‘Second Turkish Republic’ looks east

Jerusalem Post, 15/9

 

Turkey this week announced its purchase of the S-400 anti aircraft missile system from Russia.  The deal,  according to western media reports, is worth $2.5 billion.   Turkish President Recep Tayep Erdogan told Turkish media that the first deposit on the system has already been paid.  The S-400, which has a range of 400 km and can down 80 targets simultaneously,  is widely considered to be the world’s most advanced air defense system at the present time.

This surprise  development is the latest milestone in Ankara’s ongoing drift in recent years away from its traditional strategic  position in the region as a NATO and US ally.  The recent visit of Iranian chief of staff Mohammed Hossein Bagheri to Ankara, accompanied by a large military delegation, was an additional recent indicator of the direction of events. This was the first such visit since the Iranian revolution of 1979.  Turkey’s close involvement in the Russian-brokered Astana diplomatic process regarding Syria reflects this trend,  as does the signing in Moscow in mid-August of a contract between the Turkish Unit International company, Russia’s state-owned Zarubezhneft and Ithe Iranian Ghadir Investment Holding for the joint development of three oilfields and a large natural gas field in Iran.

So what are the factors underlying Turkey’s re-positioning  away from the west and towards its enemies and adversaries?  The explanation lies in three areas: Turkey’s perceived immediate interests, the eclipse of its hopes for the region in recent years, and the long term internal direction of Turkish society and politics.

Regarding the first issue, Turkish concerns at the growing Kurdish power in Syria and Iraq bring it closer to Iran’s agenda and further from that of the west.  Ankara has anxiously watched the rise of the Syrian Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) in recent years in northern Syria. The party is an affiliate of the same Kurdish movement as the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), which has been engaged in an insurgency against Turkey and for greater Kurdish rights since 1984.  The Syrian Kurds are now ruling over the greater part of the 911 kilometer border between Syria and Turkey. Only a Turkish military intervention in August, 2016 prevented their probable acquisition of the entirety of the border.

Yet more disconcertingly from the Turkish point of view, the Syrian Kurds are today engaged in a flourishing military alliance with the United States and the western coalition in the war against ISIS in Syria.   From tentative beginnings in the urgent days of late 2014, the Pentagon-organized cooperation between the Kurdish YPG and US air power and special forces has turned into a doggedly effective military blunt instrument, which is currently destroying ISIS in the capital of its dying ‘Caliphate,’ in Raqqa city.

The Turks have looked on disconcertedly and helplessly as this alliance has grown. Their own attempts in early 2017 to propose an alternative partnership between the US and Turkey’s Syrian rebel clients foundered on the low military abilities of the latter and the lack of a clear dividing line between the rebels and Sunni jihadi extremists in northern Syria.

So Turkish prioritization of the need to contain and turn back Kurdish achievements in Syria, as well as its staunch opposition to the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, bring it into line with Iran’s agenda in these countries, and against that of the west.  The west also does not support Iraqi Kurdish moves toward independence, but its level of hostility to this and its determination to prevent it fall short of those of Teheran.

In the past, Ankara and Teheran’s joint opposition to Kurdish aspirations did not lead to improved relations between them, because they found themselves on opposite sides of the war between the Assad regime and the Sunni Arab rebellion against it.  Similarly, this placed Ankara at loggerheads with Moscow.

But this restraining factor no longer applies.  The Sunni Islamist regional project that placed Turkey on a collision course with Iran and Russia has for the moment at least largely been eclipsed.

Once, it was common among Israeli strategists to count among the region’s alliances a group of countries and movements   broadly aligned with Muslim Brotherhood style Sunni political Islam. This emergent power bloc was a product of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts of the post 2010 period.  At its high point in 2012, the crystallizing alliance consisted of Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, Tunisia and Hamas-controlled Gaza.   Ankara and the others hoped that the Sunni Arab rebels would swiftly destroy the Assad regime and create an additional conservative Sunni Islamist regime.

This didn’t happen.   The Sunni Islamic revolutionary energies of 2010-2012 are now largely spent.  There is little to show for them.  Egypt is back in the hands of its army. Tunisia is ruled by a coalition government dominated by non-Islamists. Hamas is trying to rebuild its alliance with Iran. Qatar is facing a counter attack from the UAE and Saudi Arabia because of its stances.  And the Syrian Sunni Arab rebels have no further chance of victory and are currently fighting for survival.

Turkey emerges from all this as a major loser.  It had hoped to ride the wave of Sunni grassroots revolt to a position of regional dominance. (It also in the initial phase flirted with  the more radical jihadis of Nusra and ISIS in Syria). But the wave has spent itself.  There is nothing to be gained from further support for the destruction of Assad, which will not happen. This clears the way for rapprochement between Iran, Turkey and Russia, through which Ankara will hope to thwart or contain Kurdish gains.

At the same time, the latest evidence suggests that Turkey will seek to use Russian mediation to prevent the total defeat and eclipse of the Sunni rebels.  This is a matter both of Turkey’s Sunni identity and of a simple desire to avoid the humiliation of witnessing the destruction of its clients.

The final element underlying Turkey’s drift away from the west relates to internal matters.  Erdogan is in the process of dismantling much of Turkey’s republican societal model, and is building in its place an Islamist society.  40,000 people have been jailed since the failed ‘coup’ of July 15, 2016. A state of emergency remains in place.  The free media has been silenced, legal immunity for members of parliament removed, journalists and academics arrested.

This new Islamic Turkey will not find its natural home in alliance with the United States and the west, (still less with Israel, of course.) So there should be no surprise at the sea changes under way in Ankara’s regional and global orientation.

Turkey is too big, and too Sunni to ever become a charter member of the Iran-led regional bloc.  There remain sharp differences with Teheran over the future of Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq.  But all those still entertaining hopes for a return to Turkey’s status as a bulwark of western security in the Mid-East should revise their analysis. The emergent evidence points in a single direction.  The second Turkish republic is on its way – and its face will be turned toward the east.

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In the Land of the Trident: the Ukraine War and the Jews

Jerusalem Report, August,2017.

Ukraine is a territory saturated in Jewish memory.  Memory both tragic and sublime.  In every field of endeavor –  religious thought,  Zionist and socialist politics, art, music, military affairs, science, Jews from the territory on which the modern Ukrainian state is located have registered outstanding achievement.  It is the birthplace of Rabbi Yisrael Ben-Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov,  founder of Hasidic Judaism, who grew up near Kameniec in what is now western Ukraine.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement,  was born in Miedzyboz in central Ukraine.  Chaim Nachman Bialik, the poet laureate of modern Hebrew literature, born in Zhitomir, in north central Ukraine.  Goldie Meyerson, who became Prime Minister Golda Meir, born in Kiev.  Moshe Dayan, famed fighter and commander, and the son of Shmuel Dayan, who came from Zhashkiv, in the Cherkassy region, central Ukraine.  Isaac Babel, one of the foremost Soviet novelists of the mid-20th century, whose ‘Red Cavalry Tales’ remains a classic of 20th century Russian literature, from Odessa.  Leon Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, architect of the Russian revolution and founder of the Red Army, from Yanovka, in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky,  father of Revisionist Zionism, from Odessa.  Solomon Rabinovitch, better known as Sholem  Aleichem, from Pereyaslav, in the Kiev governorate.  And so on.  The area has played host to an astonishing gathering of Jewish creative energies.

It is also prominent among the lands of destruction.   Ukraine is the land of Bohdan Khmielnitsky, whose statue stands outside St. Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kiev,  on his horse and brandishing his famous rhino horn mace, whose Cossack rebels butchered 100,000 Jews in a 17th century uprising.  It is the land of Simon Petlyura, whose fighters followed a similar murderous path during the chaotic period following the Russian revolution of 1917.  And, of course, it is the land of the ‘Holocaust of bullets,’  of the mobile killing squads who followed the German armies as they swept through Ukraine in the summer and autumn of 1941, systematically slaughtering Jewish populations in the verdant ravines and forests that characterize the country’s landscape. Until 1.5 million were dead.

So Ukraine is filled with Jewish ghosts, its soil with Jewish blood.  But there is Jewish life here too.  Estimates of the precise Jewish population vary widely. The European Jewish Congress claims that 360-400,000 Jews live in in Ukraine, which would make it the 5th largest Jewish community in the world.  Other estimates place the number as low as 60,000. Since 2014, Ukraine has been embroiled in renewed strife and conflict. In August, 2017, this reporter visited the country, with the intention of taking a deeper look at the impact of this new war on its remaining Jews.

War Returns to Ukraine

In summer, Kiev is a charming city,  filled with cafes and light. But the peaceful  atmosphere is deceptive.  History has not departed. Ukraine  has been shaken in recent years once again – by revolution, and its handmaiden, war.

The ‘Euromaidan’ revolution toppled the pro-Russian government of President Victor Yanukovych in March, 2014.  Yanukovych’s departure was followed by the Russian seizure of Crimea, and then the outbreak of a Russian-supported ,separatist insurgency in the Donbass – the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.  The ill-equipped, rusty Ukrainian forces moved to crush the insurgency, but were then met by the entry of conventional Russian troops in August.  The Ukrainians suffered bloody setbacks in the battles of Iovitsk and Debaltseve, before a ceasefire agreement was signed in Minsk on February 11, 2015.

The war is not over, and the issues that led to its outbreak have not been resolved.   Today, the Ukrainians and their Russian enemies face one another along a static 400 kilometer front line.  Observers from the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitor the ceasefire.  This reporter spent several days in the warzone of eastern Ukraine, and shooting across the lines is a nightly occurrence.  Not just rifles.  RPG, self propelled grenades and machine guns too.  10,090 people have died in this largely forgotten conflict over the last three years.  Over 2 million people have been made homeless.

A Soldier of the Ukrainian Army’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade, Avdiivka, August, 2017.

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The war has impacted on Ukraine’s Jewish community in two central ways.  Firstly, Jews resident in eastern Ukraine have suffered the direct physical effects of the fighting.  Most of Donetsk and Luhansk’s Jews fled westwards as the frontlines approached their homes in 2014.  The provisions offered by the Ukrainian authorities to those made homeless by the war are minimal.  Efforts are ongoing by a variety of Jewish organizations to provide for those Ukrainian Jews made refugees by the events.

The second impact is a little less tangible.   The war of 2014 was an important moment in the ongoing development of national identity in independent Ukraine.  This is a complex and sometimes fraught business, and Ukraine’s Jews re part of it, whether they like it or not.  Ukraine remains divided between pro-western and pro-Russian forces.  Both of these broad camps contain fringe elements that are hostile to the Jews.  On the pro-Russian side, neo-Nazi groups such as Russian National Unity and a number of Cossack groups maintain an armed presence in separatist controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk.

On the Ukrainian side, there are also militia groups active in the combat zone who use far right and neo-Nazi imagery.  But more importantly, the mainstream Ukrainian leadership are keen to make use of a nationalist heritage which celebrates Khmielnitsky and Petlura, and which includes organizations and figures  involved in collaboration with the Nazi invaders during World War 2, and with the persecution and murder of Ukraine’s Jews at that time.  The public commemoration of such wartime nationalist leaders as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevich remains a starkly divisive issue, which is unlikely to lessen in intensity over time.

 

Destruction and Rebirth: the Jews of  the Donbass

‘We want to keep our community.  People in Kiev can’t understand what we went through. So we haven’t broken up the Donetsk community.  It survives.  But now it’s in Kiev, not in Donetsk,’ says Rabbi Pinchas Vishedsky.  We are in the community center in the Podil district of Kiev that the rabbi established for Donetsk Jews fleeing to the capital during the war of 2014.

Vishedsky, an Israeli and a veteran emissary of  Chabad, spent twenty years in Donetsk, painstakingly building up a Jewish community there.  Then, in 2014, he was faced with the task of dismantling much of what he had built, and helping in the evacuation of the Jews of Donetsk to areas further west not touched by war.  He paints a stark picture of the gradual disintegration of normal life in Donetsk in the spring and summer of 2014.

‘On May 25th, during the elections for the president of Ukraine, they put polling booths near the schools.  And I got a phone call from the Jewish school that it was surrounded by men with guns. (supporters of the pro-Russian ‘separatist’ cause who wanted to dissuade residents from taking part in the elections).  It was the last day of studies.  I went down and they pointed the guns at me.  I told them, ‘arent you ashamed? Don’t you have children at home? I found the commander and he allowed the children to leave.”

‘Then in June the rebel army in Sloviansk began to approach Donetsk – and people started to leave. I sent my wife and children to the US, on the last train out of Donetsk.  The rebel army camped out in the student residences by our home.’

Vishedsky with other supporters of the Donetsk community helped to organize the evacuation of thousands of Donetsk Jews in the weeks ahead.  He estimates that perhaps 10,000 Jews left the area in the weeks that followed.  Making his way to Kiev, he has sought to re-establish the community there.

The Jewish school in Donetsk is still functioning.  But only 27 children are now attending it.  There is still a minyan in the synagogue.  450 families are receiving food parcels each week in Donetsk.

A total of perhaps 2-2,500 Jews remain in Donetsk city, according to unofficial estimates.  ‘The embers are still burning,’ say Rabbi Vishedsky.

Members of the Donetsk Jewish comunity celebrate a Brit Milah, Kiev, 2017.

donetsk jewish community

The picture Vishedsky paints of life in the rebel controlled ‘Peoples’ republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk is bleak in the extreme.  ‘Most of the people who could leave have gone. There are no banks working.  Most shops have closed. You need to have connections with a shop owner so he can open it up for you.  There is no work there, and no future.  It is mainly the older people who stayed. A needy population.  The border is closed much of the time, and this makes it hard for older people to get their pensions.’

As for those who left, some have gone to Israel, some to Germany,   some are in Kiev, or in other Ukrainian cities such as Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv.     And  the future?  ‘Everythings frozen,’ sighs Vishedsky. ‘ We’ve grown tired of expecting change.’

The process of the gradual collapse of order and normality as the war came to Donetsk and Sloviansk is echoed in the testimony of other Jewish IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) I interviewed in Kiev.  At the Halom Center, a community center established and maintained by the Joint Distribution Committee, I was able to speak to a number of Jewish refugees from the war zone who have benefitted from the services offered by the Joint’s  ‘Hesed’ program and a number of other programs maintained by the organization.

The IDPs I interviewed all described a similar trajectory to that outlined by Rabbi Vishedsky.   Albert, a 78 year old Holocaust survivor, a retired mechanical engineer, spoke of the sudden appearance in Luhansk city in April 2014 of ‘strange people..bandits’ who seized control of the state security building and other administrative points.  These were the pro-Russian ‘separatists,’ led at that time by the former FSB officer Igor Girkin, known as ‘Strelkov.’ (‘shooter’)

And then the groups of armed men and unmarked military vehicles on the streets, the cooked up ‘referendum’ for independence,  and the coming of a new, severely constricted life.  ‘We are afraid to talk about this,’ says Ludmila, Albert’s wife, ‘because we still have an apartment there.  And those people check apartments…’

There have been many allegations of individuals close to the authorities established by the separatists seeking to confiscate abandoned apartments and cars in their areas of control.  The couple left the area in November, 2014, and have been living in Kiev ever since.  Albert,as a Holocaust survivor, receives additional help from the Hesed program and this has enabled them to ‘live normally,’ as Ludmila puts it.  She notes that ‘Ukrainian’ (ie non-Jewish) friends of hers  who have to make do with the very meager state pensions have been unable to leave the area of the Luhansk ‘peoples’ republic’ established by the Russians and the separatists.

Nina, a retired chemist from Donetsk city, also remembers the first appearance of the separatists in the spring of 2014.  She is a widow, whose only daughter died a few years ago. She was living alone in an apartment near the center of the city.  At first she thought the men shouting and chanting in the night were ‘drunkards…They were banging on metal, and shouting ‘Russia, Russia.’  Then, the next morning,  men with guns in black ski masks were on the streets of Donetsk.  And the ‘Donetsk Peoples’ Republic’ was on its way.  ‘From November, all the banks closed, the post offices closed. The local administration the separatists created barely functioned.’  Confiscation of cars by the armed groups began, and Nina left for Kiev at the end of the year.  She doesn’t see herself returning to the Donbass.

‘Thanks to Hesed, I am not alone,’ she says. ‘They give me support. And in Donetsk I would be alone.  The graves of my husband and daughter are there.  But the graveyard is close to Donetsk airport, and now the area is mined.’

 

Albert and Ludmila, Jewish IDPs from Luhansk, at the JDC’s Halom Center, Kiev, Auguat, 2017.

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There are common threads running through all these accounts.  The extreme unpredictability of life in the Donbass under the Russians and their separatist proxies.  The dysfunctionality of the threadbare administration they have established.  The meager assistance given by the Ukrainian authorities to displaced people. And the impressive care given to Jewish IDPs by a variety of Jewish organizations and initiatives, of which the JDC and Rabbi Pinchas Vishedsky’s work are only two of many possible examples.

There is something else, too.  All the testimonies speak of suffering, displacement, danger, unpredictability.  But none of them talk about being targeted as Jews.  The difficulties were faced in common with their ethnic Ukrainian and Russian neighbors. And if anything the presence of Jewish organizations considerably alleviated the situation of the Jewish refugees.  This is very notable, given the undoubted presence of organized anti-Semitic forces among both the separatist groups and the Ukrainian volunteer battalions.  All those we spoke to were adamant that neither the separatist authorities nor the Ukrainian forces had singled them out as Jews.

The Battlefield of Memory

The presence and place of Jews in the still crystallising Ukrainian state remains a sensitive issue.  But this is not primarily because of a physical threat to Jewish well-being.  Indeed, it is worth pointing out that Jewish communal buildings in Kiev require considerably less physical security around them than do their equivalents in western Europe.  The reason for this is fairly clear, and can be stated once politically correct pieties are set aside. There is no sizeable or vocal Muslim community in Ukraine. And the physical threat to Jews in western Europe emerges mainly from among these communities.

Nationalist groups nevertheless played a very visible role during the Maidan protests.  This reporter witnessed the proliferation of banners of the far right Svoboda party on the square in December 2013, alongside the red and black flags invoking the memory of Stepan Bandera’s UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army).   The armed volunteer groups that bore the brunt of the fighting in the summer of 2014 when the Ukrainian army faltered flew similar colors.

But the nationalist candidate in the presidential elections of 2014, one Dmitro Yaros, scored only 0.7% of the vote.  Svoboda also achieved a tiny showing in presidential elections.  Efforts by the volunteer battalions to transform themselves into political parties have as yet achieved meager results.  ‘Ukrainians don’t want to be led by extremists,’ a young man in Kiev told me.

Still, while nationalist political achievements remain marginal, and levels of antisemitic violence low, the debate over national memory and its symbols  continues to raise difficult questions for Ukraine’s  Jews.

Eduard Dolinsky,  executive director of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Jewish Committee, contended in a conversation with me in Kiev that the apparent electoral weakness of the nationalists is deceptive.  Dolinsky pointed to their strength at the municipal level.  He is concerned at the role of what he called ‘apologists of national memory’, propagandist pseudo-historians who seek to downplay the role of Ukrainian nationalist movements in the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in Ukraine.

Dolinsky says of such figures as Bandera and Sukhevich ‘They participated in the Holocaust. Then people present them as protectors of Jews. This is Holocaust denial and desecration of Jewish memory.’

The placing of these figures in a mainstream pantheon of national heroes in Ukraine is certainly proceeding forthwith. In July 2016, a major street in Kiev was named for Stepan Bandera.  On May 25,2016, the Ukrainian parliament held a minutes’ silence for Simon Petlyura.

Other voices, both Jewish and non-Jewish, dispute the gravity and the implications of the ‘mainstreaming’ of wartime nationalist leaders.  Thus Josef Zissels, chairman of the Vaad organization of Ukrainian Jews, was quoted recently In JTA on this subject as warning against ‘unnecessary assignment of blame’ in  a country in which Jews enjoy formal equal rights and levels of anti-Semitic violence are low.

The debate over historical memory is set to continue.  Anyone who has travelled in the rural heartlands of Ukrainian nationalism in the west of the country will be aware of the depth and hold of the traditions of the insurgent OUN/UPA and the legacy of Bandera.  It is difficult to imagine these being uprooted, and no doubt Jewish concerns with their nature and strength will continue too.

The Land of the Trident

It would nevertheless be entirely wrong to paint an unremittingly gloomy picture of Jewish life in Ukraine. In the midst of the great destruction of recent years, and facing a still ongoing conflict, Jewish individuals and organizations of a variety of orientations have demonstrated in practice the meaning of communal solidarity. And the rising hostility to Jews in many west European countries, tied in to the growth of political Islam and hostility to Israel, is entirely absent here.

Jews, it appears, will be living under the ‘Tryzub’ the gold trident that forms Ukraine’s national symbol, for some time to come. The old demons, of course, should never be forgotten and may be only sleeping.  The country faces enormous challenges ahead in the building of institutions, fighting systemic corruption and forging a version of national identity that all elements of society can at least broadly identify with.   The Jews, both the actual living examples of them in Ukraine and no doubt also the mythical, archetypal  Jew that never seems to quite vanish from the European consciousness, will be playing their role in this.

The last words, in any case should go to old Solomon Rabinowitz – Sholem Aleichem – of Pereyaslav, in the Kiev Governorate:  ‘If you haven’t been there, do him a kindness, and go down into the field,  read the old, obliterated inscriptions on the leaning tombstones and you will find in them the story of a whole people.  And if you happen to be a man of feeling and imagination you  will look upon this poor little town with its rich cemeteries and repeat the old verses: “How beautiful are your tents, o Jacob; and your houses, o Israel.”

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Growing Up in War Zones, a review of Shooting Ghosts: A US Marine and a Combat Photographer, and their Journey Back from War by Finbarr O’Reilly and Thomas J. Brennan. (Viking,2017).

 

Jerusalem Post, 24/8

‘Shooting Ghosts’  is a joint memoir, depicting the friendship, experience of war and trauma and long road to recovery of two very different individuals.   Finbarr O’Reilly is a veteran Canadian photojournalist, formerly of the Reuters wire service, who spent the greater part of his career covering the African continent for the agency.   Thomas J. Brennan is a former US Marine infantryman,  wounded in Afghanistan who subsequently developed a career as a journalist.

‘Shooting Ghosts’ is written in an unusual collaborative style, with the two men alternating the writing of chapters.  Sometimes they depict the same incident from their different points of view.  But for the most part, each man tells his own story, into which the other makes regular appearances.

The narrative begins with the meeting of the two men at the Hunjak outpost, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2010.  O’Reilly is at the outpost as part of an embed with US forces.  Brennan is in command of the position.  In the course of the deployment at OP Kunjak, Brennan and O’Reilly, after an initial wariness toward one another, strike up a friendship.   ‘Shooting Ghosts’ is at root the story of that friendship,  how it develops despite the very different backgrounds and milieus of the two men, and how it survives the brain injury Brennan suffers on November 1, 2010, at Kunjak, after being close to an RPG round fired by an Afghan policeman.

The narrative traces the trauma suffered by both men as a result of their experiences on the frontlines of the ‘9/11 wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Brennan and O’Reilly’s lives progress along comparable, if not quite parallel lines, in the subsequent years.  Brennan finds the military bureaucracy unresponsive to his needs – in particular, in a section of special note – he finds himself the subject of both the indifference of the system and the scorn of his fellows for his attempt to seek help for the psychological effects of the trauma he suffered.

O’Reilly, meanwhile, also grows increasingly disillusioned with the role of the war photographer, questioning both his own motivations for engaging in the profession, and the objective value of his witness.

The book contains a handy contrast and differentiation between the role played by the fighter and the reporter in a war context.  ‘He’s a Marine,’ writes O’ Reilly, ‘bound by his oath, and honor, and the rule of law,to take orders and follow a chain of command…I’m a photographer – bound by my own codes and contracts, sure, but ultimately free to come and go as I please.’

As one who has spent time on the frontline as both a soldier  and a correspondent, I  find this differentiation especially perceptive.  It is reflected also in the differing tones of the accounts of these two men.  Brennan spends less time ruminating on the nature of war in an abstract sense.  His sections are more concerned with the practical nature of combat and soldiering itself, and later in the harrowing details of his descent into trauma-induced instability, his suicide attempt and his subsequent road back to sanity and success.

Brennan, who became a professional journalist following his retirement from the Marine Corps, has made issues relating to returning servicemen the particular focus of his writing.

O’ Reilly, meanwhile, has exited the profession of war photography by the conclusion of the narrative.   More crucially, both men have by the book’s end  found their way back from the psychological precipices to which their experiences had brought them.

‘Shooting Ghosts’ is a worthy addition to the literature on the 9/11 wars.  It depicts the experience of that generation of Americans who were at the start of their careers when the attacks of September 11 transformed the global landscape and set the US and its allies on the long and not yet completed path through Iraq and Afghanistan.  It portrays the human toll paid by the relatively small cohort of young westerners who fought or reported on those wars from the front.

There is much of harrowing insight in this book.  Brennan’s depiction of the combat soldier’s over-riding fear of the ‘big f… up’ on the frontline is accurate (ie the fear that through under-performance or failure, the soldier will endanger his comrades or cause them to be wounded or killed.)  As Brennan accurately describes this, it is not an entirely altruistic impulse. It is a dread of an act of such magnitude that there will be no psychological return from it for the soldier.

The book is not, nevertheless, without its limitations. While it is concerned with the ‘9/11 wars’ there is no serious  political analysis of the Middle East or the situation that produced these wars.  This might be fine if political matters were avoided entirely.  But instead there is a clear assumption that the wars were an unjustified and avoidable waste of time.

This unexamined assumption is taken as read, and put aside, and we are then presented  with an examination of the attraction of young men to combat for its own sake.  ‘The myth of war made it seem noble and defining,’ O’Reilly writes, ‘something worth dying for.’

O’Reilly appears to have emerged from this attraction by the book’s end, and has progressed to a general disillusionment with his former fascination.  Brennan, whose approach throughout seems more real and grounded, has also moved on to a mature devotion to his comrades in the USMC and a desire to assist them through his writing.

The depiction of these transitions is full of worthy insight. Yet I must confess that the genre of memoir by westerners who have experienced  war and found it horrifying, but whose concerns remain strictly limited to the consideration of conflict as an individual experience, with nothing to say concerning war as a tool of policy strikes me as one irretrievably marred by a certain adolescent quality.  ‘Shooting Ghosts,’ for all its many worthy passages and the sympathetic  nature of its narrators, does not entirely escape this limitation.

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Teheran Triumphant in Syria?

Jerusalem Post, 25/8

A flurry of diplomatic activity is currently taking place in the Syrian and Iraqi arenas. While the moves are occurring on separate and superficially unrelated fronts, taken together they produce an emergent picture. That picture is of two camps, one of which works as a united force on essential interests, the other of which at present does not.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week travelled to Sochi to discuss the issue of Syria with Russian officials. Specifically, Jerusalem is concerned with Iranian advances in the country. Israel considers that the de-escalation agreement for south west Syria reached by Washington and Moscow makes inadequate provision for ensuring that Teheran and its militia allies do not establish themselves along the borderline with the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan.

It is noteworthy that this visit followed an apparent failure by a senior Israeli security delegation to Washington DC to ensure a US commitment in this regard.

As the officials were talking, the fighting fronts were on the move. Sunday saw the opening of the offensive to take the town of Tal Afar, 60 kilometers west of Mosul city, from the now crumbling Islamic State. Among the forces taking part in the offensive are the Hashd al-Sha’abi/Popular Mobilization Units. The PMU is the alliance of Shia militias mobilized to fight IS in the summer of 2014. Most prominent among them are Iranian-supported groups such as the Badr Organization, Ktaeb Hizballah and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

An additional notable process now under way is the attempt to induce the Iraqi Kurds to abandon their proposed independence referendum, scheduled to take place on September 25. Iran is fiercely opposed to any Kurdish move toward independence. Teheran is in the process of moving forward to a clearly dominant position in Iraqi politics, through its sponsorship of the Shia militias and the ruling Dawa party. The last thing Teheran wants would be for a major part of the country to split away.

But as has become clear, the European and US allies of the Kurds are also hostile to any Kurdish bid for independence. Both German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have made their respective countries’ opposition to the referendum and any hopes of Kurdish exit from Iraq plain.

Last week saw evidence of the growing closeness between Iran and Turkey. Iran’s chief of staff, General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, met with President Recep Tayepp Erdogan. Following the meeting, Erdogan announced that the two countries have agreed on joint military action against the Kurdish PKK and its Iranian sister organization, PJAK. Bagheri’s visit to Ankara was the first by an Iranian chief of staff since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

An additional new development came to light in the course of last week – namely, the new role of Egypt as a player in the Syrian arena. Egypt has in recent weeks played a role as a mediator in de-escalation agreements in the eastern Ghouta area and in Homs, with the permission and approval of both the Russians and the Saudis.

Finally, the recent period saw the surprising visit of Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to Riyadh, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Sadr, a sectarian Shia figure who retains ties to Iran, has nevertheless sought to position himself as an Iraqi patriotic leader in recent months.

So what does all this diplomatic and military activity mean?

In looking to locate the pattern of events, one becomes immediately aware that the activities of only one player add up to a unified whole. That player is Iran. In backingthe Shia militias as political and military forces, opposing Kurdish aspirations to independence, seeking by all possible means to establish forces along the border with Israel, and seeking to draw Turkey away from the west and toward itself, Teheran is pursuing a coherent, comprehensive policy and strategy. This strategy ignores any distinction between Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, treating all three as a single arena of conflict. Allies and assets are all utilized to build the project of maximizing Iranian geographic reach and political and military potency within this space.

Russia should not be considered a strategic ally in this. The Russians have more modest goals in Syria, and little interest in Iraq. Moscow favors the increased Egyptian role in Syria which Teheran surely opposes. Russia is also not indifferent to Israeli and Saudi concerns and interests, hence the Netanyahu visit to Sochi.

The US also does not currently seem to wish to be a primary player in this arena. Washington does not appear to be developing a real strategy for containing the Iranians in eastern Syria. The internal strains and turmoil in the US may indeed be a core factor preventing any real possibility of a US focus on this contest.

This leaves the local players. The components of the Iran-led alliance in this space are Iran itself, the Assad regime, Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia militias and important elements within the Iraqi government. Turkey appears to be moving in the direction of this bloc, though its size and Sunni nature mean it will never fully be a part of it.

Perhaps most notable of all in this emergent strategic picture, in which a clear shape is discernible as the waters settle, is the absence of a really powerful Sunni Islamist bloc. The once ascendant group of Muslim Brotherhood type states and movements is effectively no more – with Qatar besieged, Turkey moving closer to Iran, and Hamas also attempting to rebuild its relations with Teheran.

The Salafi jihadis are also reduced back to the level of a terrorist irritant – a sometimes lethal one, to be sure, but far from a contender for power. The Islamic State is on the verge of destruction. The core al-Qaeda leadership is dominant only in Idleb Province in Syria.

This is an anomalous situation. Political Islam continues to dominate Sunni Arab politics at street level. But the resilience and return of relatively stable Sunni Arab autocracies in Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Amman, and the eclipse of the Sunni Arab rebellion in Syria have removed it – for now at least – from the real power game in the Middle East.

What is as a result facing the cohesive and coherent Iran-led bloc is a much more nebulous gathering, but one which if combined possesses more power, more population and more wealth than the Iranians. It lacks, however, the binding organizational capacity provided by the Revolutionary Guards Corps. It also does not possess the broad ideological commonality of the Teheran-led group.

Observe the forces mentioned in this article: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Kurdish Regional Government, Egypt, the Kurdish paramilitary forces in Turkey and Iran. (Add in Jordan and the remaining non-jihadi Syrian rebels to complete the picture) These are the core elements, each on its own relevant front, standing in the way of Iranian advancement in the Middle East. There are differences, disputes, in some cases sharp rivalries between them. Much will depend on the creation of lines of communication and cooperation in this camp. The contest between these two groups in the Iraq-Syria space is today the core strategic conflict in the Middle East.

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Is Washington ceding Syria to Russian influence?

Jerusalem Post, 28/8

Goodbye ‘Timber Sycamore’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Match Made in History

American Interest, 17/7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Israel and Hizballah: The Battle before the Battle

Jerusalem Post, 14/7

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

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

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

So what are the facts of the case?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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