The Number in the Darkness


On the night of August 9, 2006, our unit was ordered to cross the border and  commence an operation into Marj Ayoun and El Khiam.  It was the conclusion of a period of several days in which we had waited on the border, in the sweltering heat of early August.  Three times the mission had been cancelled.  There would be no fourth cancellation.

As is now clear, these cancellations formed a part of a more general policy of flailing uncertainty which characterized the management of the 2006 Lebanon war from the Israeli side.  However, this has been written about extensively (including by me), and is not my focus here.  I want, rather, to recall the minutiae of a particular incident, which remains in my mind ten years on.

One of the main challenges to armored units across the border at that time was the presence of anti-tank mines, seeded by Hizballah at various points precisely to impede an Israeli advance.  I was particularly apprehensive at the thought of these mines.  The thing that occupied my mind, for some reason, in the days spent waiting to cross the border, was the question as to whether if one hit one of these mines, there would be time to know what had happened before one’s own death, or whether there would simply be a kind of switching off.

To get to the area of Marjayoun, we were required to undertake a slow and systematic journey, in column formation, in the pitch darkness.  The engineers had supposedly plotted a course that would avoid areas where there was a danger of mines.

As the driver of a Merkava 3 tank, my task was fairly simple.  In order to ensure that we remained on course, I needed to make sure that through my episcopes, into the darkness of the night, I could at all times make out the number ‘2’, on the back of our platoon commander’s tank, a few meters ahead of us.  This sounds easy, of course, but in the pitch dark, and through the rough and uneven countryside of south Lebanon, it was a task not without the possibility of complication.

The problem was not in the particular difficulty of the task, but rather in the potentially serious implications of failing to carry it out.  If we veered off course, this would mean we would be drifting blindly through the countryside and the blackness, far away from any course plotted to ensure our safety, and perhaps in the direction of a mined area.

This was compounded by an additional element – I was at the best of times not an especially good tank driver. And I had in any case taken part in a training exercise on tanks precisely once in the five years preceding our entry into Lebanon that night.

The first fact perhaps requires some additional detail.  Operating tanks, like anything else, is a skill for which some people have an aptitude, and others do not.  A tank is a large machine. Operating it effectively requires a certain base level feel for machinery and its operation and an interest and connection to technical issues.  I possess neither attribute.  I found myself in the tank corps because in my family, if one joins the armed forces, one goes into a frontline unit.  And the infantry units in which I was interested were closed to me because of my poor eyesight.

In any case, as a result of all this, I found myself on that night heading into Lebanon, with a responsibility not only for my own life, but also for three additional men in our crew, and with an uncertainty in my own  ability to carry out the task at hand.

As the hours wore on, we moved, slowly and grindingly, into Lebanon.  There was a sense of having entered an entirely different dimension of reality.  Just the sound of the engine and the crackle of the internal communications.  We could see fires in the distance, lighting up the night at certain points.  At all times, I kept the white symbol in the center of my episcope. Roi’s tank,  number 2, the platoon commander. This was the talisman telling us we were still on course.

Then, suddenly, the symbol disappeared. Nothing but the black expanse in all three episcopes.  I had glanced away for a moment and he must have turned, and now there was nothing.  For a few seconds, we just kept moving.  Maoz, our commander, asked me, as he did every few minutes, ‘is everything ok? Can you see Roi?’  ‘Now I can’t see him,’ I replied.

What was odd about this moment was that I wasn’t especially concerned.  Rather, it struck me as an interesting puzzle that would in a moment make itself clear.  Had we lost him for good, or would the number re-appear?  I had no thoughts at all about the mines or the lives which my own mistake had now potentially placed at risk, alongside my own.  Instead, with my mind blank, I watched the black episcopes intently for a sign that he had reappeared, and that we were still on the course.  Nothing.

After a minute or so, Maoz asked me again, this time with a little more urgency in his voice, ‘Can you see him now?’

‘I can’t see him,’ I said.  ‘Now I can’t see him.’

Then, after about another minute, in the right episcope, very reduced in size, there was the white painted ‘2’ symbol.  ‘Now I see him,’ I said.  We were back on the course.  I felt no particular relief, and mildly admonished myself not to lose him again, which I did not.

I recall this episode because it reminds me of  the way in which death quietly appears in wartime, considers for a moment, and then departs.  It is a process quite without drama, without musical accompaniment, or very great emotion.  It is played in the key of silence, and something very close to banality.

I assume that my own lack of emotion and failure to think very much about the possible implications of my own error at that moment was itself an item of evolutionary worth, the better to keep me focused on the task at hand.  But it also seemed and seems to me to represent a somehow appropriate response to the true scale of things.  This small episode offers a kind of window, a glimpse into some other level of consciousness, a place of stillness which is to be found, perhaps only found, at the very eye of a raging storm.

I realize in writing these words that I am failing to convey the flavor of this, and I am aware that I could write paragraphs more and still fail to do so.  Suffice it therefore to say that much else happened in the 2006 war to myself and my unit, and much of it I am not particularly proud of.  But I have been, since 2006, looking for that particular strand of consciousness that I experienced in the minutes described above.

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Islamic State shifts strategy

Jerusalem Post, 8/7

ISIS’s pretensions to statehood are receding as it loses ground, but the organization is anything but defeated as a recent string of mass terror attacks shows.

The latest wave of bombings by Islamic State confirm a pattern long observed. As it continues to lose ground in its  heartland and its “provinces,” so the organization turns back to an intensified focus on international terrorism. This is
in line with previous experience of international Salafi-jihadi organizations.

Two points need to be noted. First, considerable past experience shows that the destruction of the physical holdings of Salafi-jihadi groups does not mean their eclipse. Second, and more importantly, Salafi-jihadi networks are today part of a broader process – the revival and flourishing of political Islam. To try to understand them otherwise is to misunderstand them. The patterns of survival of earlier networks confirm this.

That the Islamic State “caliphate” is facing eclipse is no longer under serious dispute. It has lost around 47 percent of its territory in Iraq, according to a June 27 statement by Brett McGurk, the US administration’s point man in the fight against Islamic State. The latest loss is the city of Falluja.

In Syria, Islamic State is also contracting, though at a slower rate. Twenty percent of its territory is gone. The US- supported Syrian Democratic Forces is surrounding the town of Manbij close to the Syrian-Turkish border. Its progress has now slowed in the face of two determined Islamic State counterattacks this week, but the siege on the town has not been

In Libya, meanwhile, forces loyal to the UN-appointed Government of National Accord have severely reduced the Islamic State enclave around the city of Sirte. Government forces are now inside Sirte itself, with Islamic State fighters remaining in just three parts of the city.

Western air power and special forces are playing a major, if mainly unannounced, role in the advances against Islamic State in all three countries.

But in the same period, as pretensions to statehood recede, Islamic State is proving its tenacity in a series of terrorist attacks of unprecedented range and ferocity, away from the beleaguered front lines of its territorial holdings.

Most notably, the massive terrorist strike on a Shi’a area of Baghdad, in which 220 people died, represents a clear message that Islamic State is far from neutralized. The slaughter of 22 people in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul are similar announcements of the movement’s continued vigor.

Add to the roster of Islamic State Ramadan activities the series of attacks in Saudi Arabia – on a US government facility in Jeddah, a Shi’a mosque and a holy site in Medina – and the recent suicide bombings in Aden in which 40 people were killed and for which Islamic State took responsibility.

Finally, the attacks at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and in the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv appear to have been perpetrated by individuals supportive of Islamic State, though not directly controlled and activated by the movement.

Of course, the wave of attacks in Ramadan reflect a longer trend. Islamic State has effectively been in retreat since its moment of highest expansion in late 2014. What has happened in recent weeks is that the pace of retreat has increased.

We have been here before. The global network of al-Qaida remains in existence and is flourishing. It never proclaimed itself as a caliphate or even as a state. But it did have significant territorial holdings in the pre-2001 period. The expulsion of the group from Sudan and the US invasion of Afghanistan ended these. They did not end al-Qaida.

The network survived, adapted and continued. Today, it remains as important a player as Islamic State in the politics of the Arab world. Its Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, is arguably the most effective and sophisticated Salafi-jihadi formation in existence today. Its Yemeni franchise, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, outperforms Islamic State in that
area and prevents its gaining a foothold.

So any assumption that the physical destruction of Islamic State as a state-type entity will mean the eclipse of the organization should be dismissed. Salafi-jihadi networks have a tendency to overreach themselves and pick fights with enemies too large for them (see September 11, 2001). But the evidence suggests that the reaction this produces leads not
to the destruction of the network but to its adaptation to new circumstances and its continuation.

This brings us to the second point.

It is ‘politically correct’ but factually unsustainable to view the networks of Salafi-jihadi Islamism as belonging to a category separate and sealed off from other elements and trends in political Islam. Islamic State grabs the headlines for obvious reasons, but if we broaden the scope of vision a moment, we will discern Salafi-jihadi movements ideologically identical to Islamic State but tactically different from them, movements that enjoy close relations of cooperation with powerful regional states.

Just west of Islamic State’s domain in Raqqa province in Syria, the most powerful political-military grouping is Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest). This alliance brings together Jabhat al-Nusra and another al-Qaida offshoot, Ahrar al-Sham.
The latter is arguably the most powerful rebel formation in Syria today.

These groupings do not differ in any substantial way from Islamic State in their end goal. And in the case of Nusra, the commitment to and support for international terrorism is identical. Yet Jaish al-Fatah is the recipient of massive aid from Turkey and Saudi Arabia. As a result, far away from the fantasy world of the Geneva talks, Jaish al-Fatah controls a
large swathe of northwest Syria. It is a serious player.

The unseen agencies that work for President Erdogan and King Salman (and Sheikh Tamim of Qatar, though the Qataris matter less these days) handle their countries’ relations with it.

In this area, in turn, Jaish al-Fatah is doing battle with a conglomeration of Shi’a Islamist militias ostensibly representing the Assad regime. The “regime forces” today are themselves better understood as representing a rival, Shi’a Islamist international network, centered on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

So the turning back of Islamic State, and its consequent morphing into an international terrorist group, should not be confused with a major strategic achievement. Islamic State will remain to murder people and crowd the headlines.

More seriously, the energies of political Islam, which have gripped and shaken the life of the Middle East to its very foundations, remain far from spent. In their many manifestations, they are closer to the centers of “legitimate” power
today than at any time in the past.

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Reflections on the Second Lebanon War

(An abridged version of this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, 23/6)

10 years since the Second Lebanon War.  For those of us who took part in it, that war remains, always just in view. Like a suitcase filled with items of vivid memory, waiting quietly in the corner of a room.

It was an entirely inglorious and partially botched and inconclusive affair.  A ‘great and grave missed opportunity’ as the second report of the Winograd Committee termed it.

It has also been rapidly forgotten. This, it seems, is the way of the small wars that Israel fights these days.  None of them passes into legend, as did the great conflicts of the states’s foundation. Today’s conflicts, after a short time, become largely the private property of those who participated in them.

That’s perhaps not a bad thing.  Perhaps it is akin to the rapidity with which Israeli cities clear up and move on after terror attacks. Still, the long quiet that has followed the 2006 war on the northern border has helped to further obscure some of the lessons of that summer.  It is worth therefore recalling, in unforgiving focus, some of what took place.

A Cabinet led by individuals with minimal security experience (and a prime minister and president now serving jail terms), and an IDF led by its first chief of staff from the Air Force set out for war with the Iranian proxy Hizballah organization on July 12th, 2006.

It is now evident that no coherent and achievable plan for the conduct of the war had been decided at the rushed and overheated Cabinet meeting that set it in motion.

This problematic, unprepared leadership was in turn commanding an army ill-suited for the war it would need to fight.

There were two reasons for the IDF’s state of unreadiness:

The first was practical: the 2006 war came immediately after an intensive five year period of counter-insurgency, in which the IDF was engaged against a large scale Palestinian uprising.  The demands of the Second Intifada left little time for training for conventional war.

The challenges faced by troops at that time were considerable. But they were mainly of a police-like nature, not employing or testing the specialized skills of front line military units in battlefield conditions.

This army in 2006 found itself facing a well armed, mobile enemy, on terrain which the Israeli side knew far less well than its foe.

The resulting difficulties were compounded by a second, conceptual issue.

The 2006 war was not the fight the army was expecting.  Chief of Staff Dan Halutz expected to spend his period at the IDF’s helm facing the key challenge of the Iranian nuclear program and focusing on ballistic missile defense.  Future wars, it was assumed, would be fought using air power, with small numbers of trained specialists on the ground.

As a result, resources had in preceding years been diverted from training the large, reserve land army.  It was assumed that this was a force unlikely to be used.

In 2006, some reserve armored formations, as a result, went into battle against Hizballah having taken part in only one training exercise using tanks in the previous half decade.  Full disclosure: I was a member of such a force.

These were the circumstances in which Israel went to war in 2006.

The war for the greater part of its duration consisted of limited ground operations by the IDF in an area adjoining the border, air operations up to Beirut, as well as a successfully maintained naval blockade; and on Hizballah’s side, defense of areas under ground attack and a successful effort to maintain throughout a constant barrage of short-range rockets on northern Israel.

A ceasefire came into effect at 8:00 a.m. on August 14, 2006, following the passing of UN Resolution 1701. The end of the fighting found some IDF forces deployed at the Litani River, but with Israel far from control of the entire area between the river and the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Looking back, it is clear that hesitant Israeli political leadership, and a lack of an overall plan for the war were the reason for its inconclusive results.  Had the IDF, even the poorly prepared force that entered the war of 2006, been presented with clear orders at an early stage to move forward into Lebanon, according to one of the available plans for achieving this, a less ambiguous result could have been achieved.  No such order was ever given.

Much public anger followed the war and its inconclusive results, as Hizballah and its friends in the west sought to build a narrative of ‘divine victory’ from the events.

From the perspective of a decade later, however, much of the euphoria of Hizballah and the despair on parts of the Israeli side seem exaggerated.  The results of the war from an Israeli perspective in 2016  are mixed.

The border has indeed been quieter since 2006 than at any time since the late 1960s.  This fact in itself says more about Hizballah’s true assessment following the damage suffered in 2006 than any al-Akhbar editorial excitedly proclaiming divine victory.

And of course Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah himself told a Lebanese TV channel shortly after the war  that had the movement known of the scale of the IDF response, Hizballah would have never have carried out the kidnappings which sparked the war.

At the same time, Resolution 1701, which was intended to keep the Shia Islamist movement north of the Litani has failed. Hizballah has built an extensive new infrastructure south of the river since 2006, under the noses of UNIFIL and often with the collusion of the Lebanese Armed Forces.  And Hizballah has vastly increased its rocket and missile capacity

In retrospect, 2006 was perhaps most significant  in  that it introduced a type of warfare and a type of force which has now proliferated across the region – namely, military entities which are neither regular armies nor guerrilla movements in the classic sense. Rather, they are potent combinations of the two.

These forces carry no state flag with them. Indeed, often they are stronger than the forces of the notional state on whose territory they operate. They possess neither air power, nor much in the way of armored or artillery or naval capacities.  Yet they operate not merely as guerrillas but rather as light infantry forces, holding ground and defending it, while making adept use of 21st century media to fight the propaganda battle.

Hizballah was the prototype of such a force, and it remains among the strongest of them.

But today, the entire landscape between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iraq-Iran border proliferates with groups of this type.  Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and Iraq’s Shia militias and even the Assad regime’s National Defence Force represent a variety of opposed causes and perspectives. But they are all hybrid forces, light infantries of varying quality, parallel entities to Hizballah.

This highlights perhaps the most central point regarding the 2006 war. In its aftermath, as Hizballah and Iran celebrated their divine victory, it appeared that the prospect was one of ongoing bloodletting between Israel and a regional alliance committed to its destruction, with Hizballah as the primary military instrument on the ground.

Today, that landscape has changed beyond recognition.  Hizballah and its Iranian patron are engaged in a region-wide war against the Sunni Arabs.  In Yemen, Iraq and above all Syria, the movement and its patron are up to their necks in an unending conflict.  Hizballah’s latest woes include fights between its members and Assad’s troops in the Aleppo area, and  the loss of around 1500 men in the morass of the Syrian war. For as long as this war continues, it seems likely that no repeat of 2006 is on the horizon. And even if it ends, the damage suffered in 2006 is likely to give Hizballah and its patron continued pause for thought.

What all this ultimately means is that we should be thankful for those who came before us.  Lebanon 2006 shows that even at a low point in terms of training and planning, led by an unsuitable chief of staff, with an inexperienced and as it turns out largely corrupt political leadership at the helm, Israel’s armed forces were still of sufficient quality to be capable of delivering a blow to a powerful enemy instructive enough to ensure a period of  subsequent silence, which lasts to this day.  Broader regional circumstances beyond the control of either Israelis or Lebanese Shias have certainly added to this effect.  The main question, though  – whether Israeli society and its armed forces have sufficiently internalized and acted on the lessons taught in the burning summer of 2006  – remains a subject of daily relevance to which a final answer can not yet be given.





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Sinking in the Syrian quagmire

Jerusalem Report, 8/6.

Hezbollah remains a powerful foe, but its claim to spearhead the Arab fight against Israel has been dented and its involvement in the Syrian civil war has cost it heavily


Speaking at a gathering in southern Lebanon last month, Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem reiterated the movement’s readiness for war with Israel. At the same time, the sheikh made clear that war this summer would not take place unless Israel initiates it. In his speech, Qassem, who is considered the chief ideologue of Hezbollah, recalled the “divine victory” of the movement, which brought about Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000. He asserted, in a reiteration of the movement’s “muqawama” or resistance doctrine, that the 2000 withdrawal had begun the period of Israel’s decline. This period, he suggested, will end with the Jewish state’s disappearance.

So far, so predictable. The latter point is classic Hezbollah rhetoric. The movement’s “resistance” doctrine inherited the old Pan-Arab and then Palestinian-nationalist viewpoint, according to which Israel’s physical strength was belied by an inner weakness that would ensure its eventual defeat.

But, this time, the rhetoric was being used to frame a rather pacifist message –  the supposedly weakened and doomed enemy would not be attacked unless Hezbollah was provoked.

As Qassem went on to develop his theme, the reason for this contradiction became clear. In a rather strained rhetorical jump, he exposed the current strategic dilemma Hezbollah faces What was the reason for the “divine victory” of 2000, he asked. Answering his own question, he declared: “We did not defeat Israel because of the rifle, but because we have educated our children against the international takfiris [apostates]. God gives us victory because of their faith, and today we are honored with the land, thanks to this belief.”

Hezbollah has a variety of not very flattering terms for Israelis and Jews. takfiris, however, is not one of them. Rather, it is a term favored by Shi’a Islamists for their Sunni jihadi enemies. It references the attempts of the latter to declare other non-Muslims apostates and implicitly links today’s Sunni jihadis with extremist sects in the early Islamic period, which normative Islam opposes.

With a rhetorical sleight of hand, Qassem was seeking to establish a sort of seamless link between the Zionist enemies who suffered the “Divine Victory” of 2000, and the takfiri (Sunni jihadi) enemies against whom the movement is mainly engaged today.

This link does not work in logical terms. But Qassem’s reasons for wanting to make it are nevertheless entirely understandable. How simple things must have seemed for Hezbollah only a decade ago. And how much more complicated now.

In the aftermath of the 33-day 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the movement and its Iranian backers appeared on the edge of a major strategic breakthrough. Established by Iran in the first years of the 1980s, Hezbollah was the prototype of the Shi’a political-military organizations through which Teheran has sought to advance its interests across the Middle East.

Hezbollah was the jewel in the crown of this array. It gave Iran entry to the Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamic cause of the war against Israel. In May 2000, the movement ended a long guerrilla insurgency with success as Israel ended its occupation of southern Lebanon. In the summer of 2006, a confused and flailing Israeli campaign could again be plausibly depicted as an achievement for Hezbollah and hence the cause of Teheran.

The tactical goals, of course, were the departure of Israel from south Lebanon before 2000, and the preservation of the movement’s ability to continue to strike at Israel in 2006. Strategically, however, these events had a greater significance.

Following the 2006 war, the popularity of Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah soared, according to all available measures. The 2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll, conducted at the very height of Hezbollah’s prestige in early 2008, found that 26 percent of respondents cited the Hezbollah leader as the most-valued world leader outside of their own country. President Bashar Assad of Syria was second at 16%. The latter’s increased popularity was also almost certainly due to his close association with Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s perceived achievements appeared to justify the long Iranian investment in the movement. If the Palestinian cause was the way to the hearts of the Arabs (even for a Shi’a, non-Arab power like Iran), and if Arab support was essential for Iran’s goal of regional leadership, the strategy of using Hezbollah as a generator of legitimacy appeared to be paying dividends.

Hezbollah’s growing strength was significant in other ways. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq had the inadvertent effect of turning the country over to the country’s Shi’a-Arab majority. The Iranians offered active support to Shi’a insurgency against western occupation from the beginning. Groups such as the Badr Organization and Ktaeb Hezbollah followed the, by now, well-known formula of combining political and military activity to serve the local Shi’a and Iranian interest.

The rise of Shi’a dominance of Iraq raised the possibility of the emergence of a contiguous line of pro-Iranian states stretching through Iraq to Syria and thence Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. The achievement of this situation would give Teheran domination of a great swathe of the heartland of the Arab Middle East, access to the Mediterranean, and a direct, contiguous route to the frontline with Israel.

In the feverish period following the 2006 war with Israel, such a prospect appeared within reach. The Lebanese Hezbollah was set to play a starring role in this production –as the exemplar to the Arabs that Iranian methods produced victories against the Jews, and hence as the factor that would trump anti-Shi’a and anti-Persian sentiments.

Then, almost imperceptibly at first, things began to go awry. They did so, predictably, along the lines of the sectarian fault line.

In May, 2008, Hezbollah turned its hard power against its local Sunni rivals. Since the Syrian withdrawal under pressure from Lebanon in 2005, a contest had been under way for the country’s future. Facing the armed camp of Hezbollah and its allies was a Sunni-led, pro-western alliance called March 14. In May 2008, Hezbollah reacted with force to an attempt by the then March 14-led government to restrict the autonomy of the movement’s independent security infrastructure in Lebanon.

In a matter of days, Hezbollah and its Amal allies took over West Beirut, delivering a clear, hard power message to their pro-western rivals that no attempt to brook their authority would be tolerated.

Hezbollah’s force could not be resisted. But the movement’s claim to represent a Pan-Islamic and Pan-Arab spearhead against Israel and the West suffered a severe dent. In the 2010 version of the Arab Public Opinion Poll, Nasrallah’s popularity had shrunk from 26% to 9%, a year before the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

It is, of course, the events in Syria, and the wider emergence of sectarian conflict and rivalry as the key dynamic of the current Middle East that has brought Hezbollah to the confusing impasse at which it now finds itself – of which Qassem’s latest speech is an exemplar.

Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was born out of dire necessity. Had Assad fallen, both the movement itself and the Iran-led regional bloc of which it is a part would have faced disaster. Syria, after a rebel victory, would have been ruled by its Sunni majority and aligned with Sunni regional powers. Such an outcome would have left Hezbollah isolated on the Mediterranean, cut off from any hinterland and from any possibility of resupply by the Iranians in the event of war. For Iran, Assad’s fall would have meant the end of any hope of a contiguous link to the Mediterranean or the chance to intervene forcefully against Israel via Hezbollah.

Therefore, Teheran, and its client, were determined to prevent this. Furthermore, the specific difficulty Assad faced was one Hezbollah was uniquely well placed to help remedy.

Assad, in Russia and Iran, had capable and supportive allies who were prepared in the Russian case to support him diplomatically and sell him arms, and in the Iranian case to provide money and expert advice.

Neither state, however, was willing to address the issue of most pressing concern to Assad – namely, the absence of determined and capable infantry in sufficient numbers willing to engage on his behalf. On paper, Assad possessed an army, when fully mobilized, of 510,000 soldiers. In practice, he was unable to mobilize a large part of this force. Sectarian considerations (the army, like the population, was overwhelmingly Sunni Arab in composition), meant he could not trust a large part of it.

As this problem grew more acute in the course of 2012, so Iran elected to mobilize its regional proxies to assist Assad. Hezbollah, by far the ablest of Teheran’s clients and also the one with the greatest interest in seeing Assad survive, played a vital role in this mobilization.

According to a US Treasury designation dated August 2012, Hezbollah had by that time “directly trained Syrian government personnel inside Syria and has facilitated the training of Syrian forces by Iran’s terrorist arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ‒ Qods Force (IRGC-QF). Hezbollah also has played a substantial role in efforts to expel Syrian opposition forces from areas within Syria.”

In the course of 2013, Hezbollah’s role in Syria increased dramatically. Fighters of the movement began to play a direct role in combat. Hezbollah also took responsibility for training a new, largely Alawi paramilitary force, the National Defense Forces, which would play a crucial role in filling the gap caused by the regime’s lack of reliable infantry in sufficient numbers.

In April 2013, Hezbollah took primary responsibility for a vital ground operation in central Syria – the taking of al-Qusayr, a mainly Sunni town in Homs province close to the Lebanese border. Around 1,700 fighters took part in the operation, which saw Hezbollah for the first time taking part in urban combat on a large scale. The rebels withdrew from al-Qusayr some two months later. Hezbollah’s victory was costly, however. Around 200 fighters died in the course of the operation.

The movement also played a vital role in fighting in Aleppo province, in the Damascus area and in the Homs province at this time. The increasingly direct involvement came with a heavy price. Senior commanders and veteran fighters such as Ali Fayad and Mustafa Badreddine were killed in Syria. More than 1,000 Hezbollah men have died in Syria.

Hezbollah fighters played a vital role in the reconquest of the Qalamoun mountains area, and later in the regime offensive in Latakia and Idleb provinces in late 2015.

Aware of the difficulties to its image resulting from its being engaged in a war against fellow Muslims, Hezbollah sought to justify its involvement in various ways. For a while, the supposed need to protect the shrine of Saida Zeinab in Damascus from the destructive attentions of Sunni Salafis (who regard all such shrines as unIslamic) was stressed. Subsequently, Hezbollah has tended to frame its engagement in terms of the need to protect Lebanon from the threat of the takfiris by engaging them in Syria.

As of now, Hezbollah remains fully committed to the regime effort in Syria. Around 6,000 fighters of the movement are deployed in the country at any given time. With the Geneva negotiations stalled, the Syrian war appears to be nowhere close to conclusion. This means that Syria looks set to be Hezbollah’s main focus for a considerable period to come. The pro-Iranian camp of which Hezbollah is a part remains centrally committed to the survival of the Assad regime.

The problem is that while they are sufficiently strong to prevent Assad’s destruction, they do not appear to be able to deliver the rebellion against him a final defeat.

So Hezbollah fighters will be needed to fight the takfiris in Syria for the foreseeable future. The martyrs’ funerals will continue. The faces of ever younger men killed in Syria will continue to appear on the movement’s posters in the villages of south Lebanon.

For the movement, all this has a number of implications, most of them not positive.

Firstly, while Hezbollah remains dominant in Lebanon, the role it is playing in Syria has effectively put an end to its strategic function as a generator of legitimacy for its patron, Iran.

Hezbollah is now seen throughout the Arab world as a Shi’a sectarian force, engaged mainly in the killing of Sunnis. For as long as the Syrian war continues, it will be impossible for Hezbollah to shake this image. There are also indications of growing discontent even among Hezbollah’s own Lebanese Shi’a community at the seemingly endless bloodletting in Syria and the movement’s role in it.

Secondly, for as long as the movement remains committed in Syria, aggression against Israel is unlikely.

Hezbollah has rearmed and expanded since the war of 2006, and Israeli planners consider that it now possesses as many as 150,000 rockets and missiles. But with so many fighters committed to essential tasks in Syria, opening a second front against a vastly more powerful enemy than the Syrian rebels is likely to be a luxury neither Hezbollah nor its Iranian patron can afford.

Thirdly, Hezbollah’s ability to retaliate for actions against it also may be limited because of its desire to avoid entering major confrontation with Israel. A number of prominent movement members have been killed over the last couple of years including Hassan Lakkis, Samir Kuntar, Jihad Mughniyeh and, most recently, Badreddine. In all but the most recent of these killings (Badreddine’s), Hezbollah blamed Israel.

But the movement’s retaliations, when they have come, have been small scale. Once again, the modest nature of Hezbollah’s counterstrikes probably derives from a desire not to risk open confrontation with Israel at a time when the movement is engaged in Syria.

Hezbollah’s predicament reflects the broader situation of the Iran-led regional bloc. In terms of hard power, the Iranians and their allies are doing passably well across the current strife-filled Middle East. They have not yet won any of the conflicts in which they are engaged (in Yemen, Iraq and Syria), but the Iranian client in each of these contexts is not close to defeat.

But, Iran today constitutes, and is seen to constitute, one side in a Shi’a-Sunni sectarian war.

As of now, the Iranians appear unable to develop strong alliances outside of the Shi’a communities of the Arab world. But the region cannot be dominated through the Shi’a alone.

If the Iranians once hoped to use Hezbollah and its fight against Israel as a way to generate legitimacy among non-Shi’a Arab populations, as of now Hezbollah itself is seen by Sunnis as an alien, sectarian and hostile force. When forced to choose between the imperative of preserving the Assad regime, and the ambition to be seen as a Pan-Islamic force, the Iranians, and hence their clients, unsurprisingly chose to favor immediate material interests over broader strategic goals.

The result of all this is that Hezbollah today faces the prospect of continued involvement in the mincing machine of the Syrian war, hemorrhaging personnel and legitimacy (though gaining, of course, experience and expertise). For as long as this situation pertains, one may expect Hezbollah leaders to continue in their speeches to recall distant “victories” against Israel, and to seek to clothe their current struggle against Sunnis in the finery of the previous war.

The present phase will not necessarily last forever, of course, and Hezbollah remains by far the most formidable non-state military actor facing Israel. But Hezbollah’s Pan-Islamic “resistance” narrative may be numbered among the casualties of the Syrian civil war.

The grinding conflict to Israel’s north has conclusively laid bare the stark sectarian realities underlying political loyalties in the Middle East. Hezbollah, as a result of the Syrian war, is now exposed before all as what it always was: namely, a sectarian Shi’a Islamist proxy of Iran – neither more nor less.


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Black Banner at the gates of Europe

The Islamic State Comes to Libya

Jerusalem Post, 29/4

At a meeting of G5 world leaders in Hanover, Germany this week, a proposal was raised for US warships to join vessels of EU navies off the coast of Libya.  Their mission would be to help slow the flow of migrants from Africa. They would also be responsible for guarding the southern tip of Europe from seaborne terror attacks.  Such a notion, unimaginable a few years ago, is now very much on the range of possibilities.

British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond this week, noted that his government did nor ‘rule out’ the possibility of a ground forces deployment into Libya, to combat the threat of IS.

What is the reason for the renewed focus on troubled Libya?

The short answer is that an area of de facto Islamic State sovereignty now exists on an area of the Libyan coast, situated just 320 km  from the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost point of Italian sovereignty in the Mediterranean.

That is to say, the Islamic State – in sovereign form, not merely as an idea – is now separated by only a relatively narrow stretch of water from the southern tip of Europe.

IS controls an area of around 200km around the north-central city of Sirte on the Libyan coast.  In addition to opening the gateway to Europe, this area gives the jihadis access to sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb.

Sirte is no dusty backwater.  It has an extensive infrastructure, including a seaport, and an international airport,

It is also adjacent to two sites vital to the oil industry on which Libya relies –  the Sidr oil port and the refinery at Ras Lanuff.

Libya is an area in which central government has broken down – the type of space in which Islamic State naturally flourishes.  An agreement for a new, countrywide government was reached in December and a new government announced on January 19th. This was intended to replace a situation in which two separate administrations nominally held power – an officially recognized government in Tobruk and a de facto Islamist authority in Tripoli, the capital.  The IS holding in Sirte is situated between the two.

But the new government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has not been recognized by the parliament in Tobruk. And more importantly, it lacks the physical resources to impose its will throughout the country.

Hence, Libya – along with Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, is a state which has effectively ceased to function.

The difference is that Libya combines the perfect storm of proximity to Europe, jihadi control of a section of the coastline, and closeness to sub-Saharan Africa, with its limitless supplies of migrants.  French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian estimated in a statement to Agence France Presse this week that around 800,000 would be migrants are currently concentrated in Libya. 

All this is serving to concentrate the minds of western policymakers.

As IS prepares to expand toward areas vital for the Libyan oil industry on which the country depends, the issue becomes more urgent.

The organization has ambitions to push out its area of control to both east and west. Its immediate targets are the city of Misrata, halfway between Sirte and Tripoli, and Ajdabiya to the east.

Western forces are already present and assisting in the effort to prevent this.  In late February, US special forces carried out a raid on the town of Sabratha, in which 40 IS men were killed.

Reports have appeared in the British and French media concerning the presence of special forces soldiers also from both these countries close to the IS holding in Sirte.  British and French aircraft are carrying out reconnaissance missions over Sirte.  Le Monde described what it termed a ‘secret war’ being conducted by French intelligence and special forces personnel against IS on Libyan soil.

The strategy at present appears to resemble that being employed in Syria and Iraq.  Namely – use air power to partner with local allies identified by intelligence and bolstered by the discreet presence of western special forces.

The entities surrounding IS on Libyan soil are of course far from helpless.  And the jihadis have only around 6000 fighters.  So the prospects for a rapid expansion remain limited.  Nevertheless, the potential for severe disruption of European life represented by an IS entity at the gates of the continent should not be underestimated.

From a European point of view, the nightmare scenario is not only the flow of migrants itself, nor the chance of IS attacks from the sea.

Rather, the combination of the two – the prospect whereby IS will seek to infiltrate fighters and organizers into the continent by way of the flow of migrants is what keeps European security officials awake at night.

It is no longer a theoretical possibility.  Najim Lachraoui, one of the suicide bombers in the attack on Brussels Airport on March 22, 2016, was able to return to Europe from Syria by posing as a migrant.  Lachraoui was Belgian-born but had travelled to Syria to volunteer with Islamic State.

The latest statements from western officials suggest that they appear to be waking up to the extent of the challenge.  The nature and extent of their response remains to be seen.

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The Changing ISIS Threat

The Australian, 23/4

Islamic State loses ground in Iraq and Syria, advances in Libya

The reconquest by the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad of the town of Qaryatayn from Islamic State this month is the latest indication of the declining fortunes of the extremist organisation in Iraq and Syria, following the loss of Palmyra in late March.

Facing determined enemies on three fronts, the Sunni jihadis would appear to be adopting a policy of tactical retreat to preserve their forces for the vital battles to come. As Islamic State holdings in Iraq and Syria contract, the organisation is seeking to maintain its image and momentum by focusing on gains on other fronts.

Islamic State’s slogan is baqiya wa tatamaddad (remaining and expanding). But in its home grounds, Islamic State is no longer expanding. The prospect of its eclipse there is visible, though still distant, on the horizon. Elsewhere, most notably in Libya, Islamic State is still moving forward.

Islamic State was never solely, or mainly, a ramshackle de facto governing authority in the badlands of western Iraq and eastern Syria. Had it been so, it almost certainly would have been left in place, just one florid example of brutal and dysfunctional governance in a neighbourhood where dictatorship is the norm.

Such a bargain would not have suited the Iraqi jihadis at the head of the organisation. They are not in business to rule a small and dusty emirate. Rather, they are deadly serious regarding the task of their caliphate: war against the non-Islamic world until the latter is defeated. More pragmatically, the sense of forward momentum is necessary to keep the foreign volunteers coming and the monetary contributions flowing.

For Islamic State, focus on other fronts means two things.

The first is increased efforts to engage in international terrorism. The bloody attacks on Brussels airport and Maalbeek metro station on March 22 were the latest events in a discernible trend to offset defeats in the Levant by staging terrorist actions farther afield. The second is heightened efforts to expand territorial holdings in areas other than Iraq and Syria. The movement’s holding in Libya is emerging as a place of concern.

As Islamic State’s territorial holdings continue to be whittled away, it is likely to attempt further international terrorist attacks.

Preparations for the retaking of Mosul city are under way. The Iraqi army is cutting supply lines to the city from Salah al-Din and Anbar provinces. Three army divisions have been moved to the Mosul area. Mosul, with more than a million inhabitants, will be a tough target to take. But the outcome of the war is clear and it is against the jihadis. The consequent need for vigilance, communication and co-operation between the security services of the democratic world has never been higher.

Regarding the second issue, Islamic State claims authority over eight “provinces” in addition to its area of control straddling Iraq and Syria. The eight areas in question are in Sinai, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the north Caucasus and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.

These areas vary greatly in size and importance, and in the extent of control that Islamic State has over them. In some cases, such as the “provinces” of Saudi Arabia and Algeria, the term means relatively little. Both these areas are ruled by powerful states with strong security agencies. The groups in question have carried out terror attacks. But they are seen more properly as organisations supporting Islamic State rather than entities in control of territory analogous to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria itself. However, in areas where, as in Iraq and Syria, the state has lost control over territory, the threat represented by Islamic State “prov­inces” is of a more substantial nature. It is in these lawless and ungoverned or poorly governed spaces that a repeat of the Iraqi and Syrian experiences and the emergence of new de facto jihadi sovereignties is most possible.

Some of the countries listed above fit this description. But it is in Libya that Islamic State has made the most progress. In other areas, various factors have stymied the growth of Islamic State, but these factors are absent in Libya.

In Yemen, Islamic State declared its wilayah (province) in November 2014. Its growth and activity, however, have been hampered by the presence in that country of a strong rival Salafi jihadi organisation. This is the branch of the core al-Qa’ida leadership in Yemen, known as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP denounced the formation of Islamic State province in Yemen and its presence has limited the ability of Islamic State to grow.

Nevertheless the latter has carried out several attacks. These include suicide bombings in two Shia mosques in March last year and the murder by crucifixion of a Christian priest last month.

In northern Sinai, the former Ansar Bait al-Makdis organisation, now called Wilayat al-Sina (Sinai Province), is engaged in an insurgency against Egyptian security forces. The group also has vowed to carry out attacks against Israeli targets across the border. Wilayat al-Sina claimed responsibility for the downing of Russian Metrojet flight 9268. But the insurgency appears to be contained within Sinai, ongoing but with little likelihood of spreading into Egypt proper.

Libya is different. The importance of the Islamic State holding there derives from its location and the number of fighters under Islamic State command in the area.

Islamic State controls an area of about 200km around the city of Sirte on the Libyan coast. The greater part of this area was secured last year against the backdrop of Islamic State setbacks in Iraq and Syria, and general chaos in Libya. The location of Sirte offers the possibility for Islamic State of infiltration into Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb. Sirte was the birthplace of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It has extensive infrastructure, including an international airport, a seaport and oil installations.

Islamic State is thought to have about 4000 to 5000 fighters in Sirte, and is recruiting African migrants making their way to the coast. The movement also derives the depth of its support in the Sirte area from the loyalty of tribesmen Clearly, the goal is to seek to replicate the model for success in Iraq and Syria: once a territorial base is established, a military force can be built up that can be used aggressively to expand the holding.

Islamic State achieved its greatest successes this way, when its forces swept from eastern Syria into Iraq in 2014. In Libya, as in these countries, central government effectively has collapsed and the country is in a state of civil war. Two rival governments vie for power: an internationally recognised authority in Tobruk in the east and an Islamist de facto power in the capital, Tripoli, in the west.

The Islamic State area of control is situated between the two. The organisation hopes to expand east and west. Its immediate targets are the city of Misrata, halfway between Sirte and Tripoli, and Ajdabiya to the east, near the Sidr oil port and the refinery at Ras Lanuff. Notably, Islamic State propaganda has begun to place increased stress on its Libyan holding. New recruits are being encouraged to head for this area rather than for the Levant. Some prominent commanders of the movement are reported to have relocated to Libya, too.

Islamic State was able to take Sirte last year because it faced little resistance. The local tribes were largely affiliated with the Gaddafi regime and had little reason for loyalty to either of the administrations in the country. Indeed, Islamic State may serve a purpose as a new structure of loyalty and protection for them, analogous to the process in which Sunni former loyalists of the Saddam regime found a home with Islamic State in Iraq.

For a while, both Libyan governments and the West appeared content to let Islamic State fester in its small desert domain. The Tripoli and Tobruk governments are mainly concerned with ruling their own areas rather than striking out against one another. However, as Islamic State prepares to expand towards areas vital for the Libyan oil industry, the issue becomes more urgent and has begun to appear on the radar screens of European policymakers.

In February, US special forces carried out a raid on the town of Sabratha in which 40 Islamic State men were killed. Reports have appeared in the British and French media concerning the presence of special forces from both countries close to Islamic State’s holding in Sirte. British and French aircraft are carrying out reconnaissance missions over Sirte. Le Monde described what it termed a “secret war” being conducted by French intelligence and special forces personnel against Islamic State on Libyan soil.

At the same time, there appears to be no prospect of a large-scale involvement of Western forces on the ground to vanquish Islamic State in Libya. Rather, the strategy appears to resemble that employed in Syria and Iraq: namely, use air power to partner with local allies identified by intelligence and bolstered by the discreet presence of Western special forces.

Attempts to bring together the two rival administrations in Libya are ongoing but have run aground. An agreement reached for a unity government on December 17 remains unimplemented.

At the same time, the two governing entities with their Western support are far from helpless, and Islamic State, with its 5000 fighters, is far from invincible. This means the Islamic State enclave is unlikely to score major territorial advances. But it is also unlikely to disappear.

Ultimately, Islamic State is part of a much broader problem: the collapse and fragmentation of several formerly centralised Arab states. It grows and flourishes in the environments left by this collapse. Will McCants, an expert on Islamic State and Sunni Islamism recently said more generally that the record suggested such movements tended to overreach themselves. Their inability to accept a limited role leads to their enemies uniting to destroy them.

This may well be the final fate to be suffered by Islamic State. In the interim period, however, it remains powerful and dangerous.

Where Arab states have collapsed, the bodies that rise up to compete within the ruins tend to be political-military organisations, usually organised on a sectarian, religious, ethnic or tribal basis. Islamic State is an example of this phenomenon. It is a particularly virulent and malignant strain of a much broader malady.

Ultimately, perhaps, only new definitions of civic loyalty and citizenship will serve to transform this process. In the interim period, violent dysfunction and the need for Western and regional states to defend adequately against it are likely to remain.

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Ready for the Storm

Jerusalem Post, 15/4

War in Syria – and Israeli efforts to ensure it does not spread to the Golan, West Bank – set to continue

The fragile cease-fire declared in Syria on February 27 between regime and rebel forces is in the process of crumbling. Assad’s forces have launched an offensive across southern Aleppo province. Fighting is also taking place in Homs and northwest Hama provinces and east of Damascus. There are reports of regime forces massing for an assault on rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo city.

The cease-fire, in any case, applied to only one of the many conflicts taking place in Syria. It did not extend to the war between Islamic State and the Western-supported, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. It did not include the fight between Islamic State and other rebel and Sunni Islamist groups. Nor did it apply to the intermittent fighting between the Kurdish YPG and the rebels, or the Kurds and the regime.

From Israel’s point of view, the resumption of hostilities in Syria will come as no surprise. Nor will it change the basic Israeli calculus regarding events in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week for the first time acknowledged openly that Israel has engaged in air action to interdict the transfer of sophisticated weapons systems from Syrian soil to Hezbollah in Lebanon. “We act when we need to act, including here, across the border, with dozens of strikes meant to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weaponry,” Netanyahu said during a visit to military units on the Golan Heights.

Action of this kind has been widely reported in global media. The prime minister’s confirmation will thus surprise few Syria watchers in terms of its content. But Netanyahu’s decision to openly admit this action nevertheless represents a departure from the usual Israeli practice with regard to Syria.

Israeli determination to prevent Iranian and regime arms transfers to Hezbollah is an element of the broader Israeli view according to which the Iran-led regional bloc constitutes the key strategic threat to the Jewish state.

This does not mean that Israel is indifferent to the potential threat represented by the flourishing of Sunni jihadi forces, including Islamic State, close to the border. But because of the higher level of organization and far more sophisticated capabilities of the Iran-supported elements, preventing their advance is considered paramount.

This view also informs Israel’s other area of vital concern regarding Syria – namely, the question of which forces are located immediately east of Quneitra crossing, facing the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights; and no less importantly, who controls the area of Deraa province facing Jordan.

At present, the map of clashing forces in this area is complex.

In terms of who controls what, the non-Islamic State rebels control the greater part of the area immediately adjoining the Israeli-controlled Golan. But both the regime and Islamic State are also present in the area. Regime forces control a small enclave at the northern edge of the borderline around the town of Beit Jinn. Further south, regime-supporting forces control the Druse village of Khader, just east of Quneitra.

An Islamic State franchise, the Shuhada al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs’) Brigade, meanwhile, holds an area at the southern edge of the borderline, from the town of Tasil down to the Jordanian border.

Further east, the regime late last year succeeded in cutting and holding a line between rebel forces in Deraa province, and this division of forces remains.

Against the background of the cease-fire between the rebels and the regime, fighting between Islamic State and the rebels is taking place east of the border with Israel. Shuhada al-Yarmouk is being supported by an additional jihadi militia, Harakat al-Muthanna, which has yet to formally align itself with Islamic State.

On the rebel side, both Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, powerful jihadi militias, are present. Fighting Islamic State alongside them are the Western- and Jordanian-supported forces of the Southern Front.

So there are three elements engaged in the war in southern Syria: regime/Iran associated forces, Islamic State-associated groups, and rebel groups of both Islamist and non-Islamist stripes.

In this three-way contest, Israel has no friends. But it prefers to ensure that the rebels remain dominant in the areas of concern.
What is the nature of the Iranian threat here?

First and most obviously, Israeli officials consider that Iran and its allies wish to establish a second platform, in addition to the Israel-Lebanon border, from which strikes could be launched against Israeli communities.

But an additional consideration exists. The Iranians want to foment renewed insurgency in the West Bank against Israel. Achieving a capacity to transfer weapons to that area via Jordan forms an essential element of that strategy. In turn, controlling the area adjoining the Syrian-Jordanian border in Deraa province is crucial for the realization of this plan.

So it is a joint Israeli-Jordanian interest to ensure that this does not take place. Since neither country wishes to insert ground forces in large numbers into Syria, the buffer needs to come from carefully selected and supported rebel groups. Of course, such groups play the additional role of blocking or reducing Islamic State access to the border.

This reflects the interconnectedness of events in the region, but also the overriding Israeli interest, of which all these elements form a part. Namely, the determination to keep the military, political and ideological storms that are consuming all before them in the surrounding area from spreading into Israel itself.

Since the collapse of the cease-fire indicates that these storms appear nowhere close to exhaustion, the efforts to ensure their containment through both acknowledged and unacknowledged means are likely to continue.

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