Iran’s Terror Campaign in Europe

Jerusalem Post, 20/11

A trial due to begin next week in the Belgian city of Antwerp  is set to cast further light on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s use of official diplomatic missions in its ongoing campaign of violence and harassment of its opponents across the globe.  While the threat of activities by non-state Sunni jihadi organizations remains high on the agenda of many western countries, the flouting by Iran of global norms in pursuit of the regime’s perceived enemies has received little focus.  The Antwerp trial may serve to change this.    

The four people to be tried in Antwerp stand accused of seeking to place an explosive device at a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), held at Vellepinte, outside Paris on June 30, 2018.  The NCRI is the public and diplomatic wing of the Mujahidin al-Khalq or Peoples’ Mujahidin of Iran (MEK).  This organization was responsible for the first public revelations regarding the Iranian nuclear program, in 2002.  Led by Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, the MEK is a veteran opponent of the Iranian regime.  It has succeeded in recent years in forging deep links with influential political circles in both the US and western Europe. 

Speakers at the Paris rally included Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City and attorney to President Donald Trump.  The specific target of the bombing, according to western media reports, was NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi.  The bomb would have caused large scale loss of life at the rally had it been placed and detonated. 

Four people are accused of involvement in the  planned bombing of the NCRI rally.  Three of them have been named. They are: Assadollah Assadi, 48, an Iranian diplomat and third secretary at Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Amir Saadouni, 40, and his wife Nasimeh Naami, 36.  The identity of the fourth person has not yet been announced.   

Saadouni and Naami, having received an explosive device containing 1lb of TATP (triacetone triperoxide – an explosive commonly used in terror attacks) from Assadi, were set to travel from Belgium to Paris on the day of the planned bombing when they were arrested by the Belgian authorities at Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, to the east of Brussels.  Assadi was arrested in Germany on July 1 and was subsequently deported to Belgium. 

The authorities, it appears, had been watching the three for some time. According to an article in this week’s Sunday Times, the Belgian state security service – the VSSE (Veiligheid van de Staat) – received a ‘tip off’ from a ‘partner service’ that the three people arrested were thought to be planning an act of violence in France.  The paper notes that the partner service is thought to have been Israel’s Mossad. 

According to a Belgian police official quoted by Buzzfeed, “There was a meeting in Luxembourg that was under surveillance and everyone worked together quickly to discover the bomb and arrest Assadi. It seems like the Iranian regime hoped a bombing would be seen as an internal MEK matter, which would be a plausible theory except we caught their guy in the act.”

Jaak Raes, the head of the VSSE, wrote in a letter to the Belgian federal prosecutor quoted by the Sunday Times that ‘The plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership. It was not a matter of Assadi’s personal initiative.”

The plot to bomb the Paris NCRI rally should not be seen as a single, stand-alone event.  Rather, it reflects a notable pattern of activity by certain Iranian state bodies, conducted via Iranian representations abroad, often with the participation of locals of Iranian or other descent.  The specific Iranian state organizations engaged in this ongoing campaign are the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.  (MOIS) 

Assadollah Assadi, according to a number of Iranian opposition news sources, began his career in the early 1980s as a member of the IRGC, and then transferred to the MOIS in 1989.  Having risen through the ranks at the ministry, he was the MOIS representative at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad between 2005-8.  As later in Vienna, he was officially accredited as a diplomat at the embassy.  Assadi began his work in Vienna in 2014. 

One Iran opposition site, Irannewsupdate.com maintains that Assadi was the top MOIS representative in Europe at that time, and ‘In this period, he monitored and coordinated the regime’s operations against political refugees and dissidents, mainly members and supporters of PMOI/MEK.’

The German Federal Prosecutor, in a July 11, 2018 statement following his arrest, noted that “Assadi was a member of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, whose tasks primarily include the intensive observation and combatting of opposition groups inside and outside of Iran.”

Assadi’s case is the first time that a serving diplomat in Europe will face trial for direct involvement in terrorism. 

Observation of the record over the last half decade in Europe reveals that the planned Paris attack was only one of a long list of operations undertaken by the MOIS and the IRGC against Iranian opposition targets in Europe.  Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of other incidents:

In December, 2015, Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi, a member of MEK, was assassinated in his apartment in Alere in the Netherlands.  Samadi had been sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Iran for his alleged role in a 1981 bomb attack in Teheran. 

In July, 2016, Reinhold Robbe, an academic and former head of the German-Israel Friendship Society, was targeted in Paris by the IRGC.  A Pakistani national, Haidar Syed-Naqfi, was paid by the organization to conduct surveillance on Robbe and other Jewish and Israeli targets. 

On November 8th, 2017, Ahmad Mola Nissi, a founder of ASMLA, an insurgent group formed among the Ahvazi Arab population of Iran, was shot dead outside his home in The Hague. 

In January, 2018, German media reported that 10 suspected IRGC operatives had been surveilled by the authorities, suspected of planning to target a number of Israeli and Jewish targets. No one was charged. 

On March 28, 2018, two IRGC operatives were arrested in Albania, suspected of planning an attack on MEK members resident in that country. They were later released without charge. 

On October 30, 2018, Habib Jabor, an ASMLA official, was the subject of surveillance revealed by the Danish authorities to constitute part of an assassination plan against him.  A Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent was arrested and extradited to Denmark. 

The alleged Paris bombing thus forms part of an extensive campaign of harassment and violence by Iranian state bodies against supposed enemies of Iran on European soil.

Iran policy may soon be subject to significant change under a new US Administration.  Any attempt to renegotiate an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is likely to include reference to the paramilitary and irregular military activity undertaken in a variety of locations by Iran – in the Mid-East region and beyond it. The ongoing Iranian campaign of terror in Europe should form a major part of that discussion.

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The Incendiaries: How Turkey and Pakistan fan the flames of Islamic Anger

Jerusalem Post, 7/11

French President Emmanuel Macron’s expressions of condemnation of political Islam following the decapitation of teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 have led to furious demonstrations in parts of the Islamic world.  A number of violent incidents of Islamist terror have followed, including the murder of three people in a church in Nice, by a recent Tunisian immigrant to France.  It seems likely, though it cannot yet be confirmed, that the terror attack in Vienna on November 2nd, in which four people died, was also related to the mood of fury among sections of European and global Islamic opinion related to the depiction of images of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. 

Outbursts of murderous fury of this kind, often not directed or organized by Islamist terror networks, form a tragic by-product of the arrival in recent years to the European heartland of significant numbers of people with Islamist sympathies.  This outlook brings with it a desire to ensure – by whatever means deemed necessary –  an elevated level of respect for Muslim religious sensitivities, over and above those of any other religion or creed. This latter situation is a state of affairs which exists in most Islamic countries.  Some European commentators have concluded that such acts are intended to bring about the enforcement of Islamic blasphemy laws in non-Islamic countries. 

So far, so familiar.  But the current moment differs from previous episodes of Islamist political violence in western countries in two significant ways. 

Firstly, these latest attacks come at a time when the actual organized networks of Salafi jihadi terror are weaker than at any time over the last two decades.  The al-Qaeda network is ageing, and closely observed by western security services. The Islamic State, meanwhile, has yet to recover from the loss of its last territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria in March 2019, and the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by the US in October, 2019.    

The murders of Paty and the three other French citizens in Nice were not, it appears, the result of a direct decision by an Islamist terror network. It is too soon to draw any conclusions on this subject regarding the Vienna attack. ISIS has now claimed responsibility for this. But it is possible that ISIS sympathisers chose to act with no specific order from a chain of command.

Secondly, and most significantly, the atmosphere of fury, and desire for retribution is no longer being stirred up only by Islamist preachers  and jihadi organizations. Rather, the incitement, the steady drum beat of accusations and the threats  are coming now from the leaders and the official mouthpieces of a number of Muslim states. This is a new situation. It is one of profound importance.  The states in question are: most importantly, Turkey, and also Pakistan. 

The Turkish and Pakistani efforts in this regard appear designed to generate a sort of ‘soft power’ for the governments of Recep Tayepp Erdogan and Imran Khan, among Muslim populations in western countries. They thus include within them a dismissal of the notion of legitimate sovereignty, according to which the internal affairs of other states are those states’ business alone.    

Erdogan, following Macron’s comments, declared that the French president needed ‘mental treatment,’ urged the boycott of French goods, and asserted that Muslims in Europe faced a ‘lynch campaign similar to that against Jews before World War 2.”  France subsequently recalled its ambassador from Ankara.

The Turkish president has form in this regard.  In 2017, following a ban by Germany on Turkish officials campaigning in Germany in favor of support for Erdogan in a referendum to increase his powers, the Turkish president warned that “If you go on behaving like that, tomorrow nowhere in the world, none of the Europeans, Westerners will be able to walk in the streets in peace, safely.’ 

He also threatened at that time to send a new wave of migrants from Turkish shores across the Mediterranean to Europe. 

In recent days,  the Turkish President added to his exhortations against the French government, saying ‘“If there is persecution in France, let’s protect Muslims together.” He claimed in a speech to the AKP parliamentary group last week that ‘disrespect for the prophet is spreading like cancer, especially among leaders in Europe.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, meanwhile, said that the French President had ‘attacked Islam,’ and accused Macron of ‘deliberately provoking Muslims.” He summoned the French ambassador to Islamabad for a reprimand. 

A statement from the Pakistani Foreign Office followed, asserting that ‘“Pakistan condemns systematic Islamophobic campaign under the garb of freedom of expression.”

These statements were made against the background of furious demonstrations in Turkey, Pakistan and further afield – including in the Gaza Strip and Iraq. 

The efforts by powerful leaders of Muslim countries to inflame the sentiments of Muslims in Europe and beyond it are a relatively new phenomenon.  At the height of al-Qaeda’s insurgency a decade or so ago, political Islam was a powerful but oppositional presence in majority Muslim countries (with the exception of Iran, whose Shia identity makes it less relevant in this regard). 

Today, it is Erdogan, above all, with Khan as his understudy, who is leading the way with the incitement. 

It should go without saying that Erdogan and Khan’s calls for religious tolerance have no reflection in their own policies at home. Erdogan recently converted the ancient Hagia Sophia Church into a mosque and is set to do the same with the Church of St. Savior in Chora, Istanbul.  Khan rules over a country where Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and Christians are regularly convicted on blasphemy charges, and where Hindus have been forcibly converted to Islam. 

This, however, is precisely the point.  These leaders, as is crystal clear to their supporters, are asserting a notion of elevated honor to be afforded the symbols of Islam, not arguing for parity. 

When the atmosphere of incitement erupts into violence, as it inevitably must, Erdogan and co. will be on hand to express regret. Erdogan, after all, only supplied the matches and the kindling. Someone else entirely lit the fire.   

This approach makes policy sense for the Turkish leader and his allies. Through it, Ankara seeks to acquire a ready made instrument to impose pressure on western countries.  France is an emergent strategic rival to Turkey, above all in the east Mediterranean.  Having an ability to foment public disorder within it is a useful weapon. 

The Syrian Salafi strategist Abu Musab Al Suri famously came up with the idea of an ‘individualised’ jihad, in which organizations would issue only general directives, leaving individual jihadis to take violent action at their own initiative.  This formed the backdrop to the so-called ‘stabbing intifada’ in Israel in 2015. It is strange to see that another version of it appears to be now an element of the policy of a powerful, still officially western-aligned state.    

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Strategic Game in the East Med.

Jerusalem Post, 24/10

Russian attempts to move closer to Egypt made possible by US absence

An upcoming joint naval exercise involving the Egyptian and Russian navies, announced by the Russian Defense Ministry on October 10, is testimony to the fluid and rapidly changing strategic situation in the Eastern Mediterranean arena and the Middle East more generally.  According to the Russian statement, the exercise will ‘“work out joint tasks to protect sea routes from various threats,” and will include rocket and artillery fire, and simulated inspections of ‘suspicious vessels.’ 

A number of regional commentators noted that the exercise is clearly intended for the attention of Turkey, with reference to Ankara’s recent unilateral moves in the eastern Mediterranean.  Relations between the Turkish and Egyptian governments are currently at a nadir, against the background of long standing rivalries.  The differences between the two have their origins both in geo-strategic competition, and in rival systems of government. 

Turkey and Egypt represent polar opposites in terms of regional governance.  The choice in the Arab world over the last decade has been (with the partial exception of Tunisia) between monarchs and officers on the one hand, and Islamists on the other.  Erdogan’s Turkey, while non-Arab itself, has sought to sponsor, support and align with Sunni Islamist movements and Islamist and pro-Islamist governments in Syria, Qatar, Tunisia, the Palestinian territories, Libya and Yemen. 

Sisi’s Egypt, meanwhile, exemplifies the reaction against movements of this type, in its most powerful and consequential form.  It was Sisi’s coup on July 3, 2013, which  effectively reversed the advance of Sunni political Islam of the previous three years (probably saving Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt in doing so), and began the phase of its eclipse.  Erdogan has not forgotten this recent history. In his own characteristic style, the Turkish president refers to his Egyptian counterpart as a ‘murderer.’  The Turkish ambassador to Cairo was withdrawn after the coup. 

The links between the Turkish Islamist milieu from which Erdogan emerged, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are deep, and of long standing.  The Turkish Islamists were educated in the thoughts of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, and chief ideologue Sayyed Qutb. The comprehensive crushing by the Egyptian military of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood thus remains an open wound for the Turkish Islamists.

This political and ideological background informs and intensifies the concrete, geo-strategic issues on which Cairo and Ankara are opposed.  These in turn center around the issue of the exploitation of natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey’s aggressive moves to mark off large swathes of the area for its exclusive control. 

On November 27, 2019, Turkey and Libya signed a maritime boundary agreement marking of a 200 nautical miles area as their Exclusive Economic Zone.  The agreement was rejected by Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the UAE.  Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias declared it ‘“illegal, null and void.’ On August 6, Egypt and Greece signed their own rival agreement in Cairo, delineating the maritime borders between them. 

On September 22, again in Cairo, energy ministers of the members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum signed a charter establishing this forum as an international organization.  The Forum’s members include Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the Palestinian Authority. 

But it is not so simple to separate political issues from geo-strategic ones.   Turkey backs the Government of National Accord in Libya in order to retain a pliant partner with which it seeks to jointly mark out an ambitious Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean, and by so doing seek to block the abilities of Egypt, and Israel to export gas to Europe. 

But the Libyan Government of National Accord in Tripoli, with which Turkey is partnering, is supported by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and a number of militias associated with it.  The rival, Tobruk based area of control of General Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk, meanwhile, is actively supported by Egypt.  A threatened Egyptian intervention in July 2014 prevented Turkish supported forces from pushing into the oil zones around the towns of Sirte and Jufra, after they thwarted Haftar’s attempts to take Tripoli and pushed his fighters back. 

In Israel, the rivalries between regional powers are generally held to offer a certain advantage to Jerusalem, in that the power diplomatically closer to Israel (in this case Egypt) is likely to feel the need to cleave closer to its allies in the face of a shared threat.  The establishment of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and its recent formalization as an international organization exemplify this process. Turkey’s current regional stances are exemplified by a combination of aggression and inadequate diplomacy.  This tends to lead to the formation of broad coalitions against Ankara, of which in the Mediterranean context Israel is a natural component. 

The efforts of Moscow to assert itself as a power in the Eastern Mediterranean should sound a cautionary note, however, regarding this generally favorable picture. 

Russia is not, of course, an enemy of Israel. But Russia is strategically aligned in the Levant region with Iran, Israel’s most implacable enemy. Russian weapons (via Iran and Syria) make up the bulk of the formidable arsenal assembled for service to Iranian goals by Lebanese Hizballah. Russia is also a rival to Israel regarding the matter of gas exports to Europe.  All this means that Russian efforts to leverage regional power rivalries to increase its own presence and influence are not a net positive for Jerusalem.  From the Israeli point of view, while there is no enmity, the less Russia, the better.

In the case of the East Mediterranean as elsewhere, Russia’s involvement comes with the intention of mediating between the sides, and in so doing increasing Russian influence with both of them.  This runs counter to the Israeli interest, which is unambiguously in the advance of the Egyptian/Greek/Cypriot/European interest in the East Med., an end to Turkish provocations, and the retreat and frustration of Turkish ambitions. 

Moscow is seeking to draw Turkey further from NATO.  Its natural interest, therefore, will be ‘mediation,’ and a soft line towards Turkish ambitions. Moscow recently opposed, for example, a US decision to partially lift a 33 year old arms embargo on Cyprus.  Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov responded by accusing the US of pursuing the course of ‘who is not with us is against us.’  The pattern is familiar from the experience of Syria in recent years. 

The Russian entry into the picture, as elsewhere, is made possible  because of the absence of another major power.   The EU can issue declarations, but it has no united force to deploy.  The power which is absent in the East Mediterranean, and indeed whose absence makes possible both the Turkish aggression and the Russian attempt to ‘mediate’, is the United States.  The US, unfortunately, still lacks a clear policy towards Turkey and its pattern of destabilization. 

Russian efforts to draw Egypt closer towards its orbit demonstrate the difficulties of trying to build a regional alliance in the absence of a superpower patron.  Countries with widely differing systems of government and histories may unite in the face of an aggressor.  But absent a common patron, the evidence suggests that the alliance may be ad hoc and fragile, and its members vulnerable to being diverted. 

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Reflections on insurgent political Islam, twenty years after the outbreak of the Second Intifada

13/10/20

This week marks twenty years since the outbreak of the Second Intifada.  I remember those febrile days very well, here in  Jerusalem.  The peace talks at Camp David broke down in late July.  After that, it was clear that something was coming, though no-one knew exactly what form it would take.  There were stormy demonstrations on the university campuses in the early autumn.  Arab and Jewish students facing off against one another.  I was a PHD student in my late 20s, then, and I was not an observer or bystander.  Rather, at that time the direction of events seemed to me to offer a kind of triumphant vindication for the views I had been professing for the previous half decade or so. 

It didn’t take special insight to see the gaping holes in the peace process of the 1990s. One simply had to be bereft of the very deep longing for peace and normality which was the mood of mainstream Israeli society at the time. I was not part of mainstream Israeli society.  Rather, I was a Zionist immigrant from London, with a passion for history and a hatred for those I perceived to be the enemies of Israel and the Jews.  I read the Fatah and Hamas propaganda and listened to their threats and I was looking forward to what I thought was coming down the road that early autumn afternoon outside the Frank Sinatra cafeteria. On the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University.  To war.  And victory. With a beautiful Jerusalem autumn sky overhead as we and the Arab students chanted our threats at each other.  Outside the cafeteria that would be blown up by a Hamas bomb on July 31, 2002. 

We got our war all right.  It started with the killings on the joint patrols, then the first days of October when it looked for a moment like a generalized revolt of the Arab population, including those with Israeli citizenship, was about to begin. The first bombings in Jerusalem began in November.  The shootings on the roads started up at about the same time.

The years that followed witnessed the bus and café bombings, and long weeks spent on reserve duty in different parts of the West Bank for a generation of IDF soldiers.  It rapidly became clear, as had been predicted, that this was not a nationalist struggle. Rather, the organizations coming against us were wrapped in the banners of insurgent political Islam.  The tactics, suicide bombings most importantly but also the more general desire to destroy our will through the deliberate targeting of civilians, had been borrowed from the Shia jihadis of Lebanese Hizballah. 

This point is I think crucial to understanding the trajectory and the results of the ‘Al Aqsa Intifada.’  It was the first eruption of political Islam in its insurgent form against a western democracy.  It felt unfamiliar at first, and would go on to be a harbinger. 

A year after, when we were in the midst of the period of suicide bombings, Al Qaeda destroyed the twin towers in New York.  This ushered in a global focus on the issue of insurgent political Islam.  The Afghanistan and Iraq invasions in turn brought the issue of Middle East political dysfunction decisively to the front and center of western political discourse.

Subsequent Islamist attacks in Madrid, London and Paris, and many other locations in the west widened this focus. 

Then in 2010, following challenges to the sclerotic political order in the Arab world, Islamist popular mobilization and insurgency arrived, finally, in mass form in the heartland of the Arab Islamic world itself.  It reached its purest, most unalloyed expression in the shape of the ISIS Caliphate.  It delivered nothing of what it had promised. Not dignity. Not victory. And not the eclipse of enemies. Rather, it provoked a massive reaction against itself, which has proved the stronger. 

From the vantage point of Jerusalem, what all this looked like was a kind of gigantic shadow reflection of our own experiences in the 2000-2004 period.  The same ideas, the same organizations, the same slogans, even the same tactics. But making our own experience dwarf like in the cost, the sheer volume of destruction visited on the heartlands of the Arab world in the years following 2010. In Syria, above all other places. But not only in Syria. 

So there is a shape, and a trajectory.  And it seems to me that what this is a story of, above all other things, is the story of the rise and decline of a particular revolutionary political idea.  That idea is insurgent political Islam.  And this is the pivotal point I want to suggest here.  A point which it feels strange to make because this idea has been such an intimate companion and enemy to my generation (or at least the particular corner of it which I inhabit) for the last 25 years.  As we have grown from youth to middle age.  We watched it arrive to its terrible adulthood and we have watched its decline. Because the pivotal point is that insurgent political Islam, or ‘Islamism’, indeed now appears to be in decline. Its eclipse and its increasing decrepitude are no less stark, and no less significant than the similar decline of its predecessor, Pan-Arab nationalism. 

Look around the Arabic-speaking world today. Where does one find an insurgency led from below, a jihad, a popular revolt, of the kind premiered by the Second Intifada and then witnessed on a vastly larger scale in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain?  Nowhere. 

There is certainly disorder. The end result of ten years of chaos is that large swathes of the Arabic speaking world are a smoking ruin.  But across that ruin, with its semi, or non-functioning governments in Libya, Yemen and across the single space still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, what one finds is not popular insurgency, but rather the machinations of states and their obedient clients. 

The main legacy of Islamist insurgency’s tearing asunder of the Arab world, paradoxically, is the clinical death of a number of Arab states, and their penetration by a variety of regional and global non-Arab powers.  These powers – Iran, Turkey, Russia, the US – make use of the remnant organizations of the insurgents as contractors and cannon fodder for their own designs. 

Political Islam ,meanwhile, has itself entered that phase of its existence where, no longer an insurgent banner, it is now a decoration used by powerful states as part of their justification of themselves.  Today, it is borne along by Turkey and Iran, and this is its main remaining relevance.

But in both these cases, political Islam is mixed up with a kind of imperial revanchism as the main justifying idea of the regimes. And in any case, this is largely a top down affair, with insurgents re-mustered as military contractors.  The former Sunni Islamist rebels of northern Syria, for example – are now trucked and flown hither and thither by the Turkish state and Adnan Tanriverdi’s SADAT company – to Libya, to Azerbaijan.  The various militias that the Iranian IRGC raises – Fatemiyun and Zeinabiyun –  labor in return for tiny salaries and residency rights to the Shia refugees who make up the ranks .

If this reminds you of anything, it should.  It is a phase that both Arab nationalism and Soviet style communism also passed through, before dissolving.  Long after its existence as a revolutionary idea, Arab nationalism became the empty excuse offered by a series of Arab police states for their existence and their repression.  And long after the days when it inspired millions, Soviet style communism remained as the justifying ideology of a number of harsh and airless dictatorships in Europe, Asia and Africa. 

Political Islam has now entered this phase of its existence. Which means that as an idea, it hardly matters anymore.  The states have returned.  The Middle East is entering a phase of major power competition. The recent Israel-UAE deal was an important event in this process of alliance crystallization. 

Three power blocs are now set to compete in the Gulf, the Mediterranean and across the semi governed spaces of the Arabic speaking world.  Two of these – those led by Iran and Turkey – present political Islam in its post insurgent phase.  The third, that of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, constitutes  the camp of the reaction against insurgent political Islam, which defeated it. 

So we are, it appears, at the end or in the closing stages of a trajectory. The trajectory is that of an idea, which came, and rose, and was conquered, and the legacy of which is a broken region and two decades of insurgency and civil war.  We didn’t know what was coming, then, in the summer of 2000, in Jerusalem, in the curious interim months between the end of the bright hopes of the 1990s and the thing that was going to replace them.  We know now. 

As to what will follow, there will be winners and losers.  Iran and Turkey will continue to present themselves as representatives of Islamic authenticity and purity. There will be few buyers.  One of the characteristics of ideologies in their senile phase, when they become part of the language that regimes use to justify themselves, is that no one is really convinced by them. Not even the people who serve them, and certainly no one else. The game to come is  power competition, directed by ruling elites from above.  Among the emergent generation, meanwhile, there appears to be a very great cynicism, a perhaps healthy indifference towards all such narratives, and a search mainly for self advancement. 

Here in Israel, as in the other areas targeted for destruction by insurgent political Islam, we have come through. And we are well placed to flourish in the period ahead, on condition that we can maintain our own deeply strained social contract – exposed starkly by Covid 19.  The idea that first erupted into real consequence in the Arab world in Jerusalem, and which for a moment seemed about to bestride the world, has gone down to defeat.  In 2020, 20 years since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the age of Islamist insurgency in the Middle East appears to have passed.  

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US is beefing up forces in eastern Syria to counter Russian harassment

Jerusalem Post, 25/9

The United States this week reinforced its military presence in northeastern Syria. Six Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles were deployed to the area, and around 100 troops were added to the roughly 500 that are already present in Syria east of the Euphrates River. The US also continues to maintain a separate presence west of the Euphrates in the area around the base at al-Tanf, on the Syrian-Jordanian border.


The beefing-up of the US military presence appears to be a response to the increasing tempo of Russian attempts to harass US forces, and to expand Moscow’s presence in Syria east of the Euphrates. On August 26, four US troops were wounded when the vehicle in which they were traveling collided with a Russian military vehicle.

The incident took place outside the town of Derik/Malkiyeh, at the northeastern tip of Syria close to the Tigris River and the border with Iraq. This area lies far east of the Euphrates, and well inside of an area designated as a US-controlled security zone. That is, the Russian presence in the area was itself a provocation. The collision with the US vehicle took place at a time when Russian military helicopters were deployed above the area. It appears to have been deliberately initiated by the Russian force.


This incident reflects a broader pattern. Moscow considers that the American presence in eastern Syria lacks a clear strategic context, and hence may be withdrawn if sufficient pressure is applied to it. Moscow wants to see Syria reunited under the rule of President Bashar Assad, as a weak and dependent client of Russia. The Kurdish-controlled, US-guaranteed area east of the Euphrates, comprising around 25% of the area of Syria, currently stands as a barrier to the achievement of this goal. (The Turkish enclave further west is an additional obstacle. Arguably, the Iranian area of de facto control in the south of the country represents a third barrier to Moscow’s realization of its vision.)


The Russians therefore appear to be attempting to whittle away at the American presence, gradually expanding their own area of activities in the area, slowly and incrementally emptying the American presence of security content. This slow attempt at erosion appears to be the only option available to Russia in this area. Earlier they tried direct action. On February 7, 2018, a 500-man force led by fighters of the paramilitary Wagner Group crossed the Euphrates in an attempt to seize the adjacent Conoco (Tabiyeh) gas field. This was clearly an attempt to test US and allied will and to establish a precedent for unilateral seizure of territory. The Americans understood it as such, and the force was destroyed by US air power and artillery.


The Russians appear to have learned the lesson, but not in a way bringing resignation, or inaction. Rather, they have concluded that while direct confrontation may produce the Trump administration’s instinct to hit back hard, a messy, ongoing campaign of daily harassment is likely to trigger the administration’s equally developed low boredom threshold.


According to this view, if staying in eastern Syria starts to appear to be more trouble than its is worth, then given the absence of a clear strategic logic for the American presence, this might produce another of the moments at which the president suddenly focuses on the area, and orders a US withdrawal. President Donald Trump, after all, has already announced such a withdrawal twice – in December 2018 and October 2019. On both occasions, efforts by officials further down the food chain prevented the full implementation of the pullout.


Parallel to the campaign of harassment, the Russians are seeking to slowly and incrementally draw the Kurdish ruling authorities in this area back under their political patronage. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with a delegation from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Moscow in early September. The delegation included Ilham Ahmed, head of the Syrian Democratic Council, the most senior executive body in the Kurdish-led de facto ruling authority. The visit forms part of an ongoing Russian-mediated dialogue between representatives of the Assad regime and the SDC.


Lavrov, in a statement issued following the meeting, spoke of the “promotion of inclusive constructive inter-Syrian dialogue in the interest of the soonest recovery and reinforcement of Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.”
This formal language and the political process of which it as a part fits comfortably with the ongoing process of harassment of US forces in eastern Syria. The intention is to covey a sense of the inevitability of the return of Assad and Russia to domination of the whole country, and therefore the pointlessness of the continuation of the small US mission, and the futility for US allies of placing any trust or capital on the American side.


So the contours of the Russian effort are clear. The question remains: has Moscow assessed the situation accurately? Is the ongoing harassment of the US presence, and the wooing of US Kurdish allies set to result in the speedy abandonment of eastern Syria by Washington?


Firstly, the modest beefing up of the US force in the area over the last week suggests that no immediate withdrawal is in the offing. Rather, the increase in the deployment seems to indicate US concerns of a possible uptick in Russian actions, perhaps in the hope of precipitating a withdrawal before the elections in November. The strengthening of the force suggests a US desire to deter any such effort.


Secondly, it would be mistaken to assume that there is no US plan regarding Syria. A strategy does exist. As formulated largely by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and those around him, the US intention is to prevent Assad from normalizing his control of Syria and obtaining the wherewithal to begin reconstruction. This forms part of the larger approach by the US administration to use primarily economic and financial muscle to achieve outcomes in the Middle East. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act makes anyone doing business with the Assad regime subject to financial sanction.

But where does the modest deployment in eastern Syria fit in with this effort? The deployment keeps Syria’s oil and some of its best agricultural land out of regime hands, and thus constitutes a further tool of economic pressure on Assad. Of course, the empowering of elements associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in eastern Syria also angers Turkey. A quiet US effort is under way to sponsor talks between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and the non-PKK-associated Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS), to create a more inclusive political authority. The US special representative for Syria engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, was in Syria this week in efforts to finalize this process.


Israel and Jordan would like to see the US deployment remain, because the US presence acts as a kind of tripwire for the Iranians and their associated militias.

The slow-moving contest over the ruins of Syria thus looks set to continue. The Russians like to try to convey a sense of their own inevitability. The US appears keen currently not to concede the matter. The six Bradleys that rolled across the border this week are a small but notable move in this ongoing contest of wills.

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Section 212: Banned from the USA

September 20, 2020.

In early March, 2020, when international travel was still unambiguously possible, I was due to visit the United States.  I had been invited to speak at the annual AIPAC policy conference.  In addition, a number of other meetings were in the initial process of being scheduled. These included a talk at a base of the US Army Special Forces, and another engagement in New York. 

I had a number of logistical issues to sort out in making preparations for the trip.  One of these was that I had received a phone call one Friday morning a couple of months earlier from someone speaking accentless Hebrew but claiming to be from the US Embassy in Jerusalem.  This individual briskly informed me that my existing, ten-year visa to the US had been cancelled.  I inquired as to the reasons for the cancellation. He informed me that the embassy was not required to provide an explanation for decisions of this type.  There our conversation ended. 

I assumed some bureaucratic hiccup.  I had been travelling regularly to the US since 2004, without experiencing any problems.  Indeed, I was fond of telling friends about some of my experiences entering the country. These seemed to me to epitomize the positive and unique side of a country of which I had grown very fond. On one occasion, an Italian-American passport control officer, seeing my Israeli passport, asked if I had taken part in the 2006 war in Lebanon.  I replied that I indeed had. He responded that he had been stationed with US forces in Iraq at that time. We looked at each other for a moment and he nodded slowly and said ‘welcome to the USA.’  Another time, a Korean American officer began speaking to me slowly in Hebrew after I handed him my passport.  Astonished, I asked him where this knowledge came from. ‘Our pastor encourages us to learn some Hebrew before visiting Israel,’ he replied. 

I have never had such experiences entering any other country. These anecdotes seemed and seem to me to get at the heart of the particular relationship between the USA and Israel, the country of my residence and citizenship. 

So I expected that a renewed visa application would rapidly sort out whatever issue had arisen. I duly filled out such an application, and went on the designated day to the consular offices in Jerusalem.  There, I waited in line and when my turn came, the polite young consular officer handed me a pink piece of paper, saying, ‘No visa for you today, sir.’ 

I waited til I got out of the building before looking at the paper.  On doing so, I learned that ‘You have been found ineligible for a non-immigrant visa under the following section(s) of the US Immigration and Nationality Act:’ A series of possible options for the ineligibility followed.  The one with the pen-mark next to the square in my case was ‘Section 212 (a) (3) (b), which prohibits issuance of a visa to a person who at any time engaged in terrorist activities or was associated with a terrorist organization. (sic). This is a permanent ineligibility.’ 

I had to go straight from the consulate to some work arrangements that day, which prevented me from properly considering the matter until later.  In the evening, back home in Jerusalem, I tried to work out what might have led to this. I have never been convicted or charged of any acts of terror.  Indeed, I have no criminal convictions of any kind, (barring a conviction for a minor public order offence resulting from my involvement in activities as a very young man against Neo-Nazi organizations in London in the 1980s). 

My work as a journalist and Middle East analyst has in recent years brought me into the company of members and operatives of various organizations designated as terror groups by a number of countries.  These contacts have taken place, however,  in the regular course of work as a reporter. In no case were my contacts with these organizations indicative of any sympathy of any kind on my part with their aims and goals.  Among the organizations in question are Lebanese Hizballah, Islamic State, Hamas, Ktaeb Hizballah, the Badr Organization and a few others. 

There is a single exception in my case to this normal and unremarkable pattern in which a journalist or researcher maintains contacts with individuals from organizations of public note for the purpose of information gathering. 

The single, partial exception is the Kurdish PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party.  Those who are familiar with my writing will be aware that I am a supporter of the Kurdish cause, and regard the struggle of the PKK organization against the Turkish regime to belong to the class of justified insurgencies. This does not mean that I think this organization should be above criticism.  Indeed, many of its tactics, especially in the earlier phase of its campaign, deserve I think to be strongly criticized.  But I believe the Kurdish national cause to be one of the most unambiguously justified political endeavors currently in existence anywhere in the world.  I regard the PKK to be one of a number of organizations in different parts of Kurdistan seeking to advance this cause.

In this regard, it is my view that this organization deserves to be removed from the list of terror organizations maintained by both the US and the European Union, on which it is currently included.  My convictions in this regard are strengthened by the nature of the current Turkish regime, which is  antisemitic and anti-western in its political outlook, and brutal and repressive in its behavior.   They are also strengthened by my personal witnessing of the actions of the Kurdish YPG organization in north-east Syria in 2014. On that occasion, the swift response and determined efforts of the YPG against Islamic State forces was instrumental in preventing the genocide of a defenseless population. 

None of this, of course, means that I was either engaged in activities on behalf of, or in a serious way ‘associated’ with this organization.   It only means that my general sympathies with the Kurdish cause are the only possible explanation I can find for the decision to ban me, apparently permanently and without right of appeal, from the USA.  My suspicions are that the decision is the result of the activities at some level of agencies of the Turkish government. The current Turkish regime’s harassment of its critics and of the journalistic profession in general are well documented. Its historic alliance with the US, now largely a matter of form rather than content, presumably affords it an attentive ear among those organs of the American state where such decisions are made.   

Of course, this must of necessity remain only a theory. It is an odd sort of situation in which to find oneself.  No charges are being issued, so one has no ability to address them.  The decision has been taken. There is, apparently, nothing further to be discussed.  Needless to say, neither the US Army Special Forces nor the attendees at the AIPAC policy conference ended up hearing what I had to say, in March, as we all sailed towards the pandemic. No doubt these august organizations will continue to flourish in the absence of my counsel. I do however find a certain irony in the fact that both these invitations derived presumably from the notion that my professional activities might enable me to contribute, in no matter how modest a way, to the discussion concerning US national security.

Non-citizens do not have the guaranteed right to enter any particular country.  Nevertheless, a system in which one can be tried, convicted and sentenced with no chance to consider the evidence or put one’s own account forward strikes me as something less than fair.  That such a system appears now to be preventing me from ever again visiting a country with which I feel a strong bond, and to which I am connected by familial links and many strong friendships, is a matter of some personal sadness. 

Efforts to resolve this issue through private channels in recent months have proved fruitless.  I have no particular expectation that making the matter public will produce results either.  I simply wish to add my name to the list of individuals affected in recent years by decisions of this kind, in the hope that some general review of the process by which such decisions are reached might be initiated. In this regard, I would suggest in particular special attention be paid to the set of ideas, convictions and practices which currently characterize Turkish policy. The latter is not today a pro-US or pro-western state in any but the most nominal terms. As such, its attitudes and practices toward those it perceives to be its enemies should not be assumed to be in line with the norms favored by the US or prevalent among western and NATO member countries.   

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Israel’s New Diplomatic Moment

Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2020

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory in Monday’s Israeli election, the third since April, following two inconclusive results. Although Mr. Netanyahu may be frustrated in his attempt to form a government, his Likud Party won 36 seats, a strong showing. During the campaign, Likud candidates stressed their support for President Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, unveiled in January. The plan won’t bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but it may expose deeper processes of change under way in the Middle East. It could even advance those changes—and Israel stands to benefit.

Both the Palestinian cause and the broader Arab political bloc that long championed it are in disarray. The Palestinians are divided geographically, each group locked in with divergent interests and strategies.

Gaza has been ruled as an Islamist enclave by Hamas for 13 years. The movement’s first generation of leaders is now retiring; Khaled Mashal stepped down in 2017 and is set to spend his golden years in his villa in Doha, Qatar. The upshot is that Hamas-controlled Gaza is no longer a provisional entity. Hamas maintains its rule as an example of uncompromising Islamist resistance to Israel, trimmed where necessary according to the needs of Egypt and Qatar, who respectively control access to and financing of the Hamas enclave.

Palestinians in the West Bank live mainly under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority, which is run by an unpopular but immovable elite. President Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t held an election since 2005, and security is handled between his Jordan-trained police force and the Israel Defense Forces. Mr. Abbas pursues a strategy of denouncing Israeli policy in all available forums while quietly cooperating with the security structures that keep Hamas and other Islamists at bay.

Jerusalem’s Palestinians remain in a kind of limbo.  Israel continues to place barriers before their acquisition of full citizenship, and large discrepancies exist in allocation of municipal funds.  Still, something is stirring from below. The number of Jerusalem Palestinians electing to educate their children in schools offering the Israeli matriculation exam is tripling each year.   Hebrew language courses are flourishing. Given the choice between attachment to a stable, first world entity and absorption into the corrupt, dysfunctional PA, Jerusalem’s Palestinians appear to be voting with their feet.

This trend is yet more clear with regard to the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arabs. The furious reaction by the residents of the ‘Triangle’ area to the Trump Plan’s suggestion that a future Palestinian state might include their region encapsulates it.

There remain potential unifying factors.  Religious issues, and perceptions of a threat to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem are common to all these populations. The high turnout of Arab Israeli voters in the elections, and the impressive showing of the Arab Joint List may be partly connected to concerns regarding the Trump Plan.

But the pattern of compartmentalization, and clearly different perceptions of interest among the compartments, is unmistakable.

This decline is reflected in broader trends. The Palestinian cause was the great standard of Arab nationalism. Until not so long ago, a ‘rejection front’ of Arab nationalist police states remained to uphold this banner.  Among these, Saddam’s Iraq is now a distant memory.  Bashar Assad presides over rubble in Syria. Gaddhafi’s Libya is broken up.  Egypt is today a strategic partner of Israel.

The eclipse of the power edifice and many of the assumptions that stood behind the Palestinian cause, meanwhile, is raising new possibilities.

The Arab League in Cairo predictably rejected the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan.  The responses of individual member states, specifically in the Gulf,  were rather more nuanced.

Emirati ambassador to the US Yusuf Otaiba tweeted after the plan’s release that it was  ‘a serious initiative that addresses many issues raised over the years,’ and is ‘an important starting point.’  Otaiba, along with the ambassadors of Bahrain and Oman, attended Trump’s unveiling of the plan.  UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin-Zayed, meanwhile, on December 19 retweeted an article in the Spectator magazine about an emergent alliance between Israel and the Gulf states.

These Gulf monarchies have clear practical interests in closer relations with Israel, centering on shared concerns regarding Iran and Sunni political Islam.

The need to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause constitutes a barrier to closer relations.  But a stance which encourages the Palestinians to ‘work with’ the Trump plan, while criticizing some parts of it, could offer the narrow passage needed for Gulf states to simultaneously continue moving toward Israel while denying that they have betrayed their fraternal obligations.

The possibility being discussed is not that of formal diplomatic relations. Rather, the talk behind the scenes is of ‘non-belligerency’ agreements, open economic and business ties, overflights, visits of trade delegations.

Supporters of maximalist Palestinian goals may yet take heart in the presence of new friends.  Iran and Turkey, in their different ways, are continuing the fight. Iran supplies the missiles and rockets that enable its clients in south Lebanon and Gaza to be more than merely an irritant to Israel.   Turkey domiciles active Hamas structures on its own soil.  It is also engaged in a ‘soft war’ in Jerusalem, investing in property, NGOs and projects intended to reverse the process of normalization.

But the taking up by these rising non-Arab states of the  Arab world’s traditional banner only confirms the changes that have taken place.  The old Arab order is gone.  Trump’s plan may yet usher its departure into the daylight. And a newly re-elected Netanyahu will be hoping to reap the resulting diplomatic fruits.

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Hizballah’s ‘deep state’ prepares to investigate itself

Jerusalem Post, 15/8

The death toll in the August 4 explosion at the Beirut port has now reached 163.  More than 6,000 people were injured. Large parts of the city were destroyed.  The latest information detailed this week by Reuters suggests that the Lebanese authorities were warned in the weeks prior to the explosion of the need to secure the 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in Hangar 12 at the port.

Public anger in Lebanon is now at white heat.  Demonstrators in Beirut this week occupied a number of government buildings.  The resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab and a number of other ministers has had little effect on the public mood.  The resignation will not trigger elections, or anything resembling real change.  Lebanon has long experience with ‘caretaker’ governments whose terms stretch on for months or even years, lacking any mandate or capability for taking significant decisions.

The focus of public anger is on the corrupt, shoddy and inefficient nature of governance in Lebanon. The explosion at the port was the most extreme and dramatic manifestation of a deep decay infecting every part of Lebanese public life and infrastructure.  This is a country well on the way towards ‘failed state’ status.  In March, Lebanon for the first time defaulted on $1.2 billion in foreign debts.  The Lebanese pound has experienced a 70% drop in value since October. The country is experiencing hyperinflation.

But while the focus of international coverage of Lebanon since the blast has been on the corrupt, graft-ridden and inefficient nature of Lebanese public life, this is only part of the picture of the country’s malaise – and not the most significant element.

Beneath the morass of Lebanon’s debased political culture, there is another structure.  This structure is not, in general, corrupt. It is not inefficient.  It is not unaware of where its assets are placed, and it is not subject to replacement by elections, or by street demonstrations.  This structure is the Hizballah deep state.  It is the true arbiter of power in Lebanon, both visibly and invisibly.

On the overt level, the parliamentary bloc controlled by Hizballah maintains control of 74 seats in the 128 member parliament.   This enabled it to dictate the composition of the now collapsing Cabinet (19 out of 30 portfolios were affiliated with its bloc). It will give Hizballah a powerful voice in deciding the content of its replacement.

Hizballah possesses a military force, according to an estimate by Janes Information Group,  of 25,000 full time fighters, along with 20-30,000 reservists.  The official army, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), has 72,000 personnel. But it is riven with sectarian division.  Thus, Hizballah has an armed capacity in Lebanon superior to all competitors, including the army of the nominal state.

But it is at the unseen level that the power of the Hizballah deep state is at its most profound.  The head of the country’s most powerful security organ, the Directorate of General Security (GSDG) is General Abbas Ibrahim.  Ibrahim is a close ally of Hizballah.  This is no great secret in Lebanon.  Abbas Ibrahim is close to and appears regularly in public with Wafiq Safa, the head of Hizballah’s security apparatus.  Safa, meanwhile, as described by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt with admirable simplicity, ‘decides what the army and security forces can do.’

Behind Wafiq Safa, is Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. And behind him is the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Islamic Republic of Iran.  This is the structure against which there is no right of appeal in Lebanon.

The GSDG, as the main internal security service, is set to play a prominent role in the internal investigation of the explosion at the port.

Ibrahim’s friend and comrade Wafiq Safa, meanwhile, was described by the US Treasury Department in July 2019 as having ‘exploited Lebanon’s ports and border crossings to smuggle contraband and facilitate travel on behalf of Hizballah, undermining the security and safety of the Lebanese people, while also draining valuable import duties and revenue away from the Lebanese government.’  That is, Hizballah’s deep state is about to investigate itself.

It is not difficult to imagine the results of the Hizballah power structure’s self-investigation.  The ‘mystery’ of who exactly owned 2750 tonnes of an explosive material known to be favored by Hizballah, in a port known to be under the security control of Hizballah, will no doubt be deemed another of the baffling riddles of the Orient.

It is important, nevertheless, that any remaining obscurity regarding who really holds power in Lebanon be dispelled.   One enthusiastic supporter of Hizballah tweeted this week, ‘The Lebanese government can resign 100 times. But Hizballah wont disarm.’ That succinctly sums up the reality.

It is the Hizballah power structure which prevents the possibility of normal practices at Lebanon’s entry and exit points. It does so because these points, and the clandestine transport and storage of war materiel at and through them, are essential elements in its deployment for a future conflict with Israel.

If a new Prime minister is found, a new Cabinet  cobbled together, a ‘national unity’ government declared, and international largesse then piled on Lebanon,  the beneficiaries of the blast in the port will be the Hizballah power structure.

This would come as a welcome relief for the movement at a time when it is facing unprecedented difficulties. As the dominant force in government, Hizballah has been unable to shield itself from public criticism for the disastrous economic collapse of recent months.  International financial bodies are reluctant to bail Lebanon out without a commitment to financial transparency. The Hizballah power structure prefers opacity, behind which it conceals itself. As a result, having defaulted on its debts, Lebanon remains without a bailout package from the IMF.

The Gulf countries that might have once helped have turned their backs on Lebanon, because of its domination by Hizballah.

Iran, Hizballah’s patron, is unable to offer substantial help because the US policy of maximum pressure has placed it deep in its own economic crisis.  The full results of Iran’s hostile takeover of Lebanon are thus currently becoming apparent.

Khalid al-Bari, writing in the Saudi Sharq al-Awsat newspaper this week, noted that ‘Hezbollah is the only group of criminals who creates transnational security, military, and economic crises that destroy lives, and no one touches them; they are here to stay.’

Western governments need to grasp the fact of Hizballah and Iran’s full spectrum ownership of Lebanon at the present time. They should then understand the implications of this. And they should then design policy to contain or change it. Anything else risks turning the disastrous explosion at the Beirut port into a windfall for the true rulers of Lebanon – the IRGC and its local franchise, Hizballah.

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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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