A New Alliance

Jerusalem Post, 29/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PFLP: Back from the Dead?

Jerusalem Post, 15/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The aforementioned reorganization has evidently taken place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Israel’s Incoherent Strategy in Syria

Jerusalem Post, 8/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The situation is somewhat more complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Protests Re-ignite in Lebanon

Jerusalem Post, 1/5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ISIS and the Virus

Jerusalem Post, 17/4

‘Ghost Caliphate’ Stirs in Syria and Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Idlib: The Next Phase

Jerusalem Post, 6/3

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Syria’s Wild South west

Jerusalem Post, 21/2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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