Five thoughts on the passing of Amos Oz


if I think back to the days of my aliyah and the year or two that preceded it -the period 1989-91, Amos Oz was one of the writers who was most present and influential in my mind. His prose, along with the poetry of Yehuda Amichai and the music of Yehuda Poliker, underlay the mental climate in which I chose to make my home in Israel. It was a much more male, Ashkenazi and Europe-oriented Israel-of-the-imagination than would be approved of today, by either leftists or rightists. It had the twin totems of the Holocaust and the IDF as the two unmoving pillars around which everything else revolved, with the city of Jerusalem and the pre-state military undergrounds in there somewhere too.

I was never a great fan of Oz’s novels and have never revised my early middling to negative verdict. After a couple of years in Israel, once I had learned Hebrew properly and found my feet politically, I was also no longer an admirer of his political essays. In my view, at least, his literary reputation will rest on the magnificent autobiography ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ which is an utterly luminous invocation of Jerusalem in the period immediately prior to the establiishment of the State of Israel, during the 1948 war and in the years immeiatley following it. Oz was very clearly waiting all his life to write this book, and novels such as ‘My Michael’ are a kind of uneasy circling around the themes that would dominate it.

The other, less well known pillar on which his reputation should in my view rest is that of his early short stories, which I think are masterpieces of that less respected or hallowed form. In this regard ‘The Hill of Evil Counsel’ is particularly notable, similarly set in the period of pre-1948 Jerusalem which seems to have remained the richest imaginative landscape for Oz throughout his career. ‘Where the Jackals Howl’ is I think Oz’s first collection of short stories. Once again there are there mysterious portraits of a figure that in retrospect is clearly his mother, Fanya Klausner, in many of the stories (who committed suicide when he was 12). There is also what I think is the only example in Oz’s oeuvre of a piece of military literature, namely a portrait of a member of an IDF airborne unit during the reprisal raids of the mid-50s. I think the story was called ‘Itche.’ Given that Oz was a combat veteran of the 1967 and 1973 wars, this absence of the military experience in his writing is I think noteworthy.

Oz was a person who was influential in the building of the ‘grande illusion’ that led to the Oslo process of the 1990s, and then the four years of insurgency and counter insurgency that followed it. This illusion was the notion that the Arab Muslim nationalism that had arisen in opposition to the Jewish project west of the Jordan River had reached a point where it was ready for a ‘historic compromise’ with the latter. There was never much convincing evidence for this conviction in either the statements or the actions of the proponents of this nationalism.. For this reason, the very great confidence with which the proponents of this view asserted it tended to exist in inverse proportion to the amount of knowledge, or indeed the amount of curiosity they possessed regarding the actual state of affairs on the other side, in terms of thought and in terms of action.

Only Yehuda Poliker now remains of the trumvirate of artists and visionaries that I named at the top. I am going to see him perform ‘Ashes and Dust’ in Tel Aviv next month. After I read ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ I wandered round the Kerem Avraham neighborhood in Jerusalem where Amos Oz grew up, and found the little house where many of the events in the book take place, and where he grew up. What is that line from Ehud Banai? ’20 years afterwards, you won’t see me in the city.’

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Betrayal on the Euphrates

Jerusalem Post, 21/12

The apparent decision by US President Donald Trump to order the complete withdrawal of US forces from Syria was preceded by a looming crisis between the US and Turkey. It is worth looking at this crisis in detail as it may well hold the key to this latest dramatic development.

Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan discussed the matter of Syria in a phone call last Friday. In a speech on Monday, Erdogan then reiterated his threat to launch a military incursion into north-east Syria.

This operation, if undertaken, would have pitted Turkish troops against a US partner force – the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Ankara sees the latter as inseparably linked to the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), which has been engaged in an insurgency against Turkey since 1984.

To his audience in Konya Province, Erdogan asserted that the Turkish incursion would commence ‘at any moment now.’ According to local media reports, both Kurdish and Turkish forces had begun to dig entrenchments along the border, in anticipation of the coming fight.

The Turkish threat placed the US in a difficult position. On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member state, with a powerful army. The air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey is an important US strategic asset in the Middle East.   Under President Erdogan and the AKP, Turkey has in recent years been set on a path of increasing authoritarianism at home, and support for Sunni Islamist and jihadi forces in the region.

In recent months, Ankara has been strengthening ties with Russia. Turkey is set to pursue the Russian S-400 air defense system and is an active participant in the Russian-led attempt at a diplomatic process to conclude the Syrian civil war on the basis of continued rule by the Assads. Yet precisely because of the problematic nature of its leadership, coupled with its size and economic and military power, the US is concerned to prevent further Turkish drift towards closer relations with western rivals and enemies in the region.

On the other hand, the SDF (with the Kurdish YPG at its core) has emerged as an example of a reliable and successful partner force for US air power and special forces (and western strategic objectives) in the troubled Syrian arena. The SDF was the main ground force in the war against ISIS. The territorial phase of this war is now almost completed, with the SDF’s conquest of the town of Hajin in the lower Euphrates river valley earlier this month. But the US partnership with this force, and tacitly with the de facto governing authorities in the area that it controls, goes beyond the conventional fight against the Sunni jihadis of ISIS.

The SDF is linked to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which is the Kurdish-led authority in roughly 30% of Syrian territory. De facto ownership of this territory by a US ally brings with it a series of advantages to the west. Firstly, this area contains around 80% of Syria’s oil and gas reserves. Whoever controls it hence becomes automatically a key player in any discussion of Syria’s future. Secondly, ISIS may have disappeared as a ruling authority. But it remains very much in existence as a networked insurgency.

A recent Pentagon estimate suggested that the movement still possesses around 30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq, and has access to $400 million. Control of the territory east of the Euphrates, and alliance with a ground force of proven reliability provides the opportunity for continued action where necessary to prevent the re-emergence of IS.

Thirdly, possession of Syria east of the Euphrates forms a partial land obstacle to the Iranian ambition of building an area of contiguous control from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon and the border with Israel. For all these reasons, Israel has supported and continues to favor the maintenance of the current arrangement in eastern Syria.

The preferred US method for resolving this dilemma until now has been to seek to avoid it. Washington has tried to keep both sides happy.

Regarding Turkey, the US made no attempt to prevent Ankara’s destruction in January 2018 of the Kurdish canton in Afrin in north west Syria. Rather, the US stressed that since that area had no part in the war against IS further east, it was not included in the alliance between the US and the SDF.

Similarly, the relationship with the de facto rulers in eastern Syria has been officially limited to the purely military. Neither the US nor any other country have recognized the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

Yet the US has also sought to reassure the Kurds, and indeed the relations between the sides have been deepening on the ground. The US recently committed to the training of ‘35000 to 40,000’ additional local forces to provide stability in eastern Syria, according to a recent statement by Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Washington recently also established a series of observation points along the border – at Tel Abyad, Ras al Ain and Kobani. Both Kurds and Turks understood these as intended to deter any possibility of a Turkish incursion.

Ankara evidently was no longer willing to acquiesce to this ambiguous situation, and wanted to test the issue. Why now? Turkey’s substantive concerns notwithstanding, there are local elections due in the country in March. The poor state of the economy has led to a sharp decline in current levels of support for the AKP and its allies. A bout of nationalist saber–rattling may have helped to rectify this.

But this does not mean that the threat was not a serious one. Erdogan would have noted not only the precedent of Afrin, but also the abandonment by the west of its rebel clients in Deraa and Quneitra Provnces in summer, 2018, in the face of a determined assault by the regime, Russia and Iran’s proxies. He would have listened carefully to the many ambiguous statements by US officials regarding the relationship with the SDF. In the most recent example, James Jeffrey, Special Representative on Syria, had described the relations as ‘transactional’ and ‘tactical’ and noted that the US does not have ‘permanent relations with sub-state entities.’

All this may have encouraged him to believe that the US, after perhaps some words of disapproval, would acquiesce to threats of a Turkish campaign whose actual purpose would be the expulsion of Washington from the Syrian space, so that Ankara, Moscow, Teheran and Damascus could then seek to broker an end to the war in the country.

What remained to be seen was who would blink first. A major military incursion east of the Euphrates would have been a clear act of defiant aggression against the expressed will of Washington. At that point, the US would have needed to decide whether its interests in Syria and its credibility more broadly were of sufficient importance to necessitate an effort to induce Ankara to reverse course. Or of course the confrontation could be avoided by the wholesale US acceptance of Turkish demands, in contradiction to stated US policy.

The contradiction between the western attempt to appease Turkey, and the tentatively emergent strategy vis a vis Syria had been apparent for some months. It now looked set to be resolved – one way or the other.

If the US indeed now follows through with the rapid withdrawal of the American military presence in Syria in its entirety, as a number of news outlets have reported and the President appears to have confirmed, then we have an answer. It means that the US has indeed blinked first, and is set on reversing course in Syria – by embarking on a hurried exit from the country. This will be interpreted by all sides as a strategic defeat, an abandonment under pressure of allies, and a debacle.







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A New Order Emerges in Southern Syria

Jerusalem Post, 30/11

Syrian Regime closes accounts with west- and Israel-linked rebels, as Iran builds and expands its presence in the area


Evidence emerging from south west Syria indicates that the Assad regime has begun to ‘close accounts’ with former rebels who worked with Israel and with western countries during the years that this area was outside of regime control.  A number of prominent former rebel commanders in Deraa and Quneitra Provinces have recently disappeared after being apprehended by regime forces.   Other former rebels have been prevented from leaving the area for opposition-controlled Idleb province in the country’s north east.

The regime’s measures against those it deems unfit for ‘reconciliation’ are continuing parallel to the integration of rank and file former rebels into the regime’s security structures.  What is returning to Syria’s south, however, is not the status quo ante bellum.  Iran and its allies have a central role in the emergent power structure. Indeed, the emergent reality is one in which it is difficult to discern where precisely the Syrian state ends and Iran and its allies begin. Syria’s south west, which was the cradle of the uprising against Assad, is now being transformed into the birthplace of a new Syria, in which Iran and its allies form a vital and inseparable component.

Deraa and Quneitra Provinces were among the first areas of Syria to break free of regime control. The demonstrations that launched the Syrian uprising began in Deraa city in mid-March, 2011.  By the end of the year, the regime had lost control of the greater part of both provinces.  In the subsequent six years, a flourishing post-regime reality came into being.  International NGOs began to operate projects in the areas. A provisional local authority functioned.  Unlike in northern Syria, militias aligned with Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood style political Islam did not swallow up all other elements.  Rather, groups aligned with these streams existed alongside other less ideological formations.

Foreign governments also became involved.  Israel, determined to prevent the arrival of Iran and its proxy militias to the border with the Golan Heights, developed relations with a number of non-jihadi local rebel groups, and assisted their control of the border area.  Such organizations as Fursan al Jolan, and Ahrar al Nawa, among others, benefitted from the Israeli connection.  Further east, western governments including the US and the UK offered assistance to the opposition in Deraa Province.  Through such projects as the ‘Free Syrian Police’ force, the west sought to aid the development of rudimentary civil society structures to replace those of the Assad regime.

All this came abruptly to an end in the course of summer, 2018.  In June, the regime, having finished off the rebellion in Eastern Ghouta close to Damascus, turned its attentions to the south west.  A massive aerial and ground assault began.   The rebels collapsed with unexpected speed.  By July, it was over.  Once the regime had captured key strategic areas, rebel groups were forced to choose between a bloody last stand or a negotiated surrender. They chose the latter.  Thousands then opted to board buses for rebel-controlled Idlib in the north west. Those who wishes to stay were given a six month period from August to visit a government controlled center and ‘normalize their status’ with the authorities.  The implicit suggestion was that if this was done, they would face no further retribution.

This assumption now appears to have been misplaced.  According to residents of the area interviewed by the Syria Direct website, a wave of arrests and disappearances of former rebel commanders and opposition activists is now taking place.  On November 7, the body of Ghanim al-Jamous, former head of the Free Syrian Police in the town of Da’el, was found by a roadside on the outskirts of the town.  Officers belonging to Assad’s feared Air Force Intelligence prevented bystanders from approaching the body.  Jamous is one of 23 former rebel commanders and opposition activists to have been detained or disappeared by the regime organs in recent weeks.  Many more young Syrian residents of the area with less clear links to the opposition have also been detained.

Among others affected by the regime crackdown are individuals formerly directly linked to Israel.  On September 7, Ayham al-Juhmani, former commander of the Ahrar Nawa group in the town of Nawa in Quneitra province was detained by regime forces.  He has not been heard of since.  Ahrar Nawa was among the groups to have cooperated most closely with Israel.  Juhmani himself spent some time in a hospital in Israel during the civil war, undergoing treatment for wounds received in combat.

As the regime’s security organs prey on former leaders of the fragile  order that emerged in the 2011-18 period, meanwhile, the new dispensation in south west Syria is emerging.  The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its proxy militias – including Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi groups such as Asaib Ahl al Haq- are an integral part of it.

A recent report on the Syria Observer website provided details of a large Iranian base under construction in the Lajat area of Deraa Province.  According to the Syria Observer, Asaib Ahl Al Haq and Hizballah, operating on behalf of the Iranians, ‘destroyed about 650 houses and cleared out a number of villages in Lajat, levelling them to the ground, to create an area of 30 square kilometers. In these villages, the Iran-backed militias prepared training barracks and warehouses for weapons and ammunition, in order to make this area into a military base for foreign Iran-backed militias to be based. The first batches of weapons and ammunition reached the militias in the area by this route at the beginning of October.’

The report went on to describe the route taken by Iran-associated fighters from the Iraq-Syria border crossing at Albu Kamal to al-Lajat, under the supervision of IRGC personnel.

Evidence is also emerging of the presence of Hizballah personnel and other pro-Iranian Shia militiamen in Syrian Arab Army uniforms among the regime forces returning to the border area with the Golan Heights. This is despite the nominal Russian commitment to keep such elements at least 85 kilometers from the border.  This Iranian activity close to the border goes hand in hand with Teheran’s activity further afield, including the transfer of Shias from southern Iraq to deserted Sunni neighborhoods.

All this adds up to an emergent new post-war order in the regime-controlled part of Syria.  Those who hoped for one kind of new Syria are being rounded up, detained and disappeared.  Iran, meanwhile, is busy creating a very different kind of new order. In it, an independent Iranian presence is intertwined with and largely indistinguishable from the body of the Syrian state itself, in a way not coincidentally analogous to the situation in Lebanon and Iraq (minus the nominal institutions of representative government).







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The Return of ISIS

Jerusalem Post, 2/11

The jihadi organization is currently stirring in outlying areas of Iraq and Syria

Islamic State fighters operating in the Lower Euphrates river valley this week killed 68 fighters of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces.  Under cover of a sandstorm that severely reduced visibility, the Sunni jihadis of IS launched a wave of suicide bombings against SDF positions.  The Coalition rushed 500 fighters from the Kurdish YPG to the area (the SDF in the area consisted mainly of Arab fighters from the Deir a Zur Military Council).  Intense Coalition air and artillery strikes followed.  For now the situation has returned to an uneasy stability.  The SDF and coalition offensive against the last significant IS-controlled pocket of territory around the town of Hajin continues.

It would be mistaken to see the latest Hajin incidents as merely the last stand of a few IS bitter-enders, a final if gory footnote in the often horrifying trajectory of the Caliphate declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul on June 29, 2014.  Rather, the evidence shows that IS doesn’t care for last stands under which a line can be drawn.  It had the opportunities for such  gestures in its main urban conquests of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.  It avoided them – leaving a core of fighters to carry out the last battles, while key leaders and cadres escaped to reorganize for the next chapter.

The Hajin incidents should rather be seen as reflective of a larger reality: namely, that the Islamic State organization has not been destroyed. Reports of its demise have been much exaggerated.  It is currently in a process of reorganization and regrouping. And it may well recommence major operations in the not too distant future.

This process is itself part of a broad strategic picture.  Two large and inter-related Sunni Arab insurgencies have arisen in the Levant and Iraq in the last decade – these are the ‘Syrian rebellion’ and the Caliphate of the Islamic State.  Both have, in conventional terms, been defeated.  The Syrian Sunni Arab rebel groups remain  in existence only in a part of north west Syria, and only because of the protection of Turkey.

The Caliphate, meanwhile, consists today only of the Hajin pocket and a few other isolated desert enclaves.

But the defeat of these armed campaigns has not resolved the issues that caused them to come into existence.  A very large, discontented and disenfranchised Sunni Arab population remains in the area of Syria and Iraq.  Its needs, to put it mildly, are not set to be addressed by either the Alawi-dominated Assad dictatorship in Damascus, or the Shia-led and Iran inclining Iraqi government in Baghdad.  The language which can mobilise this population, meanwhile, as the events of recent years confirm, is Sunni political Islam.

All this creates a ripe atmosphere for ISIS 2.0 to grow – on condition that the organization can extricate from the ruins of the Caliphate something resembling a coherent organizational structure for the rebuilding of an insurgent network. The evidence suggest that IS has achieved this.  It is therefore now regenerating itself.

What form is this taking? A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War entitled ‘ISIS’ Second Resurgence’ quotes a US State Department estimate of August 2018 which puts the number of fighters currently available to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at 30,000.  These fighters, the report suggests, are evenly divided between Iraq and Syria.

ISW notes that the Islamic State infrastructure does not lack for funding, the organization having smuggled $400 million out of Iraq, where it has been invested in businesses across the region.  IS also engages in kidnapping, extortion and drug smuggling within the area of Syria and Iraq itself.

Embedded deep in the Sunni Arab communities from which it draws its strength, IS maintains networks of support and de facto control in a number of areas identified by the report.  These include the Hamrin Mountains in Diyala Province, the Hawija area, eastern Salah al-Din Province, the area south of Mosul city and Daquq.

Local government officials also in the Sinjar area have reported sharp increases in IS activities in the area to the south of Sinjar and in the Ninawah plains in the recent period.

In all these areas, IS relies on the fear of the local populace, their lack of trust in the Shia-dominated, often sectarian-minded Iraqi security forces,  and in turn the unwillingness of those security forces to make a real effort to root out the IS presence. To do so would require determined and risky deployments of a type which the security forces lack the determination or motivation to undertake.

Sheikh Ali Nawfil al-Hassan of the Al-Shammar Beduin tribe which has lands in eastern Syria and western Iraq, recently said in an interview with the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) that ‘in these areas ISIS is coming and going as they want freely. They move about as they wish.’

There is an additional problem in that the US-led coalition is reluctant to share information with some elements of the Iraqi security forces, because of their closeness to the IRGC and Iran.

In Syria, meanwhile, IS maintains a presence in the desert east of Damascus, from which it can launch attacks.  Less visibly, the organization is engaged in efforts to reorganize sleeper cells among the Sunni Arab communities that once lived under its rule across Syria – as was confirmed to this author in a recent conversation with senior security officials in the city of Raqqa.

The security of the porous border between the two countries also remains a major issue – with IS fighters able to utilize the erratic efforts of the Iraqi security forces to avoid the coalition war effort in eastern Syria by slipping across the border to Iraq’s Anbar Province, and the sympathetic Sunni communities there.

So IS as an organization has survived the successful US-led destruction of the quasi-state it created in 2014.  It has a leadership structure, money, fighters, weaponry and it is currently constructing a network of support in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq and Syria. These areas take in territory under the nominal control of the government of Iraq, the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad regime.  Small scale attacks have already begun in some areas. The return of the Islamic State in the dimensions it reached in the summer of 2014 does not look likely or imminent.  But  an IS-led ongoing Sunni insurgency, with roots deep in the Sunni Arab outlying areas of Syria, Iraq and the border between them is an increasingly likely prospect.  The Caliphate may be in ruins.  But Islamic State is back.








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Iran’s ‘Phoney War’

Jerusalem Post, 9/10

Teheran prefers to strike directly only at weak and peripheral enemies, while acting against stronger ones through proxies. Is this distinction sustainable?

The effort by the US and its allies to contain and ultimately roll back the gains made by Iran in the region over the last half decade is currently taking shape, and is set to form the central strategic process in the Middle East in the period now opening up.  New sanctions in the export of Iranian oil are due to be implemented from November 4th.  Israel’s campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria is the most important current file on the table of the defense establishment.  The US appears set now to maintain its assets and its allies in Syria as part of the emergent strategy to counter Iran.  InIraq, the contest between Iran-associated forces and those associated with the US is the core dynamic in the country, with the independent power on the ground of the Iran-associated Shia militias the central factor.  In Yemen, the battle of attrition between the Iran supported Ansar Allah (Houthis) and the Saudi and UAE-led coalition is continuing, with limited but significant gains by the latter.

Iran’s response is also becoming clear.  At the present time, Teheran’s ballistic missile capabilities appear to be the preferred instrument for Teheran to express its defiance.

Notably, for the moment at least, Iran appears to be erring in the side of caution in its choice of targets.  This phase is unlikely to last, however, assuming the US is serious in its intentions.

In the early hours of Monday, October 1st, the Fars News Agency, associated with the Revolutionary Guards, reported that the IRGC had fired a number of Zulfiqar and Qiyam ballistic missiles at targets east of the Euphrates river in Syria.  The strike came in response to an attack on  an IRGC parade in Iran’s Arab majority Khuzestan province on September 22nd.

According to Fars, the missiles fired were decorated with slogans including ‘Death to America,’ ‘Death to Israel,’ and ‘death to Al Saud’.

It is noteworthy, however, that the missiles were not directed at any of the aforementioned enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Rather, the IRGC targeted the Hajin pocket, a small enclave east of the Euphrates still held by the Islamic State.  This was in response to a claim of responsibility by IS for the September 22 attack.  (A somewhat more credible claim was made by the Ahwaziya, or Ahvaz national resistance, an Arab separatist group in Khuzestan).  Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani later tried to frame the attack as a response to American threats, because of the close proximity of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to the area targeted.

Similarly, on September 8th, the IRGC fired 7 Fateh-110 short range missiles at a base maintained by the PDKI (Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan) in the city of Koya in eastern Iraq.  The PDKI is engaged in an insurgency against the IGC and the Iranian regime, centered on the Kordestan Province of western Iran.  11 people were killed in the attack.

In both these cases, Teheran chose to make its demonstrations of strength against the very weakest of the forces opposed to it (in the case of Islamic State, a force indeed mainly itself engaged against the enemies of Iran).  Shamkhani’s bluster after the fact tends to draw attention to this, rather than detract from it.

By contrast, when Iran wishes to act against or threaten the interests of any of the powerful states whose names were written on the missiles fired at IS in Hajin, it takes care to do so in ways that avoid attribution.  Thus, the Lebanese Hizballah organization, in military terms a direct tributary of the IRGC, is the force entrusted with the missile array facing Israel.

When ballistic missiles are fired at Riyadh from Yemen, the act is claimed by the Houthis, and the missiles are identified as ‘Burkan 1’ and ‘Burkan 2’ missiles, developed in Yemen.  These missiles are considered by the US State Department and senior US officers to be Iranian in origin, possibly the Qiam 1 or Shihab 2 system with minor modifications.  Certainly, the Houthis, a lightly armed north Yemeni tribal militia, did not acquire the knowledge required to operate ballistic missiles locally.  There is evidence to suggest that Lebanese Hizballah operatives are engaged by Iran in Yemen to carry out these launches.

In Iraq, according to a Reuters report in August, the IRGC has begun to transfer ballistic missiles to its militia proxies in that country, presumably with the intention of using these against Israeli or US personnel.

So Iran acts through deniable proxies in its wars against powerful states, but acts directly only against small and marginal non-state paramilitary groups.  The purpose, of course, is to enable the Iranian state to avoid retribution, while gaining benefit from the acts of the militias.

This practice has proven effective in recent years, though it projects weakness as much as strength.  It is of use only for as long as Iran’s enemies are willing to participate in the fiction of separation between the IRGC and its client militias.

At a certain point, if the US and its allies are serious about rolling back Iran from its regional gains, the question will arise as to whether success in this endeavor can co-exist with the tacit agreement to maintain this fiction.  In Israel’s case, the decision to cease adherence to this convention was taken earlier this year, when Israeli aircraft began openly targeting Iranian facilities in Syria.

For the US, such a decision is likely to emerge, if it emerges, as a result of the dynamics set in motion by the decision to challenge Iran’s advances.  At the moment, what is taking place is something of a ‘phoney war:’ missile strikes against peripheral targets, grandiose threats from the IRGC leadership, supplying of militias with that or that weapon system.

If Teheran begins to feel that its interests are truly threatened, however, this period is likely to come to an end.  When it does so, Teheran is likely to seek to hit at the US at its most vulnerable points –  the US forces and official facilities in Iraq and Syria.  Such actions will almost certainly be taken not by the IRGC itself, but rather by this or that proxy set of initials.  It may come through the use of missiles, or by a variety of other means.

At this point, the US will need to decide whether retribution will be inflicted only on the proxies, or on those sending them.  The pattern of Iran’s behavior suggests a great sensitivity toward not including Iranian personnel within the sphere of conflict.  This is a vulnerability that should be exploited. The success or the frustration of the effort to turn back Iran’s advance across the region may thus  depend on the decision taken as and when Iran chooses to end the current ‘phoney war.’  .

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Leveraging  Murder

Jerusalem Post, 27/10

Turkey and Qatar seek to turn the death of Jamal Khashoggi to political advantage


The killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi represents a golden opportunity for all those forces opposed to the current direction of US Middle East policy.  Unsurprisingly, these disparate elements are seeking to exploit the situation to the maximum.   Will their efforts succeed?

The Middle East strategy of the Trump Administration has taken time to emerge, but its essential contours are now clear.  The advance of Shia Islamist Iran and its allies is perceived as the central threat system – the need to rally and organize allies to face down and turn back this threat the salient imperative.

Sunni political Islam, in both its Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi forms, is an additional enemy to be confronted.  This challenge is less centralized.

With the eclipse of the Islamic State, the Salafis continue to constitute a latent threat. But at present this threat does not have an immediate focus, and is mainly a matter for intelligence and specialized military attention rather than politics and grand strategy.

The Muslim Brotherhood axis of Turkey, Qatar, Hamas and the various other franchises of this movement  is a far more potent and significant gathering than the Salafis.  Unlike Iran, its intention is the slow and  incremental establishment of Islamist polities, rather than the rapid subversion of Arab societies by a combination of political and military means.

In the longer term, given the uncompromising anti-western core outlook of the Brotherhood, the legitimacy gap faced by Iran because of its Shia nature, and the ongoing dysfunction of Sunni-majority Arab countries, this may constitute a challenge of no less or greater magnitude.

The US strategy to hold back these three enemies (all of whom, it is worth noting, are particular manifestations of political Islam), rests on alliances with a number of regional allies.  Israel, by far the most powerful of all regional forces opposed to them, is a central lynchpin.  President Sisi in Egypt, who is responsible for preventing the disaster of the consolidation of Brotherhood power in Egypt, is another.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are additional vital links in the chain.  In the persons of Crown Princes Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed Bin Zayed of the UAE, the current US Administration thought it had found the right personalities in their respective countries for the advancement of this strategy.

The inbuilt flaw or weakness in this US regional strategy is the relative fragility of the Gulf monarchies.  Iran and Turkey, the enemy and emergent rival states to the west respectively, are the most powerful and well organized states in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, meanwhile, are states possessing great wealth, but only semi-modernized political systems.  In so far as they are able to produce effective military organizations, this is largely because of direct western involvement (see the UAE’s Presidential Guard, for example, commanded by former commander of the Australian SAS General Mike Hindmarsh).  The indifferent performance of the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, and the Saudi failure in backing the rebels in Syria offer evidence of their limitations.

The current US strategy, of course, has many enemies.  These include, unsurprisingly, partisans of Iran, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.  The list also includes supporters and adherents of the Middle East policy of the previous US President.  The latter stood for a policy of cooperation with Teheran, and tolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood (on the Salafis,by contrast, Obama took a relatively hard line).

Unsurprisingly, therefore, partisans of AKP Turkey, the Iranian regime and the Middle East policy of the previous Administration which favored the interests of both are currently engaged in an effort to leverage the death of the unfortunate Jamal Khashoggi in order to dismantle the recently emergent Middle East strategy of the present Administration.  Forcing the US to turn on Riyadh, or creating discord and strife between the USA and KSA is the goal.

This is not, (to put it mildly), part of a consistent pattern of concern for human rights and dignity on the part of these forces.  Turkey is among the most energetic jailer of journalists in the world.  150 journalists have been imprisoned in Turkey and 180 media outlets shut down since the failed coup attempt of July, 2016.

Turkish forces have been in recent months presiding over grave violations of human rights in the Afrin area of Syria (largely unreported by global media).  These have included looting, confiscation of properties, and ‘honor killings’.  Forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions have taken place, according to Amnesty International.  Several Turkish journalists seeking to comment on these matters on social media have been detained under Turkey’s ‘anti-terror’ laws.  Turkish forces also killed a Kurdish journalist, 22 year old Tolhaldan Walati, during the invasion.  For some reason, Walati’s killing did not subsequently become a cause celebre for large parts of the western media.

Qatar, meanwhile, whose state-run al-Jazeera channel is the main current outlet for nightly features about the Khashoggi killing, routinely arrests and detains media groups seeking to investigate the slave -like conditions endured by foreign workers in the emirate.

Turkey and Qatar’s evident desire to leverage Khashoggi’s killing to derail current Administration policy on the Middle East derives rather from the fact that they and their Muslim Brotherhood allies and clients stand to be among the chief non-beneficiaries of this policy.

Khashoggi was himself an energetic advocate for a soft-line toward the Muslim Brotherhood. In a Washington Post article on August 28th, for example, he argued that ‘The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes… There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it.’

The article was not merely a general discussion piece – rather it was written to specifically oppose calls for the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

Articles of this type, and the current efforts of the Turkey and Qatari camp to leverage the Khashoggi killing into policy benefit, are part of a broader political war being fought out for influence on US Middle East policy, and in turn for ascendancy in the region. The killing of the journalist himself appears also to have formed a particularly foolish and inept move in this conflict.

What will be the result?  Despite anger in the US, major policy shifts appear unlikely.  Firstly, this is because Saudi Arabia’s status as the world’s largest exporter of oil gives it the ability to hit back at any proposed sanctions by reducing oil exports and forcing a rise in oil prices.  The mere possibility of such a move may well deter significant US moves to sanction Saudi Arabia.

More broadly, the strategic imperatives that first produced the Trump Administration’s orientation toward Riyadh have not disappeared as a result of the Khashoggi killing.  Political Islam, in its Muslim Brotherhood, Shia and Salafi forms remains the key threat to western interests and to stability in the Middle East.  Despite the present media-generated mood, this is likely to ensure that US Mid-East strategy weathers the storm and continues broadly along its current lines for the immediate future.




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Monuments to the Caliphate in north-east Syria


In Raqqa, they were exhuming  a mass grave as we drove into the city.  It was by the municipality, in the center of the town.  A great gaping pit.  A group of men in blue municipality uniforms at work removing corpses.  A JCB accompanying them.  The bodies – mostly skeletons but with a little hair remaining on the heads of some of them, were wrapped in blue tarpaulin sacks and left aside as the work continued.  Some of the tarpaulin bundles were very small. These were the bodies of children, killed, perhaps by the Islamic State authorities, but just as likely by the coalition aircraft that had devastated the city prior to the entry of the fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The stench coming from the pit was very intense, a pungent, indescribable smell of putrefaction. The men wore masks against ingesting the foul air.  P. and I scrambled down the steep edge  and began to photograph them as they worked.

‘Some of these bones are probably of Da’esh men, anyway,’ the  foreman, who introduced himself as Jamshid,  remarked.  ‘They don’t care about graves and toward the end of the siege, they began to throw the bodies of their own men into these pits.  It was summer and they had precious little medicines left in the city.  They were frightened of epidemics, so they just threw the corpses into the mass graves and covered them up.’

One of the tarpaulin bags had been left open. From among the smaller ones.  You could see in there the roundness of a skull and an eye socket.

Nothing of this has anything to do with rest.  Such categories are useless for description.  Matter is not at rest.   One may come to understand in the contemplation of dead human matter the fascination for human sacrifice among very primitive peoples.  They wanted to grasp what exactly was the difference, at the exact point that living matter is turned into this. This inert, other stuff.  But there is no way to capture that. We only know that it is vastly, unutterable other.  Some cultures see the dead as impure, unclean.  Threatening to the living. There is something to this, too.  Unspoken, we and the Raqqa municipal workers were united in a slight sense of intangible danger, of participating together into a mission into some dangerous borderland.

In reality, there was no danger. What was left of the Islamic State was boxed in far to the south.  Raqqa was at peace. But we were located at an entrance point, like a gaping mouth, into the earth and that other realm.  In which lies war, corruption, and disappearance.

It was nearly a year since Raqqa had been liberated from the Islamic State. The city was still full of rubble. It was a sullen, tense and silent place in the slow afternoon.  Unexpectedly, wandering the city with my friends from the SDF, I felt a little like a representative of an army of occupation.  Too obsequious smiles from tradesmen, who beckoned us into their shops. Strange, sidelong, insinuating glances at Mustafa Bali, my old friend from Kobani, resplendent in his YPG camouflage.

‘We had a 10 day curfew here, a couple of weeks ago, to clear out IS sleeper cells.  They’re here. Those connected to the regime are trying to get organized, too.   Some of them are people who were with us before. Who think the regime’s coming back. Graffiti, demonstrations, that sort of thing.  No, nothing serious to worry about.’

That was ‘Haval Chia,’ the head of security in Raqqa city. He was a Kurd, maybe 40 years old, moustached, new to the notion of being part of the ruling authority. As were all the others.  But they’d grown into it fast.

The regime was winning the war and it was waiting on the other side of the Euphrates. Waiting to ‘reunite’ Syria and wipe out all this and put back the flag of the Ba’ath party all the way to the Iraqi border.  This was no longer somewhere in the distance.  It was coming forward, though slowly.  Like the armored suicide cars that IS used to operate at the start of the war.

Youd see them starting off, in the distance, from the jihadi’s lines.  They weren’t in any hurry. They knew at that time there were no weapons on the other side that could stop them. They’d approach like they had all the time in the world.  And you could run away or stay to face them when the explosion came.  That was how the regime wanted people to think of it.  Everything depended on the Americans.  If they stayed, nothing could cross the river. But who knew what they wanted. They didn’t seem sure themselves. And not only to do with Syria.

The regime were already here, anyway. But closed in. In Qamishli city and Hasakeh.  You had to be careful in Qamishli. The new confidence of the regime meant that they were asking foreigners for their I.Ds now.   It wouldn’t help to show them the little bit of paper that the Kurds had given you at the crossing at Fishkhabur. They’d already picked up a couple of unfortunates like that.

We’d almost stumbled in there ourselves.  Driving round Qamishli city with a driver from Kobani who didn’t know the geography of it. And who was  tired and young and maybe thinking about something else.  I’d noticed suddenly that there were crosses in the neighborhood and I’d heard that the regime’s area took in Christian areas. Then we’d seen the livid swastika type emblem of the SSNP and just a little further down a regime checkpoint and we’d turned around, very fast.

I had interviewed the leader of the SSNP a year earlier, in Damascus, under false pretences and they would have liked to talk to me.

This was how it was in Syria.  Everything nice and normal, even saccharine sweet like a Feyrouz song in the morning,  and then danger, from behind the curtain.

In Ein Issa, for example, at the SDF’s media center, I’d started talking in my kitchen Arabic to an Arab SDF fighter called Ali.  The Arabs tended to be more immediately  friendly than the Kurds and anyway I didn’t know Kurdish.  Of course within three minutes we were fast friends and I gave him my Facebook name and we shook hands warmly as we left. Then on the way back to Kobani as the light was fading I started thinking about regime information structures deep inside the Kurdish territories.  My Facebook profile revealed my residence in Jerusalem, in Israel. Ali, for all I knew, could be speaking to one of the various structures.  Making a phone call that evening to let them know who was passing through.  I was exaggerating, of course.  Not all or many of the Arab SDF fighters would be in contact with the regime.  And anyway I wasn’t important enough for something to be put on for my benefit so deep inside of Kurdish controlled territory.  But it was a reminder that nothing was ever really safe. Even when it seemed like it was.

That night back safe and cosy in Kobani I’d told P. to get us a different driver for the next day.  The following morning Mohammed Waisi arrived.  In his mid-50s but looking perhaps ten years older.  Mohammed was quiet, punctual, without airs.  A Kurd from Raqqa, but now living with his family in Kobani.

He didn’t speak much, until we were turning a corner outside of Ein Issa and he remarked ‘that was where my family and I were caught by ISIS in 2014.’  There was a short silence that followed. I encouraged him to continue.

‘when ISIS came to Raqqa, our neighbors began to say ‘our state has come. Its time for you to leave.’  So the Kurds began to leave the city.  I took my family to Abu Sora, then on to Kobani city.  We had the idea of returning to Abu Sora because we thought Kobani would fall.  We were travelling with two of my cousins and their families. About twenty of us in all.  We were passing that corner when ISIS opened fire at us from the side of the road, so we had to stop.

There were about twenty of them.  They ordered us out of the car and separated the men and the women. The women they put back in the car.  They made us men kneel down with our hands on our heads by the road.  They told us that we were PKK and that they were going to execute us.

Then they were distracted by  a YPG vehicle that came upon the road and they all began shooting at it.  They must have fired about 1000 bullets.  So it turned back. We were all just waiting by the side of the road. They were going to kill us, but in the meantime an ISIS Emir had turned up.  A blond haired guy,  we thought he was a Russian or a Chechen.  He asked them what they were doing.  They said they had captured some PKK members and were going to execute them.   The Emir said that we weren’t PKK but were just civilians with women and children. An argument started.  All this while we were waiting by the side of the road, kneeling.  Eventually, they agreed to call their commanders. It seems that they told them not to kill us so they put us back in the cars and took us to Tel Abyad.

There were basements in Tel Abyad where they were holding prisoners.  One for men, and one for women.  We were the first to arrive there.  But in the days that followed, more Kurds came. There were maybe 200 people packed in down there. They gave us some soup once a day.  The commander down there was a guy called Abu Quteybeh.’

Mohammed said all this while keeping his eye on the road from Ein Issa to Kobani.  I told him we should talk more back in the town, so I could write down what he was saying, and he agreed.  After that, there was silence as we covered the ground.

Back at Kobani, in the garden of the makeshift hotel where journalists and aid workers stayed, we sat with Mohammed Waisi and he continued his account.

‘After we’d been there about a week, Abu Quteybeh brought a captured YPJ fighter. He held her by her hair and showed her to us and he said that in two hours they were going to behead her in the square and we would be brought out to watch it.  So two hours later we were all gathered there, and they brought her out and cut her head off.  She had been tortured a lot and she didn’t resist.  One man sat on her legs so she couldn’t move.  The other one, on the top half.  Everyone had to watch it. Even the children..’

We were silent for a bit, the three of us, and then P. said, ‘ISIS would do this,you know, to frighten people.’

Mohammed continued; ‘They took us outside once, when the jets were coming, and they made us stand next to a building, they stood about 200 meters away, and shone a light on us.’

‘We got out because my neighbor from Raqqa, who had escaped to Turkey, had a cousin who was an emir with ISIS, and when he heard that we had disappeared he contacted them, and so after a while we were released.  They said they’d investigated us and found that we weren’t from the PKK.  So they gave us three days to get out of Raqqa, after which they couldn’t ‘guarantee’ our safety, they said.  We got through the checkpoints and to Bab al Salameh, then into Turkey and finally across the border into the KRG. We stayed there til ISIS was driven out of Kobani.’

There was silence and we sat around the table.  And finally, ‘While we were out of Raqqa my house was bombed and damaged. Now the neighbors began to build and repair it and they are living there.  We’re trying to get it back.  I spoke to Haval Chia, he’s a relative of mine. But he told me to be patient as they don’t want to inflame problems between Kurds and Arabs in Raqqa. ‘

Mohammed Waisi told us his story in low tones and never became animated.  Only later, in Raqqa city, when he took us to the site where his house had been, he began to weep and could not continue. Not knowing what to do, I have him a manly slap on the shoulder, of the type that army comrades give one another. It felt absurd then, as it sounds now.

Later, I asked him how the experience of all this had changed him.  He thought for a moment, and replied ‘I don’t enjoy anything anymore,or even feel anything. I used to like taking my grandson to the market and introducing him to people and so on.  But nothing really makes me feel anything anymore.’

We worked with Mohammed Waisi for another couple of days. We didn’t mention any of this again.  After that I left and crossed the border back to the KRG.

Islamic State brought out the monstrous element that waits not that far from the surface in any human situation.  It is important also of course to remember the specifically Arab and Sunni Islamic context in which it arose.    What it has mainly left along the landscape and in the minds of people are a series of horrifying monuments to itself and to the brief moment when it exercised its insane sovereignty across eastern Syria and western Iraq.

The Caliphate might have been short lived. But the forces that engendered it have not disappeared or been replaced by others.  In north east Syria, there is a contrast between the tranquility that seems evident, the solidity of it which one feels, and the extreme fragility which your intellect tells you is surely the reality.  In such cases, one should distrust ones’ feelings and emotions.  For now, the land is quiet.  But the war and the things that generated it are latent, and alive, and will manifest themselves again soon.  In the meantime, the monuments remain.





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