Erdogan’s Secret Prisons in Syria

Jerusalem Post, 15/4

Nadia Hassan Suleiman remembers well the day she was arrested.  It was in Afrin City, north west Syria, in June 2018.  Her husband, Ahmed Rashid, had disappeared two months earlier.  She had received a voice message from him.  The men who pulled up in a car beside her said they were detailed to bring  her to visit her husband.  Instead, Nadia was taken into custody. A two year nightmare had begun. 

With no charges placed against her, and no legal process, Nadia Suleiman was imprisoned in a series of unofficial jails across north west Syria.  For four months she was held in a facility she believes is maintained by Turkish Military Intelligence, and interrogated by Turkish speaking officers. Then, as part of a group of 11 other women, similarly held without charge, she was transferred to a jail of the Sunni Islamist, Turkish supported Hamzat Division.  In the frequent interrogation sessions to which she was subjected, Nadia was accused of association with the Assad regime and the Kurdish PKK. 

Throughout her period of captivity, Nadia Hassan Suleiman was repeatedly tortured, and on several occasions raped.  As she describes it in her recorded testimony, ‘Each of the female detainees underwent various forms of torture and rape. The torture was daily, individually or collectively, and we were repeatedly raped. They gave us narcotic pills, and sometimes they poured cold water on all of us in the harsh winter cold. Even young children were not exempt from the torture.’

Released after two years, Nadia succeeded with the help of smugglers in escaping from the Turkish controlled area of Syria.  She has never heard from her husband again and now believes him to be dead. 

Nadia Hassan Suleiman’s story is only one of many.  Evidence is emerging of systematic and grave violations of human rights carried out by Turkish-supported Islamist militias in north west Syria.  Testimony of survivors reveals a pattern of illegal incarcerations with no judicial process or oversight, grave abuses of detainees, including sexual abuse, rape, torture and instances of murder. 

A dossier received by this author and currently also in the hands of the US State Department contains extensive testimony and detailed evidence.  The dossier was compiled by Syrian activists unaffiliated with any political body.  Independent Syrian experts who have examined the evidence find it to be credible.    According to two  human rights bodies, the Violations Documentation Center and the Zaytouna Project, 8590 people have been held in this system of off the grid prisons since 2018.  Of these, 1500 have disappeared entirely, leaving no record. 

To understand what’s going on, a little background is necessary.  In January 2018, in the ironically named Operation Olive Branch, the Turkish armed forces destroyed the Kurdish controlled Afrin canton, in north west Syria.  In close cooperation with Sunni Islamist militias allied with Ankara, Turkey took control of the area. Around 300,000 residents, mainly Kurdish and Yezidi, fled to other parts of Syria. 

Since then, the self styled ‘Syrian Interim Government,’  which is based in Turkey and supported by Ankara, has been the ostensible governing authority in this area.  Day to day control is in the hands of the Islamist militias who make up the so-called ‘Syrian National Army’.  The real power supporting and training these militias and maintaining ultimate control in the area is Turkey. The unofficial prison system in which Nadia Suleiman was incarcerated is the product of this arrangement.  

The names and locations of the places of incarceration making up this network of un-declared houses of confinement are known, and can be verified. The network extends from Idlib and Afrin in the west, through Azaz, Marea and al-Rai, to Jarabulus and al-Bab in the east. 

Among the facilities forming part of this archipelago: the prison of the security office of the SNA’s Hamzah Division, in Afrin City, the Mazraa Prison, in Afrin’s Maarata District, in the hands of the Hamza Division’s Al-Ghab Brigade, the prison camp at Kafr Jannah, controlled by the Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front), the prison of the Levant Front’s security office, at the Souq al-Hal area in Afrin city, al-Barad prison, under the control of the ‘Tanzim al-Ustaz’ (more on this organization below), al-Masara Prison in the al-Ra’I area, controlled by the Turkmen Sultan Murad Division (from which no detainee has ever been released), and the prison of the security office of al-Mutasim Division in the Marea area. 

In these places, Syrian citizens like Nadia Suleiman are incarcerated for long periods without any legal oversight.  Conditions as described to the author by former detainees are primitive in the extreme.  Prisoners are kept in filth encrusted cells, with no access to natural light.  Torture using electric shocks, systematic starvation and beatings are meted out to all. Sexual abuse of both male and female detainees are routine.  Photographic evidence of these conditions, taken at great risk by detainees, has been seen by the author. 

So who is responsible for this system?  What is the overall structure of command? According to the testimony of ‘Yusuf’, a recent defector from the militias, a central coordinating body for the various security structures which maintain these facilities does exist.  It is known as the ‘Tanzim al-Ustaz,’ (Organization of the teacher/professor), or more formally as the ‘Mukhabarat al-Sari’ (Secret Intelligence).  This structure is responsible for the overall coordination, supervision and management of the network of secret prisons described above.  It is the supreme authority for the various security and intelligence teams maintained by the factions.

The individual who stands at the pinnacle of this structure, the ‘professor’ of the title, is  one Kamal Ghazwan Kamal, also known as Abu al-Hassan, an Iraqi by birth, with a Turkish wife.  A former senior security official of ISIS in Mosul, Kamal was arrested by the Turkish authorities in 2017. He then assisted in the apprehending and arrest of ISIS members and formed relationships with senior figures in the Turkish-linked Syrian opposition. As a result of this collaboration, he emerged as a trusted figure with apparently relevant skills. 

No official investigation into any of these allegations is currently under way. The Islamist militias in control on the ground in this area make the normal conduct of journalistic or other inquiry impossible.  But north west Syria is not an abandoned territory.  Rather, it is under the de facto control of Turkey, a NATO member state in good standing.  There is a solid body of evidence to suggest that terrible crimes, like the ones inflicted on Nadia Hassan Suleiman,  are being committed on a systematic and ongoing basis in Turkish controlled north west Syria.  Pressure needs to be applied, and soon, to enable the investigation of these multiple allegations. 

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Understanding the Latest Wave of Terror in Israel

The Australian, 16/4

Four terror attacks in the space of just over two weeks, with a total of 13 deaths  have brought the fraught atmosphere of the Second Intifada days back to the streets of Israel’s cities.  The tension is palpable.  There is an increased presence of armed police and Border Guards in the main thoroughfares of the cities.  One notices also, in Jerusalem at least, a significantly higher number of armed civilians. 

Israel does not have a 2nd Amendment style ‘right to bear arms.’  The cultural assumption here is that the possession of arms is properly limited to those engaged in tasks related to national defence.  The number of people seeking to belong to this group, however, has skyrocketed since the outbreak of the latest round of violence.  It is a reflection of the public mood. At the end of March, the Public Security Ministry, which handles applications for private firearms licences, received 1500 applications in a single day.  The average number of daily applications prior to the current round of violence was 60. 

Déjà vu?

No one thinks that the fourth attack, in Tel Aviv, will be the last.  The waiting, the familiar maintenance of routine and normality in the face of the situation, the management of daily life in a changed public space, all are familiar.  Israeli society has its own practices and responses, honed during the years 2000-4, when urban areas were the target of a sustained, though eventually defeated terror campaign. 

The authorities tend to remove all physical signs of an attack very quickly.  There is usually a short period in which the streets and public spaces close to where the incident took place are deserted, or at least fewer people venture there.  Then, within a day or two, routine and normality reassert themselves.  The Israeli public has a practiced resilience, born of long experience. 

So it is all wearily familiar.  And yet this familiarity is partially deceptive.  In a number of significant ways, the current wave differs sharply from the experience of the past.  The Second Intifada of 2000-4  was an armed insurgency, prosecuted by recognized political/military organizations. 

There are no indications now that anything of this size or type is brewing.  Something clearly very different is happening.  So what do we know?

DIY Terror

The four attacks that have taken place so far differed in the origins of the perpetrators.  The first two, in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba and the northern town of Hadera, were carried out by Arab citizens of Israel.  In both cases, the perpetrators were known supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS) group and its ideology.  Interestingly, ISIS itself claimed responsibility for the Hadera attack, but not for the one in Beersheba.  It appears likely that Ibrahim and Ayman Ighbariah, who carried out the Hadera attack, were in contact with ISIS, while Mohammed Abu al-Qiyan, the Beersheba terrorist, was not. 

The next two attacks, in Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv, were carried out by individuals from the northern part of the West Bank.  The Jenin area, from which both terrorists hailed, is a known hotbed of activity of the Islamic Jihad organization.  Islamic Jihad is a small Islamist group, strongly supported by and directed by Iran. The Israeli security forces carried out a raid into Jenin following the Tel Aviv attack, and made a number of arrests.   

But there are no indications that the perpetrators of any of these attacks were operating at the direct orders of either ISIS or Islamic Jihad.  The Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv attackers emerged from a milieu in the northern West Bank in which individuals loosely associated with one or another organization, or with none, cooperate on the basis of joint support for violent action. The Palestinian Authority has little presence or purchase here.  But the organizations opposed to it, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are not controlling events either. 

So in contrast to the situation twenty years ago, the current terror wave is not an organized insurgency.  It appears rather to be the work of self-directed, and self-motivated individuals.  These men may act entirely alone, as in the case of the Beersheba attack.  Or they may benefit from ad hoc logistical assistance from personal friends or associates, as in the other incidents. 

This improvised, diffuse element of course reduces the potential political impact of the attacks.  Insurgencies have clear goals, demands, objectives.  The current wave reflects a reality of confusion, disarray and widespread Palestinian disillusionment toward official political structures.    

No political goal can be achieved via such means.  Israel will not make territorial withdrawals, or be significantly weakened by such individual acts of terror. 

But on the other hand, the loose and unorganized nature of the attacks presents a particular challenge to the Israeli security forces.  How do you gather intelligence and predict and then prevent the actions of individuals not connected to any organizational structure? This task is made still harder by the fact that individuals planning action of this kind are likely to maintain a very low online profile. They will be aware that monitoring of online activity played an important role in Israel’s successful countering of the wave of stabbing attacks that took place in late 2015 and early 2016.

The weapons for the attacks, meanwhile, are taken from the abundance of unregistered firearms which exist both in Arab Israeli communities, and in the West Bank. The illegal maintenance of arms was long a neglected issue.  In May of last year, this issue came to public awareness when such weapons were used in widespread inter-communal violence within Israel.  But the problem of illegally held weaponry remains acute and unresolved.

The Religious Context

There is a vital larger context to understand.  We are now in the month of Ramadan.  Over the last few years, this period of Islamic religious devotion has seen a sharp rise in tensions and acts of aggression.   While much of the Islamic world approaches this month as a time for reflection, fasting and prayer, it should also be noted that Ramadan is remembered and marked as a period in which a number of famous Islamic military victories took place.  These include the conquest of Mecca by Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, the battle of Badr, in which the prophet and his companions faced and defeated non-Muslims in battle for the first time, and the conquest by Islamic armies of ‘al-Andalus,’ ie southern Spain. 

This aspect of the Ramadan month, and the contrast between past Islamic triumphs and present perceived humiliations, create a potent atmosphere for incitement.  And since Ramadan involves a heightened focus on religious messages, those wishing to incite, via social media or in live lectures at houses of prayer find a ready audience. 

So the campaign now targeting Israelis is of a new type. It is a very 21st century combination of incitement and messaging via social media, fluid, improvised, non-hierarchical modes of organization, and weaponry obtained through unofficial networks and contacts.  All taking place in the context of a grinding, ongoing conflict which remains nowhere close to resolution. 

The challenge now facing the Israeli security forces will be to develop equally deft and light-footed responses to these methods. The goal will be to isolate and neutralise the perpetrators and those who incite them, while avoiding harm to the large populations on both sides seeking to maintain and preserve normal life west of the Jordan River.   The hope is that after the Ramadan month, the mood will change and the attacks subside.  There is still two weeks to go.

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Proving Putin Wrong

The Australian, 18/3

The people of Ukraine have repudiated the Russian President’s claim of their nation’s ‘artificiality.’  But larger matters remain to be settled. 

Lviv

War is the great transformer.  Everything has changed in Ukraine.  I last visited Lviv in 2015. I remembered the city as a charming, slightly run-down place.  Austro-Hungarian architecture, cobbled streets and red tiled rooves. Friendly, quaint. Full of potential in the right hands, people would say. Now this west Ukrainian city has become the epicenter for the largest movement of people seen in Europe since 1945.  1.4 million Ukrainians have made their way to Poland since February 24th, the day that the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced.  The majority of these have passed through Lviv. 

Traffic moves at a snail’s pace through the packed city.  At the main station, a teeming throng of refugees from all over Ukraine seek to board the evacuation trains to Przemsyl. 

The war, for the most part, remains far away to the east.  But it is getting closer. There have been missile strikes on the neighboring cities of Lutzk and Ivano-Frankivsk, and most recently in Lviv province itself, where a Russian attack took 35 lives on Sunday.

The atmosphere among the crowds of refugees at the station is nevertheless calm and ordered. There is no shoving, or pushing, no shouting.  The refugee crowd consists overwhelmingly of women, children and elderly people.  Men under 60 are forbidden from leaving the country.  The fathers and sons are back in the east, many of them mobilized in the framework of the army or the Territorial Defense Forces. 

I am travelling in the other direction from the refugees, across from Poland and heading eastwards, with the intention of reaching the capital, Kyiv.  There are reports that it might be encircled soon.  The Russians are seeking to advance from the north west, and from the east.  Only the southerly route remains open. 

In one of the small and unexpected victories which Ukraine has achieved over the last two weeks, transport to and from the besieged capital has been maintained.  These trains, of old, Soviet vintage, operate according to no regular timetable.  The journeys are affected by frequent changes of route because of Russian bombings.  The windows are blacked out, in a forlorn attempt to guard against aerial attack. 

But the rail service, crucially like the Ukrainian state as a whole, has not collapsed.  Contrary to many expectations, not least apparently those of the Russian leadership, Ukrainian state structures have proven over the last two weeks to possess a hardy durability.   

This unexpected resilience of structures and institutions itself derives from an additional factor which Putin apparently failed to predict.  Namely, the vigor of Ukrainian national identity itself, and the willingness of Ukrainians to sacrifice themselves in its defence. 

The question of Ukrainian nationhood is the central point at issue in this conflict.  Putin, in a long essay published in July, 2021 entitled “On The Historical Unity Of Russia And Ukraine,’ expounded the thesis which underlies his invasion.  According to the Russian leader, Ukrainian national identity is a fraud, a product of western geo-political scheming intended to weaken Russia and encroach on its borders.  The Ukrainians, in this view, are wayward siblings of the Russian nation, who must be brought, by force if necessary, back to their true loyalties and affiliations.

The invasion, behind the bizarre talk of ‘denazifying’ and ‘demilitarizing’ Ukraine, is an attempt to advance this thesis by force. 

My own motives for coming to Ukraine at this time are a combination of the professional and the personal.  I have been following the Ukraine story since 2014, when I reported on the protests at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti.  I have reported also from the frontlines in the Donbass region. 

It is now in retrospect possible to see that what we witnessed among the few hundred protestors on frozen Independence Square in 2013/14, was history in the making.  It was the first move in a process which has now precipitated the return of conventional warfare to Europe. 

There is a more personal side too, and here one must tread carefully.  I am, from a certain but complex and problematic point of view, of Ukrainian ancestry.  My maternal ancestors were among those Jewish subjects of the Russian Empire who left its Ukrainian dominions for the west in the early 20th century. 

Any claiming of connections from this feels immediately forced, inauthentic. The Jews of this area at that time did not feel ‘Ukrainian’ in any sense. They did not speak the Ukrainian language.  The area is remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a place of oppression and suffering.  Ukrainian national identity, if it is considered at all, is traditionally seen as something hostile. This is the reason why many, especially older Jewish people find it difficult even now, even when beleaguered Ukraine is led by a Jewish president, to feel unencumbered sympathy and solidarity with Kyiv.  Memories are entangled. There is much which cannot be reconciled. Nevertheless, I want to be here.    

The train east to Kyiv was nearly empty.  I shared my compartment with an Orthodox priest who was making his way back to his congregants in the beleaguered city.  Rostislav, 37, a native of Lviv, had spent the previous two days settling his wife and two sons in with his parents in the safer western city. 

On the near empty platform for the Kyiv train, we had watched as the yellow jacketed volunteers handed out plastic cups of tea to the refugees on the opposite side waiting for the evacuation trains to Poland.  I had remarked on the good order and cheerful demeanor of the crowds.  ‘I’m proud of my people,’ the priest had told me. 

Kyiv

We reached Kyiv by the morning, the city like a lunar landscape as we made our way from the station.  In the half hour walk from the station to my hotel off the main thoroughfare of Kreschatyk, we saw two people.  A middle aged man asked us if we knew of any food shops that were open.  An old lady wanted to know if we were aware of a pharmacy in the local area. 

I had been in Kyiv in September, 2021.  I remembered the crowds on Kreschatyk in the late autumn evening.  The couples walking in verdant and peaceful Marinsky Park. What was to come was entirely unimaginable. And now – apartment blocks with every curtain drawn and no lights.  Air raid sirens piercing the air every few hours.  Speeding military vehicles and uniformed men. Everything changed.  War. 

The auxiliaries of the Territorial Defense Forces are busily at work fortifying every street in the city for the battle that may be to come.  The Russians are only 20km from the city center, at their furthest point of advance.  Chechen mercenaries have arrived to the vicinity of Kyiv. 

Anti-tank ‘hedgehogs,’ made from carved up rail tracks are strewn across the main crossing points. They are at the Maidan too.    

Teams of civilians, wearing the yellow armbands of the Territorial Defernse can be seen busily filling sandbags. The sandbags are then used by the volunteers to build firing positions.  One may assume that similar positions are being constructed inside the empty apartment blocks.  This is a city preparing for a fight for its survival. 

Those who have remained are a mobilized population.  Ukrainians know that their capital is the focal point of the offensive, the place in which the war will be won or lost by Russia.  There are constant rumors of imminent assault. 

Moscow’s resources are not infinite.  One of the most insightful analysts of Russian military capacity, Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses, estimated last week that Putin has perhaps three weeks until large parts of the force he has sent become no longer operable. 

This means that the Russian leader must increase the tempo and intensity of the attack in the days ahead, or face the prospect of the eclipse of his aims. 

The latest movements around the capital suggest that Kyiv may be the area chosen for an upcoming attempt by the Russian leader to emphatically change the dynamic of his stalled offensive.

The 40 mile long Russian convoy that has been making its way from Belarus since February 24has now  begun to disperse around the city.  Howitzers are being deployed in firing positions.  Armored units are deploying in starting points north of the capital, at Antonov airport and other locations.

At an improvised casualty clearing station prepared by the volunteers in Kyiv, the atmosphere was primed and poised.  Crossing the courtyard of the abandoned private hospital where the volunteers have established themselves, I observed fighters taking part in a lesson in the use of quadcopters. These cheap, small, commercially available drones were first used in large numbers in the insurgent battles of the Middle East over the last decade. They will prove a vital element in any battle for Kyiv’s streets. 

‘Our function here will be evacuation from the battlefield, first medical aid and stabilization, and then evacuation to the hospital,’  34 year old Taras Topol, a paramedic at the facility, tells me.  ‘We are waiting and preparing.’

They have already suffered their first casualties.  On February 27, the building was struck by a Russian missile.  One killed, one badly injured. 

Taras, in civilian life, is a famous singer in Ukraine.  His band Antityla (Antibodies) deals in the emotional, Slavic folk tinged pop rock which is part of the aural landscape here.

‘Putin has made everything clear,’ Taras continues.  ‘Everyone has seen it.  Putin is the devil. We have one enemy. A lot of people in Ukraine didn’t understand before. Putin is our enemy.  Two or three days of the invasion and now everyone understands it.  Every bomb he drops makes everyone understand.  So now there’s a total support of the Ukrainian army and of our resistance. No ‘variants,’ and everyone doing what they can.’ 

There is an alert as we are speaking. An unidentified helicopter has been sighted above the area. Rapidly, we are escorted to our car as the position prepares for a possible attack 

I left Kyiv after four days, joining the flow of refugees on the evacuation trains, first back to Lviv, then on from there across the Polish border to Przemsyl. 

On the 36 hour train journey from the capital to Poland, I met Tatiana, from the town of Bucha just outside Kyiv. Until last week she was an IT worker. Now she is a refugee.  Her husband has rejoined the regular army and is deployed outside the capital. Their apartment was destroyed by a direct hit from a missile. 

‘And it was just after we had finished really getting it ready, just as we’d wanted it,’ she muses, with a smile that’s half regretful, half an ironic acknowledgement of the insanity of the situation. We are standing in open ground by our train, which has made a stop before the border.  Snow is softly falling. 

The Road Ahead

These people wont’t be beaten, it occurs to me. Whatever the immediate tactical outcome of the fighting in the days ahead, they have already won. The thesis that Vladimir Putin wanted to test, concerning the supposed feebleness and artificiality of Ukrainian nationhood, has been conclusively disproven. 

But of course Putin’s thesis is not concerned with Ukraine alone.  At the Maidan in 2014, at the start of all this, I remember seeing US and EU flags raised. Without irony and in deadly earnest.  The Ukrainian desire to draw close to the free life available in the west is also part of what the Russian dictator is trying to snuff out.  Alongside his now disproved notion of Ukraine as brittle and breakable, the Russian leader perceives the western world as rudderless, disunited, incapable of rising to the defence of its allies – an ‘empire of lies,’ as he referred to it on February 28. 

This part of his thesis awaits decisive refutation. The stakes are high. Fears are growing that, frustrated by his army’s failure, the Russian leader could order the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine in the next period. Putin’s assault on Ukraine is an attack on the global order that has existed since 1991.  His victory or defeat will determine the future shape and balance of global affairs.   

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Ukraine invasion opens a new era

Australian, 25/02.

06:00 Moscow time (UTC+3), on Thursday, February 24th, 2022, is likely to be remembered as one of those hinge moments on which history turns.  At that hour, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation with the goal of what he referred to as the “demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine.’  The Russian president described the action about to be undertaken as a long-overdue strike against an American-led world order that he characterized as an “empire of lies.”

The operation, which commenced shortly after the Russian leader’s statement, appears to be nothing less than an effort to reverse the course of events in Europe since the ending of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The implications for the international system, and for the sovereign rights of states and peoples, are grave. 

Reports coming in from Ukraine indicate that the first phase of this operation, currently under way,  is an effort to destroy Ukraine’s air defense infrastructure.   The list of targets struck now extends to the far west of Ukraine, close to the border with Poland.  The western Ukrainian cities of Ivano Frankivsk and Lutsk have received fire. Foreign embassies have now relocated in their entirety across the border to Poland.   

Michael Kofman, a Russia analyst at the Center for a New American Security, tweeting on Thursday categorized the current targets as ‘air defense, command and control, logistics, air bases and air fields, but also large force concentrations.’ 

Russian ground forces, meanwhile, have now crossed in from Belarus, to Ukraine’s north, and from Crimea. Incursions have also taken place into the Luhansk, Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Zhytomyr districts.  There is a real possibility that the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, could soon find itself surrounded and then occupied by Russian forces. 

There had been rumors of what was coming.  A Ukrainian military analyst informed me and other colleagues on Monday that ‘with 90% certainty’ a large scale invasion would begin on the 24th. The messages emerging from  western governments regarding the likely imminence of the invasion had been clear and unambiguous.  But the speed and ferocity of what is now transpiring nevertheless caught Ukrainians and outside observers alike by surprise.  Shock and awe is clearly the Russian intention. Putin wants to pulverize Ukraine’s capacity for conventional resistance in the shortest possible time. 

But to what larger purpose?  The extreme and even bizarre terms used by the Russian president – ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification’, no less, of a country with a Jewish president many of whose family members perished in the Holocaust – confirm the far reaching dimensions and objectives of what is taking place.

‘They want to destroy the state of Ukraine. Putin wants to crush it, so that it no longer exists,’  is the unambiguous verdict of Mykola, a 35 year old Kiev based journalist, regarding Moscow’s goals.  Mykola is an old friend and colleague of mine from the days when we covered the protests at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti together, in 2014.  He spoke to me this morning from his apartment in the city. 

‘I expect that they will create some quasi state on the east bank of the Dniepr. They wont go into the west,’ he continued. ‘Putin doesn’t see that as part of ‘Russia.’  

As for the mood in the city, ‘people are calm. Many already left, but people are generally calm…our cafeteria’s still open, by the way.’  The ‘cafeteria’ is a favorite bar of ours close to the Arsenalna metro station. I had planned to meet Mykola there next week.  With Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport under missile attack, these plans will have to be postponed, for a while.  Maybe a long while. 

Mykola and other Kievans I spoke to who preferred not to be named noted that they expect the Russians to seek to avoid widespread damage to the infrastructure of the city, if they can.  This, after all, is an invasion, in the Russian telling, of a brother-people, intended to bring them back into the fold.

The focus, instead, will be to hit at key strategic points, crippling Ukraine’s military capacities and rendering organized, state level resistance impossible.  It remains to be seen if this will be rapidly achieved.

The levels of resistance that will then emerge from the Ukrainian civilian populace also remain currently unknown.  Putin may well have considered that the relatively recent vintage of Ukrainian independence, and the Russian speaking traditions of many central and eastern Ukrainians, might ensure rapid acquiescence, once the initial blitzkrieg phase of the operation currently under way is concluded.   

He will also have noted that central and eastern Ukraine, which largely consist of flatlands under cultivation outside of the large cities, are hardly ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare.  

In this expected quiescence, however, the Russian leader may have mis-calculated, leaving his forces or their local puppets vulnerable to an insurgency that may follow the conclusion of conventional operations.  The eclipse of Ukraine’s conventional forces, however, bereft of allies and support, is a foregone conclusion. 

It is worth stating clearly what is currently under way in Ukraine, in order that the severity of the moment be fully understood.  Vladimir Putin is currently in the process of seeking to wipe an internationally recognized sovereign state off the map.  The Russian leader intends to reduce Ukraine once more to the vassal status from which it declared independence in 1991.  No such effort has been undertaken in Europe since the darkest days of the 1940s.  Further afield, one would need to recall Saddam Hussein’s abortive effort to wipe Kuwait out of existence in 1990 to find a parallel. 

In that instance, in those distant days just after the end of the Cold War, a US led coalition firmly re-established the sovereign borders of the attacked country. 

No such coalition will be coming to the rescue of Ukraine.  It is likely, however, that the missiles now landing on cities all over Ukraine are the opening salvos of a new competition that will dominate global affairs in the period to come.  Vladimir Putin has just driven a stake through the heart of what remained of the ‘rules based international order’.   There was always much less to that order than its adherents claimed.  Now its obituary can be written.    

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a new period of power politics and great power competition opens up.  Putin has demonstrated that it will be a time of ruthless aggression. 

The question remaining is whether it will also be characterized by a determined resistance to that aggression.   

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Putin’s Masquerades

Jerusalem Post, 18/2

Past Russian practices of deception and intimidation may offer clues as to the direction of events in Ukraine

History moves in curious patterns. The countdown to the current fraught moment in Ukraine may be accurately identified.  It began nine years ago, on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in Kiev, in the winter of 2013/14.  Ukraine, independent since 1991, chose irrevocably at that time to link its fortunes to those of the west.

What began as a small protest against the suspension of an EU association agreement turned into a stark challenge to the then prevailing pro-Russian power structure in the country.  I reported from Kiev and from the Maidan in December, 2013.   The issues now at stake on the border were apparent then, both in the organization of the Maidan protest itself, and in the response of its enemies.  Patterns of activity then visible may offer clues to the current direction of events. 

The Maidan was chaotic, shambolic and without real leadership. But spending time there, it rapidly became apparent that it was also a genuine gathering of civil society.  It brought together those forces in Ukrainian society whose aspirations were towards western style democratic practice, and away from the despotic traditions to the east.  There were nationalist and chauvinist forces present on the square, of course. But the prevailing spirit was one of volunteerism, open and tireless debate and grassroots civil organization. 

The nature of the opposing forces was also apparent.  The ‘political technologists’ that specialize in disinformation,  in Russia’s famous ‘maskirovka’ (masquerade, or war by deception), that conjure up political movements and moments out of the air using money, muscle and deception, were busy in Kiev that winter.  Coalminers from the Donbass, paid by the hour,  were bussed in by the Yanukovich government. They organized their own rival ‘demonstration’ across town, in Marinsky Park.  The Berkut security forces working with these men hunted down and terrorized activists by night.    The strategy was an odd combination of uncompromising brutality combined with subtle masquerade. The intended effect – to produce disorientation in the adversary.

The Maidan was victorious. Yanukovich lost control of the situation and of the security forces in February , 2014, and fled to Moscow.  As is common, successful revolution was followed rapidly by war.  The fighting in the east in 2014/15, and on a lower intensity ever since, was testimony to Moscow’s refusal to accept the verdict.  The appearance of hitherto unknown ‘separatist’ movements in Donetsk and Luhansk at that time, meanwhile, loudly demanding autonomy for their regions, was an indication that masquerade remained the preferred Russian partner to the application of force.   

It is now clear  that  the stalemate that has prevailed since 2015 was not Vladimir Putin’s last word on the matter.  As now seems apparent, Moscow is determined to decisively and conclusively reverse the western direction that has tentatively prevailed in Ukraine since the Maidan.  Domination of Ukraine’s foreign policy options and a decisive say in its internal political arrangements are the goal. The objective is the effective neutering of Ukrainian independence.  

Why now? What precipitated this sudden escalation? Ukraine’s western trajectory has been apparent since the Maidan’s victory in 2014.  But under President Volodymyr Zelensky, the pace and intensity has increased.  Zelensky arrested a close associate and ally of Putin’s – Victor Medvechuk, early in his period of incumbency.  He has closed down three pro-Putin TV channels. A law signed by his predecessor requiring all national print media to be published in Ukrainian came into effect on Zelensky’s watch.

Ukrainian civil society and its armed forces, meanwhile, have grown steadily stronger, more confident and better organized since 2014/15.  Ukraine is seeking to move on from the period of close Russian influence in its public life.  The breakaway ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, far from constituting ongoing tools of pressure for Moscow, have come increasingly to resemble sealed off areas of dysfunction. 

Moscow has apparently concluded that any chance of a slow, incremental and undramatic recouping of influence is now closed. It has therefore decided to escalate.  The core aim is to achieve a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.  Moscow also seeks the implementation of the 2015 Minsk II protocols, which will grant the breakaway regions autonomy and allow Russia to re-insert its clients in the east of the country back into Ukrainian politics.

The desire to reverse the direction of events in Ukraine and force Kiev back under its influence, however, is only half the story.  Putin, it appears, has chosen to make Ukraine the arena for the deciding of a larger issue – namely, the future security architecture of central and eastern Europe. Hence, Moscow is demanding a commitment that no further member states be admitted to NATO, that military forces and infrastructure be removed from the territory of member states that have joined since May 1997, and that the US pledge also  not to develop bilateral defense ties with Ukraine and Georgia.  These demands were presented to the US in two draft defense treaties, in December of last year.  They constitute, in essence, a call for the reversal of the security balance in central and eastern Europe to the situation which pertained immediately following the dissolution of the USSR. 

These larger demands place the Ukraine situation in its proper context.  The desire to reimpose control on Ukraine forms an element in a project of revanchism.  Putin is trying to re-constitute the reach of the old Soviet Union deep into Europe. 

So what happens next? Russian military deployments along the northern, eastern and southern (maritime) borders of Ukraine are clearly intended to keep Kiev and the west guessing. A number of operations, or a combination of them, despite the unverified reports of ‘withdrawals’ of the last 48 hours, remain feasible.  Most dramatically, Moscow might seek to make a rapid push for Kiev, using forces assembled in Belarus.  A push south west from the Donbass enclave to unite this Russian area of control with the Crimea is also feasible.  Less likely but also possible would be an amphibious operation to conquer Odessa and cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.  Alternatively, Russia could simply begin a standoff artillery and aerial bombardment of targets in Ukraine, intended to force concessions from the leadership in Kiev. Or, of course, such a bombardment could be used to precede  any of  the other three options outlined, or a combination thereof. 

Interestingly, however, both Russian and Ukrainian analysts that I spoke to this week were much less convinced regarding the likelihood of imminent invasion than were the western media and apparently the US Administration. 

The notion that Putin must either rapidly deploy the force he has assembled on the borders or stand it down is inaccurate. As Michael Kofman, a Russia analyst at Center for a New American Security wrote in late January, ‘’The Russian military is deploying a large force slowly, and deliberately, with equipment that can be parked in the field for months.’ Neither financial constraints, nor public pressure will cause the Russian leader to make haste.   

Many of those closely analysing the situation question whether the forces assembled, sizeable as they are, would be anywhere near sufficient to carry out the conquest and subsequent holding of cities and large areas of territory. 

It is therefore distinctly possible that  Russian leader still intends to achieve his goals in the hybrid 21st century fashion, using a build-up of military force to apply pressure and produce panic in his enemies, causing the west to abandon firm commitments to the government in Kiev out of fear of war, and then leaving that government with no choice but to abandon its western trajectory.   The political technologists, operating their puppets on the Ukrainian political stage, would then return to work.  That is, the methods of subversion and political and psychological warfare that failed to break the Maidan may not have been entirely abandoned now for conventional military options.  Rather, the same combination of brute force and subtle masquerade appears to now be in play. 

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Turkey’s Ethnic Cleansing Strategy in Syria uses Israeli-Arab NGO

Jerusalem Post, 4/2

On June 21, 2021, a newly built mosque was inaugurated in the village of Sheikh Khurez, in north west Syria, close to the Turkish border.  Sheikh Khurez is located in the part of Syria under the nominal administration of the opposition-linked ‘Syrian Interim Government.’ In practice, since the Turkish Armed Forces’ Operation Olive Branch of 2018 destroyed the Kurdish Afrin Canton, the area has been under the de facto rule of Ankara and its associated militias.  The latter are organized in the framework of the Turkish trained and financed Syrian National Army. 

The opening of a small mosque in a remote corner of north west Syria six months ago might generally be seen as an unremarkable event.  The new house of prayer in Sheikh Khurez, however, was noteworthy because of a particular detail.  Namely, the identity of the organization which had sponsored the mosque’s construction, and whose logo is displayed at its entrance. 

The organization in question is called the ‘Jamia’at al aish bi’Karama’, or  ‘Living with Dignity Association.’  This body is based not in Syria, but in the city of Tira, in central Israel.  It achieved some prominence last year, because of the support it afforded to Arab residents of Jerusalem protesting planned expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah. It is linked to other organizations supporting a Sunni Islamist outlook, of the type represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the government of Turkey.  

So what is a Tira charity, apparently devoted to the Palestinian cause, doing building mosques in northern Syria?

To understand, it is necessary first to recall the events of early 2018.   At that time, Syrian Sunni Islamist militias supported by Turkey entered the Afrin area.  Around 300,000 people, mainly Kurds, became refugees following the destruction of the Afrin Canton.  Most of these individuals then made their way to Kurdish controlled north east Syria.  Many of them remain in refugee camps within this area. 

Since that time, Turkey has been engaged in the large scale resettlement in Afrin of Syrian Sunni Arab refugees formerly resident in Turkey.  Turkey claims that 330,000 Syrians have been relocated to the Afrin areas and other parts of northern Syria conquered by Turkey in earlier operations, since 2018.

Most of these families hail from majority Sunni Arab areas of Syria which came under rebel control during the civil war and were then reconquered by the Assad regime, such as the Damascus countryside, Homs and Hama governorates, and southern Idlib. 

A considerable number of Palestinian families caught up by the war have also been re-settled in Afrin. According to a January 28 report at the Rohani website (a news outlet associated with the Kurdish authority in north east Syria), 1535 Palestinian families have been resettled in the Afrin area.  These families hail from the Yarmouk refugee camp, Khan al Sheikh and other areas south of Damascus. 

Living with Dignity’s Facebook page indicates that the organization does not appear to prioritize the interests of these Palestinian displaced persons who have been resettled in Afrin.

Rather, the organization is a participant in the Turkish-led effort to insert a new, Sunni Arab population along the border between Syria and Turkey.   The mosque at Sheikh Khurez is a small detail in a larger strategy of transformation, supported by Ankara, and carried out under the auspices of the Islamist Syrian National Army.  The intention is to permanently transform the demographic and cultural identity of traditionally secular and multi-ethnic Afrin. 

The remaining non Sunni/non Arab populations in Afrin whose communities are the target of this effort include some of the most oppressed and impoverished in Syria.  Living with Dignity has, for example, also financed the construction of a new housing complex for Arab refugees known as ‘Basma’ which is located just south of the Yezidi village of Shadira, 15 km from the Syrian-Turkish border. The now completed housing complex consists of 8 units, totalling 96 apartments. Each apartment is 50 square meters. A mosque, a school, a health center have also been built for the new village. Around 500 Syrian Arab refugees have since been re housed there.  The complex was built on the land of one Ziad Habib, a resident of Shadira who claims that he was coerced into selling the area. 

According to Kurdish sources, the authorities in this area are currently forcing remaining Yezidi residents of the village to attend compulsory Islamic education, and Yezidi residents are also required to recite the Shahadah (a declaration of Islamic faith).   Six similar such villages are under construction along the Syrian Turkish border.   The specific goal appears to be the seeding of a loyal Sunni Arab population along the borderline, as part of the larger demographic transformation under way.  

The Yezidis, a Kurdish-speaking, non-Muslim population in northern Syria and northern Iraq, were the subject of an attempted genocide at the hands of the Islamic State organization in the 2014-19 period.  Widely reviled by Muslims in the area as ‘devil worshippers,’ they remain the victims of widespread prejudice.

Living with Dignity has also, according to regional media, taken part in land seizures from a Syrian Kurdish citizen in the Tal Tawil area, and has financed the construction of mosques in Tal Tawil and the village of Ikidam, all within the framework of the larger project of transformation outlined above.

Living with Dignity, on its Facebook page, solicits donations for its housing projects in Syria, which it refers to under the title of the ‘Noble Housing’ plan.  The advertisement for this project includes details of a Bank Hapoalim account to which donations can be made, and the information that the cost of construction of a single housing unit is NIS 16000. 

The organization’s Facebook page notes that it raises money for these endeavors in a number of Israeli Arab (or ’48 Palestinian’, as it refers to them) communities, including Kalansua, Umm al-Fahm, Jaljulia, and al-Tira. 

This Israeli Arab/Palestinian charity is a single component in a larger archipelago of Islamic organizations involved in the project of resettlement of Arab refugees in Afrin. These include the ‘Ayad al-Bayda’ (White Hands) organization, with which Living with Dignity cooperates closely.  This group, established in 2013, according to its website in turn cooperates with Muslim Brotherhood associated charities and NGOs from the Gulf, including the Kuwait based Rahma International and Zakat House, and the Qatar based Qatar al-Khairiya. 

Pro Syrian regime and other anti-Erdogan outlets have carried a number of articles on this process of ethnic displacement and demographic transformation.  They have, unsurprisingly, found a way to blame Israel for it. Syrian commentator Khayyam al-Zoubi, writing at the Arabic language al Rai al Youm website in June 2021, asserted that the resettlement of Arab refugees in Afrin forms part of a ‘Turkish Zionist conspiracy to deport the Palestinians by uprooting them from the occupied 1948 area to northern Syria, to settle at the expense of Yezidi and non Yezidi Syrians, in order to implement its agenda to destroy Syria.’  A pro-PKK Kurdish language Twitter account also suggested that Israel’s government must surely have ‘approved’ the financial contributions of Israeli Arab charities to this project. An article in Arabic at Ronahi website laments that Palestinian involvement with Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood ‘contradicts the essence of their just cause.’   

Pointing out contradictions is not entirely out of place.  The same bodies which argue against alleged ethnic displacement in one context defend and assist it in another. There is nevertheless a deeper consistency apparent here.  Islamist activities in Syria and further south share an essential component – namely, the view that Arab and Muslim communities alone are present in the relevant area by right and with moral agency.  They and they alone are seen to have a right to a life with dignity. Tactics may differ according to the relevant local power balance.  This core viewpoint, however, appears common to both contexts. 

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Iran: the China Connection

1/2

With the world focused on the crisis in Ukraine, a joint exercise in the Indian Ocean involving the navies of Iran, China and Russia passed largely un-noticed last week. The exercise, dubbed ‘2022 Marine Security Belt’ was the third of its kind.  It focused on tactical cooperation between the forces. 

Largely overlooked, this naval drill on the high seas signposted processes of potentially no less geo-strategic import for the world than the 127,000 Russian troops currently waiting on the borders of Ukraine.   The drill was a demonstration of China’s growing naval reach. It was also an indication of a slowly crystallizing strategic alliance of countries committed to a fundamental re-shaping of the global order. 

In the Middle East, the relevant component of this gradually emergent bloc is the China-Iran connection.  It’s a developing concern. 

On March 27, 2021, Beijing and Teheran signed a 25 year strategic agreement, intended to lead to $400 billion of Chinese investment in the Iranian economy. But of greater immediate practical import, China is the chief enabler of Iranian defiance of US sanctions, through its purchase of Iranian oil.  China imported 260,312 tonnes of Iranian crude oil in December, according to official Chinese figures. 

Unofficially, the level of Chinese import of Iranian oil remains steady at about 500,000 barrels a day.  This constant flow is a kind of insurance policy for Teheran. 

It has already had considerable consequence.  These imports were the crucial factor in enabling the Iranians to ride out the worst days of the Trump Administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy. 

Confidence in China’s continued support undoubtedly lies behind the uncompromising stances currently held by Iran in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna.  China’s stance ensures that the west cannot realistically threaten Teheran with economic collapse in the event of defiance.  This is a powerful booster enabling the continuation of  Teheran’s regional strategy of subversion in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.  If the talks in Vienna fail, it will similarly have been a significant contributory factor. 

Military cooperation, however, is the key element of concern to US allies in the Mid-East.  In a recent article for INSS, Israel’s premier national security think tank, Brigadier General (Res) Assaf Orion described the situation in the following terms: ‘The strategic agreement between China and Iran, to the extent that the draft reflects the final version, outlines a zone of agreement on cooperation in intelligence, cyberwarfare, precision navigation systems, weapons research and development, and military training and instruction.’

The former general called the prospect of the further advance of this trend ‘alarming’ for Israel.

The picture here is not simple.  China has not sought to develop its relations with Iran at the direct expense of other regional connections.  Its preference, rather, has been to ignore the divides, secure that its size and heft ensure its capacity to do this. 

So alongside the strategic partnership with Iran, Beijing has flourishing relations with Iran’s regional enemies and adversaries. 

Saudi Arabia remains Beijing’s main Mid-Eastern supplier of energy. China is Israel’s third biggest trading partner, behind the US and the EU.  UAE-China relations are also deep and extensive. Abu Dhabi and Beijing in 2019 signed $3.4 billion worth of deals directly related to China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. The Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean are vital nodes on the  ‘Maritime Silk Road’, a series of trade routes intended to run from China’s south coast to Europe. 

A new terminal at Israel’s Haifa port, operated by Shanghai International Port Group, opened in September, 2021. 

So currently, there’s an odd situation in which even as Beijing lines up closer to Iran, Iran’s regional enemies seek to develop closer relations with China. 

Why is this happening?  It’s happening largely because of a credibility deficit.  US allies, even the closest and strongest among them,  believe less and less in the possibility of a strong, US-led architecture sufficient to ensure against shared enemies.  So they are seeking to ‘hedge’ their bets with the new emerging power. 

There is a corresponding greater reluctance to pay heed to US concerns re China in the region, because there is a growing sense that a reciprocal commitment will not be forthcoming as a result.  Regional events going back to the failure to back allied regimes in Egypt and Tunisia during the ‘Arab Spring’, and up to and including the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan have contributed to this effect. 

Unfortunately, the inexorable logic of emergent cold war is likely to continue to push Beijing further toward Teheran, the courtship dances of regional US allies notwithstanding.

What might serve to reverse this, and make up the credibility deficit?  It’s easy to think of immediate policy stances that could contribute.  Clear support for the ongoing UAE/Saudi effort to resist the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, and a return of the Houthis to the list of designated terror organizations, as a response to last week’s drone and missile attack on Dubai and Abu Dhabi would be positive steps. 

But the broader point here is the importance of recognizing that Cold Wars like the emergent one between the US and China will find their way to all global strategic arenas.  The notion of challenging China in the Indo-Pacific while ignoring its ambitions elsewhere won’t work.  The upshot of any such attempt will be to cede vital arenas to the adversary.  ‘Operation 2022 Maritime Security Belt’ in the Indian Ocean isn’t the only security belt that Beijing is offering Teheran. As of now, the China connection is enabling Iran to maintain its defiance on all relevant fronts.   

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Iranian attacks in Iraq reflect weakness, disarray


Jerusalem Post, 21/1

A series of bomb and grenade attacks have taken place over the last week in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. They were directed at financial facilities and political offices associated with a  number of factions currently taking part in negotiations toward the formation of a new Iraqi government.  These incidents  follow a number of rocket and drone attacks on US and coalition facilities in Iraq and Syria. The latter came after the marking of the second anniversary of the killing of IRGC/Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Units leader Abu Mahdi al Muhandis by the US on January 3, 2020. 

There is no great mystery regarding who is responsible for these incidents.  Given the nature of the targets, they were clearly carried out by pro-Iran elements.  But the timing and nature of the incidents, and their intensity, are significant.  They are an indication not of Iranian strength, but rather of the relative disarray and confusion observable in the pro-Iran camp in Iraq at the present moment.  

First, the Baghdad attacks. These took place following the opening of the new session of the Iraqi parliament, on January 9.  The sites targeted were the headquarters of three political parties – the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the Taqadum Coalition and the Azm Alliance.  The latter two are lists representing the Iraqi Sunni Arab population.  Two financial institutions associated with the Kurdish Democratic Party – the Kurdistan Bank and the Kurdish owned Cihan Bank – were also targeted. 

There were no deaths in any of these incidents. A number of people were wounded. 

KDP, Azm and Taqqadum are non-Shia political formations currently engaged in negotiating with the Shia Sairun list of Muqtada al-Sadr for the formation of a governing coalition which would exclude the pro-Iranian elements.  No group claimed responsibility for the incidents in Baghdad.  But it may be stated with near certainty that these  grenade attacks were the pro-Iran militias expressing their displeasure, in their own inimitable style.   

The attacks are the latest indication of the relative disarray in which the Shia militias and the Iranian interest in Iraq find themselves, since the elections of October 11. 

In those polls, the militia supported Fatah list suffered a precipitious decline in support, and subsequent representation in the 328 member Iraqi parliament.  Thanks to disorganization, disunity and a mis-reading of a new electoral law, leading to faulty election tactics, the Fatah list went down from 48 seats in the parliament to 17.  Governments in Iraq in recent years have consisted of coalitions, bringing together disparate and even opposed elements.  The pro-Iran element needs to be in government, in order to maintain the legal status of its militias, continue the flow of funds to the Popular Mobilization Units (the official body that gives the militias their legal status), and ensure that no serious attempt at dismantling or confronting the Iranian parallel state by a government in Iraq takes place. 

The decline in electoral representation was the result not of a loss of popular support for the pro-Iran camp, but of simple mismanagement.  In terms of votes, the Fatah list received more than that of Sadr – 670,000 to 650,000. Disunity, mistaken tactics and incompetence produced the drastic difference in the allocation of seats. 

Months of unrest in Baghdad followed as the militias, specifically Ktaeb Hizballah and Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, organized protests by members of their movements and militiamen, demanding a recount of the results.  Tensions reached their height with a drone attack on the residence of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi in November.  But the unrest and attempts at intimidation failed to achieve their objective. No recount was forthcoming.

At the opening of parliament on January 9th, pro-Iranian factions, now organized in the ‘Coordination Framework,’ sought to disrupt proceedings.  Specifically, they tried (and failed) to prevent the election of Mohammed Halbousi, leader of the Sunni Taqadum list, as speaker of the parliament. 

The appointment of Halbousi to this position has been interpreted by many Iraqi analysts as indicating that Sadr intends to seek to form a government with his main, non-Shia  allies, rather than seeking to create a unity coalition involving both main Shia blocs. 

The grenade attacks were the response of the pro-Iran element to this development.  They targeted those non-Shia elements which Sadr will need as the basic building blocks for any coalition excluding the Shia militia element. 

The attacks on US and Coalition positions, meanwhile, included the launching of four rockets on the US embassy in Baghdad on January 12, two drone attacks on the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq’s Anbar Province, and rocket fire on the Coalition/Syrian Democratic Forces’  ‘Green Village’ base in eastern Syria.  There were no fatalities.  The US-led coalition responded to the rocketing of the base in Syria with artillery fire on the source of the rockets. This was near the town of Mayadin, in an area controlled by the Iran-supported militias just west of the Euphrates river and close to the Iraqi border.  The Qassim al-Jabarin Brigade, a front for Ktaeb Hizballah, claimed responsibility for the firing on Ain al-Asad. 

There are no indications that operations on this level will shift the small but significant US deployments in Iraq and Syria.  The uptick in rocket fire appears more as a kind of ritual response to the killings of Soleimani and al-Muhandis than as the opening salvo of a determined effort to expel western forces.

Regarding the actions against political opponents, the next hurdles for the parliament will be choosing a new president, and then a new prime minister, over the next two months.  The Iranians and their militias are pursuing a familiar ‘strategy of tension,’ designed to  produce a feeling of intimidation among opponents and deter them from clear moves in the direction of exclusion of the Iranian interest from a role in government.  It is now Sadr’s move.  Moqtada al-Sadr himself, of course, is hardly a consistent opponent of the Iranians.  It may well be that he will continue to prefer to weave a complex and inconsistent path between the Iranians and their enemies, rather than enter a path toward confrontation between his own militia and those of Teheran.  But the very fact that the key decision now is in the hands of Sadr is testimony to the rudderlessness of Iranian strategy in Iraq at present.

It is difficult to imagine the present confusion and disarray taking place under the stewardship of Soleimani and al-Muhandis.  Esmail Ghaani and Abd al Aziz al-Mohammadawi, their respective replacements, are evidently not of the same caliber.  From this point of view, the current impasse of the Iranian position in Iraq (and elsewhere) is perhaps the most authentic testimony to the skills of these two slain commanders.  It is an interesting confirmation of the importance of individual leaders, for all the significance of structures and systems.  Finally, of course, from the point of view of Iran’s enemies, it is testimony to the correctness of the decision to remove them.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the current malaise of Iran’s proxy strategy in Iraq is not being exploited by a determined, clear strategy on the part of the US and its allies. Rather, these are at present mainly the passive beneficiaries of Iran’s difficulties. 

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Four Mid-East Trendlines to Watch in 2022

Jerusalem Post, 7/1

As 2022 begins, the Mid-East strategic picture is in a state of flux and change.  Stable and long held assumptions about the region, its dynamics, its main players and its power structures are being challenged.  So what are the main points of friction?  Here are four emergent trendlines worth watching. 

In Israel, it became customary in recent years to identify a number of rival camps operating against one another in the Middle East. Four main blocs or alliances were identified.  These were: 1. the Iranians and their allies and proxies;  2. A loose gathering of US-aligned countries, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and a number of smaller players; 3. A gathering of countries and movements identified with conservative Sunni political Islam – including Turkey, Qatar, the Government of National Accord in Libya and the Hamas enclave in Gaza, and 4. the regional networks of Salafi jihadi political Islam, namely al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. 

As 2022 begins, however, it is clear that this picture no longer conforms in its entirety to the observable dynamics of the region. What has changed? 

The perception that the US is drawing down in the region is leading to cracks and fissures in the pro-western camp.  The picture here is not a simple one.  The Abraham Accords signed in August 2020 between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were a breakthrough of profound importance for regional diplomacy.  On the economic level, the accords have been a success.

Trade between Israel and the UAE  moved forward at an impressive pace – standing at $610 million at the half year point, and nudging $1 billion by the end of the year. Flagship and groundbreaking initiatives, such as the Emirati-brokered cooperation agreement between Israel and Jordan of November 2021, were made possible through the Accords. 

But on the strategic level, things aren’t quite so rosy.  US regional drawdown is the key issue here.  The Emiratis and other Gulf countries noted in recent years the US failure to back allied governments in Egypt and Tunisia at the start of the ‘Arab Spring,’ failure to enforce red lines and back allies in Syria from 2012-19, failure to respond to Iranian harassment of Emirati and Saudi vessels in the gulf of Oman in 2019, the non-response to the drone and missile attack on Saudi oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khureis on September 14, 2019, and to the downing of a US drone in June of that year. The hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan in summer, 2021, confirmed the picture.  The US wishes to avoid further major commitments in the Mid-East region. 

The response of Gulf countries has been to abandon notions of a power bloc to rival the advance of the Iranians – the main anti status quo force in the region. Instead, efforts were under way in 2021 by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to repair relations with Teheran, and thus ‘hedge’ between Teheran and its enemies. 

Israel, which also observes the process of US drawdown with concern, does not have the option of appeasing Iran. Teheran is committed to the Jewish state’s destruction.  As 2022 begins, with negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program going nowhere in Vienna, the emerging picture is one in which Israel is somewhat isolated as it prepares a possible military option against Iran’s nuclear program, and continues its shadow war against Iranian influence building across the region. 

Will this solitude continue across the coming year, or will the Gulf countries, disappointed in their overtures toward Iran, form up with Israel for confrontation with Teheran? The issue has relevance for Syria, too, where Israel’s campaign against Iranian advances continues, even as the major Arab countries seek the rehabilitation of the Assad regime.  This is one of the major questions now facing the Mid-East. 

The Iranians are facing dilemmas of their own.  2020 and 2021 showed the limits of the IRGC/Qods Force’s  model for building influence through proxies in the Arab world. Iran’s militia franchises remained dominant in Lebanon, ascendant in Iraq, and active on the ground in Syria and Yemen.  But the results of the presence of the militias for social and economic development were also becoming apparent.  In Lebanon, the withdrawal of economic engagement as a result of Hizballah’s domination of public life is bringing the country close to collapse.   Iraq, and Iran itself in Isfahan and elsewhere witnessed major protests against economic mismanagement and impoverishment over the last year.   Iran has no economic model to propose, and no clear answer to the identifiable economic decline and disruption which its political model brings.  Will this lead to further protests and instability in the Iranian zones of influence in 2022?  Worth watching carefully. 

For the Salafi jihadis, it has been a lean couple of years.  The ‘Caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq is already a fading memory – destroyed by US airpower and Kurdish and Iraqi ground forces in 2019.  ISIS  remains as a disruptive presence in remote Sunni areas of both countries, but little more. The erstwhile al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, meanwhile, has been co-opted by the Turks and is today dependent on their presence for its survival. 

But the west’s withdrawal from Afghanistan may offer a glimmer of hope to the Salafis.  Taliban rule in Kabul opens up the possibility of a new center for recruitment, organization and planning for both al-Qaeda and in particular, Islamic State. The latter maintains a powerful franchise in Afghanistan – Islamic State – Khorasan Province, or ‘ISIS-K.’  This structure is currently engaged in a campaign of daily bombings and attacks against the Taliban authorities.  It now has a presence in all of Afghanistan’s provinces.  Testifying to the US Congress in late October, 2021, Colin Kahl, under secretary of defense for policy, predicted that ISIS-K could develop the capacity for carrying out attacks on foreign targets within ‘six or 12 months.’ 

Large and disaffected Sunni populations remain in the main countries of the Arab world.  Political Islam has been tarnished over the last decade by its disastrous experiences in government in Egypt, and as a quasi state in parts of Iraq and Syria. At the same time, no rival ideology has emerged to replace it on the popular level.  Afganistan’s re-emergence as a possible incubator for a revived trans-national terror force is a significant development. 

Lastly, and perhaps most fatefully, the question of China and its preferred path in the Mid East looms over the region.  Geo-politics abhors a vacuum. As the US lightens its regional footprint,  China  is emerging as an increasingly significant source of power and influence in the Middle East. The region is a vital hub in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative, intended to create a series of interlinked, China-dominated trade routes across the globe. 

The question is: what form will Chinese regional engagement take. Will Beijing continue to trade with all sides, confident that its size and power precludes the need for picking allies among the competing elements? Or will the emergent US-China Cold War find its way inevitably into the Mid East too? 

There is no definitive answer yet.  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE all enjoy burgeoning trade relationships with Beijing.  A new terminal at Haifa port in Israel, operated by the state owned Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG), was inaugurated in September, 2021. 

But there are warning signs on the horizon, too. 2021 saw Iran gaining approval for its full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  On March 27, 2021, China and Iran signed a 25 year strategic agreement, intended to lead to $400 billion of Chinese investment in the Iranian economy. 

In Israel, the emerging area of deep concern is increased military cooperation between Iran and China.  In a recent article published at the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, Brigadier General (Res.) Assaf Orion noted that ‘The strategic agreement between China and Iran, to the extent that the draft reflects the final version, outlines a zone of agreement on cooperation in intelligence, cyberwarfare, precision navigation systems, weapons research and development, and military training and instruction.’ Orion described this prospect as ‘alarming’ for Israel. This trend, too, is one to carefully watch in 2022. 

The global strategic pillars are currently in motion. Will the coming period bring renewed equilibrium, or further crisis? An interesting year lies ahead for the Middle East.

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China at the Crossroads

A version of this article appeared in the Australian Newspaper, in December, 2021.

Will the US-China Cold War reach the Middle East?

The rise of China as a peer competitor to the United States is the most significant geo-political process of our time. The effort currently under way by the United States with its allies to prevent the advance of Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region is in turn the most fateful strategic project currently under way in the world. 

This turn of global focus to the Indo-Pacific region is having important ripple effects in other strategic theatres.  Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East.  In that ever tense and volatile region, the drawdown in US involvement is leading to the emergence of new power alliances. Enemies of the US, sensing advantage from the decline of the hegemon, are seeking to push forward.  US allies, meanwhile, are drawing closer together to meet this challenge.

Both allies and enemies of the west in the region have sought to maintain robust relations with Beijing.  China appears now to be tilting toward  the latter group. Yet this is not a simple picture. The trend in the coming period will largely depend on China’s own decisions in this regard.

The Chinese Are Coming

China  is emerging as an increasingly significant source of power and influence in the Middle East itself.  There are no vacuums in global strategy. Where one power departs, another will seek to move in.

The Mid-East region is a vital hub in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative, intended to create a series of interlinked, China-dominated trade routes across the globe.  China is consequently investing heavily in ports and infrastructure in the region. Of 95 current Chinese owned/operated ports abroad, 20 are in the Middle East and North Africa. 

These include the new terminal at Haifa port in Israel, operated by the state owned Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG), inaugurated in September, 2021. 

The United Arab Emirates, too, is a key hub for the export of Chinese goods.  The port of Jebel Ali, south of Dubai is a vital node on the ‘Maritime Silk Road’, intended to run from the Chinese southern coast via Dubai and the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. 

Alongside port and infrastructure projects, Chinese trade with the region is growing. Beijing needs energy sources, technological dynamism and know-how. The first exists in profusion in the Persian Gulf region. The second is in ready supply in Israel.   China is Israel’s third biggest trading partner, after the US and the EU.  It is the UAE’s second biggest – Abu Dhabi and Beijing in 2019 signed $3.4 billion worth of deals directly related to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Rising Chinese involvement in the Middle East is impacting the region. But this is not currently resulting in a ‘Cold War’ type situation analogous to that developing in the Indo-Pacific. There is at present no Mid-Eastern equivalent of ‘AUKUS,’ the new naval alliance intended to face Chinese ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Nor, exactly, does the Mid-East have an equivalent of the ‘Quad,’ the emergent gathering of loosely west aligned states again organized to provide unity against Chinese ambitions. 

Such alliances are absent in the Mid-Eastern context because  pro-western powers in the region do not (yet) share the zero-sum, Cold War view of Chinese ambitions now prevailing in Washington, Canberra, Tokyo, Seoul, and New Delhi. 

Key west-aligned Mid-East powers, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are major trading partners with Beijing.  The desire of these countries, and other traditionally US-aligned governments, has been to ‘walk between the raindrops’, to hedge their bets on the US-China issue. They want to continue to ally strategically with the USA, while at the same time benefitting from the substantial advantages of a flourishing trade relationship with China. 

US Concerns, and concerns about the US

This inclination is of concern to the US.  Noting China’s doctrine of ‘civil-military fusion’, US strategists consider that infrastructure built ostensibly for commercial purposes may also serve military goals, now or in the future. These could include intelligence collection at the present time, and perhaps in certain locations in the future the projection of military power by the Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

But US future concerns have failed to deter regional allies from involvement with China.  As a recent study by the US Naval War College noted, ‘US failure to roll back the concession won by Shanghai International Port Group at the Port of Haifa in Israel should be a cautionary tale. If a close security partner such as Israel is not persuaded that the security risks outweigh the commercial benefits, it is highly improbable that other states will forgo Chinese involvement in their critical infrastructure.’

This tendency of key Mid-East states to ‘hedge’ between Washington and Beijing has been exacerbated by the growing feeling in recent years of US absence.  Regional states don’t want to pay the cost of losing economic opportunities with China, only to then fail to recoup this through the advantage of strategic links with the US, because of the declining US interest in direct involvement in the Mid-East. 

On a number of key occasions over the last decade, the US has notably failed to come through on backing allies and keeping commitments in the Middle East.  In 2010/11, two long serving pro western leaders, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine al Abedine Bin Ali of Tunisia, were abandoned by the west and allowed to fall.  In 2013, the Obama Administration failed to enforce its own red line regarding chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria.  In 2018 and 2019, President Donald Trump twice abruptly ordered a US withdrawal from Syria, before partially walking back the decision. In September 2019, the US failed to respond to Iranian drone attacks on Saudi oil processing plants at Abqaiq and Khurais.  Finally, in August, 2021, the Biden Administration’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan confirmed the prevalent impression that the US was simply no longer centrally committed to projecting power in the neighborhood. 

China-Iran alliance?

This desire to ‘hedge’ on the part of US allies in the Mid-East has been exacerbated, because China has not appeared in recent years to be seeking to ally in the region with the enemies of the west. Rather, Beijing trades with states both aligned with and hostile to the US. 

It is deeply questionable, however, as to whether the Middle East will continue to remain outside of the emergent reality of US-China Cold War.  Cold War systems between global powers tend to end up shaping strategic realities in all significant parts of the world.  The Mid-East is unlikely to remain immune to this reality.

There are signs, indeed, that this may already be happening. An emergent alliance between Beijing and Teheran would be perhaps the only element that might change the current pattern of ‘hedging’ by regional powers. 

China and Iran on March 27, 2021 signed a 25 year strategic agreement, intended to lead to $400 billion of Chinese investment in the Iranian economy.  Beijing, by continuing oil purchases from Iran during the period of US ‘maximum pressure’ on Teheran, arguably made the major contribution to Iran’s ability to ride this period through.  In 2019, at the height of ‘maximum pressure,’ China was directly purchasing half of all Iranian oil exports.  This provided an ‘insurance policy’ for Teheran.  In September this year, Iran was accepted as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. 

Iran clearly sees China as the strategic partner it wants.  Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, addressing the SCO, said that ‘the world has entered a new era. Hegemony and unilateralism have failed.’ 

It is not yet clear, however, that China entirely shares Raisi’s enthusiasm for the partnership.  China needs stability and security for the advancement of its trade ambitions. Iran favors and fosters chaos in a variety of Arab countries, in order to advance its own power.  China likes strong central governments whose word can be relied on. Iran is the main agent in weakening central governments and strengthening its own proxies in the resultant vacuum. 

In Israel, the emerging area of deep concern is increased military cooperation between Iran and China.  In a recent article published at the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, Brigadier General (Res.) Assaf Orion noted that ‘The strategic agreement between China and Iran, to the extent that the draft reflects the final version, outlines a zone of agreement on cooperation in intelligence, cyberwarfare, precision navigation systems, weapons research and development, and military training and instruction.’ Orion described the prospect of the further advance of this trend as ‘alarming’ for Israel. 

This factor – increased direct Chinese assistance to Iranian efforts to develop military capacities, will more than all others determine the future course of events.  If Beijing prefers the path of continued ambiguity, then the extent of economic potential, and the US desire to avoid commitments to the Middle East are likely to preserve the current situation. Further moves by Beijing in the direction of strategic alliance and military assistance to Iran, however, are likely to force the issue. Such moves would be likely to produce the ‘Middle East Quad’ that the US desires. In the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, the ball is currently in Beijing’s court. 

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