Israel, alone?

Jerusalem Post, 7/5

In a briefing to defense reporters in mid-April, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant noted that under his stewardship, Israeli attacks on Iranian infrastructure had significantly increased.  ‘Since I took office,’ Gallant said, ‘in the first quarter of 2023 we doubled the rate of attacks in Syria.’   Israel’s current actions in Syria take place in the context of a rapidly shifting regional strategic picture, in which the imperative of facing down an emboldened Iran is becoming both increasingly urgent, and increasingly complex.  

Gallant in his briefing outlined a clear strategic perception of developments, at the center of which was the Iranian notion of ‘unification of the arenas.’  This phrase, which occurs frequently in statements by Iranian leaders and in pro-Iran regime propaganda, refers to the emergent situation in which Teheran  seeks to use the various proxies and franchises that it has assembled around Israel in a single, co-ordinated effort. Israel can no longer assume that an escalation against Gaza will remain confined to a dual contest between Israel and the Hamas authority that rules that area.  Similarly, action against Iranian proxies in the West Bank may produce a response from pro-Iran elements in Lebanon, friction over the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem may lead to a response from Gaza, and so on. 

There are already a number of examples of how this dynamic applies in practice.  Operation Guardian of the Walls in 2021 was triggered after Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza launched missiles from the Strip in response to events related to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.  In that instance, however, the Palestinian front could still be seen as a single, separate arena, taking in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem.  The more ominous incidents, suggesting a more significant widening of the circle, took place over the last two months.  They were the dispatch by Lebanese Hizballah of an operative carrying a sophisticated explosive device from Lebanon on March 15, with the intention that the device be detonated in Israel, and the launching with Hizballah’s and Iran’s permission of a barrage of rockets from south Lebanon by Hamas on April 6th

Israel thus confronts, as the defense minister put it, the ‘end of the era of limited conflicts…We are facing a new security era in which there may be a real threat to all arenas at the same time.’ 

In this regard, it is worth noting that the circle should not necessarily be widened to include only Lebanon and Syria.  Iran’s seeding of missile capacities among its franchise militias in western Iraq over recent years has been widely reported.  The systems in question, Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles, bring Israel within range. The Zolfaqar, for example, has a claimed range of 750km.  The distance from al-Qaim on the Iraq-Syria border to Tel Aviv is 632 km.  The current Iraqi government of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani rests on the support of the Iranian franchise militias, and turns a blind eye to their activities.

From the point of view of command and control, Teheran today possesses a contiguous structure and area of de facto control stretching all the way from The Iran-Iraq border to Lebanon, the Mediterranean and the Syria-Israel border.  Because of the relative stability of Jordan and Israel’s control of the Jordan Valley, this area does not have a contiguous link to the West Bank. But in both Gaza and the West Bank, Iran has franchises available for activation. 

This archipelago of militias, backed and armed by a powerful state, is what would be activated against Israel, in the event that the multi-front war discussed by the defense minister were to take place. 

Gallant’s claim that Israeli activity on the Syrian front has increased since he took office appears borne out by the facts.  According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,  as quoted in the Saudi Sharq al Awsat newspaper, Israel struck Syria 9 times between March 30 and April 29.  The Observatory, which maintains an extensive network within Syria,  reported that 6 attacks were conducted from the air, and 3 from the ground.  9 Iran-associated personnel were killed in the strikes, according to SOHR.  These included 5 IRGC operatives, including a senior officer, 2 members of Lebanese Hizballah and 2 members of the ‘Syrian Resistance Brigades for the Liberation of the Golan’ (an IRGC franchise militia recruiting from among residents of the Golan area). 

SOHR suggested that the strikes resulted in the destruction of about 23 targets, including weapons and ammunition depots, and vehicles.  The Observatory concluded that this level of breadth and intensity of Israeli strikes is indeed without precedent.  Another attack, at the Aleppo airport, took place since the publication of the SOHR report. 

It appears that Israel is seeking to maintain deterrence and demonstrate the balance of capacities vis a vis Iran by intensifying activities  – but on one front only, that of Syria.  As to whether this will prove sufficient to break the growing confidence on the Iranian side evidenced by the recent incidents in Megiddo and south Lebanon, this remains to be seen. 

In this regard, parallel developments on the diplomatic front may also play a role.  If Israel was once able to see itself as part of an emergent anti-Iranian regional front, such a notion now appears remote.  Indeed, Arab diplomacy appears now to be pushing in a direction in which Israel could find itself increasingly isolated in its determined stance against Iran. 

In Amman this week, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and, notably, Syria, took part in a joint meeting.  This was the first visit of the Syrian foreign minister, Feisal Mekdad, to Jordan since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011.  The meeting was the latest sign of the return of the Assad regime to the Arab diplomatic fold, and the efforts by a number of Arab states currently under way to re-legitimise the regime. 

In a statement following the meeting, the Arab foreign ministers pledged, among other things, to  ‘support Syria and its institutions in any legitimate efforts to expand control over its lands, impose the rule of law, end the presence of armed and terrorist groups on Syrian lands and stop foreign interference.’ 

Regarding support for Assad’s endeavors in advancing the rule of law, this author’s capacity for irony concedes defeat and there is nothing to add.  Substantively, however, such statements reflect an effort to revive an Arab-centered diplomacy, and to meet the Iran-led regional alliance halfway in a spirit of cooperation.  From this point of view, the Amman meeting is the latest downstream effect of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Teheran.  So even as Israel finds it necessary to escalate in Syria, the main states of the Arab world are moving in precisely the opposite direction.

Arab moves reflect a sober assessment of the regional balance of power. The traditional centers of Arab diplomacy have concluded that their American patron is no longer interested in a substantial regional presence. They are therefore seeking a new equilibrium.   

Israel, which the Islamic regime in Teheran has marked for destruction, has no such option.  The result is that Jerusalem now faces the prospect of continuing efforts to halt and roll back the Iranian regional advance not as part of a coalition, but rather alone.  The extent of Teheran’s ambitions mean that efforts by Arab diplomacy to reconcile with it may well be short lived.  In the interim period, the task facing Israeli policy will be to use its superior physical capacities to continue to disrupt, frustrate and deter Iran’s regional project, in the context of a distinctly less advantageous diplomatic environment.  Achieving such a task and rebuilding deterrence against an emboldened Teheran may well require action beyond the specific confines of Syria. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Iran-led Bloc senses an opportunity

Jerusalem Post, 14/4

Recent events in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Israel and the West Bank suggest that a concerted effort is under way by the Iran-led regional bloc to increase pressure on Israel.   The evidence suggests that the possibility that this may result in war has been taken into account, and the Iranians and their allies have decided to move ahead nevertheless and take this risk. 

The infiltration from south Lebanon by an operative carrying a claymore mine on March 13, and the launching of 34 rockets from south Lebanon by Hamas on April 6 are the main indications that a concerted attempt is under way.  These attacks have been accompanied by a series of ostentatious meetings between Hizballah leaders in south Lebanon and delegations from both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and by incendiary messages from the leaders of various components in this bloc.    

Statements by senior Iranian officials in recent days have, for example, enthusiastically predicted the imminent collapse of Israel.  President Ebrahim Raisi, quoted by the Revolutionary Guard linked Tasnim channel   on Wednesday, said that the ‘Zionists are fighting each other and are in a hurry to destroy themselves.’  Iranian army chief Major-General Abdolrahim Mousavi said that ‘we are observing the confusion and disorientation of the hegemonic system, especially the clearer signals of collapse and breakdown of the Zionist regime.” 

Rumblings in pro-Iran regional media such as the Lebanese al-Akhbar newspaper repeat the strategy according to which the unifying symbol of the al-Aqsa mosque is to be used to ‘unify the arenas’ of Lebanon, Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank and pre-1967 Israel.’ 

Israel’s response, so far, has been hesitant, and uncertain. A recent Israeli media report quoted an assessment given by the IDF to the Cabinet according to which the Hizballah leadership was not forewarned of the Hamas plan to launch rockets from south Lebanon, did not give the go ahead for it, and hence should not be held responsible for it. 

The military is of course privy to sources of information vastly beyond those of this author.  Nevertheless, some scepticism toward this assessment is unavoidable. Perhaps unusually among Israel-based correspondents, I have had the experience of travelling across Lebanon south of the Litani in a non-military context.  It is one of the most tightly secured areas on earth.  Vehicles without license plates, often with blacked out windows, are ubiquitous in every village and town.  These, and similarly unmarked motorcycles, are the visible evidence of the Hizballah presence.  Behind this representation, without doubt, is a yet wider circle of invisible surveillance. 

The notion that Hamas or any other Palestinian organization could have brought into this area the necessary personnel and equipment required to launch 34 rockets at Israel without the knowledge of Hizballah severely strains credulity.

Quite apart from the practical difficulties, it seems less than likely that at a time of visible rapprochement between the two organizations, Hamas would take upon itself of its own volition to embroil Hizballah in its actions against Israel.   Sunni Hamas and Shia Hizballah backed different sides in the Syrian civil war.  Hamas, with its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, sought to align with what it thought was an emergent new bloc of conservative Islamic regimes.  Hizballah, of course, as a Shia franchise of the IRGC, stayed with its patron.  But the Sunni Islamic bloc that Hamas sought to be part of never emerged.  Hamas was forced to try to find its way back to the pro-Iran bloc. With the ‘Arab Spring’ period now a fading memory, it has largely done so.  It makes no sense that it would now jeopardise this process. 

The inevitable conclusion is that this assessment is most likely inaccurate.  As to whether it was given in order to support a policy preference according to which Israel would respond to the rocket fire in only a limited way, avoiding all damage to Hizballah facilities, one can only speculate. 

The apparently co-ordinated series of attacks which Israel is currently experiencing should be seen as emerging from a strategy and praxis of long standing held by Iran and its various franchises and clients.  Veteran Israeli journalist and analyst Ehud Yaari, writing shortly after the Second Lebanon War of 2006, termed this outlook the ‘Muqawama (resistance) Doctrine.’ This doctrine, according to Ya’ari, advocates an open-ended campaign of military pressure against Israel, conducted for the most part by non-state forces.  The goal, as he expressed it, is the ‘methodical erosion of the enemy’s resolve.’  The belief underlying this project is that Israel is an internally weak society, beset by contradictions.  The intention therefore is to subject this fragile vessel to unrelenting pressure, in the belief that eventually it will begin to crack, and will eventually crumble. 

The adherents to this doctrine evidently think that an important moment in this process has been reached, given the current internal crisis in Israel.  They are therefore keen to increase the pressure, and are prepared to take significant risks and depart from previous patterns of operation. 

The outlook described above is in many ways a descendant of earlier Arab and Palestinian nationalist perceptions of Israel, dating back to the first days of the conflict with Zionism.  The current challenge differs from earlier manifestations, however, in that it is headed by a state (Iran) with a particular and sophisticated understanding of the melding of state power with irregular military activity, and the combining of conventional military, paramilitary and political forms of activity.  Iran’s methods in this regard have delivered it significant achievements elsewhere in the region, in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. 

The focus on this campaign goes back to the first days of the Islamist regime in Iran, and indeed precedes the 1979 Islamic revolution, in the thinking of those who led it.  Ayatollah Khomeini, writing in 1968, for example, asserted that ‘the danger is directed at the very essence of Islam, it is the duty of all Muslims, and specifically of Islamic states, to take the initiative for the obliteration of this pond of decay (Israel) with all possible means.’ 

Sheikh Naim Qassem, a veteran and very senior official of Lebanese Hizballah,  quoted from Surah al-Israa of the Quran in his history of his movement, to explain the nature of its campaign.  The quote reads ‘And we decreed for the  Children of Israel in the scripture: Ye verily will work corruption in the earth twice, and ye will become great tyrants.  So when   the time for the first of the two came, We roused against you slaves of Ours of great might, who ravaged (your) country, and it was a threat performed…When the time for the second of the judgements came, We roused against you others of Our slaves to ravage you, and to enter the Temple even as they entered it the first time, and to lay waste all that they conquered with an utter wasting.’ 

The available evidence would suggest that the leaders of this bloc have discerned a moment of opportunity, for the advancement of the project described above.  Israeli planners may have concluded that the current divided Israeli house was in no shape for embarking on a determined response to the recent acts of aggression.  If so,  Israel’s leaders should be aware that given the nature of the thinking on the other side, the projection of weakness and hesitancy is likely to instil greater confidence, leading to further erosion of deterrence, and increasing the likelihood of additional and yet more reckless moves in the period ahead. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hizballah seeks ‘unity of the arenas’ with Palestinians

But how much substance lies behind the rhetoric?

Jerusalem Post, 25/3

Ali Ramzi al-Aswad, a senior member of the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, was shot dead on Sunday, March 19, in the Qudsaya area of Damascus.  According to a report in the pro-Hizballah, pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, unidentified assailants fired more than 30 rounds from automatic weapons at al-Aswad, as the Islamic Jihad operative walked from his home to his car.  Al-Akhbar and other regional media outlets immediately assumed that Israel was responsible for the killing. 

An editorial in the same al-Akhbar, published on March 20th, sought to locate the killing of al-Aswad within the broader context of the current escalation in tensions between Israel and Hizballah. 

This escalation derives from the significant uptick this year of violence in the northern West Bank, and from growing indications that Lebanese Hizballah, with its Iranian patrons behind it, is seeking to assist, capitalize on and extend the scope of this violence.  In this regard, the recent incident in Megiddo, in which an operative entered Israel from Lebanon equipped with weaponry including a sophisticated claymore mine, represents until now the clearest practical evidence of this attempt at linkage.  So how seriously should these efforts be taken?

The al-Akhbar editorial was written by the paper’s chief editor, Ibrahim Amin.  Amin is a close associate of the Hizballah leadership and of the movement’s general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah.  As such, his writings often reflect the thinking of senior currents of the pro-Iran axis in Lebanon and elsewhere, and are hence worthy of particular attention. 

Amin locates current events within the framework of the approaching month of Ramadan. He asserts that  ‘events, consultations and contacts seen and unseen’ suggest that ‘the coming month of Ramadan will be an occasion to announce a new, more effective level of coordination between the resistance forces in the entire region.’ Amin goes on to note the position ‘recently launched by the leaders of the resistance regarding the unity of the arenas…the aim of which is to raise resistance activity inside Palestine to a level that opens the door to a comprehensive uprising.’ 

The ‘resistance,’ according to Ibrahim Amin, ‘realizes that direct, qualitative action on the entire area of historical Palestine represents the starting point for the complete liberation project.’

From this point of view, Amin contends that the killing of al-Aswad reflected an Israeli desire to respond to the Megiddo ‘operation’ and the evidence it indicated of the aforementioned ‘unity of the arenas.’

Israel’s aim, Amin suggests, was to strengthen deterrence, while avoiding ‘uncontrolled escalation’ and a deterioration to a general conflict.  The choice of the target – a Palestinian from an Iran and Hizballah backed organization, and the location – Syria rather than Lebanon – was calibrated in order to achieve this precise effect, the al-Akhbar editor proposes. 

The approach to Ramadan this year, Amin continues, is distinguished by the presence of what he refers to as an ‘insane government’ in Israel, and a resulting ‘internal crisis in the occupying entity in an unprecedented manner, amid the escalation of regional dangers to Israel, especially from Iran and the northern front.’ 

‘Everyone’, Amin concludes, ‘is waiting for different days in the coming Ramadan, and first and foremost the enemy, who does not desist even for an hour from the crimes of killing and assassination.’ 

Ibrahim al-Amin’s editorial, it is worth noting, is primarily a response to a somewhat dispiriting event for his readers and patrons – namely the successful penetration as he perceives it of his side’s territory by its enemies, and the targeted assassination of a senior operative.  Nevertheless, the opinions expressed in it reflect a widespread stance reflected in other statements by leaders and mouthpieces of the pro-Iran regional alliance.  The specific and common elements are the conviction that their cause is served by the internal disunity and strife in Israel, and the desire to link the evident renewed desire for confrontation in the West Bank with the capabilities and capacities of Iran and its clients. 

Recent statements by Nasrallah himself, and by senior Hamas military officials including Marwan Issa and Saleh al Arouri have followed along similar lines. 

A series of meetings of senior officials of Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad over the past week, meanwhile,  further suggest at least a desire to project an image of coordination. 

According to a statement issued by Hizballah’s press office on Sunday, Nasrallah met recently with a delegation led by Saleh al Arouri of Hamas.  The discussion, according to the statement,  centered on “the latest developments in occupied Palestine, especially the resistance in the West Bank and Jerusalem.” 

Arouri is the most senior military operative of Hamas currently active on the external front.  Formerly based in Turkey, he has claimed responsibility for organizing the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli Jewish teenagers which led to Operation Protective Edge in 2014. 

Nasrallah also met last Saturday with Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala, and an accompanying delegation.  Nasrallah and al-Nakhala agreed to ‘continue consultation and coordination with a view to enhancing the resistance against Israel,” according to a statement subsequently released by Islamic Jihad. 

How should all this be interpreted?  Firstly, it should be noted that expressions of bellicose self-confidence on the part of this camp, sometimes with only glancing resemblances to reality, are not a new development. 

A narrative according to which the violence of May 2021 represented the birth of a new paradigm in the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is prevalent here.  What Israelis refer to as Operation ‘Guardian of the Walls’ is termed by Hizballah and its allies the ‘Saif al-Quds’ (Sword of Jerusalem) battle. 

Robert Inlakesh, writing at the pro-Hizballah al-Mayadeen media website in May 2022, characterized the supposed new developments of this period in the following terms:  ‘the tactics used by the armed groups, such as; slowly revealing new weapons technology, striking everywhere inside the 1948 territories, putting Israeli airports on temporary lockdown and controlling the course of the battle, all showed the entire region the weaknesses of “Tel Aviv”.

The latest statements by Nasrallah and Issa, and al-Amin’s editorial, should be seen as coming from within this perception.  A cooler glance at the situation, however, would require an acknowledgement that even in 2021, the hoped for mass mobilization of Palestinians in support of a new intifada did not take place.  Nor did it happen in the Ramadan of 2022, despite the uptick in violence.  Nor has it happened so far this year, despite the very significant increase in violence in the West Bank since the start of 2023.

The key question, however, is not the accuracy of the perceptions revealed in al-Amin’s editorial and Inlakesh’s somewhat overheated prose. Rather, the key matter is the extent to which those who publicly profess these views, especially among the decisionmakers in that camp, are themselves genuinely convinced by them.  Rhetoric, after all, can play a compensatory and comforting role,. It can divert attention from a more cautious and pragmatic praxis.  In the Arab world, famously, it very often fulfils this function. Is that the case here? Or is something more substantive being revealed?  

This takes us back to the incident in Megiddo.  All the relevant information is not publicly available. But here is what is known: the forces that control the Lebanese side of the Israel-Lebanon border, ie Hizballah and its Iranian masters, chose to initiate or permit the launching of an operation involving the use of sophisticated military technology which if successfully employed would have resulted in an act of terror involving mass casualties.  Such an action would undoubtedly have brought forth a major Israeli response.  That they carried out or sanctioned such an operation would seem to indicate that the assessment outlined in Ibrahim al-Amin’s editorial following the assassination of Ali Ramzi al-Aswad does indeed reflect the view adhered to by key individuals in the highest echelons of Hizballah and among the Iranian forces which stand behind it. This ought to be a matter of note for all those concerned with Israel’s security, and with the maintenance of its deterrence.   

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Blinken in Israel: commonalities re-stated, underlying concerns

The Australian, 3/2

The visit to Israel by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken this week showcased the paradoxical position in which Israel currently finds itself.  While Jerusalem’s long held positions vis a vis the danger represented by Iran have received a very significant boost on the global stage over the past year, stark internal divisions and growing security challenges closer to home cast dark shadows. 

Washington clearly finds it impossible to ignore the direction of events in this corner of the Middle East, despite the current US focus on the Russia-Ukraine war, and the long term American pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region as the crucial center of global strategic affairs.

The Blinken visit followed a series of dramatic developments.  A raid on a drone facility in the Iranian city of Isfahan on January 28,  carried out by Israel according to statements by US intelligence officials, reflected the growing scope, and growing effectiveness of Israel’s ‘shadow war’ against the Islamist regime in Tehran.  Once, Israel’s campaign on Iranian soil focused narrowly on the country’s nuclear program.  During the prime ministership of Naftali Bennett, it became apparent that the focus had widened, and that Israel now had both the capacity and the desire to strike at will at a far wider bank of targets inside Iran. The list now included officials engaged in Iran’s broader program of influence-building and subversion across the Middle East. It also, as reflected in the most recent action, includes Iran’s drone and missile programs. 

The apparent use of quadcopters in the raid suggests that it was carried out by individuals located on Iranian soil, and in fairly close proximity to the facility itself.  This is a further indication that Israel appears to have established a network within Iran, which it can activate and then stand down at will, under the noses of the authorities. 

A raid the following day by unidentified aircraft on a convoy of trucks carrying Iranian weapons across the Albukamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria indicates that in addition to actions on Iranian soil, Israel is continuing to monitor and where required target Tehran’s efforts to supply its various proxies and franchises in Syria and Lebanon. 

Global events with regard to Iran are moving in Israel’s direction.  Once western diplomats would listen sympathetically to Israel’s expressions of concern, while privately concluding that this was not their country’s problem.  Not any more. Iran’s assistance to and support of the Russian war effort in Ukraine, and the emergent strategic axis which it reflects, have changed this picture.  Efforts to ban the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the EU and the UK showcase the extent to which Israel’s long war against the Iranian regime is increasingly located within the western consensus.   

Unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his remarks following his meeting with Secretary Blinken on Monday, chose to focus on this issue.  He noted that in the recent period, ‘many in the international community – I would say most of the international community – have seen the true face of Iran.’  Blinken, too, acknowledged this process and its cause, confirming the US and Israel’s  ‘deepening cooperation to confront and counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and beyond.  Just as Iran has long supported terrorists that attack Israelis and others, the regime is now providing drones that Russia is using to kill innocent Ukrainian civilians.’ 

The efficacy of Israel’s long arm against Iran, however, was not the only generator of Israel-related headlines over recent weeks. Nor, evidently, was it the main focus of the US Secretary of State’s visit. 

Blinken opened his remarks by expressing condolences ‘for the seven Israelis who were killed in the horrific terrorist attack early this week outside their synagogue.’  The attack in Neve Yaakov in Jerusalem on January 27, in which seven Israelis were killed, was the latest incident in a significant uptick in violence over the last two years to which the Israeli authorities have struggled to find a response.  The attack was the bloodiest to take place in Jerusalem since 2008.  Overall, 2022 brought the largest death toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the dying days of the Second Intifada, in 2005. 

The current violence differs from previous rounds in significant ways.  The perpetrators are for the most part not dispatched by any organization.  Some of them (perpetrators of attacks in Jerusalem, Hadera and Beersheba over the last year) identified with the ideas of the Islamic State organization.  Others are connected to a loose nexus of militants in the northern West Bank, centered around the cities of Jenin and Nablus.  For the most part, their radicalization takes place online or via their immediate milieu, leaving no obvious organizational chain which the authorities can trace and unravel.  It is nearly twenty years since the Second Intifada ended. (it is usually dated 2000-4). Three thousand Palestinians and over a thousand Israelis were killed during that period.  Since then, a kind of quiet has largely prevailed.  This period appears to be drawing to a close.  The underlying causes of the conflict remain nowhere close to resolution, with no diplomatic process on the horizon. 

Blinken, on a number of occasions during his visit, reiterated US support for a two state solution as the only way of resolving the conflict.  This call, to both Israeli and Palestinian ears, seems increasingly to bear little connection to the observable reality. 

Meanwhile, over the last two years, the month of Ramadan has witnessed a sharp uptick in violence.  This year, Ramadan is due to commence on March 22.  The increased religious focus of this month, and perceived threats to the al-Aqsa mosque appear to be the factors that serve to galvanise the politically unaffiliated youths who carry out the attacks.  The presence of a far-right radical, Itamar Ben-Gvir, serving as Israel’s National Security Minister, may further affect the situation in as yet unpredictable ways. 

Ben-Gvir’s presence in government reflects the second main focus of Blinken’s visit, namely, obvious US concern at the direction of events within Israel itself.

Israel is today starkly  divided on the issue of proposed judicial reform.  The country’s ‘activist’ Supreme court, and the belief that its rulings reflect a liberal political bias, is a long standing focus of anger among significant parts of the Israeli right.  The current proposed reform is set to sharply reduce the powers of the court.  According to the provisions of the proposed reform, the court’s powers of judicial review will be significantly reduced.  The Knesset (parliament) will be able to overturn a court decision to nullify a law by a simple majority vote.  ‘Unreasonableness’ as a grounds for reviewing administrative decisions will be abolished.  The process by which judges are appointed will be changed, giving a greater role to the executive and legislature and the role of the attorney general will be reduced. 

But this issue has expanded beyond its specifics, and has come to mark the faultlines of a deep and profound division in Israeli society. A significant part of Israel’s secular middle class looks at the make-up of the current government, and notes that 32 of the 64 parliament members belong to religious or ultra-Orthodox factions, including the firebrands Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.  They fear a transformation of their country into something unrecognizable, with the judicial reforms as merely the first step.  Large demonstrations by this public have taken place in recent days, in protest against the proposals.

Blinken, in his public remarks, appeared to acknowledge their concerns. The Secretary of State noted, pointedly, that ‘building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure,’ while suggesting on a number of occasions that ‘shared interests and shared values’ underlay the bond and alliance between the US and Israel.’  Blinken made a point of seeking out and meeting with Israeli civil society organizations, devoting a number of hours to dialogue with them.  The point he was making was clear, though tactfully made (at least publicly).  The US is concerned at the direction of events in Israel.  Washington wants minimum problems in the Middle East, while it focuses elsewhere.

Some commentators have remarked that internal discord in Israel is now at its greatest height since the 1990s. The shadow war with Iran continues to register its successes.  The West Bank simmers on.  Continued success against external challenges, though, must ultimately be based on maintaining a certain required level of internal cohesion.  

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Turkish, Russian Strategy for Syrian Endgame Emerging

Jerusalem Post, 23/12

Without US pushback, Turkish-Russian cooperation may deliver victory in Syria to Moscow-Tehran axis

Since 2019, the Syrian situation has been largely at stalemate, with authority divided between three de facto enclaves, each dependent on the sponsorship of outside powers.  The Assad regime, guaranteed by Russia and Iran, controls around 60-65% of Syria’s territory, including the coastline and the main cities.  The US-backed, Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces hold most of the area east of the Euphrates, comprising roughly 30% of Syria’s area.  Turkey, in partnership with the self-styled ‘Syrian National Army,’  (the remnants of the Sunni Islamist rebellion, remustered under Turkish auspices) and with the jihadi Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, controls an area in the north west comprising around 10% of Syrian territory. 

This de facto partition has mostly held since early 2018.  Turkey shifted the balance somewhat in October-November 2019, with a ground incursion east of the Euphrates. This resulted in the establishment of an enclave of Turkish controlled territory biting into the Kurdish controlled area, and in the deployment of regime and Russian forces east of the Euphrates in order to deter further Turkish advances.  Since then, the military situation on the ground has been static, the broader question of Syria’s future unresolved. 

There are currently indications of renewed movement.   Specifically, Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan has been carrying out an air campaign against targets in the Kurdish/US area since November 20th. The Turkish president has already threatened a ground incursion, with the intention of pushing the Kurdish forces back 30km from the border and conquering three towns, Tal Rifaat, Manbij and Kobani.  Kurdish sources told the Jerusalem Post that the Syrian Kurdish leadership had expected the invasion in late November.  Its postponement appears to be the result of both American and Russian representations to and pressure on Ankara.  Sources suggest, however, that the danger has not yet passed. 

Alongside the threats of invasion, Erdogan appears to now be embarked on a course of diplomacy.  On Thursday December 15, the Turkish President expressed his desire for a three way meeting between himself, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad.  “Let us get together as the leaders. I offered this to Mr. Putin and he received it positively. Thus, a series of contacts would be launched… “We want to take a tripartite step as Syria-Turkey-Russia,” the Turkish president told reporters, on his way back from a trip to Turkmenistan, as reported in Al-Monitor.  The statements followed talks in Istanbul on December 8-9 between the Turkish and Russian deputy foreign ministers, and a phone conversation between Putin and Erdogan on December 11. 

This is a far cry from the Erdogan of a decade ago.  Turkey emerged as the first and most determined supporter of the Islamist insurgents who sought to destroy the Assad regime.  In 2012, in the early days of the insurgency, Erdogan effectively opened the border to the rebels, allowing them to ferry weaponry and supplies into Syria.  Now, as the last protector of what is left of the revolt, the Turkish leader appears to be pursuing a very different goal, namely, rapprochement with the Assad regime, under Russian auspices. 

The Turkish leader’s stance indicates that while he may have for the moment abandoned his ambition to stand at the head of a group of Sunni Islamist regional states, this is not leading him to return to a pro-US regional policy.  Rather, he appears to be seeking to draw closer to Russia, in order to further weaken and eventually nullify the Kurdish led entity in eastern Syria.  Erdogan considers that this body, aligned with the US in its fight against ISIS, is a front for the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), with which Turkey has been at war since 1984.  His efforts since 2015, when it became clear that the rebellion was not going to defeat Assad, have been mainly directed towards seeking the destruction of the Kurdish led area. 

In this regard, Turkey finds natural partners in Russia and Assad.  Assad wants to reassert his nominal control over the entirety of Syria. Russia supports this goal too, as does its ally Iran, and both would like to see the departure of the US troops currently guaranteeing the continued existence of the Kurdish led enclave. 

The Kurdish area, formally known as the Autonomous Administration of north east Syria, has been gradually whittled away by Turkey in three military operations since 2016.  In 2019, the Turkish incursion required the Kurds to invite the regime and Russians into their area to prevent a further Turkish advance.  If forced to choose between the Turks or Assad, the Syrian Kurds will, unsurprisingly, opt for Assad.  For Erdogan, this raises the attractive proposition of using the Assad regime as a kind of anvil for the Turkish hammer, between which the Syrian Kurds will be crushed. 

In 2019, regime forces did not attempt to reimpose Assad’s political authority east of the Euphrates.  Contrary to some predictions, the regime at that time satisfied itself with beefing up its military presence on the border only.    But the episode served to further erode the area of control and authority of the AANES.  It appears that this pattern is to Erdogan’s liking: threats of Turkish action necessitate closer links between the Kurds and the regime, leading to the further weakening of the Kurds.  The next episode of this dynamic, under Russian auspices, appears to be under way. 

Russia’s proposals at this stage appear to resemble the methods used by Moscow to whittle away at rebel controlled areas five years ago.  Moscow is suggesting that the SDF fighters withdraw from Kobani and Manbij, leaving only Kurdish paramilitary police ‘Asayish’ forces which would then come under regime command.  The Kurds, according to al-Monitor, have accepted these demands. Turkey is now demanding additional Kurdish concessions. 

The choreography of all this seems fairly clear.  The key player absent in the dynamic, meanwhile, is the United States.  It is the US which guarantees the continued existence of the AANES area.  It does so, however, without a political commitment of any kind.  Relations are officially limited to cooperation in the ongoing battle against Islamic State.  US interlocutors make clear to the Kurdish leadership that they will not necessarily be in Syria for the long term. The US therefore is not opposed to the negotiations between the AANES and the Assad regime. 

This ‘hands off’ position of the US is likely to doom the Syrian Kurds to the continued slow erosion of their area of control.  The absence of a clear US commitment in Syria may reflect a view which sees this arena as a backwater, of little strategic relevance at the present time.  If so, this view is mistaken.  Syria is one front for a broader, coalescing alliance between Moscow and Teheran, which takes in also the battlefields of Ukraine, and the domestic turmoil in Iran (Moscow, according to a recent report in Iran International, is advising and assisting the Iranians in the suppression of the protests).  The US guaranteed enclave is important strategic real estate which gives the opposing side in this alliance a presence in Syria and an ability to oppose, frustrate or block and contain the ambitions of Moscow and Tehran.  Turkey is seeking to position itself midway between the sides, gaining advantage from both.  The problem may be that strategic thinking on the pro-US side has yet to catch up with the emergent reality in this context.  Until it does, the advantage will be with the Russian-Iranian side, as it moves with Turkish cooperation towards an endgame intended to deliver it strategic victory in the Syrian arena. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Inside the Kurdish Uprising against the Iranian Regime

Jerusalem Post, 16/12

“About the events of the last two months – what happened with Jina Amini was like putting a spark on a pile of TNT, which has now exploded,” Hussein Yazdanpana tells me. “We will not accept what has happened to the Kurds. We see what happened to this girl as an insult to our dignity and our honor.  And we are now taking part in the uprising against the Iranian regime” 

Yazdanpana is the leader of the Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK – Parti Azadi K), one of three Iranian Kurdish organizations targeted by the missiles and drones of the Teheran regime in recent months.  We are talking in a small hut located at the movement’s headquarters in Pirde, Kirkuk Province, in northern Iraq, close to the place where the missiles landed. 

In mid-November, the Jerusalem Post visited all three of the targeted areas, and conducted interviews with leaders and activists of the organizations targeted.  Our presence in these areas also enabled us to meet with and interview young Iranians who had taken part in the current protests, before being identified by the Iranian security services and fleeing the country.  At a time when the Iranian authorities are doing their best to block access to the country, and to stifle the voices of those engaged in revolt against it, this provided a valuable window both on what is going on in Iran, and on the sentiments, views and motivations of those involved in the protests.   

The PAK stands out in two ways among the cluster of small, armed Kurdish organizations gathered along the Iraq-Iran border – for the clarity and unambiguous nature of its rhetoric and its demands, and for its emphasis on military activity and struggle.  Regarding the former, the organization openly calls for the establishment of a sovereign Kurdish state on the lands that the Iranian Kurds call ‘Rojhelat.’ 

Other Kurdish groups tend to restrict themselves to demands for autonomy within a federal Iran, or various other formulations.  Regarding the latter, the movement is reknowned for its actions both during the war against ISIS and, in particular, during the Iraqi Kurds’ desperate defense against the pro-Iran Shia militias after the failed Kurdish independence bid in September, 2014.  On that occasion, the movement is credited for stopping the advance of the militias towards the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil, at the Alton Kopri bridge, which links Kirkuk and Erbil provinces. 

Formed in 2006, the PAK, like the other targeted groups, is a small organization, numbering around 1000 fighters, with an larger network of supporters inside and outside Iran. 

The base at Pirde was attacked by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on September 28, shortly after the outbreak of the current uprisjng against the regime in Tehran.  Six members of the movement were killed on that occasion.   The bases of two other Iranian Kurdish groups, Komala and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) were also targeted.  At total of eighteen people died in the attacks. 

The Iranian regime accuses the PAK and the other organizations of carrying out ‘armed attacks’ against regime security forces, and of fomenting the current demonstrations and protests.  IRGC Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour was quoted by the IRGC-associated Tasnim channel as  saying that that the attacks will continue until “the complete disarmament of the anti-Iranian and separatist terrorist groups”. 

Yazdanpana, and leaders of the other two organizations dismiss the accusations of ‘armed attacks’, while freely admitting to active support for the uprising.  “As PAK,” he tells me, “ we are calling for the continuance and expansion of the protests. This is what we’re working on.  What is happening now is not criticism of the government.  We are demanding the end of the regime. Iran’s bombardments just motivate us more.”

On the issue of armed action, the PAK leader told me that “we want to continue and expand the civil way.  But we should be prepared also and should not hesitate to protect ourselves.” 

But alongside the determination, there is a clear frustration at the failure of western countries to respond adequately to Iranian aggression, and more broadly, at what the PAK leader identifies as a more general failure to grasp the nature of the Iranian regime and its regional intentions. 

“Our fighters fought ISIS, and like the Ukrainians, we’re friends of the US, and right now we’re under Iranian bombardment and are being killed.  How can the international community keep silent?  You remember when Hizballah was bombing Israel? How do they come to have such weapons? Its not Hizballah, its Iran which is the source.  You have to deal with the source of the weapons. 

We’re not living in the age of empires, but Iran is an imperial state.  Iran wants to control the Sinjar mountains so as to put its missiles within range of Tel Aviv.  It has bombed Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It has destroyed Yemen.  So how can we keep silent? 

They have brought their militias into Iran.  The Fatemiyoun, Zeinabyoun and so on (Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias) and they’re using them against the demonstrators.  They have permission to open fire, wherever they want. 

Iran must be faced with force.  With force you can change it.  But only in this way.”

On the matter of Kurdish statehood, the PAK leader is unequivocal.  “If Israel didn’t have its own state, there would be another Holocaust.  So having a state is the only way to guarantee the safety and sovereignty of the nation.  I want a free and independent Kurdish state.  But of course, the people themselves must decide this.”

Why is Iran targeting the Iranian Kurdish organizations?

The PAK, PDKI and Komala are organizations raised against the Islamist regime in Tehran, and are committed to its downfall. At the same time, these are all small organizations, with limited reach.  Members of all three organizations in conversation with the Jerusalem Post noted their active involvement in the protests. Kawthar Fatahi, a leading Komala activist, said that her movement maintains “illegal hospitals,’” and  “We pay doctors to bring aid to wounded people.  We pay the families of wounded people.  We assist the movement a lot, but not via armed action.” 

But while the organizations are undoubtedly engaged in active support for the uprising, no-one, including the organizations themselves, claims that they are in control of, or leading the demonstrations.  Rather, the protests in the main involve very young people, many of them under 20 years old, and few over 25.  Why then does the regime appear to be paying such disproportionate attention to the Iranian Kurdish organizations in the border area?

Many of the activists interviewed by the Jerusalem Post in the border area attribute the apparently disproportionate attention given to the organizations to a desire by the regime to present the civil uprising against it as a military insurgency.  This depiction would then be the prelude to a much harsher crackdown on the protests, presented as a response to a national security threat. 

As one official of the PDKI put it, in conversation with the Jerusalem Post at the organization’s Koya headquarters, “the regime want to make it into a military battle with us.  But we see that this would be in the interests of the regime, so we try to prevent that.  A military confrontation would enable them to cause mass casualties and end the demonstrations.  So we are trying to educate people so as to avoid this.” 

“They attack us because they are feeling weak.  The attacks also show the weakness of Iraqi sovereignty.  Iran is trying to look strong when actually they are very weak.  What’s happening now is unprecedented, in terms of the time it has continued.  People are no longer willing to accept the regime.  Its getting stronger day by day.” 

Conversations with protestors

On November 14, in the course of our visit to the bases of the Iranian Kurdish organizations, Iran launched an additional missile and drone attack.  The headquarters of the PDKI and Komala were targeted.  Three people were killed at the PDKI base in Koya.  We were at the base of the PAK on that day.  As a precaution, the base was evacuated, and the fighters deployed in the surrounding hills.  In the following tense hours, we were able to speak to a number of people who had taken part in the protests in Iran, before making their way across the mountains to northern Iraq, to avoid arrest by the regime.  

Mafriz, aged 19, from Sine, took part in the demonstrations for the first two weeks.  She describes a situation of open confrontation far exceeding the generally reported picture of demonstrations by young women for the rescinding of compulsory hijab laws. 

“The regime attacked us with live bullets.  People are injured but they can’t go to a pharmacy or hospital.  We had to take casualties to private houses.  Men, women, even children, whole families took part in the demonstrations.” 

After two weeks, a surveillance camera placed outside a shop identified Mafriz, and the authorities contacted her family, asking her to report to the local offices of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.  At this point, she decided to leave.  The PAK has a strong presence in Sine, and Mafriz’s family made contact with the organize, to help her leave. 

“After I was threatened (by the regime),” she tells the Jerusalem Post, “I went to Sardasht.  From there I was able to walk for 3 days with smugglers and then to get to Iraq.  I was terrified during the trip across the mountains.  I thought the smugglers might sell me.  Then after I came here, they sent me the number of the PAK.  And I contacted them and came here.” 

Rezan, 25, also from Sine, was arrested on the fourth demonstration in which she participated, and was then rescued from arrest by the demonstrators themselves.  “Most participants in the demonstrations are 15-20 years old, coming from families that have been oppressed.  Poor economic conditions, political instability, no one feels safe, and that makes people come out. 

The regime has become more aggressive, entering peoples’ houses and so on, and I believe it will continue to intensify.  The regime is using hunting guns, live bullets, teargas, sticks and baton rounds.  Also the regime police and intelligence use fake ambulances to arrest people.  So wounded people are being treated in their homes rather than in hospital.” 

“We have to respond to the regime bullet with bullet,” she concludes, “so we need the support of the international community for this, to go back to our lands and to take revenge for all the innocent people who have been killed.” And, on learning where we are from, “Israel should keep on punishing the regime.  As much as you can.” 

Hussein, 27, a construction worker from Saqqez, took part in the demonstrations that launched the current uprising, following the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, before escaping with his wife and young won to Iraq. 

“I’m a painter and decorator, an ordinary worker.  We lived in poor conditions, like thousands of other young people in Iran.  The events surrounding Jina’s death gave us an opportunity, to go to the streets, mzke a change, and demonstrate.  I went with four of my friends.  Two have them have now been arrested and disappeared.  The others were injured.  I was recognized and the authorities went to my parents’ home. They took my sister’s phone and called me.  And when I answered, the coice told me ‘come to us, you son of a bitch. So I got some friends to bring my family to me. And we came here.”

Hussein and his family are staying with the PAK in Pirde because he fears the presence of Iranian sleeper cells in the cities, in Erbil, or Suleimania.  The vulnerability of Iraqi Kurdistan to Iranian intelligence penetration and the fears of Iranians present in this area is an under-reported part of this story. 

“They killed Musa Babakhani, in Erbil,” Hussein reminds me, when I ask whether such precautions are necessary.  Babakhani, a leading activist in the PDKI, was murdered in an Erbil hotel room in August, 2021, by agents of the Iranian regime. 

These testimonies, gathered as we waited in the mountains for the all clear to be given, reflect earlier conversations with activists and participants in the Iranian protests.  The details matter.  The issue of the abuse by the authorities of medical care, in order to apprehend demonstrators came up again and again.  And as we saw in the statements of Kawthar Fatahi of Komala, it is in this area that the Kurdish organizations are most practically engaged, creating an independent, rudimentary medical infrastructure that enables participants when injured to avoid the public hospitals and the authorities. 

Another matter which surfaced in a number of conversations was the issue of sexual abuse of demonstrators in the hands of the authorities.  Though somewhat taboo in the conservative environment of Iran, claims of this kind surfaced in several of our conversations and the issue is worthy of greater attention and investigation. 

At the Komala base in Zergwez, Rojda, 22, from Saqqez, gave a vivid account of the first moments of the uprising.  “When we heard that Jina had been killed, and that the next day the regime was preparing to bury her, in darkness, at 4am, all the Saqqez people went down to block the streets leading to the cemeteries. 

The police came and began to push people back.  The killing of Jina was so brutal. Saqqez people knew that she was a good person, who did nothing to deserve this.  It was not acceptable.  The police and intelligence tried to threaten us as the womens’ demonstration began to spread.  The next day, the women came to the streets again, to block the road, with the men behind them.  Then the police began to open fire, with ‘hunting guns.’

After 4 days in the demonstrations, I was doing first aid.  They said I had to come to the ‘Etillat’ (intelligence) station.  Then I decided to leave, and I came across the mountains. I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon, because of the anger of the people that I saw on the demonstrations.  Young women, 19 and 20 years old. Despite the threat, the fear has gone.  For that reason, I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon.”

The Road Ahead

The latest news from Iran suggests a sharp intensification of regime tactics.  Three months in, the regime has evidently decided that ongoing containment is no longer an option.  Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, was in Iraq last week for a  two day visit.  While there, Ghaani threatened Iraqi and Kurdish officials with an Iranian ground military operation, unless the Iranian Kurdish organizations along the border were disarmed.  Ghaani’s visit came a day after the November 14th attacks on Koya. Whether or not a ground incursion takes place, no one expects that the November 22 missile and suicide drone attacks on the PAK will be the last. 

The first executions of protestors condemned for their participation in the demonstrations have begun.  On Thursday, according to BBC Monitoring,  the Iranian judiciary announced the  execution of Mohsen Shekari. He had been convicted of “waging war against God” for blocking a street and wounding a member of the Basij. 11 others arrested since the start of the uprising  await execution. 458 people have been killed so far in the Iranian regime’s response to the demonstrations, including 63 children and 29 women, according to Iranian human rights organizations. The protests continue.   

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Step by step, the regime will lose control’: interview with an Iranian revolutionary 

Jerusalem Post, 9/12

“The problem is not only the hijab.  This is a symbol.  The Iranian regime is intent on controlling how women live.  And women are saying ‘I am human and I have a right to live.’ This time its different.” 

Kawthar Fatahi, 33, a former teacher from Bukan in Iran’s Western Azerbaijan Province, is now a leading activist and organizer for the Iranian Kurdish Komala party. We are sitting in her office at the movement’s HQ in Zergwez, Suleimania Province, northern Iraq, about 50 km from the Iraq-Iran border.  The base was the target of an Iranian drone and missile attack on September 28th.  “I thought it was a motorcycle, at first” she tells me, “A horrible, weak, buzzing sound. But it was a suicide drone.  You could see it in the sky, but you didn’t know where it was going to land.”

The countryside in the Iraq-Iran border area is green, verdant and beautiful, in contrast to the desert landscapes a little further west. But two days after our conversation, the base will be targeted again. Fatahi’s office is located in one of the buildings struck by the drones. 

In quiet and measured tones, she describes the unexpected outbreak of the uprising that followed calls by Iranian Kurdish organizations, including her own, for protests following the killing on September 16 of Mahsa Jina Amini for improper wearing of her compulsory hijab. 

“Initially I wasn’t too optimistic.  I thought it might be limited to Kurdistan.  But now I think its different,’ she says.  “Nobody thought it would be this big, because a week before in Mariwan, another girl was killed and there were protests – but only in Mariwan. No one else supported them.  Then the Kurdish parties called a strike, which was completely successful.  So they called the protests.  ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadi.’  (Women, life, freedom – a main slogan of the uprising).  And then a few days later we heard this Kurdish slogan in Tehran.” 

She is concerned, nevertheless, at the limited base of support for the revolt.  “It remains only Generation Z.  15-25 year olds. There is a need for older people to come into the protests. Everyone decided that they don’t want the regime. But people are scared.” The absence of a clear leadership, much remarked upon in western analyses of the uprising, is an issue too. 

“Who are the alternative to the regime? Its still not obvious…People in Iran are a little afraid of charisma. Because this is how Khomeini was.  They saw his face in the moon, you know? They insist that they don’t need a charismatic leader, that we will not be deceived again. We need a system, they say.  A democratic system.”

“Some among the Turks (ie Azeri Iranians) and the Persians believe in the king, the Shah.  But even they don’t want him to be king, but that he should take power, a temporary, government. And then a referendum.”

“They aren’t frightened that something could be worse than the current regime – because nothing could be worse than the current regime.”

The base at Zergwez is host to young men and women who took part in the current uprising, and who had to hurriedly leave Iran after the authorities sought to apprehend them.  Fatahi herself left Iran for similar reasons some years before the current events.  After becoming involved in ‘the social movement, the green movement,’  she was summoned by the IRGC for interrogation, and with the help of the Komala organization fled across the Zagros mountains to Iraqi Kurdistan. 

“When you grow up in Iran, as a woman, and especially as a Kurdish woman, you notice that things are not normal, that you have no place,” she tells me.  “So you think about it.  Why don’t I have basic rights? We have to wear a hijab from the first days.  And step by step you start to think that you’re nothing.  How to walk, how to sit, how to eat.  It was forbidden for women to eat in the street.” 

Komala itself, along with two other Iranian Kurdish movements – the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) and the Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK), have been the targets of Iranian missile and drone attacks on three occasions since the outbreak of the uprising in mid-September.  A total of 21 people have been killed in these attacks.  Iranian regime media maintains a constant drumbeat of accusations, according to which these organizations are smuggling weaponry across the border to the protestors, and seeking to foment an armed insurgency.   Tasnim, for example, a channel associated with the IRGC, reported on November 22 that the armed strikes on the  ‘‘Iraqi-based Komala and Democrat terrorist groups came after illegal entry by these groups’ armed teams into the Iranian border cities.’

Kawthar Fatahi, and other officials of Komala, PDKI and PAK interviewed by the Jerusalem Post in Iraqi Kurdistan in mid-November dismiss these accusations.  It is clear from these interviews that the Kurdish organizations are not leading the current protests, nor do they claim to be doing so.  They are, however, involved in activities intended to assist the uprising. 

“We have ‘illegal hospitals,’” says Fatahi.  “We pay doctors to bring aid to wounded people.  We pay the families of wounded people.  We assist the movement a lot, but not via armed action.” 

All three of these movements have light weaponry, including machine guns and RPGs, as this author witnessed on their bases.  The demonstrators inside Iran, meanwhile, are being killed daily.  Over 450 people have now died.  The organizations, surely, are faced with a dilemma.  Why not use the available weaponry in order to defend the protestors.  And if not now, when, so to speak.  I put this question to Fatahi. 

“People do call on us to come inside, yes.  But we think its not yet the time,” she replies.  “The regime creates fake scenarios, saying that people from Komala come in with bombs and so on, supported by the US and Israel.  We now have four fighters in jail, who’ve been forced to say ‘we’re from Komala, we trained with Israel, to come and make explosions.’ But its all fake. 

The revolution in 1979 took one year.  We need the big cities, we need Teheran.  Its not yet the time.  We shouldn’t give the regime excuses.  We should go step by step.” 

As of now, the demonstrations are continuing, and regime tactics are producing violence in response.  A number of IRGC personnel have been killed by the protestors, in both Kurdistan and Sistan Baluchestan Province.  The airstrikes on Iranian Kurdish positions across the border are accompanied by increasing use of live ammunition against the protests.  In Iranian Kurdistan this week, another of the periodic general strikes took place, and was widely observed. 

Kawthar Fatahi, from her office in Zergwez, next to where the drone struck, is cautiously optimistic.  “The demonstrations need to be continuous.  The Iranian regime is very weak now.  I know many people who were senior in the regime, in the IRGC, and who have stopped working with them.  If the demonstrations continue, and larger numbers come to the revolution, and the strikes continue and spread, I think that step by step, the regime will begin to lose control.  I think it’s going to happen.” 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘The Fear Has Gone’: Conversations with Iranian protestors

A version of this article appeared in The Australian, weekend edition, 26-27/11/22

‘At about 10.30, we got a warning that an attack was coming.  So we had to disperse.  I ran home to Reyhana.  I was about five meters from where the rocket landed. I was thrown back. After a couple of minutes, I woke up.’ 

We are sitting in the front room of Zanyar Rahmani’s house, at the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (PDKI) base in Konya, northern Iraq.  The base was struck by the drones and rockets of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on September 28th.  13 people were killed. 

Zanyar Rahmani is speaking in a calm and matter of fact tone about the events of that day.  The base has re-acquired a peaceful, industrious atmosphere.  The morning is quiet. There are pictures on the wall of Rahmani’s front room, of him with Reyhana, his wife, and of a newborn baby, their son, Waniar. 

‘There was two weeks left til she was due to give birth,’ Zanyar says, taking up the story again.  ‘When I came to, I saw my wife, and I told her to go to the car.  But then I saw that she was looking strange, and she fell.  I carried her to the car and I saw that I was covered in blood.  We drove to the hospital.  In the car her waters broke and she began bleeding.  They gave her an x ray in the hospital, and they said probably we have to choose between saving her and saving the baby, and that she’s almost certainly not going to make it.’ 

‘They gave her surgery for an hour and a half.  She died but the baby survived.  Then after one day, the baby followed her. ‘

‘Afterwards, we learned that she had shrapnel wounds in her back, and that her lungs were destroyed. She had no chance to survive.’

A day after our visit to the PDKI base in Koya, it was targeted again by regime rockets.  Three more people died.  Then on November 20, another attack took place.  No one believes it will be the last. 

The ongoing rocket and drone strikes by Iran on the bases of a number of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq constitute one of the more mysterious aspects of the current instability in Iran.  The demonstrations which began to protest the killing by the regime of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, have now entered their third month.  They show no sign of dissipating. Rather, both the protests themselves, and the regime’s response to them, appear to be growing increasingly violent.  Over 450 people have now died.  The use by the authorities of live ammunition against the protestors has become routine.  In recent days, meanwhile, a colonel of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hasan Yousefi, was beaten to death by protestors in Sanandaj.  Demonstrators in Teheran burned down the childhood home of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic. 

The Kurdish Iranian opposition groups in northern Iraq combine political and military capacities. But none of them are engaged in active insurgency against Teheran. No one, themselves included, believes that they are in control of the angry crowds of mainly very young people that return to the streets of Iran’s cities night after night to challenge the regime’s security forces.  Why, then, are they being systematically, and brutally, targeted?

PDKI officials I interviewed contended that the attacks are part of an effort by the Iranian regime to depict the struggle against it as led by external, ‘separatist’ forces.  This would be a prelude to a declaration of defensive war against these forces.  This, in turn, ,would be a perfect framing for the wholesale slaughter of protestors, to be depicted as part of a national war against an external enemy. 

‘The regime want to make it into a military battle with us.  But we see that this would be in the interests of the regime, so we try to prevent that,’ says Mustafa Maroudi, a senior PDKI official, speaking to us from his office in Koya. 

‘They attack us because they feel weak.  The regime is trying to look strong, when actually they are very weak…What’s happening now is unprecedented.  In terms of the time that it has continued.  People are no longer willing to accept the regime. The protests are getting stronger day by day.’ 

The organizations targeted – the PDKI,  Kurdish Freedom Party (PAK) and Komala, are playing, in their own depiction, an auxiliary role in the protests.  They maintain ‘field hospitals’ for wounded protestors in private homes, because the regime is known to target medical facilities in its search for those engaged in the uprising against it.  They provide finance to doctors treating the wounded, and to the families of wounded demonstrators. But the real energy and impetus driving on the demonstrations is clearly not emerging from these small, exiled groups. 

Assessing the true impetus behind the protests is a task made deliberately difficult by the Teheran regime.  Reporting on the ground in the areas most affected by the protests, such as Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces, is impossible.  The regime also tries to restrict internet access to affected areas.  It wishes to do its work in darkness. 

The Iraq-Iran border area, however, is a place where some light gets in.  There is a steady stream of people making their way by clandestine means over the Zagros mountains that bisect the border.  Many of these are young women and men who took part in the demonstrations, were identified by the authorities, and then had to cross the mountains to avoid arrest.  From conversations with them, one may begin to build a clearer picture of the motivations for the revolt currently under way, of the form that it is taking, and of the efforts by the regime to destroy it. Many of our interviews were conducted in the field, on the day of Iran’s renewed missile attacks, as the Iranian Kurdish fighters and refugees sought shelter from the attacks in the countryside surrounding their bases.

‘When we heard that Jina had been killed, and that the regime was preparing to bury her at 4am, in darkness, the Saqqez people went to the streets, to all the roads leading to the cemetery.’  Rojda (not her real name), 22, tells me, describing her participation in the protests that launched the uprising.  She is a native of Saqqez, the hometown of Mahsa Jina Amini. (the Iranian Kurds all refer to Amini using her Kurdish given name, Jina, rather than the Persian ‘Mahsa.’

‘The killing of Jina was so brutal,’ Rojda continues, ‘and Saqqez people knew that she was a good person, who did nothing to deserve this.  And it was not acceptable.  The police and intelligence tried to threaten us. But the next day, the women came to the streets again, to block the road, with the men behind them.  And then the authorities began to open fire, using shotguns.’ 

‘After four days in the demonstrations, I was doing first aid, and I got a message that I had to come to the ‘Etelaat’ station (the Ministry of Intelligence and Security).  So then I decided to leave, and I came here across the mountains.  I contacted a humanitarian organization who helped me get to Sardasht.  Then I stayed there for 6 days. The border was closed.  Then it took me 5 hours walking to cross the border, with the ‘kolbars’ (border smugglers).’ 

Rojda’s account is in its essential details similar to the stories of many of the young women and men who we interviewed in the border area.  The heady exhilaration of involvement in the protests, subsequent location and targeting by the authorities, and then the flight across the mountains.  The Iranian-Kurdish organizations provide both a place of refuge, and a framework for continued activity. 

‘I’m optimistic that the regime will fall soon, because of the anger of the people that I saw on the demonstrations,’ she tells us.  ‘Young women, 19-20 years old. The fear has gone.  That’s why I’m optimistic.’ 

‘In Iran, a woman is nothing,’ 28 year old Mafriz tells us, ‘She is seen, excuse me, as a kind of sh**y animal, without respect.  I took part in the demonstrations in Sina. We were asking for freedom and democracy.  The issue in Iran is not only about hijab.  It’s more than this. 

The Basij (regime paramilitary forces) came into the university and beat us.  Three of my friends were captured and they beat them.  Their parents paid for them to be released.  One of my friends, after she was caught, they physically and sexually abused her.’ 

‘The Etelaat came to my parents’ house.  They promised me an amnesty if I returned…My family want me to return.  The regime makes these claims that people who go to the Kurdish organizations are being held there by force.’ 

Rezan, 25, from Sine, keeps her face covered throughout our conversation.  ‘Because of my family,’ who are still in Iran, she tells us.  She left Iran at the end of September, after taking part in the protests.  ‘Most of the participants are 15-20 years old.’ She tells us. ‘They come from families that have been oppressed. There are poor economic conditions, political instability, and no one feels safe. So people come out.  The regime has become more aggressive now, entering peoples’ homes and so on.  But I believe the protests will continue to intensify.’ 

So where is all this heading?  The latest news from Iran suggests a sharp intensification of regime tactics.  Three months in, the regime has evidently decided that ongoing containment is no longer an option.  Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, was in Iraq last week for a  two day visit.  While there, Ghaani threatened Iraqi and Kurdish officials with an Iranian ground military operation, unless the Iranian Kurdish organizations along the border were disarmed.  Ghaani’s visit came a day after the November 14th attacks on Koya. 

Within Iran, meanwhile, the latest reports are of regime targeting of protestors in the Iranian Kurdish city of Mahabad, which briefly fell out of government control.  Video evidence of machine gun fire on protestors has emerged. All the indications suggest that the regime’s face is set toward escalation, in a desire to provoke a showdown with the demonstrators, and then adopt the tactics of brutal counter-insurgency against them.  It is a familiar playbook, last employed in the Middle East by the Assad regime in Syria, a close ally of Teheran. 

The difficult task facing the uprising will be to maintain momentum and build world attention, without falling into the traps set by Teheran.  Strike action in support of the protests, meanwhile, remains somewhat sporadic and, crucially, no real leadership has yet emerged to guide the revolt.

The goal, nevertheless, remains clear.  As Koser Fatahi, a 33 year old organizer for the Komala movement, expressed it to us, speaking from an office damaged in the September 28th attack: ‘The world should act more.  They are still negotiating with Iran. Its disgusting.  If this regime gets a nuclear capacity, it’s the end of everything.  Because the regime believes it should spread.  They call it an octopus, with lots of hands.  Well these hands should be cut – in Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Syria. 

Its important to hear the voice of the people. Iran is still on the committee for womens’ rights in the UN. Its disgusting.  The world would be a better place if the Iranian regime didn’t exist.  If you want democracy, womens’ rights, human rights, this path leads through the destruction of the Iranian regime.’ 

Reyhana Rahmani and her son Waniar, who lived a single day, are buried beside one another, in the cemetery maintained by the PDKI at Koysinjaq.  More than 450 people have now been killed by the Iranian regime since the uprising against it began in September.  The protests are continuing.     

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Best Books about the Human Impact of War

The Shepherd website recently invited me to compile a list of the best books on the human impact of war, in my judgement. This is a subject of considerable interest to me. I have lived around active conflict, first as a participant, then as a journalist and researcher, and then sometimes as a type of participant again, for the last 22 years. This subject has become a central focus of my writing. I have a kind of feeling that this subject chose me, rather than the other way around. I dont mean that in some portentous sense, but rather simply that conflict and war have imposed themselves on the physical area in which I chose to make my life (a choice made for reasons unrelated to conflict), and my personal biography and the biographies of those closest to me, both family and close friends, have been shaped by the experience of war and its legacy. Anyway, I hope readers will find my choices and the explanations of them to be of interest.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Iranian Kurds fear massacre as regime threatens incursion

Jerusalem Post, 14/10

The crisis in western Iran is intensifying. As Sanandaj and other cities burn, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Saturday issued a curious statement threatening a military incursion into Kurdish northern Iraq.

The statement read: “In case of inability of some neighbors in expelling elements of separatist terrorists and hypocrites stationed in the border areas… the armored and special forces units of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s armed forces are ready to be deployed to free this region of these evils forever.”

A report at Voice of America on October 4, meanwhile, quoted a senior Kurdish Region of Iraq official who noted a buildup of Iranian forces on the border, and said that the Iranian regime had sent a message to the KRI confirming that Iran may launch a ground operation into northern Iraq, if Iranian Kurdish forces do not withdraw from the border area. In response, according to the official, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have demanded that Iranian Kurdish fighters withdraw from their positions along the border.

These threats follow a number of attacks carried out by Iranian regime forces on facilities belonging to Iranian Kurdish opposition parties on Iraqi soil, beginning on September 28. Sixteen people lost their lives in these attacks, including one American citizen. All this comes amid the rising death toll in the majority Kurdish provinces of western Iran, as Tehran seeks to crush the protests against the regime.
Why is Iran choosing to target small, exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition organizations in northern Iraq, at a time when unrest within Iran itself is ongoing?

IRANIAN KURDS suspect the regime intends a repeat of events that took place shortly after the revolution of 1979, when majority Kurdish areas were isolated and then subjected to massacres. The targeting of Kurdish organizations would form part of an effort to “brand” the protests as a separatist Kurdish uprising, which would then be crushed using maximum force.

The Kurdish organizations in question – the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Kurdistan Freedom Party, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan, and Komala – are not engaged in active insurgency against the Iranian regime. These parties maintain armed wings, but their small and lightly armed forces engage only in training and some patrolling along the borderline. They are forbidden by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities from launching armed actions across the border. The Iraqi Kurds are aware of the dangers of provoking Iran.

Arash Saleh, a senior activist with the KDPI, told The Jerusalem Post that “the regime wants to distract international attention from what is currently going on in Iran by spilling its crisis over to the neighboring countries. For years, this regime’s remedy for the crisis it was facing has been creating new crises and specifically the ones with an international dimension.”

A source from the Iranian Kurdish city of Sanandaj, epicenter of the current protests, meanwhile, suggested that “the regime claims that Iranian Kurdish opposition in Iraqi Kurdistan are fueling the protests in Iran and specifically in Iranian Kurdistan and they plot for separation. In this way, they want to provoke the demonstrators in other provinces to stop protesting and stop the risk of Kurdistan province separating from Iran.”

The current unrest in Iran has spread to all 31 provinces of the country, but its origins are in the province of Kurdistan, home to the majority of Iran’s Kurds. Twenty-two-year-old Mahsa (Zhina) Amini, whose killing at the hands of the regime sparked the current unrest, was Kurdish, and hailed from the town of Saqqez, in Kurdistan province. The slogan that has become the symbol of the current protests, “Jin, jiyan, azadi” – Kurdish for “Women, life, freedom” – was coined by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdish PKK.

Kurdistan province is among the most impoverished and underdeveloped of Iranian governorates. The Kurdish population of Iran, numbering nine to 10 million in a country of 84 million and concentrated in the western part of the country, is doubly oppressed. In addition to facing the travails known to all Iranians, living under the stifling and repressive rule of the Islamic regime, Iran’s Kurds are the object of the regime’s particular attention as an ethnic minority suspected of separatist tendencies.

In the period immediately following the revolution of 1979, the then-fledgling IRGC fought a bloody campaign in Kurdistan province against Kurdish rebels seeking greater autonomy.

The fighting reached its peak in mid-1980, with a massive offensive by the regime’s armed forces, accompanied by the summary executions of thousands of Iranian Kurds. The main Kurdish movements engaged at that time against the regime were the KDPI and the leftist Komala Party. Following the repression, these movements reestablished themselves across the border in northern Iraq.

Both these movements still exist, and their facilities were among the targets of the Iranian attacks in recent days.

The Iranian regime has, since the 1980s, maintained a tight and repressive hold on the province. Imprisonment or worse remains the common fate of those who seek to organize against the regime. Tehran has in recent years also frequently turned to the use of execution by hanging as a means of enforcing its authority. From January 1 to June 30 this year, 251 people have been hanged in Iran, compared to 117 in the first half of last year, according to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based NGO. Iranian Kurds and Balochis are disproportionately represented among those executed. The roster includes Kurdish political activists convicted of membership in one or another of the Kurdish political organizations listed above, which the Iranian regime considers “terrorist” organizations.

AS OF now, Kurdistan province and particularly the focal city of Sanandaj, along with parts of Tehran and Mahabad, remain the epicenter of the protests. Intensified demonstrations over the weekend led to the use of live ammunition against protesters for the first time in Sanandaj. An unknown number of people have been killed and wounded in the city, where the protests are continuing.

In Sanandaj, some evidence is emerging of reluctance on the part of Kurdish members of the security forces to take part in the worst of the repression.

A source from Sanandaj, who is in constant touch with protesters in the city, told the Post that “witnesses say they [the regime] deployed Kurdish repressive forces from Kermanshah province but they refused to attack people. The people from Kermanshah are mainly Shia Kurds. So they tend to be closer to the regime, and the regime trusts them more. So the regime had tried to deploy them to repress demonstrations.

“Then, in the last few nights, they deployed 15 buses of special guards from Yazd. Yazd is far from Sanandaj, in central Iran. The people there are Persian, religious, and affiliated with the regime.”

Video evidence has since emerged suggesting that the Iranian authorities have begun, in the last days, to use live fire against protesters in Sanandaj. The video clips included what appeared to be evidence of the firing of armor piercing 50-caliber bullets on private homes.

The Iranian Kurds fear a repeat of the slaughter of 40 years ago, with the world similarly looking aside. The possibility of an Iranian cross-border operation to accompany this should not be ruled out. The protests are, according to our Sanandaj source, “the most intense since 1980.” The Iranian regime appears to be preparing the ground for them to end in a similar way.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment