Is southern Syria heading for ‘Lebanonization’? 

Jerusalem Post, 13/7

The raid on the T4 base at Tiyas in southern Syria this week was, according to global media reports, the third such action by Israeli air power against this facility in the course of 2018.  It is the latest move in an apparently ongoing campaign to prevent the entrenchment and consolidation (these are the words favored by Israeli officials) of the Iranian military infrastructure in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime is moving into the final stages of its offensive against the rebellion in Deraa Province.  Evidence has emerged of the presence of Iran-supported Shia militias among the forces operating on behalf of the regime in Deraa.  The two forces whose commanders were photographed in the area are Liwa al-Zulfiqar and the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.

Haidar al Jubouri, Zulfiqar’s commander, was photographed in the operations room of the Syrian Arab Army’s 4th Division in Deraa.  Commanders of the Abu Fadl al Abbas brigade, meanwhile, were seen in the area of Tafas.  Notably, the latter individuals were pictured in Syrian army uniform, and in conversation with Russian officers.

A number of Israeli commentators this week downplayed the significance of these revelations.  They argued that the apparently minor and limited presence of the Shia militias in the Deraa offensive was testimony to the success of Israeli diplomatic efforts to impress upon the Russians the importance of limiting the Iranian presence in the offensives in south western Syria.

The Israeli concern is not primarily with Deraa.  Rather, Jerusalem is watching carefully to see which forces will be involved in the regime’s advance on Quneitra province, adjoining the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan.

If the Quneitra offensive involves a similar mixing of forces to that in Deraa, this will enable officials to claim that Russian pressure is working, while presumably restating Israel’s determination to continue efforts to expel Iran from Syria in its entirety.  Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this week that ‘“The fact Iranian forces are present in Syria at all is unacceptable, and we will act against any Iranian consolidation in the area.’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile met this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Prior to the meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement reiterating that ‘“Israel will not tolerate a military presence by Iran or its proxies anywhere in Syria and that Syria must strictly abide by the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement.”

So Israel makes clear its determination that Iran should quit Syria in its entirety, acts against specific Iranian targets, and appears to ignore or downplay those elements of the Iranian presence against which air action would have more limited or problematic application (such as pro-Iranian units integrated into the Syrian Army).  The Iranians, meanwhile, appear at present to be absorbing the blows with little apparent attempt at response, while maintaining their overall presence in Syria.  Where may all this be headed?

First of all, it is important to understand the nature and dimensions of the Iranian project in Syria.  Iran’s deep alliance with Assad’s Syria goes back to the first days of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to Hafez Assad’s support or Teheran in the Iran-Iraq War.  Over the last seven years of civil war, however, the nature of the relationship has changed.  Iranian provision of manpower and organization of paramilitary forces has been essential to the regime’s survival.  Teheran has invested upwards of $30 billion in Syria.  The IRGC has established bodies within the formal structures of the Syrian state (the National Defence Forces), recruited young Syrians into locally based IRGC-associated paramilitary groups, (Quwaat al-Ridha, 313 battalion), and of course brought its paramilitary proxies onto Syrian soil, along with IRGC personnel.

This is a major, far-reaching process, resembling in its key particulars parallel projects in Lebanon and Iraq.  The intention is to establish political-military structures which will serve to enable the projection of Iranian power over the long term.  The Iranian expertise in this area is without parallel in the region.  As a result of this approach, Teheran now dominates Lebanon and has the upper hand in Iraq.  Assad’s Syria, which has an openly dictatorial system, is a different political context to these, of course.  But the evidence suggests that the Iranians are digging in to stay.

Will the Russians act as the lever for the removal of this Iranian project?  This appears to be the hope of Israeli policymakers.  But the facts would appear to indicate that Russia has neither the will, nor even the ability, to achieve this objective.

Regarding the former, on July 4th, Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described US and Israeli demands for a complete Iranian withdrawal as ‘completely unrealistic.’  The Iranian pro-regime media is full of fear and speculation at the prospect of Russian betrayal.  The Russian agenda in Syria does not directly parallel that of the Iranians (Moscow seeks good relations with all interested parties, the better to make itself the essential arbiter).  But Moscow also has no interest in seeing the Iranians humiliated or their project reversed, particularly because they remain essential to the viability of Assad’s regime.

In any case, the Russian intervention in Syria has been predicated on a modest ground presence.  It is thus not clear by which mechanism Russia could seek to induce such a withdrawal, even if it wished to

So the Iranian project in Syria is likely to continue, and Iranian-associated forces in one guise or another are likely in the period ahead to be operating close to the border with Israel.  Israel, meanwhile, is likely to maintain its intelligence domination across Syria, and to continue periodically to strike at Iranian and Iranian associated targets, in order to build deterrence and prevent the consolidation of weapons systems and deployments.

Does this sound familiar? It ought to.  It is in its essentials the situation that pertains in south Lebanon, and (in a far less threatening way) the Gaza Strip.

What we see here is a contest between two systems with entirely different areas of expertise.   The Iranians excel in establishing and utilizing  political and paramilitary clients to build power within regional spaces.  They are however sharply deficient in conventional military skills.  Israel, meanwhile, is outstanding in the fields of air warfare and intelligence, and seeks to avoid being sucked into involvement in the complex and cut throat world of proxy warfare within Arab societies (the now soon to be abandoned cooperation with the rebels of Quneitra represented only a partial exception to this rule).

The likely emergent picture in Syria, as in Lebanon, is therefore the ongoing consolidation of another IRGC project, in the framework of a weakened and truncated Arab state, along with an ongoing Israeli effort to deter the masters of this project from acts of aggression, or to confine such acts to the realm of rhetoric.   Such a state of affairs is by its nature precarious, and potentially combustible.  At the same time, the Israeli system has shown considerable skill  in recent years precisely in the management of comparable situations.

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The Rebellion at Twilight

Jerusalem Post, 29/6

Deraa offensive marks endgame for the Syrian rebellion – but strife in Syria set to persist

The Syrian regime’s offensive on the rebel held areas of Syria’s Deraa province commenced on June 25th. The Syrian Arab Army’s premier units are among the forces engaged. The Tiger Forces of Colonel Soheil Hassan, and the 4th Armored Division are in Deraa.  So too are fighters from Lebanese Hizballah, in Syrian army uniform, according to a Hizballah associated website.

This offensive is of symbolic as well as practical significance.  Deraa, after all, was where the Syrian rebellion began.  It was demonstrations by schoolchildren in this south west Syrian province, and the Assad regime’s brutal response to them, which set in motion the chain of events that set Syria on the road to civil war.  Now, six years on, and with 500,000 dead in the war, the final battle of the independent Syrian insurgency has begun, in the very same province.

Its outcome is known in advance.  Sources close to the rebels, however, indicate that there will be no mass surrender. They have chosen to fight it out to the end.

The significance is not only symbolic, of course.  The details emerging regarding the campaign have implications for Israel’s hope that Russian good offices can prevent the arrival of Iranian and Iran-associated forces to the border with the Golan Heights.

Deraa had been the subject of a ceasefire agreement brokered by the US, Russia and Jordan last year.   It differs, though, from other areas in Syria currently lying outside of the control of the Assad regime in that there was and is no state clearly prepared to stand behind its continued defense from the regime.

As a result, the regime evidently assessed that despite various US ‘warnings’ against a regime incursion in recent weeks, no serious efforts would be made to prevent or resist an advance in the area.

The US had sought to deter the regime, warning that any attempt to violate the ‘de-escalation’ zone would result in ‘serious repercussions’ and ‘firm and appropriate measures.’

These words did not have the presumably desired effect (of deterring the regime and the Russians).  They did, however, result in widespread hopes among the rebels of Deraa that US intervention on their behalf would take place in the event of a determined regime attempt to re-conquer their enclave.

In order to tamp down this enthusiasm, a further message from Washington to the leaders of rebel groups (leaked to Reuters) advised the insurgents that while “We in the United States government understand the difficult conditions you are facing and still advise the Russians and the Syrian regime not to undertake a military measure that violates the zone…you should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us”.

This was as clear as it gets. Washington did not deny the message.  Despite earlier statements, the southern rebels were on their own.  Their fate was sealed.

In addition to the Deraa/Quneitra area, there are three other parts of Syria outside of regime control, which together constitute roughly 40% of the territory of the country.

These are: the area around the US-maintained base at al-Tanf, in the south of Syria.  This is a desert area, in which the US is cooperating with a small rebel group called Maghawir al-Thawra.

The densely populated area of north west Syria controlled by Islamist rebels and partially under the direct control of Turkey.

The large area east of the Euphrates currently administered by the self-declared, Kurdish-dominated Federation of Northern Syria, with the presence of at least 2000 US troops.

These areas are at present directly guaranteed by the military forces of foreign states – of Turkey in the case of the north west, and the US in the case of the area east of the Euphrates and that surrounding al-Tanf.  Assad is on record as intending to conquer all of them. But the patron-less and hence most vulnerable and exposed Deraa/Quneitra area was the natural next target for the regime’s attentions.

At present, regime forces are massing for an assault on Deraa city itself.  Russian air power is backing Assad’s forces.  With no air power, and precious little anti-aircraft capacity, artillery or heavy armor, the rebel controlled area’s fate appears clear.

So what are the implications of the likely fall and eclipse of the remaining rebel held areas in Deraa and neighboring Suweida provinces?

Firstly, the fall of Deraa and Suweida, and then neighboring Quneitra will mark the end of the rebellion as an independent force.  As noted above, all the other enclaves named above are either controlled by foreign powers who use the rebels effectively as military contractors (al-Tanf, the Turkish controlled north west) or else involve fighters other than the Sunni Arab rebels (the areas east of the Euphrates, where the Kurdish YPG predominates).

As such, the battle currently beginning will conclude with the end of the Sunni Arab rebellion that began in late 2011 with the intention of toppling the Assad regime, and which came close to victory in 2013 and then again in 2015, but which was thwarted by Iranian and then Russian intervention.

This will not, however,  mean the reunification of the country under Assad’s rule. That will depend on the will of Turkey and the US regarding whether they wish to maintain their areas of control, and the role of Russia, whose involvement alone makes regime offensives feasible, but which permitted the Turkish incursions in August 2016 and January 2018, and which is unable to dislodge the US unless it wants to go.

Secondly, given the apparent presence of Hizballah fighters re-badged as SAA personnel in the offensive, the latest events must cast doubt on the ability of Russia to enforce the non-arrival of pro-Iran elements with the advancing SAA as it enters Quneitra, which it surely must.

This means that direct confrontation between Israel and the pro-Iranian element in southern Syria is likely to continue.  On June 18th, tens of members of a pro-Teheran militia, the Iraqi Ktaeb Hizballah, were killed as a result of an air raid on a facility maintained by the group close to the Syria-Iraq border.  US Central Command, which has never attacked the Shia militias, flatly denied any involvement.  Israel was silent.

The apparently imminent final eclipse of the rebels in southern Syria, the evident inability of the Russians to prevent pro-Iranian elements from joining the advancing regime forces, and the possible involvement of Israel in a direct strike on militia personnel indicate that while the Sunni Arab rebellion seems nearly over, strife in Syria looks set to remain.

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Interview on ABC News

19/6

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Iran’s response: the ‘Strategy of Tension’ 

Jerusalem Post, 1/6

The United States and its allies are currently in the opening stages of the pursuit of a strategy to contain and roll back the Islamic Republic of Iran from a number of points in the Middle East.  This strategy is set to include an economic element (renewed sanctions, a military aspect (involving Israeli action against Iran in Syria, and the Saudi/UAE campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, and a primarily political effort (in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Lebanon).

Iran can be expected to respond with a counter-strategy of its own, designed to stymy and frustrate western and allied efforts.  What form will this Iranian response take?  What assets does Iran possess in the furtherance of this goal?

First of all, it is worth noting what Iran does not have:  Teheran is deficient in conventional military power, and as such is especially vulnerable when challenged in this arena.  The Iranians have neglected conventional military spending, in favor of emphasis on their missile program, and their expertise in the irregular warfare methods of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods Force.

In Syria over the last months, Israel has demonstrated that Iran has no adequate conventional response to Israeli air actions.

In Yemen in recent days, as government forces close in on the vital Hodaida port, so Iran’s weakness in this field is once more revealed.  Hodaida, held by the Houthis, is the main conduit for Iranian supplies to the rebels.  It is likely to fall in the period ahead.

Economic sanctions may also limit Iran’s ability to finance its various proxies.  Nevertheless, Iran possesses in the Qods Force of the IRGC a doctrine and praxis for the establishment, assembling and utilization of proxy political-military forces which still has no serious rival in the region.  It will be these assets and these methods which Teheran will be seeking to utilize to strike back at its enemies in the period ahead.

In Lebanon, thanks entirely to the use of these methods, Iran is at its strongest.  There is no prospect in the immediate future for Iran’s opponents to challenge Teheran’s de facto domination of this country through its proxy Hizballah.  Recent statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggest the beginnings of an acknowledgement by the US that Lebanon  is  effectively controlled by Hizballah.  But it is difficult to locate within the country any mechanism today capable of seriously challenging the Shia Islamist party.

The recent events in Gaza may well offer an example of the kind of options available to Iran in its efforts to counter US and allied moves against it.  Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a wholly owned franchise of the IRGC.  While the apparent ‘motive’ for its commencement of rocket fire was the killing of three of its militants by the IDF after a failed IED attack.  This incident, however,  would not normally have been of sufficient magnitude to generate the largest barrage of rockets since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.  It is probable, therefore, that the escalation in Gaza this week was an example of Iran’s ability to mobilize a proxy on one front to place pressure on an adversary, as a result of events taking place in another arena.

Yet this week’s events also demonstrate Iran’s limitations.  Hamas is not a wholly owned franchise of Teheran.  And the joint interest of Israel, Hamas and Egypt in avoiding a descent to a 2014 style conflagration served to put a lid on the escalation.

As noted above, in Syria, Iran has so far found no adequate response to Israel’s intelligence domination, and its willingness to take air action against Iranian infrastructure.

Further east, however,  in the Kurdish-administered, US-dominated 30% of Syria east of the Euphrates, the Iranians may find an arena more to their liking.  Here, a fledgling, US-associated and Kurdish dominated authority rules over a population of about 4 million people, including many Sunni Arabs.   In this situation, the IRGC’s methods of agitation, assassinations, the fomenting of unrest from below are directly relevant.

Unidentified gunmen are already operating in this rea.  A prominent Kurdish official, Omar Alloush, was assassinated on March 15th.  Graffiti denouncing ‘Ocalan’s dogs’ has appeared in Arab-majority Raqqa city.   This week, demonstrations took place at four locations across the city demanding that the Kurdish dominated YPG quit the area.

It is more usual to attribute the guiding hand behind this activity to Turkish state bodies, rather than Iran.  But an IRGC officer looking for vulnerabilities and areas of potential counter pressure on the US and its allies in the neighborhood would surely focus his eyes on this US guaranteed enclave.

More broadly, while Israeli air action may make the Iranians think twice in terms of deployment of heavy weapons systems in Syria, the broader Iranian project of establishing local client militias and stationing proxy forces on Syria soil remains largely untouched and invulnerable to Israeli air action.

Similarly, in Iraq, the ongoing coalition negotiations and Iran’s domination of the Popular Mobilization Units and their political iteration the Fatah list offers Teheran ample scope for action. Fatah came second in the elections, with 47 seats to 54 for Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon list.  Much will depend on the nature of the government that will emerge from the 90 day coalition building period now under way.

But whatever coalition emerges, the independent, Iran-controlled, armed element is there to stay in Iraq.  For Iran, a controlling influence in Iraq is a necessity, not a luxury. And with Saudi efforts to build influence in the country under way, this looks set to form a central arena for competition.

Again, the evidence of recent years shows that where Iran enjoys an advantage over its rivals in such arenas is in its greater ability to utilize paramilitary and terrorist methods.   There are already some indications of possible targeting of elements linked to the Sairoon list.  Unknown assailants bombed two offices linked to the Sadrists on May 15th.   One was placed at an office of the Saraya al-Salam, the Sadrist militia. The other targeted a religious organization linked to Sadr, Malek al-Ashtar.  In addition, on May 25, a double IED attack on the Iraqi Communist Party’s headquarters in Baghdad took place. No group has claimed responsibility for any of these attacks.

The evidence suggests that Iran’s methods are at their strongest where it can take on its opponents within a populated area, in a mixed political and military context, and weakest where it faces conventional resistance and a hard border separating it from its enemies.  This means that in the emergent contest, Iran is strongest in Lebanon and regime-controlled Syria, powerful and dangerous in Iraq and potentially in the Kurdish controlled, US guaranteed part of Syria, and weaker and with fewer options in Yemen and Gaza.

Iran enjoyed and benefited from the moment when the Arab world was at its most fragmented, and the west at its most rudderless.   That period may now be coming to an end. The ‘strategy of tension’, utilizing political and paramilitary means, eschewing conventional ones, remains the IRGC’s preferred method of struggle.  The period now opening up in the region will determine its continued efficacy.

 

 

 

 

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Game on: The New Strategy of the US and its allies in the Middle East

Jerusalem Post, 25/5

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s outlining of 12 conditions that Iran would need to meet in order to make possible a new nuclear deal amounts to a call for the wholesale reversal of Iranian regional strategy.  The conditions stated are not only, or primarily, concerned with the nuclear program.  In addition to a call for the IRGC’s Qods Force to end ‘support for “terrorists” and “militant” partners around the world,’ there are specific demands for cessation of support to Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Houthis in  Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria.

These are not a list of demands issued with the expectation that they will be met.  Rather, they are a clear setting down of US goals in an emerging strategy to contain and roll back Iran’s advance in the region.

So what are the practical aspects of such a policy?  And what might Iran’s response be to an attempt to implement it?

Iran today is a country in the midst of an economic and environmental crisis.  The Rial has fallen 47% against the dollar since January.  The country is blighted by drought. Precipitation across the country fell by 46% in the last 50 years. Tehran has seen a 66% drop in rainfall in just a year. This is impacting on the agricultural sector.  Bad management, corruption and a failure of the JCPOA to generate expected levels of foreign investment compound the problem.  Unrest and demonstrations continue in many parts of the country.

At the same time, Iran is in danger of imperial overstretch.  It is heavily committed in two ongoing regional conflicts – in Syria and Yemen – and also has major assets requiring investment in Lebanon (Hizballah), Iraq (the Shia militias) and among the Palestinians (Islamic Jihad, Hamas).  While Iran is dominant in Lebanon, and ascendant in Syria and Iraq, it has achieved final and conclusive victory in no area.

A strategy seeking to contain further Iranian gains and then to roll Iran back is likely to focus on increasing the cost of Iran’s adventures abroad, to exacerbate internal tensions, while subjecting Iran to tactical humiliations and defeats, in order to reduce any domestic benefit to be accrued from Iranian regional commitments.  Teheran will thus be forced either to spend more on its commitments, exacerbating the problems at home, or to pull back, with the accompanying humiliation and loss of prestige.

Thus, the intention will be to raise the cost, and reduce the benefits accruing to Iran from its policy of interference and sponsorship of proxies in neighboring countries.

What precise form is this effort likely to take? Firstly, it is important to note that this is not to be a US effort alone.  Rather, the clear intention is to mobilize US allies who share the concerns regarding the Iranian threat.

There are three areas in which the effort is likely to be undertaken – military, economic and political.

Regarding military activity, there are currently two fronts of active conflict occurring in the region between Iran and US allies. These are the Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen, and Israel’s actions to prevent Iranian consolidation and entrenchment in Syria.

It is unlikely that the events of May 10th will prove the final round of conflict between Israel and Iran. It is notable that this round came from an unsuccessful Iranian attempt to respond through missile fire for earlier Israeli operations.  Apart from their practical application, the Israeli operations have the value of forcing the Iranians into an arena in which they are very weak – that of air power and air defense – thus hitting at their prestige.  The Iranians currently have the choice of appearing to desist from further attempts at developing their infrastructure, or facing the certainty of Israeli action in an area in which they have little ability to respond.

In Yemen, it has become commonplace to describe the Saudi/Emirati intervention as a quagmire and a failure.  In reality ,however, the intervention prevented the Iranian supported Houthis from reaching the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait.  Houthi advances have stopped, and since the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, it is not clear what the goals of the Houthis’ rebellion are, beyond survival.

A third important conventional military front is eastern Syria, where US and French forces in cooperation with local allies hold around 30% of Syrian territory, including the greater part of the country’s oil and gas resources.  This territorial holding prevents the operation of a contiguous Iranian land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean and to the border with Israel.  It also offers an example of a successful US partnering with a local proxy. Its maintenance is crucial.

Regarding the economic front,  the US policy of renewed sanctions is already in operation.  New sanctions have been imposed in recent days on five Iranian officials suspected of involvement in the Iranian program to provide missiles to the Houthis.  The US Treasury Department, meanwhile, imposed sanctions on officials of Iran’s Central Bank in the days following the decision to quit the nuclear deal.  The officials were suspected of helping to move IRGC funds to Hizballah in Lebanon.  The Treasury has announced new sanctions on members of Hizballah’s Shurah Council.   Notably, US and UAE officials also cooperated in recent days in disrupting a currency exchange network maintained by the Qods Force of the IRGC.

There is more to come.  Sanctions are due to be placed on the acquisition of dollar banknotes by Iranian institutions.  Penalties for institutions dealing with Iran’s Central Bank and other designated bodies are also forthcoming.  All are designed to stretch the Iranians to the limit, producing either retreat or internal unrest.

In the political field, Iraq is now the central arena.  The Iranians suffered a setback in the recent elections. With the 90 day coalition forming period under way, the issue will be the make up of the new government.  The key player here on the pro-US side will be Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis have been quietly growing their involvement in Iraq in recent months.  Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion in loans and $500,000 in export credits for reconstruction following the war against IS.  Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman hosted Moqtada al-Sadr, the main winner of the elections, in Riyadh last year.  Direct flights have been resumed.  The Saudi goal is to revive Iraqi Arab identity, as a counterweight to Iran’s sectarian,non-Arab appeal to Iraq’s Shia Arab majority.   Oil rich Basra province is a focus of Saudi activity.

The issue in Iraq will not be the complete expulsion of the Iranian influence, but rather to set up a counterweight to the Iranians, again forcing Teheran to spend time and energy on preventing the erosion of its position.

Lastly, it is possible that clandestine activity is underway in connecting those in Iran itself opposed to the Iranian regime with the expertise and funding of US allies.

Will this project succeed?  It appears to derive from an attempt to locate Iran’s weak spots and exploit them.  The Iranians, without doubt, will be seeking to develop a counter strategy along similar lines against the US and its allies.  The region, as a result, is entering a new strategic chapter.  The game is afoot.

 

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Whoever you vote for – Hezbollah Wins

Jerusalem Post, 11/05

Lebanon’s May 6 elections have resulted in the further consolidation of Hezbollah and its associated movements within the legal frameworks of the state. The movement and its allies won over half of the seats in the 128-seat parliament. At the same time, the 2018 elections do not appear set to usher in any fundamental alterations to the status quo in Lebanon.
The majority achieved was not sufficient as a basis for constitutional change to alter the rules of the game related, for example, to the sectarian power-sharing agreements that underly Lebanese political life.

However, Hezbollah and Amal and co will have comfortably more than their own “blocking third” in parliament, sufficient to prevent any changes not to their liking.

Hezbollah and Amal swept the boards in the Shia parts of the country, confirming and consolidating their domination of this sector. Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah declared himself satisfied with the results, saying they confirmed Beirut as a “capital of the resistance.”

The biggest losers were the Future Movement of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri. This list saw its representation in parliament decline from 34 seats to 21, with Hariri-supported candidates losing to Hezbollah supported Sunnis in Beirut and Tripoli.
The decline in Hariri and al-Mustaqbal’s levels of support reflect the sense that the March 14 project of which they were a part is a busted flush.

Following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and the subsequent assassination of then-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, March 14 sought to stand for a notion of Lebanon as a sovereign state, run by its institutions, and with weaponry kept out of politics.

This is a project that has clearly failed. Its first testing point was in 2006 when Hezbollah carried out the attack on an IDF patrol on the Israeli side of the border which precipitated the 2006 war. This incident indicated that despite March 14’s nominal role as the governing authority, it was incapable of preventing a political party with its own militia and backed by a foreign power (Iran) from going to war at a time and in a manner of its choosing.

Its second testing point came in May of 2008 when it was established that March 14 had no ability to challenge Hezbollah writ within Lebanon, as well as on the matter of the movement’s violent campaign (or “resistance” as it prefers to term it) against Israel. At that time, the March 14 led government sought to act against Hezbollah’s de facto control of the Beirut International Airport. Amal and Hezbollah then took over west Beirut in 48 hours, forcing the government to reverse its planned measures.

The third and final burial of the March 14 project for the normalization of Lebanon came with the Syrian civil war. At that time, Hezbollah was tasked by Iran with helping to make up for the Assad regime’s shortfall in manpower. It proceeded to do so, placing the population of Lebanon including its Shia constituency at acute risk, again with no permission sought.

 
All these facts explain the eclipse of March 14 and Hariri. They are, quite simply, a project that has failed.

What will result from the elections will be a coalition government likely to include both Hezbollah and its allies, and the defeated remnants of the March 14 alliance, whose main component, the Future Movement, is led by Sa’ad Hariri. It is possible that Hariri will himself return as prime minister in the new coalition to be formed. But because of the new parliamentary arithmetic, Hezbollah and its allies will have a higher representation in the new coalition.

Analyses by Lebanese commentators of the elections have been as ever characterized by nuance, subtlety and sophisticated understanding of the sometimes labyrinthine nature of Lebanese politics. As ever, however, they have tended to focus on the minutiae of levels of support and hence of representation in the next coalition, noting the role of a new election law this time in necessitating new tactical electoral alliances, and hence breaking down the old clear structures of March 14 and its rival March 8 movement.

Analysis of minutiae and process, while worthwhile, can also play the role of obscuring the larger picture and its implications. It is therefore important also to note these. The forced resignation and then rapid non-resignation of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri in November 2017 demonstrated the essential powerlessness of the Lebanese Prime Minister on crucial matters.

The elements other than Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese governing system are there to play the role of convincing the world that something of the state remains, and that the country has not simply become a fully fledged puppet of Tehran and its militias.

For this purpose, elections are held, in line with international norms, parties contest constituencies, real issues are also at stake.

There is a large swathe of national policy entirely off limits to the political discussion, and not contested by it. This is the sphere of foreign policy and “national security.”

In this regard, a governing coalition in which Hezbollah is stronger will play the role of further integrating national institutions with those of the “resistance.” But even if this were not the case, the “resistance” bodies are already stronger than those of the state, these bodies are decisive in the decision of when and with whom to make war, and this is not a reality subject to change at the ballot box. That is the salient truth regarding Lebanon today, and its presence should not be obscured by a focus of discussion on electoral laws, constituencies and alliances.

This has been the reality for some time. Israeli planners are well aware of it. In the West, however, there are those who have yet to acknowledge the situation, despite its plainness. From this point of view, Lebanese parliamentary elections are not quite the empty charade of polls in autocratic countries – but like such sham elections, they serve to obscure the core truths of who wields power in the system, and who does not. That is, in Lebanon, in 2018, whoever you vote for – Hezbollah (i.e. Iran) wins.

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The Waiting Period

Australian, 11/5

It is spring in Israel. On the face of it, all appears normal. Yet underlying the everyday is the hint of tension. The low buzz that presages violent events. We know it well in Israel and it has been all around for weeks.

Two nights ago, there was an eruption. The special forces unit (Quds) of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps launched 20 missiles at northern Israel. Israel’s Iron Dome shot down four of them. The others landed in Syria. Israel’s Air Force launched a counter attack. Iranian storage facilities and logistics sites in Syria were targeted along with five Syrian air defence systems.

As the smoke cleared, an uneasy calm returned. Probably not for long.

A series of milestones is approaching in coming weeks, any of which could precipitate further strife. The extended period in which Israel managed to keep itself largely one step removed from the chaos of the Middle East seems to be drawing to a close.

Donald Trump announced this week he will withdraw the US from the nuclear deal with Iran. The stage is set for a return to open confrontation between the US and Iran.

The US has commitments in the region (in Iraq and eastern Syria, in particular) which would be vulnerable to violent pushback by Iran through its proxies.

Israel’s ongoing efforts to roll back Iranian gains in Syria will constitute an element of this larger contest. This, in turn, will increase the chance of confrontation between Israel and Iran.

As Israeli Housing Minister (and former general) Yoav Gallant told Bloomberg News this week, “It’s clear that friction between Iran and the U.S. can lead to a situation in which Iran decides to deploy Hezbollah against Israel … That’s their tool.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week expressed Israel’s readiness for such a confrontation, if it comes. ‘“We don’t want an escalation, but we are prepared for every scenario. We don’t want confrontation, but if there needs to be one, it is better now than later,” the Prime Minister told reports following a meeting of Israel’s Cabinet.

With the situation regarding Iran at such a point of tension, other events which would normally command centre stage are being relegated to a secondary role. Nevertheless, the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14 is set to cause an uptick in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The opening will be followed on May 15 by the culmination of Hamas’s six-week “March of Return” campaign in the Gaza Strip. This series of marches to the border fence is intended to revive the fortunes of Hamas, whose Gaza domain is isolated and cash strapped. May 15 is also the anniversary of the State of Israel’s declaration of independence (though strictly speaking the declaration took place on the 14) and is remembered by Palestinians as the date of their Nakba (catastrophe).

It is possible there will be attempts to break through the border fence. Israeli communities are located as little as one kilometre from the fence, so the situation will be tense.

It is worth remembering that Gaza is not hermetically sealed off from the stand-off with Iran in the north. Teheran possesses its clients among the Palestinians, who may be directed to escalate the situation. The small Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation is a wholly owned franchise of Iran. Hamas’s relations with Teheran are more complex and the movement sought in recent years to distance itself from the Iranian regime. Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar has worked to patch up relations over the last year abd in August Sinwar declared that Iran was once again the largest backer of Hamas.

But it the northern tier of Syria and Lebanon that remains by far the gravest concern for Israel. It is here the ambitions and agendas of Iran appear most directly set on a course of potential collision with the Jewish state.

Iranian assistance has been vital to the cause of Bashar al Assad since the the uprising against him in early 2011. The Syrian president, whose regime rests on a narrow platform of sectarian support, was beset from the beginning by a problem of insufficient loyal manpower. It is the Iranians, not the Russians, who addressed this vital issue throughout the war.

However, Iran, in its usual fashion, did not elect to strengthen the existing, regime-controlled Syrian Arab Army. Rather, in accordance with similar methods pursued in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran has preferred to create its own, Revolutionary Guards-controlled structures in Syria. These defend the Assad regime, to be sure, but they are not under its sole control. Thus, Iran organised and created the National Defence Forces, consisting of Syrian volunteers, mainly from non-Sunni communities and now numbering 50,000 to 60,000 fighters.

Iran also mobilised its proxies throughout the region and brought them to Syria to plug the manpower gap. Thus, there are today about 6000 Lebanese Hizballah fighters on Syrian soil, along with perhaps 3000 Revolutionary Guards personnel and an additional 10,000 to 15,000 members of other Iran-supported Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As the rebellion against Assad has continued to lose ground, so the construction of Iranian infrastructure in Syria has continued. The examples of Hizballah in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq indicate that Iran’s version of assistance is not dismantled when the threat has subsided.

Israel is concerned that this infrastructure, with its contiguous land link to Iraq and thence to Iran itself, is intended primarily for use as a tool of pressure and violence against the Jewish state. Iran is openly and noisily in favour of the destruction of Israel. It wishes to achieve this goal through a long-war strategy of attrition and harassment. Entrenchment in Syria would significantly increase the Iranian ability to pursue this strategy.

While the local and regional militias pose a challenge, the main worry in Jerusalem is the hardware that Iran is seeking to import and base in Syria. Consolidation of this infrastructure – UAV bases, surface-to-surface missiles and anti-aircraft batteries – appears to be what Israel is most determined to prevent.

On April 9, Israeli aircraft struck at a drone facility maintained by the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace force at the T4 base near Palmyra. Fourteen people were killed, among them seven Iranians, including a Revolutionary Guards colonel, Mehdi Deghdan Yazdeli.

On April 30, Israeli aircraft carried out a larger scale raid on two points – the 47 Brigade base south west of Hama, and the Nayrab military airbase close to Aleppo. The New York Times reported that the strikes killed 16 people, including 11 Iranians, and destroyed 200 missiles.

On May 9, following reports of “irregular Iranian movements” in southern Syria, explosions were heard south of Damascus. Israel opened public bomb shelters in the Golan Heights. Regional media reported that Israel attacked an army base south of Damascus, where Iranian personnel were based. Nine militiamen were killed, according to the usually reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Then, in the early hours of May 10, the Iranians launched their 20 missiles, and Israel responded. The Iranian strike was not successful, and it is not clear whether Teheran will consider it to have constituted sufficient retaliation for the Israeli action on April 30. Given the scale of the Israeli response to the attack, this seems unlikely.

What form is further Iranian action likely to take?

Iran has a number of options. It possesses a global terror infrastructure and might seek to attack an Israeli facility or an Israeli or Jewish target abroad. In the past, Teheran and Hizballah have sought retribution in this way. The attack in 1994 on the Amia Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, and the murder of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012 are examples of this.

Alternatively, Iran could instruct its Lebanese Hizballah proxies to carry out an attack on Israeli forces across the border from Lebanon. This is how Teheran sought to retaliate for the killing by Israel of a number of Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah personnel close to the Golan Heights in January 2015.

Israeli planners were expecting Iran’s retaliation for the nine dead militiamen was likely to be carried out in Syria, probably with the help of Shia militia personnel on the ground. It was not the first time Iranian personnel have been killed by Israel on Syrian soil. But it was the first time Iranian facilities, not those of proxy groups, were targeted. The Iranian action on May 10 was the first time Israel was directly targeted in a real-time conventional military operation led by the Revolutionary Guards. This is likely to set the pattern for further events to come.

So where is all this heading? Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that allowing Iran to consolidate its infrastructure in Syria would be “agreeing to the Iranians placing a noose around our necks”. This, the defence minister said, would be prevented “at all costs”.

It is not entirely clear, of course, what “consolidation”, “entrenchment” and their prevention actually mean, or could entail. Does Israel require that all presence of the Iranians be removed from Syria, down to the last proxy fighter? If so, then conflict between Teheran and Jerusalem is a near inevitability, since there is no chance of Iran acquiescing to this except by coercion. On the other hand, if the Israeli intention is to prevent the Iranians from transferring certain weapons systems into Syria – advanced anti-aircraft systems, ballistic missiles, UAVs – then conflagration may not be so imminent.

Iran has an interest in keeping to what it is good at. What it is good at is developing paramilitary proxy political-military organisations. This is the key to its success in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. What it is much less good at is conventional warfare, particularly in the air. The country has a poorly equipped, Cold War-era air force. It possesses ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel, to be sure. But Israel has in recent years developed in cooperation with the US some of the most advanced missile defence systems in the world. Iran’s own defences against Israeli retaliation, meanwhile, are far less developed.

This means that Iran may well prefer to absorb Israeli strikes, carrying out a token retaliation for form’s sake. Such an approach would derive not from pacific intentions. Rather, the Iranians would calculate that it is in their interests to continue to quietly build their strength in Syria, while absorbing periodic Israeli disruptions of their arrangements. Since the Iranians may well be engaged, as in Lebanon and Iraq, in a project concerned with the long-term transformation of these countries into clients/puppets of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the immediate settling of scores may not be deemed of paramount urgency.

Of course, this begs the question as to whether Israel will wish to acquiesce to the pursuit of such an Iranian strategy, with all it implies for the future security of Israel. In the meantime, following the fire and smoke of the night of May 10, and until the next move, we are back to the waiting period.

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