The Siege of Marib

Jerusalem Post, 26/2

Largely ignored by the global media, the fighting in Yemen between the Saudi-supported government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Iran-supported Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement, is currently at its most intense since 2018. The Houthis (named after the clan that established and leads the movement) are besieging the city of Marib, located in a gas-rich region of the country. The offensive matters because of the impact it is having on the lives of the people of Yemen, including more than a million displaced persons who live in Marib. But it is also important because of what it indicates regarding broader changes under way in the strategic balance and direction of the Middle East.
The Marib region contains an oil refinery and supplies gas to all of Yemen. It is the last area in Yemen’s North still controlled by the Hadi government. Its loss would thus represent a major strategic blow to the government’s cause. The Houthis, who launched the current phase of their insurgency against the government in 2014, control the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.


The Houthi insurgency followed the toppling of the Western-backed, long-standing regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. Saleh, abandoned by his former Western backers, allied with the Iran-supported Houthis against the new government, and together they took the capital. The Houthis then turned on Saleh and killed him in December 2017. Evidence has since emerged to suggest that this killing was carried out under the direct orders of then IRGC/Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

A Saudi-led and United Arab Emirates-backed intervention to prevent the conquest of the entire country by the Houthis commenced in 2015. Yemen is of strategic importance because at its southern tip, the Bab el-Mandeb (Gate of Tears) Strait controls access between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
This is a choke point for vessels making their way from the Persian Gulf toward the Suez Canal. A massive volume of natural gas, oil and petroleum-based products on the way to the canal and to European and US markets makes its way through the strait every day. In all, around 9% of all seaborne-traded crude oil and refined petroleum products pass through the strait.

Control of access to this gateway by an Iranian client would represent an enormous strategic gain by Tehran. It would give the Iranians the ability to disrupt or shut down a significant volume of oil traffic to the West at a stroke. The Saudi- and Emirates-supported intervention succeeded in preventing the Houthis from capturing the southern tip of Yemen, and thus acquiring control of the strait. They proved unable, however, to defeat Ansar Allah in its entirety.


In a pattern that has become wearingly familiar in the Middle East over the last decade, the country then became divided into de facto areas of control, and subject to a massive humanitarian crisis. The current offensive on Marib is the most intense episode of fighting since 2018, and is an attempt by the Houthis and their backers to break the long stalemate and regain momentum toward their objective of conquering the entire country.


Pro-government defenses at Sirwah, to the west of Marib City, have collapsed in recent days. As a result, the frontline is now located roughly 20 km. (12 miles) from Marib City, according to Reuters. Hundreds of fighters on both sides have been killed. At present, however, the lines are holding, and the government maintains air superiority, which may prove crucial in preventing the taking of the city by the Houthis in the period ahead.


Marib is home to between one million and 1.5 million refugees. More than 1,500 families have been displaced since the current round of fighting began on February 6. Around 116,000 people left their homes in Yemen in the course of the last year, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.

THE HOUTHI offensive commenced on February 6. The timing is crucial to understanding the dynamic. On February 4, US President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of US support for the Saudi war effort.


“This war has to end,” the president said. “To underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war on Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
Two days later, the US administration unconditionally revoked the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist designation. The Houthi offensive toward Marib began on the same day. The Houthis also commenced a series of drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.


The desire for an end to war in Yemen is understandable. The humanitarian crisis is acute and urgently in need of attention. Some 250,000 people have lost their lives in a half decade of war.


Unfortunately, however, the US has leverage over only one of the sides. The net result of the removal of support for the Saudi-led side has thus predictably not led to a move toward ending hostilities. Rather, it has resulted in increased aggression by the pro-Iranian side, which now perceives itself as facing an isolated and crumbling opponent rather than an adversary enjoying the backing of a major power.
The sequence of events leading to the Houthi push toward Marib is indicative of a sharp change of perception in Washington, DC, which is producing rapid results in the Middle East. The element of the previous administration that dealt with the Middle East shared the core perception of the region held by key US allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to this conception, a contest for power in the Middle East is under way between rival camps.


This contest is fought partly through proxies. It is a battle for strategic space, and the control of resources and key geo-strategic locations. The camp of which Saudi Arabia and Israel are members is one committed to alliance with the West, and to preserving the strategic architecture in place in the region since the end of the Cold War. It is opposed principally by Iran and its allies and proxies. Arguably, Turkey and its allies constitute an additional anti-status quo power axis.
Reading from this map, support for the Saudi cause in Yemen was obvious and axiomatic. The country is of strategic importance. A pro-Western alliance is fighting a pro-Iranian one. Iran must be prevented from reaching Bab el-Mandeb. No further discussion required.


The Biden administration’s reversal of this straightforward stance with regard to Yemen is the latest evidence that it is reading from a very different map. Together with the administration’s attempt to sideline Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it suggests that an earlier dynamic has been reestablished. This dynamic, familiar from the Obama period, is one in which allies are reined in and unilateral concessions are made to Tehran, in the hope that this will produce a change in behavior further downstream.


Seen from this perspective, local allies who wish to take a firm stance against Iranian aggression rapidly start to look like a nuisance, a greater impediment to progress than the supposed adversary.
Saudi Arabia appears already to have acquired this distinction with regard to the new administration. The desperate defense of Marib currently underway is the direct result. With regard to the broader administration intent that lies behind all this, the offensive in Yemen, combined with the flurry of rocket attacks against US targets in Iraq by Iran-linked militias, would suggest that as of now, it appears to be producing increased Iranian aggression rather than its intended opposite.

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The Ankara-Islamabad Axis

Jerusalem Post, 12/2

A joint military exercise involving the Turkish and Pakistani special forces commenced this week in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan.  The exercise, dubbed ‘Ataturk XI-2021, is to focus on counter terror operations.  It is the latest manifestation of an emergent strategic alliance of these two countries, with significant implications – both for the Middle East, and for south Asia.

Turkey and Pakistan’s growing closeness has deep foundations.  These are two countries following a similar trajectory.   Both were allies and assets of the US and the west during the Cold War. Both have moved far from this position in the last two decades, and are increasingly estranged from Washington.  Both are medium sized powers, governed today by a type of Islamic nationalist outlook. Both, importantly, are seeking an alternative alignment to their former ties with the west, which in a time of growing global polarization is leading both Islamabad and Ankara toward greater closeness with China. 

So what form are the increased ties taking?  Arms purchase is a significant indicator.  Turkey is now Pakistan’s fourth largest source of arms, as Islamabad seeks alternatives to the west for its source of weaponry (the main exporter of arms to Pakistan is now China). 

Pakistan is in the process of purchasing four Turkish-built MILGEM corvette ships from the Turkish state-owned defense contractor ASFAT.  It has also placed an order for 30 T-129 Atak helicopters.  The total cost of orders placed by Pakistan for the purchase of Turkish weapons systems is now in excess of $3 billion.  The importance of this relationship goes beyond economic and commercial factors.  Both Pakistan and Turkey have justified concerns regarding the possibility of western sanctions as a result of the policy directions they wish to pursue.  Reducing dependence on western weapons systems is a way of broadening options. 

The growing closeness is also reflected in the diplomatic sphere.  Pakistani senior officials have expressed support for Turkey in the disputes over gas exploration in the east Mediterranean.  A series of joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean, involving the navies of both countries and including violations of Cypriot and Greek territorial waters and airspace took place over the last year.  Similar joint exercises have also been held in the Indian Ocean. 

Turkey, in turn, in a development causing concern in New Delhi, has begun to support Pakistani claims in Kashmir.  President Recep Tayepp Erdogan said in February, 2020 that the issue was as important to Turkey as it is to Pakistan.  Referencing the events of the Turkish war of Independence, Erdogan said ‘And now, we feel the same about Kashmir today. It was Çanakkale yesterday and Kashmir today; there is no difference between the two.”  Turkey raised the issue of Kashmir at the UN General Assembly in September, 2019, shifting from a policy of non-interference on an issue which India regards as an internal matter. 

In this regard, recent reports in regional media (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Hawar News) suggesting that Turkey is in the process of deploying its Syrian Islamist client militias in Kashmir have raised concerns, though no concrete evidence for these allegations has yet emerged.  

The strategic partnership between Ankara and Islamabad is raising concerns also in the nuclear realm.  Pakistan is a nuclear power, with 160 deployed warheads.  Erdogan, in a September 2019 speech, said that “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But (they tell us) we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept,” in a statement quoted by Reuters.  He continued that “We have Israel nearby, as almost neighbors. They scare (other nations) by possessing these. No one can touch them.” 

Turkey currently possesses two nuclear reactors, Tr-1 and Tr-2, maintained by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority. The country has rich uranium deposits. It thus possesses both the will and the raw materials to develop a nuclear capacity.  It currently lacks only the required knowledge to do so.  Pakistan, which is not a signatory to the NPT, possesses this knowledge.  While no concrete evidence of active cooperation in this regard has yet emerged, it is worth recalling that  Turkey was a covert hub for the activities of the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan twenty years ago. 

The alliance between Pakistan and Turkey is taking place in a rapidly shifting strategic landscape.  The old post Cold War US led security architecture, and the assumptions that surrounded it can no longer be relied upon. In the major events of the region over the last decade – the Syrian civil war, the revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, the competition over gas resources in the East Mediterranean – the US has been notably absent, as it recalibrates its priorities and modes of engagement. 

As a result of this absence, new connections and new power nexuses are emerging.  From this point of view, the coming together of two mid-sized states inclined towards versions of Sunni political Islam and seeking major revisions of the current power balance in their respective neighborhoods, in their favor, makes logical sense. 

Both Turkey and Pakistan are also eager to connect their ambitions to the strategic advance of China.  Turkey is of importance to Beijing as a transport hub on the way to the Mediterranean and to Europe, and as a priority country for investment in infrastructure.  Turkey is an observer country at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It is noteworthy that Erdogan’s efforts to present himself as a leader both of the world’s Muslims and of all peoples ethnically associated with the Turks do not extend to solidarity with the Turkic Muslim Uighurs, on whose fate he has been notably silent. 

Pakistan’s relations with China are deep and of long standing, related to the joint geopolitical rivalry with India.  Pakistan has been the recipient of investments worth $11 billion, in the framework of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative).  These have centered mainly on modernizing the country’s rail system.  A project to build a direct rail link from China, via Pakistan and Iran, to Turkey is in the process of being revived. The ITI (Istanbul, Teheran, Islamabad) line would be the first regular rail link between China and Turkey.  It is expected to begin operating in 2026, according to a recent report in Nikkei. 

A joint declaration by the foreign ministers of Turkey, Pakistan and Azerbaijan, signed in Islamabad on January 13 referenced the joint stances on Kashmir, the Aegean dispute, Cyprus and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.  The document is a useful summing up of the current reality of Turkish and Pakistani synergy. The Ankara-Islamabad axis looks set to form a significant and powerful presence on the complicated geopolitical chessboard of west and south Asia.     

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Yemen’s Houthis designated terrorists: Pompeo’s parting gift

Jerusalem Post, 15/1

US designation of Houthis in Yemen forms part of efforts to cement hardline strategy toward Iran

In a statement issued  Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that his office was set to inform Congress of its intention to designate the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen (better known as the Houthis) as a foreign terrorist organization and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity.  The Houthis have been engaged in an intermittent insurgency against the government of Yemen since 1994.  The insurgency escalated sharply in 2014, when the movement seized the capital, Sanaa, and the surrounding areas.  It has since held Sana’a, and today remains in control of a large swathe of the territory of Yemen.  The Houthis’ capture of Sana’a triggered a Saudi-led intervention in 2015. 

This intervention is usually depicted in western media as a resounding failure, and proof of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman’s impulsiveness and inexperience.  But while the war in Yemen has without doubt produced great suffering for the civilian population, the Saudi and Emirati-led intervention did succeed in forestalling the potential strategic disaster which would have accompanied a Houthi conquest of the entirety of Yemen. 

The Yemeni interior consists largely of sand and rock.  But the country abuts a strategic choke point of global importance. This is the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea.  Bab el-Mandeb is a vital route for oil and natural gas shipments passing from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea and on to the Suez Canal.  Around 9% of total global petroleum products pass through the strait.  Had the Houthis captured the area in 2015, it would have given their patrons – Iran – the ability to choke off the Strait at will, and thus hold the world economy to ransom.  The Saudis and their allies failed to reconquer the entirety of Yemen from the pro-Iranian forces.  But they did protect Bab el-Mandeb.  Similarly, the intervention prevented the main port of Yemen, al-Hudayda, from falling under the complete control of the Houthis. 

The result is that Yemen, like a number of other Arab countries, is now subject to de facto division and ongoing conflict.  The Houthis control the capital and a large part of the populated center of the country. The government of Prime Minister Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi controls much of the sparsely populated east, and the strategically important south and western coastal areas.  The pro-government side has itself fractured.  The separatist, UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council controls the port of Aden and a section of the southern coast. 

To make matters yet more complicated, two rival Salafi jihadi networks – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State group are active on the ground. 

So divided Yemen represents one of the friction points for the regional clash between rival alliances.  On the one hand, an uneasy coalition of pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati elements (tacitly backed by Egypt and Israel).  On the other, a pro-Iran Shia militia. 

The Houthis differ from other pro-Iran forces in the region in a number of ways.  Unlike Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Badr Organization and other such militia groups, the Ansar Allah is not the direct creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It is built, rather, around north Yemeni tribal structures. The Houthis themselves are a north Yemeni branch of the Banu Hamdan tribe.  They follow the Zaidiya branch of Shia Islam, whereas the Iranians and their clients in Iraq and Lebanon are Twelver Shia. 

These differences have been used by some observers to suggest that the Houthis belong to a different category when compared to other Iran-supported militias, and that it is therefore simplistic to define events in Yemen along the lines of a proxy conflict. 

But while local conditions should not be ignored, the weight of evidence for extensive Iranian support to the Houthis is overwhelming.  This week, an article in Arab News offered new and intriguing detail regarding the process whereby Teheran ensures the flow of weaponry to their Yemeni allies. 

Arab News interviewed four Yemeni fishermen who revealed that they had been brought to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, via a humanitarian flight to Oman. They had then been trained by Iranian personnel in the use of GPS, camouflage and in control and maintenance of vessels. The men had been deployed in the Somali coastal city of Berbera, from where they would engage in the transport of Iranian consignments of Iran across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to the Houthis in Yemen.  They revealed an ongoing, complex and extensive arms supply operation. 

Iran uses the territory in Yemen controlled by the Houthis for the launching of missiles on Saudi Arabia.  The Houthis also provide a convenient, ostensibly independent address, at which Teheran can ‘park’ acts for which it prefers not to claim responsibility.  For example, the Houthis claimed responsibility for the very significant,  extensive and sophisticated attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in September, 2019.  The attack involved the use of drones and cruise missiles, and was far beyond capabilities that the Houthis could have mustered independently. 

The 11th hour designation by the US is clearly intended to help formalize and cement the current Administration’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran, to the greatest extent possible.  Pompeo and his team at the State Department have been the driving force behind the maximum pressure which has largely succeeded in holding Iran in place over the last two years.  The designation to designate the Houthis appears to be part of a series of moves intended to make it difficult for the incoming Administration to move back to a path of appeasement of Iran. 

It is questionable if these moves will succeed.  Iranian support for the Houthis will not be seriously impacted by the move.  Teheran is obviously indifferent to such designations.  A number of aid agencies expressed concern that the designation may make it harder for the transfer of food and humanitarian aid into Houthi controlled areas.  But what the move perhaps reveals most clearly is concern on the part of Pompeo and his team that much of the momentum built up of pressure on Iran and its proxies is now set to go to waste.  This concern is shared in a number of regional capitals, including Jerusalem.  It remains to be seen whether these concerns will be realized in the period ahead.  But either way, the designations of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, while clearly representing an accurate description of reality, is unlikely to impact on the developing situation in a very significant way.  

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Iran’s Shia militias are standing by for US sanctions to be eased

Jewish Chronicle, 15/1/21

I met Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside the oil town of Baiji, in Sunni central Iraq, five years before he was killed by an American drone. The war against ISIS was at its height, and the Iranian military mastermind Qasem Soleimani – who met his end alongside Muhandis in January 2020 – had taken command of Iraqi Shia militias. There were already rumors about their murderous behavior toward Sunni civilians. That day, Muhandis was in good humor, calm and amused by the western journalists seeking an audience, and the high-ranking Iraqi Army officers who hung on his every word.   

Five years on, both Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Major General Qassem Soleimani lie in their graves.  The militia strength which they built together in Iraq, however, remains very much alive. It is part of a wider archipelago of client political-military organisations, seeded by Iran across the Middle East, from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean Coast. The creation of this network was Soleimani’s life’s work.  Al-Muhandis was his friend, protégé, and key lieutenant in Iraq.   

The demise of the two men, combined with the US policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Tehran, has brought the Iranian militia structure in the Middle East to its knees. But whether the incoming US Administration will maintain that pressure is an open question, and one that keeps leaders up at night across the region. 

Iran’s proxy network was one of the main beneficiaries of the collapse of governance across a large swathe of the Arab world that began with the Arab Spring.  In Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the crumbling of the state allowed Soleimani to plant his client groups, building covert Iranian strength.   

In all of these countries, the goal was the same. Tehran did not seek to capture official state power. Rather, it wanted to transform the state into a weakened host body, allowing its parasitic militia to act with impunity. The long list of its armed groups shows the scale of the threat: the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen, Kata’ib Hezbollah – Muhandis’ organisation – in Iraq, Lebanese Hizballah, the Afghan Fatemiyun group and the Pakistani Zeinabiyun – not to mention the myriad of militia in Syria.  

Over the last two years, however, their advance has largely been halted, if not reversed. Largely, this has been achieved by the United States, and is one of Donald Trump’s most notable foreign policy legacies. 

There is no doubt that the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis left the militia structure decapitated. Assassination is an uncertain weapon, sometimes resulting in the emergence of a leader more formidable than the one removed. Thankfully, this has not been the case here. Esmail Ghaani, who replaced Soleimani at the head of the Qods Force, and Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, now heading the pro-Iran militia structure in Iraq, are proving far less capable than the men who preceded them. The militia structure worked primarily on informal relationships, created by Soleimani over a period of years. These cannot simply be handed over to a replacement. 

Alongside the drone strike that killed them came the US policy known as ‘maximum pressure’. The sanctions imposed on the Iranian oil, financial and banking sectors in 2018 starved the Iranian economy of funds. This meant the closing of the tap for the militias. Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, suffered a 40 per cent reduction funding in 2020. Similarly, the four top pro-Iran militias in Iraq saw their income fall from £3-4 million per month to £1-2 million.  

The lack of leadership and money is having a dramatic affect. In Syria, where there is no large Shia population, Iran depends on financial handouts to fill the ranks. These are no longer available. In Iraq, where the militias have their own sources of income, discipline and unity have begun to break down. On December 20, for example,rockets were fired at the US Embassy in Baghdad.  While a small pro-Iran militia claimed responsibility, the attack was criticised by two of the larger militias, Asab Ahl al Haq and Ktaeb Hizballah. These organizations and others like them control oil fields, checkpoints, real estate and land. Their independent economic resources mean that they are evidently not prepared to mutely follow orders from fresh commanders for whom they have little respect.    

There is now a real possibility that the militias could be poised for a return. President-elect Joe Biden has made clear his desire to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear accords with Iran. As a prerequisite, Tehran is insisting on the lifting of all sanctions. In an attempt to focus American minds, it has threatened to expel international nuclear inspectors from the country on 21 February, unless the money starts to flow again.   

An early capitulation by the Biden Administration would give away any leverage that the US currently holds, and reduce any chances of achieving the improved deal the president-elect has said that he wants. Lifting sanctions would revitalize the cashflow to the militias, threatening to revive their forward motion. Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Major General Qasem Soleimani are gone. Muhandis will stay in Najaf, where they buried him, until further notice, and Soleimani will not be leaving the Kerman Martyrs Cemetery in southeast Iran any time soon. But the structures these men created have not been wrecked. They are only low on fuel. It is up to Biden whether they stay that way. 

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Iraqi Shia militias threaten US, Israel

Jerusalem Post, 1/1/21

A high ranking Iraqi delegation arrived in Iran this week, carrying a message from Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to the Iranian regime.  The delegation, according to a report in Sharq al Aawsat newspaper, was headed by a former director of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office. Its intention was to request that Iran exercise greater control over the myriad of militias that it supports in Iraq. 

The visit comes at a tense time for Iraq.  The anniversary of the killing by the US of IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Shia militia chief Abu Mahdi al Muhandis  falls next week, on January 3.  There are rumors of possible Iranian retaliation against US targets in Iraq, probably to be delivered by one or other of the militias.  These rumors and tension reflect a volatile and unsettled reality. 

Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a former dissident and journalist who subsequently served as commander of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service, is a pro-western figure. He came to the prime ministership in the wake of the protests of 2019-20, and with the support of the protestors. He has little political base of his own, however. The Iraqi parliament remains dominated by pro-Iranian forces.  Pro-Iran figures are also present in Kadhimi’s Cabinet. 

More importantly, the Iran-led militia structures constitute an independent axis of power in Iraq, beyond the reach of the central government.  The largest and most established of them – Badr, Ktaeb Hizballah, Nujaba, and others, control real estate, businesses, land, weaponry, and prisons of their own.  Should the Iranians decline to rein in their proxies, it is not clear what Kadhimi would be willing to attempt, or even what would be possible.   

An additional question has arisen as to the extent to which the militias in their entirety are entirely controlled by Iran at the present time, given the appearance of disagreements between them.  The sense that Soleimani’s successor in the Qods Force, Esmail Ghaani, is a less capable operator, enjoying less authority, adds to this perception, as does the reality that as a result of the US policy of maximum pressure, less Iranian funding is available for the militias.

The latter have had to rely more on their own (considerable) ability to generate income from business and industrial projects under their control, and from Iraqi public monies made available to them because of their dual role as legally constituted Iraqi bodies within the framework of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).  Nevertheless, in assessing this, it is probably worth bearing in mind the past Iranian track record in Lebanon and elsewhere of using claims of responsibility by supposedly independent organizations to provide plausible deniability for Iran itself.  

This issue has recently come to a head. A significant attack took place on December 20th, when a barrage of rockets was fired at the US Embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad.  There were no US casualties, though the embassy suffered material damage, as did the surrounding area. 

The attack, notably, was condemned by a number of the most prominent pro-Iran militias, including Ktaeb Hizballah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.  Responsibility was claimed by an organization calling itself Saraya Thaer al Shuhada.  This is one of many names that have cropped up recently, along with Rab’Allah and others, with little or no previous footprint.  Few in Iraq believe that such formations are any more than convenient sets of initials, which the Qods Force and the militias can use when carrying out actions which if openly claimed would be likely to bring down retribution from the Americans. 

The government evidently doesn’t believe this either, and in the days following the attack, a number of Shia militia members were arrested on suspicion of involvement.  The arrested men included a member of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, which had itself condemned the attack.  Asaib is a small but well known and powerful force, commanded by Qais al-Khazali. It has a reputation for criminality and extreme violence, even by the standards of the militias.  Asaib denied that their member had been involved in the attack.  A confrontation between the militia and Kadhimi’s government seemed imminent. 

The situation escalated when Ktaeb Hizballah, most powerful of the Iran-supported miltias, issued a statement warning the prime minister ‘not to test the patience’ of the ‘resistance.’  Abu Ali al-Askari, KH spokesman, added that the time was right to cut off the Prime Minister’s ears, ‘as you cut off a goat’s’.  The militias’ rhetoric, while inelegant, has the merit of avoiding ambiguity.   

In recent days, however, the militias appear to have attempted to lower the temperature. Asaib Ahl al Haq announced on Sunday that the arrested man had been apprehended ‘on a criminal charge’, and not with connection to the embassy attack, which Asaib condemned.  The movement’s spokesman also dismissed Askari’s threat to the prime minister as ‘inappropriate.’ 

The inability of the Iraqi central government to rein in the Shia militias might be dismissed as a colorful and lurid tale from somewhere distant.  Unfortunately, it is not.  The militias’ entrenchment in Iraq, and specifically in the western part of the country is of direct relevance to Israel. 

As of now, the militias are operating in western Iraq, close to the border, with little disturbance from Kadhimi’s security forces. 

According to Mohammed Qais, an Anbar resident  close to the PMU, and interviewed earlier this month by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, efforts by the Iraqi forces to impose their will and remove the militias from the province were unsuccessful, because the army commander in the area, Nasr al-Ghanem, did not receive support from the ministry of Defense.  According to Qais, “In the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, there is none that can get higher rank without Iranian approval.  Ghanem is Sunni and he is from Anbar…That has made him enemies.”  He added that ‘proxy militias control (in Anbar) every move and every branch of life such as investment, agriculture, security.”

IDF Spokesman, Brigadier General Hidai Zilberman told the Saudi Elaph website this week that Israel expects an Iranian attack in response to recent killings of senior Iranians to most likely come either from Yemen or Iraq. In the case of the latter, the militias’ control of swathes of land in Anbar and elsewhere in the west of Iraq has enabled the Iranians to deploy Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in these areas, according to a number of studies.

Unfortunately, unless an Iraqi leader is prepared to really confront the militias, with the threat of force behind him, it is difficult to see how this situation can be changed.  Noori, an individual close to the ‘Shrines’ militias aligned with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (non Iran-supporting) told MECRA in an interview this month that “Any attempt to directly clash with and eliminate these militias by the Iraqi Army or any other unit would be suicide for everyone.  It would bring Iraq to a situation like that in Lebanon in 1975.” 

This may well be so. But it is also the case that any attempt to build an Iraqi state free of de facto Iranian domination without such a clash must surely be doomed to failure.  Delegations dispatched to Teheran to plead the case are unlikely to have the desired effect.

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Article: Understanding Israel’s War in the Grey Zone

Newsweek, 22/12

The facts of the case remain in dispute. A variety of versions have emerged. But all the various accounts agree that the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a brigadier general of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, considered by Israel to be the commander of the military element of the Iranian nuclear program, died in a hail of bullets on the road to his hometown of Absard, south of Tehran, on November 27.

No one has openly claimed responsibility for the killing of Fakhrizadeh, but it may be taken as a near certainty that Israel was behind it. The event thus appears to be a rare sighting of an ongoing campaign under way for some years now: Israel’s ongoing, usually silent “grey zone” war against Iran.

This campaign, and the way it is fought, is a natural partner to the diplomatic moves that have recently produced “normalization” agreements between Israel, Morocco, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Together, these represent the Israeli response to a strategic dilemma—namely, how can Israel maintain the required levels of societal calm, normality and tranquility within which economic activity and innovation can flourish, while at the same time engaging effectively in the long, open-ended struggle against those countries and organizations committed to its destruction?

The strategic “long war” doctrine underlying the activities of those organizations and states, nationalist and Islamist, which have engaged in irregular warfare against Israel over the last half-century is intended to accentuate this contradiction. The notion, as articulated by Lebanese Hezballah leader Hassan Nasrallah in his 2000 speech at Bint Jbeil in which he alleged that Israeli society was weaker than a “spider’s web,” is that by making the pursuit of normal life impossible in Israel, the Jewish state’s enemies would erode its people’s will to continue—and cause them, over time, to abandon their commitment to it in the first instance. The model for this desired outcome is the demise of French Algeria, and the departure from that country of French settlers after 1959.

Israel, of course, does not accept the historic comparison, nor the underlying diagnosis of the society. But this is not an argument characterized by respectful debate. The task facing Israeli strategists has been to develop a means of diplomacy and a simultaneous means of war capable of preventing the hypothesis from being tested. What this looks like in practice has been on display in recent weeks.

The purpose of Israel’s current, ongoing military campaign is two-fold. It is intended to disrupt and hinder Iran’s ongoing efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. It also seeks to prevent and reverse the Iranian project to create an extensive infrastructure of support across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and then to embed advanced weapons systems directed at Israel within that infrastructure.

This is a very 21st-century campaign. It is considered to involve only a relatively small number of Israeli agencies and citizens. Key among the former are parts of the air force, the Mossad and other intelligence bodies, and personnel who learned their trade in Israel’s most selective special forces units.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh would have been the province of intelligence groups. The air force, meanwhile, is engaged on a weekly basis in disrupting Iranian efforts at building and consolidating its human and material infrastructure in Syria. This ongoing campaign has, in the view of Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor in Israel and today a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, succeeded—as expressed to me in a recent conversation—in setting back the Iranian effort by “80 to 85 percent.”

Covert action, including the use of assassinations, has formed a controversial part of Israel’s way of war since the very birth of the state—and, indeed, even before it. Famously, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir directed Israel’s intelligence agencies to eliminate the perpetrators of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. This was a mission achieved, though not without serious errors and mishaps. The last of the individuals directly responsible for the Munich massacre was not killed until 1979.

But the structures established by Israel for carrying out that campaign amounted to the formalization of existing practices, rather than a completely novel turn. In the early 1960s, Israel, in “Operation Damocles,” conducted a series of assassinations of rocket scientists, including German veterans of Hitler’s rocket program. These men were working with the then-Egyptian regime to develop Cairo’s long-range missile capacity.

Even prior to the establishment of Israel, Zionist paramilitary organizations kept assassination as one of their tools. The commander of the Mossad operational unit in Operation Damocles was future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The latter learned his trade as operations officer of the Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Israel Freedom Fighters), better known in the English-speaking world as the Stern Gang. This organization assassinated, among others, a UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, in Jerusalem in 1948, and a British minister of state in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, in Cairo in 1944.

The first significant political assassination carried out by Zionist organizations indeed traces all the way back to Jerusalem in 1924. The victim was Jacob De Haan, a prominent Jewish anti Zionist leader. The perpetrators were the newly formed Haganah, first of the Zionist military groups.

It is a long way from pistol shots by a lone gunman in 1920s-era Jerusalem—the gunman in question, at the time, was Odessa-born Avraham Tehomi, later the founder and first commander of the Irgun—to the complex, high-tech operation that appears to have ended the life of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. But a consistent, if evolving, praxis links the two. Israel does not always wait until a problem has ripened in order to meet it with large-scale conventional military or diplomatic means. Instead, where Israel deems it necessary, it prefers to deploy direct action to prevent the nascent problem from fully emerging.

Former Deputy Prime Minister and Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, speaking to me recently in Jerusalem, located Israel’s alleged policy of assassinations within an integrated, three-sided strategy intended to stop Iran from going nuclear. The strategy, according to Meridor, involves “prevention” (a euphemism for active measures to disrupt the Iranian effort), “defense” (including such systems as the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system) and “deterrence” (relating to Israel’s own putative nuclear capacity).

This strategy minimizes disruption for the daily lives of the vast majority of Israelis, who are able to continue their own endeavors largely unaware of, or incurious about, national security details.

In this way, it fits with the current advances in peacemaking and the normalization agreements. The defense strategy is intended to keep professed enemies at bay with the minimum of visibility. This then enables civil society and enterprise to flourish. These, in turn, produce the capacities—in desert agriculture, medical tech, artificial intelligence and other fields—that make Israel such a useful partner for regional states in the civilian realm.

The killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on the road from Tehran to Absard thus forms part of an approach to conflict intended to minimize fallout and accompanying noise, while bolstering the atmosphere of security and normality that makes a flourishing 21st-century society feasible amidst a troubled and strife-torn neighborhood. Innovation, normalization and cooperation for those who seek goodwill; the silent war for those with other intents. As of now, it appears to be working.

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Turn, and Turn again: A Tale of Two Israels

Australian, 29/12

A drama series recently broadcast on national TV in  Israel, entitled in English ‘Valley of Tears,’  set in the dramatic first days of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, has led to renewed public discussion on those difficult days.  On October 6, 1973, Israel was caught by surprise when the full force of two Arab armies – Egypt from the south and Syria from the north – was launched at the Jewish state.  Israel eventually prevailed, but at the very high cost of 2521 dead. The episode remains a national trauma.  The series depicts the efforts of a small number of IDF soldiers in the Golan Heights in the very first days of the war, as they battle to stop the advance of the Syrian army towards the first Israeli civilian communities at the foot of the Heights. 

‘Valley of Tears,’ among other things, presents an opportunity to observe the stark contrast between Israel’s difficult strategic situation nearly fifty  years ago, and its current position.  Then, the Jewish state faced a united wall of rejection from the Arabic-speaking states. By contrast, it maintained working diplomatic relations with the two non-Arabic speaking countries of the Middle East – Iran and Turkey. 

Then, there was near parity in conventional military capacities between Israel and its Arab neighbors and enemies. The result was that armed contests between the sides took the form of mass mobilization of the army and the society, with broad sections of the population drawn into the war effort, and very large numbers of casualties.   

Nearly fifty years on, all this has been transformed.  In recent months, obscured somewhat by the global focus on the Coronavirus, a  number of dramatic events have taken place which have cast Israel’s changed (and improved) strategic situation into bold relief. 

Firstly, the US-brokered  normalization agreements with four Arab states demolish the notion of anything so simple as an ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’ remaining in existence.  The breakthrough with the United Arab Emirates brings the most developed Arab economy (and a former bastion of the Arab boycott and the Arab oil weapon against Israel) into effective alliance with Jerusalem. 

De facto relations between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, and the close parity of analysis between the two countries regarding the main threats in the region, have long been one of the Middle East’s worst kept secrets. 

Both countries see Iran and its allies, and Sunni political Islam as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Turkey, as central challenges.  But the placing of relations on a formal footing is already producing a wave of private sector contacts, with major partnerships set to emerge.  An Emirati company, Dubai-based DP world, for example, has submitted a bid to take part in the privatization of the strategically important Haifa port, in Israel’s north.  The possibilities are immense.

Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco are similarly launched on the path of normalization with Israel today. 

Indeed, with Syria and Iraq broken and divided, Saudi Arabia engaged in behind the scenes cooperation, and Jordan and Egypt long at peace with Israel, there is today no powerful Arab state still engaged in the fight.

Enemies, however, remain. And it is interesting to note that today it is the two other non-Arab states in the region – Iran and Turkey – which form the most powerful opponents of Jerusalem.  The same states who in 1973 were semi-allies. 

Iran remains the most serious challenge.  But the ways of conflict are today themselves very different.  Israel has indeed been engaged in a type of war with Iran for a number of years now. But it is nothing like the massed, armored set-pieces on the Golan in 1973. It is a largely silent conflict fought far from visible channels, involving only a small number of Israeli agencies and citizens: namely, the intelligence services, parts of the air force, and graduates of Israel’s most select special forces units. 

In this ‘campaign between the wars’, Israel seeks to disrupt and reverse Iranian attempts to advance towards a nuclear capacity, and stymy Teheran’s effort to build infrastructure across the collapsed spaces of the Arab world (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon).  The killing of the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh east of Teheran on November 27th may well have been an episode in this conflict.  The weekly sorties by Israeli aircraft to target Iranian facilities in Syria form an additional element of the ongoing effort. 

So from the vantage point of 2020, the embattled Israel of 1973, facing the combined might of powerful, centralized neighboring Arab states with the whole Arab world united behind them seems distant indeed.  There is, nevertheless, an important lesson still to be learned from that time.  The Yom Kippur War was a black swan event, unexpected, erupting into a period in which Israel’s situation,  to quote one leader of that time ‘had never been better.’  The lesson being that now, as then, the Middle East remains a dynamic and fluid arena, in which today’s enemy can be tomorrows friend, and vice versa, and in which things can change, for better and for worse, completely, and very fast. 

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Who Betrayed Ruhollah Zam?

Jerusalem Post, 19/12

Mystery surrounds capture of Iranian dissident journalist

Ruhollah Zam, Iranian journalist and oppositionist, was hanged at Evin prison on December 12. He had been found guilty of ‘corruption on earth,’ a catch-all term used by Iran’s regime to convict those it targets for activities in the field of political activity and espionage.  Zam, who had been in captivity since October 2019, was the founder and director of a popular Telegram Channel and forum called AmadNews which carried up to the minute information on the demonstrations and protests which swept Iran in 2017 and 2018. The channel, which had 1.4 million followers, provided details regarding upcoming protests, and officials who were challenging the regime. 

The reach and influence of AmadNews appears to have led to the regime decision to target and eliminate Ruhollah Zam.  The journalist had lived in Paris since 2011.  The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), according to the available evidence, put in motion a complex sting operation to lure Zam to Iraq, from where he was kidnapped and taken to Iran. 

The full details regarding this operation have not yet emerged, but what is known, or suspected, is casting a pall over Iran’s dissident and opposition communities in Europe, because of what it reveals regarding the apparent extent of their penetration by the agencies of the Iranian regime, and regarding the extent of Teheran’s away over Iraq.

So what do we know about the process by which Ruhollah Zam was lured to Iraq, and then taken to Iran?  Firstly, it is important to note that for an Iranian dissident to leave the (relative) safety of France for Iraq is in itself a rash act bordering on foolhardiness. Iraq is today to a great extent Iranian occupied territory.  In a manner reminiscent of the situation in Lebanon, Teheran’s reach extends deep into the structures of Iraqi governance and security.  Powerful Shia militias such as the Badr organization exert influence within the Interior Ministry. Via the structures of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), IRGC bodies play an official security role. 

Among the places where Iran through its proxies maintains a presence is Baghdad International Airport.  Contrary to initial reports suggesting that he had been snatched from the street, the latest emergent evidence suggests that Ruhollah Zam was  detained at the airport by the official Iraqi authorities, and then conveyed across the border to Iran.  According to a report by BBC Persian on October 16, 2019, an ‘informed source in the Iraqi government’ confirmed that Zam was ‘detained by the Iraqi intelligence service for more than a day and then extradited to Iran under an extradition agreement.”

It is worth noting that an extradition agreement between Iraq and Iran does exist, but the text of the agreement specifically permits either country to ignore the extradition request if the person whose extradition has been requested is suspected of committing a ‘political crime.’  This clause was included, according to BBC Persian, because of the presence of members of the Iranian opposition group MEK on Iraqi soil, so as to avoid complications if Baghdad were to refuse an Iranian extradition request.  Evidently, however, when it came to the case of Ruhollah Zam, the Iraqi authorities found no reason to invoke this clause, despite the clearly political nature of the offences of which he was accused. 

But why did Zam leave for Iraq in the first place? The weak and compromised nature of the Iraqi state is not a secret, and is well known to Iranian dissidents.  Zam would surely have been aware of the extreme risk he was taking, and indeed subsequent testimony confirms that his wife and colleagues sought to dissuade him from taking the trip prior to his departure.

So what was he looking to gain? Here, the story becomes murkier.  Le Figaro newspaper, at the time of Zam’s arrest, reported that ‘“The Revolutionary Guards began by sending to him in Paris a young woman who apparently convinced him to go to Iraq to meet Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of Iraq’s Shia Muslims and great rival of Ali Khamenei, the head of the Iranian regime.” 

A number of Iranian opposition websites name the woman in question as one Shirin Najafi Zadeh, an administrator at AmadNews. (the person in question also goes by the name of Sudabeh Khorsand).  According to the claims now circulating widely on Iranian opposition forums, Le Figaro’s initial report was slightly wide of the mark. Najafi Zadeh did not hold out the possibility of a meeting with al-Sistani. Rather, she approached Zam, claiming that she was herself in contact with the office of Sistani, and that the latter was interested in providing finance for a new television channel, to broadcast a message of opposition to the Iranian regime. 

According to a statement by a friend of Zam, made to an Iranian opposition media channel, Najafi Zadeh spoke to Zam from Iraq, and claimed to be in possession of a large cash donation from Sistani’s office (amounting to 15 million Euros in 500 Euro notes, according to the statement), which was intended to make possible the launch of the new TV channel by Zam in France.  She asked Zam to travel to Iraq in order to collect the cash and bring it back to Paris.  This, according to Zam’s friend, was the ‘bait’ which drew Ruhollah Zam to Iraq, where he was of course immediately arrested.

Shirin NajafiZadeh, now reportedly in hiding, has issued a statement denying these claims, and asserting that she in fact sought to prevent Zam from travelling to Iraq. The allegations have caused a storm in Iranian opposition circles.

Iranian opposition activists are also angry at what they regard as the failure of the French authorities to make adequate efforts to save Ruhollah Zam, during the 14 months that he was in custody prior to his execution. 

The recent killing of Iranian nuclear scientist and IRGC brigadier-general Mohsen Fakhrizadeh  in the Teheran area revealed the Iranian regime’s own vulnerabilities with regard to its security.  It appears, however, that when it comes to harassing and silencing its civilian opponents, the regime is somewhat more effectual.  The details of the kidnapping and judicial murder of Ruhollah Zam reveal both the deep penetration by Iranian state agencies of exiled opposition circles and, no less gravely, the extent to which certain agencies of the official Iraqi state now appear to be openly doing the bidding of Teheran. 

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Two thoughts on the Israel TV series ‘Valley of Tears’

A couple of final thoughts on the Kan series  שעת נעילה  or ‘Valley of Tears,’ which concluded this week.  Firstly, I will admit to a certain parochial pride at seeing the bit of the army that is ‘my’ bit portrayed at the center of a moment of supreme national importance.  IDF Northern Command, Division 36, the Armored Corps, the 188 Brigade, and the Golan Heights is exactly the part of the IDF that I know well and in the framework of which I served as a regular and then a reserve soldier for 18 years.  In the asymmetrical and irregular conflicts which have been the main business of the IDF for the last 30 years, the armored forces are not the ‘stars of the show’ and the corps has suffered a corresponding loss in budgets, prestige and centrality.  As a result, it has often seemed that the particular combat history depicted in this series had become the concern or property of a small number of citizens, among whom I include myself.  Since I have always felt that the stand of the 7th and 188 brigades on the Golan in October 1973 has something of Thermopylae (and something, frankly, of Masada, at least in the 188’s case) about it, it has been great to see it rising to this level of a kind of nationally acknowledged story, with certain even epic qualities. 

A more important point, however, concerns certain absences in the story, which I find regrettable.  I would not want to see a schmaltzy, syrupy type treatment of these events a la Spielberg, and it is indeed quite impossible that the Israeli culture or mentality would produce something of that kind. At the same time, it is frustrating once more to see the Israeli society and the military culture portrayed very clearly through a kind of post-Zionist and leftist lens. Not because I want to see nationalist propaganda on screen (I very much don’t), but simply because this lens deliberately omits a salient element of the Israeli-Jewish experience that is very visible to anyone who speaks Hebrew and lives here – and that is the Jewish-traditional, and mobilized element based on a sense of Jewish national rights, Jewish tradition and the rightness of Israel’s cause vis a vis the Arab-Muslim effort to destroy it.  This, as everyone knows, is the belief-complex which stands at the center of Israeli Jewish society, which is reflected in its voting patterns, much of its cultural product and consumption, its levels of religious and traditional observance etc.  This is the side of Israeli society  which despite the renaissance of Israeli cinema and TV drama in recent years, rarely makes it to the screen, and even more rarely makes it to international audiences, but understanding of which is crucial to understanding the country and its decisions and directions.  

Its permissible and fine to make ‘pure action’ movies, of course, for people who are looking for that. But שעת נעילה wasn’t a piece of that type.  A considerable part of it was concerned with social and political discussion. In this area, we had a very large helping of the far leftist, anti-Zionist critique of Israel, and even a scene where an articulate and serious character enunciates the Arab nationalist case against Zionism and Israel. There was not one sentence, however, in which the case for Jewish national rights and sovereignty in Israel was made.  This is a rather odd, and disappointing state of affairs. Its main deleterious effect, I think, is that it results in a lurid, very partial and distorted picture of Israeli society being presented, both to the domestic audience and no less importantly, to international viewers. 

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Iranian Responses to Fakhrizadeh Killing; Teheran’s Options for Retaliation

Jerusalem Post, 5/12

Iranian officials and regime supporters responded to the killing of Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh,  widely regarded as the ‘father’ of Iran’s military nuclear program, with a public outpouring of fury.  Many of the responses sought to achieve the difficult rhetorical task of belittling the achievement of Iran’s enemies, while at the same time stressing the magnitude of the loss.  All promised vengeance. 

Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, declared, in a statement translated from Farsi by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, that ‘The enemy is not manly enough to fight a battle with Iran directly. The demise of Israel is near and these are the last tantrums of Israel. Revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s blood is coming, and it will be with the solidarity of the Iranian forces with all their formations.”

Tasnim, a news website associated with the IRGC, asserted that “If you want to stop the rabid dog, you have to confront him. or he will attack you again. Missiles, as Iran’s main response option, can hit any part of Israel from the depths of the country… In addition to the missile option, the Islamic Republic has other opportunities ahead of it, including Iran’s presence near the borders of the occupied territories in Syria. In Lebanon, too, Hezbollah is at its best as a powerful arm of the Islamic Republic.”

Hussein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said, meanwhile, that  “revenge and severe punishment” for the perpetrators of the assassination “is on the agenda.” (All translations: MECRA). 

The Iranian intention to seek retribution is clear.  But what form is Iran’s response likely to take?

Teheran possesses an extensive infrastructure of paramilitary client organizations across the Middle East, one or another of which might be activated to strike at Israel.  Iran also has a extensive global network, with a long history of terror attacks on Israeli, Jewish and other targets.  Retribution will almost certainly come from one or other of these possibilities. A conventional response from the Iranian state forces, which would amount to a declaration of war, is unlikely. Israeli and Jewish security structures are consequently in a state of high alert globally.

Yet the situation facing Iran is not a simple one.  With regard to paramilitary infrastructures close to Israel’s borders:  Lebanese Hizballah today faces a complex political situation.  The Lebanese economy and currency are in free fall. The repair bill for the destruction wrought by the Ammonium Nitrate explosion in August is estimated at $15 billion.  300,000 people were made homeless by it. And Hizballah is no longer an unseen paramilitary client of Iran. Rather, it is a large political-military bureaucracy which dominates the Lebanese parliament and the process of government formation.  Any act of violence emanating from this corner is certain to produce very heavy Israeli retribution, and there is a very visible and very extensive target bank. 

With regard to Syria, again, Iranian capabilities are extensive and well-documented. But recent events once more indicate that Israel has domination of the intelligence picture with regard to Syria, and extensive knowledge regarding Iranian moves. Regional media reports on the killing of an additional IRGC commander close to the Iraq-Syria border on Saturday evening, as he sought to supervise the transport of weapons across the border, appear to offer further proof of this.  The recent foiling of an attempt to place an explosive device at the border fence demonstrates Iran and Hizballah’s extensive presence and infrastructure close to the border, but also Israel’s knowledge of it.

Broader strategic questions are again relevant here.  Iran is engaged in a long term strategic effort in Syria.  The evidence suggests that while Israel has largely succeeded in disrupting and dismantling efforts to deploy weapons systems in the country, the human infrastructure of recruitment and organized support below has been built and extends to the border.  This infrastructure, like Lebanese Hizballah, is a strategic project which is unlikely to be placed at risk by using it as a platform for a retaliation operation which would certainly bring down further retribution. 

Similarly, Iran possesses an extensive structure of client militias in Iraq, and with missiles, including the Fateh-110 and Zulfiqar systems deployed in the west of the country, Israel is within range.  But again, the deployment in Iraq is intended for strategic purposes – to broaden Iran’s options for retaliation in the event of an all out war or an attack on Iranian facilities in Iran itself, and to secure political domination of the Iraqi state for Iranian purposes.   

This leaves two remaining areas from where the record suggests retaliation is more likely to come: the Ansar Allah/Houthi movement in Yemen, or the global IRGC/Hizballah terror infrastructure. 

Re the former, Iran has found it useful in the past when engaged in high profile action against other states to use the Houthis as a convenient smokescreen.  Most famously, the Houthis implausibly claimed early responsibility for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khureis on September 14, 2019.  It is not unimaginable that the Yemeni guerrillas, or at least their name-tag, could be utilized by the IRGC in launching ordnance at Israel. 

The most likely route for Iran’s retaliation, however, remains the global terror network maintained by the IRGC in close cooperation with Lebanese Hizballah. The record shows that in the past, Iran has chosen this route in responding to the killings of senior officials of its own or of its proxies. Thus, Teheran responded to Israel’s killing of Lebanese Hizballah leader Abbas Mussawi in 1992 by striking at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in the same year, and then at the AMIA community center in the same city in 1994. 

Similarly, IRGC/ Hizballah’s international networks have been mobilized in efforts to seek retribution for the killing of Hizballah military mastermind Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008. Here, there have been a string of failures, and this killing remains an open matter for the movement.  The Burgas bombing July 18, 2012, in which five Israeli tourists were killed, is not considered to constitute an act of significant magnitude to close this account. 

So the record, and political and strategic realities make the international terror track the most likely avenue for Iran’s revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s killing. Here too, however, political considerations apply.  With a new, and probably more reconciliatory US Administration about to take office, Iran may well judge it prudent to avoid any hasty response.  The prospect of sanctions relief, and the end of ‘Maximum pressure’ may be found to be enough to justify silence, for now. 

Hossein Dehghan the influential former minister of defense, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s adviser in the defense industry  said following the Fakhrizadeh killing that “while the call for revenge is legitimate, Iran will act in a smart way and won’t leave the enemies aggression unanswered. We’ll determine when and where to respond.”

It may therefore well be that no rapid response to Fakhrizadeh’s killing is forthcoming.  The alert in Israel and in Israeli and Jewish facilities worldwide is essential, of course. But in assessing such matters, the political and strategic contexts, and past practice should not be ignored. It is also worth remembering the quote often attributed to Charles De Gaulle, according to which ‘the graveyards are filled with indispensable men.’ 

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