogan) Kurds are likely to head south in large numbers to the areas set to come under regime control, or east towards Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other side of the Tigris River.

The fate of the 60,000 ISIS prisoners currently held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, should also be considered.  The Kurdish-led SDF was holding these captives as part of their alliance with the US. That alliance has just been pronounced dead. The SDF looks set to be about to fight an advancing Turkish army – a project for which, it may be presumed, it will be in need of all available personnel.

Can Turkey, whose own relationship in recent years with ISIS  included verified episodes of collusion, be trusted with the task of holding these individuals in continued captivity, pending some future legal process?  The record would suggest otherwise.

This US decision brings to an end any lingering hopes that the Trump Administration intended to pursue a coherent, region-wide policy to contain and turn back Iranian expansion – or more broadly to reward friends and punish enemies.  The signs had been accumulating over the summer.  The failure to respond to the Iranian downing of the RQ-4A Global Hawk drone over the Gulf in June, the departure of hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, the failure to act against the attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in September, and then the sudden overtures to President Rouhani of Iran in early October all suggested an absence of focus or interest on this matter.

The apparently imminent abandonment of eastern Syria will confirm it.  In the Middle East, this Administration does not want to win. It wants out.   Enemies of the US will certainly be taking note. Allies, potential and existing, will do so too.

It is, of course, not too late for the US to reverse course. Hopefully, this will happen.   All efforts should be made in that regard. The scenarios discussed above are conditional on no such reversing of direction taking place.

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The Lessons of Betrayal in Northern Syria

Israel Hayom, 8/10

The statement on northern Syria released Sunday by the White House Press Secretary appears to clear the way for the long anticipated Turkish invasion of North East Syria.  It represents a disaster for the Syrian Kurds, and a not entirely unexpected betrayal by the US of its main allies in the fight against ISIS.  The decision has implications for Israel too – both on the tactical and strategic level.

On the tactical level, if a Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled north east Syria is launched, this will have the likely effect of delivering a large part of north east Syria into the hands of the Assad regime and its Iranian allies.  This is because the Syrian Kurds, if faced with a choice between Assad or the Sunni jihadi forces currently fighting under the Turkish flag, will choose the former.  Assad and the Iranians will suppress all independent Kurdish political and cultural activity.  But they will almost certainly not carry out wholesale ethnic cleansing of Kurdish populations.

The Turks and their Sunni Islamist allies cleansed 200,000 Kurds from their homes in the Afrin Kurdish enclave, which Turkey destroyed in January 2018.  The Kurds, with good reason, believe that Erdogan plans a similar fate for the Kurds of the north east.  So they are likely to fight to hold the Turks back in the north for as long as possible, while arranging a rapid surrender to Assad to enable the Syrian regime to take control of the areas further south. The result: Syria east of the Euphrates, currently an American protectorate and a barrier against Iran and ISIS, will be divided up between the Turks/Islamists in the north and Assad/the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the south.  The southern part would then form part of the famous Iranian ‘land bridge’ to the Mediterranean, Lebanon and the Quneitra Crossing.

On a strategic level, the US move confirms that the current US Administration is not interested in heading an alliance of regional forces against Iranian expansionism or Sunni political Islam, as some had fondly believed.   Rather, the Administration, like its predecessor, is in the business of managing imperial decline (albeit with a very different rhetoric to the Obama Administration).  This will be a lesson well learnt by both allies and enemies of the US in the Middle East.

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Yemen: Iran’s (and Israel’s) new Backyard

Jerusalem Post, 6/9

The Saudi-led effort to crush the rebellion by the Iran-aligned Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement in Yemen is into its fifth year.  The operation has largely run aground.  There is now a UN-sponsored truce over control of the contested port of Hodeidah, in the west of the country.  Over 10,000 people have died since the Saudi and Emirati intervention began in March, 2015.  Saudi and Emirati-led forces succeeded in preventing the strategic disaster  of a Houthi capture of Bab el-Mandeb, a chokepoint between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.  But the Houthis remain in control of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, a considerable part of the coast, and the main urban centers of the country.

The anti-Houthi forces, meanwhile, have now turned on one another, with the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) challenging  Saudi-supported forces aligned with the official government led by Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.   The STC fighters now control the Port of Aden, with the prospect for further clashes between the sides.  While Riyadh would like to see the total defeat of the Houthis (but has proved unable to secure this), Abu Dhabi’s focus is on securing Red Sea shipping lines, and restricting the influence of Sunni Islamist forces in the areas under government control.

With the frontlines stalemated, meanwhile, there are signs that the Houthis are consolidating their grip on their own areas, and formalizing their rule.  This is of concern to Israel.

The Houthi area of control is an integral part of the Iranian sphere in the region, and is therefore a component part in the alliance with which Jerusalem is currently engaged in a secret and not-so-secret war.

Houthi consolidation is taking  a number of forms.

On the diplomatic level, the Houthis have begun to behave as an official government, appointing their first ambassadors.  On August 17, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the movement’s leader, announced his intention to  reach out to ‘friendly countries, and in particular the Islamic Republic of Iran.’

On August 18, a decree issued in the name of the ‘Republic of Yemen’ was announced from Sana’a  appointing ‘Ibrahim Mohammed Mohammed Al-Dailami as extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of the Republic of Yemen to the Islamic Republic of Iran.’

This announcement followed swiftly on from a visit by Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam to Teheran where he met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other officials.  Khamenei reiterated Iran’s support for the Houthis, who he described as the “mujahideen’  in Yemen, during the visit.

This appointment formalizes the Iranian-Houthi connection, and appears to  consolidate a relationship which for pragmatic reasons both parties had seen fit to deny or minimize in the past.  It reflects an increasing boldness and openness on the part of both Teheran and Ansar Allah.

This growing diplomatic confidence, meanwhile, derives from the advancing military strength and confidence of the Houthis.  Thanks to the help of the Iranin Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), with the close involvement of Lebanese Hizballah members, the Houthis are no longer the ragtag guerrilla force that seized Sana’a in early 2015.

Rather they (or equally possibly, IRGC or Hizballah men working alongside them) are now capable of operating air defense systems, including the Fater-1 and Thaqib-1. Utilizing these systems, the Houthis claim to have shot down a state of the art US MQ-9 Reaper drone over Hodeidah on June 7.

The offensive capacities of the Houthis are similarly moving rapidly ahead.  The Houthis have carried out a series of armed drone and ballistic missile attacks on targets deep inside Saudi Arabia in recent weeks.

On August 16, the Houthis launched an armed drone attack at the Shaybah oil field. The Shaybah field is located close to the Saudi-UAE border, more than 1000 kilometers from the Houthi area of control in Yemen.  On August 26th, they fired 10 Badr-1 ballistic missiles at Jizan airport in Saudi Arabia (The Saudis claim to have intercepted six of these).  A day later, an additional drone attack took place against a military target in the Riyadh area.  On September 3, Arab coalition aircraft destroyed a Houthi drone launched towards Saudi Arabia from Amran Province in Yemen.

This ongoing series of attacks is testimony to the military confidence of the Houthis. They are no longer facing an existential threat to their rule. Rather, firmly ensconced in their area of control, they are coming to form a key node in the broader Iran-led regional bloc.

Israeli officials express doubt regarding the steeply rising curve of the movement’s technical abilities.  Rather, they point to the useful ‘cover’ the Houthis’ banner offers for activities probably carried out directly by Iranian personnel or cadres from more capable Iranian proxies such as Lebanese Hizballah.

The Houthis’ consolidation is also reflected in the process of institution building they have begun in the part of Yemen they control.   On September 2, the Saba News Agency which is associated with the Houthis announced the establishment by the ‘Supreme Political Council’ of the Houthis of the Security and Intelligence Service, a new intelligence body which will be the sole such entity permitted to operate in Houthi controlled Yemen.  The existing National Security Agency and Central Political Security Agency are to be disbanded.

It is a perhaps poignant (but unsurprising) comment on the state of governance in the Arab world that the first formal body created by an emergent new power should be the secret and political police service.  In any case, the establishment of the new force by Ansar Allah is testimony to its growing consolidation and sense of permanence.

From Israel’s point of view, the growing strength of the Houthis, and the evidence of direct IRGC/Hizballah involvement with them, raises the possibility that the broad front on which Jerusalem’s forces are already engaged (across Lebanon, Syria and Iraq) may imminently extend also to Yemen.

The latter is no longer an isolated front in which Israel’s de facto Gulf partners are engaging against a weaker and peripheral Iranian ally.  Rather, the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen appears set to emerge as an additional platform for the projection of Iranian power.

Currently, that power projection is directed on land against Saudi Arabia. But of greater regional significance is the possibility that Iranian weaponry smuggled into the Houthi controlled part of Yemen could subsequently be used to attack shipping making its way up the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal.  The Houthi controlled region, after all, includes a considerable section of Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

Such a capability would form an additional useful tool of pressure for Iran in the region-wide contest currently taking place.  And as things currently stand, Israel may well be the only power both able and willing to frustrate the Iranian effort to establish this capability.  The rise and consolidation of the Houthis may seem to be taking place at a considerable distance from Jerusalem. But as things currently stand, Yemen is both Israel’s and Iran’s backyard.  As a result, it constitutes an additional key arena in the contest currently playing out between them.

 

 

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Turkey Sets Course against the West in the Mediterranean

Jerusalem Post, 2/8

Turkey’s ambitions to assert itself as a Middle East power are currently in evidence across the western part of the region.  Ankara occupies a chunk of north west Syria. Its troops are currently massing on the border of Syria further east.  President Recep Teyyep Erdogan has threatened that his troops may arrive ‘suddenly in one night’, unless the US supported Syrian Democratic Forces concede to the establishment of a Turkish maintained ‘safe zone’ 30 km into Syria and along the breadth of the border.  Turkish forces are also present in northern Iraq, where they are engaged in action against the PKK presence in the Kurdish-controlled north.

In addition, Turkey offers active support to the Muslim Brotherhood associated government in Libya, supplying drones to Tripoli in violation of a UN embargo in place since 2011.  And of course Ankara supports the Hamas regime in Gaza.  The Palestinian Islamist movement maintains an active office in Istanbul (which, according to recent defector Sohaib Hassan Yousif ‘operates security and military operations on Turkish soil under the cover of civil society.’  Turkey’s efforts to build influence in Jerusalem, by way of the activity of government linked aid agencies such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) are also a matter of public record.

Turkey’s efforts at building influence and power in the neighborhood are not restricted to dry land.  Rather, an important currently developing arena for Turkish assertiveness is the eastern Mediterranean.  This area has been the site of major gas discoveries in Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian waters in recent years.  Lebanon too is seeking to open exploration in its territorial waters.  The current matter facing countries that have enjoyed major discoveries is creating the infrastructure for export of natural gas to Europe and further afield.

Turkey has not discovered major gas reserves.   It has not been invited to join the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), the newly formed body intended to coordinate efforts to develop gas resources and mechanisms for export to international markets.  Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, the Palestinian territories and Jordan are members of this forum.

As Turkey moves further from the west, and closer to alliance with Russia, so it is emerging as an aggressive and disruptive force with regard to gas development in the eastern Meditteranean.  The main area of current concern is that around Cyprus.  Israel, Egypt and Lebanon have all signed delimitation agreements with Cyprus. Turkey refuses to do so.

Ankara is adopting its own interpretation of international law with regard to defining ownership of energy resources.  According to the Turkish view, the waters adjacent to Cyprus constitute part of Turkey’s own continental shelf, and as such Ankara has the right to explore and to drill for gas within them.  Ankara further contends that the Cypriots have no right to begin to drill for gas without reaching agreement on the matter with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The latter entity was established by Turkish arms in 1974 and is recognized by no country other than Turkey itself.

President Erdogan summed up the Turkish position in a recent speech at a naval command center in Istanbul, quoted by the al-Monitor news website: ‘We will not allow moves aimed at usurping the Eastern Mediterranean’s natural resources to the exclusion of our country and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Just as we taught a lesson to the terrorists in Syria, we will not cede ground to the bandits in the sea.” (The latter reference is to the  Turkish military operation against Kurdish areas of northern Syria in 2016 and 2018).

Turkey despatched gunboats last year, to drive off an attempt by the Italian energy company ENI to commence drilling close to the Cyprus shore in agreement with the Cypriot government.  ENI subsequently abandoned its plans.

In May, Turkey held its largest ever naval exercise, Operation Seawolf, in the Mediterranean, involving more than 130 warships.

At present, two Turkish ships are engaged in drilling close to the shores of Cyprus.  The Fatih is drilling about fifty miles off the western coast of the island.  It claims to have struck gas reserves of up to 170 billion cubic metres in the waters off Paphos two weeks ago.  A second ship, the Yavuz, meanwhile, has begun drilling close to  the Karpas Peninsula north-east of Cyprus, its concession granted by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.  The ships and their support vessels were escorted by a Turkish naval frigate.

Cyprus possesses no navy and is hence militarily helpless in the face of Turkey’s actions.  It is seeking to respond through diplomacy.  The EU have criticised Turkey’s moves, and threatened sanctions.  Rather than rely on European promises, however, Cyprus is developing its relations with local powers similarly concerned at Turkey’s transformation into an aggressive and irredentist power. Since 2010, Greece, Cyprus and Israel have held six tripartite summits.  The latest took place on March 21, 2019.  In it, the three countries signed a joint declaration pledging to increase cooperation, support energy independence and security, and defend against destabilization.  The issue of gas discoveries underlies the growing ties between the three.

It remains to be seen how far Turkey will wish to push its attempts to disrupt the process of gas exploration in the east Mediterranean.  At present, Ankara’s efforts are limited to the Cypriot context.  Turkey is not trying to claim to or interfere with the process further south. So the future direction of events is likely to depend on the extent of Turkish ambitions.

Turkish analyst Amberin Zaman noted the broader regional context in an article in Al-Monitor focusing on this issue, ‘Turkish muscle flexing goes beyond Cyprus and needs to be understood in the broader arc of Turkey’s efforts to renegotiate its relations with the West and its neighbors so as to reflect the influence it feels it deserves.’  It is all a far cry from the late 1990s, when Israel welcomed the Turkish Navy’s ships to Haifa port. Their arrival for the first Israeli-Turkish joint naval exercise in 1998 was seen as the harbinger of a possible new strategic alliance.  The rise of Erdogan and political Islam in Turkey ended all such hopes.  Turkey’s leaders today describe themselves frankly as enemies of Israel. They appear to have set course toward a broader orientation of hostility to the west.   The eastern Mediterranean look to be one of the arenas in which that course will be followed.

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Militias to merge into Iraqi Security Forces?

Jerusalem Post, 5/7

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abd el-Mehdi this week announced that the Shia militias of the Popular Mobilization Units or ‘Hashd al-Shaabi’ are to be fully integrated into the Iraqi security forces.  According to the statement announcing this decision,  ‘All Popular Mobilisation Forces are to operate as an indivisible part of the armed forces and be subject to the same regulations.’

The prime minister’s statement went on to clarify that headquarters, offices and independent checkpoints maintained by the militias are to be shut down. Militias failing to comply with this directive by July 31 will be considered illegal organizations.  Those wishing to continue under their old names as political parties must disband their military component.

The Shia militias are the main instrument of Iranian policy on Iraqi soil.  Not all groups involved in the 150,000 strong PMU are Iran-linked, but the largest and most consequential groupings are.  These include the Badr organization, led by Hadi al-Ameri,  Ktaeb Hizballah, headed by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Asaib ahl-al Haq, and Hizballah al-Nujaba.

All the above mentioned groupings are franchises of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). All were established by and are controlled by Iran, answering directly to the IRGC’s Qods Force and its leader, General Qassem Soleimani.

The Iraqi announcement comes in the wake of a sharp increase in anonymous attacks almost certainly carried out by the militias on US targets in Iraq in recent weeks.  These included: a mortar attack on the Balad air base in Iraq’s Salah al-Din Province on June 14 (the base hosts US troops), a mortar attack on the Taji base, which also hosts US advisers, on June 17, and a Katyusha missile attack on the Burjesia site on June 19 – this area hosts facilities maintained by  a number of global oil companies, including Exxon Mobil.

While no group claimed responsibility for the attacks, there is no real suspect other than the Shia militias.  (ISIS, which remains active in Iraq, is currently otherwise engaged – in rebuilding its networks in Sunni central Iraq and reimposing its hold on the Sunni population in its rural heartlands).

The US government considers that Ktaeb Hizballah was most likely also responsible for the launching of a drone on at the East-West oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia on May 14th.

Ktaeb Hizballah members (in their political manifestation) stormed the Bahraini embassy in Baghdad on June 27th, in protest at Bahrain’s hosting of the US-sponsored ‘Peace to Prosperity’ conference.   The Shia militants carried placards reading ‘no to the deal of the century, and ‘Arab Zionists sold their Arab identity for a failed deal.’

The attacks on US facilities have been accompanied by increased rhetorical threats against the US and Israel from militia leaders.  Nasir al-Shamari,  assistant secretary general of the Hizballah Nujaba militia, stated that ‘confrontation with the US will stop only when it is eliminated from the region, along with the Zionist entity.’

Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organization and perhaps the most powerful pro-Iranian political and military leader in Iraq, expressed his views in a recent interview with the Farsi- language, IRGC associated Fars News Agecy regarding the US and Israel in the following terms:

‘There is no doubt that ISIS is a bastard child of the United States. I and my comrades will never surrender to the involvement of the United States and its allies in Iraq, and this was our position from the beginning….(ISIS’) main designers and the creators were the United States and their master, Israel.’

The move by the Iraqi government to integrate the militias comes in the wake of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May visit to Iraq.  Speaking after the visit, Pompeo said that he had ‘urged the Iraqi government, for its own security, to get all of those forces (the militias) under Iraq central control.”

So is the matter now settled?  Will al-Ameri, Al-Muhandis and the others now be content with a new role as besuited politicians, or as anonymous divisional commanders in Iraq’s army?

They will not.

Firstly, it is worth remembering that this latest announcement is not without precedent.  The first law making the militias part of the Iraqi security forces was passed in November, 2016.  From that time on, they have constituted a part of the state security apparatus. Formally, the militias report directly to and are under the authority of the Prime Minister.

In March 2018, then Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a decree formally integrating the militias into the security forces, regularizing their salaries and affording them similar rights to members of the Iraqi army and other services, under the control of the Ministry of Defense.

The latest decree, undertaken it would appear largely in response to US pressure and cajoling, resembles these earlier moves. What was their result?

With the welcome cover of official status, the militias predictably continued to act as the strong arm of Iran in Iraq.  As a result of the blurring of the boundaries between the state army and the Shia militias, however, Iran’s fighters gained welcome access to the resources available to the official security forces.

These included state of the art US equipment – such as the nine M1A1 Abrams tanks that the militias used against (pro-US) Kurdish forces in the assault against Iraqi Kurdistan following the Kurdish bid for independence from Iraq in late 2017.  The latter operation was planned by Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

The US has provided over $22 billion in aid to the Iraqi Security Forces since 2005.  As the lines between the army and the militias blur, so the possibility of preventing this access will also fade. Only strong and direct action against the militias and their leaders could prevent this.

The militias are powerful players – politically, militarily and economically.  Prime Minister Adel Abd al Mehdi, meanwhile, is a weak figure with no real power base of its own.  Iraq is not a country ruled by law.  The prime minister as a result simply possesses no coercive mechanism for imposing his will on the Shia militias.  He can order their dissolution if he so wishes.  The result will be the further enmeshing and fusing of the militias with the official bodies of the state – without the ceding by the latter of their own vital chain of command.  This chain of command leads to Qassem Soleimani, and thence to the office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC does not regard Iraq as a country, but rather as one arena, in which it is growing its power and prosecuting its attacks against US forces.  In this contest, the official Iraqi state and its various structures afford a convenient cover.  If they can burrow into it, and incidentally benefit from the largesse afforded it by its allies (who are the militias’ enemies), then so much the better.

If this sounds familiar, it should.  It is the game plan successfully pursued by the IRGC in Lebanon in recent years, through its Hizballah franchise in that country.   That model is now being applied in Iraq, on a larger and far more consequential scale.  Prime ministerial decrees won’t stop it.

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