Some Further Thoughts on the Situation in Northern Syria

9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lessons of Betrayal in Northern Syria

Israel Hayom, 8/10

The statement on northern Syria released Sunday by the White House Press Secretary appears to clear the way for the long anticipated Turkish invasion of North East Syria.  It represents a disaster for the Syrian Kurds, and a not entirely unexpected betrayal by the US of its main allies in the fight against ISIS.  The decision has implications for Israel too – both on the tactical and strategic level.

On the tactical level, if a Turkish invasion of Kurdish-controlled north east Syria is launched, this will have the likely effect of delivering a large part of north east Syria into the hands of the Assad regime and its Iranian allies.  This is because the Syrian Kurds, if faced with a choice between Assad or the Sunni jihadi forces currently fighting under the Turkish flag, will choose the former.  Assad and the Iranians will suppress all independent Kurdish political and cultural activity.  But they will almost certainly not carry out wholesale ethnic cleansing of Kurdish populations.

The Turks and their Sunni Islamist allies cleansed 200,000 Kurds from their homes in the Afrin Kurdish enclave, which Turkey destroyed in January 2018.  The Kurds, with good reason, believe that Erdogan plans a similar fate for the Kurds of the north east.  So they are likely to fight to hold the Turks back in the north for as long as possible, while arranging a rapid surrender to Assad to enable the Syrian regime to take control of the areas further south. The result: Syria east of the Euphrates, currently an American protectorate and a barrier against Iran and ISIS, will be divided up between the Turks/Islamists in the north and Assad/the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the south.  The southern part would then form part of the famous Iranian ‘land bridge’ to the Mediterranean, Lebanon and the Quneitra Crossing.

On a strategic level, the US move confirms that the current US Administration is not interested in heading an alliance of regional forces against Iranian expansionism or Sunni political Islam, as some had fondly believed.   Rather, the Administration, like its predecessor, is in the business of managing imperial decline (albeit with a very different rhetoric to the Obama Administration).  This will be a lesson well learnt by both allies and enemies of the US in the Middle East.

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Yemen: Iran’s (and Israel’s) new Backyard

Jerusalem Post, 6/9

The Saudi-led effort to crush the rebellion by the Iran-aligned Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement in Yemen is into its fifth year.  The operation has largely run aground.  There is now a UN-sponsored truce over control of the contested port of Hodeidah, in the west of the country.  Over 10,000 people have died since the Saudi and Emirati intervention began in March, 2015.  Saudi and Emirati-led forces succeeded in preventing the strategic disaster  of a Houthi capture of Bab el-Mandeb, a chokepoint between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.  But the Houthis remain in control of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, a considerable part of the coast, and the main urban centers of the country.

The anti-Houthi forces, meanwhile, have now turned on one another, with the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) challenging  Saudi-supported forces aligned with the official government led by Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.   The STC fighters now control the Port of Aden, with the prospect for further clashes between the sides.  While Riyadh would like to see the total defeat of the Houthis (but has proved unable to secure this), Abu Dhabi’s focus is on securing Red Sea shipping lines, and restricting the influence of Sunni Islamist forces in the areas under government control.

With the frontlines stalemated, meanwhile, there are signs that the Houthis are consolidating their grip on their own areas, and formalizing their rule.  This is of concern to Israel.

The Houthi area of control is an integral part of the Iranian sphere in the region, and is therefore a component part in the alliance with which Jerusalem is currently engaged in a secret and not-so-secret war.

Houthi consolidation is taking  a number of forms.

On the diplomatic level, the Houthis have begun to behave as an official government, appointing their first ambassadors.  On August 17, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the movement’s leader, announced his intention to  reach out to ‘friendly countries, and in particular the Islamic Republic of Iran.’

On August 18, a decree issued in the name of the ‘Republic of Yemen’ was announced from Sana’a  appointing ‘Ibrahim Mohammed Mohammed Al-Dailami as extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of the Republic of Yemen to the Islamic Republic of Iran.’

This announcement followed swiftly on from a visit by Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam to Teheran where he met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other officials.  Khamenei reiterated Iran’s support for the Houthis, who he described as the “mujahideen’  in Yemen, during the visit.

This appointment formalizes the Iranian-Houthi connection, and appears to  consolidate a relationship which for pragmatic reasons both parties had seen fit to deny or minimize in the past.  It reflects an increasing boldness and openness on the part of both Teheran and Ansar Allah.

This growing diplomatic confidence, meanwhile, derives from the advancing military strength and confidence of the Houthis.  Thanks to the help of the Iranin Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), with the close involvement of Lebanese Hizballah members, the Houthis are no longer the ragtag guerrilla force that seized Sana’a in early 2015.

Rather they (or equally possibly, IRGC or Hizballah men working alongside them) are now capable of operating air defense systems, including the Fater-1 and Thaqib-1. Utilizing these systems, the Houthis claim to have shot down a state of the art US MQ-9 Reaper drone over Hodeidah on June 7.

The offensive capacities of the Houthis are similarly moving rapidly ahead.  The Houthis have carried out a series of armed drone and ballistic missile attacks on targets deep inside Saudi Arabia in recent weeks.

On August 16, the Houthis launched an armed drone attack at the Shaybah oil field. The Shaybah field is located close to the Saudi-UAE border, more than 1000 kilometers from the Houthi area of control in Yemen.  On August 26th, they fired 10 Badr-1 ballistic missiles at Jizan airport in Saudi Arabia (The Saudis claim to have intercepted six of these).  A day later, an additional drone attack took place against a military target in the Riyadh area.  On September 3, Arab coalition aircraft destroyed a Houthi drone launched towards Saudi Arabia from Amran Province in Yemen.

This ongoing series of attacks is testimony to the military confidence of the Houthis. They are no longer facing an existential threat to their rule. Rather, firmly ensconced in their area of control, they are coming to form a key node in the broader Iran-led regional bloc.

Israeli officials express doubt regarding the steeply rising curve of the movement’s technical abilities.  Rather, they point to the useful ‘cover’ the Houthis’ banner offers for activities probably carried out directly by Iranian personnel or cadres from more capable Iranian proxies such as Lebanese Hizballah.

The Houthis’ consolidation is also reflected in the process of institution building they have begun in the part of Yemen they control.   On September 2, the Saba News Agency which is associated with the Houthis announced the establishment by the ‘Supreme Political Council’ of the Houthis of the Security and Intelligence Service, a new intelligence body which will be the sole such entity permitted to operate in Houthi controlled Yemen.  The existing National Security Agency and Central Political Security Agency are to be disbanded.

It is a perhaps poignant (but unsurprising) comment on the state of governance in the Arab world that the first formal body created by an emergent new power should be the secret and political police service.  In any case, the establishment of the new force by Ansar Allah is testimony to its growing consolidation and sense of permanence.

From Israel’s point of view, the growing strength of the Houthis, and the evidence of direct IRGC/Hizballah involvement with them, raises the possibility that the broad front on which Jerusalem’s forces are already engaged (across Lebanon, Syria and Iraq) may imminently extend also to Yemen.

The latter is no longer an isolated front in which Israel’s de facto Gulf partners are engaging against a weaker and peripheral Iranian ally.  Rather, the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen appears set to emerge as an additional platform for the projection of Iranian power.

Currently, that power projection is directed on land against Saudi Arabia. But of greater regional significance is the possibility that Iranian weaponry smuggled into the Houthi controlled part of Yemen could subsequently be used to attack shipping making its way up the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal.  The Houthi controlled region, after all, includes a considerable section of Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

Such a capability would form an additional useful tool of pressure for Iran in the region-wide contest currently taking place.  And as things currently stand, Israel may well be the only power both able and willing to frustrate the Iranian effort to establish this capability.  The rise and consolidation of the Houthis may seem to be taking place at a considerable distance from Jerusalem. But as things currently stand, Yemen is both Israel’s and Iran’s backyard.  As a result, it constitutes an additional key arena in the contest currently playing out between them.

 

 

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Turkey Sets Course against the West in the Mediterranean

Jerusalem Post, 2/8

Turkey’s ambitions to assert itself as a Middle East power are currently in evidence across the western part of the region.  Ankara occupies a chunk of north west Syria. Its troops are currently massing on the border of Syria further east.  President Recep Teyyep Erdogan has threatened that his troops may arrive ‘suddenly in one night’, unless the US supported Syrian Democratic Forces concede to the establishment of a Turkish maintained ‘safe zone’ 30 km into Syria and along the breadth of the border.  Turkish forces are also present in northern Iraq, where they are engaged in action against the PKK presence in the Kurdish-controlled north.

In addition, Turkey offers active support to the Muslim Brotherhood associated government in Libya, supplying drones to Tripoli in violation of a UN embargo in place since 2011.  And of course Ankara supports the Hamas regime in Gaza.  The Palestinian Islamist movement maintains an active office in Istanbul (which, according to recent defector Sohaib Hassan Yousif ‘operates security and military operations on Turkish soil under the cover of civil society.’  Turkey’s efforts to build influence in Jerusalem, by way of the activity of government linked aid agencies such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) are also a matter of public record.

Turkey’s efforts at building influence and power in the neighborhood are not restricted to dry land.  Rather, an important currently developing arena for Turkish assertiveness is the eastern Mediterranean.  This area has been the site of major gas discoveries in Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian waters in recent years.  Lebanon too is seeking to open exploration in its territorial waters.  The current matter facing countries that have enjoyed major discoveries is creating the infrastructure for export of natural gas to Europe and further afield.

Turkey has not discovered major gas reserves.   It has not been invited to join the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), the newly formed body intended to coordinate efforts to develop gas resources and mechanisms for export to international markets.  Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, the Palestinian territories and Jordan are members of this forum.

As Turkey moves further from the west, and closer to alliance with Russia, so it is emerging as an aggressive and disruptive force with regard to gas development in the eastern Meditteranean.  The main area of current concern is that around Cyprus.  Israel, Egypt and Lebanon have all signed delimitation agreements with Cyprus. Turkey refuses to do so.

Ankara is adopting its own interpretation of international law with regard to defining ownership of energy resources.  According to the Turkish view, the waters adjacent to Cyprus constitute part of Turkey’s own continental shelf, and as such Ankara has the right to explore and to drill for gas within them.  Ankara further contends that the Cypriots have no right to begin to drill for gas without reaching agreement on the matter with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The latter entity was established by Turkish arms in 1974 and is recognized by no country other than Turkey itself.

President Erdogan summed up the Turkish position in a recent speech at a naval command center in Istanbul, quoted by the al-Monitor news website: ‘We will not allow moves aimed at usurping the Eastern Mediterranean’s natural resources to the exclusion of our country and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Just as we taught a lesson to the terrorists in Syria, we will not cede ground to the bandits in the sea.” (The latter reference is to the  Turkish military operation against Kurdish areas of northern Syria in 2016 and 2018).

Turkey despatched gunboats last year, to drive off an attempt by the Italian energy company ENI to commence drilling close to the Cyprus shore in agreement with the Cypriot government.  ENI subsequently abandoned its plans.

In May, Turkey held its largest ever naval exercise, Operation Seawolf, in the Mediterranean, involving more than 130 warships.

At present, two Turkish ships are engaged in drilling close to the shores of Cyprus.  The Fatih is drilling about fifty miles off the western coast of the island.  It claims to have struck gas reserves of up to 170 billion cubic metres in the waters off Paphos two weeks ago.  A second ship, the Yavuz, meanwhile, has begun drilling close to  the Karpas Peninsula north-east of Cyprus, its concession granted by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.  The ships and their support vessels were escorted by a Turkish naval frigate.

Cyprus possesses no navy and is hence militarily helpless in the face of Turkey’s actions.  It is seeking to respond through diplomacy.  The EU have criticised Turkey’s moves, and threatened sanctions.  Rather than rely on European promises, however, Cyprus is developing its relations with local powers similarly concerned at Turkey’s transformation into an aggressive and irredentist power. Since 2010, Greece, Cyprus and Israel have held six tripartite summits.  The latest took place on March 21, 2019.  In it, the three countries signed a joint declaration pledging to increase cooperation, support energy independence and security, and defend against destabilization.  The issue of gas discoveries underlies the growing ties between the three.

It remains to be seen how far Turkey will wish to push its attempts to disrupt the process of gas exploration in the east Mediterranean.  At present, Ankara’s efforts are limited to the Cypriot context.  Turkey is not trying to claim to or interfere with the process further south. So the future direction of events is likely to depend on the extent of Turkish ambitions.

Turkish analyst Amberin Zaman noted the broader regional context in an article in Al-Monitor focusing on this issue, ‘Turkish muscle flexing goes beyond Cyprus and needs to be understood in the broader arc of Turkey’s efforts to renegotiate its relations with the West and its neighbors so as to reflect the influence it feels it deserves.’  It is all a far cry from the late 1990s, when Israel welcomed the Turkish Navy’s ships to Haifa port. Their arrival for the first Israeli-Turkish joint naval exercise in 1998 was seen as the harbinger of a possible new strategic alliance.  The rise of Erdogan and political Islam in Turkey ended all such hopes.  Turkey’s leaders today describe themselves frankly as enemies of Israel. They appear to have set course toward a broader orientation of hostility to the west.   The eastern Mediterranean look to be one of the arenas in which that course will be followed.

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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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