Below, Within and Above

Iran’s Strategy for Control of Syria

Jerusalem Post, 1/2

Recent statements by a number of Israeli officials have claimed a degree of success in Israel’s efforts to contain and rollback Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.  But while Israel’s tactical successes are certainly notable and impressive, the big picture is that Iran’s influence and strength in Syria continues to deepen and expand.

Iran’s efforts are taking place at three levels:  below the official Syrian state structures – in the arming and sponsoring of Iran-controlled paramilitary formations on Syria soil, within the Syrian state – in the control of institutions that are officially organs of the regime, and above the state, in the pursuit of formal links between the Iranian and Syrian regimes.  As Teheran seeks to impose its influence on Assad’s Syria in the emergent post-rebellion period, meanwhile, there are indications that its project is running up against the rival plans and ambitions of the Russians.

A report in the generally reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights this week described in detail the nature of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s efforts to entrench their presence in a single, significant Syrian town: al-Mayadin, west of the strategically important Albukamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria, and just west of the Euphrates River.

The Observatory described extensive recruitment of local Syrians, including individuals who were formerly involved with the armed opposition, into the ranks of Iran’s various paramilitary ‘Syrian Hizballah’ type structures established in Syria.  The report noted that the incentives given to entice individuals into these structures included a monthly salary of between $150-300, allowing individuals a variety of options as to where they wish to serve, and immunity from arrest at the hands of regime security forces.

The report also noted that the IRGC and Lebanese Hizballah have positioned themselves in key areas of al-Mayadin, and are maintaining exclusive control of these areas (ie without cooperation with or permission sought from the forces of the Assad regime).

Among a number of specific examples quoted in this regard,  ‘Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards took over the al-Nurain Mosque and houses around it on the Korniche Street in the city, where they prevented civilians, members of regime forces, and NDF from entering or passing through the area, without orders from the command forces located in al-Mayadin,’ while ‘members of the Lebanese Hezbollah took over the area extending from al-Finsh Junction to Al Shuaibi Villa at al-Arba’in Street in al-Mayadin city, and prevented the entry and exit except by orders of them.’

Control of al-Mayadin and its environs matters because it is located along Highway 4, which is the only road leading out of the Albukamal border crossing, which separates Syria and Iraq and which is currently controlled by the IRGC and its allies.  From al-Mayadin,  Route 4 reaches Deir e-Zur, where it connects to the M20 highway, which heads west in the direction of Damascus, or, if a traveler prefers, towards al-Qusayr and the Lebanese border.

That is, the specific example of al-Mayadin shows the means by which Iran seeks to maintain exclusive control along vital nodes in Syria, for the passage of personnel and materiel, in the direction of its allies in Lebanon or its enemies in Israel, according to the needs of the moment.

The activities of the IRGC on the ground in such locations as al-Mayadin go hand in hand with the more conventional, regime-to-regime relations that Teheran maintains with Assad in Damascus.

This week, for example, Iranian Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri was in Syria, where he signed a number of economic agreements and met with Assad.  The agreements, 11 in number, together offer a roadmap for long term strategic economic cooperation between Iran and Syria.  They cover a variety of areas, including ‘education, housing, public works, railroads and investments,’ according to a report in the Syrian Arab News Agency, the regime’s official media outlet.

Jahangiri’s visit was the latest indication of concerted Iranian efforts to secure a major role in the massive project of reconstruction within the 60% of Syria currently controlled by the regime.  The UN estimates the cost of reconstruction in war torn Syria at around $400 billion.  Earlier landmarks in this process include a military cooperation agreement concluded in August, 2018, a 2017 memorandum of understanding for the extraction of phosphates from the al Sharqiya mine south west of Palmyra, (one of the largest such mines in Syria), and an MOU for the restoration by Iran of over 2000 MW of electrical power production capacity.

There is even a putative plan for an Iran-Syria rail link, to run from the Shalamcheh border crossing between Iran and Iraq, via Basra in southern Iraq and eventually to Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  Such projects are more in the line of visions at present. But they demonstrate the depth and scope of Iran’s plans for the area between its western borders and the Mediterranean.

A third element in the Iranian ambition lies within the structures of the official Syrian state. Iran has invested heavily in the creation of Basij-style paramilitary structures under its control within the Syrian security forces – such as the National Defense Forces.  Evidence is now also emerging that conventional military units of the Syrian Arab Army are also identified closely with the Iranian interest. The evidence in question suggests that this is leading to fissures, as these units face off against other formations more closely allied with the Russian interest in Syria.

A report in the opposition linked Ana press this week, confirmed by additional Syrian sources and also reported in Der Spiegel and by the Turkish Anadolu agency , detailed clashes on January 19th  in the Hama area between Colonel Soheil Hassan’s 5th Corps, associated with the Russian interest, and Maher Assad’s 4th Division, generally seen as closely linked to the IRGC.

According to the report, a number of fighters from both units were killed in the Sahel al-Ghab area in Hama, after a dispute about control of the area.  These incidents show the extent to which the Russian and Iranian projects have the potential for collision, especially in the all important area of control and influence within the official security structures of the Syrian state.

Taken together, all this evidence points to a deep, long term Iranian strategic plan by which Teheran means to dominate the Syrian space in the period ahead.  The blueprint being applied is clearly that which has achieved such impressive results in Lebanon, and later in Iraq.  According to this approach, Iran is activating a variety of tools below, within and above the structures of the Syrian state. The intention is to achieve a level of penetration and influence that will make their ambitions invulnerable both to superior Israeli air power and intelligence, and to the opposing project for domination of Syria currently being undertaken by Russia.  The results of all this remain to be seen.

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Will Turkey invade north east Syria?

Jerusalem Post, 11/1

Significant obstacles remain before a Turkish push south

The announcement by US President Donald Trump on December 19 of his intention to rapidly withdraw US forces from eastern Syria led to expectations of a rapid move by Turkish forces into all or part of the area currently controlled by the US-aligned, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.  The precipitating factor that led to Trump’s announcement, after all, was a phone call between the President and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayepp Erdogan.  For Turkey, control by what Ankara regards as the Syrian franchise of the PKK of a large swathe of the 900 km Syrian-Turkish border has long been seen as entirely unacceptable.  The Kurdish dominated SDF are capable and proven fighters.  But without US help, and facing Turkish air power and artillery, they would be able only to resist for a while.  This had been already proven in Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in January, 2018, when Ankara invaded and destroyed the Kurdish canton of Afrin in north west Syria.

For Israel, the prospect of a Turkish invasion was and remains a matter of concern.  Pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militias are deployed close to the border adjoining to the Kurdish-controlled area.  In the event of a Turkish incursion from the north, SDF fighters would be likely to leave the southern part of their area of control to try to stop the Turkish forces further north.  This could leave the way open for a push by the Shia militias into the oil rich Deir a Zur province.  Alternatively, Syrian regime forces along with Iran-associated militias could push into the same area from west of the Euphrates River.  In either case, the result would be a dramatic widening of the Iranian ‘land corridor’ the area of freedom of activity for Iran and its allies.  Israel was hence strongly opposed to the abandonment by the US of its Kurdish allies and their area of control.

Similarly, the US and allied base at al-Tanf is located in the area adjoining the Baghdad-Damascus highway.  Its abandonment would thus leave the way open from the AlbuKamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria to Quneitra Province, adjoining the Golan Heights.

For a number of reasons, however, the prospect of an early large-scale entry of Turkish forces into north east Syria now seems less likely than it did a couple of weeks ago.

Firstly and most importantly,  the US withdrawal that alone would make possible a major Turkish incursion currently looks less immediately imminent.  On this matter, a certain confusion appears to reign, with different US officials saying different things.

The tendency to chaos of the current US  Administration is a double edged sword.  On the one hand, it can produce sudden apparent bonanzas, of the kind that the President’s announcement of imminent US departure must have seemed to Turkey.

On the other hand, the chaotic approach to policymaking means that presidential statements of this kind can’t necessarily be safely ‘banked’, in a way that would be assumed to be possible with other Administrations.

National Security Advisor John Bolton found himself cold-shouldered by Erdogan in Turkey this week, after he  appeared in a statement made in Israel to be conditioning the withdrawal on Turkish agreement not to target Kurdish forces who had fought with the Americans.

Trump nevertheless tweeted on Monday that ‘we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!’

Thus, the US timetable and the precise nature of US intentions remain something of a mystery for friend and foe alike.  But for Erdogan, as long as US special forces and air power remain in and over eastern Syria, a Turkish entry would be possible only in coordination with them.  And if it proves that the US is indeed not prepared to accept the wholesale crushing of its Kurdish partners in the war against ISIS (as the Turkish leader clearly envisages), this places a question mark over the Turkish planned action.

A second area of concern for the Turkish leader is the Russian stance.  Russia has emerged as the key power broker between all countries and elements seeking to act within the Syrian space (with the exception of the US).  Moscow chose to allow the Turkish incursion into Afrin in January 2018, probably as part of an attempt to draw Turkey away from its traditional western alignment.

But statements by Russian officials this week appear to indicate that Russia prefers lands currently administered by the Syrian Kurds to return to the control of the Assad regime. Foreign Ministry representative Maria Zakharova, for example, unambiguously expressed this stance.   Moscow evidently wants to be able to present the Syrian war as effectively over as soon as possible.  A new standoff between a large Turkish controlled area of north and east Syria and the Assad regime would not facilitate this.  Erdogan said on Wednesday that he will visit Moscow in the near future, presumably with the intention of clarifying this matter.

Sipan Hemo, the senior military figure in the Kurdish YPG, has been leading a delegation taking part in Russian brokered talks with Assad regime representatives in recent days.  Kurdish sources close to the SDF confirmed that if forced to choose, the Syrian Kurds will prefer to allow the Assad regime to resume control of their areas of control, rather than face an onslaught from the Turks.

But of course, for as long as the US position remains ambiguous, and American withdrawal does not look immediately imminent, the Kurds are unlikely to accept the conditions of the regime.  As seen in an earlier round of contacts over the summer, the regime will settle for nothing less than the resumption of its full sovereignty east of the Euphrates. That is, the termination of the Kurdish de facto autonomy that has held sway over the last half decade.  The Kurds are likely to agree to these terms of surrender if the Americans are about to leave and the Turks are about to enter.  But this is not yet quite the situation.

Lastly, it is not clear how effectively Turkey, with its Sunni Arab rebel allies would be able to police the territories it would conquer from the SDF in the event of a major military operation.  Kurdish attacks on Turkish forces in Afrin are a common occurrence.  The area that would be taken in the event of a major operation into north east Syria would constitute a far larger and more complex space.

Thus, in spite of the Turkish saber rattling on the border, and Erdogan’s pledge in his New York Times op-ed this week that Turkey can ‘get the job done’, significant obstacles remain before a large scale Turkish incursion into north east Syria.

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Five thoughts on the passing of Amos Oz


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

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

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

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

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

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Betrayal on the Euphrates

Jerusalem Post, 21/12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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A New Order Emerges in Southern Syria

Jerusalem Post, 30/11

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







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The Return of ISIS

Jerusalem Post, 2/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








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Iran’s ‘Phoney War’

Jerusalem Post, 9/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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