Militias to merge into Iraqi Security Forces?

Jerusalem Post, 5/7

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abd el-Mehdi this week announced that the Shia militias of the Popular Mobilization Units or ‘Hashd al-Shaabi’ are to be fully integrated into the Iraqi security forces.  According to the statement announcing this decision,  ‘All Popular Mobilisation Forces are to operate as an indivisible part of the armed forces and be subject to the same regulations.’

The prime minister’s statement went on to clarify that headquarters, offices and independent checkpoints maintained by the militias are to be shut down. Militias failing to comply with this directive by July 31 will be considered illegal organizations.  Those wishing to continue under their old names as political parties must disband their military component.

The Shia militias are the main instrument of Iranian policy on Iraqi soil.  Not all groups involved in the 150,000 strong PMU are Iran-linked, but the largest and most consequential groupings are.  These include the Badr organization, led by Hadi al-Ameri,  Ktaeb Hizballah, headed by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Asaib ahl-al Haq, and Hizballah al-Nujaba.

All the above mentioned groupings are franchises of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). All were established by and are controlled by Iran, answering directly to the IRGC’s Qods Force and its leader, General Qassem Soleimani.

The Iraqi announcement comes in the wake of a sharp increase in anonymous attacks almost certainly carried out by the militias on US targets in Iraq in recent weeks.  These included: a mortar attack on the Balad air base in Iraq’s Salah al-Din Province on June 14 (the base hosts US troops), a mortar attack on the Taji base, which also hosts US advisers, on June 17, and a Katyusha missile attack on the Burjesia site on June 19 – this area hosts facilities maintained by  a number of global oil companies, including Exxon Mobil.

While no group claimed responsibility for the attacks, there is no real suspect other than the Shia militias.  (ISIS, which remains active in Iraq, is currently otherwise engaged – in rebuilding its networks in Sunni central Iraq and reimposing its hold on the Sunni population in its rural heartlands).

The US government considers that Ktaeb Hizballah was most likely also responsible for the launching of a drone on at the East-West oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia on May 14th.

Ktaeb Hizballah members (in their political manifestation) stormed the Bahraini embassy in Baghdad on June 27th, in protest at Bahrain’s hosting of the US-sponsored ‘Peace to Prosperity’ conference.   The Shia militants carried placards reading ‘no to the deal of the century, and ‘Arab Zionists sold their Arab identity for a failed deal.’

The attacks on US facilities have been accompanied by increased rhetorical threats against the US and Israel from militia leaders.  Nasir al-Shamari,  assistant secretary general of the Hizballah Nujaba militia, stated that ‘confrontation with the US will stop only when it is eliminated from the region, along with the Zionist entity.’

Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organization and perhaps the most powerful pro-Iranian political and military leader in Iraq, expressed his views in a recent interview with the Farsi- language, IRGC associated Fars News Agecy regarding the US and Israel in the following terms:

‘There is no doubt that ISIS is a bastard child of the United States. I and my comrades will never surrender to the involvement of the United States and its allies in Iraq, and this was our position from the beginning….(ISIS’) main designers and the creators were the United States and their master, Israel.’

The move by the Iraqi government to integrate the militias comes in the wake of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s May visit to Iraq.  Speaking after the visit, Pompeo said that he had ‘urged the Iraqi government, for its own security, to get all of those forces (the militias) under Iraq central control.”

So is the matter now settled?  Will al-Ameri, Al-Muhandis and the others now be content with a new role as besuited politicians, or as anonymous divisional commanders in Iraq’s army?

They will not.

Firstly, it is worth remembering that this latest announcement is not without precedent.  The first law making the militias part of the Iraqi security forces was passed in November, 2016.  From that time on, they have constituted a part of the state security apparatus. Formally, the militias report directly to and are under the authority of the Prime Minister.

In March 2018, then Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a decree formally integrating the militias into the security forces, regularizing their salaries and affording them similar rights to members of the Iraqi army and other services, under the control of the Ministry of Defense.

The latest decree, undertaken it would appear largely in response to US pressure and cajoling, resembles these earlier moves. What was their result?

With the welcome cover of official status, the militias predictably continued to act as the strong arm of Iran in Iraq.  As a result of the blurring of the boundaries between the state army and the Shia militias, however, Iran’s fighters gained welcome access to the resources available to the official security forces.

These included state of the art US equipment – such as the nine M1A1 Abrams tanks that the militias used against (pro-US) Kurdish forces in the assault against Iraqi Kurdistan following the Kurdish bid for independence from Iraq in late 2017.  The latter operation was planned by Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

The US has provided over $22 billion in aid to the Iraqi Security Forces since 2005.  As the lines between the army and the militias blur, so the possibility of preventing this access will also fade. Only strong and direct action against the militias and their leaders could prevent this.

The militias are powerful players – politically, militarily and economically.  Prime Minister Adel Abd al Mehdi, meanwhile, is a weak figure with no real power base of its own.  Iraq is not a country ruled by law.  The prime minister as a result simply possesses no coercive mechanism for imposing his will on the Shia militias.  He can order their dissolution if he so wishes.  The result will be the further enmeshing and fusing of the militias with the official bodies of the state – without the ceding by the latter of their own vital chain of command.  This chain of command leads to Qassem Soleimani, and thence to the office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC does not regard Iraq as a country, but rather as one arena, in which it is growing its power and prosecuting its attacks against US forces.  In this contest, the official Iraqi state and its various structures afford a convenient cover.  If they can burrow into it, and incidentally benefit from the largesse afforded it by its allies (who are the militias’ enemies), then so much the better.

If this sounds familiar, it should.  It is the game plan successfully pursued by the IRGC in Lebanon in recent years, through its Hizballah franchise in that country.   That model is now being applied in Iraq, on a larger and far more consequential scale.  Prime ministerial decrees won’t stop it.

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Missiles in the Desert

 

Jerusalem Post 17/5

Evidence grows that Iran is stationing missiles directed at Israel with its client militias in western Iraq

 

In a speech delivered on May 9, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, Secretary General of the Hizballah Nujaba movement in Iraq, delivered a series of threats against Israel.  Hizballah Nujaba is an Iran supported Shia militia. It is affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hashd al-Shaabi, which is a gathering of mainly Shia, mainly pro-Iran military groups.  Al-Kaabi’s speech is by itself of only passing interest.  But it is an indication of the growing involvement of Teheran’s Iraqi servants in Iran’s preparations for conflict with Israel – and not only on the verbal level.

In his speech, al-Kaabi accused Israel of supporting ‘Takfiri’ organizations – the Shia militias’ and Iran’s preferred term for Sunni groups such as ISIS.  The Takfiri groups, al-Kaabi said, wage a ‘proxy war’ on behalf of the ‘Zionist entity’, so that it may ‘enjoy peace, while its proxies are killing the Muslims.’  The Shia militia leader pledged that after the ‘Takfiri’ groups were defeated, the goal of his organization would be to ‘completely end (the Zionist entity’s) existence, and restore the land to its rightful owners.‘

This is not the first time that al-Kaabi has expressed himself in this manner.  On February 13, 2018, the Nujaba leader visited Beirut, and pledged that his movement would ‘stand with the axis of resistance’ in a future conflict with Israel. On March 8, 2017,  al-Kaabi announced the formation of the ‘Golan Liberation Brigade,’  intended to take part in a future war against Israel on the Golan.

From one point of view, al-Kaabi’s words might seem somewhat pretentious – coming as they do from the leader of a force of around 9000 lightly armed militiamen.  It is indeed unlikely that his threats will cause the commanders of the IDF’s 210th Bashan Division on the Golan Heights any sleepless nights just yet.

Nevertheless, the Nujaba leader’s latest comments reflect a deeper reality – namely, that the land area encompassing Iraq, Syria and Lebanon today constitutes a single arena from an Iranian operational point of view.  Al-Kaabi’s controllers, in the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), have freedom of action in each of these areas, and operate a coordinated strategy across their entirety.  This strategy involves the centralized coordination and use of the many political and military elements which the Iranians have established across this space and which they sponsor.

This is a new situation  for Israel. Addressing it requires a broadening of focus, and paying closer attention to players and geographical areas formerly of only peripheral interest.   Conversations with Israeli officials suggest that this widening of the lens of observation is taking place.

In this regard,  an article published this week by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is worthy of close attention.    The piece, authored by IDF Brigadier-General (Res) Assaf Orion and veteran Iraq analyst Michael Knights focuses on indications that Iran is making use of its Iraqi militia clients to deploy short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) in the deserts of western Iraq – with the intention that these could be launched against Israel at a time of Iran’s choosing.

These indications are of particular relevance given the current high level of tension in the Persian Gulf.

Knights and Orion’s article is not the first public airing of Iranian activity in this regard.  A Reuters report on August 31, 2018 was the first to note the concerns of US and Israeli intelligence agencies. The article detailed the transfer by the IRGC’s Qods Force  of  Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles and launchers to western Iraq.  The Zolfaqar has a claimed range of 750 km – putting Tel Aviv within its range if it was deployed in this area.  The distance from al-Qaim on the Iraqi Syrian border to Tel Aviv is 632 km.

Teheran has also established facilities for missile production in western Iraq, and is employing Iraqi citizens to carry out this work.  The Reuters article named the areas where production is taking place as ‘al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala.‘

Knights and Orion re-focus on this developing story, offering substantial new details.  Specifically, the article names three militias as among the recipients of Iranian ‘long range artillery rockets’ – the aforementioned Hizballah al-Nujaba,  Ktaeb Hizballah, and the Badr Organization.

The article notes that ‘These Shia proxies have reportedly developed exclusive use of secure bases in the provinces of Diyala (e.g., Camp Ashraf), Salah al-Din (Camp Speicher), Baghdad (Jurf al-Sakhar), Karbala (Razzaza), and Wasit (Suwayrah).’

The authors also point out that in ‘Iraqi, US and Israeli’ intelligence circles it is widely accepted that the ‘militias have developed a line of communication and control to Iran through Diyala, allowing them to import missiles and equipment without government approval or knowledge.’

The ability of Iran to operate a de facto contiguous line of control across Iraq, and thence to Syria, Lebanon and the borders with the Golan Heights is thus not under serious doubt.  It appears that Teheran has begun to station SRBMs along this route, directed at Israel, and crewed by the Qods force-directed militia franchises – an arrangement intended to provide Iran with deniability in the event of their being used.

The latest episodes at the Fujairah port in the UAE and the Aramco East-West pipeline in Saudi Arabia this week suggest that Iran intends to follow a strategy precisely of deniability and use of proxies in its attempts to hit back at US efforts to contain and roll back Iranian advances of recent years.  Israel is not outside of this circle.  As an un-named Iranian official quoted by Reuters put it: ‘If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region.”

It may be assumed that relevant Israeli agencies take careful note of threats of this kind, along with the more florid pronunciations of such figures as Akram al-Kaabi.  These are not mere chatter . In the remote deserts of western Iraq, Iran’s servants are busily at work preparing a new front against Israel.

 

 

 

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Arab Spring: the Second Coming?

Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

1.5.19

The current instability in Algeria, Sudan and Libya has led to some excited western media coverage heralding a second chapter of the Arab Spring.  Those celebrating should be careful what they wish for. The Arab uprisings of 2010-11 and the subsequent years began with great hope but with the partial exception of Tunisia, left only strife, war and state fragmentation in their wake. One can only wish the protestors much luck, while noting that the record suggests that societies lacking civil society traditions and institutions are unlikely to achieve better governance through mass action.

Events in Sudan and Libya are of significance, however, in another way. Both countries, like Yemen, and Syria before them, are currently acting as arenas in an ongoing regional cold war. This contest pits western-aligned Arab Gulf states Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, along with Sisis’s Egypt, against the Muslim-Brotherhood and Sunni Islamist oriented axis of Erdogan’s Turkey and the Emirate of Qatar. In both the Libyan and the Sudanese case, these rival blocs are backing opposing players.

It is of further interest to note that in this contest, each of the two opposing camps makes use of representatives of one or another of the forms of political organization that have proved most of consequence in the Arab world over the last decade.

Outside of the Arab monarchies, and again with the notable exception of Tunisia, there are two forms of political organization of consequence in the Arabic-speaking world: Islamist movements, and authoritarian military regimes. In every case, the Turks and Qataris back the Islamists. The Egyptians, Saudis and Emiratis, meanwhile, offer their support to the military men. In these contests, more often than not, the mobilized people in the public square tend to play the role of extras. They are summoned by the Islamists or the generals to create the illusion of popular will, before being dismissed once again.

In Sudan, popular protest has led to the dismissal of President Omar al-Bashir, one of the longest serving heads of state in the Arab world.  The crowds have not yet dispersed and are demanding that his successor, General Abd al-Fatah al Burhan immediately begin the process of handing over power to civilians. General Burhan, meanwhile, intends to rule for a transition period of up to two years.

As of now, the protestors remain camped outside the army’s headquarters. The army has offered some concessions. Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf, who announced the resignation of al-Bashir, stepped down after only a day in office amid calls for a civilian government. But the initiative at least for now appears to be with the armed forces. This is because the crowds lack coercive power. For as long as the armed forces do not themselves split, the army looks set to wait out the protests, and perhaps in time to come up with a civilian leader of its own liking.

Should the assembled crowds, or an element of them, seek to test the matter by force, the historical record suggests that the beneficiaries will be the representatives of political Islam. In the matter of armed insurgency at street level, they currently have no peers in the Arabic speaking world. See Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Palestinian territories, Lebanon etc.

The Egyptians, Saudis and Emiratis are backing the army. Turkey and Qatar, meanwhile, are furious that the Islamist-sympathetic al-Bashir is out.

In Libya, the National Army of General Khalifa Haftar is advancing toward Tripoli – seat of the Islamist dominated, internationally recognized government. Once again, Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia are the backers of Haftar, Turkey and Qatar support the Islamists in Tripoli. In this case, the people are not in the streets. Libya has had its moment of people power. But the power dynamics and the rivalries are familiar.

Israel does not interfere in the internal processes of Arab politics, of course. But Jerusalem’s preferred victor in this intra-Arab struggle is not in doubt.  The backers of the generals are Israel’s closest partners in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia and UAE share Israel’s primary concerns regarding Iranian ambitions, and its secondary ones regarding Sunni political Islam. Egypt is concerned mainly with the latter issue, but the intensity of its worries has led to the highest level of cooperation with Israel in the security arena since the peace accords of 1979.

The camp of the generals is the camp of stability, the status quo, and of alliance with the West. The other side is with the notion of Islamic revival to the perceived glories of the Islamic past. Its partisans and allies are by definition the enemies of the West and Israel. The very fact of Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem is seen as a reminder of how low the Islamic world has fallen.

But it is worth noting that neither of these sides is for civil society, institutions, secularization, representative government. The forces that do support all these exist but are immensely weak. For as long as this remains the case, the Arabic-speaking world is likely to remain under-developed and dysfunctional – whether generals or Islamists have the upper hand in any particular context.

Remedying the poverty of choices facing Arab publics is, of course, a matter that only Arabic-speaking societies ultimately can address. Until they do so, it will be in the interest of western governments to support the conservative and authoritarian forces preventing the disaster of further victories for political Islam.

As noted above, the Israeli interest in both Libya and Sudan is not in doubt. In Sudan, the departure of President Omar al-Bashir is entirely positive from the Israeli perspective. Under al-Bashir’s 30-year rule, Sudan made itself available as a conduit for the transfer of Iranian weapons to the Gaza Strip, and acted as a portal for the entry of the Revolutionary Guards into Africa (the IRGC began to train Sudan’s army, and Sudan offered naval facilities for Iran’s use). For economic reasons, al-Bashir reversed course in 2015. But al-Bashir’s relations with Turkey and Qatar and the army’s support from Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia mean that his departure remains without doubt a net positive from the Israeli point of view.

In Libya, similarly, the victory of Haftar, backed by UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would be a net positive for Israel – it would prevent the emergence and entrenchment of an ally of Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim brotherhood on the coast facing Europe. Though in this case it should be noted that even if Haftar takes Tripoli, Libya will be far from a return to stability under authoritarian rule. The south of the country remains largely ungoverned and penetrated by elements of the Islamic State. The West, meanwhile, harbors powerful Islamist militias with considerable public support who are likely to attempt a continued insurgency against Haftar even if his forces take the capital.

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Generals Vs. Islamists in Libya

Jerusalem Post, 26/4

Regional Rivals Clash via Proxies in Tripoli Fight

The offensive by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army on Tripoli is currently stalled. Haftar’s troops have encountered strong resistance from Sunni Islamist militias based in the city, backed by similar formations from Misrata further east.

Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, leader of the Islamist-aligned Government of National Accord in Tripoli, has refused to negotiate, until LNA forces are withdrawn.

Haftar’s forces are associated with the rival governing authority of the House of Representatives based in Tobruk, in eastern Libya. The stage seems set for a drawn-out battle for the Libyan capital.

Haftar launched his offensive on April 4. The Tripoli-based government announced a counteroffensive it called Operation Volcano of Anger on April 7. In subsequent days, Haftar’s forces moved forward, taking the town of Gharyan, 80 km. south of Tripoli, before encountering stronger resistance at the southern entrance to Tripoli.

What is the significance of the latest turn of events in Libya?

While the fight may appear to be simply a tussle for resources and power between an ambitious military man and a government of shaky legitimacy, the chaotic Libyan battle is in fact a proxy war pitting clients of two key power axes in the Middle East against one another. For this reason, its outcome is of interest to Western powers – and to Israel.

To understand this, it is necessary to observe who is supporting whom in Libya. Haftar and his LNA have benefited since 2014 from the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE, according to regional media reports, has carried out air and drone strikes in support of the LNA. Egyptian and Emirati provision of funding, arms and equipment is crucial to Haftar’s efforts.

In the period immediately preceding the launch of his offensive, Haftar appears also to have secured the support of Saudi Arabia. The Libyan general met with King Salman on March 27 at al-Yamamah palace in Riyadh. He also met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the course of his visit. The access afforded Haftar suggests that he was able to add Riyadh to his list of supporters.

Haftar is thus the ally and client of those broadly Western-aligned, authoritarian Arab states that find a common enemy in the Sunni political Islam of the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.

On the other side, Turkey and Qatar (and the now-deposed Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir) are strongly supportive of the Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood associated elements that share power with the government in Tripoli. Evidence has emerged of illicit arms shipments by Turkey to the forces in Tripoli. On December 18, 2018, the authorities seized a shipment of 3,000 Turkish-made handguns at Khoms, a port east of Tripoli. Four million bullets were discovered on a Turkish freighter docking in Libya a short time later. Another consignment of weaponry from Turkey was discovered at Misrata on January 7.

Qatari support, meanwhile, is offered to Islamist militias and powerful individuals associated with the jihadi trend, most notably the Benghazi Defense Brigades, formed in direct response to Haftar’s activities in 2014, and bringing together a number of jihadi militias. Doha also offers support to Ali Salabi, an influential preacher and Muslim Brotherhood member, and to Abdel Hakim Belhaj, chairman of Libya’s al-Watan Party and a former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group member.

The forces arrayed against Haftar are thus representative of the Sunni Islamist axis. Ankara and Doha seek to expand and deepen their regional influence through support for Sunni Islamist political and military organizations. This pattern may also be observed, of course, in Syria, the Palestinian territories and Iraq.

It is worth noting that Haftar and the LNA are currently in the unusual position of enjoying the tacit support of both Russia and the US. Moscow notes Haftar’s grip on the oil resources of Libya’s east, and his fight against Sunni Islamists. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, on April 15 spoke with Haftar by telephone, and according to the White House “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.” This move contradicted an April 7 statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing opposition to Haftar’s offensive and calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Both the US and Russia subsequently prevented a formal call for a ceasefire from being presented at the UN Security Council.

THhe outcome of the contest in Libya is far from certain. Haftar’s LNA, despite its name and his own professional background, is not solely a regular military force. Rather, it incorporates a number of militias of questionable ability.

Even if the general’s forces eventually succeed in taking Tripoli, widespread opposition to his rule – including of the armed variety – is likely to remain in the west of the country. Much of the vast desert south of Libya, meanwhile, remains lawless, outside of the control of either of the competing governments, and an arena for the continued activities of the Islamic State organization.

So Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the UAE and Saudi Arabia will be hoping that Haftar and the LNA manage to establish centralized control in the months ahead for a broadly Western-aligned, if authoritarian, regime. The US and France appear to back this outcome, too.

Israel’s position in the regional contest between Western-aligned
authoritarianism and Sunni political Islam is also not ambiguous. What is good for Sisi and bad for the Muslim Brotherhood and Erdogan is likely to be welcomed in Jerusalem.

It remains far from certain, however, if any such neat outcome will occur. Libya may well continue to share the fate of Syria, Yemen and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, following the destruction or weakening of powerful centralized regimes in those countries: namely, fragmentation, chaos and ongoing proxy war.

Events in Libya indicate that the politics of the Arab world remains set in the contest between generals and Islamists. The fight between them often results in victory for neither and in the destruction of the arena in which they are engaged.

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The Fall of the Caliphate

No new beginnings in sight for ravaged Syria.

Jerusalem Post (8/3)

The Islamic State proclaimed by the Iraqi jihadist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul on June 29, 2014, is about to cease to exist. At the present time, the last 1,000 or so fighters of the caliphate are corralled into a square kilometer of ground in the lower Euphrates Valley village of Baghouz. The end will be bloody. It is surely imminent.

 But while the demise of the brutal jihadi quasi-state is surely to be welcomed, it is also important to place it in perspective. This is so for two reasons.

 Firstly, because the demise of the caliphate does not mean the end of the organization that established it. We are likely to be hearing again from the nucleus of Iraqi Sunni jihadists who launched this enterprise. 

And secondly, because for all its many and terrible cruelties, Islamic State was only a single manifestation of a larger crisis still under way across the entirety of the land area comprising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

 This crisis is ultimately one of state fragmentation, and sectarian war of succession. In this context, there is something else worth noting: The title of most brutal enterprise, at least in terms of verifiable body counts, belongs not to Islamic State but to the Assad regime and its allies.

 Regarding the first point, Baghdadi himself, according to reports, has not remained in the Baghouz enclave with his 1,000 fighters to play out the last act.

 At some point in recent weeks, the ISIS leader made his exit, almost certainly to somewhere in Sunni central Iraq. This was where Islamic State as a movement was born. It is already clear that its leaders intend this to be the space in which it will be reborn.

ISIS came out of Iraq, and throughout the time of its existence as a quasi-state, it remained in essence an Iraqi entity. The core leadership of the movement was Iraqi throughout – Baghdadi himself, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, Samir al-Khlifawi and many other names, most of them now dead. 

ISIS indeed came into being, it is worth remembering, as a result of a power struggle in late 2013 in which Iraqi jihadists sought unsuccessfully to impose their own leadership on the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda. This effort was unsuccessful, leading to the emergence on Syrian soil of two rival Salafi jihadi projects – Islamic State and the Syrian-led Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

 As of now, once the final battle at Baghouz is concluded, ISIS looks set to concentrate on preserving and developing its networks of support in its heartland of Sunni central Iraq. According to recent studies by the Pentagon, the Institute for the Study of War and the UN, ISIS still has around 30,000 fighters available to it across Iraq and Syria. It also does not lack for funds. ISIS has access to hundreds of millions of dollars deriving from its four-year taxation of the caliphate’s inhabitants, its looting of the banking system when it entered Mosul in June 2014, and its trade with both the Assad regime and rebels during the course of the war.

 It also has existing networks of support. In Iraq a couple of months ago, this reporter witnessed the lines of support and communication that Islamic State is quietly building in the area south of Mosul city: from the town of Hamam Alil, across the Tigris River, through remote villages and hamlets, to the caves of Qara Chouk; in the Hamrin Mountains in Diyala province, Hawija, eastern Salah al-Din province, Daquq. Quietly and industriously.

 Even as the global media watch the last stand of the diehards at Baghouz, ISIS has already shifted its own focus. The intention is to build an infrastructure that will then, at the opportune moment, strike again in the cities of Iraq, and Syria, too.

 The reason this, or a rival Sunni Islamist project, is likely to once again emerge to prominence is that the final twilight of the caliphate at Baghouz will not settle any of the issues that led to its emergence, and of which it was a symptom.

 The main butcher of civilians over the last decade in the area in question has been the Assad regime.

 Its actions, according to information revealed by the testimony of the defector “Caesar,” among others, include responsibility for the systematic killing of thousands of civilians incarcerated in its jails in the course of the war. 

Recently, Maj.-Gen. Mohamed Mahla, head of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, told relatives of Syrians who were arrested and vanished in Deraa province that they should “forget” about anyone taken before 2014, according to a report on the Syrian Observer website.

 The air strategy of the regime and its Russian allies involved the deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians.

 All this reveals a brutality on a level of scale and system beyond the more primitive savagery of the Islamic State.

 But the point is not the gauging of levels of vileness. Islamic State and the Syrian Sunni Arab rebellion are defeated. But in both Iraq and Syria, the Sunni Arab population remains. Both countries are fractious and divided. The Assad regime rules over only 60% of Syria. Even within its area of control, Iran and Russia have the final say on key issues. The Turks and their Sunni Islamist allies control 10% in the northwest. The Kurds and their Western backers control an additional 30%. 

In each of these areas, a slow-burning insurgency is growing, supported by one of the other players. The regime, and Turkey, and ISIS are all active in the Kurdish-US zone. The Kurds are active in the Turkish zone, seeking to counter and take vengeance for the crimes of the Turks and Sunni rebels against the Kurdish population in Afrin. And in parts of the regime-controlled area, in particular Deraa province, there is simmering Sunni unrest at the regime’s closing of accounts with the population.

 In Iraq, while central government authority is nominally stronger, there remains a Kurdish population in the north almost entirely in favor of separation from Baghdad, and prevented from splitting away only by force. There is also a Sunni Arab population in the center now subject to the whims of the Shia militias that are officially part of the state security forces. It is among this population that ISIS will now seek to implant itself.

 Fundamental questions of borders, state legitimacy and ethnic-sectarian estrangement remain unanswered in Syria and Iraq. Add to this the penetrated nature of these spaces, with foreign powers, including Russia, the US, Turkey, Iran and Israel, active within them, and it becomes clear how little will be settled when the smoke over Baghouz clears.

 One should surely celebrate the demise of Baghdadi’s caliphate. It was one of the most savage and cruel manifestations of a cruel region. It is good that as an entity marked on the map, it will shortly be no more.

 However, both the organization that spawned this entity, and the broader reality within which it emerged are still very much present.

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Below, Within and Above

Iran’s Strategy for Control of Syria

Jerusalem Post, 1/2

Recent statements by a number of Israeli officials have claimed a degree of success in Israel’s efforts to contain and rollback Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.  But while Israel’s tactical successes are certainly notable and impressive, the big picture is that Iran’s influence and strength in Syria continues to deepen and expand.

Iran’s efforts are taking place at three levels:  below the official Syrian state structures – in the arming and sponsoring of Iran-controlled paramilitary formations on Syria soil, within the Syrian state – in the control of institutions that are officially organs of the regime, and above the state, in the pursuit of formal links between the Iranian and Syrian regimes.  As Teheran seeks to impose its influence on Assad’s Syria in the emergent post-rebellion period, meanwhile, there are indications that its project is running up against the rival plans and ambitions of the Russians.

A report in the generally reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights this week described in detail the nature of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s efforts to entrench their presence in a single, significant Syrian town: al-Mayadin, west of the strategically important Albukamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria, and just west of the Euphrates River.

The Observatory described extensive recruitment of local Syrians, including individuals who were formerly involved with the armed opposition, into the ranks of Iran’s various paramilitary ‘Syrian Hizballah’ type structures established in Syria.  The report noted that the incentives given to entice individuals into these structures included a monthly salary of between $150-300, allowing individuals a variety of options as to where they wish to serve, and immunity from arrest at the hands of regime security forces.

The report also noted that the IRGC and Lebanese Hizballah have positioned themselves in key areas of al-Mayadin, and are maintaining exclusive control of these areas (ie without cooperation with or permission sought from the forces of the Assad regime).

Among a number of specific examples quoted in this regard,  ‘Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards took over the al-Nurain Mosque and houses around it on the Korniche Street in the city, where they prevented civilians, members of regime forces, and NDF from entering or passing through the area, without orders from the command forces located in al-Mayadin,’ while ‘members of the Lebanese Hezbollah took over the area extending from al-Finsh Junction to Al Shuaibi Villa at al-Arba’in Street in al-Mayadin city, and prevented the entry and exit except by orders of them.’

Control of al-Mayadin and its environs matters because it is located along Highway 4, which is the only road leading out of the Albukamal border crossing, which separates Syria and Iraq and which is currently controlled by the IRGC and its allies.  From al-Mayadin,  Route 4 reaches Deir e-Zur, where it connects to the M20 highway, which heads west in the direction of Damascus, or, if a traveler prefers, towards al-Qusayr and the Lebanese border.

That is, the specific example of al-Mayadin shows the means by which Iran seeks to maintain exclusive control along vital nodes in Syria, for the passage of personnel and materiel, in the direction of its allies in Lebanon or its enemies in Israel, according to the needs of the moment.

The activities of the IRGC on the ground in such locations as al-Mayadin go hand in hand with the more conventional, regime-to-regime relations that Teheran maintains with Assad in Damascus.

This week, for example, Iranian Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri was in Syria, where he signed a number of economic agreements and met with Assad.  The agreements, 11 in number, together offer a roadmap for long term strategic economic cooperation between Iran and Syria.  They cover a variety of areas, including ‘education, housing, public works, railroads and investments,’ according to a report in the Syrian Arab News Agency, the regime’s official media outlet.

Jahangiri’s visit was the latest indication of concerted Iranian efforts to secure a major role in the massive project of reconstruction within the 60% of Syria currently controlled by the regime.  The UN estimates the cost of reconstruction in war torn Syria at around $400 billion.  Earlier landmarks in this process include a military cooperation agreement concluded in August, 2018, a 2017 memorandum of understanding for the extraction of phosphates from the al Sharqiya mine south west of Palmyra, (one of the largest such mines in Syria), and an MOU for the restoration by Iran of over 2000 MW of electrical power production capacity.

There is even a putative plan for an Iran-Syria rail link, to run from the Shalamcheh border crossing between Iran and Iraq, via Basra in southern Iraq and eventually to Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  Such projects are more in the line of visions at present. But they demonstrate the depth and scope of Iran’s plans for the area between its western borders and the Mediterranean.

A third element in the Iranian ambition lies within the structures of the official Syrian state. Iran has invested heavily in the creation of Basij-style paramilitary structures under its control within the Syrian security forces – such as the National Defense Forces.  Evidence is now also emerging that conventional military units of the Syrian Arab Army are also identified closely with the Iranian interest. The evidence in question suggests that this is leading to fissures, as these units face off against other formations more closely allied with the Russian interest in Syria.

A report in the opposition linked Ana press this week, confirmed by additional Syrian sources and also reported in Der Spiegel and by the Turkish Anadolu agency , detailed clashes on January 19th  in the Hama area between Colonel Soheil Hassan’s 5th Corps, associated with the Russian interest, and Maher Assad’s 4th Division, generally seen as closely linked to the IRGC.

According to the report, a number of fighters from both units were killed in the Sahel al-Ghab area in Hama, after a dispute about control of the area.  These incidents show the extent to which the Russian and Iranian projects have the potential for collision, especially in the all important area of control and influence within the official security structures of the Syrian state.

Taken together, all this evidence points to a deep, long term Iranian strategic plan by which Teheran means to dominate the Syrian space in the period ahead.  The blueprint being applied is clearly that which has achieved such impressive results in Lebanon, and later in Iraq.  According to this approach, Iran is activating a variety of tools below, within and above the structures of the Syrian state. The intention is to achieve a level of penetration and influence that will make their ambitions invulnerable both to superior Israeli air power and intelligence, and to the opposing project for domination of Syria currently being undertaken by Russia.  The results of all this remain to be seen.

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Will Turkey invade north east Syria?

Jerusalem Post, 11/1

Significant obstacles remain before a Turkish push south

The announcement by US President Donald Trump on December 19 of his intention to rapidly withdraw US forces from eastern Syria led to expectations of a rapid move by Turkish forces into all or part of the area currently controlled by the US-aligned, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.  The precipitating factor that led to Trump’s announcement, after all, was a phone call between the President and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayepp Erdogan.  For Turkey, control by what Ankara regards as the Syrian franchise of the PKK of a large swathe of the 900 km Syrian-Turkish border has long been seen as entirely unacceptable.  The Kurdish dominated SDF are capable and proven fighters.  But without US help, and facing Turkish air power and artillery, they would be able only to resist for a while.  This had been already proven in Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in January, 2018, when Ankara invaded and destroyed the Kurdish canton of Afrin in north west Syria.

For Israel, the prospect of a Turkish invasion was and remains a matter of concern.  Pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militias are deployed close to the border adjoining to the Kurdish-controlled area.  In the event of a Turkish incursion from the north, SDF fighters would be likely to leave the southern part of their area of control to try to stop the Turkish forces further north.  This could leave the way open for a push by the Shia militias into the oil rich Deir a Zur province.  Alternatively, Syrian regime forces along with Iran-associated militias could push into the same area from west of the Euphrates River.  In either case, the result would be a dramatic widening of the Iranian ‘land corridor’ the area of freedom of activity for Iran and its allies.  Israel was hence strongly opposed to the abandonment by the US of its Kurdish allies and their area of control.

Similarly, the US and allied base at al-Tanf is located in the area adjoining the Baghdad-Damascus highway.  Its abandonment would thus leave the way open from the AlbuKamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria to Quneitra Province, adjoining the Golan Heights.

For a number of reasons, however, the prospect of an early large-scale entry of Turkish forces into north east Syria now seems less likely than it did a couple of weeks ago.

Firstly and most importantly,  the US withdrawal that alone would make possible a major Turkish incursion currently looks less immediately imminent.  On this matter, a certain confusion appears to reign, with different US officials saying different things.

The tendency to chaos of the current US  Administration is a double edged sword.  On the one hand, it can produce sudden apparent bonanzas, of the kind that the President’s announcement of imminent US departure must have seemed to Turkey.

On the other hand, the chaotic approach to policymaking means that presidential statements of this kind can’t necessarily be safely ‘banked’, in a way that would be assumed to be possible with other Administrations.

National Security Advisor John Bolton found himself cold-shouldered by Erdogan in Turkey this week, after he  appeared in a statement made in Israel to be conditioning the withdrawal on Turkish agreement not to target Kurdish forces who had fought with the Americans.

Trump nevertheless tweeted on Monday that ‘we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!’

Thus, the US timetable and the precise nature of US intentions remain something of a mystery for friend and foe alike.  But for Erdogan, as long as US special forces and air power remain in and over eastern Syria, a Turkish entry would be possible only in coordination with them.  And if it proves that the US is indeed not prepared to accept the wholesale crushing of its Kurdish partners in the war against ISIS (as the Turkish leader clearly envisages), this places a question mark over the Turkish planned action.

A second area of concern for the Turkish leader is the Russian stance.  Russia has emerged as the key power broker between all countries and elements seeking to act within the Syrian space (with the exception of the US).  Moscow chose to allow the Turkish incursion into Afrin in January 2018, probably as part of an attempt to draw Turkey away from its traditional western alignment.

But statements by Russian officials this week appear to indicate that Russia prefers lands currently administered by the Syrian Kurds to return to the control of the Assad regime. Foreign Ministry representative Maria Zakharova, for example, unambiguously expressed this stance.   Moscow evidently wants to be able to present the Syrian war as effectively over as soon as possible.  A new standoff between a large Turkish controlled area of north and east Syria and the Assad regime would not facilitate this.  Erdogan said on Wednesday that he will visit Moscow in the near future, presumably with the intention of clarifying this matter.

Sipan Hemo, the senior military figure in the Kurdish YPG, has been leading a delegation taking part in Russian brokered talks with Assad regime representatives in recent days.  Kurdish sources close to the SDF confirmed that if forced to choose, the Syrian Kurds will prefer to allow the Assad regime to resume control of their areas of control, rather than face an onslaught from the Turks.

But of course, for as long as the US position remains ambiguous, and American withdrawal does not look immediately imminent, the Kurds are unlikely to accept the conditions of the regime.  As seen in an earlier round of contacts over the summer, the regime will settle for nothing less than the resumption of its full sovereignty east of the Euphrates. That is, the termination of the Kurdish de facto autonomy that has held sway over the last half decade.  The Kurds are likely to agree to these terms of surrender if the Americans are about to leave and the Turks are about to enter.  But this is not yet quite the situation.

Lastly, it is not clear how effectively Turkey, with its Sunni Arab rebel allies would be able to police the territories it would conquer from the SDF in the event of a major military operation.  Kurdish attacks on Turkish forces in Afrin are a common occurrence.  The area that would be taken in the event of a major operation into north east Syria would constitute a far larger and more complex space.

Thus, in spite of the Turkish saber rattling on the border, and Erdogan’s pledge in his New York Times op-ed this week that Turkey can ‘get the job done’, significant obstacles remain before a large scale Turkish incursion into north east Syria.

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