Turkish, Russian Strategy for Syrian Endgame Emerging

Jerusalem Post, 23/12

Without US pushback, Turkish-Russian cooperation may deliver victory in Syria to Moscow-Tehran axis

Since 2019, the Syrian situation has been largely at stalemate, with authority divided between three de facto enclaves, each dependent on the sponsorship of outside powers.  The Assad regime, guaranteed by Russia and Iran, controls around 60-65% of Syria’s territory, including the coastline and the main cities.  The US-backed, Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces hold most of the area east of the Euphrates, comprising roughly 30% of Syria’s area.  Turkey, in partnership with the self-styled ‘Syrian National Army,’  (the remnants of the Sunni Islamist rebellion, remustered under Turkish auspices) and with the jihadi Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, controls an area in the north west comprising around 10% of Syrian territory. 

This de facto partition has mostly held since early 2018.  Turkey shifted the balance somewhat in October-November 2019, with a ground incursion east of the Euphrates. This resulted in the establishment of an enclave of Turkish controlled territory biting into the Kurdish controlled area, and in the deployment of regime and Russian forces east of the Euphrates in order to deter further Turkish advances.  Since then, the military situation on the ground has been static, the broader question of Syria’s future unresolved. 

There are currently indications of renewed movement.   Specifically, Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan has been carrying out an air campaign against targets in the Kurdish/US area since November 20th. The Turkish president has already threatened a ground incursion, with the intention of pushing the Kurdish forces back 30km from the border and conquering three towns, Tal Rifaat, Manbij and Kobani.  Kurdish sources told the Jerusalem Post that the Syrian Kurdish leadership had expected the invasion in late November.  Its postponement appears to be the result of both American and Russian representations to and pressure on Ankara.  Sources suggest, however, that the danger has not yet passed. 

Alongside the threats of invasion, Erdogan appears to now be embarked on a course of diplomacy.  On Thursday December 15, the Turkish President expressed his desire for a three way meeting between himself, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad.  “Let us get together as the leaders. I offered this to Mr. Putin and he received it positively. Thus, a series of contacts would be launched… “We want to take a tripartite step as Syria-Turkey-Russia,” the Turkish president told reporters, on his way back from a trip to Turkmenistan, as reported in Al-Monitor.  The statements followed talks in Istanbul on December 8-9 between the Turkish and Russian deputy foreign ministers, and a phone conversation between Putin and Erdogan on December 11. 

This is a far cry from the Erdogan of a decade ago.  Turkey emerged as the first and most determined supporter of the Islamist insurgents who sought to destroy the Assad regime.  In 2012, in the early days of the insurgency, Erdogan effectively opened the border to the rebels, allowing them to ferry weaponry and supplies into Syria.  Now, as the last protector of what is left of the revolt, the Turkish leader appears to be pursuing a very different goal, namely, rapprochement with the Assad regime, under Russian auspices. 

The Turkish leader’s stance indicates that while he may have for the moment abandoned his ambition to stand at the head of a group of Sunni Islamist regional states, this is not leading him to return to a pro-US regional policy.  Rather, he appears to be seeking to draw closer to Russia, in order to further weaken and eventually nullify the Kurdish led entity in eastern Syria.  Erdogan considers that this body, aligned with the US in its fight against ISIS, is a front for the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), with which Turkey has been at war since 1984.  His efforts since 2015, when it became clear that the rebellion was not going to defeat Assad, have been mainly directed towards seeking the destruction of the Kurdish led area. 

In this regard, Turkey finds natural partners in Russia and Assad.  Assad wants to reassert his nominal control over the entirety of Syria. Russia supports this goal too, as does its ally Iran, and both would like to see the departure of the US troops currently guaranteeing the continued existence of the Kurdish led enclave. 

The Kurdish area, formally known as the Autonomous Administration of north east Syria, has been gradually whittled away by Turkey in three military operations since 2016.  In 2019, the Turkish incursion required the Kurds to invite the regime and Russians into their area to prevent a further Turkish advance.  If forced to choose between the Turks or Assad, the Syrian Kurds will, unsurprisingly, opt for Assad.  For Erdogan, this raises the attractive proposition of using the Assad regime as a kind of anvil for the Turkish hammer, between which the Syrian Kurds will be crushed. 

In 2019, regime forces did not attempt to reimpose Assad’s political authority east of the Euphrates.  Contrary to some predictions, the regime at that time satisfied itself with beefing up its military presence on the border only.    But the episode served to further erode the area of control and authority of the AANES.  It appears that this pattern is to Erdogan’s liking: threats of Turkish action necessitate closer links between the Kurds and the regime, leading to the further weakening of the Kurds.  The next episode of this dynamic, under Russian auspices, appears to be under way. 

Russia’s proposals at this stage appear to resemble the methods used by Moscow to whittle away at rebel controlled areas five years ago.  Moscow is suggesting that the SDF fighters withdraw from Kobani and Manbij, leaving only Kurdish paramilitary police ‘Asayish’ forces which would then come under regime command.  The Kurds, according to al-Monitor, have accepted these demands. Turkey is now demanding additional Kurdish concessions. 

The choreography of all this seems fairly clear.  The key player absent in the dynamic, meanwhile, is the United States.  It is the US which guarantees the continued existence of the AANES area.  It does so, however, without a political commitment of any kind.  Relations are officially limited to cooperation in the ongoing battle against Islamic State.  US interlocutors make clear to the Kurdish leadership that they will not necessarily be in Syria for the long term. The US therefore is not opposed to the negotiations between the AANES and the Assad regime. 

This ‘hands off’ position of the US is likely to doom the Syrian Kurds to the continued slow erosion of their area of control.  The absence of a clear US commitment in Syria may reflect a view which sees this arena as a backwater, of little strategic relevance at the present time.  If so, this view is mistaken.  Syria is one front for a broader, coalescing alliance between Moscow and Teheran, which takes in also the battlefields of Ukraine, and the domestic turmoil in Iran (Moscow, according to a recent report in Iran International, is advising and assisting the Iranians in the suppression of the protests).  The US guaranteed enclave is important strategic real estate which gives the opposing side in this alliance a presence in Syria and an ability to oppose, frustrate or block and contain the ambitions of Moscow and Tehran.  Turkey is seeking to position itself midway between the sides, gaining advantage from both.  The problem may be that strategic thinking on the pro-US side has yet to catch up with the emergent reality in this context.  Until it does, the advantage will be with the Russian-Iranian side, as it moves with Turkish cooperation towards an endgame intended to deliver it strategic victory in the Syrian arena. 

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Inside the Kurdish Uprising against the Iranian Regime

Jerusalem Post, 16/12

“About the events of the last two months – what happened with Jina Amini was like putting a spark on a pile of TNT, which has now exploded,” Hussein Yazdanpana tells me. “We will not accept what has happened to the Kurds. We see what happened to this girl as an insult to our dignity and our honor.  And we are now taking part in the uprising against the Iranian regime” 

Yazdanpana is the leader of the Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK – Parti Azadi K), one of three Iranian Kurdish organizations targeted by the missiles and drones of the Teheran regime in recent months.  We are talking in a small hut located at the movement’s headquarters in Pirde, Kirkuk Province, in northern Iraq, close to the place where the missiles landed. 

In mid-November, the Jerusalem Post visited all three of the targeted areas, and conducted interviews with leaders and activists of the organizations targeted.  Our presence in these areas also enabled us to meet with and interview young Iranians who had taken part in the current protests, before being identified by the Iranian security services and fleeing the country.  At a time when the Iranian authorities are doing their best to block access to the country, and to stifle the voices of those engaged in revolt against it, this provided a valuable window both on what is going on in Iran, and on the sentiments, views and motivations of those involved in the protests.   

The PAK stands out in two ways among the cluster of small, armed Kurdish organizations gathered along the Iraq-Iran border – for the clarity and unambiguous nature of its rhetoric and its demands, and for its emphasis on military activity and struggle.  Regarding the former, the organization openly calls for the establishment of a sovereign Kurdish state on the lands that the Iranian Kurds call ‘Rojhelat.’ 

Other Kurdish groups tend to restrict themselves to demands for autonomy within a federal Iran, or various other formulations.  Regarding the latter, the movement is reknowned for its actions both during the war against ISIS and, in particular, during the Iraqi Kurds’ desperate defense against the pro-Iran Shia militias after the failed Kurdish independence bid in September, 2014.  On that occasion, the movement is credited for stopping the advance of the militias towards the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, at the Alton Kopri bridge, which links Kirkuk and Erbil provinces. 

Formed in 2006, the PAK, like the other targeted groups, is a small organization, numbering around 1000 fighters, with an larger network of supporters inside and outside Iran. 

The base at Pirde was attacked by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on September 28, shortly after the outbreak of the current uprisjng against the regime in Tehran.  Six members of the movement were killed on that occasion.   The bases of two other Iranian Kurdish groups, Komala and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) were also targeted.  At total of eighteen people died in the attacks. 

The Iranian regime accuses the PAK and the other organizations of carrying out ‘armed attacks’ against regime security forces, and of fomenting the current demonstrations and protests.  IRGC Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour was quoted by the IRGC-associated Tasnim channel as  saying that that the attacks will continue until “the complete disarmament of the anti-Iranian and separatist terrorist groups”. 

Yazdanpana, and leaders of the other two organizations dismiss the accusations of ‘armed attacks’, while freely admitting to active support for the uprising.  “As PAK,” he tells me, “ we are calling for the continuance and expansion of the protests. This is what we’re working on.  What is happening now is not criticism of the government.  We are demanding the end of the regime. Iran’s bombardments just motivate us more.”

On the issue of armed action, the PAK leader told me that “we want to continue and expand the civil way.  But we should be prepared also and should not hesitate to protect ourselves.” 

But alongside the determination, there is a clear frustration at the failure of western countries to respond adequately to Iranian aggression, and more broadly, at what the PAK leader identifies as a more general failure to grasp the nature of the Iranian regime and its regional intentions. 

“Our fighters fought ISIS, and like the Ukrainians, we’re friends of the US, and right now we’re under Iranian bombardment and are being killed.  How can the international community keep silent?  You remember when Hizballah was bombing Israel? How do they come to have such weapons? Its not Hizballah, its Iran which is the source.  You have to deal with the source of the weapons. 

We’re not living in the age of empires, but Iran is an imperial state.  Iran wants to control the Sinjar mountains so as to put its missiles within range of Tel Aviv.  It has bombed Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It has destroyed Yemen.  So how can we keep silent? 

They have brought their militias into Iran.  The Fatemiyoun, Zeinabyoun and so on (Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias) and they’re using them against the demonstrators.  They have permission to open fire, wherever they want. 

Iran must be faced with force.  With force you can change it.  But only in this way.”

On the matter of Kurdish statehood, the PAK leader is unequivocal.  “If Israel didn’t have its own state, there would be another Holocaust.  So having a state is the only way to guarantee the safety and sovereignty of the nation.  I want a free and independent Kurdish state.  But of course, the people themselves must decide this.”

Why is Iran targeting the Iranian Kurdish organizations?

The PAK, PDKI and Komala are organizations raised against the Islamist regime in Tehran, and are committed to its downfall. At the same time, these are all small organizations, with limited reach.  Members of all three organizations in conversation with the Jerusalem Post noted their active involvement in the protests. Kawthar Fatahi, a leading Komala activist, said that her movement maintains “illegal hospitals,’” and  “We pay doctors to bring aid to wounded people.  We pay the families of wounded people.  We assist the movement a lot, but not via armed action.” 

But while the organizations are undoubtedly engaged in active support for the uprising, no-one, including the organizations themselves, claims that they are in control of, or leading the demonstrations.  Rather, the protests in the main involve very young people, many of them under 20 years old, and few over 25.  Why then does the regime appear to be paying such disproportionate attention to the Iranian Kurdish organizations in the border area?

Many of the activists interviewed by the Jerusalem Post in the border area attribute the apparently disproportionate attention given to the organizations to a desire by the regime to present the civil uprising against it as a military insurgency.  This depiction would then be the prelude to a much harsher crackdown on the protests, presented as a response to a national security threat. 

As one official of the PDKI put it, in conversation with the Jerusalem Post at the organization’s Koya headquarters, “the regime want to make it into a military battle with us.  But we see that this would be in the interests of the regime, so we try to prevent that.  A military confrontation would enable them to cause mass casualties and end the demonstrations.  So we are trying to educate people so as to avoid this.” 

“They attack us because they are feeling weak.  The attacks also show the weakness of Iraqi sovereignty.  Iran is trying to look strong when actually they are very weak.  What’s happening now is unprecedented, in terms of the time it has continued.  People are no longer willing to accept the regime.  Its getting stronger day by day.” 

Conversations with protestors

On November 14, in the course of our visit to the bases of the Iranian Kurdish organizations, Iran launched an additional missile and drone attack.  The headquarters of the PDKI and Komala were targeted.  Three people were killed at the PDKI base in Koya.  We were at the base of the PAK on that day.  As a precaution, the base was evacuated, and the fighters deployed in the surrounding hills.  In the following tense hours, we were able to speak to a number of people who had taken part in the protests in Iran, before making their way across the mountains to northern Iraq, to avoid arrest by the regime.  

Mafriz, aged 19, from Sine, took part in the demonstrations for the first two weeks.  She describes a situation of open confrontation far exceeding the generally reported picture of demonstrations by young women for the rescinding of compulsory hijab laws. 

“The regime attacked us with live bullets.  People are injured but they can’t go to a pharmacy or hospital.  We had to take casualties to private houses.  Men, women, even children, whole families took part in the demonstrations.” 

After two weeks, a surveillance camera placed outside a shop identified Mafriz, and the authorities contacted her family, asking her to report to the local offices of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.  At this point, she decided to leave.  The PAK has a strong presence in Sine, and Mafriz’s family made contact with the organize, to help her leave. 

“After I was threatened (by the regime),” she tells the Jerusalem Post, “I went to Sardasht.  From there I was able to walk for 3 days with smugglers and then to get to Iraq.  I was terrified during the trip across the mountains.  I thought the smugglers might sell me.  Then after I came here, they sent me the number of the PAK.  And I contacted them and came here.” 

Rezan, 25, also from Sine, was arrested on the fourth demonstration in which she participated, and was then rescued from arrest by the demonstrators themselves.  “Most participants in the demonstrations are 15-20 years old, coming from families that have been oppressed.  Poor economic conditions, political instability, no one feels safe, and that makes people come out. 

The regime has become more aggressive, entering peoples’ houses and so on, and I believe it will continue to intensify.  The regime is using hunting guns, live bullets, teargas, sticks and baton rounds.  Also the regime police and intelligence use fake ambulances to arrest people.  So wounded people are being treated in their homes rather than in hospital.” 

“We have to respond to the regime bullet with bullet,” she concludes, “so we need the support of the international community for this, to go back to our lands and to take revenge for all the innocent people who have been killed.” And, on learning where we are from, “Israel should keep on punishing the regime.  As much as you can.” 

Hussein, 27, a construction worker from Saqqez, took part in the demonstrations that launched the current uprising, following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, before escaping with his wife and young won to Iraq. 

“I’m a painter and decorator, an ordinary worker.  We lived in poor conditions, like thousands of other young people in Iran.  The events surrounding Jina’s death gave us an opportunity, to go to the streets, mzke a change, and demonstrate.  I went with four of my friends.  Two have them have now been arrested and disappeared.  The others were injured.  I was recognized and the authorities went to my parents’ home. They took my sister’s phone and called me.  And when I answered, the coice told me ‘come to us, you son of a bitch. So I got some friends to bring my family to me. And we came here.”

Hussein and his family are staying with the PAK in Pirde because he fears the presence of Iranian sleeper cells in the cities, in Erbil, or Suleimania.  The vulnerability of Iraqi Kurdistan to Iranian intelligence penetration and the fears of Iranians present in this area is an under-reported part of this story. 

“They killed Musa Babakhani, in Erbil,” Hussein reminds me, when I ask whether such precautions are necessary.  Babakhani, a leading activist in the PDKI, was murdered in an Erbil hotel room in August, 2021, by agents of the Iranian regime. 

These testimonies, gathered as we waited in the mountains for the all clear to be given, reflect earlier conversations with activists and participants in the Iranian protests.  The details matter.  The issue of the abuse by the authorities of medical care, in order to apprehend demonstrators came up again and again.  And as we saw in the statements of Kawthar Fatahi of Komala, it is in this area that the Kurdish organizations are most practically engaged, creating an independent, rudimentary medical infrastructure that enables participants when injured to avoid the public hospitals and the authorities. 

Another matter which surfaced in a number of conversations was the issue of sexual abuse of demonstrators in the hands of the authorities.  Though somewhat taboo in the conservative environment of Iran, claims of this kind surfaced in several of our conversations and the issue is worthy of greater attention and investigation. 

At the Komala base in Zergwez, Rojda, 22, from Saqqez, gave a vivid account of the first moments of the uprising.  “When we heard that Jina had been killed, and that the next day the regime was preparing to bury her, in darkness, at 4am, all the Saqqez people went down to block the streets leading to the cemeteries. 

The police came and began to push people back.  The killing of Jina was so brutal. Saqqez people knew that she was a good person, who did nothing to deserve this.  It was not acceptable.  The police and intelligence tried to threaten us as the womens’ demonstration began to spread.  The next day, the women came to the streets again, to block the road, with the men behind them.  Then the police began to open fire, with ‘hunting guns.’

After 4 days in the demonstrations, I was doing first aid.  They said I had to come to the ‘Etillat’ (intelligence) station.  Then I decided to leave, and I came across the mountains. I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon, because of the anger of the people that I saw on the demonstrations.  Young women, 19 and 20 years old. Despite the threat, the fear has gone.  For that reason, I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon.”

The Road Ahead

The latest news from Iran suggests a sharp intensification of regime tactics.  Three months in, the regime has evidently decided that ongoing containment is no longer an option.  Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, was in Iraq last week for a  two day visit.  While there, Ghaani threatened Iraqi and Kurdish officials with an Iranian ground military operation, unless the Iranian Kurdish organizations along the border were disarmed.  Ghaani’s visit came a day after the November 14th attacks on Koya. Whether or not a ground incursion takes place, no one expects that the November 22 missile and suicide drone attacks on the PAK will be the last. 

The first executions of protestors condemned for their participation in the demonstrations have begun.  On Thursday, according to BBC Monitoring,  the Iranian judiciary announced the  execution of Mohsen Shekari. He had been convicted of “waging war against God” for blocking a street and wounding a member of the Basij. 11 others arrested since the start of the uprising  await execution. 458 people have been killed so far in the Iranian regime’s response to the demonstrations, including 63 children and 29 women, according to Iranian human rights organizations. The protests continue.   

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‘Step by step, the regime will lose control’: interview with an Iranian revolutionary 

Jerusalem Post, 9/12

“The problem is not only the hijab.  This is a symbol.  The Iranian regime is intent on controlling how women live.  And women are saying ‘I am human and I have a right to live.’ This time its different.” 

Kawthar Fatahi, 33, a former teacher from Bukan in Iran’s Western Azerbaijan Province, is now a leading activist and organizer for the Iranian Kurdish Komala party. We are sitting in her office at the movement’s HQ in Zergwez, Suleimania Province, northern Iraq, about 50 km from the Iraq-Iran border.  The base was the target of an Iranian drone and missile attack on September 28th.  “I thought it was a motorcycle, at first” she tells me, “A horrible, weak, buzzing sound. But it was a suicide drone.  You could see it in the sky, but you didn’t know where it was going to land.”

The countryside in the Iraq-Iran border area is green, verdant and beautiful, in contrast to the desert landscapes a little further west. But two days after our conversation, the base will be targeted again. Fatahi’s office is located in one of the buildings struck by the drones. 

In quiet and measured tones, she describes the unexpected outbreak of the uprising that followed calls by Iranian Kurdish organizations, including her own, for protests following the killing on September 16 of Mahsa Jina Amini for improper wearing of her compulsory hijab. 

“Initially I wasn’t too optimistic.  I thought it might be limited to Kurdistan.  But now I think its different,’ she says.  “Nobody thought it would be this big, because a week before in Mariwan, another girl was killed and there were protests – but only in Mariwan. No one else supported them.  Then the Kurdish parties called a strike, which was completely successful.  So they called the protests.  ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi.’  (Women, life, freedom – a main slogan of the uprising).  And then a few days later we heard this Kurdish slogan in Tehran.” 

She is concerned, nevertheless, at the limited base of support for the revolt.  “It remains only Generation Z.  15-25 year olds. There is a need for older people to come into the protests. Everyone decided that they don’t want the regime. But people are scared.” The absence of a clear leadership, much remarked upon in western analyses of the uprising, is an issue too. 

“Who are the alternative to the regime? Its still not obvious…People in Iran are a little afraid of charisma. Because this is how Khomeini was.  They saw his face in the moon, you know? They insist that they don’t need a charismatic leader, that we will not be deceived again. We need a system, they say.  A democratic system.”

“Some among the Turks (ie Azeri Iranians) and the Persians believe in the king, the Shah.  But even they don’t want him to be king, but that he should take power, a temporary, government. And then a referendum.”

“They aren’t frightened that something could be worse than the current regime – because nothing could be worse than the current regime.”

The base at Zergwez is host to young men and women who took part in the current uprising, and who had to hurriedly leave Iran after the authorities sought to apprehend them.  Fatahi herself left Iran for similar reasons some years before the current events.  After becoming involved in ‘the social movement, the green movement,’  she was summoned by the IRGC for interrogation, and with the help of the Komala organization fled across the Zagros mountains to Iraqi Kurdistan. 

“When you grow up in Iran, as a woman, and especially as a Kurdish woman, you notice that things are not normal, that you have no place,” she tells me.  “So you think about it.  Why don’t I have basic rights? We have to wear a hijab from the first days.  And step by step you start to think that you’re nothing.  How to walk, how to sit, how to eat.  It was forbidden for women to eat in the street.” 

Komala itself, along with two other Iranian Kurdish movements – the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) and the Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK), have been the targets of Iranian missile and drone attacks on three occasions since the outbreak of the uprising in mid-September.  A total of 21 people have been killed in these attacks.  Iranian regime media maintains a constant drumbeat of accusations, according to which these organizations are smuggling weaponry across the border to the protestors, and seeking to foment an armed insurgency.   Tasnim, for example, a channel associated with the IRGC, reported on November 22 that the armed strikes on the  ‘‘Iraqi-based Komala and Democrat terrorist groups came after illegal entry by these groups’ armed teams into the Iranian border cities.’

Kawthar Fatahi, and other officials of Komala, PDKI and PAK interviewed by the Jerusalem Post in Iraqi Kurdistan in mid-November dismiss these accusations.  It is clear from these interviews that the Kurdish organizations are not leading the current protests, nor do they claim to be doing so.  They are, however, involved in activities intended to assist the uprising. 

“We have ‘illegal hospitals,’” says Fatahi.  “We pay doctors to bring aid to wounded people.  We pay the families of wounded people.  We assist the movement a lot, but not via armed action.” 

All three of these movements have light weaponry, including machine guns and RPGs, as this author witnessed on their bases.  The demonstrators inside Iran, meanwhile, are being killed daily.  Over 450 people have now died.  The organizations, surely, are faced with a dilemma.  Why not use the available weaponry in order to defend the protestors.  And if not now, when, so to speak.  I put this question to Fatahi. 

“People do call on us to come inside, yes.  But we think its not yet the time,” she replies.  “The regime creates fake scenarios, saying that people from Komala come in with bombs and so on, supported by the US and Israel.  We now have four fighters in jail, who’ve been forced to say ‘we’re from Komala, we trained with Israel, to come and make explosions.’ But its all fake. 

The revolution in 1979 took one year.  We need the big cities, we need Teheran.  Its not yet the time.  We shouldn’t give the regime excuses.  We should go step by step.” 

As of now, the demonstrations are continuing, and regime tactics are producing violence in response.  A number of IRGC personnel have been killed by the protestors, in both Kurdistan and Sistan Baluchestan Province.  The airstrikes on Iranian Kurdish positions across the border are accompanied by increasing use of live ammunition against the protests.  In Iranian Kurdistan this week, another of the periodic general strikes took place, and was widely observed. 

Kawthar Fatahi, from her office in Zergwez, next to where the drone struck, is cautiously optimistic.  “The demonstrations need to be continuous.  The Iranian regime is very weak now.  I know many people who were senior in the regime, in the IRGC, and who have stopped working with them.  If the demonstrations continue, and larger numbers come to the revolution, and the strikes continue and spread, I think that step by step, the regime will begin to lose control.  I think it’s going to happen.” 

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‘The Fear Has Gone’: Conversations with Iranian protestors

A version of this article appeared in The Australian, weekend edition, 26-27/11/22

‘At about 10.30, we got a warning that an attack was coming.  So we had to disperse.  I ran home to Reyhana.  I was about five meters from where the rocket landed. I was thrown back. After a couple of minutes, I woke up.’ 

We are sitting in the front room of Zanyar Rahmani’s house, at the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) base in Konya, northern Iraq.  The base was struck by the drones and rockets of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on September 28th.  13 people were killed. 

Zanyar Rahmani is speaking in a calm and matter of fact tone about the events of that day.  The base has re-acquired a peaceful, industrious atmosphere.  The morning is quiet. There are pictures on the wall of Rahmani’s front room, of him with Reyhana, his wife, and of a newborn baby, their son, Waniar. 

‘There was two weeks left til she was due to give birth,’ Zanyar says, taking up the story again.  ‘When I came to, I saw my wife, and I told her to go to the car.  But then I saw that she was looking strange, and she fell.  I carried her to the car and I saw that I was covered in blood.  We drove to the hospital.  In the car her waters broke and she began bleeding.  They gave her an x ray in the hospital, and they said probably we have to choose between saving her and saving the baby, and that she’s almost certainly not going to make it.’ 

‘They gave her surgery for an hour and a half.  She died but the baby survived.  Then after one day, the baby followed her. ‘

‘Afterwards, we learned that she had shrapnel wounds in her back, and that her lungs were destroyed. She had no chance to survive.’

A day after our visit to the PDKI base in Koya, it was targeted again by regime rockets.  Three more people died.  Then on November 20, another attack took place.  No one believes it will be the last. 

The ongoing rocket and drone strikes by Iran on the bases of a number of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq constitute one of the more mysterious aspects of the current instability in Iran.  The demonstrations which began to protest the killing by the regime of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, have now entered their third month.  They show no sign of dissipating. Rather, both the protests themselves, and the regime’s response to them, appear to be growing increasingly violent.  Over 450 people have now died.  The use by the authorities of live ammunition against the protestors has become routine.  In recent days, meanwhile, a colonel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hasan Yousefi, was beaten to death by protestors in Sanandaj.  Demonstrators in Teheran burned down the childhood home of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic. 

The Kurdish Iranian opposition groups in northern Iraq combine political and military capacities. But none of them are engaged in active insurgency against Teheran. No one, themselves included, believes that they are in control of the angry crowds of mainly very young people that return to the streets of Iran’s cities night after night to challenge the regime’s security forces.  Why, then, are they being systematically, and brutally, targeted?

PDKI officials I interviewed contended that the attacks are part of an effort by the Iranian regime to depict the struggle against it as led by external, ‘separatist’ forces.  This would be a prelude to a declaration of defensive war against these forces.  This, in turn, ,would be a perfect framing for the wholesale slaughter of protestors, to be depicted as part of a national war against an external enemy. 

‘The regime want to make it into a military battle with us.  But we see that this would be in the interests of the regime, so we try to prevent that,’ says Mustafa Maroudi, a senior PDKI official, speaking to us from his office in Koya. 

‘They attack us because they feel weak.  The regime is trying to look strong, when actually they are very weak…What’s happening now is unprecedented.  In terms of the time that it has continued.  People are no longer willing to accept the regime. The protests are getting stronger day by day.’ 

The organizations targeted – the PDKI,  Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK) and Komala, are playing, in their own depiction, an auxiliary role in the protests.  They maintain ‘field hospitals’ for wounded protestors in private homes, because the regime is known to target medical facilities in its search for those engaged in the uprising against it.  They provide finance to doctors treating the wounded, and to the families of wounded demonstrators. But the real energy and impetus driving on the demonstrations is clearly not emerging from these small, exiled groups. 

Assessing the true impetus behind the protests is a task made deliberately difficult by the Teheran regime.  Reporting on the ground in the areas most affected by the protests, such as Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces, is impossible.  The regime also tries to restrict internet access to affected areas.  It wishes to do its work in darkness. 

The Iraq-Iran border area, however, is a place where some light gets in.  There is a steady stream of people making their way by clandestine means over the Zagros mountains that bisect the border.  Many of these are young women and men who took part in the demonstrations, were identified by the authorities, and then had to cross the mountains to avoid arrest.  From conversations with them, one may begin to build a clearer picture of the motivations for the revolt currently under way, of the form that it is taking, and of the efforts by the regime to destroy it. Many of our interviews were conducted in the field, on the day of Iran’s renewed missile attacks, as the Iranian Kurdish fighters and refugees sought shelter from the attacks in the countryside surrounding their bases.

‘When we heard that Jina had been killed, and that the regime was preparing to bury her at 4am, in darkness, the Saqqez people went to the streets, to all the roads leading to the cemetery.’  Rojda (not her real name), 22, tells me, describing her participation in the protests that launched the uprising.  She is a native of Saqqez, the hometown of Mahsa Jina Amini. (the Iranian Kurds all refer to Amini using her Kurdish given name, Jina, rather than the Persian ‘Mahsa.’

‘The killing of Jina was so brutal,’ Rojda continues, ‘and Saqqez people knew that she was a good person, who did nothing to deserve this.  And it was not acceptable.  The police and intelligence tried to threaten us. But the next day, the women came to the streets again, to block the road, with the men behind them.  And then the authorities began to open fire, using shotguns.’ 

‘After four days in the demonstrations, I was doing first aid, and I got a message that I had to come to the ‘Etelaat’ station (the Ministry of Intelligence and Security).  So then I decided to leave, and I came here across the mountains.  I contacted a humanitarian organization who helped me get to Sardasht.  Then I stayed there for 6 days. The border was closed.  Then it took me 5 hours walking to cross the border, with the ‘kolbars’ (border smugglers).’ 

Rojda’s account is in its essential details similar to the stories of many of the young women and men who we interviewed in the border area.  The heady exhilaration of involvement in the protests, subsequent location and targeting by the authorities, and then the flight across the mountains.  The Iranian-Kurdish organizations provide both a place of refuge, and a framework for continued activity. 

‘I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon, because of the anger of the people that I saw on the demonstrations,’ she tells us.  ‘Young women, 19-20 years old. The fear has gone.  That’s why I’m optimistic.’ 

‘In Iran, a woman is nothing,’ 28 year old Mafriz tells us, ‘She is seen, excuse me, as a kind of sh**y animal, without respect.  I took part in the demonstrations in Sina. We were asking for freedom and democracy.  The issue in Iran is not only about hijab.  It’s more than this. 

The Basij (regime paramilitary forces) came into the university and beat us.  Three of my friends were captured and they beat them.  Their parents paid for them to be released.  One of my friends, after she was caught, they physically and sexually abused her.’ 

‘The Etelaat came to my parents’ house.  They promised me an amnesty if I returned…My family want me to return.  The regime makes these claims that people who go to the Kurdish organizations are being held there by force.’ 

Rezan, 25, from Sine, keeps her face covered throughout our conversation.  ‘Because of my family,’ who are still in Iran, she tells us.  She left Iran at the end of September, after taking part in the protests.  ‘Most of the participants are 15-20 years old.’ She tells us. ‘They come from families that have been oppressed. There are poor economic conditions, political instability, and no one feels safe. So people come out.  The regime has become more aggressive now, entering peoples’ homes and so on.  But I believe the protests will continue to intensify.’ 

So where is all this heading?  The latest news from Iran suggests a sharp intensification of regime tactics.  Three months in, the regime has evidently decided that ongoing containment is no longer an option.  Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, was in Iraq last week for a  two day visit.  While there, Ghaani threatened Iraqi and Kurdish officials with an Iranian ground military operation, unless the Iranian Kurdish organizations along the border were disarmed.  Ghaani’s visit came a day after the November 14th attacks on Koya. 

Within Iran, meanwhile, the latest reports are of regime targeting of protestors in the Iranian Kurdish city of Mahabad, which briefly fell out of government control.  Video evidence of machine gun fire on protestors has emerged. All the indications suggest that the regime’s face is set toward escalation, in a desire to provoke a showdown with the demonstrators, and then adopt the tactics of brutal counter-insurgency against them.  It is a familiar playbook, last employed in the Middle East by the Assad regime in Syria, a close ally of Teheran. 

The difficult task facing the uprising will be to maintain momentum and build world attention, without falling into the traps set by Teheran.  Strike action in support of the protests, meanwhile, remains somewhat sporadic and, crucially, no real leadership has yet emerged to guide the revolt.

The goal, nevertheless, remains clear.  As Koser Fatahi, a 33 year old organizer for the Komala movement, expressed it to us, speaking from an office damaged in the September 28th attack: ‘The world should act more.  They are still negotiating with Iran. Its disgusting.  If this regime gets a nuclear capacity, it’s the end of everything.  Because the regime believes it should spread.  They call it an octopus, with lots of hands.  Well these hands should be cut – in Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Syria. 

Its important to hear the voice of the people. Iran is still on the committee for womens’ rights in the UN. Its disgusting.  The world would be a better place if the Iranian regime didn’t exist.  If you want democracy, womens’ rights, human rights, this path leads through the destruction of the Iranian regime.’ 

Reyhana Rahmani and her son Waniar, who lived a single day, are buried beside one another, in the cemetery maintained by the PDKI at Koysinjaq.  More than 450 people have now been killed by the Iranian regime since the uprising against it began in September.  The protests are continuing.     

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The Best Books about the Human Impact of War

The Shepherd website recently invited me to compile a list of the best books on the human impact of war, in my judgement. This is a subject of considerable interest to me. I have lived around active conflict, first as a participant, then as a journalist and researcher, and then sometimes as a type of participant again, for the last 22 years. This subject has become a central focus of my writing. I have a kind of feeling that this subject chose me, rather than the other way around. I dont mean that in some portentous sense, but rather simply that conflict and war have imposed themselves on the physical area in which I chose to make my life (a choice made for reasons unrelated to conflict), and my personal biography and the biographies of those closest to me, both family and close friends, have been shaped by the experience of war and its legacy. Anyway, I hope readers will find my choices and the explanations of them to be of interest.


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Iranian Kurds fear massacre as regime threatens incursion

Jerusalem Post, 14/10

The crisis in western Iran is intensifying. As Sanandaj and other cities burn, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Saturday issued a curious statement threatening a military incursion into Kurdish northern Iraq.

The statement read: “In case of inability of some neighbors in expelling elements of separatist terrorists and hypocrites stationed in the border areas… the armored and special forces units of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s armed forces are ready to be deployed to free this region of these evils forever.”

A report at Voice of America on October 4, meanwhile, quoted a senior Kurdish Region of Iraq official who noted a buildup of Iranian forces on the border, and said that the Iranian regime had sent a message to the KRI confirming that Iran may launch a ground operation into northern Iraq, if Iranian Kurdish forces do not withdraw from the border area. In response, according to the official, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have demanded that Iranian Kurdish fighters withdraw from their positions along the border.

These threats follow a number of attacks carried out by Iranian regime forces on facilities belonging to Iranian Kurdish opposition parties on Iraqi soil, beginning on September 28. Sixteen people lost their lives in these attacks, including one American citizen. All this comes amid the rising death toll in the majority Kurdish provinces of western Iran, as Tehran seeks to crush the protests against the regime.
Why is Iran choosing to target small, exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition organizations in northern Iraq, at a time when unrest within Iran itself is ongoing?

IRANIAN KURDS suspect the regime intends a repeat of events that took place shortly after the revolution of 1979, when majority Kurdish areas were isolated and then subjected to massacres. The targeting of Kurdish organizations would form part of an effort to “brand” the protests as a separatist Kurdish uprising, which would then be crushed using maximum force.

The Kurdish organizations in question – the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Kurdistan Freedom Party, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan, and Komala – are not engaged in active insurgency against the Iranian regime. These parties maintain armed wings, but their small and lightly armed forces engage only in training and some patrolling along the borderline. They are forbidden by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities from launching armed actions across the border. The Iraqi Kurds are aware of the dangers of provoking Iran.

Arash Saleh, a senior activist with the KDPI, told The Jerusalem Post that “the regime wants to distract international attention from what is currently going on in Iran by spilling its crisis over to the neighboring countries. For years, this regime’s remedy for the crisis it was facing has been creating new crises and specifically the ones with an international dimension.”

A source from the Iranian Kurdish city of Sanandaj, epicenter of the current protests, meanwhile, suggested that “the regime claims that Iranian Kurdish opposition in Iraqi Kurdistan are fueling the protests in Iran and specifically in Iranian Kurdistan and they plot for separation. In this way, they want to provoke the demonstrators in other provinces to stop protesting and stop the risk of Kurdistan province separating from Iran.”

The current unrest in Iran has spread to all 31 provinces of the country, but its origins are in the province of Kurdistan, home to the majority of Iran’s Kurds. Twenty-two-year-old Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, whose killing at the hands of the regime sparked the current unrest, was Kurdish, and hailed from the town of Saqqez, in Kurdistan province. The slogan that has become the symbol of the current protests, “Jin, jiyan, azadi” – Kurdish for “Women, life, freedom” – was coined by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdish PKK.

Kurdistan province is among the most impoverished and underdeveloped of Iranian governorates. The Kurdish population of Iran, numbering nine to 10 million in a country of 84 million and concentrated in the western part of the country, is doubly oppressed. In addition to facing the travails known to all Iranians, living under the stifling and repressive rule of the Islamic regime, Iran’s Kurds are the object of the regime’s particular attention as an ethnic minority suspected of separatist tendencies.

In the period immediately following the revolution of 1979, the then-fledgling IRGC fought a bloody campaign in Kurdistan province against Kurdish rebels seeking greater autonomy.

The fighting reached its peak in mid-1980, with a massive offensive by the regime’s armed forces, accompanied by the summary executions of thousands of Iranian Kurds. The main Kurdish movements engaged at that time against the regime were the KDPI and the leftist Komala Party. Following the repression, these movements reestablished themselves across the border in northern Iraq.

Both these movements still exist, and their facilities were among the targets of the Iranian attacks in recent days.

The Iranian regime has, since the 1980s, maintained a tight and repressive hold on the province. Imprisonment or worse remains the common fate of those who seek to organize against the regime. Tehran has in recent years also frequently turned to the use of execution by hanging as a means of enforcing its authority. From January 1 to June 30 this year, 251 people have been hanged in Iran, compared to 117 in the first half of last year, according to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based NGO. Iranian Kurds and Balochis are disproportionately represented among those executed. The roster includes Kurdish political activists convicted of membership in one or another of the Kurdish political organizations listed above, which the Iranian regime considers “terrorist” organizations.

AS OF now, Kurdistan province and particularly the focal city of Sanandaj, along with parts of Tehran and Mahabad, remain the epicenter of the protests. Intensified demonstrations over the weekend led to the use of live ammunition against protesters for the first time in Sanandaj. An unknown number of people have been killed and wounded in the city, where the protests are continuing.

In Sanandaj, some evidence is emerging of reluctance on the part of Kurdish members of the security forces to take part in the worst of the repression.

A source from Sanandaj, who is in constant touch with protesters in the city, told the Post that “witnesses say they [the regime] deployed Kurdish repressive forces from Kermanshah province but they refused to attack people. The people from Kermanshah are mainly Shia Kurds. So they tend to be closer to the regime, and the regime trusts them more. So the regime had tried to deploy them to repress demonstrations.

“Then, in the last few nights, they deployed 15 buses of special guards from Yazd. Yazd is far from Sanandaj, in central Iran. The people there are Persian, religious, and affiliated with the regime.”

Video evidence has since emerged suggesting that the Iranian authorities have begun, in the last days, to use live fire against protesters in Sanandaj. The video clips included what appeared to be evidence of the firing of armor piercing 50-caliber bullets on private homes.

The Iranian Kurds fear a repeat of the slaughter of 40 years ago, with the world similarly looking aside. The possibility of an Iranian cross-border operation to accompany this should not be ruled out. The protests are, according to our Sanandaj source, “the most intense since 1980.” The Iranian regime appears to be preparing the ground for them to end in a similar way.

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Iran mobilizes proxies to fight growing protests

Protesters in Iran accuse regime of using Arab militiamen to suppress demonstrations • IRGC fires at Iranian Kurdish bases

Jerusalem Post, 1/10.
Claims have surfaced in recent days that pro-Iranian regime Arab militiamen are to be found among the forces currently being used by the Iranian regime to crush protests.

Demonstrations protesting the alleged murder of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, by the Iranian authorities have now entered their second week. Amini died after being arrested for wearing her hijab in an “immodest” way.

Around 80 people have been killed in the protests, which have spread from Kurdistan province across Iran’s 31 governorates. The protests have expanded in scope and are now focused not only on Amini’s killing, but on the broader issues of repressive dress codes for women in Iran and the dire state of the economy.

As the protests continue and intensify, a growing number of participants are claiming that among the forces seeking to crush the demonstrations are members of pro-Iranian regime Arab militias.

These allegations have surfaced on a number of widely followed online accounts associated with the protests and have been repeated by Iranians in conversation with this author. Similar claims, it is worth noting, surfaced during the last major wave of protests in Iran, in 2019.

According to an Iranian source hailing from Sanandaj, capital city of Iran’s Kurdistan Province, “Witnesses in Rasht, Lahijan, Qazvin, and Sanandaj claim the presence of Arab forces among the riot police and among the forces mounted on motorbikes. There is speculation that they may have been brought to Iran from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Some say there were also Palestinians.

“Sources suggest that these forces were brought into the country by the government from the borders of Iran and Iraq during Arbaeen. They have entered Iran with Iranian pilgrimage convoys.”

 Arbaeen is a yearly pilgrimage undertaken by Shia Muslims to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein at the battle of Karbala, in Iraq. Each year, large convoys of Iranian pilgrims make their way to Karbala in southern Iraq, as part of this observance.

Some Iranian oppositionists suspect that pro-regime Arab militiamen may have made their way into the country accompanying these convoys. One online account claims to have identified flights to Najaf in Iraq from Syria and Lebanon bringing militia personnel.

The allegations regarding the Arab presence among the security forces are more concrete and specific. According to one Sanandaj based Farsi-language Twitter account: “Tonight, the agents I saw were not Iranian at all, I swear, they were not Iranian, they spoke Arabic in Qazvin, on Sabze-meydan Street, they were standing and they had guns in their hands. May God curse them.”

Ali Zahedi, another Iran-based Farsi Twitter account, wrote, “The repression force spoke in Arabic. They came from Iraq and Lebanon. One of them stayed behind from the others… People went towards him… He shouted in Arabic to the rest of the forces to ask for help. Those who ride the motorbikes, all those who are silent and don’t speak, they are the Lebanese ones.”

“Tired Phantom,” a popular and anonymous Iranian pro-opposition account, meanwhile, advised Iranians not to worry too much about the pro-Iran Arab militiamen, who the account suggested had troubles of their own: “Don’t worry about Hashd al-Wahshi [the ‘mobilization of wild beasts’ – a play on the name of the Iraqi Shia militias – the Popular Mobilization] and Lebanon’s Hezbollah,” Tired Phantom suggested. “They’re under Israeli shelling in Syria and Lebanon. Their situation in Iraq is precarious too.”

Additional sources hailing from Iranian Kurdistan told this author that conversations with relatives confirmed the presence of Arabic speakers among the forces suppressing the protests.

The use by the Iranian authorities of their loyal Arab allies to put down protests is in line with the broader pattern of behavior of the Iranian regime. Tehran routinely moves its various regional assets across its area of domain, based on where they can be useful. Thus, Lebanese Hezbollah operatives are long confirmed to be active in Yemen and Iraq. Afghani Shia fighters form an important part of Tehran’s war effort in Syria, and so on. It now appears that the regime is making use of its most loyal cohorts to crush the latest challenge to its authority, in Iran itself.

Alongside this, Tehran is also seeking to depict the protesters as representing foreign or ethnic separatist interests. Mahsa Amini was from Iran’s Kurdistan province, and the protests have been at their strongest in this area. Tehran is trying to attribute Kurdish nationalist motivations to the protests, in an apparent effort at divide and rule.

On September 24, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps launched artillery attacks on Iranian Kurdish guerrilla bases across the border in northern Iraq. In a statement published at the Quds Force Telegram channel, the IRGC said, “IRGC Ground Forces, using the operational units of Hamza Seyyed al-Shohada (AS), today destroyed the headquarters and establishment centers of the terrorist and anti-revolutionary aggressor groups on the other side of the country’s borders in the northern region of Iraq with fire operations and attacks.

“The operation of Islamic warriors will continue in the direction of ensuring stable border security and punishing the aggressor criminal terrorists and making regional authorities responsible for their international regulations and legal duties.”

These attacks have continued in subsequent days, with missile launches on bases of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), the PKK-associated Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) and the Komala party in both Sulaymaniyah and Erbil provinces. The Iranian regime has employed “Fateh-360 missiles and suicide drones” in the attacks, according to IRGC media. A number of fatalities have resulted.

No actions by the Kurdish groups targeted preceded these attacks. The Iranian Kurdish guerrilla groups, while determined and passionately committed to their cause, are severely limited in their resources and military capacities. This targeting, given its timing, seems to be a clear attempt to divert the focus of the current protests, and to change their dynamic.

The tactics undertaken by the Iranian regime might give the impression of an authority caught unawares by the sudden outburst of wide-reaching protest, and improvising its response. Undoubtedly the protests spread fast and remain currently undiminished. Still, it remains highly questionable as to whether the regime at present faces anything close to a real threat to its continued rule.

This is not because of any inherent efficacy to its divide and rule tactics and its use of proxies. Rather, it is because while the protesters despise the regime, for many of them the preferred solution is to seek a way out of Iran, rather than to challenge the present authorities for the rule of it.

Perhaps for this reason, while periodic large scale protests have been a feature of Iranian life for more than a decade now, nothing resembling a coherent revolutionary political leadership with widespread popular support has yet emerged in the country, or in exile.

For as long as this absence remains, the Iranian regime is likely to continue to succeed in its strategy of divide and rule, and brutal but targeted repression. The presence of hired proxies among the forces of repression is testimony to the unrepresentative nature of the regime in Tehran.

But an effective challenge to its future now depends on the emergence of a coherent alternative leadership and structure from among the growing ranks of the protesters.

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Increased Israeli air activity over Syria: Why Now?

Jerusalem Post, 17/9

The rising tempo of attacks reflects a more general readiness for confrontation as region enters new phase

A notable uptick in Israeli air operations against Iran-linked targets on Syrian soil has taken place over the last month, according to regional media.   

Israeli aircraft struck at Aleppo airport in northern Syria on September 6th.  This operation followed close on the heels of an earlier strike at the same target, on August 31st.  According to SANA, the official Syrian regime media agency, the raid on the 6th damaged the runway, putting it temporarily out of service.  SANA reported that missiles were launched from over the Mediterranean, west of Syria’s Latakia coastline.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), meanwhile, associated with the Syrian opposition, reported that the raid targeted a warehouse used by an Iran-linked militia. 

North Press, a media agency associated with the Kurdish de facto authority in northern Syria, had a slightly different account.  The September 6th raid, the agency contended, targeted a plane bound for Najaf, in southern Iraq, which had two members of Lebanese Hizballah aboard.  North Press cited a source at Aleppo airport as the basis for this account. 

The Reuters agency, meanwhile, cited a ‘commander in an Iran-backed regional alliance’ as claiming that the raid took place just prior to the arrival of a plane from Iran.  This latter account would seem to dovetail with a statement from Ram Ben-Barak, Chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a former senior intelligence officer, according to which ‘”The attack meant that certain planes would not be able to land, and that a message was relayed to Assad: If planes whose purpose is to encourage terrorism land, Syria’s transport capacity will be harmed.” 

Regardless of the precise nature of the operation, it followed a series of attacks attributed to Israel to have hit Syrian targets in recent weeks.  On August 25th, several military sites in the western Hama countryside were hit by missiles.  On August 27th,  a statement from the Russian airbase at Khmeimim claimed success for the Russian  Pantsir-S1 and S-75 systems operated by Syrian armed forces in downing some missiles aimed at the Scientific Studies and Research Center in Masyaf, a frequent target for the attention of Israeli air power.  On August 15th, airstrikes targeted Syrian military posts in Tartus and Damascus Governorates, with three reported fatalities.  On August 12th, two people were wounded in shelling of a village north of Quneitra, close to the Israel-Syrian border. 

These are the statistics for the last month.  North Press estimates that 24 Israeli air operations have taken place against targets in Syria since the beginning of the year. The clear majority of these were conducted against Iranian targets.  If this figure is accurate, then 6 such operations in the last month represents a clear increase in tempo.   

So the question is: why is this happening now?  A number of factors are worthy of attention.

The specific targeting of Aleppo airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its ‘air bridge’ to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land. 

In this regard, it is noteworthy that Cham Wings, Syria’s largest private airline, announced that all flights would be diverted to Damascus International Airport following the strikes.  Cham Wings has been sanctioned by the US Treasury since 2016 for ‘providing material support to entities sanctioned for proliferation and terrorism activities.’  The company is widely believed to play an active part in the funnelling of weapons and militia fighters between Iran and Syria.

But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Teheran.  Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension.   There are a number of contributory factors to this emergent picture. 

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria.  This requires an immediate caveat. There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal.  The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets which will be maintained.  The maintaining of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow.  But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine.  Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once.  The Israeli company ImageSat International revealed evidence in late August that the S-300 air defense system deployed in the Masyaf area has been dismantled and returned to Russia. 

Evidence, indeed, is currently emerging that the Russian government-linked defense company Wagner has in recent months been actively recruiting among pro-regime Syrians.  Syrian volunteers are then sent to help the Russian effort in Ukraine.  It is a curious, and significant, reversal of roles. 

Russian absence means greater importance and greater freedom for the Iranian role in Syria.  The two countries have pursued notably separate and occasionally opposed projects in Syria in recent years.  But the Russian drawback also reduces a complicating factor for Israel.  Iran may increase activities as the Russians draw down, but Teheran’s vulnerability and Israeli freedom of action will also increase. 

Secondly, assuming that some last minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the JCPOA is not imminent.  In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely. 

In this regard, the recent bellicose statements made by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the IRGC’s Lebanese Hizballah franchise, are worthy of particular note.

The common interpretation emerging from the security echelon in Israel has been that these statements were related to an attempt by the Hizballah leader to claw back some of his movement’s lost public legitimacy, as he poses as the defender of Lebanon’s natural resources.  It is just as likely, however, that the Hizballah leader’s sudden increased defiance reflects the opening of a more general mood among Iranian proxies and franchise organizations – proclaiming a greater readiness for risk of clashes with Israel in the period now opening up.    

It is worth noting that Iran is set this week to achieve full membership of the China led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, at a summit of that organization in the Uzbek city of Samarkand.  Chinese oil purchases enabled the Iranians to ride out the Trump Administration’s strategy of ‘maximum pressure.’ 

A failure by the current US Administration to succeed in nuclear diplomacy where Trump’s policy of coercion also failed will deepen Teheran in its conviction that the US is a departing power in the Middle East.  Iran is moving toward closer relations with the alliance that perceives itself as the rival to the fading US hegemon.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone.  Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture re the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. 

This new, more comprehensive approach was reflected in the speech this week by Mossad Head David Barnea in his speech to International Institute for Counter-Terrorism conference in Herzliya.  Barnea told his audience that “The Iranian leadership must understand that attacks against Israel or Israelis, directly or indirectly by proxies, will be met with a painful response against those responsible, on Iranian soil. We will not pursue the proxies, but the ones who armed them and gave the orders, and this will happen in Iran.”

As nuclear diplomacy reaches its final round, the mood on the rival camps in the Middle East appears to be toward a greater willingness for confrontation.  The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflects this changing season. 

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Six months of War in Ukraine

Jerusalem Post, 3/9

Launch of Kherson offensive marks opening of new phase in the conflict

The Ukrainian armed forces this week launched an offensive in the Kherson region, located in the south east of Ukraine.  Ukrainian media is reporting that Kyiv’s forces have broken through the first line of Russian defenses outside of the city of Kherson.  The Russian state owned RIA news agency is also reporting the Ukrainian push, which it claims has already ‘failed miserably.’ 

Amid the fog of war, and the claims and counter claims, it is too soon for any clear assessment.  But the events in Kherson appear to constitute the beginning of a major Ukrainian effort to retake territory  in the south, earlier than had been predicted by much analysis. This operation in turn marks the opening of a new phase in this gruelling war, which has already passed through two distinctive stages. 

The war in Ukraine is the largest scale and most consequential conflict to take place on European soil since 1945.  Six months since the dramatic opening of hostilities by the Russians in the early hours of February 24, and with a new chapter perhaps in its opening stages, it is an opportune moment to take stock of the war’s progress, and to assess where events may be heading.  

In the first, mobile phase of the war, Moscow sought to make rapid territorial gains along four identifiable fronts. In the northern front/Kyiv area, Moscow launched an attack from Belarus towards the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after its initial attempt to swiftly seize the city using airborne assault forces failed.  In the north east, the Russians began an attack in the direction of the city of Kharkiv.  In the south, attacks were launched from Crimea, with the intention of rolling up Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline in the direction of Mariupol, Mykholaiv, and ultimately Odessa and the border with Moldova. Kherson, the only regional capital to fall to the Russians, was taken on March 2 as part of this offensive.  In the south east, attacks were launched from Luhansk and Donetsk, with the goal of completing the conquest of the Donbas which had commenced in 2014.

In this dramatic opening phase, many observers feared that independent Ukraine would rapidly be over-run.  Some analyses recalled the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Moscow’s forces took over its neighbor in 48 hours, having first seized control of Prague’s international airport.  Others pointed to the crushing intervention by Moscow in 1956 against armed anti-communist revolt in Hungary, an invasion which secured control of that country within a month.   

Many journalists, this author included, made for beleaguered Kyiv at that moment.  I had witnessed the city in revolution in 2013, in the events at the Maidan which began the process that eventually led to the Russian invasion.  Like many others, I assumed that the Russian attempt at encirclement of the Ukrainian capital must surely succeed.  I wanted to witness the city in what I assumed would be the last days of its existence as Ukraine’s sovereign capital. 

The atmosphere in Kyiv in the first days of March was one of grim determination.   The streets were empty. Air raid sirens sounded at regular intervals.  There was still food in the shops, but shortages were beginning.  Across the city, in schools and office blocks and hospitals, soldiers and volunteers were frenetically preparing for the defense of the city. 

But as it turned out, of course, the Russians never entered Kyiv.  Extended and chaotic supply lines, poor leadership, shortages of manpower, and determined Ukrainian resistance all ensured that the push for the city would falter.  The assault on Kyiv was abandoned by mid March.

 A Ukrainian counter attack from  March 16 pushed the Russian forces back from the city,  recapturing the entire area north and east of Kyiv, including Hostomel, site of the Antonov Airport – where Russian airborne forces in the early hours of February 24th had sought to repeat their forefathers’ success in Prague in 1968, in seizing an airport to ferry in the invasion forces – and had failed.

The first, mobile phase of the war was over by early April.  The Russians had enjoyed some success on the southern front. The port city of Mariupol was taken on April 3, following a bitter and bloody siege. Russian shelling of Odessa and Mykholaiv continued. But the anticipated push up Ukraine’s coastline failed to materialize.    

On the north eastern front, the Russians made little progress, trying and failing to capture the city of Kharkiv. 

In the east, Russian forces tried to advance from their existing pre-2022 areas of control in Luhansk and Donetsk.  A Russian attempt to push westwards from Severiodonetsk at this time was repulsed, however.

The result was that by early April, when the main mobile phase of the war ended,  a Ukrainian salient extending roughly 40 km into the main body of Russian held territory had been created in this area. This salient was also roughly 40km wide. 

This salient formed the central focus of the fighting in the period April-July.  With its efforts at a rapid conquest of Ukraine thwarted, Russia now sought to grind forward slowly, using a relentless artillery barrage to reduce areas to rubble, before occupying them.  Yet this Donbas-centered second phase of the war, in which the other frontlines were static, also garnered Moscow only the most modest achievements.

I entered the eastern salient in June, reporting from the towns of Lisychansk, Slovyansk, Bakhmut and Kramatorsk.  In Lisychansk, the shelling was relentless, the remaining civilians reduced to life on the most primitive level by the destruction of infrastructure.  People in Lysychansk, in the eye of the Russian storm, prepared food on improvised wood burners and buried their dead in graves hurriedly dug in waste ground between rounds of shelling.  The town fell to the Russians on July 2nd.  The Russians inherited rubble.  

But the conquests of Severiodonetsk and Lysychansk were the sole meager fruits of the grinding, artillery led Russian effort in the Donbas over summer.  And as Ukraine began to integrate western military systems such as the M142 Himars, the balance of destruction was rendered more even, and a long, static, artillery-led semi-frozen conflict seemed to be in the offing. 

This second, holding phase of the war now appears to be over.  Many thought that the Ukrainians would not manage to stand up a counter offensive before the onset of winter.  Kyiv is evidently mindful of the possibility that Russia may engineer a gas crisis in Europe over the winter months, creating chaos and seeking to undermine western support for Ukraine.  This, in turn, may lead to pressure on Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire in place, leaving Russia with around 20% of Ukraine in its hands.  The counter-offensive toward Kherson currently under way is evidently an attempt to pre-empt any such moves, and to change the dynamic of the war.

Ukraine has in the last six months prevented an attempt to destroy it as an independent state, and has successfully held in place a Russian effort at a slow and grinding advance through attrition.  An attempt is now under way to break the resulting deadlock.  It remains to be seen if Kyiv’s forces can sustain the momentum and move toward real territorial gains in the period ahead.   The third phase of the Ukraine war has begun. 

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Now and in Other Days

The war came in high summer. Paul Randawa was living in Florentin.  War was the last thing on his or his friends’ minds.  The beach and the bars, and late night parties and clubs were what everything was revolving around. On the day of the mobilisation, he had spent the afternoon by the sea. Afterwards, he had called into a small bar on Yair Stern Street where a friend of his was waitressing.  He and fair-haired Ya’ara had exchanged arch and flirtatious remarks as he sat at a table drinking Corona.  Then he had walked home as the evening was coming on.  It was still light. He had collapsed on his bed in his small room. They had no air conditioning but a light breeze was coming though the window and this, combined with the effects of the sea and the beer enabled him to sleep. 

He was awoken by his phone buzzing next to the bed. He had placed it on the wooden chair that served him as a makeshift bedside table. Ya’ara had mentioned the possibility of meeting later on after she finished working. He assumed it was her.  It was not.  It was another young woman’s voice speaking in cool and matter of fact Hebrew.  A recorded message.  Telling him that he had been mobilized, and that he should make his way to a neighboring school. From there, buses would be coming to take them north. 

For a minute or so, he had lain still, staring up at the ceiling, becoming awake.  Nothing but the sound of his own breathing and the cars outside on Yair Stern Street.  Then, cursing in Arabic he had raised himself up.  His head was still swimming with the alcohol, but there was a green holdall in the corner of the room quiet and waiting and ready to go. He had packed it some days earlier as the news from the north worsened.   He took a shower in the tiny bathroom of the apartment.  There was no need for a mad rush.  As long as he was at the mobilizing point within the next few hours.  He dressed in his olive green army trousers and shirt, and black sneakers (his boots were in the holdall). The apartment was empty. One of his room mates, a combat engineer in the reserves, was already in the north.  The other two had gone to their respective families in Jerusalem and in Yeruham for the weekend.  He left the apartment, locked the door and swiftly trotted down the two flights of stairs and into the street below. The heat was still stifling.  He arrived at the border three hours later. 

All was chaos and confusion.  They had a training exercise at a base near the Golan Heights over the next two days. Then they were deployed on the border.  The following night they crossed into Lebanon. 

In the next days, they conducted patrols across the countryside.  They had little idea of the bigger picture in the war.  The war was a place of constant noise, shells or Katyusha missiles falling near and far. The sound of small arms and light machine gun fire.  But in the midst of all that, oddly, one could move across the desolate landscape close to the border, and not run into any active opposition for a while. That was how it seemed, anyway. Their main concern was to ensure they had sufficient food and water.  The villages they moved through were mostly deserted. The shops were  locked up, but on occasion they would break in to take water and juice.  The summer sun had left the landscape yellow and toasted. 

Randawa’s section had taken up a position in a house on the edge of a village east of Ait a Shaab when the firefight began.  There were seven men in the section.  Randawa knew three of them well, having served with them during his regular service. These were Yaron Cohen, the kibbutznik Eitan Ben-Artzi and the section commander, Avi Azoulay.  These men were an exercise in contrasts. Azoulay was from Beersheva, a building contractor in civilian life.  He was a big, handsome, confident man then in his late twenties with slicked back black hair.  Solid, calm Eitan was studying agricultural engineeering at the Technion. Yaron Cohen was a student of design.  He lived with his wife in Tel Aviv.  They had a new young son.  Yaron had an arch and dry sense of humor that Randawa liked. Since his demobilization, he had grown a long mane of brown hair, and to go with it, a rakish little pointed beard. 

Like many in the unit, Yaron had little enthusiasm for the war.  ‘It makes less and less sense to me,’ he had said, talking to Randawa the morning after their mobilization.  He meant that as a parent, the business no longer held any attraction for him. But there were other aspects. The static security operations of the Second Intifada had been their education as soldiers. They had not expected to find themselves operating against Hizballah. The chaos and confusion of the war on every level from the purpose of their mission to the sketchy provision of food, water and equipment had not improved the mood.

Hizballah had been closer than they thought.  As they were brewing coffee on the floor of the main room, an RPG 7 charge ripped into the lower section of the house. It was followed by rifle fire, very close by. They scrambled to take up positions in the lower and upper rooms of the house. The RPG-7 on the house closed any hopes that they might avoid the worst of the action.  The section was cut off from the rest of the platoon. Azoulay immediately radio’ed to the platoon commander that they were taking fire.  The section took positions at either side of the house to prevent the possibility of a surprise assault.  The small arms fire was coming from one direction only. But there was a possibility that this was a diversion, intended to attract their attention while an attack was mounted from the side.  So Randawa, with Yaron Cohen, deployed at the back entrance.  They waited, tense. The rifle fire continued. Then there was a crash and a rifle firing on automatic, in the house, very loud. Did it mean that the assault had begun.  ‘Stay here,’ Randawa said to Yaron., and he ran to the entrance room. The door was open. The body of a Hizballah man, wearing the camouflage uniform of the movement, was stretched out, freshly killed, by the entrance. There was a smell of cordite. 

The door was still open.  Dror Yemini, another member of the section, was standing by the corpse, shaking slightly and with eyes blazing.  ‘He just came in the door,’ he was saying. ‘So I let him have it.’  ‘Are there more of them?’ asked Randawa.  ‘He came in alone, there are others further back. The problem is that there’s a straight stretch of ground between us and the platoon.  So we’re going to have to hold on here til they can maybe get round the back of where the Hizb are.’ 

‘Paul, get back and watch the other side,’ shouted Azoulay the section commander, and Randawa quickly made his way back to Yaron, explaining to him what had happened after he had done so.  ‘Fuck,’ said Yaron, ‘so are we trapped here?’  ‘Looks like, it. for the moment.’

The two Hizballah men killed had clearly been part of an attempt to take the house. The man in the front room had been meant to be the first of the party to enter.   Or at least, that had been the plan.  The returning fire from the Israelis had evidently panicked the Hizballah men, causing them to break formation, with some holding back and the two who had died continuing to move forward til they were neutralised. 

Outside of Randawa and Yaron’s field of vision, a drama was taking place.  Azoulay the commander had noticed that the second Hizballah man to be killed, whose body was around twenty meters from the house on the open ground, had been carrying a mobile communications device.  The device was continuing to broadcast the comms of the Hizballah unit.  If the Israeli force could get hold of the device, it might solve the tactical issue, enabling them to get a sense of how many and where the enemy force was located and of its plans.  The problem was that the corpse was located in the field of fire of the Hizballah force.  Azoulay chose to risk it.  Directing Yemini to lay down automatic fire on the structure to their right, he sprinted forward, reached the corpse of the Hizballah man and managed to detach the comms device from it. Then, zig-zagging, he made it back to the house. 

The last member of the section, Qassem Nasr-al Din, was a Druze from Dalyat al-Carmel, and a fluent Arabic speaker.  Back in the house, he immediately got to work on the comms device. He was able to ascertain that the Hizballah force was not part of a general attack. Rather, it was, like themselves, a section size force which had become separated from the main part of its unit. Its attack on them was part of an attempt at a break out, and it was in  communication with Hizballah in Ait a Shaab to send a force to extricate it. 

Azoulay relayed this to the platoon command.  Then, heading for the back entrance where Randawa and Yaron were deployed, he said ‘The platoon’s located them.  They are only an isolated force. They are going to mortar them and then take the house.  This’ll be in the next few minutes. There’s an APC heading here to extract us in the meantime. It should be here soon.’

‘Good, then we can get the fuck out of here,’ said Yaron, and Azoulay laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, ‘Well done, guys,’ he said.  Azoulay’s quick thinking and the lucky coincidence of Qassem’s presence in the section had clarified the situation and enabled them to come through it so far with no losses.  The APC would be able to get them back to the main body of the platoon. 

‘I hope we can get back across the border soon, anyway,’ said Yaron as they waited.  ‘Enough of this bullshit.’  ‘Hopefully soon,’ Randawa replied. 

About five minutes later, there was a series of explosions close by. These were mortar shells hitting the structure in which the Hizballah men were located. Then a machine gun opened up and there was rapid rifle fire.  Evidently, the other two sections of the platoon were storming the building. 

Then an APC rolled up to the area by the back entrance of the house. Randawa and Cohen were the first to see it.  ‘APC arrived,’ Cohen shouted and Azoulay called back, ‘OK guys, get on board. We’re getting out of here.  The rest of us will be along in a second.’  

They exited the house and headed toward the APC. The engine was running and Yaron knocked twice on the frame of the thing before climbing up and easily lowering himself in. 

Randawa climbed after him.  He looked down into the hold of the vehicle.  Yaron had seated himself easily in the corner.  For no particular reason, Randawa decided to jump straight down onto the floor of the APC, rather than lowering himself in carefully.  As he hit the surface of the vehicle, there was a loud bang as the round he had chambered into his short barrelled M16 went off. 

Yaron Cohen’s first response was a sort of sharp, shocked exhalation.  The blood immediately began to spread on the back of his shirt. Then he began to let out a series of rapid, shocked, sob-like sounds.  Randawa heard the clang as Azoulay and Eitan the medic leapt onto the APC and then Azoulay’s furious shout ‘Paul!  Fuck!  He’s let out a bullet.’

It was so.  Randawa had failed to clear his rifle of the round he had chambered while waiting at the house.  The safety catch of the weapon had been on, which ought to have prevented any unexpected discharge of a round.  But somehow the catch had switched itself to the single shot mode, and then the impact of his landing on the floor of the APC had caused the rifle to fire.  The bullet had ricocheted off the side of the APC and had then embedded itself in Yaron Cohen’s spine.  In a way, he had been lucky.  Had he received it directly, it would  have caused catastrophic damage, leading to near certain and swift death. As it was, he was very badly injured, but there was a chance of saving him.  The initial shock had worn off, and now Yaron began to scream.  Very loudly. And continuously. 

For an insane moment, Randawa considered shooting himself in the head.  He realised in an instant that everything had utterly changed.  And he had an urge to escape what he knew would be coming, which would be the anger and furious contempt of his comrades.  He had committed a beginner’s error, more suited to a man in basic training than to the seasoned infantry soldier which he allegedly was.  Yes, so the temptation to simply turn the rifle on himself was very great. And he might have done it had Azoulay not given him a kick and shouted at him to get out of the APC.  Then it was too late.  The next phase had already begun.  Azoulay wanted him out of the APC so he could run it with Yaron to the platoon as quickly as possible, where the stricken man could receive the medical attention he needed.  His screams could be heard still as the little tracked vehicle began to make its way across the ground to the road and then to the place where the platoon commander and the medics and doctor were located. 

The news spread rapidly.  By the time the APC returned to bring them to where the rest of the platoon was located, everyone already seemed to know what had happened.  To his face, no one said anything. Everything changed, nevertheless. People who he had known for four or five years were henceforth not willing to exchange anything other than a sort of strained irony. 

They held the village and there were no further contacts with Hizballah over the next 48 hours.  Yaron was taken immediately south and across the border, then helicoptered to one of the hospitals in Israel’s north.  They heard the next day that he had been operated on and would survive. But that he would most probably be paralysed for life.  The bullet had ripped into his spinal cord.  He would probably lose use of all four of his limbs.

They were still in Lebanon and there was little time for conversation.  But the atmosphere in the platoon was sullen and angry.  The attitude towards operational errors of  this disastrous kind was not forgiving.  Randawa had generally been regarded as a trustworthy and effective soldier. What could possibly have led to such carelessness, and such catastrophic results? He, of course, thought of nothing else.  How and why had he not cleared the rifle before entering the APC, as was the drill.  In Lebanon they would remain with the magazine in, but no round chambered. But he had chambered the round, in accordance with procedure, when a Hizballah attack on the house had seemed imminent. How could he have forgotten to have cleared it? Excitement and emotion because of the events of the previous minutes. But that wasn’t an excuse. 

They were pulled back from Lebanon the next day.  The battalion had suffered two dead and a number of others wounded.  When they were demobilized a week later, Eitan the kibbutznik came to Randawa and said, ‘listen, someone has to see to Yaron’s car.  To drive it back down to Tel Aviv.  They’ve asked me to do it. But I was wondering if youd like to come with me.’  He hesitated for a moment.  ‘Look, the fact is that I was speaking with Yaron’s parents yesterday and theyve said theyd like to speak with you.  So I thought maybe you could come with me now. I cleared it with the company commander.’  Randawa shrugged and murmured his agreement. 

Yaron Cohen’s car was very obviously that of two rather sentimental young parents.  There were pictures of smiling elves and cartoon characters and animals along the doors, and there was a child’s seat at the back.  They said nothing as they saw it, but Eitan glanced at Paul. Once they were on their way, there was silence for a couple of minutes. Then Eitan said ‘God has mercy on kindergarten children.’ It was a line from a poem by Yehuda Amichai, whose poetry they both loved.  Randawa responded, ‘on schoolchildren he has less mercy, and on grownups he has no mercy at all.’ 

‘He leaves them alone,’ continued Eitan.  ‘and sometimes they must crawl on all fours in the burning sand, to reach the first aid station, covered in blood.’ 

They reached the home of Yaron Cohen’s parents in Ramat Aviv in silence.  Randawa remembered the bland sunlight on the pavement and the thunk of the car door closing as they exited the car and walked toward the entrance of the house.  Yaron’s parents were both professors at Tel Aviv University.  His father opened the door, tall and thin and grey, wearing an open necked blue shirt.  His eyes were very red.  He shook hands with them both, a little grave smile on his face.  He motioned them into a neat front room. The house was one of the old, red topped bungalows of the first settlers in Ramat Aviv. It was exactly as he would have imagined the home in which Yaron had grown up.  The old, secular, Ashkenazi Israel.  The university, the Habima theater, the center left.  A remembered past of tragedy in Europe.  Pictures of various relatives on the walls, one or two in black and white, Central European. And one of Yaron’s father in the Sinai during the war of 1973, looking tired and determined in a black and white snapshot with General Avraham ‘Bren’ Adan, in whose division he had served, and another, un-named officer. 

‘Will you drink something?’ he asked in a firm, matter-of-fact voice as they seated themselves, but Yaron’s mother had already entered carrying a tray with a full cafetier and four cups.  She was darker than the father, with remnants of black in her gray curly hair, fuller of figure and smaller.

Looking at Randawa with clear blue eyes as they sat and drank the coffee, the father said ‘I’m David, by the way.  This is my wife Alona.  Yaron is in the hospital and is still being kept sedated. It looks like it’s going to be a long road for all of us.’  The father spoke quietly and without emotion. Then Alona began, speaking directly to Randawa, ‘We heard what happened. And we heard that you are absolutely torn apart by it, as we are.  We want you to know that we don’t think it was your fault and that youre not to go destroying yourself over it.’ 

‘This can happen in combat.  No question of that,’ said the father.

‘All of you have suffered,’ continued Alona.  ‘I can’t believe the nonsense of this whole business.  The mess of it. Its a disgrace.  This filthy corruption at the top, and sending you in as they did.  That’s what makes us angry.  Thats who is responsible for this.  We wanted to look you in the eyes and tell you this. Because Eitan told us how you have been shattered by this, just as we have been.’ 

This outpouring was, Randawa realized, something for which he should be thankful.  He felt nothing, all the same.  It was as though he were separated from these people by a thick pane of glass, through which sound hardly penetrated.  He realised that he had hardly spoken in the last days. All had seemed numb.  A sort of collapse from the inside.  He had thought it invisible to the outside observer.  A disembodied consciousness, in some other place, operating a puppet that was his body and his physical self.  This was how he had felt when entering Lebanon, also.  His body expressing a mute protest, a desire not to go forward.  A sort of species-level warning that to do so was risking their mutual and conclusive destruction.. ‘Thank you,’ he said.  ‘Is there any news about what will be with Yaron?’ 

‘We have heard that the bullet went into his spinal cord, and the prospects are to our regret not good.  He was out of danger to his life once they got him to the hospital and stemmed the flow of blood. But he will need to have a lot more surgery, it seems.  At the moment, they are keeping him in a coma.  But thank God, anyway, we know that his mind wont be affected. And the main thing is that he is alive.’ 

‘And is there any indication as to the future?’ Randawa asked. 

The father replied; ‘They say that he will almost certainly have lost the use of his legs, and permanently.  But as to the rest, it’s not possible to say.  That is, he may be quadruplegic, without use of his hands also. Or he may have some use, or else its possible that he will have no use of the upper body at all.  That’s what they’ve told us. We are hoping, you know. We know that we are at the beginning of a long journey.’ 

The mother sighed.  ‘Anyway, it looks like he will be in the hospital for quite a time yet.’

‘And what’s happening with your grandson?’ asked Eitan. 

‘Roni, thats Yaron’s wife, and Tom their son are staying with her parents now.  As for what happens next, well again, we’ll see.  A long journey ahead. We know that you had two others killed in there.  So we’re also lucky, in a way.’ 

They sat there for another half hour.  Alona and David asked Randawa about himself, what he would do.  Was he studying? His hopes for the future. They mentioned that they had cousins in London, whom they often visited. 

As they were leaving, Alona said again, ‘Dont take this on yourself and let it eat you alive.  We know that can happen. What was here was an accident.  The ones to blame are the fools who sent you and our son and all your friends to there.’ 

‘And Adon (Mr). Hassan Nasrallah, also.’ said the father drily, as he and Eitan shook hands. 

‘You should go and see Yaron, also, once he’s conscious,’ Eitan remarked as they headed back to the north. 

‘If he wants to see me, of course I will.  If I was them, I’d be angrier, tho.  How can they not be?’

‘They’re trying to keep themselves sane, I guess,’ Eitan replied. 

That night, in the tent and late at night, Randawa wept, for the first and last time since the incident.  It was around two in the morning and he did not make a sound.  He was using his military anorak as a pillow and he buried his face in it and managed to avoid sobbing. Indeed, his facial expression remained blank and inscrutable. Only the tears poured from his eyes and made his cheeks wet.  He thought about the pictures for the child on the inside of Yaron Cohen’s car. 

They were demobilized a few days later. The ceasefire came and after a couple of days holding a village before the UN forces arrived, they were pulled back to the border. The divisional commander turned up and made a speech about the vital role they had played in ensuring the security of the inhabitants of the north.   Then they sang ‘Hatikvah.’   

Once the Katyusha bombardments had ceased on the border, a variety of visitors began to arrive.  Elderly religious American Jews appeared at the tent once and gave out t shirts and clean underwear.  For the most part, they knew no Hebrew and appeared mainly to be conducting a conversation among themselves.  Randawa did not attempt to speak to them in English.  ‘There are no atheists in foxholes,’ he heard one of them say to another as they handed out the t-shirts. 

The foreign media  came by.  The soldiers tried to flirt with the young female Italian and Scandinavian and German correspondents.  An Italian correspondent, a man of about 40,  handed out cigarettes and talked in a dramatic and tragic style about football and war, and his experiences of both.

The Ultra-Orthodox Habad Lubavitch sect also sent representatives. One of them tried to hold a seminar on the concept of ‘Kiddush HaShem’ (martyrdom) in Judaism.  There was some mild interest among the soldiers, and the lone Lubavitch Hassid who had come to deliver the lesson was treated with respect and politeness.  Only Eitan from Kibbutz Gonen remarked that if the young man was that keen on Jews and martyrdom he should have come into Lebanon with them, as he would have had a chance to witness quite a lot of the combination of both close up and for real in recent days.  The young Hassid blinked behind his glasses and looked at Eitan and did not answer. But some others turned round to glance at Eitan with pained expressions and then motioned to the young man to continue. 

On the last night, a famous chef came up from Tel Aviv to cook barbecued meats with pitta and salad for the whole battalion.  Afterwards, someone had set up a sound system and the music continued until late in the night. Randawa lay in his sleeping bag in the tent and in the darkness reflected that one of the great compensations or consolations of military life was often held to be the deep comradeship and brotherhood that is to be found among soldiers.  This thought, and the fact of his utter solitude struck him as amusing. He had never felt more alone. 

When he arrived home, Tel Aviv seemed indifferent. In the pubs and bars he frequented it was not the done thing to make too much of one’s military service, though overt hostility to the army or the state was also not praised.  He changed out of his dusty uniform and left his holdall again on his bedroom floor and he walked down to the sea.  At the beach just by the entrance to Jaffa he floated in the warm Mediterranean water, staring at the emptiness of the blue sky.  Then he returned to the apartment. It was a Thursday and only one of his room- mates was there. This was Tsahi, who was a student of cinema.  ‘Jesus, man, you look shellshocked,’ Tsahi said. ‘and thin too. Didnt they feed you in the army?’ 

Randawa didnt answer.  And Tsahi didnt labor the point. Instead, he rolled a fat joint, lighting it and passing it to him as they sat in the small kitchen.  That was how the Second Lebanon War ended for Paul Randawa. 

Months passed before he saw Yaron Cohen again.  Randawa arranged a transfer to another company for future reserve service.   He did not stay in contact with David and Alona Cohen, regarding it as beyond his strength.  But six months after the war, he wrote to Yaron on Facebook, and asked how he was doing, adding that if Yaron preferred not to be in contact, he would understand.  Yaron replied immediately that he would be happy to meet. 

They met in a cafe in the mall at Ramat Aviv.  He remembered the moment that Yaron came in, his sister pushing the wheelchair.  Yaron’s head was supported by a plastic structure attached to the arm of the wheelchair.  His head seemed slightly tilted back at an un-natural angle.  His hands were resting on the arms of the wheelchair.  Randawa saw that on the left arm, there was a raised semi-sphere on which his hand rested, which he assumed was a means to steer the wheelchair.  Yaron had evidently divined his thoughts,

‘Hello, brother.  Yes, I have some movement in my arms, tho its not total.  But I can operate the chair over shorter distances.  Its also a little better than it was when I first left the hospital.’ 

Yaron did not, however, appear able to lift the orange juice which he ordered to his lips.  His sister Na’ama performed this, while speaking little.  Still, the fact that he was able to eat and drink in the normal way in terms of swallowing was also something.  Randawa remembered a young man he had known wounded in Jerusalem in the years of the Second Intifada who lost also this ability and who took his own life a few years after the incident.    Yaron, by contrast, appeared stable, and serene.  ‘I’m managing to finish my degree.  The university have been ok about it.  And we had some issues with the Ministry of Defense about my disability payments but it all has worked out. Touch wood.’

‘And what about the family?’

‘Its tough but we’re managing.  Mine and Roni’s parents help a lot, so its fucked up, but it is what it is, you know.’  And he managed to smile.  ‘And what about you?  how have you been? What are you doing with yourself?’ 

‘Just keeping on like before, bro.  Pictures, trying to get some stuff done. nothing too dramatic.’ 

‘I know you went to see my parents after the ceasefire.  I appreciate it, Paul.  This has been hard for them too.’ 

There was a silence.  Then Randawa tried to speak again. ‘Listen, Cohen, I’m..I dont really know what to say.  I’m more sorry than I can begin to express.  I dont..’

Yaron made a murmur to indicate that he should not continue.  ‘We arent going to kill ourselves with regrets, are we?  I dont have any time nor desire to be angry with you or with anyone else.  Tom needs his dad.  And you  need to get on ahead too. And we’re the lucky ones, in a way.  Harel and Alon had families too. But they’ve nothing to carry on with. Right?’  

Randawa bowed his head.  After a while, Na’ama said ‘We’re all helping. And we all live quite nearby. So,I can’t even imagine what it must have been like, after you were stuck in that house. Its impossible even to imagine.’ Randawa thought he detected a momentary venom in her eyes, that incongruously accompanied these words.  A little communication just between him and her, and not for her brother to see. 

‘It wasnt so bad,’ said Yaron.  ‘Actually we’ve been in worse shit than that.  But the idiocy of it still offends my intelligence.  Maybe you can explain what exactly we were trying to achieve with those pointless raids across the border? Conquering an area and then leaving it and then going back in the next day?’ 

‘Its a mystery to me, brother,’ said Randawa.  ‘I think about it a lot and I can’t make any sense of it at all.’   They talked more about the war, various mutual friends, Yaron’s problems with the Defense Ministry which had now been largely sorted out.  ‘You know you can get free psychological counselling, bro?’ Yaron said to him.  ‘You should use it.  I mean it. I went to it. It can help. and it doesnt cost anything.’ 

‘Maybe I’ll look into it,’ said Randawa, who had a peasant suspicion and dislike of all such things. 

They parted shortly afterwards. He remembered seeing them exiting the cafe, the other patrons making room for them to leave. Yaron’s long brown hair.  The gentleness of the man. He hadn’t much stayed in touch after that. 

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