The Ravaging of Afrin

Jerusalem Post, 9/4

State Department, UN and NGO Reports cite pattern of grave human rights violations, assaults and targeting of women by Turkish-controlled Islamist militias

Located in the north west corner of Syria, the Turkish-controlled Afrin area is largely off limits to foreign journalists.  Turkey occupied Afrin in late 2018, in an operation dubbed ‘Olive Branch.’  destroying the Kurdish authority which had previously ruled there.  Since that time, Afrin has been ruled by a coalition of Syrian Arab Sunni Islamist groups, with the Turkish authorities as the real power behind them.  Significant Turkish investment in the infrastructure of the area, along with the frozen diplomacy of the Syrian conflict, suggest that the current situation will last for some time.

Evidence is emerging to suggest that very grave violations of human rights are taking place in the Afrin area, on a systematic basis.  The situation remains largely ignored by both the global media, and western governments. 

According to Jiger Hussein, a refugee from Afrin who now coordinates an investigation team looking into cases of kidnapping and abduction in northern Syria, “We have strong evidence indicating the involvement of the Turkish authorities and their client extremist militias in the international crime which is taking place in Turkish occupied Afrin – including rape, trafficking, and torture to death.” 

Operation Olive Branch began on January 20, 2018, and concluded on March 18, 2018, with the defeat of the Kurdish YPG (Peoples; Protection Forces) at the hands of the Turkish military, and their Syrian Arab Islamist auxiliaries. 

The immediate result of the Turkish takeover was the expulsion or flight of around 200,000 Kurds from the area, reducing the Kurdish population from an estimated 350,000 to around 150,000 today. 

The vast scale of population displacement as a result of the Syrian civil war (around 13.5 million Syrians from a pre-war population of 22 million have left their homes in the last decade) has served to obscure the significance of this act of sectarian cleansing.  It differs from other acts of forced movement of population from Syria in that it was directed not by a pariah regime under western sanctions, still less by an unaffiliated militia.  Rather, this large scale forced movement of a population was conducted by a NATO member state and US ally. 

Following the expulsion of more than 50 % of the Kurdish population of Afrin, Turkey undertook the resettlement in Afrin of Syrian Arab refugees from the Ghouta area (close to Damascus), Deir e Zor and from Aleppo Governorate.  Around 100,00 people have established homes in the area since the conclusion of Operation Olive Branch.   

Conditions of life for the remaining Kurdish and Yezidi population in Afrin under the rule of Turkey and its Islamist auxiliaries in the Syrian National Army (SNA) remain precarious in the extreme.   

A recent report by ACAPS (Assessment Capacities Project), an independent NGO, noted that ‘The Kurdish population…face constant harassment by local militia groups, putting them at risk of losing their livelihoods and access to food and shelter…The Kurdish population of Afrin is at risk of personal threats, extortion, detention and abduction from local SNA factions present in the district….Kurdish residents in Afrin are particularly vulnerable to problems related to shelter.  Kurdish residents have experienced repeated and systemic looting of their property.  Those who fled their homes in 2018 are reported to have had their homes occupied by fighters and their families and by displaced people from Syrian government held areas.”

The US State Department ‘2020 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Syria’ confirmed that ‘“The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriation” by SNA members in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn and that “after civilian property was looted, SNA fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture, and detention.” 

The ACAPS report notes in particular confiscation of agricultural lands.  The non-local origins of SNA fighters has resulted in widespread cases of serious misuse of resources. For example, according to a Voice of America report, no less than 8 million of Afrin’s 26 million olive trees have been cut down by SNA fighters, in order to provide firewood or for trading purposes. Afrin was an area traditionally strongly associated with olive farming. 

It is important to underline here that the SNA – ‘Syrian National Army’, – despite its name, is not an independent Syrian military formation.  Rather, this 70,000 strong force represents the remnants of the Sunni Arab insurgency in northern Syria, today organized, armed, financed and directly controlled by the Turkish authorities. 

The widespread and apparently systematic targeting of Kurdish and Yezidi women is a particular feature of the activity of the Turkish backed Islamist militias.

According to the State Department Country Report: “The COI, STJ, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), and other monitors documented a trend of TSO (Turkish supported organization)  kidnappings of women in Afrin, where some women remained missing for years.”

Noting “multiple first-hand accounts of kidnapping and arbitrary detention” by Turkish supported militias in the area, the State Department report named the “Sultan Murad, Faylaq al-Sham, Firqat al-Hamza, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and the SNA’s Military Police” organizations as cited by human rights organizations for involvement in the kidnappings.  The report continued that “Victims of abductions by TSOs (Turkish supported armed opposition groups) were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin or were activists openly critical of TSOs or persons perceived to be affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) or previous Kurdish administration of Afrin.”

The UN Commission of Inquiry reported the transfer of persons held by the SNA factions to official Turkish custody, “indicating collaboration and joint operations between the Turkish government and the SNA which could, if any members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, “entail criminal responsibility for commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.”  The Turkish government denied these reports. 

An NGO specifically created to document the situation facing women in Afrin noted the kidnapping of 88 women by Turkish supported armed groups in the course of 2020.  As of January, 2021, according to the organization’s website (missingafrinwomen,org), the whereabouts of 51 of these women remains unknown.  The organization notes that 14 of the cases involve direct allegations of torture, and three involve direct allegations of sexual violence carried out by militiamen in the employ of Turkey.  Two of the alleged victims remain missing. The Hamza Division and the Sultan Murad Division are the organizations alleged to have been involved in these three cases.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Turkey to investigate these allegations.  No investigation is known to be currently under way. 

Syria has been witness over the last decade to some of the most heinous violations of human rights seen in recent history.  The ethnic cleansing of Afrin, and the current and ongoing systematic harassment of the remaining Kurdish and Yezidi population, including the deliberate targeting of women, stand among the darkest chapters in this woeful story. 

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The Bear in the East

Jerusalem Post, 26/3

What is the Significance of the Recent Flurry of Russian Mid-East related Diplomatic Activity?

In an event covered in a variety of regional media outlets  but largely ignored further afield, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met on March 15 in Moscow with a delegation from the Lebanese Hizballah organization. The delegation was led by Mohammed Raad, who heads he Hizballah bloc in the Lebanese parliament.  This was the first official Hizballah delegation to visit Moscow since October, 2011, and the second in total.  Also on the trip was Amar al-Moussawi, who heads the movement’s foreign relations desk. A report by Russian analyst Anton Mardasov at al-Monitor noted that the visit immediately preceded Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s trip to Moscow on March 17,  possibly leading to some logistical challenges for the Russian airport and other authorities. 

The arrival of these two delegations immediately followed a trip by Foreign Minister Lavrov to the Gulf, in which he met with officials in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Lavrov’s trip to the Gulf coincided with the televised opening in Turkey of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, built by Russia.  The opening was attended by Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In the last week, Russian military operations in the Mid-East also intensified, with the launch of an air campaign against Islamic State targets in the desert of southern Syria.  In late January, meanwhile, a senior delegation from the south Yemeni separatists of the Southern Transitional Council flew to Moscow, at the invitation of the Russian government.  The STC is backed by the United Arab Emirates, and controls large parts of southern Yemen, including the temporary capital, Aden and the Socotra province. 

This flurry of Mid-East related Russian diplomatic activity is noteworthy because it reflects Moscow’s multi-faceted approach to the region.  Much analysis of the Middle East notes the existence of three large blocs competing for primacy.  These are defined as 1. the bloc of countries and movements led by Iran and including the Assad regime and Hizballah, 2. the Sunni Islamist bloc of Turkey, Qatar and associated movements, and 3. the ‘status quo’ or pro US bloc including Israel Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  The list of meetings and events above shows that Russia maintains open channels and cordiality with the main players in all these blocs, without being entirely identified with any of them.  Only the Salafi jihadis of Islamic State remain beyond the pale. 

This approach contains a measure of sophistication, and has resulted in Moscow emerging as the go-to mediator on a variety of regional files, from which the United States has chosen through weariness or other priorities to keep absent.  When mediation is needed between Israel and Assad’s Syria, Russia is the only relevant candidate, as has been demonstrated on two significant occasions recently.  When Turkey needed to formalize its area of control in north east Syria following its incursion in October 2019, Erdogan negotiated directly with Putin, casually brushing aside the notional sovereignty of Bashar Assad.  Indeed, the Astana process, bringing together Turkey and Iran under Russian auspices, has turned into the most significant diplomatic track regarding Syria. It has bypassed the moribund, UN-supported Geneva process. 

In all these areas, Russian tactical pragmatism has proved an asset.  In a manner quite unfamiliar to western practices, but well in accordance with Mid-Eastern realities, the Russians care little about final resolution of conflicts, and hardly at all about the mode of governance and the ideology of the elements they deal with. They proceed on the basis of current shared interest, rather than longer term partnership. They are comfortable in the environment of frozen conflicts, and  divided countries, and have no sense of urgency in the need to rectify either of these situations.

In the fragmented spaces that characterise large parts of the post-2010 Arab world, this tactical flexibility can bring advantage.  It enabled the Russians, for example, to ostensibly support the re-conquest by their ‘ally’ Bashar Assad of the entirety of Syria, while subsequently negotiating the current de facto partition of the country in order to draw Turkey further from NATO and closer to the Russian orbit.  It has enabled Moscow also, notably, to acquiesce to the near weekly bombing raids by Israeli aircraft against targets of Moscow’s supposed partner in Syria – Iran.  This despite the presence of an S-400 battery at the Khmeimim air base in Latakia province. 

Russia’s regional approach has paid dividends largely because of the vacuum left by the partial US disengagement from the Middle East.  In so far as Moscow has sought to directly challenge Washington in an area from which the US did not wish to be dislodged, the Russians have been speedily apprised of the true balance of power (see the Battle of Khasham, 2018, when Russian-supported militias attempted an incursion across the Euphrates and were slaughtered by US air and artillery strikes). Still, the US under President Joe Biden shows no signs of wanting to come roaring back to major commitments in the region. 

A more important Achilles heel for Moscow’s regional approach is currently becoming apparent, however.  Namely, a notable lack of financial resources.  In this regard, ‘victory’ in Syria is becoming something of a burden.  The European Union is remaining currently firm that there will be no money for reconstruction unless a process of political transition from dictatorship begins.  Iran, Russia’s partner in Syria, has no money.  Moscow, also, doesn’t have resources to spare.  The result is that Russia is currently presiding over a broken, fragmented country, in which the main fighting fronts may no longer be moving, but nothing has been settled. The Iranian project, and the Israeli retribution it triggers, are a further disruptive element.  This lack of resources is also impacting on stability inside the regime controlled parts of Syria.  In restive Dera’a province, where the uprising that led to the civil war began in 2011, there were large demonstrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the outbreak.  Last week, 21 members of the regime’s 4th Armored Division were killed by unidentified militants outside the town of Mzayrib in the province.  It is all very far from the ‘victory’ proclamations of 2018 and 2019. 

In this regard, Lavrov’s visit to the UAE is worthy of particular attention.  The Russians and the Emiratis share the desire to rehabilitate the Assad regime and normalize Syria’s situation.  The Russians may well be looking for ways to introduce Emirati resources into the ruin of Assad’s domain, though Abu Dhabi will need to be wary of violating US sanctions in too obvious a way. 

But the broader picture – of the stark gap between meager resources and self-perception as a major power – is the essential reality of Moscow’s position in the Middle East.  It means that ultimately Russia must of necessity be reactive and tactical, but that its shrewd tactical moves will then be cloaked in the appearance of great power strategy.  The material results of such an approach, when observed closely, are likely to be considerably more modest than they initially appear.  Moscow understands the Middle East, and plays its games deftly and well. But that is because in many ways it resembles some of its regional partners rather more than it would perhaps readily admit.  

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Who Bombed the Saudi oil facility at Ras Tanoura?

Jerusalem Post, 12/3

On Sunday, a series of drone and missile attacks were launched at military and oil industry related facilities in Saudi Arabia.  Among the sites targeted was the oil storage yard at Ras Tanoura, which is the site of the world’s largest offshore oil-loading facility.  A refinery is also located in this area.  A missile was launched at a residential compound maintained by the Saudi state oil company Aramco in the area of Dahran.  Taking responsibility for the attacks, the Yemeni Ansar Allah Houthis) movement also claimed to have launched attacks on military targets in the Saudi cities of Dammam, Asir and Jazan. 

These attacks were the latest episode in a process of escalation currently under way in the region.  In it, the Iranians are mobilizing both their own forces and the full range of their proxies, in a campaign of attacks against the US and its allies.  The attacks on a US facility at the Erbil airport in northern Iraq on February 15th, the rockets on US personnel at the Balad airbase on February 20th, the placing of limpet mines on the Israeli-owned cargo ship MV Helios Ray in the Gulf of Oman on February 26th, the rockets launched on US facilities at the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq’s Anbar Province on March 3, and the current Houthi offensive on the city of Marib all constitute elements of this offensive campaign. 

The claim by the Houthis of responsibility for the latest attacks on Ras Tanoura and Dahran is of particular note.  Houthi Spokesman Yahya Sarea, quoted by al-Jazeera on March 7, said that the organization fired  ‘14 drones and 8 ballistic missiles’ at the above mentioned targets, in a ‘wide operation in the heart of Saudi Arabia.’ 

The array of proxy political-military organizations maintained by Teheran across the region are useful, among other reasons, for the cloak of deniability that they afford the Iranians in their power assertion across the Middle East. When it suits Iranian purposes, such organizations as the Iraqi Ktaeb Hizballah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Syrian Quwaat al-Ridha group and others openly proclaim their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and its system of government.  At other times, they present themselves as independent actors, merely inspired by the Iranian example.

 The level of credible deniability available to a particular proxy tends to wax and wane with time, however.  The Lebanese Hizballah group, for example, is straightforwardly a creation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). This can be discerned from the movement’s own history, from its iconography, and from the statements of its own leaders.  Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, for example, in mid-2018, was reported by Iranian media as saying that the Iranian system of government vilayet a-Faqih, or guardianship of the jurisprudent) was above the Lebanese constitution, and its orders binding. 

Yet for many years, the fiction of Lebanese Hizballah as an independent, home-grown, home-directed organization was dutifully maintained in most media coverage and research work on the organization, and in the perceptions of western governments, as informed by their local representatives in embassies across the region.  Attempts by Israeli or other voices to point out the obvious flaws in such a perception were dismissed as simplistic or as propaganda. 

Today, perceptions regarding Lebanese Hizballah have shifted somewhat.  There are a number of reasons for this.  Firstly, the broader network of ‘Hizballah’ franchises in other countries (Iraq, Syria, Bahrain) is more widely known.  Secondly, Lebanese Hizballah’s activities on behalf of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war have exposed its role as an instrument of Iranian regional policy in a way that is difficult for all but its most ardent defenders to dismiss.   

The Yemeni Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement, however, largely retains the portion of ‘deniability’ which other Iran-linked or Iran-controlled groupings have lost.  The Iranian preference for using the Houthis as the preferred address to which current attacks on Saudi Arabia can be attributed may derive from this perception of the movement.  Any designation of the Houthis as an Iranian proxy is still often presented as simplistic, failing to account for local realities and conditions, much the way that Lebanese Hizballah was seen before 2014 or so.

Is there any basis to the notion that the Houthis, in contrast to the various Hizballahs, are a genuine local movement, pursuing independent objectives outside of the framework of the Iranian regional project?

There is some basis to this claim.  Unlike the various Hizballah franchises, Ansar Allah is not a creation of the Revolutionary Guards per se.  It was not established directly by IRGC cadres, as were the Hizballahs of Lebanon and Iraq.  Rather, the movement derives from local initiatives emerging in the 1990s, opposed to the US invasion of Iraq, hostile to Israel and to Jews, and influenced by the Shia political Islam of Mohammed Hossein Fadlallah.  The Houthis and the communities from which they draw their support are adherents to the Zaidiya branch of Shia Islam, the oldest Shia trend.  The Iranians and the Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi Shia who follow them, by contrast, are Twelver Shias. 

But the differences are of degree, not of kind.  The IRGC officers who presided over the establishment of Hizballah franchises in Lebanon and Iraq organized and brought together young Shia inspired by the Iranian revolution and regime.  The IRGC in Yemen has played a similar role, albeit interfacing with more crystallized prior existing organizations. 

Evidence of active Iranian support for the Houthis has been available for at least a decade.  In 2012, an Iranian vessel carrying surface to air missiles, Katyusha rockets, RPG-7s and other ordnance was seized en route to Yemen. Then Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015 confirmed in a public statement that the US was aware of Iranian support for the Houthis.  Support appears to have increased dramatically over the last half decade, as the Houthis have launched their bid for power in Yemen, and captured the capital, Sana’a. 

But while Houthi military capabilities have undoubtedly improved thanks to Iran in recent years, the perception of the group as not dependent on Teheran appears to remain a major asset for the movement, in the eye of its patrons. The Houthis, for example, were the first to claim responsibility for the strategic attack on the Saudi Aramco oil plants in Abqaiq and Khureis on September, 2019.  A UN investigation later cast doubt on the claim. It noted that the drones and land attack cruise missiles used in the attack had a sophistication probably beyond the reach of the Houthis.  Later, Reuters reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had ordered the attack.   

A similar logic may well apply to the current round of attacks on Ras Tanoura and other facilities.  The Houthis are without doubt supported by Iran.  But is it likely that the sophisticated drone and ballistic missile attacks which Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing are the work of a north Yemeni militia, deciding of its own accord to carry out act of a war against a US-aligned state?  The balance of probabilities must lean toward a more direct Iranian role, at the decisionmaking and very possibly also at the operative level.  The (vital) role of the Houthis, meanwhile, is political. They enable Teheran to avoid any process of retribution. For as long as the fiction is accepted. 

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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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