Is Washington ceding Syria to Russian influence?

Jerusalem Post, 28/8

Goodbye ‘Timber Sycamore’:

What will the end of the CIA program providing support to Syria’s rebels mean for the future direction of the Syrian conflict?

President Donald Trump recently appeared to confirm a number of media reports suggesting that the US has scrapped the long-standing covert CIA program to provide weapons and training to Syria’s rebels.  There was much subsequent merrymaking regarding Trump’s supposed ‘revelation’ of the program via his preferred medium of Twitter.  This commentary was not serious.  The existence of the program, if not its details, has been an open ‘secret’ for a while.

Nevertheless, the decision to scrap the CIA program, now confirmed by General  Raymond A. Thomas, head of US Special Operations Command, is a significant development.   So is the US exiting the Syrian stage, and ceding the area in its entirety as a zone of influence to Russia?  And what will this mean for Syria? Does it imply the eclipse in their entirety of anti-Assad forces and an overall victory for the dictator in the long civil war in Syria?

Observation of the available facts suggests that it isn’t that simple.  The CIA program, dubbed ‘Timber Sycamore,’  was created in early 2013, and was intended to stand up ‘moderate’ units from among the Syrian Sunni Arab rebels, at a time when Islamist and jihadi forces had already become entrenched and prevalent among them.   The first groups of fighters armed by Timber Sycamore began to appear in southern Syria in September 2013.

Operating out of military operations centers in Jordan and Turkey, the program involved the vetting and training of Syrian rebels by US personnel, and from 2014, the provision of sophisticated weaponry. The first reports, for example of BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles in the hands of the rebels appeared in April, 2014.  Media reports suggested the involvement of Saudi Arabia in the project – with Riyadh providing arms and money and US personnel responsible for training.

The precise extent of weaponry provided, the list of groups supported, the type of training offered, and the affiliations of the US personnel involved in the training remain classified.  However, the impact of the program from the results on the ground can be estimated.

In northern Syria, US-supported groups never managed to dislodge the dominant Salafi-jihadi groups, supported by Qatar and Turkey – most importantly the Ahrar al-Sham group and the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al Nusra, (subsequently renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, after formally ending its al-Qaeda allegiance).  Instead, the US supported groups became de facto partners with these organizations.

In southern Syria, where Salafi jihadi Islamism was weaker, the program has had a greater impact.  Operating mainly through the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, the US-supported forces (also supported by Jordan and Israel) have succeeded in largely preventing the Assad regime and its allies from reconquering Deraa and Quneitra Provinces.

Parallel to the CIA program, the Pentagon has been running its own train-and-equip operation for the war against ISIS.  This project, after some initial hiccups, has been notably successful and is presently slowly and relentlessly driving the Islamic State back in its ‘capital’ city of Raqqa.   The beginnings of success for the Pentagon program, however, coincide with the commencement of US co-operation not with the Sunni Arab rebels, but rather with the Kurdish YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units).

This unlikely partnership, which began in October 2014, enabled the US to work with a ready made coherent force on the ground, rather than to try to help establish  and shape one.  Subsequently, the DoD program has surrounded this Kurdish core with  a variety of additional Arab forces, creating the multi-ethnic force which is now known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

This program has in addition offered training and support to rebel forces in south east Syria wishing to fight the Islamic State.  At present, two Arab rebel militias, Maghawir al-Thawra and Shohada al-Quartayn are receiving training and aid from the US and allied (reportedly British and Norwegian) forces in the desert of south east Syria.

This Train and Equip program is not being wrapped up.  That is, the US is not pulling out of involvement in Syria in toto. Rather a particular project is being terminated.  So where is this likely to have an impact?

For obvious reasons, in the area east of the Euphrates, where the Pentagon Train and Equip program is the relevant project, the termination of Timber Sycamore will have no impact at all.

It will also have little noticeable effect on the remaining rebel enclaves in north west Syria. There, the US-supported groups are largely irrelevant.  The growing force in Idleb Province is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which just this week drove the rival Ahrar al-Sham from 31 villages and consolidated its control in Idleb City, the last major urban center in the hands of the rebellion.

The area where the end of Timber Sycamore may have the largest impact is in south west Syria, in the region adjoining the Golan Heights and the border with Jordan.  Here, the decision to end the program seems to follow on from the ceasefire concluded on July 7th, and the subsequent deployment of Russian ‘military police’ (ie re-designated Russian soldiers) to enforce the ‘de-escalation.’

Israel has benefitted from the previously existing balance of forces in the south west, which provided a rebel presence as a kind of buffer against the advance of the regime and its Iranian, Hizballah and Shia militia allies.  The ending of Timber Sycamore and the de-escalation agreement might tip this balance.

Even in the south west, however, this is not a certainty. Firstly, it is possible that the vacuum left by the faltering CIA program may be replaced by another US channel of support, sufficient to prevent rebel collapse in the south west.  Secondly, Israeli, Jordanian and Gulf support for the rebels may continue to play a similar role.

Thus, the impact of the demise of the ill-fated ‘Timber Sycamore’ project may be somewhat less than might be immediately apparent.  The main question facing Syria today is whether the regime (which today really means Iran, Hizballah and allied militias)  will continue to expand their area of control, under the cover of Russian support and in the face of confusion and lack of strategic clarity from other forces.  The end of the covert CIA program of support for the rebels removes one of the less consequential barriers to this, without making it inevitable.

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A Match Made in History

American Interest, 17/7

The recent two-day visit of Narendra Modi to Israel, the first ever by an Indian Prime Minister, has been depicted as heralding a new strategic partnership between New Delhi and Jerusalem. Indeed, simply by taking place at all, it represented an upgrade of the relationship.

Hitherto the growing connections between India and Israel had taken place behind the scenes, according to India’s preference. New Delhi did not wish to ruffle feathers in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and among its own large Muslim population. Thus, the pillars of the relationship have been mainly economic. Overall trade has grown from around $200 million in 1992, when diplomatic relations were established, to $4.2 billion in 2016. During Modi’s visit, representatives of the two nations signed agreements on cooperation in the fields of agriculture, water, and space. The first two of these areas, in which Israel possesses world-class expertise, are of direct and particular relevance to India. Meanwhile, back in April, Israel Aerospace Industries was awarded the largest single defense contract in the history of Israel’s defense industry: a $1.6 billion deal with the Indian Army, for the provision of surface-to-air missiles and air and missile defense systems. An additional $400 million in contracts went to Rafael Advanced Defense Systems for developments in the same areas.

Historically, diplomatic ties between the two countries have been noticeably weaker. India was traditionally among the most vociferously pro-Palestinian countries in international fora, though this is slowly starting to shift. India has in recent months abstained on a number of UN resolutions critical of Israel, when its support would once have been an automatic. The field of cooperation on counter-terror is deeply relevant here: Indian officials dealing with these matters have spoken to me of their appreciation for the speedy and practical responses of their Israeli counterparts. However, India maintains close relations with Iran, due to New Delhi’s burgeoning energy needs, and is unlikely ever to support a renewed campaign of isolation.

Modi’s visit announces the arrival of something new: an openly proclaimed partnership that is diplomatic as well as economic. His decision to break with protocol and refrain from visiting the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah further reinforces the message.

Countries operate according to interest, not sentiment, so we must be wary of reading too much into the visit. But the international system is also full of relationships between states that transcend merely instrumental concerns, and are instead based on perceived deeper commonalities. The U.S. relationship with Israel is an example of a relationship of this kind. The bond between the United States and other English-speaking countries, based on common Anglo-Saxon cultural, political, and legal heritage, is another. Now, such a connection may well be emerging between Israel and India.

Commonalities that would make such a relationship possible are visible in the political and even cultural trajectories of both countries, though that may seem surprising. Can comparisons and connections really be drawn between a massive, settled, and ancient sub-continent of 1.3 billion people in the heart of South Asia and a tiny, re-established Jewish state of 8.4 million on the western edge of the same continent? The answer is yes, but if the comparisons are to move beyond the platitudes of official receptions, a deeper look at the political culture and history of both countries is required.

To understand these, we cannot look upon “Israel” and “India” as unified wholes. Rather, we must observe the specific political contexts that shaped Binyamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi, and the political traditions to which they belong.

The modern republics of India and Israel were established within a few months of each other. The dominant national movements that piloted these newborn states— the Israel Workers Party (Mapai) in Israel and Congress in India—had a considerable amount in common. They were self-consciously secular, left-leaning parties, concerned in the fashion of the time with rapid development and constructing the future. Despite their resemblances, Congress and Mapai did not preside over a partnership between their respective countries, due to their sharply different stances on the key foreign policy issue of the day: the Cold War.

Neither Modi nor Netanyahu is associated with these movements. Rather, they are the scions of the opposition movements created during those days of foundation, and which have since taken the helm in both nations.

Many Israelis and foreign observers see Netanyahu as an Americanized figure, one step removed from the deeper political traditions in Israel, who introduced the individualistic, personality-centered American political style to Israel. This is only half the story, however. Netanyahu’s family history, career, and outlook are steeped in a particular Zionist tradition—namely the current known as Revisionist Zionism.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s father, Ben-Zion, was the personal secretary of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of that movement. Even Binyamin Netanyahu’s connection to the United States derives from his father’s lifelong association with this movement. The domination by Mapai of Israel’s institutions in the 1950s made it close to impossible for individuals associated with the rival Revisionist current to make academic careers in Israel, at least in the humanities. Thus, Ben-Zion Netanyahu decided to take up an academic position in the United States in 1956, bringing his family to America, where young Bibi received much of his education.

The heirs of Revisionist Zionism have dominated Israeli political life since 1977. The ongoing electoral successes of Likud derive from a coalition of former “outsiders” in Israeli society who have now become the “inside”: Jews of North African and Middle Eastern extraction, and secular nationalists and religious traditionalists of East European origin. These groups were excluded or relegated to secondary status in the version of Israel established by Mapai, with its flagship communal farms (kibbutzim) and labor union affiliations.

This social coalition was present in embryonic form even before the foundation of the state. The standard-bearers of Revisionism in the 1930s and ‘40s, for example, were the military undergrounds who fought British rule in Mandate Palestine: most importantly the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (National Military Organization, or IZL) and (with a more complex and partial relationship to Revisionism) the Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Israel Freedom Fighters, or Lehi). The members of these small groups came from precisely those populations that would propel Likud to near-hegemony in post-1977 Israel, a period that has been called the “Second Israeli Republic.”

The essential outlook uniting them has remained constant —a hawkish attitude toward the surrounding Arab/Muslim powers and populations, support for the United States and the West, an embrace of free-market capitalism, and a close attachment to Jewish religious tradition.

Binyamin Netanyahu is the scion of this movement, and he today stands at the head of it. It may well be that Netanyahu is the last (secular) Israeli politician to possess such a clear and unmistakable link to one of Israel’s founding traditions. Today, secular Israeli parties have become largely loose, improvised coalitions of ambitious politicians, or shells built around a single figure (such as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.) But it is this background that  explains why this MIT graduate and former special forces officer spent his first term as Prime Minister goading the “old elites” and the “media” for their alleged detachment from the realities of the region.

The history of Israel’s main opposition movement has a fascinating parallel in India’s own such movement. Like the Zionist revisionists, the Hindu nationalists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh emerged in the 1920s – as the opposition to the Indian National Congress. The RSS was characterized by its advocacy of a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu nation) in contrast to the overt secularism of Congress. It organized its youth along paramilitary lines and created a military department (interestingly, the RSS did not fight the British, preferring to preserve its structures for later battles against rival Muslim groups during the period of partition.   Throughout the history of the modern republic of India, RSS and its heirs have stood for a profoundly different vision of the country from that of Congress and its two seminal figures, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Narendra Modi joined the RSS as a boy in Gujarat, and from the age of 21 in 1971 worked as a full-time organizer for the movement. He quickly rose through its ranks, finally become the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an offshoot of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which was formed in 1951 in cooperation with the RSS, and generally regarded as its political arm. Modi returned the BJP to power after a ten-year absence (its first stint in power lasted from 1998 to 2004). His personal popularity, and his ability to extend the BJP’s support beyond its traditional base among upper-class and upper-caste Hindus, played a significant role in the victory, along with perceptions of widespread corruption in Congress.

In power, Modi, like Netanyahu, has engaged in a somewhat adversarial relationship with the country’s media.  He has sought to use social media to bypass the traditional press.  This forms part of a more general stance of populist assertion against the liberal, Nehruvian elite of New Delhi which forms a key part of the BJP’s appeal.  Modi combines Hindu nationalism and the use of potent traditional symbols with a focus on  technology and development. He has spoken of his desire to build a ‘technology driven society.’  This potent combination of course also mirrors Netanyahu’s outlook.  In the Indian case, Modi’s rise has been watched with horror by the traditional elites. But Congress remains at present in organizational disarray, and with no alternative vision of similar power to that of Modi.

Of course, it should be noted that since the India-Israel ‘honeymoon’ is to such a degree actually a romance between two particular currently dominant political streams, it is to a great extent dependent on their continued dominance.  In this respect, it is inherently more vulnerable than the other ‘special relationships’ mentioned above.  With Netanyahu presently beset by scandal and investigation and Modi still dogged by accusations relating to his alleged role in condoning communal violence against the Muslim minority in Gujarat in 2002, nothing is written in stone.  Though at the present time, neither man’s hold on power appears seriously shaky.

In an uncertain global political climate, in which political Islam is a primary cause of instability, it is not difficult to account for the current success of political movements such as those that Netanyahu and Modi represent. It is interesting to note that in the United States and Western Europe, these times have brought figures from outside of recognizable political traditions to prominence—Trump, of course, in the United States, Geert Wilders in Holland, Emmanuel Macron in France, and so on. By contrast, Netanyahu and Modi emerge from stable, if oppositional, political traditions of long standing in their respective countries. The chemistry between them was evident throughout Modi’s brief visit in July. But it is rooted in more than personal connection. It is, or more accurately may prove to be, a match made in history.

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Israel and Hizballah: The Battle before the Battle

Jerusalem Post, 14/7

During the 2006 war beween  Israel and Hizballah, Israeli military actions were limited by the broader diplomatic situation.  The expulsion of Syria from Lebanon had taken place a year earlier.  The government of then prime minister Fuad Siniora in Beirut was considered one of the few successes of the US democracy promotion project in the region.  As a result, pressure was placed on Israel to restrict its operations to targets directly related to Hizballah activity alone.

Ten years is a long time.  Today, the view in Israel is that the distinction between Hizballah and the institutions and authorities of the Lebanese state has disappeared.

But while the government of Lebanon is no longer a particular protégé of the US and the west, the position taken in western capitals  regarding the Lebanese state and, notably, its armed forces remains markedly different to that  taken in Jerusalem.  The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) continues to be a major beneficiary of US aid.  This gap in perceptions reflects different primary security concerns.  For Israel, altering this perception in the west before the next conflict with Hizballah is a primary strategic task.

So what are the facts of the case?

One of the basic expectations of a functioning state is that it exercise a monopoly of the use of violence within its borders.  From this point of view, the Lebanese state ceased to function some time ago.  As the 2006 war and subsequent events graphically demonstrated,  Hizballah and its patrons could operate an independent foreign and military policy without seeking the permission of the official authorities in Beirut.

What has happened in the intervening decade, however, is that Hizballah and its allies, rather than simply ignoring the wishes of the state,  have progressively absorbed its institutions.

The events of May/June 2008 in Beirut finally demonstrated the impotence of ‘official’ Lebanon in opposing the will of Hizballah and its allies.

Then, on the official political level, Hizballah and its allies prevented the appointment of a Lebanese president for two years, before ensuring the ascendance  of their own allied candidate, General Michel Aoun in October, 2016.  For good measure, the March 8 bloc of which Hizballah is a part ensured for itself 8 portfolios in the 17 person Lebanese Cabinet. Of these, two are directly in the hands of Hizballah.

So at the level of political leadership, it is no longer possible to identify where the Lebanese state begins and Hizballah ends.  And the organization has long enjoyed a de facto, physical dominance, both within Lebanon and in terms of its actions across and beyond its borders (against Israel,  in its intervention in the Syrian civil war, and in its involvement with other pro-Iranian militia groups in Iraq and Yemen).

What of the issue  of security cooperation between Hizballah and the Lebanese Armed Forces?

No serious observer of Lebanon disputes that open cooperation between the two forces has increased over the last half decade.  The background to this is the threat of Salafi jihadi terrorism from Syrian Salafi groups engaged in the Syrian civil war.  A series of bombings in Shia south Beirut and in border communities triggered the joint effort by Hizballah and the LAF.

Of course, the bombings were taking place as retaliation by Syrian Salafis for Hizballah’s own involvement in the war in Syria on the regime side.   The LAF and Hizballah cooperated on the level of intelligence cooperation, and scored a number of successes in locating and apprehending Salafi cells on Lebanese soil.

As a result of the increasingly overt cooperation between the LAF and Hizballah, Saudi Arabia ended its military assistance to the LAF, cancelling a $3 billion pledge in February, 2016.  The cancellation was a tacit admission of defeat by the Saudis, an acknowledgement that their project of exerting influence and power in Lebanon through their clients had failed.

The US, however, has continued its relationship with the LAF, which was the recipient of $200 million in assistance from Washington last year.  Last December, the US dismissed Israeli assertions that M113 armored vehicles displayed by Hizballah in a triumphant parade in the town of Qasayr in Syria came from LAF stocks.  The LAF, according to a statement by John Kirby, then State Department Spokesman, has an ‘exemplary record’ in complying with US end-use guidelines and restrictions.

A statement by Lebanese President Michel Aoun in February appeared to confirm the situation of cooperation between the forces.  Aoun told the Egyptian CBC channel that Hizballah’s arms ‘do not contradict the state…and are an essential part of defending Lebanon.  As long as the Lebanese army lacks sufficient power to face Israel, we feel the need for ‘Hizballah’s arsenal, because it complements the army’s role.’

The difference of opinion between the US and Israel in this regard is of growing importance because of the emergent evidence of hitherto unreported Hizballah activities. In particular, there is deep disquiet in Israel regarding revelations of an Iranian-supported, homegrown Hizballah arms industry.  This, combined with what may be the beginnings of a slow winding down of the Syrian war raises the possibility of renewed tensions with Hizballah.

This does not mean that war is imminent. But from an Israeli point of view, the gap in understanding and perception between Washington and Jerusalem on the LAF, and by definition on the current nature of the Lebanese state, is a matter requiring urgent attention.  It is currently one of the missing pieces in the diplomatic structure which alone can make possible the kind of war that Israel will be wanting to fight next time round, should Hizballah attack or provocation come.

This is intended to be a war on a quite different scale and dimension to 2006.

The intention will be to dismiss any distinction between Hizballah and the Lebanese state, and to wage a state to state war against Lebanon, on the basis that the distinction has become a fiction.  This will involve an all out use of military force that will be intended to force a relatively quick decision.

For this to be conceivable,  a diplomatic battle has to first be won.  This is the battle to convince the west, or at least the US, that an Iranian proxy militia has today effectively swallowed the Lebanese state, making war against the former by its very nature involve war against the latter.  This battle before the battle has not yet been won.  It is part of a larger Israeli hope to focus the US and the west on Iran and Shia political Islam, in place of the current western focus on the Sunni variety.  Only thus will Israel be able to establish the strategic depth in the diplomatic arena that will enable, if necessary, its plans in the event of war with Hizballah to be carried out.

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Stormclouds over Syria

(Originally Published as ‘Trump is Tripping over Iran and Russia’s Red Lines in Syria’ in Foreign Policy, June 26, 2017)

In the past five weeks, U.S. forces in Syria have struck directly at the Assad regime and its allies in Syria no less than four times. On May 18, U.S. warplanes struck regime and allied militia forces that breached a 34-mile exclusion zone around a U.S. outpost in southeastern Syria. Then on June 8 and June 20, the United States shot down Iranian-made drones as they approached the outpost.

But the most dramatic event so far was the June 18 downing of a Syrian air force Su-22 by a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet. This took place after regime forces attacked a town held by the U.S.-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Tabqa, in northern Syria. The Su-22 dropped bombs near the SDF fighters, ignored U.S. warnings, and was then shot down.

The downing of the Su-22 threatened to bring Washington and Moscow into conflict in the war-torn country. In the aftermath of the incident, Russia announced the end of deconfliction arrangements with U.S. forces and that it had decided to treat future U.S. flights west of the Euphrates River as hostile.

Syria is quickly devolving into a free-for-all. There is a high possibility of further friction among regional powers, as the Russians, Americans, and their various clients scramble to realize mutually incompatible objectives — specifically in the areas of eastern Syria held by the now collapsing “caliphate” of the Islamic State.

So how did events in Syria reach this pass, in which direct confrontation between United States and Russia is no longer unthinkable? And what might happen next?

Syria has been divided into a number of de facto enclaves since mid-2012. But a series of events over the past 15 months has served to end the stalemate in the country, ushering in this new and dangerous phase.

Russia’s entry into the conflict in September 2015 ended any possibility of rebel victory and the overthrow by arms of the regime. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — with invaluable help from Russia, as well as Iran and its various militia proxies — went on to clear the rebels out of the key cities of Homs and Aleppo. A diplomatic agreement establishing four “de-escalation” zones then consolidated regime control of western Syria.

This development has enabled the regime to divert forces to the effort to reassert control over the east of the country. As it does so, the regime is encroaching on a conflict from which it had previously been largely absent: the war between the U.S.-supported, Kurdish-dominated SDF — along with other, Arab rebel clients further south — and the now retreating jihadis of the Islamic State.

The confluence of interests between Damascus and Tehran on this battlefield is clear. Iran, whose proxies form the key ground forces available to the regime, wants to secure a land corridor through eastern Syria and into Iraq. The Assad regime wants to re-establish a presence on Syria’s eastern border.

Regime forces are thus now advancing eastward on two axes: one from the town of Palmyra and the second from south of Aleppo. It was friction along the second axis, as regime forces closed up against areas controlled by the SDF, that caused the events leading to the downing of the Syrian Su-22.

A geographically inevitable contest of wills is developing — between the regime and its associated forces as they drive east into Islamic State territory and U.S.-associated SDF and Arab rebel fighters, who also seek to control the former Islamic State areas. Moscow’s forces are an integral part of this regime push east, with Russian air power and Russian-supported ground forces especially present in the Palmyra offensive.

For a while, it seemed as though the United States and its allies had the upper hand. In mid-2016, the United States established a base in the Tanf area at which U.S. and allied special forces personnel have been training the Maghawir al-Thawra (Revolution Commandos) rebel group. This raised the possibility that these Western-supported Arab forces might link up with SDF fighters in the north. Together, they would then clear the Islamic State out of the Euphrates River valley, complete the conquest of Raqqa, and establish that they control the territory in question before regime forces could make an advance.

In order to decisively preempt this possibility, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah, and Assad regime and Iraqi Shiite militia forces on June 9 made a lunge for the Syria-Iraq border along a line north of Tanf, effectively dividing U.S.-supported elements from one another. Maghawir al-Thawra was trapped south of the new line established by the regime side, as the SDF still engaged the Islamic State far to the north. The rebels, if they wish to progress further, now need to break through regime lines to do so. That would be inconceivable without U.S. help.

Iranian and pro-Iranian regional media were quite frank about the intentions behind this sudden move. A report in the IRGC-linked Fars News Agency described the thinking behind it as follows: “America … wants to link the northeastern part [of Syria, which is controlled by the Kurds] with the southeastern part, which is why it has stepped up its activity in the al-Tanf area.” The Syrian army and its allies, the article went on to say, defied American “red lines” in a military advance designed to thwart this strategy.

This is where the war currently stands. The latest reports suggest that the United States is in the process of beefing up its presence in the Tanf area.
A new base is being built at Zakaf, 50 miles northeast of the town, according to pro-U.S. rebels. The United States has moved its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) into southern Syria for the first time. Capable of firing rockets and missiles to ranges of nearly 200 miles, the system constitutes a significant increase in U.S. firepower on Syrian soil.


So where is it all heading? The downing of the Su-22 may serve, for a while at least, to demarcate the zones of U.S. and Russian air activity over the skies of Syria. But the real contest is the one on the ground. And here, the prize is the eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor, the site of a large part of Syria’s oil resources. Does Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning about American air activity west of the Euphrates mean that this area will need to be ceded in its entirety to the regime? Will the United States agree to this?

The Russians have no crucial interest of their own causing them to back the ambitions of the Iranians in the east. But for as long as the going is relatively easy, it appears that Putin also feels no special compunction to rein in his allies. Perhaps both Moscow and Tehran simply assume that American interest in the area is limited and hence that Washington will not take risks in order to counter red lines set down by other players.

The crucial missing factor here is a clearly stated U.S. policy. Trump can either acquiesce to the new realities that Russia seeks to impose in the air, and that Iran seeks to impose on the ground, or he can move to defy and reverse these, opening up the risk of potential direct confrontation. There isn’t really a third choice.

Fars News Agency concluded its recent report in the following terms: “The imbroglio in eastern Syria has only begun, and stormy days are ahead of us.” In the face of much uncertainty, this point at least seems crystal clear.


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US Strategy and Israel’s Stake in Eastern Syria

Jerusalem Post, 24/6

The downing on June 18th  of a Syrian Air Force SU-22 by a UA Navy F-18 Super Hornet over the skies of northern Syria sharply raises the stakes in the emergent stand-off in the country.  This stand-off is no longer between local militias, nor between regional powers.  Rather, through interlocking lines of support, it places the United States in direct opposition to Russia.

The last move has almost certainly not yet been made.   And while events in north east Syria may seem a distance away, there is a direct Israeli interest in the outcome of the current contest.

This latest move was a probably inevitable outcome of two sharply opposing outlooks  currently in play in Syria.  The US seeks to maintain a divide between the war against Islamic State in the east of the country and the civil war between Assad and the rebellion against him in the west of it.  Washington sees itself as involved in the first conflict system,  while remaining outside the second. Thus, US-supported Kurdish and Sunni Arab rebel forces are forbidden from attacking Assad’s forces.

The US statement following the downing of the SU-22 reflected this position.  Pentagon Spokesman Cpt. Jeff Davis noted that the US does ‘not seek conflict with any party in Syria other than ISIS, but we will not hesitate to defend ourselves or our partners if threatened.’

From the point of view of the regime and its Russia and Iranian allies, by contrast, no such division exists.  For them, the Syrian war is a single system, in which the ‘legitimate government’ (ie the Assad regime) is engaged in a fight against various illegitimate entities.  The latter group includes ISIS, but also the Sunni Arab rebels and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, with whom the US is aligned.

The recent Astana agreement for the creation of four ‘de-escalation’ areas has freed up regime and allied forces to take a more active role in the war against ISIS further east.  Regime forces are advancing along two axes –  from Palmyra in the south,  and from Aleppo province further north.  The second axis is bringing the regime and its allies into direct and close proximity with the US-supported SDF.  The incident this week took place, according to the US version, after regime forces attacked the SDF in the town of Jadin south of Tabqa.  Further tactical clashes are probably inevitable as each side seeks to take control of areas abandoned by ISIS as it retreats.

But these tactical matters are part of an emergent strategic reality.  The defeat of the Islamic State as an entity controlling territory is clearly only a matter of time.  The actions of the Assad regime (or more accurately the Iranian and Russian interests that dominate it)  equally clearly reflect their determination to confront and defeat all other armed elements within Syria.  The United States is currently backing certain non-governmental armed elements in Syria, for the stated purpose of defeating Islamic State.

So the situation is leading the US inexorably toward a choice.  At a certain point, perhaps after the final eclipse of IS, but also perhaps before it,  Washington will need to decide if it wishes to abandon its allies to destruction at the hands of the regime, Iran and Russia, or whether it wishes to help to defend the forces it has armed and trained.

At this point, the US will need to decide its end objective in Syria.  Is it a federalized, decentralized Syria, with the regime dominant in the west and US allies in the east? Is it the destruction of the Assad regime? The construction of safe zones and ongoing negotiation?  Which is it to be?

None of this is easy and all choices have a price.  Failure to decide, and a tactical, localized response to immediate threats is also a kind of choice, of course. So far, this type of response has resulted in the pro-Iranian forces reaching the Iraqi border, north of al-Tanf, and cutting off the US-backed rebels in the area from the possibility of further progress northwards.

As of now, on four occasions, US forces have responded to the regime coming too close.  But this has the appearance of a piecemeal response.  All sides await the discovery or emergence of US strategy in Syria.

Why does all this matter for Israel? For the following reason: if the US and its allies are eclipsed in eastern Syria, the result will be the establishment of a contiguous land link from Iran, across Iraq and Syria and to Lebanon and the Israeli border.  This in turn will transform the threat picture facing Israel in the event of a renewed war with Hizballah. This is not only or mainly to do with the transfer of weapons systems to the Lebanese Shia jihadis.

One must observe and study the style of war that Iran has conducted in Syria and Iraq over the last half decade to grasp this essential point.   In both contexts, with no official Iranian declaration of war, a coalition of Teheran-aligned militias have acted in a coordinated fashion on behalf of Iranian allies and interests.  This coalition of forces has played a crucial role in the survival of the Assad regime.  In Iraq, a similar coalition of Iran-aligned forces played a crucial role in the fight against IS, and now constitutes the key instrument of power in that country.

At no time have the pro-Iranian forces been constricted by nominal state borders or ‘national’ divisions.  Lebanese Hizballah personnel have played a vital role in Syria and have been present also in Iraq.  Iraqi militiamen have been active in Syria. Afghan fighters were among the first to reach the Syria-Iraq border on June 9th.

There is no reason for Israeli planners to assume that a future war with Hizballah would be immune from this pattern. To reiterate, it does not require a formal declaration of war from Iran.  Proxies are mobilized and deployed under the stewardship of the IRGC, but with no direct or acknowledged involvement given or demanded from Iran at any stage.

The loosely and ambiguously governed nature of these territories would serve as an advantage for the Iranian forces,  perhaps providing the kind of diplomatic cover for them that the presence of the toothless Siniora government in Beirut did in 2006.  Thus the tried and tested Iranian model of revolutionary warfare.

The creation of a contiguous corridor all the way from Iran to Lebanon would make possible the prosecution of such a war at an appropriate time and opportunity for Teheran, against Israel.

For this reason, the prevention of the emergence of this direct land route through eastern Syria is a direct Israeli national interest.  Unfortunately, the tactical and piecemeal nature of the US response, and the apparent absence of a clearly formulated strategy to face the Iranian, Russian-supported advance may yet facilitate its creation.   Perhaps a clear strategy will yet emerge. It is Trump’s move.

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Lines in the Sand

Jerusalem Post, 9/6

An alliance of pro-US Sunni Arab states is emerging

The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen  to cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar is the latest step in the re-emergence of a clearly defined US-led Sunni Arab bloc of states.  The task of this alliance is to roll back Iranian influence and advancement in the region, and to battle against the forces of Sunni political Islam.

Little noticed by western media,  this conservative Sunni alliance against Iran and Sunni Islamism has been under construction for some time.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the first to recognize the new regime of General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi following the military coup on July 3, 2013.  Financial support from both countries has been crucial in ensuring the avoidance of economic disaster in Egypt.

The Saudis and Emiratis were the moving force behind the interventions into Bahrain in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. In both cases, the intention was to prevent the advance of Iranian interests.

Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates maintained high levels of military spending over the last half decade, in spite of low oil prices.  The two countries have sagely invested in air power and special operations forces – the areas most relevant to the type of wars being fought at present in the Middle East.

The results have been visible over the last two years.

The intervention to prevent  the advance of the Iran-supported Ansar Allah militia toward the strategically crucial Bab el-Mandeb Strait was the first real ‘outing’ for Gulf Arab non-proxy military power (Operation Peninsula Shield into Bahrain in 2011 was a police action against popular unrest).

The results in Yemen have been mixed, but by no means constitute the debacle that the intervention has been presented as in some quarters.  The Houthis remain in control of Tsana’a, the Yemeni  capital.    But the nightmare scenario in which an Iran-supported force acquired control of the narrow Bab El-Mandeb strait, through which all shipping between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea must pass, was avoided.  Emirati and Saudi special operations forces played a key role in the fighting.

In Libya, Emirati air power, employed in support of  General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, has played an important part in Haftar’s fight against Islamist militants.  The Emiratis built a forward air base, al-Khadim, in Marj province 100 km from Benghazi.   AT-802 light attack aircraft and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters operate from the base, according to satellite imagery published by IHS Jane’s.

However, the election of Donald Trump appears to have sharply increased the scope and ambitions of the pro-US Gulf Arab states.  It is clear that they  identify  a similar regional outlook to their own in Trump and  key figures around him.  This raises the possibility of a more assertive and clearly defined strategy regarding both the Iranian and Sunni Islamist adversaries.

At the Riyadh meeting on May 21st,  55 Muslim majority countries signed a declaration pledging to establish a ‘a reserve force of 34,000 troops to support operations against terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria when needed.”

According to the final communique from the summit, the leaders present ‘confirmed their absolute rejection of the practices of the Iranian regime designed to destabilize the security and stability of the region and the world at large and for its continuing support for terrorism and extremism,” and accused Teheran of  maintaining a  “dangerous ballistic missiles program” and of “continuing interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.” A third of the document was devoted to criticism of Iranian regional activities.

The signing of the ‘Riyadh Declaration’ took place following the visit of Donald Trump to Riyadh. Trump, in his speech at the summit, accused Iran of ‘“spreading destruction and chaos across the region.”

Declarations by Gulf states have not always been followed by concerted action on the ground, of course.  But with the current emergent stand-off between pro-western and pro-Iranian forces in eastern Syria, and the incremental loss of territory by the Islamic State in that area, it is not hard to think of the type of roles which a standing Gulf Arab ‘counter-terror’ force would play, for example, in holding and administering Sunni Arab areas in cooperation with local forces.

An additional, un-stated assumption behind the emergence of this bloc is that the energies of the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 are largely spent.   A bloc led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Sisi’s Egypt will not seek to mobilize the revolutionary energies of populations. Rather, as with that of the Iranians, this alliance will be a top-down affair, featuring regular and semi-regular military forces carefully commanded and controlled from above.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that the main ‘casualty’ of the emergence of this alliance is Qatar, the country which above all others sought to fan the flames of the uprisings.  Qatar, through its support for Muslim Brotherhood associated movements and via its enormously influential al-Jazeera satellite channel, tried to turn the energies of the Sunni Arab masses in Syria, Egypt and the Palestinian territories into political power and influence for itself (while, of course, harshly suppressing any attempts by its own largely non-citizen population to claim rights).   This project has failed.

For a moment, a large Sunni Islamist bloc based on Qatari money and Muslim Brotherhood power seemed to be emerging.  MB-associated parties controlled Cairo, Ankara, Tunis and Gaza.  Similar movements seemed plausibly within reach of Damascus.  But this bloc proved stillborn and little of it now remains.

The hour of the revenge of Doha’s Gulf neighbors has thus arrived.  The shunting aside of little Qatar, however, is ultimately only a detail in the larger picture.  What is more significant is the re-emergence of an overt alliance of Sunni Arab states under US leadership,  following the development of military capabilities in relevant areas, and with the stated intention of challenging the Iranian regional advance and Sunni political Islam.  It remains to be seen what this bloc will be able to achieve re its stated aims.  But the lines of confrontation between the two central power blocs in the region are now more clearly drawn than at any time in recent years.


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The Race for the Ruins

Jerusalem Post, 26/5

Events taking place in a remote stretch of south east Syrian desert in recent days reveal the current direction of US Middle East strategy.


An observable ratcheting up of US and allied air and special forces activity in eastern Syria is currently under way. This in turn appears to derive from a new, hard-nosed understanding of the nature of the strategic game in the large, strife-ridden area covering what was once Syria and Iraq.

On Thursday, May 18th, US aircraft launched strikes on a column of Assad regime vehicles including tanks and earth-movers, 18 miles from the town of al-Tanf, on the Syrian-Iraqi border.     The strikes took place after the vehicles entered an agreed deconfliction zone around the town.  US and British special forces are currently training ‘vetted partner forces’, ie Syrian Sunni Arab rebels in the town.

This was the second occasion in recent weeks that US aircraft have directly engaged against Assad’s forces.  On the first occasion,  the target was the al-Shayrat airbase.  That raid took place on April 6.  It was a clear retaliation for the regime’s use of sarin gas at Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.  The Shayrat raid was generally interpreted as a belated attempt to enforce the American ‘red line’ against further regime use of chemical weapons.  As such, it was not widely seen as indicating a more general change of policy.

The attack on the column near al-Tanf, by contrast, was not preceded by any unusual regime activity, apart from the approach of the column itself, and its too close vicinity to western forces.  On Monday, the pro-opposition website Syria Direct quoted an un-named US military spokesman as saying that ‘if pro-regime forces move further south or east from their current positions, this will be considered a threat.’ The website also reported that regime forces are preparing to move toward the Badia area, a stretch of desert to the north east of al-Tanf.

What is the significance of this butting of heads?

The battle against the territorial holdings of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is reaching its final phase.  The re-conquest of Mosul is almost done.  The assault on Raqqa city, the capital city of the Caliphate is about to begin.  It is set to be a hard and bloody fight.  But its eventual outcome is not in question.  Islamic State as an entity controlling ground will be destroyed. At which point the movement will revert back to its former status as a clandestine terror network.  As the eclipse of the Caliphate draws near, the race is opening up to inherit its former domains.

The competitors in this contest are  Iran and its various allies and proxies, and forces associated with the west and the Sunni Arab states.

The Iranians and their allies want to penetrate IS territory from west to east – with the Iraqi Shia militias pushing westwards from Tel Afar and Assad regime forces and pro-Assad militias (including Hizballah) probing east.

The regime forces nosing around in al Tanf are in the process of seeking to seize border areas with both Jordan and Iraq.  The US is determined to prevent that.  The town of Deir al-Zour and the surrounding oil rich areas will form an important part of the prize.

Pro-western forces, meanwhile are pushing north from Jordan and south from the Kurdish-controlled area north of the IS enclave.  The forces engaged on this side are the Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish YPG, and the Maghawir a-Thawra (Commandos of the Revolution, formerly the New Syrian Army) rebels, supported by the US, UK and Jordan, from the south.

The outcome of this contest is of strategic significance, despite the remote and arid nature of much of the territory concerned.  The Iranians want to create a contiguous line of territory controlled by themselves and their allies stretching from Iraq into Syria, and thence to the Mediterranean Sea and the border with Israel.

Islamic State has formed a buffer against the achievement of this goal.  But Islamic State, in the usual manner of Sunni Salafi organizations when they control territory, declined to be satisfied with the stewardship of a small domain.  Instead, the Sunni jihadis elected to declare war on the west, using the territory as a base to hold and execute captured western prisoners, to prepare attacks against western civilian targets, to administer a regional network of franchise groups, and to attempt genocide against a non-Muslim population, the Yezidis.  As a result, the west, unsurprisingly,  made it a goal to destroy the Islamic State.

The question now is who will inherit.  The Americans, it appears, have understood that to stand a chance of  re-establishing influence and standing in the region, and beginning the process of turning back the Iranian advance, it is necessary to have skin in the game, ie to develop reliable proxies and have them control ground, in this pivotal area.

Only thus can a contiguous line of Iranian control from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean and Israel be prevented.  Only thus will the US be able to prevent an eventual outcome in Syria and in Iraq entirely favorable to the Iranians.  Hence the development by the US Department of Defense of the relationships with the YPG and elements among the Jordan-supported Sunni Arab rebels in the south.

It is worth also noting that the outcome in eastern Syria is not of primary interest to the Russians.  Russia wants to preserve the regime in existence and to keep its naval investments in Latakia Province. Neither of these interests is threatened by events further east.  Controlling the east is an Iranian and Assad regime goal only.

The outcome of this emergent contest will be of deep interest also to Israeli strategic planners.  While some recent analysis has suggested that Israel favors or should favor allowing IS to continue in existence as a quasi-state, it is obvious that this is no longer an option.  Syria as a state has largely ceased to exist.  The question now, as it is parceled out into zones of influence, is who will gain and who will lose.

Alongside the military jockeying on the ground, the diplomatic processes in Astana and Geneva will sputter on. Their eventual outcome, though, will depend on the balance of forces on the ground.  Iran wants its contiguous line not least in order to move weaponry and fighters both in preparation for and no less importantly in the course of a future war with Israel.  Preventing this is an Israeli national security interest par excellence.

This emergent US strategy has not yet been officially confirmed.  Indeed, Defense Secretary James Mattis was quoted by Agence France Presse after the al-Tanf strike as denying that the raid heralded any ‘increased role’ for the US in the Syrian war.

The pattern on the ground suggests otherwise.  The United States Administration has defined the Iranians and the Sunni jihadis of IS as its main adversaries in the region.   Eastern Syria is an area where the defeat of the latter by pro-western forces will constitute also a setback also for the former.  This is a game which is now afoot.  Much depends on its outcome.


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