Article: Understanding Israel’s War in the Grey Zone

Newsweek, 22/12

The facts of the case remain in dispute. A variety of versions have emerged. But all the various accounts agree that the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a brigadier general of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, considered by Israel to be the commander of the military element of the Iranian nuclear program, died in a hail of bullets on the road to his hometown of Absard, south of Tehran, on November 27.

No one has openly claimed responsibility for the killing of Fakhrizadeh, but it may be taken as a near certainty that Israel was behind it. The event thus appears to be a rare sighting of an ongoing campaign under way for some years now: Israel’s ongoing, usually silent “grey zone” war against Iran.

This campaign, and the way it is fought, is a natural partner to the diplomatic moves that have recently produced “normalization” agreements between Israel, Morocco, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Together, these represent the Israeli response to a strategic dilemma—namely, how can Israel maintain the required levels of societal calm, normality and tranquility within which economic activity and innovation can flourish, while at the same time engaging effectively in the long, open-ended struggle against those countries and organizations committed to its destruction?

The strategic “long war” doctrine underlying the activities of those organizations and states, nationalist and Islamist, which have engaged in irregular warfare against Israel over the last half-century is intended to accentuate this contradiction. The notion, as articulated by Lebanese Hezballah leader Hassan Nasrallah in his 2000 speech at Bint Jbeil in which he alleged that Israeli society was weaker than a “spider’s web,” is that by making the pursuit of normal life impossible in Israel, the Jewish state’s enemies would erode its people’s will to continue—and cause them, over time, to abandon their commitment to it in the first instance. The model for this desired outcome is the demise of French Algeria, and the departure from that country of French settlers after 1959.

Israel, of course, does not accept the historic comparison, nor the underlying diagnosis of the society. But this is not an argument characterized by respectful debate. The task facing Israeli strategists has been to develop a means of diplomacy and a simultaneous means of war capable of preventing the hypothesis from being tested. What this looks like in practice has been on display in recent weeks.

The purpose of Israel’s current, ongoing military campaign is two-fold. It is intended to disrupt and hinder Iran’s ongoing efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capacity. It also seeks to prevent and reverse the Iranian project to create an extensive infrastructure of support across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and then to embed advanced weapons systems directed at Israel within that infrastructure.

This is a very 21st-century campaign. It is considered to involve only a relatively small number of Israeli agencies and citizens. Key among the former are parts of the air force, the Mossad and other intelligence bodies, and personnel who learned their trade in Israel’s most selective special forces units.

The killing of Fakhrizadeh would have been the province of intelligence groups. The air force, meanwhile, is engaged on a weekly basis in disrupting Iranian efforts at building and consolidating its human and material infrastructure in Syria. This ongoing campaign has, in the view of Yaakov Amidror, a former national security advisor in Israel and today a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, succeeded—as expressed to me in a recent conversation—in setting back the Iranian effort by “80 to 85 percent.”

Covert action, including the use of assassinations, has formed a controversial part of Israel’s way of war since the very birth of the state—and, indeed, even before it. Famously, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir directed Israel’s intelligence agencies to eliminate the perpetrators of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. This was a mission achieved, though not without serious errors and mishaps. The last of the individuals directly responsible for the Munich massacre was not killed until 1979.

But the structures established by Israel for carrying out that campaign amounted to the formalization of existing practices, rather than a completely novel turn. In the early 1960s, Israel, in “Operation Damocles,” conducted a series of assassinations of rocket scientists, including German veterans of Hitler’s rocket program. These men were working with the then-Egyptian regime to develop Cairo’s long-range missile capacity.

Even prior to the establishment of Israel, Zionist paramilitary organizations kept assassination as one of their tools. The commander of the Mossad operational unit in Operation Damocles was future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The latter learned his trade as operations officer of the Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Israel Freedom Fighters), better known in the English-speaking world as the Stern Gang. This organization assassinated, among others, a UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, in Jerusalem in 1948, and a British minister of state in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, in Cairo in 1944.

The first significant political assassination carried out by Zionist organizations indeed traces all the way back to Jerusalem in 1924. The victim was Jacob De Haan, a prominent Jewish anti Zionist leader. The perpetrators were the newly formed Haganah, first of the Zionist military groups.

It is a long way from pistol shots by a lone gunman in 1920s-era Jerusalem—the gunman in question, at the time, was Odessa-born Avraham Tehomi, later the founder and first commander of the Irgun—to the complex, high-tech operation that appears to have ended the life of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. But a consistent, if evolving, praxis links the two. Israel does not always wait until a problem has ripened in order to meet it with large-scale conventional military or diplomatic means. Instead, where Israel deems it necessary, it prefers to deploy direct action to prevent the nascent problem from fully emerging.

Former Deputy Prime Minister and Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, speaking to me recently in Jerusalem, located Israel’s alleged policy of assassinations within an integrated, three-sided strategy intended to stop Iran from going nuclear. The strategy, according to Meridor, involves “prevention” (a euphemism for active measures to disrupt the Iranian effort), “defense” (including such systems as the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system) and “deterrence” (relating to Israel’s own putative nuclear capacity).

This strategy minimizes disruption for the daily lives of the vast majority of Israelis, who are able to continue their own endeavors largely unaware of, or incurious about, national security details.

In this way, it fits with the current advances in peacemaking and the normalization agreements. The defense strategy is intended to keep professed enemies at bay with the minimum of visibility. This then enables civil society and enterprise to flourish. These, in turn, produce the capacities—in desert agriculture, medical tech, artificial intelligence and other fields—that make Israel such a useful partner for regional states in the civilian realm.

The killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on the road from Tehran to Absard thus forms part of an approach to conflict intended to minimize fallout and accompanying noise, while bolstering the atmosphere of security and normality that makes a flourishing 21st-century society feasible amidst a troubled and strife-torn neighborhood. Innovation, normalization and cooperation for those who seek goodwill; the silent war for those with other intents. As of now, it appears to be working.

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Turn, and Turn again: A Tale of Two Israels

Australian, 29/12

A drama series recently broadcast on national TV in  Israel, entitled in English ‘Valley of Tears,’  set in the dramatic first days of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, has led to renewed public discussion on those difficult days.  On October 6, 1973, Israel was caught by surprise when the full force of two Arab armies – Egypt from the south and Syria from the north – was launched at the Jewish state.  Israel eventually prevailed, but at the very high cost of 2521 dead. The episode remains a national trauma.  The series depicts the efforts of a small number of IDF soldiers in the Golan Heights in the very first days of the war, as they battle to stop the advance of the Syrian army towards the first Israeli civilian communities at the foot of the Heights. 

‘Valley of Tears,’ among other things, presents an opportunity to observe the stark contrast between Israel’s difficult strategic situation nearly fifty  years ago, and its current position.  Then, the Jewish state faced a united wall of rejection from the Arabic-speaking states. By contrast, it maintained working diplomatic relations with the two non-Arabic speaking countries of the Middle East – Iran and Turkey. 

Then, there was near parity in conventional military capacities between Israel and its Arab neighbors and enemies. The result was that armed contests between the sides took the form of mass mobilization of the army and the society, with broad sections of the population drawn into the war effort, and very large numbers of casualties.   

Nearly fifty years on, all this has been transformed.  In recent months, obscured somewhat by the global focus on the Coronavirus, a  number of dramatic events have taken place which have cast Israel’s changed (and improved) strategic situation into bold relief. 

Firstly, the US-brokered  normalization agreements with four Arab states demolish the notion of anything so simple as an ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’ remaining in existence.  The breakthrough with the United Arab Emirates brings the most developed Arab economy (and a former bastion of the Arab boycott and the Arab oil weapon against Israel) into effective alliance with Jerusalem. 

De facto relations between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, and the close parity of analysis between the two countries regarding the main threats in the region, have long been one of the Middle East’s worst kept secrets. 

Both countries see Iran and its allies, and Sunni political Islam as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and the government of Turkey, as central challenges.  But the placing of relations on a formal footing is already producing a wave of private sector contacts, with major partnerships set to emerge.  An Emirati company, Dubai-based DP world, for example, has submitted a bid to take part in the privatization of the strategically important Haifa port, in Israel’s north.  The possibilities are immense.

Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco are similarly launched on the path of normalization with Israel today. 

Indeed, with Syria and Iraq broken and divided, Saudi Arabia engaged in behind the scenes cooperation, and Jordan and Egypt long at peace with Israel, there is today no powerful Arab state still engaged in the fight.

Enemies, however, remain. And it is interesting to note that today it is the two other non-Arab states in the region – Iran and Turkey – which form the most powerful opponents of Jerusalem.  The same states who in 1973 were semi-allies. 

Iran remains the most serious challenge.  But the ways of conflict are today themselves very different.  Israel has indeed been engaged in a type of war with Iran for a number of years now. But it is nothing like the massed, armored set-pieces on the Golan in 1973. It is a largely silent conflict fought far from visible channels, involving only a small number of Israeli agencies and citizens: namely, the intelligence services, parts of the air force, and graduates of Israel’s most select special forces units. 

In this ‘campaign between the wars’, Israel seeks to disrupt and reverse Iranian attempts to advance towards a nuclear capacity, and stymy Teheran’s effort to build infrastructure across the collapsed spaces of the Arab world (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon).  The killing of the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh east of Teheran on November 27th may well have been an episode in this conflict.  The weekly sorties by Israeli aircraft to target Iranian facilities in Syria form an additional element of the ongoing effort. 

So from the vantage point of 2020, the embattled Israel of 1973, facing the combined might of powerful, centralized neighboring Arab states with the whole Arab world united behind them seems distant indeed.  There is, nevertheless, an important lesson still to be learned from that time.  The Yom Kippur War was a black swan event, unexpected, erupting into a period in which Israel’s situation,  to quote one leader of that time ‘had never been better.’  The lesson being that now, as then, the Middle East remains a dynamic and fluid arena, in which today’s enemy can be tomorrows friend, and vice versa, and in which things can change, for better and for worse, completely, and very fast. 

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Who Betrayed Ruhollah Zam?

Jerusalem Post, 19/12

Mystery surrounds capture of Iranian dissident journalist

Ruhollah Zam, Iranian journalist and oppositionist, was hanged at Evin prison on December 12. He had been found guilty of ‘corruption on earth,’ a catch-all term used by Iran’s regime to convict those it targets for activities in the field of political activity and espionage.  Zam, who had been in captivity since October 2019, was the founder and director of a popular Telegram Channel and forum called AmadNews which carried up to the minute information on the demonstrations and protests which swept Iran in 2017 and 2018. The channel, which had 1.4 million followers, provided details regarding upcoming protests, and officials who were challenging the regime. 

The reach and influence of AmadNews appears to have led to the regime decision to target and eliminate Ruhollah Zam.  The journalist had lived in Paris since 2011.  The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), according to the available evidence, put in motion a complex sting operation to lure Zam to Iraq, from where he was kidnapped and taken to Iran. 

The full details regarding this operation have not yet emerged, but what is known, or suspected, is casting a pall over Iran’s dissident and opposition communities in Europe, because of what it reveals regarding the apparent extent of their penetration by the agencies of the Iranian regime, and regarding the extent of Teheran’s away over Iraq.

So what do we know about the process by which Ruhollah Zam was lured to Iraq, and then taken to Iran?  Firstly, it is important to note that for an Iranian dissident to leave the (relative) safety of France for Iraq is in itself a rash act bordering on foolhardiness. Iraq is today to a great extent Iranian occupied territory.  In a manner reminiscent of the situation in Lebanon, Teheran’s reach extends deep into the structures of Iraqi governance and security.  Powerful Shia militias such as the Badr organization exert influence within the Interior Ministry. Via the structures of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), IRGC bodies play an official security role. 

Among the places where Iran through its proxies maintains a presence is Baghdad International Airport.  Contrary to initial reports suggesting that he had been snatched from the street, the latest emergent evidence suggests that Ruhollah Zam was  detained at the airport by the official Iraqi authorities, and then conveyed across the border to Iran.  According to a report by BBC Persian on October 16, 2019, an ‘informed source in the Iraqi government’ confirmed that Zam was ‘detained by the Iraqi intelligence service for more than a day and then extradited to Iran under an extradition agreement.”

It is worth noting that an extradition agreement between Iraq and Iran does exist, but the text of the agreement specifically permits either country to ignore the extradition request if the person whose extradition has been requested is suspected of committing a ‘political crime.’  This clause was included, according to BBC Persian, because of the presence of members of the Iranian opposition group MEK on Iraqi soil, so as to avoid complications if Baghdad were to refuse an Iranian extradition request.  Evidently, however, when it came to the case of Ruhollah Zam, the Iraqi authorities found no reason to invoke this clause, despite the clearly political nature of the offences of which he was accused. 

But why did Zam leave for Iraq in the first place? The weak and compromised nature of the Iraqi state is not a secret, and is well known to Iranian dissidents.  Zam would surely have been aware of the extreme risk he was taking, and indeed subsequent testimony confirms that his wife and colleagues sought to dissuade him from taking the trip prior to his departure.

So what was he looking to gain? Here, the story becomes murkier.  Le Figaro newspaper, at the time of Zam’s arrest, reported that ‘“The Revolutionary Guards began by sending to him in Paris a young woman who apparently convinced him to go to Iraq to meet Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leader of Iraq’s Shia Muslims and great rival of Ali Khamenei, the head of the Iranian regime.” 

A number of Iranian opposition websites name the woman in question as one Shirin Najafi Zadeh, an administrator at AmadNews. (the person in question also goes by the name of Sudabeh Khorsand).  According to the claims now circulating widely on Iranian opposition forums, Le Figaro’s initial report was slightly wide of the mark. Najafi Zadeh did not hold out the possibility of a meeting with al-Sistani. Rather, she approached Zam, claiming that she was herself in contact with the office of Sistani, and that the latter was interested in providing finance for a new television channel, to broadcast a message of opposition to the Iranian regime. 

According to a statement by a friend of Zam, made to an Iranian opposition media channel, Najafi Zadeh spoke to Zam from Iraq, and claimed to be in possession of a large cash donation from Sistani’s office (amounting to 15 million Euros in 500 Euro notes, according to the statement), which was intended to make possible the launch of the new TV channel by Zam in France.  She asked Zam to travel to Iraq in order to collect the cash and bring it back to Paris.  This, according to Zam’s friend, was the ‘bait’ which drew Ruhollah Zam to Iraq, where he was of course immediately arrested.

Shirin NajafiZadeh, now reportedly in hiding, has issued a statement denying these claims, and asserting that she in fact sought to prevent Zam from travelling to Iraq. The allegations have caused a storm in Iranian opposition circles.

Iranian opposition activists are also angry at what they regard as the failure of the French authorities to make adequate efforts to save Ruhollah Zam, during the 14 months that he was in custody prior to his execution. 

The recent killing of Iranian nuclear scientist and IRGC brigadier-general Mohsen Fakhrizadeh  in the Teheran area revealed the Iranian regime’s own vulnerabilities with regard to its security.  It appears, however, that when it comes to harassing and silencing its civilian opponents, the regime is somewhat more effectual.  The details of the kidnapping and judicial murder of Ruhollah Zam reveal both the deep penetration by Iranian state agencies of exiled opposition circles and, no less gravely, the extent to which certain agencies of the official Iraqi state now appear to be openly doing the bidding of Teheran. 

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Two thoughts on the Israel TV series ‘Valley of Tears’

A couple of final thoughts on the Kan series  שעת נעילה  or ‘Valley of Tears,’ which concluded this week.  Firstly, I will admit to a certain parochial pride at seeing the bit of the army that is ‘my’ bit portrayed at the center of a moment of supreme national importance.  IDF Northern Command, Division 36, the Armored Corps, the 188 Brigade, and the Golan Heights is exactly the part of the IDF that I know well and in the framework of which I served as a regular and then a reserve soldier for 18 years.  In the asymmetrical and irregular conflicts which have been the main business of the IDF for the last 30 years, the armored forces are not the ‘stars of the show’ and the corps has suffered a corresponding loss in budgets, prestige and centrality.  As a result, it has often seemed that the particular combat history depicted in this series had become the concern or property of a small number of citizens, among whom I include myself.  Since I have always felt that the stand of the 7th and 188 brigades on the Golan in October 1973 has something of Thermopylae (and something, frankly, of Masada, at least in the 188’s case) about it, it has been great to see it rising to this level of a kind of nationally acknowledged story, with certain even epic qualities. 

A more important point, however, concerns certain absences in the story, which I find regrettable.  I would not want to see a schmaltzy, syrupy type treatment of these events a la Spielberg, and it is indeed quite impossible that the Israeli culture or mentality would produce something of that kind. At the same time, it is frustrating once more to see the Israeli society and the military culture portrayed very clearly through a kind of post-Zionist and leftist lens. Not because I want to see nationalist propaganda on screen (I very much don’t), but simply because this lens deliberately omits a salient element of the Israeli-Jewish experience that is very visible to anyone who speaks Hebrew and lives here – and that is the Jewish-traditional, and mobilized element based on a sense of Jewish national rights, Jewish tradition and the rightness of Israel’s cause vis a vis the Arab-Muslim effort to destroy it.  This, as everyone knows, is the belief-complex which stands at the center of Israeli Jewish society, which is reflected in its voting patterns, much of its cultural product and consumption, its levels of religious and traditional observance etc.  This is the side of Israeli society  which despite the renaissance of Israeli cinema and TV drama in recent years, rarely makes it to the screen, and even more rarely makes it to international audiences, but understanding of which is crucial to understanding the country and its decisions and directions.  

Its permissible and fine to make ‘pure action’ movies, of course, for people who are looking for that. But שעת נעילה wasn’t a piece of that type.  A considerable part of it was concerned with social and political discussion. In this area, we had a very large helping of the far leftist, anti-Zionist critique of Israel, and even a scene where an articulate and serious character enunciates the Arab nationalist case against Zionism and Israel. There was not one sentence, however, in which the case for Jewish national rights and sovereignty in Israel was made.  This is a rather odd, and disappointing state of affairs. Its main deleterious effect, I think, is that it results in a lurid, very partial and distorted picture of Israeli society being presented, both to the domestic audience and no less importantly, to international viewers. 

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Iranian Responses to Fakhrizadeh Killing; Teheran’s Options for Retaliation

Jerusalem Post, 5/12

Iranian officials and regime supporters responded to the killing of Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh,  widely regarded as the ‘father’ of Iran’s military nuclear program, with a public outpouring of fury.  Many of the responses sought to achieve the difficult rhetorical task of belittling the achievement of Iran’s enemies, while at the same time stressing the magnitude of the loss.  All promised vengeance. 

Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, declared, in a statement translated from Farsi by the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, that ‘The enemy is not manly enough to fight a battle with Iran directly. The demise of Israel is near and these are the last tantrums of Israel. Revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s blood is coming, and it will be with the solidarity of the Iranian forces with all their formations.”

Tasnim, a news website associated with the IRGC, asserted that “If you want to stop the rabid dog, you have to confront him. or he will attack you again. Missiles, as Iran’s main response option, can hit any part of Israel from the depths of the country… In addition to the missile option, the Islamic Republic has other opportunities ahead of it, including Iran’s presence near the borders of the occupied territories in Syria. In Lebanon, too, Hezbollah is at its best as a powerful arm of the Islamic Republic.”

Hussein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said, meanwhile, that  “revenge and severe punishment” for the perpetrators of the assassination “is on the agenda.” (All translations: MECRA). 

The Iranian intention to seek retribution is clear.  But what form is Iran’s response likely to take?

Teheran possesses an extensive infrastructure of paramilitary client organizations across the Middle East, one or another of which might be activated to strike at Israel.  Iran also has a extensive global network, with a long history of terror attacks on Israeli, Jewish and other targets.  Retribution will almost certainly come from one or other of these possibilities. A conventional response from the Iranian state forces, which would amount to a declaration of war, is unlikely. Israeli and Jewish security structures are consequently in a state of high alert globally.

Yet the situation facing Iran is not a simple one.  With regard to paramilitary infrastructures close to Israel’s borders:  Lebanese Hizballah today faces a complex political situation.  The Lebanese economy and currency are in free fall. The repair bill for the destruction wrought by the Ammonium Nitrate explosion in August is estimated at $15 billion.  300,000 people were made homeless by it. And Hizballah is no longer an unseen paramilitary client of Iran. Rather, it is a large political-military bureaucracy which dominates the Lebanese parliament and the process of government formation.  Any act of violence emanating from this corner is certain to produce very heavy Israeli retribution, and there is a very visible and very extensive target bank. 

With regard to Syria, again, Iranian capabilities are extensive and well-documented. But recent events once more indicate that Israel has domination of the intelligence picture with regard to Syria, and extensive knowledge regarding Iranian moves. Regional media reports on the killing of an additional IRGC commander close to the Iraq-Syria border on Saturday evening, as he sought to supervise the transport of weapons across the border, appear to offer further proof of this.  The recent foiling of an attempt to place an explosive device at the border fence demonstrates Iran and Hizballah’s extensive presence and infrastructure close to the border, but also Israel’s knowledge of it.

Broader strategic questions are again relevant here.  Iran is engaged in a long term strategic effort in Syria.  The evidence suggests that while Israel has largely succeeded in disrupting and dismantling efforts to deploy weapons systems in the country, the human infrastructure of recruitment and organized support below has been built and extends to the border.  This infrastructure, like Lebanese Hizballah, is a strategic project which is unlikely to be placed at risk by using it as a platform for a retaliation operation which would certainly bring down further retribution. 

Similarly, Iran possesses an extensive structure of client militias in Iraq, and with missiles, including the Fateh-110 and Zulfiqar systems deployed in the west of the country, Israel is within range.  But again, the deployment in Iraq is intended for strategic purposes – to broaden Iran’s options for retaliation in the event of an all out war or an attack on Iranian facilities in Iran itself, and to secure political domination of the Iraqi state for Iranian purposes.   

This leaves two remaining areas from where the record suggests retaliation is more likely to come: the Ansar Allah/Houthi movement in Yemen, or the global IRGC/Hizballah terror infrastructure. 

Re the former, Iran has found it useful in the past when engaged in high profile action against other states to use the Houthis as a convenient smokescreen.  Most famously, the Houthis implausibly claimed early responsibility for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khureis on September 14, 2019.  It is not unimaginable that the Yemeni guerrillas, or at least their name-tag, could be utilized by the IRGC in launching ordnance at Israel. 

The most likely route for Iran’s retaliation, however, remains the global terror network maintained by the IRGC in close cooperation with Lebanese Hizballah. The record shows that in the past, Iran has chosen this route in responding to the killings of senior officials of its own or of its proxies. Thus, Teheran responded to Israel’s killing of Lebanese Hizballah leader Abbas Mussawi in 1992 by striking at the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in the same year, and then at the AMIA community center in the same city in 1994. 

Similarly, IRGC/ Hizballah’s international networks have been mobilized in efforts to seek retribution for the killing of Hizballah military mastermind Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008. Here, there have been a string of failures, and this killing remains an open matter for the movement.  The Burgas bombing July 18, 2012, in which five Israeli tourists were killed, is not considered to constitute an act of significant magnitude to close this account. 

So the record, and political and strategic realities make the international terror track the most likely avenue for Iran’s revenge for Fakhrizadeh’s killing. Here too, however, political considerations apply.  With a new, and probably more reconciliatory US Administration about to take office, Iran may well judge it prudent to avoid any hasty response.  The prospect of sanctions relief, and the end of ‘Maximum pressure’ may be found to be enough to justify silence, for now. 

Hossein Dehghan the influential former minister of defense, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s adviser in the defense industry  said following the Fakhrizadeh killing that “while the call for revenge is legitimate, Iran will act in a smart way and won’t leave the enemies aggression unanswered. We’ll determine when and where to respond.”

It may therefore well be that no rapid response to Fakhrizadeh’s killing is forthcoming.  The alert in Israel and in Israeli and Jewish facilities worldwide is essential, of course. But in assessing such matters, the political and strategic contexts, and past practice should not be ignored. It is also worth remembering the quote often attributed to Charles De Gaulle, according to which ‘the graveyards are filled with indispensable men.’ 

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Iran’s Terror Campaign in Europe

Jerusalem Post, 20/11

A trial due to begin next week in the Belgian city of Antwerp  is set to cast further light on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s use of official diplomatic missions in its ongoing campaign of violence and harassment of its opponents across the globe.  While the threat of activities by non-state Sunni jihadi organizations remains high on the agenda of many western countries, the flouting by Iran of global norms in pursuit of the regime’s perceived enemies has received little focus.  The Antwerp trial may serve to change this.    

The four people to be tried in Antwerp stand accused of seeking to place an explosive device at a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), held at Vellepinte, outside Paris on June 30, 2018.  The NCRI is the public and diplomatic wing of the Mujahidin al-Khalq or Peoples’ Mujahidin of Iran (MEK).  This organization was responsible for the first public revelations regarding the Iranian nuclear program, in 2002.  Led by Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, the MEK is a veteran opponent of the Iranian regime.  It has succeeded in recent years in forging deep links with influential political circles in both the US and western Europe. 

Speakers at the Paris rally included Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City and attorney to President Donald Trump.  The specific target of the bombing, according to western media reports, was NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi.  The bomb would have caused large scale loss of life at the rally had it been placed and detonated. 

Four people are accused of involvement in the  planned bombing of the NCRI rally.  Three of them have been named. They are: Assadollah Assadi, 48, an Iranian diplomat and third secretary at Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Amir Saadouni, 40, and his wife Nasimeh Naami, 36.  The identity of the fourth person has not yet been announced.   

Saadouni and Naami, having received an explosive device containing 1lb of TATP (triacetone triperoxide – an explosive commonly used in terror attacks) from Assadi, were set to travel from Belgium to Paris on the day of the planned bombing when they were arrested by the Belgian authorities at Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, to the east of Brussels.  Assadi was arrested in Germany on July 1 and was subsequently deported to Belgium. 

The authorities, it appears, had been watching the three for some time. According to an article in this week’s Sunday Times, the Belgian state security service – the VSSE (Veiligheid van de Staat) – received a ‘tip off’ from a ‘partner service’ that the three people arrested were thought to be planning an act of violence in France.  The paper notes that the partner service is thought to have been Israel’s Mossad. 

According to a Belgian police official quoted by Buzzfeed, “There was a meeting in Luxembourg that was under surveillance and everyone worked together quickly to discover the bomb and arrest Assadi. It seems like the Iranian regime hoped a bombing would be seen as an internal MEK matter, which would be a plausible theory except we caught their guy in the act.”

Jaak Raes, the head of the VSSE, wrote in a letter to the Belgian federal prosecutor quoted by the Sunday Times that ‘The plan for the attack was conceived in the name of Iran and under its leadership. It was not a matter of Assadi’s personal initiative.”

The plot to bomb the Paris NCRI rally should not be seen as a single, stand-alone event.  Rather, it reflects a notable pattern of activity by certain Iranian state bodies, conducted via Iranian representations abroad, often with the participation of locals of Iranian or other descent.  The specific Iranian state organizations engaged in this ongoing campaign are the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.  (MOIS) 

Assadollah Assadi, according to a number of Iranian opposition news sources, began his career in the early 1980s as a member of the IRGC, and then transferred to the MOIS in 1989.  Having risen through the ranks at the ministry, he was the MOIS representative at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad between 2005-8.  As later in Vienna, he was officially accredited as a diplomat at the embassy.  Assadi began his work in Vienna in 2014. 

One Iran opposition site, maintains that Assadi was the top MOIS representative in Europe at that time, and ‘In this period, he monitored and coordinated the regime’s operations against political refugees and dissidents, mainly members and supporters of PMOI/MEK.’

The German Federal Prosecutor, in a July 11, 2018 statement following his arrest, noted that “Assadi was a member of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, whose tasks primarily include the intensive observation and combatting of opposition groups inside and outside of Iran.”

Assadi’s case is the first time that a serving diplomat in Europe will face trial for direct involvement in terrorism. 

Observation of the record over the last half decade in Europe reveals that the planned Paris attack was only one of a long list of operations undertaken by the MOIS and the IRGC against Iranian opposition targets in Europe.  Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of other incidents:

In December, 2015, Mohammad Reza Kolahi Samadi, a member of MEK, was assassinated in his apartment in Alere in the Netherlands.  Samadi had been sentenced to death in absentia by a court in Iran for his alleged role in a 1981 bomb attack in Teheran. 

In July, 2016, Reinhold Robbe, an academic and former head of the German-Israel Friendship Society, was targeted in Paris by the IRGC.  A Pakistani national, Haidar Syed-Naqfi, was paid by the organization to conduct surveillance on Robbe and other Jewish and Israeli targets. 

On November 8th, 2017, Ahmad Mola Nissi, a founder of ASMLA, an insurgent group formed among the Ahvazi Arab population of Iran, was shot dead outside his home in The Hague. 

In January, 2018, German media reported that 10 suspected IRGC operatives had been surveilled by the authorities, suspected of planning to target a number of Israeli and Jewish targets. No one was charged. 

On March 28, 2018, two IRGC operatives were arrested in Albania, suspected of planning an attack on MEK members resident in that country. They were later released without charge. 

On October 30, 2018, Habib Jabor, an ASMLA official, was the subject of surveillance revealed by the Danish authorities to constitute part of an assassination plan against him.  A Norwegian citizen of Iranian descent was arrested and extradited to Denmark. 

The alleged Paris bombing thus forms part of an extensive campaign of harassment and violence by Iranian state bodies against supposed enemies of Iran on European soil.

Iran policy may soon be subject to significant change under a new US Administration.  Any attempt to renegotiate an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is likely to include reference to the paramilitary and irregular military activity undertaken in a variety of locations by Iran – in the Mid-East region and beyond it. The ongoing Iranian campaign of terror in Europe should form a major part of that discussion.

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The Incendiaries: How Turkey and Pakistan fan the flames of Islamic Anger

Jerusalem Post, 7/11

French President Emmanuel Macron’s expressions of condemnation of political Islam following the decapitation of teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 have led to furious demonstrations in parts of the Islamic world.  A number of violent incidents of Islamist terror have followed, including the murder of three people in a church in Nice, by a recent Tunisian immigrant to France.  It seems likely, though it cannot yet be confirmed, that the terror attack in Vienna on November 2nd, in which four people died, was also related to the mood of fury among sections of European and global Islamic opinion related to the depiction of images of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. 

Outbursts of murderous fury of this kind, often not directed or organized by Islamist terror networks, form a tragic by-product of the arrival in recent years to the European heartland of significant numbers of people with Islamist sympathies.  This outlook brings with it a desire to ensure – by whatever means deemed necessary –  an elevated level of respect for Muslim religious sensitivities, over and above those of any other religion or creed. This latter situation is a state of affairs which exists in most Islamic countries.  Some European commentators have concluded that such acts are intended to bring about the enforcement of Islamic blasphemy laws in non-Islamic countries. 

So far, so familiar.  But the current moment differs from previous episodes of Islamist political violence in western countries in two significant ways. 

Firstly, these latest attacks come at a time when the actual organized networks of Salafi jihadi terror are weaker than at any time over the last two decades.  The al-Qaeda network is ageing, and closely observed by western security services. The Islamic State, meanwhile, has yet to recover from the loss of its last territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria in March 2019, and the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by the US in October, 2019.    

The murders of Paty and the three other French citizens in Nice were not, it appears, the result of a direct decision by an Islamist terror network. It is too soon to draw any conclusions on this subject regarding the Vienna attack. ISIS has now claimed responsibility for this. But it is possible that ISIS sympathisers chose to act with no specific order from a chain of command.

Secondly, and most significantly, the atmosphere of fury, and desire for retribution is no longer being stirred up only by Islamist preachers  and jihadi organizations. Rather, the incitement, the steady drum beat of accusations and the threats  are coming now from the leaders and the official mouthpieces of a number of Muslim states. This is a new situation. It is one of profound importance.  The states in question are: most importantly, Turkey, and also Pakistan. 

The Turkish and Pakistani efforts in this regard appear designed to generate a sort of ‘soft power’ for the governments of Recep Tayepp Erdogan and Imran Khan, among Muslim populations in western countries. They thus include within them a dismissal of the notion of legitimate sovereignty, according to which the internal affairs of other states are those states’ business alone.    

Erdogan, following Macron’s comments, declared that the French president needed ‘mental treatment,’ urged the boycott of French goods, and asserted that Muslims in Europe faced a ‘lynch campaign similar to that against Jews before World War 2.”  France subsequently recalled its ambassador from Ankara.

The Turkish president has form in this regard.  In 2017, following a ban by Germany on Turkish officials campaigning in Germany in favor of support for Erdogan in a referendum to increase his powers, the Turkish president warned that “If you go on behaving like that, tomorrow nowhere in the world, none of the Europeans, Westerners will be able to walk in the streets in peace, safely.’ 

He also threatened at that time to send a new wave of migrants from Turkish shores across the Mediterranean to Europe. 

In recent days,  the Turkish President added to his exhortations against the French government, saying ‘“If there is persecution in France, let’s protect Muslims together.” He claimed in a speech to the AKP parliamentary group last week that ‘disrespect for the prophet is spreading like cancer, especially among leaders in Europe.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, meanwhile, said that the French President had ‘attacked Islam,’ and accused Macron of ‘deliberately provoking Muslims.” He summoned the French ambassador to Islamabad for a reprimand. 

A statement from the Pakistani Foreign Office followed, asserting that ‘“Pakistan condemns systematic Islamophobic campaign under the garb of freedom of expression.”

These statements were made against the background of furious demonstrations in Turkey, Pakistan and further afield – including in the Gaza Strip and Iraq. 

The efforts by powerful leaders of Muslim countries to inflame the sentiments of Muslims in Europe and beyond it are a relatively new phenomenon.  At the height of al-Qaeda’s insurgency a decade or so ago, political Islam was a powerful but oppositional presence in majority Muslim countries (with the exception of Iran, whose Shia identity makes it less relevant in this regard). 

Today, it is Erdogan, above all, with Khan as his understudy, who is leading the way with the incitement. 

It should go without saying that Erdogan and Khan’s calls for religious tolerance have no reflection in their own policies at home. Erdogan recently converted the ancient Hagia Sophia Church into a mosque and is set to do the same with the Church of St. Savior in Chora, Istanbul.  Khan rules over a country where Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and Christians are regularly convicted on blasphemy charges, and where Hindus have been forcibly converted to Islam. 

This, however, is precisely the point.  These leaders, as is crystal clear to their supporters, are asserting a notion of elevated honor to be afforded the symbols of Islam, not arguing for parity. 

When the atmosphere of incitement erupts into violence, as it inevitably must, Erdogan and co. will be on hand to express regret. Erdogan, after all, only supplied the matches and the kindling. Someone else entirely lit the fire.   

This approach makes policy sense for the Turkish leader and his allies. Through it, Ankara seeks to acquire a ready made instrument to impose pressure on western countries.  France is an emergent strategic rival to Turkey, above all in the east Mediterranean.  Having an ability to foment public disorder within it is a useful weapon. 

The Syrian Salafi strategist Abu Musab Al Suri famously came up with the idea of an ‘individualised’ jihad, in which organizations would issue only general directives, leaving individual jihadis to take violent action at their own initiative.  This formed the backdrop to the so-called ‘stabbing intifada’ in Israel in 2015. It is strange to see that another version of it appears to be now an element of the policy of a powerful, still officially western-aligned state.    

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Strategic Game in the East Med.

Jerusalem Post, 24/10

Russian attempts to move closer to Egypt made possible by US absence

An upcoming joint naval exercise involving the Egyptian and Russian navies, announced by the Russian Defense Ministry on October 10, is testimony to the fluid and rapidly changing strategic situation in the Eastern Mediterranean arena and the Middle East more generally.  According to the Russian statement, the exercise will ‘“work out joint tasks to protect sea routes from various threats,” and will include rocket and artillery fire, and simulated inspections of ‘suspicious vessels.’ 

A number of regional commentators noted that the exercise is clearly intended for the attention of Turkey, with reference to Ankara’s recent unilateral moves in the eastern Mediterranean.  Relations between the Turkish and Egyptian governments are currently at a nadir, against the background of long standing rivalries.  The differences between the two have their origins both in geo-strategic competition, and in rival systems of government. 

Turkey and Egypt represent polar opposites in terms of regional governance.  The choice in the Arab world over the last decade has been (with the partial exception of Tunisia) between monarchs and officers on the one hand, and Islamists on the other.  Erdogan’s Turkey, while non-Arab itself, has sought to sponsor, support and align with Sunni Islamist movements and Islamist and pro-Islamist governments in Syria, Qatar, Tunisia, the Palestinian territories, Libya and Yemen. 

Sisi’s Egypt, meanwhile, exemplifies the reaction against movements of this type, in its most powerful and consequential form.  It was Sisi’s coup on July 3, 2013, which  effectively reversed the advance of Sunni political Islam of the previous three years (probably saving Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt in doing so), and began the phase of its eclipse.  Erdogan has not forgotten this recent history. In his own characteristic style, the Turkish president refers to his Egyptian counterpart as a ‘murderer.’  The Turkish ambassador to Cairo was withdrawn after the coup. 

The links between the Turkish Islamist milieu from which Erdogan emerged, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are deep, and of long standing.  The Turkish Islamists were educated in the thoughts of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, and chief ideologue Sayyed Qutb. The comprehensive crushing by the Egyptian military of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood thus remains an open wound for the Turkish Islamists.

This political and ideological background informs and intensifies the concrete, geo-strategic issues on which Cairo and Ankara are opposed.  These in turn center around the issue of the exploitation of natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey’s aggressive moves to mark off large swathes of the area for its exclusive control. 

On November 27, 2019, Turkey and Libya signed a maritime boundary agreement marking of a 200 nautical miles area as their Exclusive Economic Zone.  The agreement was rejected by Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the UAE.  Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias declared it ‘“illegal, null and void.’ On August 6, Egypt and Greece signed their own rival agreement in Cairo, delineating the maritime borders between them. 

On September 22, again in Cairo, energy ministers of the members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum signed a charter establishing this forum as an international organization.  The Forum’s members include Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the Palestinian Authority. 

But it is not so simple to separate political issues from geo-strategic ones.   Turkey backs the Government of National Accord in Libya in order to retain a pliant partner with which it seeks to jointly mark out an ambitious Exclusive Economic Zone in the Mediterranean, and by so doing seek to block the abilities of Egypt, and Israel to export gas to Europe. 

But the Libyan Government of National Accord in Tripoli, with which Turkey is partnering, is supported by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood and a number of militias associated with it.  The rival, Tobruk based area of control of General Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk, meanwhile, is actively supported by Egypt.  A threatened Egyptian intervention in July 2014 prevented Turkish supported forces from pushing into the oil zones around the towns of Sirte and Jufra, after they thwarted Haftar’s attempts to take Tripoli and pushed his fighters back. 

In Israel, the rivalries between regional powers are generally held to offer a certain advantage to Jerusalem, in that the power diplomatically closer to Israel (in this case Egypt) is likely to feel the need to cleave closer to its allies in the face of a shared threat.  The establishment of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and its recent formalization as an international organization exemplify this process. Turkey’s current regional stances are exemplified by a combination of aggression and inadequate diplomacy.  This tends to lead to the formation of broad coalitions against Ankara, of which in the Mediterranean context Israel is a natural component. 

The efforts of Moscow to assert itself as a power in the Eastern Mediterranean should sound a cautionary note, however, regarding this generally favorable picture. 

Russia is not, of course, an enemy of Israel. But Russia is strategically aligned in the Levant region with Iran, Israel’s most implacable enemy. Russian weapons (via Iran and Syria) make up the bulk of the formidable arsenal assembled for service to Iranian goals by Lebanese Hizballah. Russia is also a rival to Israel regarding the matter of gas exports to Europe.  All this means that Russian efforts to leverage regional power rivalries to increase its own presence and influence are not a net positive for Jerusalem.  From the Israeli point of view, while there is no enmity, the less Russia, the better.

In the case of the East Mediterranean as elsewhere, Russia’s involvement comes with the intention of mediating between the sides, and in so doing increasing Russian influence with both of them.  This runs counter to the Israeli interest, which is unambiguously in the advance of the Egyptian/Greek/Cypriot/European interest in the East Med., an end to Turkish provocations, and the retreat and frustration of Turkish ambitions. 

Moscow is seeking to draw Turkey further from NATO.  Its natural interest, therefore, will be ‘mediation,’ and a soft line towards Turkish ambitions. Moscow recently opposed, for example, a US decision to partially lift a 33 year old arms embargo on Cyprus.  Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov responded by accusing the US of pursuing the course of ‘who is not with us is against us.’  The pattern is familiar from the experience of Syria in recent years. 

The Russian entry into the picture, as elsewhere, is made possible  because of the absence of another major power.   The EU can issue declarations, but it has no united force to deploy.  The power which is absent in the East Mediterranean, and indeed whose absence makes possible both the Turkish aggression and the Russian attempt to ‘mediate’, is the United States.  The US, unfortunately, still lacks a clear policy towards Turkey and its pattern of destabilization. 

Russian efforts to draw Egypt closer towards its orbit demonstrate the difficulties of trying to build a regional alliance in the absence of a superpower patron.  Countries with widely differing systems of government and histories may unite in the face of an aggressor.  But absent a common patron, the evidence suggests that the alliance may be ad hoc and fragile, and its members vulnerable to being diverted. 

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Reflections on insurgent political Islam, twenty years after the outbreak of the Second Intifada


This week marks twenty years since the outbreak of the Second Intifada.  I remember those febrile days very well, here in  Jerusalem.  The peace talks at Camp David broke down in late July.  After that, it was clear that something was coming, though no-one knew exactly what form it would take.  There were stormy demonstrations on the university campuses in the early autumn.  Arab and Jewish students facing off against one another.  I was a PHD student in my late 20s, then, and I was not an observer or bystander.  Rather, at that time the direction of events seemed to me to offer a kind of triumphant vindication for the views I had been professing for the previous half decade or so. 

It didn’t take special insight to see the gaping holes in the peace process of the 1990s. One simply had to be bereft of the very deep longing for peace and normality which was the mood of mainstream Israeli society at the time. I was not part of mainstream Israeli society.  Rather, I was a Zionist immigrant from London, with a passion for history and a hatred for those I perceived to be the enemies of Israel and the Jews.  I read the Fatah and Hamas propaganda and listened to their threats and I was looking forward to what I thought was coming down the road that early autumn afternoon outside the Frank Sinatra cafeteria. On the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University.  To war.  And victory. With a beautiful Jerusalem autumn sky overhead as we and the Arab students chanted our threats at each other.  Outside the cafeteria that would be blown up by a Hamas bomb on July 31, 2002. 

We got our war all right.  It started with the killings on the joint patrols, then the first days of October when it looked for a moment like a generalized revolt of the Arab population, including those with Israeli citizenship, was about to begin. The first bombings in Jerusalem began in November.  The shootings on the roads started up at about the same time.

The years that followed witnessed the bus and café bombings, and long weeks spent on reserve duty in different parts of the West Bank for a generation of IDF soldiers.  It rapidly became clear, as had been predicted, that this was not a nationalist struggle. Rather, the organizations coming against us were wrapped in the banners of insurgent political Islam.  The tactics, suicide bombings most importantly but also the more general desire to destroy our will through the deliberate targeting of civilians, had been borrowed from the Shia jihadis of Lebanese Hizballah. 

This point is I think crucial to understanding the trajectory and the results of the ‘Al Aqsa Intifada.’  It was the first eruption of political Islam in its insurgent form against a western democracy.  It felt unfamiliar at first, and would go on to be a harbinger. 

A year after, when we were in the midst of the period of suicide bombings, Al Qaeda destroyed the twin towers in New York.  This ushered in a global focus on the issue of insurgent political Islam.  The Afghanistan and Iraq invasions in turn brought the issue of Middle East political dysfunction decisively to the front and center of western political discourse.

Subsequent Islamist attacks in Madrid, London and Paris, and many other locations in the west widened this focus. 

Then in 2010, following challenges to the sclerotic political order in the Arab world, Islamist popular mobilization and insurgency arrived, finally, in mass form in the heartland of the Arab Islamic world itself.  It reached its purest, most unalloyed expression in the shape of the ISIS Caliphate.  It delivered nothing of what it had promised. Not dignity. Not victory. And not the eclipse of enemies. Rather, it provoked a massive reaction against itself, which has proved the stronger. 

From the vantage point of Jerusalem, what all this looked like was a kind of gigantic shadow reflection of our own experiences in the 2000-2004 period.  The same ideas, the same organizations, the same slogans, even the same tactics. But making our own experience dwarf like in the cost, the sheer volume of destruction visited on the heartlands of the Arab world in the years following 2010. In Syria, above all other places. But not only in Syria. 

So there is a shape, and a trajectory.  And it seems to me that what this is a story of, above all other things, is the story of the rise and decline of a particular revolutionary political idea.  That idea is insurgent political Islam.  And this is the pivotal point I want to suggest here.  A point which it feels strange to make because this idea has been such an intimate companion and enemy to my generation (or at least the particular corner of it which I inhabit) for the last 25 years.  As we have grown from youth to middle age.  We watched it arrive to its terrible adulthood and we have watched its decline. Because the pivotal point is that insurgent political Islam, or ‘Islamism’, indeed now appears to be in decline. Its eclipse and its increasing decrepitude are no less stark, and no less significant than the similar decline of its predecessor, Pan-Arab nationalism. 

Look around the Arabic-speaking world today. Where does one find an insurgency led from below, a jihad, a popular revolt, of the kind premiered by the Second Intifada and then witnessed on a vastly larger scale in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain?  Nowhere. 

There is certainly disorder. The end result of ten years of chaos is that large swathes of the Arabic speaking world are a smoking ruin.  But across that ruin, with its semi, or non-functioning governments in Libya, Yemen and across the single space still officially referred to as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, what one finds is not popular insurgency, but rather the machinations of states and their obedient clients. 

The main legacy of Islamist insurgency’s tearing asunder of the Arab world, paradoxically, is the clinical death of a number of Arab states, and their penetration by a variety of regional and global non-Arab powers.  These powers – Iran, Turkey, Russia, the US – make use of the remnant organizations of the insurgents as contractors and cannon fodder for their own designs. 

Political Islam ,meanwhile, has itself entered that phase of its existence where, no longer an insurgent banner, it is now a decoration used by powerful states as part of their justification of themselves.  Today, it is borne along by Turkey and Iran, and this is its main remaining relevance.

But in both these cases, political Islam is mixed up with a kind of imperial revanchism as the main justifying idea of the regimes. And in any case, this is largely a top down affair, with insurgents re-mustered as military contractors.  The former Sunni Islamist rebels of northern Syria, for example – are now trucked and flown hither and thither by the Turkish state and Adnan Tanriverdi’s SADAT company – to Libya, to Azerbaijan.  The various militias that the Iranian IRGC raises – Fatemiyun and Zeinabiyun –  labor in return for tiny salaries and residency rights to the Shia refugees who make up the ranks .

If this reminds you of anything, it should.  It is a phase that both Arab nationalism and Soviet style communism also passed through, before dissolving.  Long after its existence as a revolutionary idea, Arab nationalism became the empty excuse offered by a series of Arab police states for their existence and their repression.  And long after the days when it inspired millions, Soviet style communism remained as the justifying ideology of a number of harsh and airless dictatorships in Europe, Asia and Africa. 

Political Islam has now entered this phase of its existence. Which means that as an idea, it hardly matters anymore.  The states have returned.  The Middle East is entering a phase of major power competition. The recent Israel-UAE deal was an important event in this process of alliance crystallization. 

Three power blocs are now set to compete in the Gulf, the Mediterranean and across the semi governed spaces of the Arabic speaking world.  Two of these – those led by Iran and Turkey – present political Islam in its post insurgent phase.  The third, that of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, constitutes  the camp of the reaction against insurgent political Islam, which defeated it. 

So we are, it appears, at the end or in the closing stages of a trajectory. The trajectory is that of an idea, which came, and rose, and was conquered, and the legacy of which is a broken region and two decades of insurgency and civil war.  We didn’t know what was coming, then, in the summer of 2000, in Jerusalem, in the curious interim months between the end of the bright hopes of the 1990s and the thing that was going to replace them.  We know now. 

As to what will follow, there will be winners and losers.  Iran and Turkey will continue to present themselves as representatives of Islamic authenticity and purity. There will be few buyers.  One of the characteristics of ideologies in their senile phase, when they become part of the language that regimes use to justify themselves, is that no one is really convinced by them. Not even the people who serve them, and certainly no one else. The game to come is  power competition, directed by ruling elites from above.  Among the emergent generation, meanwhile, there appears to be a very great cynicism, a perhaps healthy indifference towards all such narratives, and a search mainly for self advancement. 

Here in Israel, as in the other areas targeted for destruction by insurgent political Islam, we have come through. And we are well placed to flourish in the period ahead, on condition that we can maintain our own deeply strained social contract – exposed starkly by Covid 19.  The idea that first erupted into real consequence in the Arab world in Jerusalem, and which for a moment seemed about to bestride the world, has gone down to defeat.  In 2020, 20 years since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the age of Islamist insurgency in the Middle East appears to have passed.  

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US is beefing up forces in eastern Syria to counter Russian harassment

Jerusalem Post, 25/9

The United States this week reinforced its military presence in northeastern Syria. Six Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles were deployed to the area, and around 100 troops were added to the roughly 500 that are already present in Syria east of the Euphrates River. The US also continues to maintain a separate presence west of the Euphrates in the area around the base at al-Tanf, on the Syrian-Jordanian border.

The beefing-up of the US military presence appears to be a response to the increasing tempo of Russian attempts to harass US forces, and to expand Moscow’s presence in Syria east of the Euphrates. On August 26, four US troops were wounded when the vehicle in which they were traveling collided with a Russian military vehicle.

The incident took place outside the town of Derik/Malkiyeh, at the northeastern tip of Syria close to the Tigris River and the border with Iraq. This area lies far east of the Euphrates, and well inside of an area designated as a US-controlled security zone. That is, the Russian presence in the area was itself a provocation. The collision with the US vehicle took place at a time when Russian military helicopters were deployed above the area. It appears to have been deliberately initiated by the Russian force.

This incident reflects a broader pattern. Moscow considers that the American presence in eastern Syria lacks a clear strategic context, and hence may be withdrawn if sufficient pressure is applied to it. Moscow wants to see Syria reunited under the rule of President Bashar Assad, as a weak and dependent client of Russia. The Kurdish-controlled, US-guaranteed area east of the Euphrates, comprising around 25% of the area of Syria, currently stands as a barrier to the achievement of this goal. (The Turkish enclave further west is an additional obstacle. Arguably, the Iranian area of de facto control in the south of the country represents a third barrier to Moscow’s realization of its vision.)

The Russians therefore appear to be attempting to whittle away at the American presence, gradually expanding their own area of activities in the area, slowly and incrementally emptying the American presence of security content. This slow attempt at erosion appears to be the only option available to Russia in this area. Earlier they tried direct action. On February 7, 2018, a 500-man force led by fighters of the paramilitary Wagner Group crossed the Euphrates in an attempt to seize the adjacent Conoco (Tabiyeh) gas field. This was clearly an attempt to test US and allied will and to establish a precedent for unilateral seizure of territory. The Americans understood it as such, and the force was destroyed by US air power and artillery.

The Russians appear to have learned the lesson, but not in a way bringing resignation, or inaction. Rather, they have concluded that while direct confrontation may produce the Trump administration’s instinct to hit back hard, a messy, ongoing campaign of daily harassment is likely to trigger the administration’s equally developed low boredom threshold.

According to this view, if staying in eastern Syria starts to appear to be more trouble than its is worth, then given the absence of a clear strategic logic for the American presence, this might produce another of the moments at which the president suddenly focuses on the area, and orders a US withdrawal. President Donald Trump, after all, has already announced such a withdrawal twice – in December 2018 and October 2019. On both occasions, efforts by officials further down the food chain prevented the full implementation of the pullout.

Parallel to the campaign of harassment, the Russians are seeking to slowly and incrementally draw the Kurdish ruling authorities in this area back under their political patronage. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with a delegation from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Moscow in early September. The delegation included Ilham Ahmed, head of the Syrian Democratic Council, the most senior executive body in the Kurdish-led de facto ruling authority. The visit forms part of an ongoing Russian-mediated dialogue between representatives of the Assad regime and the SDC.

Lavrov, in a statement issued following the meeting, spoke of the “promotion of inclusive constructive inter-Syrian dialogue in the interest of the soonest recovery and reinforcement of Syria’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.”
This formal language and the political process of which it as a part fits comfortably with the ongoing process of harassment of US forces in eastern Syria. The intention is to covey a sense of the inevitability of the return of Assad and Russia to domination of the whole country, and therefore the pointlessness of the continuation of the small US mission, and the futility for US allies of placing any trust or capital on the American side.

So the contours of the Russian effort are clear. The question remains: has Moscow assessed the situation accurately? Is the ongoing harassment of the US presence, and the wooing of US Kurdish allies set to result in the speedy abandonment of eastern Syria by Washington?

Firstly, the modest beefing up of the US force in the area over the last week suggests that no immediate withdrawal is in the offing. Rather, the increase in the deployment seems to indicate US concerns of a possible uptick in Russian actions, perhaps in the hope of precipitating a withdrawal before the elections in November. The strengthening of the force suggests a US desire to deter any such effort.

Secondly, it would be mistaken to assume that there is no US plan regarding Syria. A strategy does exist. As formulated largely by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and those around him, the US intention is to prevent Assad from normalizing his control of Syria and obtaining the wherewithal to begin reconstruction. This forms part of the larger approach by the US administration to use primarily economic and financial muscle to achieve outcomes in the Middle East. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act makes anyone doing business with the Assad regime subject to financial sanction.

But where does the modest deployment in eastern Syria fit in with this effort? The deployment keeps Syria’s oil and some of its best agricultural land out of regime hands, and thus constitutes a further tool of economic pressure on Assad. Of course, the empowering of elements associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in eastern Syria also angers Turkey. A quiet US effort is under way to sponsor talks between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and the non-PKK-associated Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS), to create a more inclusive political authority. The US special representative for Syria engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, was in Syria this week in efforts to finalize this process.

Israel and Jordan would like to see the US deployment remain, because the US presence acts as a kind of tripwire for the Iranians and their associated militias.

The slow-moving contest over the ruins of Syria thus looks set to continue. The Russians like to try to convey a sense of their own inevitability. The US appears keen currently not to concede the matter. The six Bradleys that rolled across the border this week are a small but notable move in this ongoing contest of wills.

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