Hizballah’s Complicated Calculus

Jerusalem Post, 31/7

The events at Har Dov earlier this week need in order to be understood to be placed in the broader context of Israel’s ongoing undeclared military campaign against Iran.   They also cannot be separated from Hizballah’s current status as the de facto ruler of Lebanon.

In the Israel-Iran conflict, at the present time, Lebanon is a secondary front.  A state of de facto mutual deterrence has largely held in this area since the 2006 war.  The preference of both Israel and Hizballah – for the moment – is that this situation should hold.

Israel, in addition to the quiet and ongoing campaign against Iran in Syria, and beyond it, is focused at present on the pandemic, and its various economic, social and political costs.

Lebanon and Hizballah’s focus is of necessity the same.  Hizballah is today the dominant force in Lebanese public life. The bloc of which it is a part holds a majority in the 128 member parliament, and a majority in the Cabinet. Prime Minister Hassan Diab is its obedient servant.

This means that the profound economic crisis currently gripping the country falls squarely in Hizballah’s lap.  It is required to operate and to make decisions as a governing force, responsible for the avoidance of  general socio-economic collapse which is now a real possibility in Lebanon.

The aforementioned dynamic ought to support the continuation of uneasy quiet along the border. The problem is that Lebanese Hizballah is not only or primarily a successful local political actor. Rather, it is a franchise of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Indeed, its local political predominance is a direct function of the outsize strength and capacity afforded it in the Lebanese context by Iranian support.

As an IRGC franchise, Lebanese Hizballah forms an integral and important element in Iran’s larger regional strategy.  Israel is currently engaged in an ongoing campaign to degrade and roll back a particular element of that strategy: namely, the effort by Iran to consolidate and extend its presence in Syria.

For Hizballah, the extension of this presence is a cardinal interest.  The Iranian deployment in Syria provides Lebanese Hizballah with a strategic hinterland and a potential extended frontline against Israel in the event of war.  Syria also contains nodes along the land and air bridges by which Iran seeks to supply its Lebanese franchise and improve its capacities and capabilities.

The Iranian presence in Syria is not maintained only or mainly by Iranian personnel.  Tehran maintains a variety of both local Syrian and international (Arab and non-Arab) proxies to advance its interest in this area.  This includes Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani elements.  The Lebanese IRGC franchise is also an integral and prominent element.

For this reason, despite the narrow mutual interest in quiet along the Israel-Lebanon border, Israel and Lebanese Hizballah are engaged in an ongoing, direct conflict on neighboring soil.

Israel has neither the desire nor the ability to avoid harm to the specific Lebanese component of the IRGC’s deployment in Syria.

So the question arises as to how to manage the continued current narrow mutual desire for quiet on the border, even as this conflict continues.

Clearly, Hizballah’s desire is to deter Israel to a point where it ceases to cause harm to its personnel in the Syrian context.  This appears to be unachievable. Failing this, it needs to show (not least to its own public and also to its Iranian masters) that the blood of its fighters cannot be shed without cost.

To do this, the movement needs to extract a serious price from Israel for all such actions in this regard.  But it needs to do this without causing a large scale Israeli retaliation into Lebanon which it can ill afford and does not want.  This is a difficult balancing act to perform.

The process was put to the test again this week.  The death of the Hizballah operative Ali Mohsen in an Israeli bombing in the Damascus area on July 20 made a response along the border inevitable.  Israel’s forces deployed in expectation of enemy action along the border.  An abortive effort, according to the IDF, took place on July 27, in which a section of Hizballah fighters crossed the border. The force was spotted, engaged by the IDF, and then rapidly retreated.

This was the third such occurrence in the last half decade.  There has been a decline in the potency of Hizballah’s responses across this period. But from the beginning, the counter-strikes were not proportionate to the damage the movement was experiencing.

In January, 2015, in retaliation for the killing of a senior Hizballah commander, an Iranian general and five others in the Quneitra area, Hizballah succeeded in launching an anti tank missile at an IDF jeep. Two IDF infantry soldiers were killed.

In September, 2019, the movement responded to an Israeli drone strike in Beirut on August 25 and the killing of two operatives in an airstrike on Damascus on August 24. On that occasion, Hizballah made do with firing anti tank missiles at an IDF outpost and an ambulance along the border. There were no fatalities.

On the present occasion, still less appears to have been achieved.  A group of fighters crossed the border, were engaged, and retreated, apparently without loss of life.

Following the incident, a Hizballah statement in the evening denied that any incursion had been attempted.  Hizballah’s statement in the evening of the 27th included an assertion that ‘our retaliation for martyr Ali Muhsen is surely coming.’  The IDF will no doubt remain in a heightened state of alert in the coming days.

But the declining level of Hizballah response to IDF killing of its members in Syria in recent years is notable.  The rule that Israel appears to be trying to impose is that the killing of Lebanese Hizballah members outside of Lebanon will continue, and that the movement’s situation is such that it will be obliged to make only a token response to this.  In this regard, Israel’s greater conventional military strength and hence capacity for damage is one side of this.

The other side is Hizballah’s domestic situation in Lebanon.  Ibrahim Amin, editor of the pro-Hizballah al-Akhbar newspaper, often reflects the thinking of Hizballah’s leadership in his editorials. In an article this week, Amin wrote that, ‘the resistance did not initiate the declaration of war, but on the contrary, it has always said – and it means what it says – that it does not want war. But not at any cost. In the sense that the resistance, which does not want war, also does not want to surrender in order not to have war.’

The oddly defensive tone of this statement is at odds with the usual timbre of Amin’s editorials. These tend to read like the haughty edicts of a triumphant general.   The article was written in Arabic, and is meant for local consumption.  It is clearly intended to ensure the Lebanese public, at a moment of unprecedented domestic crisis, that Hizballah is not seeking to embroil them in renewed conflict.  The movement’s dominant domestic position matters to it (and its masters in Teheran). It cannot be maintained by coercion alone.

This leaves Hizballah caught between the desire to maintain a general deterrence against Israeli strikes against its members, and the urgent need not to provoke a new war. The consequent possibility is that it may have to settle for rules of engagement in which Israel leaves it alone in Lebanon (unless provoked) while reaping a toll of its fighters in Syria.  The period ahead will show whether or not, given unavoidable realities, this latter arrangement is for now acceptable to the Lebanese IRGC franchise.

Following the 2006 War, Hizballah moved into a more overt and political role in Lebanon.  Since 2018, the coalition of which it is a part has ruled the country.  Some observers in Israel maintained at the time that Hizballah’s ‘hybrid’ status was its main asset, which would begin to evaporate as it became the overt ruler of the country in which it was established by the IRGC in 1982.  This theory is now being put to the test.

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Assad’s Woes

Syria’s dictator faces renewed challenges at all levels

Jerusalem Post, 12/6

No major combat operations are currently under way in Syria.  But while the civil war which began in 2011 may be effectively over, events in the country indicate that no clear winner has emerged from the conflict.   Syria appears set to remain divided, impoverished and dominated by competing external powers.

The Assad regime, meanwhile, is beset by infighting at top levels, even as significant unrest returns to regime controlled areas.

In late 2018, the regime appeared on the verge of strategic victory in the war.  The rebels had lost their final holdings in the south of the country. President Trump had announced an imminent withdrawal from north east Syria. The remaining rebels in the north west were isolated, and dominated by extreme Sunni jihadi elements.

But the sense that one final round of diplomatic and military action could restore  pre-2011 Syria has receded to the far distance.  The Americans, despite periodic presidential tweets, are still there.  The rebels, meanwhile, have benefited from deepening Turkish patronage and the desire of the Russians to draw Turkey closer.  As a result, Syria remains territorially divided, with the regime controlling just over 60% of the country.

But even in the areas under his control, Assad is not succeeding in returning stability and re-consolidating his rule.  The problem is first of all economic.  Syria is a smoking ruin.  Neither Assad, nor his patrons in Moscow and Teheran, have the money to begin desperately needed reconstruction.  The Europeans and the US, meanwhile, will not offer assistance for as long as the regime refuses all prospects of political transition.

This stalemate is not endlessly sustainable.  Lack of money makes rebuilding impossible. This in turn leads to renewed instability.  The economic fortunes of the Assads have deteriorated significantly further in recent weeks.  The Syrian pound is in freefall. The official exchange rate is now 700 Syrian pounds to the dollar. The current black market rate is 2300 Syrian pounds to the dollar.   Prior to 2011, the rate stood at 50 to one.

Around 80% of Syrians are living below the poverty line.  Long daily queues for subsidized bread are a familiar site in Damascus.  Now, as a result of the devaluation of the currency, even basic foodstuffs stand beyond the reach of many Syrian families.  Inflation is currently at 20%.

Ahmad al-Rashid, a Syrian refugee now resident in the UK, described the situation in the following terms in a Facebook post after conversations with friends remaining in  Syria: ‘People can’t afford to buy basics now. I spoke to some people in the country and they are losing their minds. Money doesn’t have any value anymore! Bakeries are closing, doctors are closing, shops are closing, businesses are closing. Millions of parents aren’t able to put food on the table for their kids. They can’t buy food or milk for their babies. Some people are offering to sell their organs so they can help their families.”

This depiction is not limited to individuals associated with the opposition. Danny Makki, a journalist with close connections in Syrian government circles, tweeted on 7.6  that “the economic situation in Syria is at breaking point, medicine is very scarce, hunger is becoming a normality.  Poverty is at the worst point ever, people even selling their organs to survive.’

A number of factors are causing the current predicament, in addition to sanctions and the isolation and stagnation of regime controlled Syria.  Covid 19  and the resultant three month lockdown have devastated the already weakened private business sector.

The travails of neighboring Lebanon have also impacted on Syria.  Many Syrians placed their savings in US dollars in Lebanese banks. The current crisis in Lebanon has led to restrictions on withdrawal of dollars. This in turn has led to a dollar shortage in Syria, and further devaluation of the local currency.

This already critical situation is about to get worse.  In mid-June, the US Caesar Act will take effect. Named after a Syrian military police photographer who in 2014 first provided evidence of mass killings in regime jails, the new sanctions contained in this Act are set to severely penalize anyone doing business with Assad’s Syria.

The Caesar Act was passed into law in the US in December 2019 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.  It focuses on the infrastructure, petroleum and military maintenance sectors, and contains provisions for penalties against third parties doing business with Syria.  This is set to deter third party countries such as China and the United Arab Emirates who have shown interest in investment in reconstruction in Syria.

Against the background of economic meltdown, grassroots level unrest has reappeared in regime controlled areas.  In Deraa Province, in the south west of the country, a renewed low level insurgency is under way.  According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 489 attacks have taken place on regime forces in the province since last June. The Observatory puts the death toll in these attacks at 322.  The largest scale single act of violence in recent months took place on May 4, when former rebel commander Qasem al-Subehi led an attack of 15 former rebels on a police station outside the town of Muzayrib in western Deraa in which nine regime policemen were killed. The Syrian Army’s 4 th Division is currently building up forces in the area.

In Suweida Province, which has a 90% Druze population, stormy demonstrations have taken place over the last week.   This is of particular significance because Suweida has throughout the war maintained an uneasy coexistence with the regime.  The demonstrations are small – involving about 300 young men and women.  That they are happening at all will nevertheless be worrying for defenders of the regime.  The latter will presumably also have noted that the demonstrators in Suweida have revived many of the slogans of the first days of the uprising. These include ‘Syria belongs to us – not to the house of Assad,’  ‘A free Syria – out with Iran and Russia,’ and ‘The people demand the fall of the regime.’

Elsewhere in Syria, in a notable sign of the times, the ‘Syrian Interim Government’ (a Turkish-backed administrative body in the Turkish-controlled north west) announced this week that the Syrian pound would be replaced by the Turkish lira in its area of control.  This decision appears to have followed a notable trend in recent months in which sellers and merchants sought to price goods in the more stable Turkish currency.  The Turkish Postal Directorate, which maintains facilities in Turkish controlled parts of north west Syria, has now begun to circulate large quantities of Turkish currency in the area.

Lastly, of course, evidence has recently emerged of tensions at the highest levels in the regime.  Assad recently turned on a former key ally at the very heart of his regime, his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, in a move rumored to relate to clashing ambitions between Makhlouf and Asma Assad, the president’s wife.

Bashar Assad is not about to fall. But severe economic deterioration, regime infighting, re-ignited unrest from below and fresh sanctions about to bite are combining to place his regime under renewed, severe pressure.  It is all a long way from the victory parades of just two years ago.

 

 

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A New Alliance

Jerusalem Post, 29/5

Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Qatar form emergent power nexus in the Islamic World

The name of fugitive Indian Salafi Islamist preacher Zakir Naik is little known in the west. Naik, founder of the Mumbai-based Islamic Research foundation,  is currently being pursued by the Indian authorities on charges of money laundering and hate speech.  Naik is a popular Islamist preacher in his native country.  He has been referred to as ‘perhaps the most influential Salafi ideologue in India,’ and ‘the world’s leading Salafi evangelist.’  Naik’s views on such subjects as homosexuality, apostasy and the Jews are as might be expected (the first two deserve the death penalty, the third ‘control America.’)  The Indian authorities note evidence that two of the seven terrorists who carried out a deadly attack at a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on July 1, 2016, claimed inspiration from his teachings.

In himself, the fugitive preacher is of only passing interest.  Zakir Naik’s activities are worthy of further note, however, because the list of his supporters and their activities on his behalf cast light on an emergent nexus in the Islamic world deserving of greater attention.   This crystallising alliance looks set to be of considerable consequence in the period opening up, not least for Israel and some of its partners in the region and beyond.

Zakir Naik, fleeing from the Indian authorities, has been the lucky recipient of permanent resident status in Malaysia.  There, his case has become something of a cause celebre. The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which has four ministers in the current government, is vociferously opposed to acceding to Indian calls for his extradition.

Reports in a number of Indian media outlets claim that the (unusual) granting of permanent residency to the fugitive preacher came as a result of a request from  the government of Pakistan. The reports further suggest that ‘Pakistan is also using its relations with…Turkey and Qatar to provide funding to Zakir Naik.’

Naik, for his part, has offered fulsome praise for Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan.  Speaking to an Islamist group headed by Bilal Erdogan, in 2017, the Indian preacher referred to the Turkish leader as ‘one of the few Muslim leaders who has the guts to support Islam openly,’ adding  ‘O Muslim world wake up…May Erdogan be the next leader of the Muslim world.’

The dispute around Zakir Naik casts light on the currently burgeoning relations between three significant Muslim countries – Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia.  This emergent alliance is a reflection of a shift in power in the Islamic world away from its traditional Arab center.

Ankara, Islamabad and Kuala Lumpur, with Qatar as an additional partner, today constitute an emergent power nexus, built around a common orientation toward a conservative, Sunni political Islam.  This nexus is united as much by common enmities as by common affections.   Its enemies, are India, Israel and (at the rhetorical level) the Christian west.

Its rivals within the diplomacy of the Islamic world, meanwhile, are Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally dominated the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the main pan-Islamic diplomatic body, and the UAE.

The crystallization of this new alliance has been apparent for some time.  In late September, 2019, Erdogan, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammed and Pakistani PM Imran Khan met at the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly in New York.  The three agreed at that meeting to establish an English language TV channel to combat ‘Islamophobia’ in the west.

Mahathir then sought to convene a summit in Kuala Lumpur, in December, 2019, to identify, according to a press release announcing the summit ‘what has gone wrong – with a view to eventually reclaiming the Muslim world’s fame and glory of yore.’  Briefing the media in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on the submit, Mahathir suggested that ‘Maybe, it can be regarded as the first step towards rebuilding the great Muslim civilization.’

The countries invited to the Kuala Lumpur summit were Turkey, Pakistan, Qatar and Indonesia.  Mahathir described the invited countries as ‘a few people who have the same perception of Islam and the problems faced by Muslims.’

Subsequent Saudi pressure on Pakistan prevented its attendance at the KL summit.  The joint diplomatic activities of the countries invited, however, have continued apace.  So far, these efforts have largely been directed at India, with the focus on the issue of the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Kashmir appears to be a matter of particular interest to the Turkish president, in his effort to cast himself as a pan-Islamic leader, and in his desire to draw closer to Pakistan.

Turkey held an international conference on the subject on November 21, 2019.  A Pakistani Senator, Sherry Rehmen, participated in this gathering.  During Erdogan’s visit to Pakistan in early 2020, the Turkish President mentioned Kashmir six times during a 25 minute speech to a joint session of the Pakistani parliament.

Erdogan likened Kashmir to the Turkish struggle for Gallipoli against the British and French in World War 1.  ‘It was Canakkale yesterday, and it is Kashmir today. There is no difference,’ he asserted, in remarks that led India to issue a formal demarche to the Turkish ambassador in New Delhi, against interference in its internal affairs.

Malaysia also adopted a new and vociferously critical tone on the issue.  Mahathir, shortly before his resignation in February, 2020, said that India had ‘invaded and occupied’ Kashmir and was ‘taking action to deprive some Muslims of their citizenship.’

It is worth noting that by contrast to this diplomatic activism, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s maintain that Kashmir remains an internal Indian matter.

This reflects the growing closeness between Riyadh and New Delhi, expressed also in the major investments in India announced by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman during his visit to India in 2019.

The emergent alliance between Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and Qatar makes both strategic and ideological sense from the point of view of its members.

It reflects the repositioning currently under way across Asia, in the wake of the receding post Cold War US hegemony.  These countries are united by a similar core outlook, and have some common emergent adversaries.

Turkey and Qatar, indeed, have been engaged in a de facto partnership over the last decade, based on common opposition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  They are also united in support for Sunni political Islam across the region in its Muslim Brotherhood form, and not least in its Palestinian iteration – the Hamas movement.  Pakistan and Malaysia are natural recruits for this emergent bloc. India appears currently to be its main diplomatic target.

This alliance also shares a deep enmity to the Jewish state. Its adversaries – India and the UAE – are Jerusalem’s emergent strategic partners.  Zakir Naik, nestled in Malaysia, with Qatari bank accounts and the diplomatic muscle of Pakistan and Turkey guarding him, breathing fire and brimstone against apostates, homosexuals and Jews, is its appropriate symbol.

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PFLP: Back from the Dead?

Jerusalem Post, 15/5

Iranian support appears to lie behind uptick in the terror group’s activities

The Israel Defense Forces this week carried out the partial demolition of the home of Qassem Shibli, also known as Qassem al-Barghouti, in the village of Kobar, in the Ramallah area.  Shibli is suspected of involvement in the murder of Rina Shnerb, 17, who was killed in an IED detonation at the Ein Bubin spring near the community of Dolev, on August 23, 2019.

This house demolition is the latest move by the Israeli authorities against a Palestinian terror network in the West Bank maintained by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP.) Following the murder of Rina Shnerb, the authorities rounded up around 50 members of the alleged network, and uncovered large amounts of weaponry and explosives.  Those apprehended included ground level operatives, such as Qassem Shibli, and known, senior PFLP activists.  The network was headed by Walid Muhammad Hanatsheh, according to statements by the Israeli authorities.  Samer Arbid commanded the cell which carried out the Dolev attack. Khalida Jarrar, a known and senior PFLP leader in the West Bank, was also among those arrested.

These events are particularly notable in that they turn the spotlight on the current re-energised activities of the PFLP. Long regarded as a Cold War fossil, the organization has in recent months re-emerged to some modest prominence. What is the reason for the increased capacities and activity of the PFLP in the recent period?

 The explanation is not to be found in any change of sentiment at grassroots level among the Palestinian population. Like other secular Arab nationalist factions, the PFLP has never enjoyed wide public support.  Rather, the complex and shifting geo-politics of the Middle East have resulted in increased resources becoming available to the PFLP in recent years. These have in turn led to the uptick in its activities.

Observation of another legal case currently under way reveals evidence of the specific source from which the PFLP appears to be drawing benefit.

In early April, an Israeli citizen of Arab ethnicity, Ayman Haj Yihye, 50, was indicted at Lod District court, accused of a number of serious security offences. These included, according to the indictment: Contact with a Foreign Agent – An offense under section 114 (a) of the Penal Code, and delivering information to the enemy with intent to harm state security – an offense under section 111 (middle) of the Penal Code.  He was also charged with money laundering and an attempt to disrupt a judicial investigation.

According to the indictment, Haj Yihye had met with and begun cooperation with two operatives of Iranian intelligence, (identified as ‘Abu Samah’ and ‘Abu Hussein’ in the indictment,) with the intention of ‘assisting the State of Iran in its efforts to harm the State of Israel through the gathering of information in the areas of intelligence, security, political, civil, social and media, which could be of assistance to Iran in its war against the State of Israel.’

The individual who recruited Haj Yihye for this purpose is identified by the indictment as Khaled Yamani, a Palestinian resident of the Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon and a well-known and senior member of the PFLP.

That is, the PFLP activist Khaled Yamani appears to be doubling as a recruiter and operative for the intelligence services of Iran.  Yamani’s dual role raises an additional interesting point regarding the PFLP: unlike their Islamist counterparts, the group does not appear to different organizationally between clandestine military activity and open political work.  Yamani, as well as Arbid, Hanatsheh and Jarrar,  appear to have been engaged simultaneously in both.

The details of this indictment show the clearest evidence currently available in the public domain of the specific force behind the present revival of the formerly moribund PFLP.  The movement has returned to relevance in recent months because of a burgeoning relationship developed with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This growing PFLP-Iran connection is not a new revelation. It has been well reported in recent years.  As long ago as September, 2013, an article in Al-Monitor by Gaza based Palestinian journalist Hazem Balousha noted the growing ‘financial and logistical’ support from Teheran to the PFLP’s ‘political and military wings.’

According to Balousha’s report, a number of meetings between Iranian and PFLP officials were held in Beirut, Damascus and Teheran. The meetings, according to Balousha, were brokered by Lebanese Hizballah.  They resulted in the revival of direct Iranian support for the PFLP.

The Palestinian journalist quoted a ‘senior PFLP source,’ who predicted that “Following the resumption of Iranian support, there will soon be a dramatic increase in the strength of the PFLP’s military wing, the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, after the internal reorganization of the group is completed.”

The aforementioned reorganization has evidently taken place.

What was the reason for Islamist Teheran’s decision to commence support for the ostensibly secular and leftist  PFLP?

Firstly, the supposed leftist or ‘progressive’ credentials of the PFLP should not be exaggerated.  The movement’s founder, Dr. George Habash, found it opportune to declare himself a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ in the late 1960s, at a time when Soviet weapons and funding were available to those professing such allegiances.

Prior to this period, Habash had founded and led the Arab Nationalist Movement, a Nasserist organization.  Habash’s ostensible turn to the left did not damage his close association with one Francois Genoud, a prominent European neo-Nazi financier who provided monetary support and assistance to the nascent PFLP.

This ancient history is of importance because it demonstrates the opportunism and ideological flexibility of the PFLP on all matters other than its real, openly professed business – violent activity toward the destruction of Israel.  This is the element of interest to the Iranians.

But the specific reason for Iran’s renewed support for the PFLP relates to the Syrian civil war.  The clash between the Iran-supported Assad regime and the largely Sunni Islamist insurgency led to a rupture between Teheran and the Palestinian Hamas movement which has not been entirely repaired.  Hamas, which emerged from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, strongly supported the Syrian rebellion.  It maintains close relations today with Qatar and Turkey, and finds its natural home in the Sunni Islamist nexus supported by these states.

The (partial) loss of Hamas, combined with the difficulty for Hamas of building armed networks in the West Bank because of Israeli and PA attention, has led Teheran to look further afield.

The PFLP’s position on Syria was consistent and unambiguous: it strongly supported Assad throughout the war.  When the regime re-took Aleppo in late 2016, the movement’s website declared the victory to be ‘”the start of the retreat of the plot against our Arab nation and the thwarting of the reactionary imperialist Zionist plan”.

Like Islamic Jihad, Teheran’s long standing proxy among the Palestinians, the PFLP is a small organization with a somewhat eccentric ideology possessing little appeal among the broad masses of the conservative, religious Palestinian population.  It possesses, nevertheless, a tight organizational structure, a cadre of fiercely loyal militants and a willingness to engage in violence. It now appears that Teheran’s steady investment in the movement over the last half decade has begun to deliver results.

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Israel’s Incoherent Strategy in Syria

Jerusalem Post, 8/5

A significant uptick in Israeli action against Iranian targets in Syria has taken place in recent weeks, according to regional and international media.

In the latest moves, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 14 Iranian and Iraqi fighters were killed on Tuesday in an Israeli raid on positions close to the town of al-Mayadin, in southeast Syria. This report followed close behind claims in official Syrian media of an Israeli missile attack on a research center and a military barracks in Aleppo province on Monday. SOHR also identified Israel as responsible for explosions at an ammunition depot controlled by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement near Homs city in the west of the country on the same day.

The previous week, strikes took place against militia targets in Quneitra, close to the border with the Golan, and against Iranian targets close to Damascus and to Palmyra, in southwest Syria.

While Israeli spokesmen tend to avoid commenting on specific actions, the overall goal of the campaign has been made crystal clear by a number of officials. The stated Israeli intention is, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it back in June 2018: “Iran needs to leave Syria – all of Syria.” More recently, this objective has been reiterated by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. In an interview on Monday, he said that “Iran has nothing to do in Syria… and we won’t stop before they leave Syria.”

The apparent increase in Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria has happened on Bennett’s watch. The defense minister seems to have identified the expulsion of Iran from Syria as a clear and achievable goal. In February, he told The Jerusalem Post that his objective was to remove Iran from Syria within 12 months.

Bennett has also made clear his calculus as to why he is confident that Israel will succeed in achieving this goal – namely, that while for Israel the issue is a cardinal security interest, for Iran, Syria is only of secondary importance.

As a result, the defense minister appears confident that Israel will, by use of its air power, be able to raise the price for the Iranian project in Syria to a level that the Iranians will no longer be willing to pay. Once this point is reached, Iran will recalculate and withdraw.

As he expressed it this week, “We are determined, more determined, and I will tell you why: For Iran, Syria is an adventure 1,000 miles from home, but for us it is life.”

In recent days, a variety of media outlets have quoted unnamed Israeli officials identifying evidence that this strategy is bearing fruit, and that Iran has begun to reduce its presence in Syria as a result of the Israeli raids. As one unnamed source told the Walla website, ‘“For the first time since Iran entered Syria, it is reducing its forces there and evacuating bases.”

So is the strategy working? Have the Israeli raids begun to precipitate an Iranian withdrawal from Syria?

The situation is somewhat more complicated.

Firstly, the long Israeli campaign against Iranian attempts to consolidate in Syria has clearly been partially successful. This may be discerned by the absence in Syria of the kind of missile and rocket infrastructure with which Tehran has managed to equip its Hezbollah franchise in Lebanon. Israel’s superior air power, extensive intelligence coverage, and willingness to act boldly against Iranian efforts over the last half decade have ensured this. The Iranian desire to construct in Syria a situation analogous to that in Lebanon, where de facto mutual deterrence exists between Israel and the Iran-aligned forces, is clear and discernible. Israel has prevented this.

Secondly, the Iranian regional project is today in considerable difficulty. US sanctions have sharply reduced the amount of money available for regional goals. The assassination of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani has clearly left a large void which has not yet been filled. All indications suggest that neither the new Quds Force chief, Esmail Ghani, nor his deputy Mohamed Hejazi have yet managed to return the running of Iran’s complex network of allies in the region to a similar level of effectiveness to that which pertained under Soleimani.

Thirdly, there is evidence to suggest that elements close to the Assad regime are wearying of the Iranian presence. The civil war in Syria is effectively over. There is no military threat to the Assad regime’s existence. Assad’s main objectives today are the return of Syria to his exclusive authority, its reconstruction, and its return from diplomatic isolation (he is very far from achieving any of these).

The extensive Iranian presence in Syria stands in the way of all these goals. As one source close to Syrian government circles expressed it to this author recently, “They’re sick and tired of the Iranians.”

With all this said, however, there is reason for considerable skepticism.

Regarding the statements by officials, it is simply not accurate that “for the first time since it entered Syria,” Iran is now reducing its presence. The Iranian conventional presence on the ground in Syria has been in a process of reduction since 2018. This is because most major combat operations in Syria concluded in that year. This fact is not controversial, and indeed the IDF’s own website notes it.

But in accordance with the methodology of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Iranian presence in Syria is deep and multifaceted.

It includes the creation of proxy forces within the official Syrian security forces – such as the National Defense Forces and the Local Defense Forces. It includes the non-Syrian proxy militias, from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is the direct presence of IRGC and Quds Force personnel. There are homegrown, locally recruited “Syrian Hezbollah” type formations, such as Battalion 313, Quwat al-Ridha and others. There are also hybrid-type arrangements, whereby IRGC/Hezbollah positions are located within official Syrian Arab Army facilities. The facility outside al-Hadr, adjoining the Israeli border, is an example of these. It is used mainly as an intelligence-gathering and eavesdropping post. It is protected by a Hezbollah-associated force called the Quneitra Hawks Brigade. It is located within a position of the Syrian Army’s 90th Brigade.

All this together constitutes a local Syrian adaptation of the IRGC methodology applied also in Lebanon and in Iraq. It has resulted in an existing contiguous area of Iranian control stretching from the Albukamal border crossing to just east of Quneitra, with facilities elsewhere in the country, for the most part woven into the fabric of the Assad regime’s own structures.

This infrastructure, and Syria more generally, from the Iranian point of view, constitutes a central, not a peripheral interest. Without it, Iran would lose a vital access route to its franchise in Lebanon, to the Mediterranean Sea and to the borders of Israel.

The nature of this project is such that large parts of it are not vulnerable to Israeli air power, unless Israel wants to also take on the Assad regime, which it does not. The parts that are, and that constitute the most direct threat, have been hit hard and well, and will no doubt continue to be so. Put these two points together, and what you have is something resembling the situation in Gaza writ large – namely, a reality in which Israel strikes periodically at its enemies at little cost to itself, and in so doing disrupts and sets back their plans, without delivering a fatal blow.

At the current price that Israel is imposing, it is difficult to see why Iran should choose to up sticks and pull everything back to Tehran. Of course, the defense minister is privy to information regarding Syria that this author is not. But if an Iranian strategic withdrawal from Syria takes place before next February, it will be visible to all. So we will know.

As of now, there appears to be a discrepancy between the stated goal and the means being employed to achieve it. This discrepancy renders Israeli strategy incoherent.

 

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Protests Re-ignite in Lebanon

Jerusalem Post, 1/5

One of the immediate effects of Covid-19 on the Middle East has been to clear the streets of the mass demonstrations which had filled the public squares of a number of regional capitals in the preceding months.  The virus has no political preferences, and its generalized assault has led to cooperation in some arenas between bitter rivals.

In certain Middle East countries, however, the virus has provided a boon for authoritarian regimes.  Specifically, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon had all witnessed widespread protests against economic mis-management and corruption in the first months of 2020.  In Iran, brute force dispersed the demonstrations. In Iraq and Lebanon, the virus brought them to an abrupt end.

In Lebanon, however, the demonstrations have now re-commenced.  And there are strong indications that policies enacted as a result of the virus are now exacerbating, rather than containing public anger.

The virus arrived to a country already in deep crisis.  Lebanon is, put plainly, a failed state and a failed economy.  The national debt stood at 170% of GDP in 2019.  Roughly 50% of government spending went toward servicing this debt in 2019.  In March, 2020, for the first time, Lebanon defaulted on its debts.  In that month, the government suspended payment on a $1.2 billion Eurobond, due on March 9th.

As the Lebanese currency declined in value, banks sought to protect themselves and avoid a run by restricting withdrawals of dollars and other foreign currency.  This increased the burden facing the public, and fueled anger.

The Lebanese pound has devalued by more than 50% over the last six months. The government has refused to formalize the currency controls impose by he banks.  As a result, wealthy and/or well connected Lebanese have been able to access and move funds.

Those without connections are left to bear the brunt of the discretionary controls imposed by the banks.  Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced this week that in January and February, $5.7 billion was transferred out of Lebanon’s banks.

The current domination of the Lebanese political system by the Iranian proxy Hizballah group and its allies has further contributed to the deteriorating situation. Since the elections of May, 2018, Hizballah and its allies have openly controlled both the legislative and executive branches of government.  Hizballah is the dominant force in a bloc controlling 74 seats in the 128 member parliament, and 19 of 30 Cabinet portfolios.  The movement, incidentally, has direct control of the public health ministry.  The minister, Jamal Jabak, is the former personal physician of Hizballah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah.

Iran/Hizballah’s increasingly open control of Lebanon has led to a precipitate decline in foreign investment in the country over the last decade.  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were once Lebanon’s main trading partners in the Gulf.  They have sharply downgraded their involvement in recent years. Once, the Gulf monarchies might have been willing to dig deep to prevent a Lebanese default.  But Hizballah-owned Lebanon will find no such generous benefactors. And of course the sanctions-strapped masters in Teheran have no cash to spare.

Indeed, even Hizballah itself is seeing its funding from Teheran slashed. US sanctions and the urgent need to respond to the Covid-19 crisis make sharp reductions in Teheran’s funding to its Lebanese IRGC franchise likely.

Lebanon responded early to the Covid-19 crisis.  Parliament was shuttered on March 9. Schools, universities, malls and public institutions are closed. A strict curfew operates in the night hours and the authorities advise citizens to stay at home during the day.

The result is that the virus appears to have been contained.  The spread has been reduced to less than 10 new reported cases per day.  The economic impact of the government’s containment measures, however, has been severe.  Social Affairs Minister Ramzi Musharrafieh told CNN on Tuesday that 75% of Lebanese citizens are in need of aid.  The already high unemployment rate has risen to 30%, including 60% of young people.  Many small and medium sized businesses have collapsed.

The combination of restrictive moves by the banks which have severely impacted on the lives of citizens, the pre-existing economic crisis, international isolation because of Iran/Hizballah’s control of the country, the deterioration in living standards as a result of stringent efforts over two months to contain Covid-19, and now the relative success of these efforts has produced a return to popular protest in recent days.

The largest scale protests have taken place in Tripoli, a poverty stricken and majority Sunni city in the north of the country. But Beirut, Sidon, Nabatiyeh, Akkar and the Beka’a have also witnessed demonstrations.  The banks, predictably have been a focus for much of the anger.  A number of banks have been torched and vandalized by the protestors.

So far, one demonstrator has been killed in Tripoli.  Fouaz el Samaan, according to witnesses, was shot dead by the army.

The current protests differ from those which preceded the pandemic in their more confrontational and violent nature.  Unlike in Iraq and Iran, the previous protests in Lebanon were characterized by an avoidance of clashes with the representatives of the state. This has now changed.  A woman demonstrator in Beirut told al-Jazeera that ‘”The army are not our brothers. They are shooting at us to protect the politicians.”

At the present time, the situation remains fluid.  But the protests show no signs of dissipating. While temporary fixes may be found, it is difficult to see how the deeper problems of Lebanon can be addressed short of a major overhaul of the system which would be resisted by the most powerful forces in the country.

As in Iraq, and as in Iran, the Lebanese are discovering what it means to find oneself under the ownership of a system which has neither answers to, nor any particular interest in issues of economy and living standards.

What this means in the specific Lebanese case is that the IRGC-implanted deep state which today controls the country is of necessity protecting the corrupt and dysfunctional system within which it lives.  A parasite, after all, must among other things preserve the life of its host.

The growing visibility of the IRGC system and its dominance, meanwhile, is gradually driving away those forces whose input has traditionally served to mitigate the effects of the system’s dysfunctionality. As a result, the Hizballah deep state is running out of resources to siphon off.  Against this reality, Lebanese are once again taking to the streets.   Given the relative strength of the sides, however, ongoing strife and instability rather than rapid change seem the most likely outcome.

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ISIS and the Virus

Jerusalem Post, 17/4

‘Ghost Caliphate’ Stirs in Syria and Iraq

The Coronavirus is generally held to represent a common threat to all nations and communities.  It does not differentiate according to religion, ethnicity or national origin.  The pandemic has even produced examples of enemies working together against the new invisible foe.  Medical personnel from Hamas-controlled Gaza, for example, have travelled to Israeli hospitals to learn techniques for treating those infected.

But the virus, and more specifically the general focus on it, also offer an opportunity to any organization seeking to exploit the short-term distraction of its enemies.  The Islamic State organization, commonly known as ISIS, lacks administrative control of any territory.  But across a broad swathe of Iraq and Syria, ISIS retains networks of support, and lines of communication and supply.  Somewhere between 20-30,000 militants of the group remain active in this area.  There is no shortage of either money or weaponry.

From Syria’s Badia desert in the west, eastwards to the Euphrates river valley and Deir e Zor Province, and then deep into Sunni majority central Iraq, the vanquished ISIS Caliphate retains a kind of half-life.  Beneath the nominal authority of three administrations – the Assad regime, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council and the government of Iraq, the structures and networks of ISIS are alive.

And with all three of these administrations pre-occupied with the current pandemic, the Islamic State is raising its head.  A sharp uptick in ISIS activity has taken place across this space over the last two weeks.

Furthest west, on April 9, ISIS gunmen attacked and seized the town of Sukhna in the deserts of central Homs province.  Russian aircraft were scrambled in response, launching a series of air raids against the positions of the jihadis.  Extended clashes followed between the ISIS men and Assad regime forces. The latter were accompanied by militants from a pro-regime Palestinian militia called the Al-Quds Brigade.  This unit, founded in Aleppo in 2013, is associated with the PFLP-GC. The death count after the ISIS fighters disappeared back into the desert was 18 on the regime/al-Quds side, and 11 ISIS men, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Eastern Deir a Zur province, ISIS militants killed two members of the National Defense Forces, an Iran-established regime auxiliary force, on April 7.  In the same period in this area, the Sunni jihadis on April 6 executed a woman they claimed was working with the regime,  and on April 7 detonated a landmine in the Shola area in southern Deir e Zur, killing four members of the Al-Quds Brigade.  ISIS also attacked regime positions in the towns of Al-Jala, Al-Siyal and Al-Abbas in the same area on April 6.  According to the Observatory, the latest attacks bring the death toll among regime and allied forces west of the Euphrates at the hands of ISIS from the period March 24 to the present day to 377.

The Kurdish/US controlled area east of the Euphrates has also been hit by the uptick in ISIS activity.  On April 3, an SDF unit killed an ISIS would be suicide bomber in the town of Manbij, as he prepared to carry out his attack.

The situation in the mainly Sunni Arab Middle Euphrates River Valley is tense.  There are unresolved issues  of authority and governance between the Sunni Arab tribal population in the area and the SDF.  ISIS seeks to gain from this situation and attacks have been on the increase since February.  The problem of sleeper cells remains acute.

A base of support undoubtedly exists for the Sunni jihadis in this area. They resent the rule of the ‘PKK’, as they refer to the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Council, which governs the area.  This issue is compounded by the uncertainty in the area.  President Donald Trump’s announcement in October, 2019, of the imminent withdrawal of remaining US forces from north-east Syria has reduced the willingness of some elements in the population to cooperate with the SDF, since its hold on the area is seen as only temporary.

A central concern for both the SDF and its US partners are the roughly 11-12,000 ISIS prisoners held in a number of facilities east of the Euphrates.  Already, ISIS prisoners have staged one attempted breakout. In late March, 4 members of the organization escaped from the Ghweran prison, near Hasakeh city. All were recaptured.

The public health situation in the SDF-controlled area is fragile.  Water supplies are subject to intermittent interruptions, because of Turkish control of the Allouk water station, since Operation Olive Branch in late 2019.  There is also an acute shortage of medical equipment, including testing kits and ventilators.

There is concern that if the Covid-19 virus strikes in the area, facilities holding ISIS prisoners could become unmanageable.

The Syrian regime permits little aid material to reach the SDF controlled areas.  The US-led coalition have as a result begun in recent days to provide some materials to help preserve hygiene in the facilities holding ISIS prisoners.

Iraq, too, has witnessed renewed ISIS violence in recent days.  A report on the Kurdish Rudaw website on Tuesday noted the death of an Iraqi federal police officer at a checkpoint in Hawija in western Kirkuk on Sunday, April 12. Hawija is a focal point of support and activity for ISIS.  The report noted that this was the third killing of security forces personnel by the organization since the beginning of the month.  Two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were killed in an attack on Tuesday, April 7.  An additional attack near al-Sadeq military airport on Thursday, 9/4 killed two members of the Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

The Iraqi security forces are currently focused on the pandemic. The attacks come also in the wake of US redeployment of forces within Iraq in recent weeks, and the continued paralysis of the political system.

So the increase in ISIS activity is taking place across a broad but contiguous, majority Sunni Arab area of territory.  The pattern of events confirms the continued existence of ISIS’s networks of supply and support, through which the movement’s members can safely pass.  This is the ‘ghost Caliphate’ in the territory that the movement once administered.  Now it exists in clandestine form, striking at the successor authorities when opportunity presents.

The ongoing, slow-burning ISIS insurgency in this area is proof that the ‘victories’ in the wars in Syria and Iraq have resolved little.  Neither the Assad regime’s crushing of the Sunni Arab uprising against it, nor the US-led Coalition’s destruction of the ISIS Caliphate have settled the underlying issue which led to the emergence of both.  This is the fact that both Baghdad and Damascus are dominated by non-Sunni ruling authorities with little interest in or ability to integrate the large Sunni Arab populations living under their rule.  For as long as this remains the case, Sunni Arab insurgency, latent or open, is likely to persist in the remote, poor and sparsely governed areas of both countries.  The Coronavirus offers a window for ISIS to increase the tempo of its activities.  But with or without the pandemic, the ‘ghost Caliphate.’ is here to stay.

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Idlib: The Next Phase

Jerusalem Post, 6/3

Russia’s desire to woo Turkey from the west likely to prevent all out Turkey-Syria War

 

Clashes between Turkish and Syrian regime forces in north west Syria are ongoing.  For the first time in the Syrian civil war, the forces of two governments are engaged in prolonged clashes on the ground. The killing of at least 30 Turkish soldiers in what was almost certainly a Russian air attack in Idlib Province on February 27 was a dramatic escalation and has left the Turkish public angry and shaken.

The latest fighting – around the strategic town of Saraqib – has been intense and bloody.  75 opposition fighters and 40 regime fighters were killed in 24 hours of brutal combat around Saraqib on March 2-3.

But is an all out Turkey-Syria war now inevitable? Despite the dramatic recent events, it is not.

To understand why, it is important to grasp the interests and intentions of the various sides engaged in the fight.

The motivations of the Assad regime are easiest to grasp. The commencement of the regime’s ‘Idlib Dawn 2’ offensive on December 19 triggered the current crisis.  The offensive was entirely predictable.  Having reduced and reconquered the three other ‘de-escalation’ zones it established with the rebels (in Deraa-Quneitra-Sweideh, Hama-Homs-Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta), the regime sees Idlib as the last remaining morsel in its devouring of the rebellion raised against it in early 2012.

Assad’s regime is profoundly weak on the ground, in both its military and its administrative aspects.   Recent events in Deraa Province indicate that it cannot fully control all the areas on which it has already placed its flag.  This has not, however, lessened its appetite for re-conquest.

The reason for the regime’s rapid progress on the ground this time, when compared with previous attempts, appears to be the greater concentration of Iran-linked fighters among the regime ground forces.  Lebanese Hizballah, Afghan Fatemiyun and Pakistani Zeinabiyun combatants are operating on the ground in Idlib now, under IRGC supervision.

The rapid advance of the offensive throughout December and January precipitated the determined Turkish response.  Ankara was faced with the prospect of the wholesale collapse of the rebel enclave in Idlib. President Erdogan poured in Turkish troops and equipment, determined to prevent this outcome.

Why was the Turkish president prepared to enter the Syrian quagmire in this decisive way?  It has been clear, after all,  for four years now that the rebellion is on its way to defeat.  Idlib is where its ‘bitter-enders’ have gathered.  What can be gained from preserving this enclave, in which among others 20,000 fighters of the local iteration of al-Qaeda are present?

There are a number of issues motivating the Turkish president. At the most basic level, he fears the prospect of another wave of Syrian refugees entering Turkey.  The country has already received around 3.6 million Syrians in the course of the civil war.  This is far higher than any other country.  Unemployment is growing in Turkey and the economy is fragile and faltering. Resentment against the Syrian newcomers is high.  This threatens to have a political cost for Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AKP) Party if the issue is not addressed.  A new wave of refugees would compound the problem.  To prevent this, and to have a chance of partly reversing the situation, Erdogan needs the Idlib rebel enclave to survive.

But there is more than the refugee issue at stake here.  Erdogan supported the Sunni Arab rebellion in Syria earlier and harder than any other leader.  His backing of it forms a part of the broader, erratic and floundering foreign policy in which he has sought to set himself up as the natural leader of Sunni Arab causes and of political Islam in the Arabic-speaking world. It is of a piece with his staunch backing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, his allowing a Hamas network to operate on Turkish soil, from where it plans attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank, his deploying of client militiamen to back the Islamist government in Libya, his frequent vilification of Israel, and his dispatching of troops to secure Qatar, and to train Sunni militiamen in Iraq.

To accept the complete crushing of the Syrian rebellion at this juncture would constitute a humiliating blow to the Turkish leader. It would severely tarnish his strong man image, and perhaps stretch the credulity of his adoring base at home beyond breaking point.  Hence the bold deployment of troops in recent days, and their engagement against regime forces.  Hence the decision to remove restrictions on migrants making their way from Turkey to Greece and Bulgaria – in an effort to force the EU to take notice of the Idlib crisis. And hence the frantic efforts to secure US backing for the Turkish military effort – resulting in the rather meager outcome of a US commitment to supply the Turks with ‘ammunition.’

So the motivations of the clashing sides are apparent.  But while these goals are directly opposed to one another, this does not mean that a conventional war between Turkey and Syria is inevitably imminent.

That is because of the presence of Russia. To understand the dynamic, take a close look at events around the town of Saraqib in recent days.  The town is strategically located at the intersection of two vital highways, the M5 between Aleppo and Damascus, and the M4 running from Aleppo to Latakia. It changed hands several times in the fighting of recent days.

Then Russia on March 2 deployed its own military police in the town.  A further Turkish attempt at reconquest would have meant a direct confrontation with Russian personnel.  Unsurprisingly, no such attempt has taken place.

Moscow has a treaty based alliance with the Assad regime. Assad owes his survival to Putin. But Russia also has a strategic objective of drawing Turkey away from the west.  This effort has been proceeding well over the last half decade. The Turkstream pipeline, the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, the S400 anti aircraft system sale are among its fruits.

At root, Turkey is a revanchist power, seeking to grow at the expense of the retreating US-led order in the Middle East. From this point of view, in spite of local differences, its natural strategic connection is to Russia. Moscow also wants to upturn that order.  Turkey is a major prize.  If winning it means Assad has to wait a while before planting his flag along the border, Putin is likely to make him wait.  Now that Turkey has been allowed to strike back and slow the regime’s advance, Putin is likely to be looking to cement a new ceasefire, allowing for Ankara to claim some kind of achievement.  There is little or no chance of Turkey’s demand that the regime army fall back to the 2018 Sochi Agreement lines being realized.  But new lines guaranteeing, for a while, a new and smaller rebel enclave will be what Putin will seek to impose.  It will be a tricky arrangement to achieve and to sell to both sides.  It may well not last long.  But it is what Russia’s strategic interests dictate. And Russia remains the decider in Syria west of the Euphrates. So an arrangement along these lines, and not an all out Erdogan-Assad war, remains the most likely outcome for the next phase.

 

 

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Syria’s Wild South west

Jerusalem Post, 21/2

The global spotlight has currently returned to Syria because of the Assad regime’s current bloody offensive in Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia Provinces.  The regime is trying to reduce the last enclave held by the Sunni Arab rebels in the country’s north-west.  The assault has precipitated one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the bloody, nine year war.  800,000 people have left their homes to flee the advance of regime forces and the relentless, indiscriminate bombing of Assad’s Russian allies.

Far to the south of Idlib, however, and largely ignored by the global media, events are under way which may offer a clue to the future direction of Syria.  These events are of direct interest to Israel.  The regime is currently seeking to consolidate its presence in Deraa and Quneitra provinces in Syria’s south west.  Assad’s army completed its ‘conquest’ of these areas in the summer of 2018.  Observation of the current situation on the ground in these areas suggests, however, that the  situation remains far from a return to the repressive and stifling order of the pre-revolt days.

Rather, the situation is characterized on the one hand by extensive Iranian and Hizballah activity within the empty shell of the government’s structures.  And on the other hand by an ongoing, armed resistance to that government.  The precise organization, origins and nature of this resistance remain somewhat mysterious. But the tempo of attacks on regime positions and facilities is relentless, and increasing.  Deraa is where the Syrian rebellion broke out, in distant early 2011.  Nine years on, it is not yet silenced.  Rather, the area and its environs increasingly constitute Syria’s wild south-west.

Regarding Iranian and Hizballah activity,  the extensive human infrastructure maintained by Iran and its proxy in south west Syria has been well documented.  In  a recent report produced by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Brig-Gen (Res) Shimon Shapira and Colonel (Res) Jacques Neriah noted that since the return of the area to regime control, Hizballah has been actively recruiting.  The recruits come from among the area’s impoverished Sunni communities.  They are tempted into the ranks by financial inducements.  Hizballah pays $250 a month, according to Shapira and Neriah.  3500 local Syrians have been recruited in this way since mid-2018, according to the report.

They further note that the Hizballah commander behind these efforts is 50 year old Munir Naima Ali Shaito, known as ‘Haj Hashem.’  Shaito is a veteran and senior Hizballah operative, and is former deputy commander of the elite Badr unit within the organization.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition but generally reliable source, reported this week that Iran-backed militia commanders have begun to offer financial incentives to the mukhtars of villages in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan, in return for their cooperation in recruiting village youth to the militias’ ranks.  Among the villages named by the Observatory are al-Habiriyah and Sultanah.

Iranian efforts in this area are not taking place in isolation from the official regime structures.  Rather, in the manner Teheran favors, its operatives both cooperate with regime forces and operate from within them.  The powerful Air Force Intelligence Directorate and the 4th Armored Division, commanded by Bashar Assad’s brother Maher are the IRGC’s chosen partners in south west Syria.  Hizballah maintains an intelligence gathering facility within a base of the Syrian Arab Army’s 90th Brigade in the Hadr area, very close to the border with Israel, according to the JCPA report.

The implications of this information are significant.  The notion that an unproblematic return of the status quo ante bellum and of the strong pre-war Baathist state is taking place in areas where the regime has replanted its flag needs to be complicated.  What is returning is something different: namely, the shell of the pre-war regime, within which Iran and its allies appear to have unfettered freedom of action.

They are not having things all their own way, though.  Since June, 2019, according to the Observatory, more than 300 attacks have taken place on regime and allied forces in the Deraa area.  These have included shootings, and detonations of IEDs and mines.  192 people have been killed in these attacks, including 36 civilians and 100 members of the regime forces, and its ‘loyalists and collaborators,’ according to the Observatory.

The latest attacks came this week, when unidentified gunmen fired on an Air Force Intelligence checkpoint at the southern entrance to al-Musayfrah town in Deraa’s eastern countryside.

The precise figures produced by SOHR should be treated with some skepticism.  South west Syria is closed to media coverage and so there is no way of verifying these.  But the ongoing attacks on regime forces and facilities are confirmed from other sources and are not in doubt.  So what is behind these actions?

Haid Haid, a respected Syrian researcher on the war, notes that the regime’s continued arrests and violations of amnesty agreements with locals may be motivating the return to resistance.  An organization calling itself ‘Popular Resistance’ (Al-Muqawama al-Sha’abia) has emerged and has begin to claim responsibility for the attacks.  The group, as reported  by Haid,  gave an interview to an Arabic news site in November, declaring war on the regime and its associated militias.  In the interview the spokesman, calling himself ‘Saif al-Horani,’  said that the group has no affiliation with any foreign state or entity.

Haid notes, however, that no further information is available on this group.  Doubts have emerged whether it exists at all, or whether it is simply an effort to take credit for acts committed by others. There is also the possibility that the overt ‘leadership’ of Popular Resistance is an attempt by the regime to draw its opponents in Deraa into the daylight, so that they can be neutralized.

Identifying those behind  ‘Popular Resistance’ is important.  A question of particular interest will be the role of Sunni jihadis affiliated with Islamic State or Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in these actions.  No evidence of either has emerged as yet.  The perpetrators remain shrouded in mystery.  But the attacks are continuing. And increasing.

Events in Syria’s south west matter for Israel because the chaos and the continued weakness of the Syrian state allow Iran to advance by stealth, organizing in the direction of Israel’s border.  More broadly, Deraa and Quneitra are worth watching with care, because they show that contrary to the impression conveyed in regime and Russian propaganda, normality is not returning to Syria with the advance of the regime’s flag.  Rather, in Syria’s wild south-west, what exists is a chaotic failed state, thoroughly penetrated by outside powers, and facing an ongoing, inchoate but deadly insurgency at the hands of those it claims to have vanquished.

 

 

 

 

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Anonymous Soldier

A LEHI operative in London

Jerusalem Post magazine, 21/2.

Ya’acov Heruti, one of Israel’s first covert warriors, is today the resident of a quiet and well ordered retirement home in Tel Aviv.  His room is neat and well-kept, his Filipina carer Joy refers to him as ‘Saba,’ and visitors, both family and friends, are frequent.  The wood-paneled corridors and comfortable armchairs convey a peaceful sense. One might take the friendly old gentleman that greets you at the door with ‘Dr. Heruti’ engraved on it as just another nonagenarian retiree;  evidently one that has had a certain success in life to be resident in such a facility, clearly in fine shape for a man of 93, but perhaps remarkable in no other way.

This impression, however, would be mistaken.  A little over 70 years ago, Ya’acov Heruti stood at the cusp of an act that if carried out would have earned him a prominent place in the history books covering the first days of Israel, and the twilight of the British Empire. That act was the planned assassination of the then British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin.

The assassination was to be carried out by a tightly organized paramilitary structure which Heruti had himself established on British soil at the order of the LEHI (Lohamei Herut Yisrael – Israel Freedom Fighters), of which he was a member.   Bevin had made himself hated by the Yishuv in then Mandate Palestine for his pro-Arab actions, his opposition to Israel’s establishment and the frequency of his anti-Semitic rhetoric.  But his planned killing was only one of a series of assassinations for which Heruti had been dispatched to London.

At 21, Ya’acov Heruti was already a seasoned operator for the LEHI, smaller of the two Jewish paramilitary groups engaged in the struggle against Britain.  Registered as a law student at the University of London, he had spent the previous months building the covert structure which lay behind the planned killing of Bevin. This apparatus was by early 1948 poised and ready for action.

To understand how Ya’acov Heruti came to be standing at the head of a paramilitary network in London, it is necessary to look a little further back, to Mandate Palestine in the last months of 1945. The London cell, for all its dramatic aspects, was only one chapter in a long career that saw Heruti recruited to the LEHI while still in his teens, fighting in Jerusalem’s Old City in the War of Independence, active in a revived underground organization in the 1950s, (falsely) implicated in the killing of Dr. Rudolf Kasztner, and later prominent in a number of nationalist political initiatives.

Last week, Heruti sat down with the Jerusalem Post, in his Tel Aviv home, to discuss all of this. The matter of Israel’s current situation was also prominent in his mind.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1927, Heruti’s father, Mordechai, was a supporter of Mapai, forerunner of today’s Labor Party.  So what drew him into the LEHI?    Heruti reveals that his recruitment was a matter of chance. Having become convinced while still at school of the need for action to expel British forces from then Mandate Palestine, his first contacts were with the larger Irgun Tzvai Leumi.  Before the IZL could recruit him, however, a LEHI operative arrived uninvited at his house.  The LEHI man had been informed by Heruti’s friends of his intentions, and he quickly persuaded the eager 18 year old of his movement’s seriousness.

‘My contact said that the IZL were ‘vegetarians,’’  Heruti recalled.  ‘The IZL at that time didn’t attack soldiers – only property.  LEHI did.  British soldiers, on condition that they were soldiers – yes.  In LEHI, they said ‘a la guerre comme a la guerre’ (war is war), and in war, all means are permitted. ‘

The organization rapidly identified its new recruit’s particular talents, and Heruti was detailed to its ‘technical department.’  This was the body responsible for the production and development of explosive material and devices, and for the repair and  development of weaponry.

‘So one day, ‘Shmuel’ (Yehuda Levy, commander of the LEHI technical department) came to me and asked if I knew how to prepare explosive material.  I’d always been good at chemistry, so I went straight to the Chemists’ Association and I asked for a book on explosives.  If they’d been tailing us then, they could have stopped it right at the start.  But it didn’t interest anyone. There was only one old Jew there. The first book I got was called  ‘Qualities of Explosive Material.’

‘And I learned the difference between good and bad explosives.  Dynamite, for example, explodes if you shoot at it.  TNT doesn’t. The material I looked for, and found, was in good condition and convenient for being moved from place to place. ‘

Heruti took on responsibility for the production of explosives for LEHI. Within a few months, the materials he prepared began to be used with telling effect against installations of the Mandatory government.  On April 26, 1947, LEHI operatives placed a device containing the explosives prepared by Heruti at the British police station at Sarona (today the site of the Kirya).  Four policemen, including one officer, were killed when the explosives were detonated.

As the tempo of operations increased, so the organization began to need higher quantities of materiel.  As Heruti recalls it, ‘I was responsible for preparing the explosives for LEHI, until the point where we went from preparing it in a bucket on a roof, to something on a larger scale – semi industrial. Then Shmuel took it into his own hands. I finished the job at the point where we could produce something like 8 kilos of explosive material.’

Building the cell in the UK was his next mission.  Heruti’s objective there was to assassinate three men – Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, former commander of British forces in Palestine General Evelyn Barker, and Major Roy Farran, who had tortured and killed a young LEHI member, Alexander Rubowitz, in Jerusalem.

He arrived in London in October 1947, possessing neither money, means nor infrastructure for the carrying out of this mission.

The first task was to begin recruitment.  Heruti met with Yehuda Ben-Ari, a veteran of the Jabotinsky movement resident in London. From Ben-Ari, he received details of a number of organizations broadly in sympathy with the objectives of the IZL and LEHI.  He then began to establish contacts with members of these groups, and to invite the most promising individuals to become part of the infrastructure he was building.  As he recalls, ‘From the point of view of building underground organizations, this is the worst way you can do it.  If you want to build a pro-Soviet underground, you don’t go to the local Communist Party.  But I had nothing.’

The organizations in question included the Betar youth movement, and the ‘Hebrew Legion’ group, an association of Jews who had served in the British armed forces and who were sympathetic to the Jewish paramilitaries in Mandate Palestine.

Slowly, the infrastructure began to take shape.  ‘By chance, I met a number of young Jews, we didn’t have a great deal to lose, and we began to organize.  And slowly, slowly, ‘a friend brings a friend,’ and we started building up an infrastructure, addresses, a place for storing weapons…Many people, and many whose names I wont reveal even today,’ says Heruti.

Among the names that Heruti is willing to reveal, from among the young Jews recruited at this time, is the late Eric Graus, who later went on to become a senior and prominent figure in Anglo-Jewry.

‘Eric Graus, for example,’ Heruti says, ‘had a place where we could receive mail from abroad.  And that was how we received explosive materials – quite poor explosives, by the way – dynamite.’

The explosives were mailed from the United States, the first of them arriving inside the hollowed out batteries of a radio set.  The sender was Benjamin Gefner, a LEHI member resident in New York, where he had organized the ‘American Friends of LEHI.’

While all this was taking place, Heruti was pursuing his legal studies at London University, and getting to know the city.

He makes clear in his book ‘One Truth and not Two’ that LEHI’s war was not a general one against the British nation as a whole. This orientation also affected operational decisionmaking.  With regard to the main target – Foreign Secretary Bevin – the organization decided to avoid use of explosives out of concern that passers-by could also be affected.

Instead, a conference of foreign ministers in central London was chosen as the site for the attack.  An escape route was identified.  Surveillance was carried out. ‘The plan was to hit him outside the meeting of foreign ministers, then escape on foot to Piccadilly Circus,’ Heruti recalls.

But with preparations complete, and Operation ‘Simon’ -as the LEHI had codenamed Bevin – ready to go, Heruti received a terse communication from headquarters in Israel: ‘a message came from Nathan Friedman-Yellin (The LEHI operational commander at the time), calling it off. As to why – I had no idea.’  Plans for the assassination of Bevin were immediately stood down.

With the main mission cancelled, the cell turned its attention to the other two targets – Barker and Roy Farran.  Letter bombs were sent to the addresses of both men.  In Barker’s case, the device was defused by police after the general’s wife noticed it had a strange smell, and decided not to open it.

Regarding Farran, the British officer’s younger brother, Rex, opened the parcel addressed to him, and was killed by the explosion.  ‘A frustrating failure,’  as Heruti terms it in his book.  ‘We were looking for the murderer – not his brother.’

‘Then the mission ended.  The 1948 war was beginning.  Students were being called back to Israel. I already wanted to get out of there.’  The LEHI cell in London was shut down and ceased operations.

On his return to Israel, Heruti was dismayed to find that his  mentor in the LEHI’s technical department, Yehuda Levy (‘Shmuel’) had been executed by the organization, accused of treachery.  Regarding the background to the killing, Heruti, who 70 years on is still visibly moved when discussing these events, notes that ‘Shmuel’s idea was that the time had come to unite, so we needed to transfer weaponry as a condition for LEHI people to join the IDF.  So that was his opinion, and he went and spoke to the relevant people and Mr. Friedman-Yellin decided that he was a traitor.’

A long and eventually successful battle was waged by Heruti and other former comrades of Yehuda Levy to have his name included in the list of LEHI’s fallen fighters.

As for the reasons for the cancellation of Operation ‘Simon,’  historian David Caesarani, in his book ‘Major Farran’s Hat’ about this period, suggests that the LEHI leadership called the assassination off because with British forces withdrawing from Mandate Palestine, Bevin’s role was no longer of primary importance.

Heruti notes that ‘Nathan Friedman-Yellin said to me after I returned to the country that well, if they’d caught you, you wouldn’t have known what to do, or how to respond at the trial, and so on’ he scoffs at the thought.  ‘Hakim and Beit-Tzuri (the killers of Lord Moyne in Cairo in 1944), they sent them, they caught them, and they knew how to respond.’

Heruti then took part in the battles for Jerusalem, and was decorated for rescuing a wounded Haganah fighter under fire during a clash with the Jordanian Arab Legion.

‘I went to Jerusalem to fight, and not to Brigade 8 (the usual destination for former LEHI fighters in the newly formed IDF) because Yitzhak Shamir sent me, and I owe him this.  Do you know what it was to fight in Jerusalem at the time of the siege?  A celebration!’

Heruti was briefly caught up in the roundup of LEHI members carried out by the new Israeli government of David Ben-Gurion, after the assassination of United Nations mediator Folke Bernadotte.

Following the British departure, the establishment of the state and the subsequent war of Independence, confirms Heruti, ‘LEHI had no further reason to exist.’  A short attempt at organizing a political party failed.  The triumvirate that had led the movement (Yitzhak Shamir, Nathan Friedman-Yellin and Dr. Israel Eldad) went their separate ways.  Shamir was recruited to the Mossad and later began a political career that would take him to the prime ministership of Israel. Eldad continued his educational and ideological activities in Jerusalem. Friedman-Yellin (later Yellin-Mor) became an activist with Israel’s radical left.

Heruti, for his part, remained active in Israel Eldad’s ‘Sulam Circle’ in the 1950s.  This framework attempted to keep alive the ideas which had underlain the struggle of LEHI.

In 1952, dismayed at the security situation in Jerusalem, he organized a new underground movement together with another former LEHI member, Shimon Bachar.  The ‘Malchut Yisrael’ underground carried out an attack on Arab Legion forces near the Damascus Gate.  Heruti and Bachar also in 1953 placed an explosive device in the courtyard of the Soviet legation in Tel Aviv, to protest the persecution of Soviet Jews in the  ‘Doctors’ Plot and Slansky show trials at that time.  He was sentenced to a 10 year term for these activities but was pardoned in 1955, and qualified as a lawyer in 1956.

His final brush with the authorities came when Heruti was accused of involvement in an alleged ‘terror organization’ behind the killing of Dr. Rudolf Kasztner in 1957.  He was acquitted of these charges in January, 1958.

Heruti’s public activities continued, however, in tandem with his law practice.  He became after 1967 deeply involved in the process of land purchase for Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.  He was among the founders of the Tehiya Party in 1979, and was subsequently close to Rafael Eitan’s Tsomet list and Rehavam Ze’evi’s Moledet Party.  He remains until today a member of the Board of Governors of Ariel University, and an active supporter of a Chabad school providing vocational training and academic studies in Ashdod.

“So how do you see Israel’s situation today?’ I inquire.  ‘Lousy,’ is his immediate reply.  ‘When they’re still wondering whether to impose sovereignty – which should have been done immediately after the 6 Day War in 1967? Then that’s not the Jewish state…If we don’t grab with both hands the chance to put sovereignty on the Jordan Valley – then what else is there to say?’

No points of light?  ‘I don’t see any,’ Heruti quickly replies, before reflecting for a moment and continuing with a wry smile, ‘then again, as we say each year in the Pesach Haggadah –  the Holy One, blessed be he, saves us from them.’

Outside of Heruti’s well appointed retirement home, the evening lights of Tel Aviv stretch out. The sleek roads, the towering buildings, the whole purring, humming, flourishing city. One might take such things for granted. That would be a mistake, too. Ya’acov Heruti’s book of memoirs is named after a poem by Uri Tzvi Greenberg in his ‘Book of Denunciation and Faith,’  – a creedal text for the underground fighters of Heruti’s generation:  ‘There will come a day when from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates, and from the sea to beyond Moab, my young men will ascend, and they will call my enemies and haters to the last battle, and blood will decide who is the ruler here.’  And thus it was.

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