The Benefit of Clarity: Hizballah-dominated government emerges in Lebanon

Jerusalem Post, 24/1

For the first time since the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 1990, the latter country has a government in which only Hizballah and its allies are represented.  This is likely to have a significant negative effect on Beirut’s efforts to engage international partners and donors in order to alleviate the acute financial crisis facing the country.  It will also impact on Israeli strategic planning vis a vis Hizballah.

The new government is the product of escalating popular protests under way since October 15. The protests are in response to Lebanon’s dire economic state. Demonstrators were demanding the formation of a government of ‘technocrats’ qualified to address the urgent issues facing the country and untainted by contact with Lebanon’s enormously corrupt political parties.

The new government appears to be an attempt to create the superficial appearance of such an administration. Its 20 ministers were presented by Prime Minister designate Hassan Diab as ‘specialists’, non-partisan and without loyalties to this or that political bloc.

Few Lebanese are likely to be convinced by this claim.  The ‘specialists’ in question are individuals whose names were put forward by the political parties. The composition of the new government emerged in a process of wrangling and horse trading between these parties.

But crucially, parties and movements broadly associated with the west and with Saudi Arabia stayed out of the negotiations. Individuals linked to prominent pro-western and anti-Iranian political trends such as the former Prime Minister’s Mustaqbal (Future) Movement and the Christian Lebanese Forces are not to be found among the new ministers.  The Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is also not represented.

The government that has emerged from this process comprises individuals  linked to movements  which are part of only one of the existing power structures – the one associated with Hizballah and Iran.

The new administration is being described by Lebanese commentators as a government of ‘one color,’ Lebanon’s first of this kind.  The color is that of Hizballah and Iran’s banners.

Hizballah itself controls only two ministries in the new government.  But the Christian Free Patriotic Movement led by Gebran Bassil, and the Shia Amal movement, both closely associated with Hizballah, control much of the rest. Smaller parties also associated with this bloc make up the remainder.

In this regard, the emergent government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab constitutes for the first time an administration which reflects the long standing power reality in Lebanon.    Hizballah has long dominated the key nodes of power in Lebanon – in the military and intelligence fields. Its influence is also profound in the economic sector. The overt, formal political administration in the country will now reflect this.

Over the last decade and a half, Hizballah has gradually removed all obstacles to its exercise of full spectrum dominance in Lebanon. In a trial of strength in May-June 2008, it brushed aside an attempt by west-aligned forces to challenge its will by force.  Hizballah’s 50,000 strong armed forces obey the edict of no government in Beirut. On October 31, 2016, long standing Hizballah ally General Michel Aoun assumed the presidency of Lebanon.

Three of Lebanon’s four intelligence services – the General Directorate of General Security (GSDG), the Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) and the State Security Directorate (SSD), are headed by individuals appointed by Aoun and approved  by Hizballah.  The fourth, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), once constituted a potent Sunni-led intelligence organization, associated with anti-Syrian and anti-Hizballah forces. Today, headed by  Imad Othman, it no longer plays this role.

Following the elections of May, 2018, Hizballah and its allies dominated the legislature and executive. They controlled 74 seats in the 128-member parliament, and 19 of 30 Cabinet portfolios. But until the resignation of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri in October , 2019, the facade of coalition government continued.  This situation was amenable to the  Hizballah-controlled ‘deep state’. It enabled normal relations with international institutions, including financial ones, and ensured the continued flow of US and European aid.

As of this week, however, the ambiguity appears to have cleared. Formal power in Lebanon now coincides with real power.

Since the war of 2006, a body of opinion has emerged in Israel according to which in the event of a future conflict ignited by Hizballah, Israel should abandon the paradigm by which the Lebanese state is seen as a helpless but blameless hostage of the Shia militant group.

Representing this view, then Education Minister and current Defense Minister  Naftali Bennett said in May 2018, following significant electoral gains by Hizballah and its allies, that henceforth “the State of Israel will not differentiate between the sovereign State of Lebanon and Hezbollah, and will view Lebanon as responsible for any action from within its territory.’

In 2006, the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora was orientated towards the west. Israel thus faced the difficult task of chasing Hizballah in Lebanon, while avoiding harm to the Lebanese state infrastructure.  The results were mixed.  It has since become apparent that senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commanders, including the late General Qassem Soleimani, were present in Lebanon during that war, directing the campaign of their Lebanese franchise.

Given the events of this week in Lebanon, any such attempt at differentiation is unlikely to be repeated.  Rather, in a future contest between Israel and Hizballah/Iran, the state of Lebanon under its Hizballah-dominated government will constitute the enemy.  This in turn will enable Israel to exercise the full range of options available to it from a conventional military point of view.

It is not clear if such a war would include a ‘formal’ declaration of war between Israel and Lebanon. If it did, such a declaration would be highly misleading.  A conflict of this kind would not in any meaningful sense constitute a war between two sovereign states. Rather, as recent events in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have made clear, the praxis of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps is to use its franchises to construct states within states. These structures then seek to occupy the formal body of the state, turning its independence and sovereignty into a fiction. This process appears this week in Lebanon to have reached its apogee. The formal state, up to and including the highest bodies of government, is now operated solely and overtly by Iran via its franchise, with the allies and clients of that franchise.   This produces clarity, with its many attendant benefits.

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Letter from Tel Tamr

A version of this article, entitled ‘New Year, same Chaos in Syria,’ appeared in the Australian Newspaper on 3/1

‘On October 9th, at 3pm, the attack on Ras al-ain began.  There was artillery shelling.  We sent the women and children out of the town.  Heavy shelling and airstrikes.  They were concentrating  on the east of the city, where the water supply is located.  To stop the water pumping.  The shelling was uninterrupted.  We sheltered underground. It continued all night.  The next morning, when we went out, the city was on fire.’

Dilwar, a 55 year old Kurdish refugee from the town of Ras al-Ain (the Kurds call it ‘Sere Kaniyeh’) is describing the opening night of Turkey’s Operation ‘Peace Spring.’ This is the euphemism Ankara gives for its carving out of a zone of control on its border with Syria.3Around 200,000 people left their homes in the wake of the advance of the Turks and their allies – the Syrian National Army.  Most have yet to go home. We are sitting in the front room of Dilwar’s son’s house, in the city of Qamishli.

Dilwar and his family were fortunate in that they were able to seek shelter with relatives.  Many of those who left Ras al-Ain, Tal Abyad and the other towns now under Turkish control did not have this option.  In Hasakeh and Qamishli, schools have been turned into makeshift, temporary refugee camps.  Whole families are camped in classrooms hastily transformed into places of residence.  It is only the most temporary of solutions.  The schools, after all, must also be used for learning.  This means that with winter now here, the refugee families face the prospect of  taking up residence in the tent camps further east – the Newroz camp, near the town of Derik, or further afield, across the border into Iraq.

The Newroz camp was hastily assembled in the summer of 2014, to house some of the Yezidi survivors of the Islamic State’s attempt at genocide during its season of advance.  Those were different times. Then, the Kurdish YPG was fighting in close alliance with the Americans, and the western world was united in revulsion for the murderous jihadis of IS, and admiration for the courage of their foes.

This time it is different.  The Kurds’ enemies now are the army of a powerful NATO member state, along with its Sunni Arab rebel proxies.  The air power and heavy artillery is all on the side of the Turks.  International public opinion might still largely favor the Kurds, but for the most part the west is weary of Syria, confused at its intricacies, revolted at its brutalities and wishing nothing more than to be free of it.  Having witnessed both the displaced families of 2014 and those of 2019, nevertheless, this author can confirm that they look remarkably similar to one another.

The Turkish and allied assault on northern Syria traces back to a telephone conversation between Presidents Recep Tayepp Erdogan and Donald Trump on October 6, the contents of which the Turkish president interpreted as meaning that the US would not oppose a Turkish incursion.  While Administration officials fiercely deny that any ‘green light’ was given by Trump during the call, a statement issued a few hours later by the White House made clear that US forces would not interfere with any invasion, and indeed ‘would no longer be in the area.’  This was sufficient for Erdogan.  The invasion commenced with the indiscriminate shelling of October 9. Ground forces entered Syria on the following day.

Two weeks of combat which changed the face of the strategic situation in northern Syria followed.  As the Turks and their Islamist militia allies moved forward, the Kurdish leadership, fearing catastrophe, invited Syrian regime and Russian forces across the Euphrates.

Evidence rapidly emerged of atrocities committed by the Syrian National Army, Turkey’s Islamist militia allies in the incursion.  On October 12, a Kurdish politician, 34 year old Hevrin Khalaf, was murdered by Turkish-aligned militia, along with her driver and guard, on the Hasakeh-Manbij road.  Photographic evidence emerged of the torture of prisoners and the desecration of corpses by the SNA militiamen.

The SNA is controlled not by the Turkish armed forces but by the MIT – Turkey’s national intelligence organization.  Ankara denies any systematic strategy of terrorizing the population. The army has now issued a manual of behavior for the SNA. It is hopefully entitled ‘Fighter – not killer.’  The manual includes references both to Islamic and to international law. Among other exhortations, it forbids fighters from filming their activities.

On October 14, Assad’s army returned to the cities of Kobani, Qamishli and other border towns that they had left in 2012.  It was the end of a period of relative stability for these areas, under a de facto US-Kurdish protectorate.  The fighting formally ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire on October 22.

But the ceasefire is largely a fiction, as Inquirer witnessed in several days’ reporting on the front line in the Tal Tamr area in late November.  Turkey accuses the Kurdish fighters of failing to entirely withdraw from the areas it was required to retreat from in accordance with the ceasefire.  The SDC/SDF, meanwhile, asserts that Turkish-aligned forces have committed at least 200 acts of violation of the ceasefire since October 22, including artillery, drone and mortar attacks. Both claims probably have something to them.

There are daily exchanges of fire.  The villages north west of Tal Tamr directly adjacent to the Turkish lines are largely deserted.  The SDF burn tyres and oil at the entrance of the village of Um Kaif, raising a thick black smoke intended to blur the vision of the Turkish Bayraktar strike drones that reap a heavy toll among the ranks of the Kurdish fighters.  It is a primitive tactic, and of limited use.  David Eubank, a former US Army Special Forces officer who runs a medical NGO based in Tal Tamr told Inquirer that he estimates that drones account for around half of the deaths on the Kurdish side in the operation.

When the artillery opens up, those civilians who have remained in Um Kaif rapidly flee.  A line of vans laden with mattresses, chairs, rugs,tables are soon making their way to the relative safety of Tal Tamr itself.  The mortars and artillery from the regime positions rapidly respond. We learned later that a regime soldier had been killed in the exchange of fire.  This is what the ceasefire looks like.

Further west, in Ain Issa, the SNA and the Turks have tried two offensives since October 22. On November 6 and then again on November 20 they attempted unsuccessfully to take the town.  There are near daily fatalities on both sides.  But for now, the lines are largely static.

The Assad regime soldiers in Tal Tamr and Um Kaif are unshaven, poorly equipped – and surprisingly friendly. Very different from the haughty and suspicious way the regime army tends to carry itself on its home turf. An SDF fighter confides in us that the government’s men sometimes come to beg for food from the SDF positions. Their own supplies are meager, a few boxes of potatoes and tomatoes. They are short on medicines too.

At least for now, the regime is making no attempt to reimpose its full authority on the ground. The roadblocks that remain every few kilometers on the roads between the towns are still manned by the SDF. The regime army is deployed only along the border, facing the Turks.  In the cities, too, it is the Kurds who are in control on the ground.  The journalists and NGO workers who fled the advance of the regime in mid-October have cautiously begun to return. No one knows how long the current situation will hold.

So where may things be heading?  Kurdish leaders interviewed by Inquirer are adamant that they will only accept a full rapprochement with the regime in the context of a political agreement. Such an agreement, in turn, would need to take account of their determination to maintain their current structures of governance and security within the framework of any new constitution.

General Mazloum Abdi, commander of the SDF, told Inquirer that ‘if the regime wants us to come back to the center, then they must fulfil the demands of the people here – Kurds and Arabs. For eight years, the people have had autonomy here, and the regime must accept this demand.’

The general further notes that contrary to initial expectations, the Americans have not completely left. The SDF remain the preferred US partner in ongoing anti-IS operations.  The remaining US presence may be emboldening the Kurds to take  a less compromising stance in the current Russian mediated negotiations with Damascus.

Syria today remains fragmented, thoroughly penetrated by outside powers, and broken.  Fully eight armies of various kinds are today active in the narrow space between the Euphrates River and the Iraq-Syria and Turkey-Syria borders. These are the Turks, their Syrian National Army Allies, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, The SAA (regime forces), the Russians, the Americans, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards with their various militia proxies, and of course the remaining networks of the Islamic State.

The main victims of the ongoing conflicts, meanwhile, are the long suffering civilian population, whose desire for security and normal life are no different from any other civilians.  In the words of Anisa, a 38 year old Arab refugee from Ras al-Ain, as told to Inquirer from her family’s cramped room in the Liwa school in Qamishli, ‘We don’t want assistance.  We won’t go to a tent camp with winter coming on.  I have been driven from my home three times in the last five years. From Ras al ain by Nusra in 2013. From Raqqa by ISIS a year later.  Now from Ras al Ain again by Erdogan. I’m 38 and I look 50.  All I want is my home, in Ras al Ain.  And to live in my own country in peace. Nothing more.’

It is a hope shared by hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians across northern Syria as the year draws to a close. And with Syria’s wars now entering their ninth year, it is a hope which – tragically – appears as distant and as far from realization as at any time in the past decade.

As 2020 begins, the chaotic space taking in the ruined and partially collapsed states of Iraq and Syria looks set to continue to host a bewildering series of interlocking conflicts.   As ever, it will be the civilians of both countries who will continue to bear the brunt of the associated tragedy.

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The Blood-Dimmed Tide

Jerusalem Post, 27/12

Syrian chaos reflects the conclusive breakdown of the post Cold War Regional Order

 

A number of significant developments under way in Syria reflect the confusing strategic situation in the region, as a variety of players compete for supremacy. The forces engaged include global powers, regional powers and sub-state forces – and combinations of the above. No player or group of players is currently able to conclusively vanquish the others and then arrange affairs according to its will. This situation reflects the conclusive disappearance over the last decade of the post Cold War order in the region, and the emergent fierce competition to fill the vacuum it has left.

On December 20, the Arabic service of the Turkish pro-government Anadolu website reported the arrival of ‘dozens’ of Saudi troops to the al-Omar oilfield in the east Syrian province of Deir e Zur. According to the report, by journalists Ibrahim Khalil and Mohammed Misto, the troops are tasked with providing security for 15 Saudi and Egyptian engineers and technicians from the Saudi Aramco comnpany who had arrived the previous week, in order to ‘rehabilitate the field, increase its oil production and train its workers.’ The Omar field is the largest Syrian oil field.

Aramco denied the reports in a statement to the Saudi Al-Arabiya website. But while they cannot be confirmed with 100% certainty, it is noteworthy that a delegation of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces visited Saudi Arabia in early December, at the invitation of the kingdom, in order to discuss further cooperation between this force and Riyadh. The SDF is the force associated with the de facto ruling authority in north east Syria.

The Saudi move would fit with the shape of US policy regarding Syria. Having pulled back forces from the Syrian-Turkish border in mid-October, the US is currently maintaining its presence in Deir e Zur, and would clearly value the increased involvement of the Saudis, and the increase of the oil production capacity in the area.

North east Syria, two months after the US redeployment and the subsequent Turkish invasion, now constitutes a chaotic kaleidoscope of opposing forces. No less than eight separate armed forces may be discerned in the area. These are the SDF, the US Army, the Turkish Army, the Turkish associated Sunni Islamists of the Syrian National Army (SNA), the Syrian government army (SAA), the Russians, the IRGC-supported Shia militias and of course the Sunni jihadis of Islamic State. The Saudis, if indeed they are there, would constitute a 9th force.

During a reporting visit to this area in late November, this reporter noted that while Assad’s army and its Russian allies crossed the Euphrates on October 14, as of now no effort appears under way to reimpose Damascus’s authority on the ground. The SDF retains control of the vital Semalka border crossing. This is its doorway to the outside world. It also enables it to sell oil to clients other than the Assad regime (to whom it also sells). But more broadly, there are no regime roadblocks or checkpoints in the area, except those which were present prior to October 2019 – namely, in the regime-maintained ‘security squares’ in the cities of Hasakeh and Qamishli, and at the military airport outside Qamishli.

For now, the Kurdish led Administration remains responsible for all civil affairs and policing. The SDF is the main armed force. The Americans are patrolling, and not only in Deir E Zur (this reporter witnessed an American convoy outside Hasakeh City). The regime forces, and the Russians are deployed in the border areas, to maintain the partially-observed ‘ceasefire’ negotiated between Russia and Turkey on October 22. There are currently daily exchanges of fire at points along the lines of separation, but the lines themselves are largely static.

Further south, the Iranians have carved out an area of de facto control of their own, in the area just west of the Euphrates. Teheran, of course, nominally supports the Damascus government. But at the Albu Kamal border Crossing, the Imam Ali base with its tunnel system for the storage of missiles and heavy weaponry, and in the villages around Mayadin, the Syrian government is nowhere to be found. The IRGC and its militia allies, including Lebanese Hizballah, are the de facto ruling force. This area, unsurprisingly, is a particular focus for air activity attributed to Israel. The most recent air raid took place on Wednesday.

This stretch forms a key node on Iran’s area of control (or ‘land bridge’ – a term the Iranians themselves do not use) which extends to deep across southern Syria. In various forms, Iran is present all the way to the border with Israel.

In Syria’s north west, meanwhile, a bloody fight is under way as Assad’s army and the Russians push into southern Idlib Province. They are seeking to reduce the last remaining area under the exclusive control of the Sunni Arab rebels. The jihadis of the Hayat Tahrir al Sham group are dominant in this area, which lies south of a zone of Turkish control. 80,000 people have been displaced from their homes in the wake of Russian and government air and artillery bombardment. Assad’s forces are heading for the town of Maarat al-Numan, located on the strategic M5 highway which links Aleppo with Damascus.

Turkey, notably, is pressing Russia for a ceasefire in the area. A Turkish delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal is in Moscow to discuss the matter and other issues of joint Russian and Turkish interest.

So what might be grasped regarding the strategic balance of the Middle East from the confusing mass of interests and conflicts currently being played out on Syrian soil?

Firstly, and most importantly, in Syria as in the region as a whole, there is no hegemon. No single country or group of countries can impose its will in entirety on the others. East of the Euphrates, one may discern a loose alliance of common interest taking in the SDF, the remaining US presence, and (reportedly), Israel and Saudi Arabia.   The US, Israel and Saudi Arabia share opposition to the advance of Iran (the SDF leadership is not for nor especially against Iran). All four of these elements are opposed to Islamic State and Sunni political Islam.

But it would be wrong to identify an ‘alliance’ here. There is nothing so solid. The US is there but not as part of a clear and discernible strategy. The other three may have common immediate enemies but the prospects for cooperation between them are limited.

Secondly, further west, events in Idlib showcase the contradiction in Russia’s efforts to satisfy the Assad regime’s desire to reimpose Damascus’s sovereignty over all of Syria, while at the same time draw Turkey closer to Moscow.

Iran’s separate project to build its own independent center of power in Syria also runs in contrast to Moscow’s desire to return a semblance of normality to the country. Again, neither of these projects is strong enough to cancel out the other. Rather, they appear set to continue in uneasy coexistence.

So goes Syria, and so goes the region. As 2019 draws to a close, the good news from Israel’s point of view is that it is not currently faced with a potent, advancing and united enemy camp – in Syria or in the region more generally. Iran is a powerful enemy, Turkey a determined adversary. But both are beset by problems and contradictions requiring their urgent attention.

The less good news is that Israel is also no longer an ally of a regional or global hegemon – since no such hegemon exists. Things have fallen apart. The center indeed has not held. The result, however, is not mere anarchy, but rather renewed and determined competition between a variety of clearly discernible players, the outcome of which cannot presently be foreseen.

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The Riddle of Baghdad

Jerusalem Post, 13/12

Last week, five rockets were fired at the Ayn al-Asad base in Iraq’s Anbar Province.  The base is a facility housing US troops.  Ayn al-Asad is something of a symbol for the 5,000 strong US presence in Iraq.  President Trump visited the base last year, spending the day after Christmas with troops stationed there.  Vice President Mike Pence was also there in late November, for Thanksgiving.

Two days  later, Katyusha rockets were fired at the Balad airbase, 70 kilometers north of Baghdad.  Again, this is a base where US forces and contractors are stationed.

There were no casualties in either attack. They were the latest in a string of similar incidents which have taken place on US facilities in Iraq since the beginning of the year. These attacks have a number of things in common, other than that they are directed at US personnel and facilities: they appear to be intended for now to send a message rather than to cause injuries or fatalities among US troops.

They are also notable in that no force or organization has taken responsibility for them.

The attacks are taking place in the context of continued unrest and security chaos in Iraq.  Unlike in Iran, the demonstrations and protests in Iraq have not been crushed as yet by the actions of the security forces.  Unlike in Lebanon, the number of participants have not declined.  Rather, the protests in Baghdad and elsewhere are continuing at white heat.  The resignation last week of Prime Minister Adel Abd al Mahdi has not stemmed the energy of the protestors who are demanding the resignation of the entire government, new elections and the overhaul of the country’s political system.

The efforts by the authorities to crush the protests are also intensifying.  On December 8, over 25 people were killed and more than 130 wounded when gunmen opened fire on demonstrators near the main protest camp  at Tahrir Square in Baghdad.

More than 400 Iraqis have been killed and thousands more wounded since the protests began in early October.  On Sunday, the violence erupted when armed men on pick up trucks attacked a building near the Sinak bridge occupied by the protestors.  The building was torched and the attackers opened fire with live ammunition as the demonstrators fled the building.

The attack came a day after a series of mysterious stabbings left a number of protestors in Tahrir Square seriously injured.

Like the attacks on Ayn al-Asad and the other US bases, the killings of the demonstrators have been claimed by no organization. The Iraqi authorities in official statements on these incidents persist in a somewhat surreal claim that the killings are being committed by an unknown ‘third force’ unconnected to the authorities.

An (Arabic language) statement by Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, spokesman of the ISF’s Joint Operations Command, issued shortly after the beginning of the demonstrations and quoted in a recent article in Janes Intelligence Review, read that ‘there are no orders to use violence against demonstrators.  The security forces are protecting demonstrators and property from ‘mundisun’, who are trying to destroy the country.’  On the same day, Iraqi Ministry of Defense Spokesman Tahseen al-Khafaji stated that ‘Mundisun have opened fire on demonstrators and Iraqi security forces.’

Who or what is a ‘Mundis’?  This Arabic term has no precise translation but is usually used to mean a ‘provocateur.’  Its use is associated with authoritarian regimes who seek to divert attention from their own repression by use of conspiracy theories.  As such, it is a term of ridicule for many reform minded people in the Arab world.

So if the aforementioned, mysterious ‘mundisun’ don’t really exist, who is killing demonstrators in Baghdad, and who is firing rockets at US bases?  Might the two sets of perpetrators be connected, and what explains the reticence of both the Iraqi authorities and the US to identify those responsible?

Actually, the answer is very clear. The riddle is why it has taken so long for the facts to be acknowledged in both Baghdad and Washington.

The evidence suggests that in both cases, the perpetrators are the Iran-backed Shia militias who today constitute the strongest and most potent political and paramilitary force in the country.  With regard to the attacks on US bases, the indications have been plain throughout the year that with the IS threat now set back, the Shia militias have been gearing up to seek to expel the US presence from Iraq.

As far back as  February 2nd, Iraqi security forces found and defused three missiles that had been set on a timer to be launched at the al-Asad base. The missiles were defused fifteen minutes before they were set to launch.

On February 4th, Ja’afar Husseini, spokesman of Ktaeb Hizballah, one of the most powerful of the Shia militias, warned that clashes between the militias and the US ‘may start at any moment.’  This was the second such warning issued by the movement. ‘There is no stable Iraq with the presence of the Americans,’ Husseini declared.

 

His words were echoed by Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, who similarly declared that Iraq’s security forces and ‘strong society’ could easily expel the  US service members currently deployed in Iraq.

 

It now appears that the tempo of attacks has continued and increased, while failing to attract wide media attention. According to a report in Bloomberg on December 7, no less than eight separate attacks have taken place on Iraqi  facilities hosting US troops in the last five weeks.

The sophistication of the attacks, the munitions used, and the target all point to the Iran-backed militias. US patience is evidently now growing thin. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Schenker, speaking at a briefing in Washington on December 6, said with regard to the Balad and al-Asad attacks that ‘if past is prologue, I’d say there’s a good chance it was Iran that’s behind it.’  The US Treasury Department has now blacklisted Qais and Laith al-Khazali, leaders of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Hussein al-Lami, security chief for the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Similarly, with regard to the actions against the demonstrators, there has been ample testimony from the very start that the gunmen firing at demonstrators were from the militias, and not some mythical ‘third force.’

As one demonstrator told Iraqi reporter Kareem Botane as early as October 6, just five days after the protests began:  ‘the government has changed its tactics, withdrawing its forces and bringing in other forces that belong to certain militias of the PMU – Khorasani and al-Nujaba (pro-Iranian PMU-affiliated militias).  According to information I got from emergency forces and police, they started with 300 people and these were deployed at the top of buildings – they were all snipers.’

So if its been clear from the start that the Iran-backed militias were  almost certainly responsible both for attacks on bases hosting US troops, and for the slaughter of demonstrators, what is the reason for the reticence of both Iraqi and (until recently) US officials?

The answer is that once the violent activities of a particular party are identified, logic holds that there may need to be a response.  But the Iraqi political class is itself either on the side of the Iran-backed militias, or terrified of risking renewed civil war by confronting them.  The US, meanwhile,  has been reluctant to accept the increasingly unavoidable fact that its 2003 invasion of Iraq has birthed a pro-Iranian Shia ascendancy in the country which is now trying to expel the remaining US forces.  When reality is too bitter and frightening to confront, political classes, like individuals, sometimes take shelter in denial. That, it appears, is the answer to the riddle of Baghdad.

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‘Mr. Erdogan has settled your bill’

Jerusalem Post, 30/11

Turkey’s Burgeoning Strategic Relationship with Pakistan raises Nuclear Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But maritime affairs are only one part of the picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jerusalem Post, 1/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some Further Thoughts on the Situation in Northern Syria

9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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