Iran is not Leaving Syria any time soon

Jerusalem Post, 19/11

The departure of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander from Syria this month has led to some speculation in regional media that the Syrian regime is seeking to recalibrate its relations with Teheran. Two Saudi news outlets claimed that the officer was removed at the direct order of President Bashar Assad.  According to the reports in al-Arabiya and al-Hadath, the independent activities of the officer, in violation of Syrian sovereignty, led to the order for his removal. 

An additional article by Lebanese commentator Ali Hashem at al-Monitor purported to provide further details regarding the growing sentiment at the top of the regime against the Iranian presence.   According to Hashem, who quotes an un-named source, Assad himself is cautious and wishes to avoid pressuring the Iranians to leave.   A second camp wishes to take a firmer stance, intended to induce the Iranians ‘to accept that the war in Syria is over and there is no need for their presence.’  This camp, according to Hashem’s source, includes the president’s wife, Asma, and the president’s younger brother, Maher.   

The officer in question, General Javad Ghafari, was appointed commander of the IRGC’s forces in Syria at the height of the civil war, in 2015.  He replaced IRGC general Hossein Hamadani, who was killed in that year – the highest ranking Iranian commander to die in Syria. 

Closer observation of events in Syria suggests that these claims should be treated with some scepticism.  That Ghafari was deployed in Syria and has now departed is not in doubt.  But the extent to which his departure reflects a Syrian effort to detach the regime from its Iranian patrons remains deeply open to question.

This is for two reasons: firstly, because the timing of the supposed expulsion fits perhaps a little too neatly with a current Arab diplomatic campaign to bring the Assad regime back to international legitimacy. 

Secondly, and more importantly, because available evidence from the ground suggests no significant change in the Iranian deployment in Syria.  Rather, the Iranians are continuing both in efforts to entrench their presence in Syria, and in the cloaking of these efforts by weaving them into the deployments of the official Syrian armed forces. 

The revelation of the commander’s departure came just days after the visit of UAE foreign minister Abdullah Bin Zayed to Damascus.  It was reported not in regime media outlets, but rather in Saudi media.  The Emirati foreign minister’s visit to Damascus was the most visible step so far in an ongoing diplomatic campaign to end Syria’s isolation.  The UAE has pioneered this effort, reopening its own Damascus embassy as early as 2018.  Other Arab states are on board.  Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are all engaged in this effort. 

The intentions of these states is to draw a line under the Syrian civil war. Assad is in urgent need of funds for reconstruction.  The US Caesar act, and the European insistence of the commencement of a political process mean that western largesse is not available to him.  The Arab states believe that inducement of the regime and normalization with it are the best tools for convincing Assad to dispense with the Iranian presence, which he no longer needs.  The announcement of Ghafari’s departure and the subsequent articles are clearly intended to offer early evidence that this process has begun.   

Is there any substance to the notion that the regime has tired of the Iranian presence and is seeking ways to reduce or end it?  Certainly, it has been possible to hear such sentiments expressed in pro-regime circles in recent years.  The Assad regime is a family dictatorship.  In so far as it has ideological pretensions, these are in the direction of Arab nationalism and chauvinism. Its supporters have little in common with the Shia Islamist revolutionaries of the IRGC. But the Iranian presence in Syria is not a matter of personal taste. Without Iranian assistance, the regime would almost certainly have fallen before the Russian intervention in 2015. 

Iran today possesses an extensive infrastructure in Syria. This includes exclusive control of a border crossing, (Albukamal-Al Qaim, between Iraq and Syria, and the roads leading from it, and an extensive archipelago of bases and positions extending to the border with Israel.  It has also established Hizballah style militias in southern Syria, recruited for pay from among the impoverished Sunni population.  In addition, through such formations as the National Defense Forces, it has created structures which are today part of the official security forces.  Certain bodies of long standing within the security forces, such as Air Force Intelligence and the 4th Division also work closely with the IRGC. 

That is, Iran, in the pattern now familiar from Lebanon and Iraq, but in the unique circumstances of Syria, is some way toward achieving the implantation of its own ‘deep state’ in Syria, partially within regime structures and partly outside, on Syrian soil but beyond the regime’s control.  Bashar Assad simply does not possess the means to expel this structure. 

The problem is that as is also seen in Lebanon and Iraq, the Sunni Arab powers also lack the kind of coercive abilities which alone could challenge the Iranian structures. The Gulf Arabs and the others can bring money, diplomatic acceptance and a return to legitimacy. This, however, if it is achieved, is likely as elsewhere to exist alongside, rather than in place of the Iran controlled hard power element. 

In the latest evidence emerging of Iran’s activities on Syrian soil, a report at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights this week noted that Iranian positions in the Albukamal area took down Iranian and militia flags on November 12, replacing them with Syrian regime banners. This followed a deadly attack on November 10 by unidentified drones, according to SOHR, which maintains a network of informants across Syria and in the relevant area.   A neater illustration of the interconnectedness of the Iranian element and the regime would be difficult to find. 

A report by the Alma Center, meanwhile, published a report claiming that Iran is in the process of smuggling surface to air missile systems into Syria.  If confirmed, this would constitute the latest evidence of the deepening and widening threat of the Iranian presence in Syria. 

There are no simple or easy solutions to this challenge. Israel has been engaged in its ‘campaign between the wars’ for eight years now.  We are told that the defense establishment is pleased with the damage inflicted and the progress made. Still, the depth and dimensions of the Iranian project in Syria may well be beyond what can be destroyed by surgical air strikes alone (albeit these can surely destroy particular systems and impede progress).  It is difficult also to see how this machine can be dislodged by the diplomacy of Sunni Arab states, who have shown again and again that they lack a hard power capacity to halt the ambitions of Iran and its proxies.  These are the harsh dimensions of the situation. The departure of a single officer does not change its essential elements. 

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Generals or Islamists: Sudan Coup follows prevailing trend in the Arab World.

Jerusalem Post, 29/10

A coup has taken place in Sudan.   On Monday morning, In a series of moves straight from the well-thumbed handbook of Arab military takeovers, Sudanese military forces stormed the country’s state broadcaster. At an unspecified hour, the Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and a number of his ministers, were taken into custody by the military.  The coup’s leader and apparent instigator, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan then delivered a televised address in which he announced that an ‘independent and fair representative government’ would hold power until elections, to be held in 2023.   

The fourteen member ‘Sovereignty Council,’ which had acted as the collective head of state since the ousting of President Omar al-Bashir in August 2019, has been dissolved by the military.  The council consisted of both military and civilian members. It had been chaired by al-Burhan himself.  The deputy chair was General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the army’s Rapid Support Forces.  The two had been scheduled, however, to hand leadership of the council over to civilian leaders in January 2022. The handover was stipulated by the draft constitutional declaration of 2019, which followed the toppling of al-Bashir.  This week’s coup  nullifies this procedure, ushering in the full domination of government by the armed forces.

As of now, demonstrations have taken place against the coup in a number of cities, including the capital, Khartoum. Several people have been killed.  Prime Minister Hamdok has been released from custody. The coup has been condemned by a number of western countries, including the US and the UK.  A US State Department Spokesperson has announced the freezing of $700 million in economic support for Sudan. 

US-based Lebanese journalist Hussein Abdul Hussein, noted in an article written in response to the coup and published on Tuesday that ‘Change has come to predominantly Arab countries in different shapes and forms…The result in all these countries, however, has been the same: Either civil war or the reestablishment of autocracy.’

It is indeed the case that efforts at establishing stable and representative rule in majority Arabic speaking countries have proven universally unsuccessful.  Hussain points to the ‘absence’ of the ‘popular culture that can sustain the building and maintaining of a modern state.’

The forces in the Arab world committed to the establishment of representative government remain weak and defeated. Indeed, in every Arab state, these feeble groupings find themselves pushed aside by the two powerful elements that are the only true competitors for power in the Arab world at the present time – these are the forces of political Islam, and those of the old, autocratic Arab order, as represented by the military, and the monarchies.  This general rule is also visible in Sudan. 

In 2011, this author wrote in a book called The Transforming Fire, that ‘for the moment, it is this order or the Islamists – there is no third way.’  The statement was written on the eve of the ‘Arab Spring.’  Nothing that has taken place in the subsequent decade makes its revision necessary.  The coup in Sudan this week further confirms that the present options for governance in the Arab world are the generals and kings – or the Islamists. 

In Sudan, the Omar al-Bashir regime came to power in 1989 in alliance with the Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood influenced National Islamic Front of Hassan Turabi.  The two parted company a decade later, but al-Bashir maintained the pro-Islamist orientation of his regime. Al-Bashir domiciled Osama Bin-Laden in the 1990s. He also aligned closely with Iran, allowing Sudan to be used as a conduit for arms transfers to both Hamas in Gaza and Lebanese Hizballah. Islamists controlled the military, intelligence services and other key ministries under Bashir. 

His fall in 2019  came after an abortive attempt to re-align Sudan’s regional stance in alliance with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Proving nevertheless unwilling to root out Islamist power in the government, or to back the UAE and Saudi Arabia in their dispute with Qatar, al-Bashir was isolated, abandoned, and then toppled. 

After a short hiatus of mixed military and civilian rule, and hopes for representative governance, forces loyal to al-Bashir attempted a putsch in September, 2021, and were crushed. The pendulum has now swung back to open control by the military. 

The pattern is observable across the Arab world.  In Egypt, the Islamists toppled a military regime in 2011, before being themselves replaced by a new military regime in 2013. 

In Tunisia, the military regime of Zine al Abidine Bin Ali was toppled in late 2010.  Bin Ali was replaced by an elected Islamist government. A period of relative stability followed, which was then followed by less stability, and then by the use by President Kais Saed of the army to close parliament in July 2021, following violent demonstrations against the government. As of now, Saed rules by decree, with the backing of the military. 

In Libya, western toppling of the military dictator Muammar Gaddhafi led to the emergence of a Sunni Islamist dominated government in Tripoli. This government is now opposed by a military uprising led by ancien regime general Khalifa Haftar. As of now, this has led to the fragmentation of the country, with Haftar ruling a large enclave in the east of the country, from Tobruk. 

In Syria, a Sunni Islamist uprising has been largely crushed by the Assad regime, with the help of Russia and Iran.  An enclave of Sunni Islamist control backed by Turkey holds on in the north west. 

In Yemen, following the deposing of a military dictator, the country has divided into rival enclaves controlled by Iran-backed Shia Islamists and the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

In Lebanon, an Iran supported Shia Islamist force rules, from within the husk of formal representative government.  In Iraq, a similar effort by Iran supported forces is challenged because of the power of local Shia Islamist forces resisting the encroaching dominance of Teheran. 

And so on.  This pattern is currently without exception in the Arab world.  Islamists, or generals/monarchs, or war between them. It has just been re-affirmed in Sudan, with the generals currently in ascendance. 

In parentheses, it should be noted that two partial exceptions which exactly prove the rule are the Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria and northern Iraq. In both these areas, a sort of authoritarian semi-democracy prevails. They prove the rule because these are examples of non-Arab regional governance. 

What implications do the Sudan coup and the broader pattern of which it is a part have for Israel? 

Re the former, Lieutenant General Burhan met with then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February, 2020.  Burhan is close to Egyptian President Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, with whom he enjoys a longstanding friendship.  His powerful deputy General Mohamed Dagalo, meanwhile, enjoys the patronage of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.  The coup thus represents that regional element to which Israel is closest.  There is no reason to suppose negative effects for Jerusalem. ‘Normalization’ was proceeding slowly in Sudan in any case. But the coup will not knock it off course.  

Regarding the broader regional context, in the apparent absence of any capacity in the Arab world for the development and consolidation of genuine representative institutions and civil society, the prevalence of authoritarian rule over Islamist insurgency and chaos is also clearly preferable. 

So Burhan’s coup follows the identifiable regional trend.  It might be advisable for the British, American and other western governments currently condemning the coup to acquaint themselves with this reality. Hoping for this, however, would arguably be to display a type of utopian optimism more usually to be found among the advocates of democracy in the Arab world. 

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Will Turkey Strike Again into Syria?

Jerusalem Post, 5/11

A number of regional media outlets have in recent days carried articles concerning a possibly imminent Turkish military operation into north east Syria. 

The reports and rumors follow a summit between Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the resort town of Sochi on September 29th.  The summit came after an escalation in tensions between Turkish and Russian forces in Syria in the preceding days.  On September 26, after statements by Putin critical of the presence of ‘foreign forces’ in Syria, Russian aircraft carried out raids on Turkish/rebel held areas of Idleb and Aleppo provinces. 

Russia’s oft-stated strategic goal in Syria is the reunification of the country under the nominal rule of the Assad dictatorship.  Putin’s reference to ‘foreign forces’ is intended to convey that while Russian and Iranian forces operate in Syria at the invitation of the dictator, other non-Syrian elements, such as the Turkish and American deployments, are there without Assad’s permission. 

In response to the Russian escalation, Erdogan beefed up the Turkish military presence along the frontlines. This in turn led to an increased presence of Syrian regime forces.  The summit on the 29th was intended to reduce tensions.  No joint statement followed it, but Erdogan was quoted as stating that the talks had focused on reaching a final and sustainable solution’ to the Syrian issue. 

At the same time, tensions have been building in recent weeks on a different front in Syria – between Turkey and the Kurdish-controlled Autonomous Administration of North East Syria.  Turkey claims that the Kurdish YPG organization has increased cross border attacks in recent weeks.

Erdogan described an attack on the Turkish controlled town of Azaz on October 11th as representing the ‘final straw’.  The Turkish President stated that ‘We have no patience left regarding some regions in Syria which have the quality of being the source of attacks on our country…We are determined to eliminate the threats originating from here either with the active forces there or by our own means.’

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on October 13 that Turkey would ‘do what is necessary for its security’  following the rise in attacks. 

The notion being discussed is that Turkey might seek to act  directly against Kurdish targets in Syria, possibly offering Russia and the Assad some gains in the Idleb area by way of recompense.  A report on Monday at the Middle East Eye website suggested that in return for the destruction of the Kobani canton, Turkey would allow joint Turkish /Russian control on the strategic M4 highway, which runs from Aleppo to the coast. 

According to reports in Turkish pro-government media, translated by the al-Monitor website, leaders of Turkish-aligned Syrian Islamist armed groups have already been briefed in Ankara, on the ‘tactics and strategies for a fourth military campaign in Syria.’ (Turkey has already carried out three campaigns against the Kurds in Syria – Operations ‘Euphrates Shield’ in 2016, Olive Branch in 2018, and Peace Spring in 2019.)

The potential target areas for such an offensive would be Tel Rifaat and Manbij west of the Euphrates, and Ain Issa and Tal Tamr east of the river.  Tel Rifaat, an isolated Kurdish enclave supplied by regime controlled territory, is the most vulnerable area.  Control of it would strengthen the Turkish and Islamist rebel position in Aleppo Governorate. 

Another possible target for a Turkish offensive would be to strike simultaneously against Manbij and Ain Issa, in an attempt to link up pro-Turkish forces south of Kurdish controlled Kobani.  The latter was the site of a major battle against ISIS in 2014. 

Diplomatic factors must surely complicate any Turkish decision on an offensive, however.  Ain Issa and Tal Tamr are located east of the Euphrates. This area falls within the zone of operations against ISIS, as defined by the US and its allies.  There is a precedent for Turkish activity east of the river.  Operation Peace Spring carved out a Turkish area of control east of the Euphrates following then President Donald Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from Syria in October, 2019. 

But any renewed Turkish offensive in the area could only take place with US agreement, or acquiescence. Much may depend on President Biden’s ability or desire to make clear to the Turkish president that no further advances into the area held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and by US forces themselves will be tolerated. 

But should US objections prove a sufficient deterrent to any Turkish push from Ain Issa or Tal Tamr, any action west of the Euphrates will also be subject to diplomatic considerations.  The Kurdish YPG west of the river operates outside of the framework of the SDF and is not protected by the US. But west of the river is the Russian fiefdom (in partnership with the Assad regime).  Hence, unless permission is granted by Russia for any Turkish incursion, it is difficult to see how such an operation could take place.  For this reason, the Sochi summit on the 29th remains of central interest. 

As of now, according to Arabic media sources, the build up of forces in the Peace Spring area is continuing.  A report by Kamal Sheikho in the Sharq al Awsat newspaper on Tuesday noted that members of the Turkish-backed ‘ Al-Sharqiya Army, the Suleiman Shah faction, the Ninth Division, and other formations of the “Syrian National Army” factions loyal to Turkey, arrived on Friday at the border city of Tal Abyad with Turkey, north of Raqqa, after crossing Turkish territory from the “Euphrates Shield” areas in the countryside of Aleppo.’ 

Simultaneously, regime forces are conducting ground maneuvers in the Tal Tamr area, facing the Turkish controlled zone. The large scale maneuvers are supported by Russian aircraft.  Both Russian and regime forces have been able to deploy in parts of the SDF controlled area since Operation Peace Spring in 2019, when they were invited in by the Kurdish forces in order to prevent Turkish incursions deeper into Syria. 

Erdogan’s decisionmaking is taking place against a background of economic and political difficulties for the Turkish leader.  With elections in 2023 on the approaching horizon, the Turkish president may see a further ‘victory’ against PKK-associated forces in Syria as a tempting prospect.  As is usual in broken Syria in 2021, the key issues affecting this decision relate to the concerns and desires of other international actors on Syrian soil.  The Assad regime is largely an irrelevance. 

It is not yet clear if the current saber-rattling will result in an actual move by Turkish aligned forces out of their present areas of control.  The days ahead will decide.  Watch this space. 

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Growing Relations between Turkey, Russia a concern for Israel

Jerusalem Post, 8/10

At a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi last week, Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan reaffirmed the growing links between Moscow and Ankara.  The Sochi talks came after Erdogan failed to secure a meeting with US President Joe Biden on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.   Speaking to reporters after the meeting with Putin, Erdogan noted that he had proposed that Turkey work together with Russia on the construction of two more nuclear power plants on Turkish soil. The Russian company Rosatom is currently building a power plant in Akkuyu, in southern Turkey. 

The Turkish President also said last week that Turkey still intends to purchase a second supply of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia.  The purchase of the S400 system by Turkey last year led to US sanctions on Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate, and the cancellation of Turkish reception of the F35 fighter jet. 

In an interview with the CBS network, quoted by Reuters, the Turkish president said that ‘In the future, no body will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defense systems we acquire, from which country and at what level.’ 

The US State Department, responding to Erdogan’s statement, warned that any additional purchase of Russian defense systems would risk triggering additional sanctions. 

Erdogan’s statements confirm the Turkish tilt toward Russia, and  Ankara’s growing estrangement from Washington.

The latest Turkish moves also reflect a contradiction at the heart of Turkish regional strategy, between an immediate desire to avoid isolation, and the deeper strategic goal of unilateral regional assertion and support for Sunni political Islam which are part of the core outlook of Erdogan and those around him.   The understanding of this contradiction is likely to determine Israeli responses to Turkish diplomatic moves.

The Turkish move toward Russia is not only determined by Ankara’s declining relations with Washington.  There is anger and concern in Turkey regarding a recent major naval defense deal between France, and Turkey’s traditional rivals Greece. The $5 billion deal, according to which Greece commits to the purchase of three Belharra frigates and three Gowind corvettes from France, will serve to sharply advance Greek defense capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, at a time when tensions between the two countries in over disputes in these areas are increasing. 

The French-Greek naval deal  follows an agreement last year in which Athens committed to the purchase of 18 fourth generation Rafale fighter jets, for $2.5 billion.  Taken together with the assertive French stance against Turkish moves in the eastern Mediterranean, these major defense deals cement a strategic alliance between France and Greece. France is now committed to come to Greece’s military aid if requested. 

With major disputes extant between Athens and Ankara over air and sea rights in the Aegean, and drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean, it is not hard to see why the direction of events has Turkey rattled, nor why Erdogan is looking around for new partners.  The US is engaged in a general drawdown in the region. Greece has been active in efforts to ensure Washington of its firm pro-US alignment in any emergent strategic competition with Russia.  US anger over Turkish purchase of Russian military equipment and over human rights violations, along with other US alliances make Washington unavailable as a partner for Turkey’s regional ambitions.

Turkey, however, is not in a position simply to exchange Washington’s patronage for Moscow’s.  On a number of key regional files, Ankara and Moscow too are on opposite sides.  In Libya, Turkey supports the Tripoli-based, Muslim Brotherhood associated Government of National Accord.  In Syria, crucially, Turkey under-writes a remaining area of Sunni Islamist control in the north west of the country.  Moscow, meanwhile, backs the Tobruk-based authority of General Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya.  Moscow is also committed to the recovery by the Assad regime in Syria of sovereignty over the whole area of that country.  Shelling and air attacks by the regime and the Russians of the Turkish enclave have increased sharply in recent weeks, even as Turkish-Russian diplomacy advances. 

To counter its potential isolation, Turkey is therefore seeking rapprochement with a number of additional regional players from which it became estranged in recent years.  Efforts at Turkish diplomatic outreach are under way toward the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and, notably, Israel. 

A second round of talks between Egyptian and Turkish officials took place in Ankara in September.  Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Cairo in 2013, furious at the military coup which removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt that year.  Regarding the UAE, Erdogan spoke by telephone with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed last month. 

Regarding Israel, President Yitzhak Herzog to much media fanfare spoke with Erdogan in July.  Little of substance has emerged since this call.  But Israel will need to consider carefully the wisdom and benefit of any possibly short-lived rapprochement with Turkey, when set against the deeper direction of events.  This is so not only with regard to Israel’s developing strategic ties with Greece, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France, countries which have taken and are likely to continue to take a  continued stance of firm opposition to Turkish ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean. 

As Turkey continues its path of decoupling from its Cold War set of alliances, Israel may well wish to consider Ankara’s ongoing stance concerning events west of the Jordan River.

The Israeli security establishment considers Iran and its ambitions to represent the main threat to Israel’s security. An additional  key long term strategic challenge facing Israel, however, is the near parity of populations between Jews and Arab Muslims west of the Jordan.  The main advantages Israel enjoys in this regard are its advanced economy and civil society, its unified  state structures, and the division of the Arab population into four different political dispensations (Hamas-controlled Gaza, the Ramallah Palestinian Authority, Jerusalem, and pre-1948 Israel).  Maintaining this division is a vital Israeli interest. 

The only serious challenge to the maintenance of this situation in the medium to long term are the mobilizing symbols of Sunni Islam, and organizations seeking to make political use of these.  Turkey, largely below the radar screen,  has been energetically engaged in recent years in seeking to gain advantage in this area. Through ‘Dawa’ activities via TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency), property purchases and support for Islamist activism in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, through financial contributions to Hamas controlled Gaza, and through domiciling and granting citizenship to Hamas operatives on Turkish soil, Ankara seeks to cast itself as the protector of Islamic holy places, and the patron of the long struggle against Israel. 

There are few indications of this effort bearing significant results at the present time. But it looks set to continue for as long as the Muslim Brotherhood associated AKP and Erdogan remain in power in Turkey. Ankara’s ongoing efforts in this area, its increasing estrangement from Washington, its moves toward Russia and its direct opposition to Israel’s closest and emergent regional allies mean that imminent rapprochement between Turkey and Israel is unlikely, and excessive effort toward it futile and probably inadvisable, for the foreseeable future.  

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Iran-China Alliance?

Jerusalem Post, 24/9

Teheran’s accession to full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization reflects deepening ties. 

On Friday, September 17, at a gathering in Dushanbe, Tadjikistan, member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization voted to approve Iran’s membership of the organization.  The SCO, established by China and Russia in 2001, is an economic, political and security alliance. It currently includes eight states – China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tadjikistan. Together, these states account for 20% of global GDP, and include 40% of the world’s population. 

Iran’s first, unsuccessful bid for full membership of the SCO took place in 2008.  At that time, Teheran’s application foundered because of the objection by a number of member states to full membership for a country subject to US and UN sanctions due to its nuclear programme.   Teheran applied again last year. Its efforts failed again because of opposition from Tadjikistan.  This week, the barriers were removed to full membership, though no date for Iran’s accession has yet been set.  

How significant is Iran’s admittance to the SCO?  Iranian media, quoted in an article by Agence France Presse, were jubilant concerning this development.  Kayhan, a publication associated with hardline positions, wrote that ‘”from now on Iran can implement its policy of multilateralism, progressively abandon a vision based solely on the West and mitigate Western sanctions.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, in his address to the SCO, was similarly blunt in his appraisal of the meaning of this development.  “The world has entered a new era. Hegemony and unilateralism have failed,” Raisi told SCO leaders. “The international balance from now on leans towards multilateralism and the redistribution of powers towards independent countries. Unilateral sanctions don’t uniquely target one country. It has become evident that, in recent years, they affect more the independent countries, especially SCO members.”

On Farsi social media, meanwhile, Mohammed Hassan Dehghani, an official in Iran’s IRGC-associated ‘Resistance Economy’ structure, tweeted that SCO ‘full membership’ would bring ‘significant economic, security and political benefits’ for Iran. 

So are these Iranian assessments correct?  Should the imminent Iranian accession to the SCO therefore be seen as a significant step in the direction of an emergent anti western strategic bloc of which Iran will be a member? 

There is increasing talk in western capitals of a new and emergent cold war, pitting the United States and its allies against China, and centering on the Indo-Pacific region. The hasty US exit from Afghanistan was a perhaps clumsy attempt to draw a firm red line under the 9-11 Wars, in order to focus attention and resources on the demands of this new strategic contest, and era.  The announcement of the  ‘AUKUS’ pact between the US, Australia and the UK represents a sharp drawing of lines in the Asia-Pacific region, as three English-speaking countries combine in a clear effort to contain Chinese efforts at expansion in this area. 

Historic strategic contests of this type between global powers do not tend to remain confined to particular geographic spaces.  The Cold War of 1950-91 consisted of a binary contest between US and USSR-led systems, which impacted on all local strategic environments.  Earlier global contests, such as the effort by European imperial powers to contain the rise of Germany in the pre-1914 era similarly came to encompass the globe (and transform it, in the conflict which these efforts eventually produced). 

Are we now therefore witnessing the first moves in a similar drawing of lines in the Middle East, with the outlines of US-aligned and China-aligned blocs now visible on the horizon? 

Firstly, a number of caveats are in order.  The SCO is not yet anything close to a China-led strategic alliance arrayed against the west.  Its members include India, a rival of China and a western ally.  Nor is the SCO aligned with Iran in its defiance of the international system regarding its nuclear program.  Rather, the sanctions were a principal concern preventing earlier accession to full membership of the SCO for Teheran. 

Even now, a timeline has yet to be announced for Teheran’s joining the organization.  Major investments by Russia, China and India in Iran have doubtless been deterred by the threat of US sanctions. 

It should also be noted that the pattern of Chinese investment in the Middle East does not conform to strict allegiance with any regional bloc.  Beijing is a major purchaser of Saudi oil, and maintains extensive trade ties with both Israel and the United Arab Emirates. 

Nevertheless, and with all the appropriate cautions against over-simplification, a general direction to events can be discerned. And it points towards closer alignment between Beijing and Teheran, on the basis of hard, shared long term interests.  The accession to the SCO does not cement this process. Rather, it is a signpost along the way. 

On March 27, 2020,  Teheran and Beijing announced a 25 year strategic agreement for $400 billion of Chinese investment in Iran.  This agreement is more of a roadmap for the future, rather than a deal with immediate operative consequences. This does not mean it should be discounted.  Iran’s ascendance to membership of the SCO is the first concrete consequence of this agreement.  Iran forms a key component of China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road’ project. BRI is intended to produce contiguous, China-aligned land and maritime trade routes from China across Eurasia. 

Iran forms a route to the Arabian Sea and international waterways for the landlocked, central Asian countries which are SCO members.  Iran’s integration into the BRI would thus help solidify China’s ambition to emerge as the hegemonic power in Eurasia, able to offer routes for trade under its control to countries aligning with it. 

In this regard, China is unlikely to be indifferent to the fact, still improperly acknowledged by naive western observers, of Teheran’s domination of the entire land mass between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea, and consisting of three nominal states – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. 

For China, Iran is a powerful, stable, non-threatening state. Teheran’s anti-US stance is of use to China in that it ensures that there is no chance of the country hedging its bets in the emergent strategic contest between Washington and Beijing. This is despite the fact that China does not of course share the components of Iran’s governing ideology. In the latter regard, however, the Shia nature of that ideology means that Iran does not constitute a potential disruptive source of appeal to China’s own, overwhelmingly Sunni,  restive Muslim populations.   

The emergent closer relations between Teheran and Beijing have already produced one significant outcome.  Iran’s defiant and successful resistance to the US policy of ‘maximum pressure’ during the period of the Trump Administration was made partially possible because of the presence of China as a kind of ‘insurance policy’ on which Teheran could rely. China’s continued purchase of Iranian illegally exported crude oil, in particular, enabled Teheran to maintain oil revenues despite supposedly ‘crippling’ sanctions.  The era of maximum pressure is now over.  Teheran is close to becoming a ‘threshold’ nuclear power (or already is one, according to some).  Beijing, by helping to prevent Iran’s economic ruin, played a significant role in this. 

So the emergent global contest between the US and China will not leave the Middle East as an area of non-alignment.   And as the lines harden, Teheran for both geo-strategic and political reasons is likely to continue to draw closer to Beijing.  Iran’s admittance to the SCO is a significant milestone along that road. 

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The Surrender of Deraa

Jerusalem Post, 12/9

Agreement in cradle of Syrian uprising reflects renewed Iranian boldness, shifting Russian stance

In a new ceasefire agreement which may bring an end to a 75 day Assad regime siege on the Syrian town of Deraa al-Balad, Syrian rebels have, with few alternatives, made far reaching concessions to the Syrian government.  The siege and the subsequent agreement bring an end to an anomalous situation that had pertained in Deraa al-Balad since the area’s reconquest by regime, Russian and Iranian forces in July, 2018. 

Since that time, Russia had under-written a situation in which former rebels were able to hold light weapons and maintain security inside the town.  The regime, meanwhile, did not attempt to establish checkpoints or impose its rule in Deraa al-Balad. 

The regime offensive under way since June was intended to terminate this situation and reimpose direct rule, as part of President Bashar Assad’s effort to reconquer all parts of Syria currently outside of government control.  In Deraa al-Balad, this objective now looks well on the way to being achieved.  The siege has been brutal, in the usual Assad manner.  Food and medical supplies have been kept out of the area, in which around 50,000 people are resident. Electricity supplies, patchy even before the siege, were cut off. 

The shifting balance of power in this south western Syrian province matters to Israel, because Deraa Province borders the Golan Heights.  It is the location of an Iranian strategic project to establish and deploy forces under its control in the area, with the intention that these may be used in a future clash between Jerusalem and Teheran, or Iran’s local proxy, Lebanese Hizballah. 

Iran controls the border crossing at Albu Kamal, further east, linking Syria to Iraq.  The Iranians have freedom of movement across the south of the country.  They have built a number of facilities close to the border crossing, including the large Imam Ali base.  

From Israel’s point of view, the main obstacle to the consolidation and entrenchment of this Iranian project, other than Israel’s own military actions, has been the Russian presence in the area.  The Russians do not support the Iranian project to build a capacity for aggression against Israel in south western Syria. Their own project of limited cooperation with former rebels appeared indeed to be pushing in the other direction. 

The apparent Russian shift toward acquiescence to Iranian desires reflected in the Deraa agreement will thus not be welcomed in Jerusalem.   Going together with increasing signs of Russian impatience with Israel’s air campaign against Iranian targets in Syria, it is an indication that any Israeli hopes that Russia might play a role in limiting Iran’s influence in Syria may have to be revised. 

At present, around 30% of Syria remains outside regime control.  The main areas outside Damascus’s cremit in Syria are currently invulnerable to incursions because they are guaranteed by external powers.  These are the Kurdish dominated Autonomous Authority of North-East Syria (AANES) – whose continued existence is currently under-written by the presence of US forces on its soil, and the Turkish occupied area in Syria’s north west. 

In the south west, the outside powers of relevance are Iran and Russia.  The arrangement in place from July 2018 until now was the product of an uneasy standoff between them.

Moscow chose to align itself with former rebel commander Ahmed Oda and his comrades. These were re-mustered as the 8th Brigade of the 5th Corps of the Syrian Army, a Russian created structure.  The 8th Brigade was for a time directly under Russian command.  Russian officers played a role in it at various levels. 

The recent regime offensive constituted a direct Iranian attempt to challenge this Russian project head on. The offensive was spearheaded by the 4th Division. This formation is often described as one of the Assad regime’s ‘Praetorian’ units. It is majority Alawite in composition and is staffed by professional soldiers, rather than conscripts.  Commanded de facto by Maher Assad, the president’s brother, the 4th Division today works closely with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and is a key component of Iran’s efforts to blur the distinction between ‘regime’ forces and Iranian proxies.  Air Force Intelligence and the Republican Guard are additional elements working closely with Teheran. 

The 4th Division’s offensive against Deraa al-Balad, beginning in late June, progressed slowly.  Indeed, it is testimony to the very limited capacities of this supposedly ‘elite’ division that it has taken it more than two months to pacify an area controlled by (albeit experienced) fighters armed only with light weapons. 

The key aspect in Deraa al-Balad’s surrender was the Russian decision to abandon ambiguity and make clear that it would support further regime action against the area if the former rebel fighters did not agree to regime demands. 

As of now, the former rebels have agreed to terms in the Russian mediated negotiations which represent their complete surrender to the demands of the regime. The agreement, according to reporting from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, will see the establishment of ten security points and checkpoints inside Deraa al-Balad, under Russian military police supervision, where the Russian flag and the Syrian regime flag will be raised.  In addition, individuals wanted for mandatory military service will need to ‘regularise’ their situation with the regime.  All individuals wishing not to conform to these terms will have to depart for the Turkish and Islamist rebel controlled area in the north west. 

Abdullah Jabbasini,  a Syrian researcher who monitors the south west, noted in addition that the agreement will include the surrender of light weapons by the fighters in Deraa al-Balad.  Jabbasini also recorded that according to the agreement, Russian military police will be involved in direct contact with the community, including checking id cards at checkpoints, and that local notables will accompany the security forces. 

These two latter elements are clearly intended to soften the blow for the former rebels, and to reduce as  far as possible the friction that would result from direct contact between them and Assad’s security forces.  But what has taken place is a significant achievement for the Iran-aligned element within the official Syrian security forces.  It also represents an abandonment by the Russians of the stance which they sought to maintain since July 2018 – namely, the effort to maintain the status quo established by the reconciliation agreement of that time. 

Why has this happened now?  Tensions in this area are not new, and have smouldered ever since the regime’s return in 2018. But the latest events reflect growing Iranian confidence, which itself appears to derive from a fading Russian commitment to the status quo.  The latter element is the crucial point, creating the space for change which the most Iran-aligned element of the regime has now exploited.  The reason for this apparent shift in Russia’s position is less clear, but the direction appears unmistakeable.  It may well be that the sense of an American weakening in the region also contributes to Iranian boldness, and  Russian disregard of the concerns of local US allies. The result will be the further advance of the Iranian interest in south west Syria. This interest is woven into the decrepit structures of the Assad regime. It represents ambitions, strategy and priorities determined in Teheran, not in Damascus. And it is currently extending all the way to the border with Israel.   

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Taliban Victory – the Pakistani Angle

Jerusalem Post, 27/8

Islamabad’s support for the Taliban played a crucial, largely ignored role in recent events

The collapse of the Kabul government and the Taliban’s rapid takeover of nearly all Afghanistan has captured the attention of the world.  It has led to widespread discussion of US imperial retreat, the implications for the global contest between the US and China, and the possibilities of a revival of global Sunni Islamist terror.

An element which has been largely missing in western analysis of these dramatic events is the role of powerful elements within Pakistan in facilitating the activities of the Taliban in the course of recent years.  Yet without this complex and multi-faceted Pakistani role, it is difficult to see how the Afghan jihadi movement could have sustained itself during the years of US occupation, and laid the foundations for the rapid takeover of power that we have just witnessed. 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan praised the Taliban victory as ‘breaking the shackles of slavery,’ in a statement earlier this week. 

The US and its allies have consistently chosen to turn a blind eye to evidence of the Taliban presence in Pakistan, and Islamabad’s apparent assistance to the movement. This decision relates to the US and its allies’ dependence on Pakistan as a vital logistics hub in its deployment in Afghanistan.  Pakistani  intelligence support was important in deciphering the dynamics of militant Islamic movements in this area.  More broadly, a reluctance  to antagonize Pakistan, a nuclear power with a population of 200 million, traditionally aligned with the US, probably played a role in this attitude of benevolent neglect.  US reluctance to place pressure on Pakistan, paradoxically, may have been exacerbated by widespread anti-American sentiment in Pakistan at the popular level, and an American desire not to worsen this. 

The problem is that this has resulted in a situation in which Pakistan came to constitute both a vital node in the prosecution of the US campaign against the Taliban, and a central element in the Taliban’s war effort against the US, with the apparent acquiescence of Washington.   

The Taliban leadership is domiciled in the city of Quetta, in Pakistani Balochistan.  The movement’s fighters, alongside members of other Sunni jihadi groups including al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, maintain havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border, crossing back and forth to Afghanistan at will, with no interference from the Pakistani armed forces.  These areas were the springboard for the recent campaign which culminated in Kabul.  Taliban fighters wounded in the recent campaign were treated in Pakistani hospitals, according to a June 27 statement by Sheikh Rashed Ahmed, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, to the Pakistani Geo news website. 

In addition to the logistical role, these majority Pashtun border areas are home to thousands of madrassas, Islamic religious seminaries, in which the hardline Deobandi interpretation of Sunni Islam favored by the Taliban is propagated.  In this way, the pool of future fighters for the Afghan Taliban is maintained, on Pakistani soil.  A resident of Kuchlak, 25km from Quetta,  noted in an interview with Voice of America this week that the Taliban maintain considerable support among the residents of the area, and that “Locals from all the tribes (living in the town) are with them, saying that they are conducting jihad to establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.’ 

Afghanistan’s deposed Vice President Amrullah Saleh, along  with other members of the deposed Ghani government have alleged that the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistani Special Forces were directly guiding the Afghan Taliban. 

Such allegations are routinely denied by the Pakistani authorities and are impossible to conclusively prove. But the weight of evidence regarding the presence of the Taliban in the border areas, their ease of access, the provision of health care to them and the statements of senior officials in support of them seem to confirm a role of elements within the Pakistani state in the recent Taliban victory. 

What are the motivations behind the Pakistani role?

It is important to note that the border between these two states is of relatively recent vintage and does not represent a division of populations according to linguistic or cultural heritage.  Rather, Afghanistan was divided off from then British India in the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919, in which Britain recognized the independence of Afghanistan.   The 1893  ‘Durand Line’ which this treaty ratified  (in a slightly modified form) was a line demarcating areas of influence between the British and the Afghan Amir of that time. 

The result –  when the modern states of Pakistan and Afghanistan emerged, the border between them bisected the area of majority population of the largely tribal Pashtun peoples.  The Taliban are a mainly Pashtun movement.  Pashtuns constitute around 42% of Afghan citizens. The majority of Pashtuns, however, live in Pakistan, where they are a  subordinated minority in a state dominated by the Punjabi Muslim population. 

Close Pakistani involvement in Afghan affairs has been a constant element in the modern history of this area.  The Pakistani desire for ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan has in recent years reflected itself in support for domiciling of, or turning a blind eye to a variety of Islamist movements in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.  In addition to the Taliban, these have included the Haqqani Network and elements of al-Qaeda.   

Pakistan desires this strategic depth in order to counteract Indian influence in this strategically important area in the ongoing contest between the two countries.  Influence over or control of the government in Kabul would also enable Pakistan to project influence further into Central Asia.  Lastly, given the demographic issues within Pakistan, the alliance with the Taliban, who favor an ‘Islamic Emirate’ enables Islamabad to offset and combat separatist or nationalist tendencies among its own Pashtun population. Since 2014, a popular movement for Pashtun rights, known as Tahafuz, has been active in this area. 

These developments matter to Israel because Pakistan is engaged in a growing strategic relationship with Turkey, based on a shared conservative Sunni Islamist outlook.  The emergence of a Pakistan-aligned Taliban government in Kabul will strengthen this axis.  Given Islamabad’s close ties with China, and Turkey’s own advancing relations with Beijing, this in turn raises the future possibility on the horizon of a trilateral alignment. This though would depend on the willingness of conservative Islamists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey to turn a blind eye to China’s own treatment of its Muslim minorities.  

Many analysts, in discussing Pakistan’s role in the latest events in Afghanistan, have noted a 2014 statement by Hamid Gul, a former leader of the ISI in Pakistan, according to which ‘“When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America…Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”  

Gul, incidentally, also believes that the Mossad carried out the 9-11 attacks, that the US actively seeks to destabilize Pakistan because it is a ‘Muslim nuclear state,’ and that the Taliban represent the ‘purest form of Islam.’ 

These views are a reflection of the outlook of those elements within the Pakistani system which manage the relationship with the Taliban. Without this relationship, the Taliban victory of recent weeks would almost certainly not have taken place.  This piece of the picture re Afghanistan is worthy of greater attention in the west. 

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Does killing of Iranian dissident foreshadow what is to come for others?

Jerusalem Post, 13/8

Mousa Babakhani, a leading figure in an Iranian opposition party, was found murdered last Saturday in a hotel room in the Iraqi Kurdish capital city of Erbil.  Babakhani was a member of the central committee of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I). His body, which according to a statement released by the party, bore ‘signs of torture’, was found in a room at the Guli Suleimani hotel in the city.   

According to a KDP-I statement, Babakhani had disappeared the previous Thursday.  The Kurdish Human Rights organization Hengaw reported that Babakhani  was lured to the hotel by an old acquaintance who had arrived from Iran. There he was apprehended by two regime operatives. The three individuals suspected of the killing then succeeded in leaving Erbil. The KDP-I in its statement blamed the ‘Islamic Republic’ (of Iran) for the murder. 

Babakhani’s killing has sent shockwaves through the community of Iranian exiles in Erbil, both Kurdish and non-Kurdish.  It is the second such killing of an Iranian dissident on Iraq soil in the last month. There are fears that it could herald a new hunting season of the Iranian regime against its opponents resident in northern Iraq. 

 On July 14, in the Zhaleh neighborhood of Suleimania city, the prominent Iranian Kurdish civil society and environmentalist activist Behrouz Rahimi was shot dead by armed assailants.  CCTV footage of the killing shows a black BMW with no license plate and tinted windows approaching Rahimi. 21 shots were fired.  Rahimi died of his wounds later in the hospital.  Rahimi, who left Iran in 2012, was associated with the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK).  This movement is the Iranian franchise of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

Rahimi’s widow, Zoleykha Nasseri, herself a prominent Iranian opposition activist, told the Middle East Eye website that her husband had been approached in recent weeks by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, which had asked him to begin cooperating with it.  When he refused, he was threatened with death.  On July 14, it appears that the threat was carried out. 

Suleimania is located close to the Iraq-Iran border.  It is under the control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which maintains ambiguous relations with the Iranian regime.  Harassment and threats to Iranian opposition activists are common in this area.  Activists accuse the authorities of silence, and on occasion of cooperation with the Iranian regime.  In 2020, Mustafa Salimi, an Iranian Kurdish activist, escaped from jail in Iran, smuggled himself across the border into Kurdish northern Iraq, and asked for asylum from the Kurdish Regional Government.  Instead, Salimi was handed back to the Iranian authorities, who reportedly subsequently executed him. 

Previous killings generally thought to have been carried out by the Iranian regime have taken place in the remote and lawless border area between northern Iraq and Iran.  On July 17, 2018, the body of Eghbal Moradi, a well known Kurdish activist and the father of an executed political prisoner, was discovered outside the village of Penjwen, close to the border.  He had been shot dead. 

The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) has issued a statement accusing the Iranian regime of responsibility for the murder of Rehbouz Rahimi. 

The killing of Mousa Babakhani has particularly shocked Iranian Kurds because it took place in Erbil, previously regarded as a safer area for the exiles than the towns and cities closer to the Iraq- Iran border.  While the PUK further east is close to Iran, the Kurdish Democratic Party, which controls the Erbil area, maintains links with Turkey and with the US.  Erbil has over recent years emerged as one of the safest areas in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,  which itself is the most secure part of Iraq. The fact that the Iranian regime appears on this occasion to have been able to send two of its operatives to penetrate the area,  murder one of its opponents, and then leave without a trace is thus an ominous development. 

Fars News, a website associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), described Mousa Babakhani as ‘leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran terrorist group, which is supported by the Mossad.’  

A KDPI member interviewed by the Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, asserted that the organization has proof that the assassination was carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and added that the organization is currently assisting security authorities in investigating the murder. 

A second member of the organization, contacted by the Jerusalem Post, said that the assassination has meant that KDPI members are now wary of coming to Erbil.  ‘In this situation with all the threats against members It’s not wise. In the past we were worried about going to Suleimaniah as there’s many regime agents everywhere, in terminals, in bakeries, in groceries, markets, restaurants and tea houses, hotels… Now we are afraid of coming out of our base and going to Erbil for a few hours trip. Now we have to worry about Erbil too.’

The activist noted that online harassment of opposition activists and their families by regime elements has increased in recent weeks. ‘We get threat messages, they threaten our family members in Iran,’ he told the Jerusalem Post.  ‘ The Etela’at (Ministry of Intelligence) calls our families in Urmia, Bukan, Mahabad, Kermanshah, Sanandaj, Marivan, Saqqez,… they monitor Whatsapp calls and Instagram. They threaten us by abusing our female family members and relatives.’

A prominent Iranian opposition journalist resident in Erbil, Ali Javanmardi, has tweeted photographs of an individual he claims is one of the killers of Mousa Babakhani.

 Javanmardi, with 76.5000 Twitter followers, is an influential voice in Iranian opposition circles.  He identified one of the killers as Sarmad Abdi.  Abdi, a Kurd, hails from Ilam, in Iran. This area is close to Kermanshah, where Babkhani was from, leading to speculation that Abdi was the ‘friend’ of the victim’s who led him to the hotel.  In his tweet, Javanmardi noted that an unidentified organization would offer $30,000 for information identifying Abdi’s location. 

The campaign of intimidation and murder against Iraqi opponents of the Shia militias and the Iranian interest has received some attention in western media in recent months.  The assassination of prominent Iraqi political analyst Hisham al-Hashimi by the Ktaeb Hizballah militia on July 6, 2020 in Baghdad was the subject of broad international coverage.  By contrast, the killings of two Iranian Kurdish dissidents in northern Iraq over the last month have been entirely ignored in the west.   The murders of Rahimi and Babakhani, however, form an element in a  pattern of increased Iranian assertion across a number of files and locations in the region in recent weeks.  Iranian oppositionists, who had grown accustomed to seeing Erbil and northern Iraq as a relatively safe space, will be waiting in coming weeks to see if this perception must now be entirely revised.   Two questions arise: will the discernible pattern of greater Iranian assertion currently under way include a campaign of executions against stateless Iranian oppositionists and dissidents in northern Iraq? And will anyone be held to account for these killings?

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Unrest Grows in Iran – But is the Regime in Danger?

Jerusalem Post, 30/7

Iran is currently experiencing a significant wave of unrest.  Protests began on July 15, in Khuzestan Province, located in the south west of the country.  The initial focus was a scarcity of water in recent months, which has led to deaths among livestock, and consequent impoverishment among farmers in the ethnically diverse province.   The lack of water is also leading to a  breakdown in electricity provision, and frequent blackouts.  

But while scarcity of water was the initial trigger, the protests soon began to include more generalized slogans against the ruling Islamist regime.  Khuzestan Province, in which Arab Iranians form the largest community, is a place of high unemployment, poorly served by the central government in terms of services.  In the course of the week, the protests spread, with additional, though smaller, demonstrations taking place in Isfahan, Karaj, Kermanshah and Tabriz cities. 

On Monday, the unrest reached the Iranian capital, Teheran.  Videos and reports from the Teheran protests show demonstrators chanting against the regime.  Slogans including ‘Death to the Dictator,’  ‘Khamenei, shame on you – leave Iran alone,’ and, notably ‘No Gaza, no Lebanon, my life for Iran.’  The latter chant, heard also in the widespread unrest which hit Iran in late 2019, reflects the widespread perception among Iranians that their country’s resources are being wasted on support for Islamic causes across the region, leading to international sanctions and leaving little available for Iran’s own population. 

Notably, protestors also chanted slogans in favor of Reza Shah, the military officer who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in the early part of the 20th century, and who is remembered as a modernizing force by many Iranians. 

The authorities have reacted to the protests with predictable harshness.  In a repeat of what took place in late 2019, internet reception has been blocked in Khuzestan Province.  Activists in Iran are deeply concerned at what they describe as regime efforts to build a ‘national internet’ system along Chinese lines, (and, some maintain,  with Chinese assistance). Such a system would severely curtail the ability of Iranian citizens to communicate with one another and to access online sources not approved by the regime.

Riot Police and Revolutionary Guards personnel have been rushed to restive areas.  Ten people so far are reported to have been killed.  As of the beginning of this week, according to Amnesty International, the authorities commenced the use of live fire against protestors.  In the nationwide protests of late 2019, over 1500 people were killed. The death toll in the current protests looks set now to sharply rise. 

The blocking of internet provision to areas affected by unrest has two purposes: firstly, it prevents or complicates communication between protestors, who rely on online channels to spread the word concerning protests, in particular in keeping other parts of the country informed of events and seeking to broaden unrest (other means are available for communication and propaganda on a more local level). Secondly, internet restrictions prevent protestors from keeping international audiences from seeing their videos and messages. 

So what has precipitated the current wave of unrest? And is there reason to believe that this round of protests may differ from previous periods of discontent, and may succeed in posing the question of the continued existence of the clerical regime in Iran?

Regarding the first issue, as with previous waves of protest in Iran and elsewhere, a cluster of causes may be identified.  Since last year, Khuzestan has been affected by a severe drought.  According to Iran’s meteorological service, the months from October 2020 to June 2021 were the driest for the last 53 years.  The Karun River, which flows through Khuzestan Province, has now entirely dried up. 

But the water shortages in Khuzestan and elsewhere in Iran are not solely the product of unavoidable climactic conditions.  These have been exacerbated by policies deemed necessary because of the broader regime strategy of confrontation with the west and its regional allies. 

Like past regimes which sought to challenge the core rules of the international system, the Iranian regime seeks to secure for itself as far as is possible independent sources of food provision. This has led to an emphasis on the development of agriculture within Iran. This in turn has led to an over exploitation of water resources which is now producing negative results.  Around 90% of Iran’s total water consumption is used by the agricultural sector.  The main crops grown in Khuzestan are rice and sugar cane, both of which require large amounts of water. 

Overexploitation of water resources for a period of decades, took place in the absence of a coherent national strategy for the husbanding of water.  The result is now becoming apparent in the growing salinity and in places aridity of considerable parts of Iran’s south. This is bringing water shortages to the population, and raises the possibility of large scale movements of population.  Over damming of water resources, which leads to the drying up of reservoirs, is exacerbating the issue. 

Drought, exacerbated by clumsy and unsuccessful state policy, has played a role in the fomenting of unrest and instability elsewhere in the Middle East.  In Syria, for example, a severe drought combined with the effect of economic mismanagement led to the departure of 1.5 million farmers from their lands in the pre-2011 period. The result was the emergence of a class of displaced, poor, Sunni Arab families in and around Damascus and other major cities.  The insurgency that began in Syria in late 2011 found its most willing footsoldiers from among this sector. 

So might the current drought inspired unrest in Iran produce a similar result? 

While nothing should be ruled out, the current situation is still very far from there.  The protests under way are considerably smaller than those witnessed in 2019.  There is still, crucially, a lack of any kind of credible revolutionary leadership, able to pose a popular alternative to the rule of the clerics and the IRGC. 

But for all that, according to one Iranian source, the current protests do have real significance.  This source notes that the water and electricity shortages are without precedent, and are serving to turn popular sentiment away from further thoughts of reform, and towards a wholesale rejection of the current regime.  If such a wholesale and thorough rejection of the system itself is indeed spreading among the public, it may well bring further results over time.  Certainly the current events in Iran are yet more proof that the Achilles heel of the Iranian system is its inability to create workable conditions of social and economic life for the populations that live under its control.  This inability, in time, may well prove fatal to the regime. For the moment, the unrest, and the crackdown, are continuing. 

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The Slow Death of Lebanon

Jerusalem Post, 16/7

Lebanon is currently in the grip of the worst economic crisis in its history. There are daily shortages of fuel and electricity, a chronic lack of medical supplies, and an absence of essential medicines in hospitals.  77% of Lebanese households are unable to purchase sufficient food.  The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value over the last two years.  Lebanese citizens, meanwhile, are prevented from withdrawing more than $100 per week, as foreign currency reserves grow thin.  The situation is reaching a point of no return, with the real possibility of widespread hunger.   Lebanon is, today, by all measures a failed and collapsing state.

How has the country reached this point?  Less than two decades ago, Lebanon was revamping its image as a center of commerce and tourism on the Mediterranean coast.  The ‘March 14’ movement, named after the popular mobilization which forced a Syrian withdrawal in 2005, was riding high. It was presented as one of the few successes of the then US Administration’s strategy of regional democratization.  This reporter visited the country in that period, in 2007.  A palpable longing for normality could then be discerned among younger Lebanese.  The civil war was already a receding memory. What remained of it, among Sunnis and Christians, at least, was a kind of dread of the possibility that political violence might return. The Israeli occupation of the south had ended in May, 2000.  Normality seemed within reach. 

What went wrong? What went wrong was discernible also back then.  Also then, it was evident that there were two powers in Lebanon. The first, as represented by the March 14 movement, was ostensibly forward looking, orientated toward the west, towards commerce, normality. The other power was that of Iran, via its oldest franchise, the Lebanese Hizballah movement.  This interest had its own military power, which outmatched that of the state and dwarfed the other irregular military presences in the country.  It had its own economy, too, its own sources of income, its own smuggling routes. The project of the Iranian element was that the two Lebanons should continue to exist indefinitely. The former was to provide a convenient carapace of normality and legitimacy beneath which the latter could continue its allotted tasks in Teheran’s long war against Israel.  Supporters of the March 14 project had a tendency to avoid the discussion of hard power issues. This in retrospect was to prove fatal. 

Any chance that the Lebanon of March 14 might mount a defense in arms of its vision of the country ended in the events of May and June, 2008.  In a brief conflict on the streets of Beirut, the forces of Amal and Hizballah contemptuously brushed aside the haphazard military mobilizations of the pro-March 14 Sunni and Druze forces. 

From this point on, the die was cast.  It was clear that there would be no further attempt at real resistance to the Iranian project in Lebanon. What there would be instead would be obfuscation, and denial. The Iranian approach fitted perfectly the desire of the Lebanese to ignore reality.  This reporter remembers addressing an audience of mainly young Lebanese in London at an event in summer, 2008, shortly after the violent events in Beirut. I warned that the emerging prospect in the country was of Iranian occupation.  No one, perhaps understandably, wanted to hear this from an Israeli.  ‘We’d rather have them than you,’ one young Lebanese woman called out, to applause from the audience.  So be it.  Now she has her wish, and its consequences. 

In the years subsequent to 2008, events followed a downward spiral.  The Syrian civil war brought around 1.8 million refugees to Lebanon, further straining the country’s fragile infrastructure.  The Syrian war dealt a crippling blow to the tourism sector, which had accounted for around 7.5% of Lebanon’s GDP. Growing Saudi and US discontent at the reality of Iranian power in the country came to a head in 2015-16.  In early 2016, Riyadh announced the withdrawal of its deposits from the Central Bank of Lebanon. This followed the cancellation of $4 billion  of aid to the Lebanese armed and security forces.  The US ‘Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act’ of 2015 hit hard at the financial services sector, another key element in the Lebanese economy.  Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates issued advisories against travel to Lebanon at that time. This ended the country’s traditional role as a permissive playground for visitors seeking a congenial respite from Gulf restrictions.  

At this stage, Lebanon was seeking to manage a public debt of $69 billion, totalling 150% of GDP.  But as the official economy foundered, the parallel Iran/Hizballah shadow economy prospered.  Not, however, in such a way that the average citizen benefitted.  The porous or Hizballah supervised borders between Lebanon and Syria allowed for smuggling of oil imports, and their resale in Syria, to the benefit of Hizballah.  Captagon amphetamine pills manufactured in Syria , and cannabis were smuggled the other way, finding their destination in European cities or in the Gulf via Hizballah supervised routes.  Needless to say, none of the profits from this burgeoning sector went to service the national debt, or to benefit the crumbling public infrastructure. 

In March 2020, against the background of countrywide, multi sectarian protests against corruption, poor public service, youth unemployment and mismanagement, Lebanon defaulted for the first time on its debt payments.  A reform plan was approved by the IMF, but following the government’s resignation after the Beirut port explosion in August, 2020, negotiations were stalled.  The Lebanese economy contracted by 20% in 2020. 

This is the background to the current grave crisis in Lebanon.  All the elements –  US sanctions, Saudi and international withdrawal of aid and investment, subsequent debt default and loss of confidence, resulting currency devaluation, a shadow economy benefitting only itself, and a paralysed political system – are all directly traceable to the distorting effect that the presence of the pervasive Iranian project on Lebanese soil has brought.

From this point of view, the current situation stands as a stark warning to all countries faced with infiltration by the IRGC and its various militia franchises.  These are good at building paramilitary muscle and converting it into political power. They have no knowledge of or interest in economics. As a result, the net outcome of their taking of de facto power in a country will be that country’s eventual ruin and impoverishment.  Lebanon is now the case study for this process.

From Israel’s point of view, there is little to be done but to continue to guard the borders. There is no reason to suppose that the current chaos in Lebanon will incline the Iranians and their proxies toward military adventures in the south. When hunger and infrastructural collapse are a real prospect, no one is likely to rally around the national colors – not those of Lebanon, and certainly not those of Iran and its local agents.   Regarding any international response, international aid should be made contingent on the disarming of the Iranian proxy, and the thorough going reform of the political system. Any other remedy runs the danger of offering support to Lebanon’s current Iran-created dysfunctionality.  The key point: Lebanon was the first Arab state to undergo internal collapse, and consequently the first to receive the intentions of the IRGC’s brand of political-military takeover. With allowance for local variations, similar Iranian efforts are now under way in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Lebanon is the first Arab state to have been brought to the point of destruction by this project.   The significance of the current events thus extends far beyond Lebanon’s borders.  Iran is responsible for the slow death of Lebanon. 

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