Growing Relations between Turkey, Russia a concern for Israel

Jerusalem Post, 8/10

At a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi last week, Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan reaffirmed the growing links between Moscow and Ankara.  The Sochi talks came after Erdogan failed to secure a meeting with US President Joe Biden on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.   Speaking to reporters after the meeting with Putin, Erdogan noted that he had proposed that Turkey work together with Russia on the construction of two more nuclear power plants on Turkish soil. The Russian company Rosatom is currently building a power plant in Akkuyu, in southern Turkey. 

The Turkish President also said last week that Turkey still intends to purchase a second supply of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia.  The purchase of the S400 system by Turkey last year led to US sanctions on Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate, and the cancellation of Turkish reception of the F35 fighter jet. 

In an interview with the CBS network, quoted by Reuters, the Turkish president said that ‘In the future, no body will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defense systems we acquire, from which country and at what level.’ 

The US State Department, responding to Erdogan’s statement, warned that any additional purchase of Russian defense systems would risk triggering additional sanctions. 

Erdogan’s statements confirm the Turkish tilt toward Russia, and  Ankara’s growing estrangement from Washington.

The latest Turkish moves also reflect a contradiction at the heart of Turkish regional strategy, between an immediate desire to avoid isolation, and the deeper strategic goal of unilateral regional assertion and support for Sunni political Islam which are part of the core outlook of Erdogan and those around him.   The understanding of this contradiction is likely to determine Israeli responses to Turkish diplomatic moves.

The Turkish move toward Russia is not only determined by Ankara’s declining relations with Washington.  There is anger and concern in Turkey regarding a recent major naval defense deal between France, and Turkey’s traditional rivals Greece. The $5 billion deal, according to which Greece commits to the purchase of three Belharra frigates and three Gowind corvettes from France, will serve to sharply advance Greek defense capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, at a time when tensions between the two countries in over disputes in these areas are increasing. 

The French-Greek naval deal  follows an agreement last year in which Athens committed to the purchase of 18 fourth generation Rafale fighter jets, for $2.5 billion.  Taken together with the assertive French stance against Turkish moves in the eastern Mediterranean, these major defense deals cement a strategic alliance between France and Greece. France is now committed to come to Greece’s military aid if requested. 

With major disputes extant between Athens and Ankara over air and sea rights in the Aegean, and drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean, it is not hard to see why the direction of events has Turkey rattled, nor why Erdogan is looking around for new partners.  The US is engaged in a general drawdown in the region. Greece has been active in efforts to ensure Washington of its firm pro-US alignment in any emergent strategic competition with Russia.  US anger over Turkish purchase of Russian military equipment and over human rights violations, along with other US alliances make Washington unavailable as a partner for Turkey’s regional ambitions.

Turkey, however, is not in a position simply to exchange Washington’s patronage for Moscow’s.  On a number of key regional files, Ankara and Moscow too are on opposite sides.  In Libya, Turkey supports the Tripoli-based, Muslim Brotherhood associated Government of National Accord.  In Syria, crucially, Turkey under-writes a remaining area of Sunni Islamist control in the north west of the country.  Moscow, meanwhile, backs the Tobruk-based authority of General Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya.  Moscow is also committed to the recovery by the Assad regime in Syria of sovereignty over the whole area of that country.  Shelling and air attacks by the regime and the Russians of the Turkish enclave have increased sharply in recent weeks, even as Turkish-Russian diplomacy advances. 

To counter its potential isolation, Turkey is therefore seeking rapprochement with a number of additional regional players from which it became estranged in recent years.  Efforts at Turkish diplomatic outreach are under way toward the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and, notably, Israel. 

A second round of talks between Egyptian and Turkish officials took place in Ankara in September.  Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Cairo in 2013, furious at the military coup which removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power in Egypt that year.  Regarding the UAE, Erdogan spoke by telephone with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed last month. 

Regarding Israel, President Yitzhak Herzog to much media fanfare spoke with Erdogan in July.  Little of substance has emerged since this call.  But Israel will need to consider carefully the wisdom and benefit of any possibly short-lived rapprochement with Turkey, when set against the deeper direction of events.  This is so not only with regard to Israel’s developing strategic ties with Greece, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France, countries which have taken and are likely to continue to take a  continued stance of firm opposition to Turkish ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean. 

As Turkey continues its path of decoupling from its Cold War set of alliances, Israel may well wish to consider Ankara’s ongoing stance concerning events west of the Jordan River.

The Israeli security establishment considers Iran and its ambitions to represent the main threat to Israel’s security. An additional  key long term strategic challenge facing Israel, however, is the near parity of populations between Jews and Arab Muslims west of the Jordan.  The main advantages Israel enjoys in this regard are its advanced economy and civil society, its unified  state structures, and the division of the Arab population into four different political dispensations (Hamas-controlled Gaza, the Ramallah Palestinian Authority, Jerusalem, and pre-1948 Israel).  Maintaining this division is a vital Israeli interest. 

The only serious challenge to the maintenance of this situation in the medium to long term are the mobilizing symbols of Sunni Islam, and organizations seeking to make political use of these.  Turkey, largely below the radar screen,  has been energetically engaged in recent years in seeking to gain advantage in this area. Through ‘Dawa’ activities via TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency), property purchases and support for Islamist activism in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, through financial contributions to Hamas controlled Gaza, and through domiciling and granting citizenship to Hamas operatives on Turkish soil, Ankara seeks to cast itself as the protector of Islamic holy places, and the patron of the long struggle against Israel. 

There are few indications of this effort bearing significant results at the present time. But it looks set to continue for as long as the Muslim Brotherhood associated AKP and Erdogan remain in power in Turkey. Ankara’s ongoing efforts in this area, its increasing estrangement from Washington, its moves toward Russia and its direct opposition to Israel’s closest and emergent regional allies mean that imminent rapprochement between Turkey and Israel is unlikely, and excessive effort toward it futile and probably inadvisable, for the foreseeable future.  

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Iran-China Alliance?

Jerusalem Post, 24/9

Teheran’s accession to full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization reflects deepening ties. 

On Friday, September 17, at a gathering in Dushanbe, Tadjikistan, member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization voted to approve Iran’s membership of the organization.  The SCO, established by China and Russia in 2001, is an economic, political and security alliance. It currently includes eight states – China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tadjikistan. Together, these states account for 20% of global GDP, and include 40% of the world’s population. 

Iran’s first, unsuccessful bid for full membership of the SCO took place in 2008.  At that time, Teheran’s application foundered because of the objection by a number of member states to full membership for a country subject to US and UN sanctions due to its nuclear programme.   Teheran applied again last year. Its efforts failed again because of opposition from Tadjikistan.  This week, the barriers were removed to full membership, though no date for Iran’s accession has yet been set.  

How significant is Iran’s admittance to the SCO?  Iranian media, quoted in an article by Agence France Presse, were jubilant concerning this development.  Kayhan, a publication associated with hardline positions, wrote that ‘”from now on Iran can implement its policy of multilateralism, progressively abandon a vision based solely on the West and mitigate Western sanctions.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, in his address to the SCO, was similarly blunt in his appraisal of the meaning of this development.  “The world has entered a new era. Hegemony and unilateralism have failed,” Raisi told SCO leaders. “The international balance from now on leans towards multilateralism and the redistribution of powers towards independent countries. Unilateral sanctions don’t uniquely target one country. It has become evident that, in recent years, they affect more the independent countries, especially SCO members.”

On Farsi social media, meanwhile, Mohammed Hassan Dehghani, an official in Iran’s IRGC-associated ‘Resistance Economy’ structure, tweeted that SCO ‘full membership’ would bring ‘significant economic, security and political benefits’ for Iran. 

So are these Iranian assessments correct?  Should the imminent Iranian accession to the SCO therefore be seen as a significant step in the direction of an emergent anti western strategic bloc of which Iran will be a member? 

There is increasing talk in western capitals of a new and emergent cold war, pitting the United States and its allies against China, and centering on the Indo-Pacific region. The hasty US exit from Afghanistan was a perhaps clumsy attempt to draw a firm red line under the 9-11 Wars, in order to focus attention and resources on the demands of this new strategic contest, and era.  The announcement of the  ‘AUKUS’ pact between the US, Australia and the UK represents a sharp drawing of lines in the Asia-Pacific region, as three English-speaking countries combine in a clear effort to contain Chinese efforts at expansion in this area. 

Historic strategic contests of this type between global powers do not tend to remain confined to particular geographic spaces.  The Cold War of 1950-91 consisted of a binary contest between US and USSR-led systems, which impacted on all local strategic environments.  Earlier global contests, such as the effort by European imperial powers to contain the rise of Germany in the pre-1914 era similarly came to encompass the globe (and transform it, in the conflict which these efforts eventually produced). 

Are we now therefore witnessing the first moves in a similar drawing of lines in the Middle East, with the outlines of US-aligned and China-aligned blocs now visible on the horizon? 

Firstly, a number of caveats are in order.  The SCO is not yet anything close to a China-led strategic alliance arrayed against the west.  Its members include India, a rival of China and a western ally.  Nor is the SCO aligned with Iran in its defiance of the international system regarding its nuclear program.  Rather, the sanctions were a principal concern preventing earlier accession to full membership of the SCO for Teheran. 

Even now, a timeline has yet to be announced for Teheran’s joining the organization.  Major investments by Russia, China and India in Iran have doubtless been deterred by the threat of US sanctions. 

It should also be noted that the pattern of Chinese investment in the Middle East does not conform to strict allegiance with any regional bloc.  Beijing is a major purchaser of Saudi oil, and maintains extensive trade ties with both Israel and the United Arab Emirates. 

Nevertheless, and with all the appropriate cautions against over-simplification, a general direction to events can be discerned. And it points towards closer alignment between Beijing and Teheran, on the basis of hard, shared long term interests.  The accession to the SCO does not cement this process. Rather, it is a signpost along the way. 

On March 27, 2020,  Teheran and Beijing announced a 25 year strategic agreement for $400 billion of Chinese investment in Iran.  This agreement is more of a roadmap for the future, rather than a deal with immediate operative consequences. This does not mean it should be discounted.  Iran’s ascendance to membership of the SCO is the first concrete consequence of this agreement.  Iran forms a key component of China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road’ project. BRI is intended to produce contiguous, China-aligned land and maritime trade routes from China across Eurasia. 

Iran forms a route to the Arabian Sea and international waterways for the landlocked, central Asian countries which are SCO members.  Iran’s integration into the BRI would thus help solidify China’s ambition to emerge as the hegemonic power in Eurasia, able to offer routes for trade under its control to countries aligning with it. 

In this regard, China is unlikely to be indifferent to the fact, still improperly acknowledged by naive western observers, of Teheran’s domination of the entire land mass between the Iraq-Iran border and the Mediterranean Sea, and consisting of three nominal states – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. 

For China, Iran is a powerful, stable, non-threatening state. Teheran’s anti-US stance is of use to China in that it ensures that there is no chance of the country hedging its bets in the emergent strategic contest between Washington and Beijing. This is despite the fact that China does not of course share the components of Iran’s governing ideology. In the latter regard, however, the Shia nature of that ideology means that Iran does not constitute a potential disruptive source of appeal to China’s own, overwhelmingly Sunni,  restive Muslim populations.   

The emergent closer relations between Teheran and Beijing have already produced one significant outcome.  Iran’s defiant and successful resistance to the US policy of ‘maximum pressure’ during the period of the Trump Administration was made partially possible because of the presence of China as a kind of ‘insurance policy’ on which Teheran could rely. China’s continued purchase of Iranian illegally exported crude oil, in particular, enabled Teheran to maintain oil revenues despite supposedly ‘crippling’ sanctions.  The era of maximum pressure is now over.  Teheran is close to becoming a ‘threshold’ nuclear power (or already is one, according to some).  Beijing, by helping to prevent Iran’s economic ruin, played a significant role in this. 

So the emergent global contest between the US and China will not leave the Middle East as an area of non-alignment.   And as the lines harden, Teheran for both geo-strategic and political reasons is likely to continue to draw closer to Beijing.  Iran’s admittance to the SCO is a significant milestone along that road. 

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The Surrender of Deraa

Jerusalem Post, 12/9

Agreement in cradle of Syrian uprising reflects renewed Iranian boldness, shifting Russian stance

In a new ceasefire agreement which may bring an end to a 75 day Assad regime siege on the Syrian town of Deraa al-Balad, Syrian rebels have, with few alternatives, made far reaching concessions to the Syrian government.  The siege and the subsequent agreement bring an end to an anomalous situation that had pertained in Deraa al-Balad since the area’s reconquest by regime, Russian and Iranian forces in July, 2018. 

Since that time, Russia had under-written a situation in which former rebels were able to hold light weapons and maintain security inside the town.  The regime, meanwhile, did not attempt to establish checkpoints or impose its rule in Deraa al-Balad. 

The regime offensive under way since June was intended to terminate this situation and reimpose direct rule, as part of President Bashar Assad’s effort to reconquer all parts of Syria currently outside of government control.  In Deraa al-Balad, this objective now looks well on the way to being achieved.  The siege has been brutal, in the usual Assad manner.  Food and medical supplies have been kept out of the area, in which around 50,000 people are resident. Electricity supplies, patchy even before the siege, were cut off. 

The shifting balance of power in this south western Syrian province matters to Israel, because Deraa Province borders the Golan Heights.  It is the location of an Iranian strategic project to establish and deploy forces under its control in the area, with the intention that these may be used in a future clash between Jerusalem and Teheran, or Iran’s local proxy, Lebanese Hizballah. 

Iran controls the border crossing at Albu Kamal, further east, linking Syria to Iraq.  The Iranians have freedom of movement across the south of the country.  They have built a number of facilities close to the border crossing, including the large Imam Ali base.  

From Israel’s point of view, the main obstacle to the consolidation and entrenchment of this Iranian project, other than Israel’s own military actions, has been the Russian presence in the area.  The Russians do not support the Iranian project to build a capacity for aggression against Israel in south western Syria. Their own project of limited cooperation with former rebels appeared indeed to be pushing in the other direction. 

The apparent Russian shift toward acquiescence to Iranian desires reflected in the Deraa agreement will thus not be welcomed in Jerusalem.   Going together with increasing signs of Russian impatience with Israel’s air campaign against Iranian targets in Syria, it is an indication that any Israeli hopes that Russia might play a role in limiting Iran’s influence in Syria may have to be revised. 

At present, around 30% of Syria remains outside regime control.  The main areas outside Damascus’s cremit in Syria are currently invulnerable to incursions because they are guaranteed by external powers.  These are the Kurdish dominated Autonomous Authority of North-East Syria (AANES) – whose continued existence is currently under-written by the presence of US forces on its soil, and the Turkish occupied area in Syria’s north west. 

In the south west, the outside powers of relevance are Iran and Russia.  The arrangement in place from July 2018 until now was the product of an uneasy standoff between them.

Moscow chose to align itself with former rebel commander Ahmed Oda and his comrades. These were re-mustered as the 8th Brigade of the 5th Corps of the Syrian Army, a Russian created structure.  The 8th Brigade was for a time directly under Russian command.  Russian officers played a role in it at various levels. 

The recent regime offensive constituted a direct Iranian attempt to challenge this Russian project head on. The offensive was spearheaded by the 4th Division. This formation is often described as one of the Assad regime’s ‘Praetorian’ units. It is majority Alawite in composition and is staffed by professional soldiers, rather than conscripts.  Commanded de facto by Maher Assad, the president’s brother, the 4th Division today works closely with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and is a key component of Iran’s efforts to blur the distinction between ‘regime’ forces and Iranian proxies.  Air Force Intelligence and the Republican Guard are additional elements working closely with Teheran. 

The 4th Division’s offensive against Deraa al-Balad, beginning in late June, progressed slowly.  Indeed, it is testimony to the very limited capacities of this supposedly ‘elite’ division that it has taken it more than two months to pacify an area controlled by (albeit experienced) fighters armed only with light weapons. 

The key aspect in Deraa al-Balad’s surrender was the Russian decision to abandon ambiguity and make clear that it would support further regime action against the area if the former rebel fighters did not agree to regime demands. 

As of now, the former rebels have agreed to terms in the Russian mediated negotiations which represent their complete surrender to the demands of the regime. The agreement, according to reporting from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, will see the establishment of ten security points and checkpoints inside Deraa al-Balad, under Russian military police supervision, where the Russian flag and the Syrian regime flag will be raised.  In addition, individuals wanted for mandatory military service will need to ‘regularise’ their situation with the regime.  All individuals wishing not to conform to these terms will have to depart for the Turkish and Islamist rebel controlled area in the north west. 

Abdullah Jabbasini,  a Syrian researcher who monitors the south west, noted in addition that the agreement will include the surrender of light weapons by the fighters in Deraa al-Balad.  Jabbasini also recorded that according to the agreement, Russian military police will be involved in direct contact with the community, including checking id cards at checkpoints, and that local notables will accompany the security forces. 

These two latter elements are clearly intended to soften the blow for the former rebels, and to reduce as  far as possible the friction that would result from direct contact between them and Assad’s security forces.  But what has taken place is a significant achievement for the Iran-aligned element within the official Syrian security forces.  It also represents an abandonment by the Russians of the stance which they sought to maintain since July 2018 – namely, the effort to maintain the status quo established by the reconciliation agreement of that time. 

Why has this happened now?  Tensions in this area are not new, and have smouldered ever since the regime’s return in 2018. But the latest events reflect growing Iranian confidence, which itself appears to derive from a fading Russian commitment to the status quo.  The latter element is the crucial point, creating the space for change which the most Iran-aligned element of the regime has now exploited.  The reason for this apparent shift in Russia’s position is less clear, but the direction appears unmistakeable.  It may well be that the sense of an American weakening in the region also contributes to Iranian boldness, and  Russian disregard of the concerns of local US allies. The result will be the further advance of the Iranian interest in south west Syria. This interest is woven into the decrepit structures of the Assad regime. It represents ambitions, strategy and priorities determined in Teheran, not in Damascus. And it is currently extending all the way to the border with Israel.   

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Taliban Victory – the Pakistani Angle

Jerusalem Post, 27/8

Islamabad’s support for the Taliban played a crucial, largely ignored role in recent events

The collapse of the Kabul government and the Taliban’s rapid takeover of nearly all Afghanistan has captured the attention of the world.  It has led to widespread discussion of US imperial retreat, the implications for the global contest between the US and China, and the possibilities of a revival of global Sunni Islamist terror.

An element which has been largely missing in western analysis of these dramatic events is the role of powerful elements within Pakistan in facilitating the activities of the Taliban in the course of recent years.  Yet without this complex and multi-faceted Pakistani role, it is difficult to see how the Afghan jihadi movement could have sustained itself during the years of US occupation, and laid the foundations for the rapid takeover of power that we have just witnessed. 

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan praised the Taliban victory as ‘breaking the shackles of slavery,’ in a statement earlier this week. 

The US and its allies have consistently chosen to turn a blind eye to evidence of the Taliban presence in Pakistan, and Islamabad’s apparent assistance to the movement. This decision relates to the US and its allies’ dependence on Pakistan as a vital logistics hub in its deployment in Afghanistan.  Pakistani  intelligence support was important in deciphering the dynamics of militant Islamic movements in this area.  More broadly, a reluctance  to antagonize Pakistan, a nuclear power with a population of 200 million, traditionally aligned with the US, probably played a role in this attitude of benevolent neglect.  US reluctance to place pressure on Pakistan, paradoxically, may have been exacerbated by widespread anti-American sentiment in Pakistan at the popular level, and an American desire not to worsen this. 

The problem is that this has resulted in a situation in which Pakistan came to constitute both a vital node in the prosecution of the US campaign against the Taliban, and a central element in the Taliban’s war effort against the US, with the apparent acquiescence of Washington.   

The Taliban leadership is domiciled in the city of Quetta, in Pakistani Balochistan.  The movement’s fighters, alongside members of other Sunni jihadi groups including al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, maintain havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the border, crossing back and forth to Afghanistan at will, with no interference from the Pakistani armed forces.  These areas were the springboard for the recent campaign which culminated in Kabul.  Taliban fighters wounded in the recent campaign were treated in Pakistani hospitals, according to a June 27 statement by Sheikh Rashed Ahmed, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, to the Pakistani Geo news website. 

In addition to the logistical role, these majority Pashtun border areas are home to thousands of madrassas, Islamic religious seminaries, in which the hardline Deobandi interpretation of Sunni Islam favored by the Taliban is propagated.  In this way, the pool of future fighters for the Afghan Taliban is maintained, on Pakistani soil.  A resident of Kuchlak, 25km from Quetta,  noted in an interview with Voice of America this week that the Taliban maintain considerable support among the residents of the area, and that “Locals from all the tribes (living in the town) are with them, saying that they are conducting jihad to establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.’ 

Afghanistan’s deposed Vice President Amrullah Saleh, along  with other members of the deposed Ghani government have alleged that the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistani Special Forces were directly guiding the Afghan Taliban. 

Such allegations are routinely denied by the Pakistani authorities and are impossible to conclusively prove. But the weight of evidence regarding the presence of the Taliban in the border areas, their ease of access, the provision of health care to them and the statements of senior officials in support of them seem to confirm a role of elements within the Pakistani state in the recent Taliban victory. 

What are the motivations behind the Pakistani role?

It is important to note that the border between these two states is of relatively recent vintage and does not represent a division of populations according to linguistic or cultural heritage.  Rather, Afghanistan was divided off from then British India in the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919, in which Britain recognized the independence of Afghanistan.   The 1893  ‘Durand Line’ which this treaty ratified  (in a slightly modified form) was a line demarcating areas of influence between the British and the Afghan Amir of that time. 

The result –  when the modern states of Pakistan and Afghanistan emerged, the border between them bisected the area of majority population of the largely tribal Pashtun peoples.  The Taliban are a mainly Pashtun movement.  Pashtuns constitute around 42% of Afghan citizens. The majority of Pashtuns, however, live in Pakistan, where they are a  subordinated minority in a state dominated by the Punjabi Muslim population. 

Close Pakistani involvement in Afghan affairs has been a constant element in the modern history of this area.  The Pakistani desire for ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan has in recent years reflected itself in support for domiciling of, or turning a blind eye to a variety of Islamist movements in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.  In addition to the Taliban, these have included the Haqqani Network and elements of al-Qaeda.   

Pakistan desires this strategic depth in order to counteract Indian influence in this strategically important area in the ongoing contest between the two countries.  Influence over or control of the government in Kabul would also enable Pakistan to project influence further into Central Asia.  Lastly, given the demographic issues within Pakistan, the alliance with the Taliban, who favor an ‘Islamic Emirate’ enables Islamabad to offset and combat separatist or nationalist tendencies among its own Pashtun population. Since 2014, a popular movement for Pashtun rights, known as Tahafuz, has been active in this area. 

These developments matter to Israel because Pakistan is engaged in a growing strategic relationship with Turkey, based on a shared conservative Sunni Islamist outlook.  The emergence of a Pakistan-aligned Taliban government in Kabul will strengthen this axis.  Given Islamabad’s close ties with China, and Turkey’s own advancing relations with Beijing, this in turn raises the future possibility on the horizon of a trilateral alignment. This though would depend on the willingness of conservative Islamists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey to turn a blind eye to China’s own treatment of its Muslim minorities.  

Many analysts, in discussing Pakistan’s role in the latest events in Afghanistan, have noted a 2014 statement by Hamid Gul, a former leader of the ISI in Pakistan, according to which ‘“When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America…Then there will be another sentence. The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”  

Gul, incidentally, also believes that the Mossad carried out the 9-11 attacks, that the US actively seeks to destabilize Pakistan because it is a ‘Muslim nuclear state,’ and that the Taliban represent the ‘purest form of Islam.’ 

These views are a reflection of the outlook of those elements within the Pakistani system which manage the relationship with the Taliban. Without this relationship, the Taliban victory of recent weeks would almost certainly not have taken place.  This piece of the picture re Afghanistan is worthy of greater attention in the west. 

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Does killing of Iranian dissident foreshadow what is to come for others?

Jerusalem Post, 13/8

Mousa Babakhani, a leading figure in an Iranian opposition party, was found murdered last Saturday in a hotel room in the Iraqi Kurdish capital city of Erbil.  Babakhani was a member of the central committee of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I). His body, which according to a statement released by the party, bore ‘signs of torture’, was found in a room at the Guli Suleimani hotel in the city.   

According to a KDP-I statement, Babakhani had disappeared the previous Thursday.  The Kurdish Human Rights organization Hengaw reported that Babakhani  was lured to the hotel by an old acquaintance who had arrived from Iran. There he was apprehended by two regime operatives. The three individuals suspected of the killing then succeeded in leaving Erbil. The KDP-I in its statement blamed the ‘Islamic Republic’ (of Iran) for the murder. 

Babakhani’s killing has sent shockwaves through the community of Iranian exiles in Erbil, both Kurdish and non-Kurdish.  It is the second such killing of an Iranian dissident on Iraq soil in the last month. There are fears that it could herald a new hunting season of the Iranian regime against its opponents resident in northern Iraq. 

 On July 14, in the Zhaleh neighborhood of Suleimania city, the prominent Iranian Kurdish civil society and environmentalist activist Behrouz Rahimi was shot dead by armed assailants.  CCTV footage of the killing shows a black BMW with no license plate and tinted windows approaching Rahimi. 21 shots were fired.  Rahimi died of his wounds later in the hospital.  Rahimi, who left Iran in 2012, was associated with the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK).  This movement is the Iranian franchise of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

Rahimi’s widow, Zoleykha Nasseri, herself a prominent Iranian opposition activist, told the Middle East Eye website that her husband had been approached in recent weeks by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, which had asked him to begin cooperating with it.  When he refused, he was threatened with death.  On July 14, it appears that the threat was carried out. 

Suleimania is located close to the Iraq-Iran border.  It is under the control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which maintains ambiguous relations with the Iranian regime.  Harassment and threats to Iranian opposition activists are common in this area.  Activists accuse the authorities of silence, and on occasion of cooperation with the Iranian regime.  In 2020, Mustafa Salimi, an Iranian Kurdish activist, escaped from jail in Iran, smuggled himself across the border into Kurdish northern Iraq, and asked for asylum from the Kurdish Regional Government.  Instead, Salimi was handed back to the Iranian authorities, who reportedly subsequently executed him. 

Previous killings generally thought to have been carried out by the Iranian regime have taken place in the remote and lawless border area between northern Iraq and Iran.  On July 17, 2018, the body of Eghbal Moradi, a well known Kurdish activist and the father of an executed political prisoner, was discovered outside the village of Penjwen, close to the border.  He had been shot dead. 

The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) has issued a statement accusing the Iranian regime of responsibility for the murder of Rehbouz Rahimi. 

The killing of Mousa Babakhani has particularly shocked Iranian Kurds because it took place in Erbil, previously regarded as a safer area for the exiles than the towns and cities closer to the Iraq- Iran border.  While the PUK further east is close to Iran, the Kurdish Democratic Party, which controls the Erbil area, maintains links with Turkey and with the US.  Erbil has over recent years emerged as one of the safest areas in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,  which itself is the most secure part of Iraq. The fact that the Iranian regime appears on this occasion to have been able to send two of its operatives to penetrate the area,  murder one of its opponents, and then leave without a trace is thus an ominous development. 

Fars News, a website associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), described Mousa Babakhani as ‘leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran terrorist group, which is supported by the Mossad.’  

A KDPI member interviewed by the Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, asserted that the organization has proof that the assassination was carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and added that the organization is currently assisting security authorities in investigating the murder. 

A second member of the organization, contacted by the Jerusalem Post, said that the assassination has meant that KDPI members are now wary of coming to Erbil.  ‘In this situation with all the threats against members It’s not wise. In the past we were worried about going to Suleimaniah as there’s many regime agents everywhere, in terminals, in bakeries, in groceries, markets, restaurants and tea houses, hotels… Now we are afraid of coming out of our base and going to Erbil for a few hours trip. Now we have to worry about Erbil too.’

The activist noted that online harassment of opposition activists and their families by regime elements has increased in recent weeks. ‘We get threat messages, they threaten our family members in Iran,’ he told the Jerusalem Post.  ‘ The Etela’at (Ministry of Intelligence) calls our families in Urmia, Bukan, Mahabad, Kermanshah, Sanandaj, Marivan, Saqqez,… they monitor Whatsapp calls and Instagram. They threaten us by abusing our female family members and relatives.’

A prominent Iranian opposition journalist resident in Erbil, Ali Javanmardi, has tweeted photographs of an individual he claims is one of the killers of Mousa Babakhani.

 Javanmardi, with 76.5000 Twitter followers, is an influential voice in Iranian opposition circles.  He identified one of the killers as Sarmad Abdi.  Abdi, a Kurd, hails from Ilam, in Iran. This area is close to Kermanshah, where Babkhani was from, leading to speculation that Abdi was the ‘friend’ of the victim’s who led him to the hotel.  In his tweet, Javanmardi noted that an unidentified organization would offer $30,000 for information identifying Abdi’s location. 

The campaign of intimidation and murder against Iraqi opponents of the Shia militias and the Iranian interest has received some attention in western media in recent months.  The assassination of prominent Iraqi political analyst Hisham al-Hashimi by the Ktaeb Hizballah militia on July 6, 2020 in Baghdad was the subject of broad international coverage.  By contrast, the killings of two Iranian Kurdish dissidents in northern Iraq over the last month have been entirely ignored in the west.   The murders of Rahimi and Babakhani, however, form an element in a  pattern of increased Iranian assertion across a number of files and locations in the region in recent weeks.  Iranian oppositionists, who had grown accustomed to seeing Erbil and northern Iraq as a relatively safe space, will be waiting in coming weeks to see if this perception must now be entirely revised.   Two questions arise: will the discernible pattern of greater Iranian assertion currently under way include a campaign of executions against stateless Iranian oppositionists and dissidents in northern Iraq? And will anyone be held to account for these killings?

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Unrest Grows in Iran – But is the Regime in Danger?

Jerusalem Post, 30/7

Iran is currently experiencing a significant wave of unrest.  Protests began on July 15, in Khuzestan Province, located in the south west of the country.  The initial focus was a scarcity of water in recent months, which has led to deaths among livestock, and consequent impoverishment among farmers in the ethnically diverse province.   The lack of water is also leading to a  breakdown in electricity provision, and frequent blackouts.  

But while scarcity of water was the initial trigger, the protests soon began to include more generalized slogans against the ruling Islamist regime.  Khuzestan Province, in which Arab Iranians form the largest community, is a place of high unemployment, poorly served by the central government in terms of services.  In the course of the week, the protests spread, with additional, though smaller, demonstrations taking place in Isfahan, Karaj, Kermanshah and Tabriz cities. 

On Monday, the unrest reached the Iranian capital, Teheran.  Videos and reports from the Teheran protests show demonstrators chanting against the regime.  Slogans including ‘Death to the Dictator,’  ‘Khamenei, shame on you – leave Iran alone,’ and, notably ‘No Gaza, no Lebanon, my life for Iran.’  The latter chant, heard also in the widespread unrest which hit Iran in late 2019, reflects the widespread perception among Iranians that their country’s resources are being wasted on support for Islamic causes across the region, leading to international sanctions and leaving little available for Iran’s own population. 

Notably, protestors also chanted slogans in favor of Reza Shah, the military officer who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in the early part of the 20th century, and who is remembered as a modernizing force by many Iranians. 

The authorities have reacted to the protests with predictable harshness.  In a repeat of what took place in late 2019, internet reception has been blocked in Khuzestan Province.  Activists in Iran are deeply concerned at what they describe as regime efforts to build a ‘national internet’ system along Chinese lines, (and, some maintain,  with Chinese assistance). Such a system would severely curtail the ability of Iranian citizens to communicate with one another and to access online sources not approved by the regime.

Riot Police and Revolutionary Guards personnel have been rushed to restive areas.  Ten people so far are reported to have been killed.  As of the beginning of this week, according to Amnesty International, the authorities commenced the use of live fire against protestors.  In the nationwide protests of late 2019, over 1500 people were killed. The death toll in the current protests looks set now to sharply rise. 

The blocking of internet provision to areas affected by unrest has two purposes: firstly, it prevents or complicates communication between protestors, who rely on online channels to spread the word concerning protests, in particular in keeping other parts of the country informed of events and seeking to broaden unrest (other means are available for communication and propaganda on a more local level). Secondly, internet restrictions prevent protestors from keeping international audiences from seeing their videos and messages. 

So what has precipitated the current wave of unrest? And is there reason to believe that this round of protests may differ from previous periods of discontent, and may succeed in posing the question of the continued existence of the clerical regime in Iran?

Regarding the first issue, as with previous waves of protest in Iran and elsewhere, a cluster of causes may be identified.  Since last year, Khuzestan has been affected by a severe drought.  According to Iran’s meteorological service, the months from October 2020 to June 2021 were the driest for the last 53 years.  The Karun River, which flows through Khuzestan Province, has now entirely dried up. 

But the water shortages in Khuzestan and elsewhere in Iran are not solely the product of unavoidable climactic conditions.  These have been exacerbated by policies deemed necessary because of the broader regime strategy of confrontation with the west and its regional allies. 

Like past regimes which sought to challenge the core rules of the international system, the Iranian regime seeks to secure for itself as far as is possible independent sources of food provision. This has led to an emphasis on the development of agriculture within Iran. This in turn has led to an over exploitation of water resources which is now producing negative results.  Around 90% of Iran’s total water consumption is used by the agricultural sector.  The main crops grown in Khuzestan are rice and sugar cane, both of which require large amounts of water. 

Overexploitation of water resources for a period of decades, took place in the absence of a coherent national strategy for the husbanding of water.  The result is now becoming apparent in the growing salinity and in places aridity of considerable parts of Iran’s south. This is bringing water shortages to the population, and raises the possibility of large scale movements of population.  Over damming of water resources, which leads to the drying up of reservoirs, is exacerbating the issue. 

Drought, exacerbated by clumsy and unsuccessful state policy, has played a role in the fomenting of unrest and instability elsewhere in the Middle East.  In Syria, for example, a severe drought combined with the effect of economic mismanagement led to the departure of 1.5 million farmers from their lands in the pre-2011 period. The result was the emergence of a class of displaced, poor, Sunni Arab families in and around Damascus and other major cities.  The insurgency that began in Syria in late 2011 found its most willing footsoldiers from among this sector. 

So might the current drought inspired unrest in Iran produce a similar result? 

While nothing should be ruled out, the current situation is still very far from there.  The protests under way are considerably smaller than those witnessed in 2019.  There is still, crucially, a lack of any kind of credible revolutionary leadership, able to pose a popular alternative to the rule of the clerics and the IRGC. 

But for all that, according to one Iranian source, the current protests do have real significance.  This source notes that the water and electricity shortages are without precedent, and are serving to turn popular sentiment away from further thoughts of reform, and towards a wholesale rejection of the current regime.  If such a wholesale and thorough rejection of the system itself is indeed spreading among the public, it may well bring further results over time.  Certainly the current events in Iran are yet more proof that the Achilles heel of the Iranian system is its inability to create workable conditions of social and economic life for the populations that live under its control.  This inability, in time, may well prove fatal to the regime. For the moment, the unrest, and the crackdown, are continuing. 

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The Slow Death of Lebanon

Jerusalem Post, 16/7

Lebanon is currently in the grip of the worst economic crisis in its history. There are daily shortages of fuel and electricity, a chronic lack of medical supplies, and an absence of essential medicines in hospitals.  77% of Lebanese households are unable to purchase sufficient food.  The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value over the last two years.  Lebanese citizens, meanwhile, are prevented from withdrawing more than $100 per week, as foreign currency reserves grow thin.  The situation is reaching a point of no return, with the real possibility of widespread hunger.   Lebanon is, today, by all measures a failed and collapsing state.

How has the country reached this point?  Less than two decades ago, Lebanon was revamping its image as a center of commerce and tourism on the Mediterranean coast.  The ‘March 14’ movement, named after the popular mobilization which forced a Syrian withdrawal in 2005, was riding high. It was presented as one of the few successes of the then US Administration’s strategy of regional democratization.  This reporter visited the country in that period, in 2007.  A palpable longing for normality could then be discerned among younger Lebanese.  The civil war was already a receding memory. What remained of it, among Sunnis and Christians, at least, was a kind of dread of the possibility that political violence might return. The Israeli occupation of the south had ended in May, 2000.  Normality seemed within reach. 

What went wrong? What went wrong was discernible also back then.  Also then, it was evident that there were two powers in Lebanon. The first, as represented by the March 14 movement, was ostensibly forward looking, orientated toward the west, towards commerce, normality. The other power was that of Iran, via its oldest franchise, the Lebanese Hizballah movement.  This interest had its own military power, which outmatched that of the state and dwarfed the other irregular military presences in the country.  It had its own economy, too, its own sources of income, its own smuggling routes. The project of the Iranian element was that the two Lebanons should continue to exist indefinitely. The former was to provide a convenient carapace of normality and legitimacy beneath which the latter could continue its allotted tasks in Teheran’s long war against Israel.  Supporters of the March 14 project had a tendency to avoid the discussion of hard power issues. This in retrospect was to prove fatal. 

Any chance that the Lebanon of March 14 might mount a defense in arms of its vision of the country ended in the events of May and June, 2008.  In a brief conflict on the streets of Beirut, the forces of Amal and Hizballah contemptuously brushed aside the haphazard military mobilizations of the pro-March 14 Sunni and Druze forces. 

From this point on, the die was cast.  It was clear that there would be no further attempt at real resistance to the Iranian project in Lebanon. What there would be instead would be obfuscation, and denial. The Iranian approach fitted perfectly the desire of the Lebanese to ignore reality.  This reporter remembers addressing an audience of mainly young Lebanese in London at an event in summer, 2008, shortly after the violent events in Beirut. I warned that the emerging prospect in the country was of Iranian occupation.  No one, perhaps understandably, wanted to hear this from an Israeli.  ‘We’d rather have them than you,’ one young Lebanese woman called out, to applause from the audience.  So be it.  Now she has her wish, and its consequences. 

In the years subsequent to 2008, events followed a downward spiral.  The Syrian civil war brought around 1.8 million refugees to Lebanon, further straining the country’s fragile infrastructure.  The Syrian war dealt a crippling blow to the tourism sector, which had accounted for around 7.5% of Lebanon’s GDP. Growing Saudi and US discontent at the reality of Iranian power in the country came to a head in 2015-16.  In early 2016, Riyadh announced the withdrawal of its deposits from the Central Bank of Lebanon. This followed the cancellation of $4 billion  of aid to the Lebanese armed and security forces.  The US ‘Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act’ of 2015 hit hard at the financial services sector, another key element in the Lebanese economy.  Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates issued advisories against travel to Lebanon at that time. This ended the country’s traditional role as a permissive playground for visitors seeking a congenial respite from Gulf restrictions.  

At this stage, Lebanon was seeking to manage a public debt of $69 billion, totalling 150% of GDP.  But as the official economy foundered, the parallel Iran/Hizballah shadow economy prospered.  Not, however, in such a way that the average citizen benefitted.  The porous or Hizballah supervised borders between Lebanon and Syria allowed for smuggling of oil imports, and their resale in Syria, to the benefit of Hizballah.  Captagon amphetamine pills manufactured in Syria , and cannabis were smuggled the other way, finding their destination in European cities or in the Gulf via Hizballah supervised routes.  Needless to say, none of the profits from this burgeoning sector went to service the national debt, or to benefit the crumbling public infrastructure. 

In March 2020, against the background of countrywide, multi sectarian protests against corruption, poor public service, youth unemployment and mismanagement, Lebanon defaulted for the first time on its debt payments.  A reform plan was approved by the IMF, but following the government’s resignation after the Beirut port explosion in August, 2020, negotiations were stalled.  The Lebanese economy contracted by 20% in 2020. 

This is the background to the current grave crisis in Lebanon.  All the elements –  US sanctions, Saudi and international withdrawal of aid and investment, subsequent debt default and loss of confidence, resulting currency devaluation, a shadow economy benefitting only itself, and a paralysed political system – are all directly traceable to the distorting effect that the presence of the pervasive Iranian project on Lebanese soil has brought.

From this point of view, the current situation stands as a stark warning to all countries faced with infiltration by the IRGC and its various militia franchises.  These are good at building paramilitary muscle and converting it into political power. They have no knowledge of or interest in economics. As a result, the net outcome of their taking of de facto power in a country will be that country’s eventual ruin and impoverishment.  Lebanon is now the case study for this process.

From Israel’s point of view, there is little to be done but to continue to guard the borders. There is no reason to suppose that the current chaos in Lebanon will incline the Iranians and their proxies toward military adventures in the south. When hunger and infrastructural collapse are a real prospect, no one is likely to rally around the national colors – not those of Lebanon, and certainly not those of Iran and its local agents.   Regarding any international response, international aid should be made contingent on the disarming of the Iranian proxy, and the thorough going reform of the political system. Any other remedy runs the danger of offering support to Lebanon’s current Iran-created dysfunctionality.  The key point: Lebanon was the first Arab state to undergo internal collapse, and consequently the first to receive the intentions of the IRGC’s brand of political-military takeover. With allowance for local variations, similar Iranian efforts are now under way in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Lebanon is the first Arab state to have been brought to the point of destruction by this project.   The significance of the current events thus extends far beyond Lebanon’s borders.  Iran is responsible for the slow death of Lebanon. 

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Iran Digs Deep in Hollowed out Syria

Jerusalem Post, 3/7

Arab diplomatic efforts unlikely to shift Teheran’s extensive infrastructure

The attacks by pro-Iran militias on US positions in eastern Syria come at a time of significant diplomatic action on the Syrian file. These attacks also graphically demonstrate the problem at the core of the current diplomacy over Syria. Significant western-aligned Arab states, along with Russia, are seeking to normalize the international position of the Assad regime.  This would involve the ending of the isolation of the regime, its return to international fora, and the gradual easing of sanctions.   

The problem is that while these efforts to ‘normalize’ Assad’s status are making some headway on the international level, the situation on the ground in Syria is far from normal.  Rather, the Syrian regime is profoundly weak. Foreign powers maintain powerful military and political structures on Syrian soil, controlling territory without any requirement to seek the permission of the nominal government in Damascus for their activities.  Most significant of these is the structure maintained by Iran, which was activated on Monday night in the Mayadeen area against US positions close to al-Omar oilfield.

The current direction of events points to the prospect of a kind of ‘Lebanonization’ or ‘Iraqification’ (if that is a word) of Syria.  That is, the emergence of a situation in which a weak government in name only exists and is accepted internationally. Beneath this flimsy structure, a powerful, independent Iranian political-military capacity will have freedom of action, control significant territory, and be able to use the nominal central government as a useful cloak for its activities. 

Monday night’s events reflect the already existing Iranian hold on significant parts of eastern Syria, and the extent to which the Syrian-Iraqi border remains something of a fiction.  The Iranian attacks came in response to US strikes on Iran-aligned militia positions on either side of the border a day earlier.  These in turn were a response to a series of militia attacks using drones on US positions in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. 

According to Omar Abu Layla, a Syrian journalist who maintains the Deirezzor24 news site, the Iranian attacks on al-Omar were launched from the area of Mayadeen city.  The US response, again according to Omar Abu Layla, targeted positions in and around that city.  Mayadeen exemplifies the strength of the Iranian hold in this area.  It is located along a contiguous stretch of Iranian controlled territory extending north from the IRGC controlled international border at Albu Kamal/al-Qaim.  Control of al-Mayadeen and the roads to its south and west enable Iran-aligned forces to avoid the US controlled zone around the al-Tanf base when heading further west toward Lebanon and toward the border with Israel. 

Security control on the ground in these areas is in the hands of the Iranians and their associated Arab militias.  The forces of the Assad regime are able to operate only with Iranian permission.  Alongside the military structures, Iran is seeking to entrench itself in the economic life of the area, and to secure the loyalty of the population.  Teheran controls significant oil facilities in this area.  Most importantly, the T2 station, a vital pumping facility on the Kirkuk-Banyas pipeline, is in the hands of Iran.  It has made some inroads into the tribal structures of Deir al-Zur, maintaining good relations with elements of the powerful al-Bagara tribe.  Less successful efforts have even been made at promoting Shia Islam among the Sunni Arab population of this area. 

Sources in the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces, meanwhile, express concern at efforts by the Iranians to penetrate the SDF area of control east of the Euphrates.  At present, this zone is the main barrier to de facto Iranian/militia control of the entirety of the Syria-Iraq border. 

Iranian activity extends also west of Deir al-Zur. A recent report in the Levant24 news site identifies areas of Iran-aligned militia control in ‘large swathes of south rural Idlib, east rural Hama, and north rural Homs.’  The site names the (Iraqi) Nujaba, Ktaeb Hizballah, (Pakistani) Zeinabiyun and (Afghan) Fatemiyun militias as the key elements engaged. 

The diplomacy on Syria proceeds largely without reference to these realities.  Russia is currently engaged in an effort to secure the important goal of channelling all international aid through Damascus.  Moscow is threatening to veto the renewal of the UN mandate to keep Bab al Hawa border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border open.  The crossing provides vital supplies to 4 million people living in the Turkish and Sunni Islamist controlled zone in north west Syria. 

Russia’s efforts to secure the nominal sovereignty of the Assad regime throughout Syria are not new.  Notably, however, additional forces are now engaged in the effort to ‘normalize’ the regime’s position.  Specifically, the emergent Arab diplomatic alignment led by United Arab Emirates and Egypt is similarly committed to restoring Assad’s diplomatic status.  Egypt supported Assad throughout the civil war, seeing him as an authoritarian ruler defending his regime against an Islamist insurgency.  The UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies at the end of 2018.  Oman similarly restored relations at the end of 2019.  Kuwait and Jordan have reopened their embassies. 

Egypt in March called for Syria’s return to the Arab League, a decade after its membership was suspended in the wake of the civil war.  The UAE, according to regional media reports, has begun to un-freeze Syrian funds held in Emirati banks. The Gulf monarchy is centrally concerned with Sunni political Islam as a threat. It sees Turkey as the main supporter of this trend, and from this point of view, Assad’s Syria constitutes a bulwark.  Iraq never broke relations with Syria. 

As of now, the US Administration remains opposed to these activities.  President Biden has maintained the stance of his predecessor, advising against efforts at normalization and maintaining sanctions.  Given the Administration’s efforts at a return to the JCPOA, however, there are questions as to the firmness of this stance. The previous Administration’s strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran was a natural fit with an effort to maintain the isolation of Assad’s Syria. It remains to be seen if the current firm US stance is maintained. The Biden Administration has failed to designate any new targets for sanctions under the Caesar Act. Sanctions were also lifted on two Dubai based corporations controlled by Syrian businessman Samer Foz last week. 

So where is Israel in all this?  The diplomatic isolation of the regime is the ideal setting for the continued prosecution of Israel’s air campaign against the Iranian infrastructure in Syria.  This campaign is designed to degrade and slow Iran’s efforts, presumably in the hope of reaching deterrence with the Iranian project in Syria, of a type which has arguably been achieved in Lebanon.  Further advancement of the Russian and Arab efforts to ‘normalize’ Assad’s status will raise a  question mark over the future viability of this campaign.  There have been reports of informal, Russian directed contacts between Israel and Syrian regime officials as part of this effort. 

Israeli planners, however, are likely to take note of the inability and/or unwillingness of these parties to curb or prevent the growing reach and capacities of the Iranian project in Syria.  ‘Normalization’ for Assad is likely to mean severe complications for Israel.  The forces engaged in the growing insurgency against the US in Iraq and Syria do not and will not take instruction from Assad, from Russia or from the Arab states. Their efforts are unlikely to be  halted by diplomacy alone. 

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Splits in Israeli Right led to fall of Netanyahu

Since the process whereby splits in the Israeli right have now resulted in the fall of PM Netanyahu and the ending, for now at least, of Likud rule in Israel, I thought it might be an opportune time to repost this article of mine identifying the trend back in March. This is partly because there are few things that political analysts like to do more than saying ‘I told you so.’ But also I think the trends noted here remain relevant. I failed, of course, to see that Bennett would break his vow not to go with Lapid. Oh well.

Foreign Policy, March 19, 2021, 4:41 AM

Israelis go to the polls on March 23 in the fourth election since April 2019. Despite a general mood of public weariness, these elections promise to be something other than another stale rerun. A change, indeed, appears to be underway, which may result in a transfer of power. For the first time in Israeli electoral history, the main challengers to a Likud party prime minister’s continued reign will come from further to the right—not from the center or left.

While all polls have the centrist Yesh Atid list running second to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a Feb. 24 statement by former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett that his right-religious Yamina party would not sit in a government with Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid as prime minister means that the latter will have difficulty forming a coalition. The latest polls suggest that Netanyahu and his natural allies in the religious parties, plus the United Arab List, and excluding Yamina are set to achieve a total of approximately 51 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

This means that the most likely alternative coalition to Netanyahu will consist at its core of an alliance between Bennett and the New Hope list of former Likud stalwart Gideon Saar. In other words, Netanyahu’s crown is threatened by two men who split off from his own party.

Understanding what has happened requires a closer look at the political DNA of the Israeli right.

Respect for law and constitutional norms was central to the outlook of Jabotinsky and Begin, the key founding fathers of the Israeli right.

Splits in the mainstream right in Israel are fairly uncommon. Unlike the endlessly squabbling left, Israel’s Zionist right has tended to coalesce around strong leader figures. Since its emergence a century ago, the mainstream Zionist right has indeed had a sum total of five leaders—Zeev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu. It has a notable inclination to attribute kingly qualities to those chosen to stand at its helm.

Central to the outlook of Jabotinsky and Begin, the key founding fathers of the right, was a liberal conception of a limited role for the state, along with, importantly, respect for law and constitutional norms. (Shamir, whose background was in the more radical Lehi, or Stern Group, and Sharon, who came from the Labor settlement movement, were less focused on these issues of democratic procedure).

Saar, whose departure from Likud set the current flux in motion, is an experienced and canny politician, a former interior minister, cabinet secretary, and coalition whip. He would not have jumped ship had he not believed that there was sufficient electoral space for him to make a comfortable landing, which raises the question: What has created this space?

Saar’s own explanation of his motivations offers a clue: “Loyalty to Likud’s way, values, and, ideals have been replaced by flattery and platitudes that border on a cult of personality,” he said in a televised address following the announcement of his departure from Likud. The latter, he declared, had become a “tool for the personal interests of the person in charge, including matters relating to his criminal trial.” The criminal indictments against Netanyahu and his determination to nevertheless continue in office despite these are the crux of the matter.

This lesser-known but important element of the mainstream right from which Likud emerged, namely its traditional regard for the rule of law and the formalities of democratic practice, has deep roots and is evidently not yet extinguished. Its existence predates the foundations of Israel.

Jabotinsky, the ideological father of the secular Israeli right, located himself throughout his career as in the lineage of Western European and American liberal patriots. In 1938, he wrote, “It is an incorrect view which states that government supported by the majority is democracy. … Democracy means freedom. Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy. These contradictions will have to be prevented.”

This approach was evident in the strict approach to governance and the separation of powers adhered to by Begin, the second historic leader of the Israeli right. In this regard, Begin supported the passing of a constitution for Israel. He stressed what he referred to as the “supremacy of law” and the autonomy of the judicial branch. He supported the abolition of the military rule imposed on Israel’s Arab citizens in the first years of the state.

Legalism is a core part of the self-image of a significant part of the Likud elite.

Herut, the core movement from which Likud emerged, was at its formation the reorganization of the Irgun paramilitary movement for the purpose of civilian politics. But alongside this element, a self-perception as a movement supporting Western-style democratic norms was central to the political DNA of the party. This aspect has not disappeared. Legalism is a core part of the self-image of a significant part of the Likud elite.

This characteristic stands in odd juxtaposition to the better-known insurgent roots of the Israeli right. It is also a contrast to the well-known practices of the Likud Central Committee, a byword in Israel for political maneuvers of the least refined variety. But it should not be dismissed.

At present, there is a growing perception that Netanyahu’s actions and decisions are mainly motivated by a desire to secure a postponement or annulment of his scheduled criminal trial on charges of breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud in three separate cases.

There is a growing perception that Netanyahu sees the party as his private property and a convenient tool. 

According to this view, Netanyahu sees Likud as his private property and a convenient tool. The failure, for political reasons, to pass the biennial budget for 2020-2021 at a time of acute national crisis adds to this sense. More than any other element, this is the cause for the disillusionment with and estrangement from the prime minister among significant figures in his movement.

As Dan Meridor, a former deputy prime minister and former intelligence minister with impeccable Likud credentials going back to the movement’s earliest days, put it to me in a recent conversation in Jerusalem, “We have two flags: the liberal one—individualism, human rights, the rule of law—and of course the national cause. … Bibi changed this completely. … The attitude to the court is just one example. He changed dramatically when his own case began. … The attack on the system, the police, the courts, calling the judges ‘leftists.’ This is unheard of.”

Netanyahu, of course, didn’t always talk like this, but his rhetoric “has changed the Likud completely,” Meridor argued. “You can’t demand the presumption of innocence and then prevent the trial from taking place. Which is what I believe he is trying to do.”

Former Education Minister Limor Livnat, another Likud stalwart with family roots deep in the Zionist right, recently wrote an article on the Israeli news site Ynet decrying “Netanyahu’s arrogance, his refusal to listen to anyone else, his sycophantic cheerleaders parroting party propaganda.”

Zeev Elkin, the most senior Likud figure to join Saar, said in a December 2020 interview on Israel’s Channel 12 that the prime minister’s “personal interests are guiding his decisions,” adding that “Netanyahu feels persecuted, he suspects everyone, the atmosphere is one of a cult of personality.”

Netanyahu, with his support reduced because of the presence of rival rightist candidates committed to his demise, will be unable to form a coalition without the support of Bennett. The latter has not stated that he will refuse under any circumstances to sit with Netanyahu—which means that he is currently set to be the kingmaker. He has ruled out supporting opposition front-runner Lapid’s bid for the leadership. So, assuming that he intends to stick to this declaration, he will be left with the option of joining a narrow Netanyahu-led coalition or advancing either Saar’s or his own candidacy for prime minister.

It would take a bold gambler to bet against the longest-serving premier in Israel’s history. But something significant has shifted. The contest is set to be decided at the top level within the confines of the historic Israeli right. Netanyahu no longer looks unassailable there. His determination to annul the charges against him is colliding with the legalist traditions of his own movement.

The prime minister’s considerable political skills could still bring him victory, but there is also a chance that the torch will be passed to new hands—to leaders who left the prime minister’s party, but who represent the particular Likud traditions that Netanyahu has abandoned.

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The Growing Threat Facing Israel from Iraq

Jerusalem Post, 4/6

A previously unknown Iraqi Shia militia calling itself ‘Ktaib al-Sabiqoun’ issued a warning to Israel this week. In gramatically challenged  Hebrew, the statement read ‘if you bomb us, we will bomb you.’  It is likely that this statement was in fact issued by one of the established pro-Iranian militias.  It is common practice for these organizations to adopt and discard new names when engaging in areas beyond their usual zones of activity. 

Ktaib al Sabiqoun’s warning  comes in the wake of a recent comment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinting that during the recent fighting in Gaza, Iran sought to send an armed drone towards Israel from ‘Iraq or Syria.’   The statement also coincides with growing concerns in Washington regarding the increasing intensity of the Shia militias’ campaign against the US presence in Iraq, specifically in the area of drone attacks.  At the public level in Iraq, meanwhile, protests took place this week against the ongoing murder campaign by the Shia militias against Iraqi civil society activists and oppositionists. 

All these sets of events are linked. The Iranian strategy for Iraq is clear, and resembles in its essentials the project already close to completion in Lebanon.  It is exemplified by the targeting of the three enemies noted above – namely Israel, the US/west, and the domestic opponents of Iran’s local proxies. 

The intention, along the lines of what has already been achieved in Lebanon, is that the formal structures of representative government should remain, but should be hollowed out of any meaningful content.  Political military structures in the service of Iran will enjoy freedom of action and will possess military capacities superior to those of the nominal forces of the state.

The latter, meanwhile, will themselves be thoroughly penetrated by the Iranian power structure.  Political forces hostile to this project will be disposed of, or intimidated into silence.  The territory of the country will then be used both for the transportation of men and materiel in the direction of Israel, and for the deployment of missiles capable of reaching the territory of the Jewish state.   The Iranian intention, as seen in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, is not to create a strong, coherent client state in Iraq.  Rather, Teheran wants fragmented, dysfunctional structures within which the only powerful, cohesive element is the Iran supported force itself. 

At present, in Iraq, this project is under way but is not yet near completion. A significant barrier to the realization of Teheran’s goals is the remaining US military presence in the country. There are strong indications at present that the long smouldering Shia militia campaign against the US is set to increase in intensity. The intention is to pressure the US into departure.   

In the latest incident, a rocket was fired at the Ain al-Asad base last week. US personnel are stationed at the base.  Following the incident, the Iraqi authorities arrested Qasim Muslih, commander of the Shia militias in Anbar Province.  In response to the arrest, the militias then conducted a show of strength against the Green Zone, the center of the international presence in Baghdad.   Heavily armed Shia militiamen traveling in military vehicles seized control of entry and exit points to the Zone, holding them for several hours before dispersing. 

A number of articles in the US media in recent days have noted growing  concerns in the US defense establishment regarding the  tempo of militia attacks using drones or missiles on US facilities and personnel in Iraq. The Daily Caller quoted ‘security sources’ who reported that the Pentagon intends to ask President Joe Biden for permission to carry out counter strikes against militia targets in Iraq.   According to the report, the White House currently insists on green lighting all US responses to militia attacks, and ‘“The Administration is looking hard at a broad range of responses to Shiite militia aggression against Americans in Iraq.”

Against the background of the militia campaign, popular protests against the militias and their campaign of assassinations recommenced this week.  Gathering under the slogan ‘Who killed me?’ demonstrators in Baghdad on May 25th protested the killing of civil society activist Ihab al-Wazni in the majority Shia town of Karbala on May 9th.

According to one demonstrator interviewed by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) in Baghdad, ‘Al-Wazni is dangerous for them and their interests, so they killed him to protect themselves. These groups are always out there with guns and they are continuing targeting people and they are the only ones permitted to hold weapons. They are responsible for killing demonstrators and activists. The forces that are coming on the streets are supported by Iran and they are taking orders from them.’

Another protestor,  Ali al-Khafaji, told MECRA that ‘Agents have come from east of the border to destroy Iraq.. Wilayi (Pro-Iranian) militias and hired killers from Iranian intelligence are the ones who came from the east…Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. These two entered Iraq to make bloodshed here and to destroy it.’

Since large scale protests began in October 2019, around 600 demonstrators have been killed, and an additional 82 Iraqis have lost their lives in targeted killings.  At least one demonstrator was killed when security forces opened fire on the crowd in Tahrir Square on the 25th.  Participants claimed that the police commanders who gave the order to open fire are themselves members of the Badr Organization, a pro-Iran militia with a strong presence in the Iraqi police and security forces. 

It is unclear if determined US action against the threat of the Shia militias will take place.  The Administration is engaged in negotiations on the nuclear issue with Teheran.   It is likely that the determination to sign a new deal as soon as possible will prevent a determined and comprehensive response.

For Israel, events in Iraq are of deep relevance.  Iran has already deployed missiles in the deserts of western Iraq, in the hands of its militias, which have Israel within range. The Iranian-made Zolfaqar missile has a claimed range of 750 km – putting Tel Aviv within its range if it was deployed in western Iraq. The distance from al-Qaim on the Iraqi Syrian border to Tel Aviv is 632 km.

In the event of the ‘1st Northern War,’ as Israeli defense planners call the scenario of a general war between Israel and Iran with its proxies,  Iraq would play an important role in the transfer of weaponry. The Shia militias would be used to provide additional manpower for the Iranian side, as seen in the Syrian civil war.  Missiles would almost certainly be launched from Iraqi soil. 

Hence, whatever the origins and the seriousness of Ktaeb al-Sabiqoun’s message, and the statement by Netanyahu that preceded it, Iraq is already part of the northern crescent of threats facing Israel.  The US presence and broader US policy re Iran makes Israeli action in Iraq more complicated than similar actions in Syria, or potentially in Lebanon.  As Israeli planners assess the Gaza events of recent weeks in light of the key scenario of a future war from the north, the growing threat from Iraq is likely to be a significant factor in their deliberations. 

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