Sheikh Jarrah and Shimon Hatsadik: a Tale of Two Jerusalem Gravesites:

Jerusalem Post, 14/5

The current tensions in Jerusalem are not traceable to a single source.  The always charged period of Ramadan, the cancellation of Palestinian elections, the attacks on Ultra-orthodox Jews and the response to these by Jewish far right activists,  the placing of  barriers at the Damascus Gate, and the frustrations born of a year of lockdowns are all important contributory factors. 

The long dispute over housing rights in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, however, forms a prominent ingredient in the incendiary mix.  The Supreme Court this week was due to rule on the appeal of three Palestinian Arab families seeking the overturning of an eviction order against them.  The ruling has now been postponed. But what is the background to this ‘real estate dispute between two private parties’, as Israel’s foreign ministry website refers to it?  And why has ‘Sheikh Jarrah’ become a rallying cry for Palestinians and their supporters both in Jerusalem and with echoes far beyond it?

First, the origins: the current dispute surrounding the Sheikh Jarrah area has deep roots, stretching back to the first years of Arab and Jewish settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, in the last decades of the 19th century. 

The neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah is named after Hussam al-Din al-Jarrahi, the personal physician of Salah al-Din al-Ayoubi, vanquisher of the Crusaders. 

Al-Jarrahi’s grave is located in the neighborhood, which contains also a Sufi shrine to him.  The first private houses began to be built in the vicinity of the shrine during the latter third of the 19th century.  Rabah al-Husseini, a scion of the prominent Husseini family, built one of the first dwellings in what was to become Sheikh Jarrah, in 1865.  This building is today the location of the American Colony Hotel.  Additional members of the family followed him to the area, building houses of their own, and for a time the emergent neighborhood was particularly associated with the Husseinis.  Other Arab notables, including members of the rival Nashashibi family also moved in as Sheikh Jarrah developed. 

The Jewish neighborhoods of Shimon Hatsadik and Nahalat Shimon developed coterminously with the Husseini area. The presence, similarly, of a venerated gravesite served as the force of attraction.   The gravesite of Shimon Hatsadik, a prominent High Priest of the Second Temple period, was in 1876 purchased by two Jewish trusts committed to the development of the Jewish population of Jerusalem.  These were the Sephardi Community Council, and the (Ashkenazi) General Council of the Congregation of Israel.  The cornerstone for the construction of the Shimon Hatsadik neighborhood was laid in 1890.  Construction of neighboring Nahlat Shimon began in 1891.  A few dozen Jewish families subsequently took up residence in the area.

These neighborhoods, in contrast to Sheikh Jarrah, were characterized by poverty, difficult conditions, and overcrowding. 

In 1948, as the British-officered Transjordanian Arab Legion advanced through eastern Jerusalem, the Hagana called on the residents of Nahlat Shimon and Shimon Hatsadik neighborhoods to leave their homes for safer refuge in the majority Jewish west of the city.  As seen in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, it was the practice of the Legion to expel Jewish populations in their entirety from areas it conquered. The residents of Shimon Hatsadik duly fled their homes,  and the areas subsequently lay abandoned. 

In 1956, the government of Jordan, in cooperation with the United Nations Relief Works Association (UNRWA), arranged for the housing of 28 Palestinian refugee families in the area of the abandoned residential compounds in the Shimon Hatsadik neighborhood. The families leased the apartments subsequently built from the government of Jordan, paying a nominal rent.   

In the Six Day War of 1967, the entirety of Jerusalem, including Sheikh Jarrah and the area of the Shimon Hatsadik and Nahlat Shimon neighborhoods, came under the control and jurisdiction of Israel.  The properties in this area, including the compound where the refugees and their descendants were dwelling were transferred to the Custodian General in the Ministry of Justice. 

The Jewish organizations responsible for the original purchase began proceedings for the return of the areas to them.  In 1972, their claims were accepted and ownership of the areas was transferred to them, and recorded in the land registry. 

In 1982, the two Jewish trusts sought the removal from their property of 23 Palestinian Arab families that had remained resident in the Shimon Hatsadik area.  An agreement was reached, according to which the Palestinian families recognized the ownership of the trusts, and in return received the status of ‘protected tenants.’ The agreement was afforded the status of a court ruling, and on the basis of it, the petition by the trusts to remove the families from their property was rejected.  As part of the agreement, the families were afforded long term rental rights, and undertook to pay rent to the owners and to maintain the apartments. 

In practice, however, no rents were subsequently paid, and, according to the Jewish trusts, renovations and alterations to the buildings were made by the tenants, without a permit. In addition, the trusts claimed, the tenants had damaged and sought to destroy structures of the old Jewish neighborhood, including the synagogue. In 1993, the trusts initiated further legal proceedings to have the tenants removed because of non payment of rent.  In 2001, the Jerusalem Magistrates’ Courts accepted the demand of the trusts. 

A series of subsequent lawsuits have sought to ensure the expulsion of the non-rent paying residents, many of which have become entangled in the appeals process.  The two Jewish trusts subsequently sold their properties in the area to an organization called ‘Nahalat Shimon International’ which in 2008 presented a plan for the removal of the non rent paying families (now numbering around 500 people) and for the construction in the area of a Jewish neighborhood of 200 housing units. 

Subsequently, four of the families were evicted (the al-Kurd, Ghawi, Hanun and Sabbagh families). Eviction notices have been issued for others, but these have not been implemented.  An additional 13 households, numbering 300 people, face the prospect of eviction once all legal avenues of appeal are exhausted.  The issue has returned to prominence in recent days because three families were due to have the Supreme Court rule on their petition of appeal this week.  In the event of the Supreme Court dismissing their appeal, no further legal avenues will be available and the way will be cleared for their eviction. 

For Palestinians and their supporters, the Sheikh Jarrah issue has become emblematic of what they regard as the built-in injustice of arrangements put in place by Israel following the 1948 and 1967 wars.  The Legal and Administrative Matters Law, passed in 1970, allows for Israeli property owners who owned properties that in 1948 were transferred to Jordanian control to claim them back from the Israeli Custodian General.  Property abandoned by Palestinian Arabs in the 1948 war was transferred in its entirety to the Custodian of Absentee Property, in line with the Absentee Property Law of 1950.   An amendment to the law allows Arab Israeli citizens and residents of east Jerusalem to claim monetary compensation for properties transferred to the Custodian, on the basis of the properties’ value on November 29, 1947.  But no legal path for the restitution of properties exists. 

Supporters of the Jewish efforts to reclaim property in eastern Jerusalem, meanwhile, maintain that they are following existing legal means in an attempt to right an injustice, namely, the refusal of the protected tenants to pay rent, as required by law. They further assert that this process is being undertaken without reference to any other situation or larger political context. 

These legal niceties aside, there is a harsher, less diplomatic reality which is the reason why many Israelis may feel  few pangs of conscience with regard to events in Sheikh Jarrah. 

Legal discussions regarding restitution of properties lost in the course of the long conflict between Jews and Arabs tend to arise only on the side where Israel has the power. 

Where Arab participant countries in the 1948 war had and have jurisdiction, the matter of any claims to properties lost in the 1948 war by Jews expelled from these areas is regarded as closed.   With regard to properties lost by Jews to Arab states, the law is the familiar one of greater force.  The states in question, all dictatorships, are not interested in discussing the rights and wrongs of the issue. They have the capacity to enforce this preference.  Hence no such discussions take place. 

During the period of 1948-67, for example, when Jordan ruled east Jerusalem and the West Bank, no legal avenue for recompense was available to Jews who had lost property as a result of their expulsion by Jordanian forces.  The combined value of lost Jewish owned properties in the Arab world and Iran, according to an Israeli investigation carried out in 2019, may amount to $150 billion. But these properties, many of them owned by Jews expelled from Arab participant countries in the 1948 war such as Iraq, remain beyond the reach of their legal owners.  No path for compensation is available.  An Iraqi Jew seeking to petition, for example,  the current government in Baghdad for compensation for loss of property incurred during the expulsion of Iraq’s Jews in 1951 would rapidly discover the futility of any such effort.  For anyone with knowledge of the Middle East, the very idea of such an attempt indeed  sounds absurd.

From this point of view, the apparent imbalance thus reflects a larger balance. Where Israel is in control, the matter is subject to discussion, and necessarily imperfect but existing legal process.  The tenants at Shimon Hatsadik, for example, may find it unfair or unjust that they are required to pay rent to the property’s owners. But should they prove willing to do so, their residence rights will be protected by law. There is no reflection of this on the other side, where the automatic assumption of the absolute justice of the Arab Muslim position translates into a similarly automatic dismissal of any legal process for individuals associated with the enemy camp. This is the harsh, usually un-stated accounting of ethno-religious conflict. 

As to how the current round of dispute regarding Sheikh Jarrah will play out,  Defense Minister Benny Gantz sought and has now achieved the postponement of the Supreme Court ruling this week. His reasoning, presumably, was that in an already very tense Jerusalem, the ruling, if the petition was dismissed, would have had the effect of pouring petrol on flames.  The issue thus continues to await resolution.

More broadly, the dispute over Sheikh Jarrah reflects the fact that the city of Jerusalem remains the focal point for a historic and unresolved battle of wills between the Israeli-Jewish attempt to consolidate sovereignty and normalize the notion of a united city under Israeli rule, and the ongoing efforts of a variety of Arab  Muslim (and Muslim but non-Arab) actors to halt and reverse this process.  The Nahalat Shimon International organization, and others like it, have their parallels and opposite numbers. The government of Turkey, in particular, is busy quietly seeking to grow its influence behind the scenes in Jerusalem.  Operating through its TIKA development fund, and through local Muslim Brotherhood associated bodies, Ankara is busy trying to strengthen and extend its own power, and the power of the Sunni political Islam that it favors, in Arab communities in Jerusalem.  Similar funds and foundations are maintained and financed by Qatar, Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  Palestinian millionaires such as Munib al Masri and the late Abd al-Majid Shuman have been active in efforts to purchase property and support construction for the Palestinian Arabs in Jerusalem. 

This silent war, which has continued for decades and is nowhere near conclusion, follows a different grammar to the normally accepted rules of sovereignty, and legal and political norms.  Existing balances of power are seen as fluid and temporary, subject to the exercise of the will.  The supporters and backers of the tenants in Sheikh Jarrah, and the forces that want to rebuild Shimon Hatsadik and Nahlat Shimon will continue their contest even when the current tense period in the city has passed.  Indeed one could argue  that  the very same elements that 150 years ago led to the establishment of distinctive and rival settlements around the graves of Shimon Hatsadik and Hussam al-Din al-Jarrahi remain present, and in conflict, in the city today. 

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A Modest Suggestion for Haaretz Columnist Gideon Levy

Gideon Levy in an article in today’s Haaretz described the current ‘Palestinian violence’ in Jerusalem (ie the ongoing, random, thuggish assaults on Israeli Jewish civilians in the city) as ‘the most justified and restrained act of resistance against injustice and other violence.’

Since Mr. Levy regards the assaults as justified, and since he is himself an Israeli Jewish civilian, perhaps he could help his friends improve the statistics of their campaign by himself volunteering to come up from Tel Aviv to receive a beating from them. This page would be happy to help out by attending the beating and taking photographs.

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Iran Seeks US ‘Withdrawal Under Fire’ from Iraq

Jerusalem Post, 23/4

Rising Tempo of attacks on US forces, facilities in Iraq by pro-Iran militias

A notable uptick in attacks on US personnel and facilities in Iraq has taken place in recent weeks.  In the latest incident, five rockets were fired at the Balad air base, which hosts US personnel, on Sunday.  F16 aircraft are stationed at the base.  Two foreign contractors and three Iraqi soldiers were wounded.  According to a report by Agence France Presse,  two of the rockets landed in the dormitory and canteen of a US contracting company, Sallyport Global Services.  The company provides security, training and utilities at Balad.   

The Balad attack followed a drone strike on the airport at Erbil on Wednesday. US troops are stationed at the airport, located in the usually peaceful and stable Kurdish autonomous region.  This was the first recorded use of a drone against a US target by the Iran-linked Shia militias in Iraq.  A rocket attack in February at the airport killed one Iraqi civilian and a contractor working with US forces. 

Around 20 attacks against US personnel and facilities have been carried out since President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January. But the slow build up of attacks started earlier, and was identifiable from late 2019. 

It was in the framework of this escalation that the US took the dramatic step of assassinating Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, and Ktaeb Hizballah founder Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, on January 7, 2020 .  This strike followed the killing of a US contractor in a Ktaeb Hizballah rocket attack on the K1 base near Kirkuk in December, 2019. 

Soleimani was the mastermind of the Iranian strategic use of proxy political-military groups as a tool of power projection across the region. Al-Muhandis was among his most capable lieutenants, and was the main implementer of this strategy in Iraq.  But if the killing was intended to produce a feeling of shock and awe among the pro-Iranian militias, and a consequent decision not to tangle with the Americans, it has evidently failed to achieve its objective.  The slow Shia militia/Iranian insurgency against the US presence in Iraq has survived Soleimani and al Muhandis, and is now gathering pace. 

What is the objective of this insurgency?  The Iranians want to produce a withdrawal under fire of the 2500 US service personnel currently present in Iraq. 

That this insurgency is gathering speed at a time when negotiations between US and Iranian representatives are meeting in Vienna in an effort to revive the JCPOA should come as no surprise to those familiar with Iranian methods.  Recall that the negotiations toward the original JCPOA took place in 2013-15, at the time when the Syrian civil war was at its height.   During that period, the entire regional network of Iranian proxy political-military groups had been mobilized to defend the Assad regime from the insurgency against it.  The US, meanwhile, was a nominal, though somewhat half-hearted supporter of the Syrian rebellion.

The Iranians considered that warfare by proxy would be a useful accompaniment to negotiation.  It might serve to concentrate the Americans’ minds on the serious nature of their negotiating partner. More concretely, the importance of a positive result to the nuclear negotiations might well incline the Americans towards a more pliant stance on the other files, making a victorious conclusion to the offensive more likely. 

In the Syrian case, this was exactly what transpired.  Washington’s determination to ensure a successful conclusion to the negotiations was a significant factor contributing to the lukewarm support afforded the rebellion. That in turn led firstly to the rebellion becoming dominated by Islamist and Sunni jihadi elements, and then to its defeat by the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian allies. 

Teheran has no doubt studied this playbook carefully. The Iranians will also have noted the recent commitment by the Administration to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by September of this year.  They may well have concluded that all these indications point to the possibility of repeating the Afghanistan and the Syria situation in Iraq.  The months ahead will tell if they are right. 

If it turns out that they are, and the remaining 2500 US service personnel in Iraq are withdrawn, what is likely to follow? 

Here, the appropriate comparison is with a different Middle Eastern country – Lebanon.  Iran today is in a position of full spectrum dominance in Lebanon. Its Hizballah proxy is the most powerful military force in the country.  It also with its allies has a majority in the parliament and can make and remake governments at will. It also controls the most powerful intelligence bodies, and has a powerful economic presence. The fact that this structure is currently causing and presiding over the generalized collapse of Lebanon and its transformation into a failed state does not make it any less so. 

Iraq is not yet in the same position as Lebanon.  There are powerful and also significant military forces, most importantly, the Counter Terrorism Service, which are not in the pocket of, and not intimidated by the pro-Iranian element.  But it is clear that the writ of the government of Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi does not apply across the country.  Rather, the Iran-linked militias (‘Waliyi’ militias, as they are known in Iraq, after the Iranian system of governance – Wilayat al-Faqiya, or government of the jurisprudent), operate freely.  They have vast economic holdings, secret prisons, even control of some border crossings. 

The al-Qaim/Albukamal border crossing between Iraq and Syria is a vital strategic node for the Iranians. It is the route through which weaponry transported by road from Iran makes its way into Syria, and sometimes on to Lebanon.  Today, the crossing and the area surrounding it in Iraq and into Syria is under the direct control of the IRGC and the Iraqi Shia militias. On the Ninawa Plain, the 30th Brigade of the Badr organization prevents Iraqi Christians from coming back to the homes from which they fled ISIS in 2014.  In Sinjar, the militias are mobilized to preserve an additional access route to Syria.   And so on.

The examples of Lebanon, Syria, and perhaps also Yemen suggest that without direct and active American support, anti-Iran forces (with the exception of Israel) have trouble making headway, and quickly founder.  This fact explains the current Iranian push to make the ground burn beneath the feet of the remaining American forces in Iraq.  Teheran understands that in order to reach the prize of the Lebanonization of Iraq, it must first expel the American presence.  This issue is set to be tested in the period ahead. 

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The Ravaging of Afrin

Jerusalem Post, 9/4

State Department, UN and NGO Reports cite pattern of grave human rights violations, assaults and targeting of women by Turkish-controlled Islamist militias

Located in the north west corner of Syria, the Turkish-controlled Afrin area is largely off limits to foreign journalists.  Turkey occupied Afrin in late 2018, in an operation dubbed ‘Olive Branch.’  destroying the Kurdish authority which had previously ruled there.  Since that time, Afrin has been ruled by a coalition of Syrian Arab Sunni Islamist groups, with the Turkish authorities as the real power behind them.  Significant Turkish investment in the infrastructure of the area, along with the frozen diplomacy of the Syrian conflict, suggest that the current situation will last for some time.

Evidence is emerging to suggest that very grave violations of human rights are taking place in the Afrin area, on a systematic basis.  The situation remains largely ignored by both the global media, and western governments. 

According to Jiger Hussein, a refugee from Afrin who now coordinates an investigation team looking into cases of kidnapping and abduction in northern Syria, “We have strong evidence indicating the involvement of the Turkish authorities and their client extremist militias in the international crime which is taking place in Turkish occupied Afrin – including rape, trafficking, and torture to death.” 

Operation Olive Branch began on January 20, 2018, and concluded on March 18, 2018, with the defeat of the Kurdish YPG (Peoples; Protection Forces) at the hands of the Turkish military, and their Syrian Arab Islamist auxiliaries. 

The immediate result of the Turkish takeover was the expulsion or flight of around 200,000 Kurds from the area, reducing the Kurdish population from an estimated 350,000 to around 150,000 today. 

The vast scale of population displacement as a result of the Syrian civil war (around 13.5 million Syrians from a pre-war population of 22 million have left their homes in the last decade) has served to obscure the significance of this act of sectarian cleansing.  It differs from other acts of forced movement of population from Syria in that it was directed not by a pariah regime under western sanctions, still less by an unaffiliated militia.  Rather, this large scale forced movement of a population was conducted by a NATO member state and US ally. 

Following the expulsion of more than 50 % of the Kurdish population of Afrin, Turkey undertook the resettlement in Afrin of Syrian Arab refugees from the Ghouta area (close to Damascus), Deir e Zor and from Aleppo Governorate.  Around 100,00 people have established homes in the area since the conclusion of Operation Olive Branch.   

Conditions of life for the remaining Kurdish and Yezidi population in Afrin under the rule of Turkey and its Islamist auxiliaries in the Syrian National Army (SNA) remain precarious in the extreme.   

A recent report by ACAPS (Assessment Capacities Project), an independent NGO, noted that ‘The Kurdish population…face constant harassment by local militia groups, putting them at risk of losing their livelihoods and access to food and shelter…The Kurdish population of Afrin is at risk of personal threats, extortion, detention and abduction from local SNA factions present in the district….Kurdish residents in Afrin are particularly vulnerable to problems related to shelter.  Kurdish residents have experienced repeated and systemic looting of their property.  Those who fled their homes in 2018 are reported to have had their homes occupied by fighters and their families and by displaced people from Syrian government held areas.”

The US State Department ‘2020 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Syria’ confirmed that ‘“The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria corroborated repeated patterns of systematic looting and property appropriation” by SNA members in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn and that “after civilian property was looted, SNA fighters and their families occupied houses after civilians had fled, or ultimately coerced residents, primarily of Kurdish origin, to flee their homes, through threats, extortion, murder, abduction, torture, and detention.” 

The ACAPS report notes in particular confiscation of agricultural lands.  The non-local origins of SNA fighters has resulted in widespread cases of serious misuse of resources. For example, according to a Voice of America report, no less than 8 million of Afrin’s 26 million olive trees have been cut down by SNA fighters, in order to provide firewood or for trading purposes. Afrin was an area traditionally strongly associated with olive farming. 

It is important to underline here that the SNA – ‘Syrian National Army’, – despite its name, is not an independent Syrian military formation.  Rather, this 70,000 strong force represents the remnants of the Sunni Arab insurgency in northern Syria, today organized, armed, financed and directly controlled by the Turkish authorities. 

The widespread and apparently systematic targeting of Kurdish and Yezidi women is a particular feature of the activity of the Turkish backed Islamist militias.

According to the State Department Country Report: “The COI, STJ, the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), and other monitors documented a trend of TSO (Turkish supported organization)  kidnappings of women in Afrin, where some women remained missing for years.”

Noting “multiple first-hand accounts of kidnapping and arbitrary detention” by Turkish supported militias in the area, the State Department report named the “Sultan Murad, Faylaq al-Sham, Firqat al-Hamza, and al-Jabha al-Shamiya, and the SNA’s Military Police” organizations as cited by human rights organizations for involvement in the kidnappings.  The report continued that “Victims of abductions by TSOs (Turkish supported armed opposition groups) were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin or were activists openly critical of TSOs or persons perceived to be affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) or previous Kurdish administration of Afrin.”

The UN Commission of Inquiry reported the transfer of persons held by the SNA factions to official Turkish custody, “indicating collaboration and joint operations between the Turkish government and the SNA which could, if any members were shown to be acting under the effective command and control of Turkish forces, “entail criminal responsibility for commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent or repress their commission.”  The Turkish government denied these reports. 

An NGO specifically created to document the situation facing women in Afrin noted the kidnapping of 88 women by Turkish supported armed groups in the course of 2020.  As of January, 2021, according to the organization’s website (missingafrinwomen,org), the whereabouts of 51 of these women remains unknown.  The organization notes that 14 of the cases involve direct allegations of torture, and three involve direct allegations of sexual violence carried out by militiamen in the employ of Turkey.  Two of the alleged victims remain missing. The Hamza Division and the Sultan Murad Division are the organizations alleged to have been involved in these three cases.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Turkey to investigate these allegations.  No investigation is known to be currently under way. 

Syria has been witness over the last decade to some of the most heinous violations of human rights seen in recent history.  The ethnic cleansing of Afrin, and the current and ongoing systematic harassment of the remaining Kurdish and Yezidi population, including the deliberate targeting of women, stand among the darkest chapters in this woeful story. 

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The Bear in the East

Jerusalem Post, 26/3

What is the Significance of the Recent Flurry of Russian Mid-East related Diplomatic Activity?

In an event covered in a variety of regional media outlets  but largely ignored further afield, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met on March 15 in Moscow with a delegation from the Lebanese Hizballah organization. The delegation was led by Mohammed Raad, who heads he Hizballah bloc in the Lebanese parliament.  This was the first official Hizballah delegation to visit Moscow since October, 2011, and the second in total.  Also on the trip was Amar al-Moussawi, who heads the movement’s foreign relations desk. A report by Russian analyst Anton Mardasov at al-Monitor noted that the visit immediately preceded Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s trip to Moscow on March 17,  possibly leading to some logistical challenges for the Russian airport and other authorities. 

The arrival of these two delegations immediately followed a trip by Foreign Minister Lavrov to the Gulf, in which he met with officials in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Lavrov’s trip to the Gulf coincided with the televised opening in Turkey of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, built by Russia.  The opening was attended by Turkish President Recep Tayepp Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In the last week, Russian military operations in the Mid-East also intensified, with the launch of an air campaign against Islamic State targets in the desert of southern Syria.  In late January, meanwhile, a senior delegation from the south Yemeni separatists of the Southern Transitional Council flew to Moscow, at the invitation of the Russian government.  The STC is backed by the United Arab Emirates, and controls large parts of southern Yemen, including the temporary capital, Aden and the Socotra province. 

This flurry of Mid-East related Russian diplomatic activity is noteworthy because it reflects Moscow’s multi-faceted approach to the region.  Much analysis of the Middle East notes the existence of three large blocs competing for primacy.  These are defined as 1. the bloc of countries and movements led by Iran and including the Assad regime and Hizballah, 2. the Sunni Islamist bloc of Turkey, Qatar and associated movements, and 3. the ‘status quo’ or pro US bloc including Israel Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  The list of meetings and events above shows that Russia maintains open channels and cordiality with the main players in all these blocs, without being entirely identified with any of them.  Only the Salafi jihadis of Islamic State remain beyond the pale. 

This approach contains a measure of sophistication, and has resulted in Moscow emerging as the go-to mediator on a variety of regional files, from which the United States has chosen through weariness or other priorities to keep absent.  When mediation is needed between Israel and Assad’s Syria, Russia is the only relevant candidate, as has been demonstrated on two significant occasions recently.  When Turkey needed to formalize its area of control in north east Syria following its incursion in October 2019, Erdogan negotiated directly with Putin, casually brushing aside the notional sovereignty of Bashar Assad.  Indeed, the Astana process, bringing together Turkey and Iran under Russian auspices, has turned into the most significant diplomatic track regarding Syria. It has bypassed the moribund, UN-supported Geneva process. 

In all these areas, Russian tactical pragmatism has proved an asset.  In a manner quite unfamiliar to western practices, but well in accordance with Mid-Eastern realities, the Russians care little about final resolution of conflicts, and hardly at all about the mode of governance and the ideology of the elements they deal with. They proceed on the basis of current shared interest, rather than longer term partnership. They are comfortable in the environment of frozen conflicts, and  divided countries, and have no sense of urgency in the need to rectify either of these situations.

In the fragmented spaces that characterise large parts of the post-2010 Arab world, this tactical flexibility can bring advantage.  It enabled the Russians, for example, to ostensibly support the re-conquest by their ‘ally’ Bashar Assad of the entirety of Syria, while subsequently negotiating the current de facto partition of the country in order to draw Turkey further from NATO and closer to the Russian orbit.  It has enabled Moscow also, notably, to acquiesce to the near weekly bombing raids by Israeli aircraft against targets of Moscow’s supposed partner in Syria – Iran.  This despite the presence of an S-400 battery at the Khmeimim air base in Latakia province. 

Russia’s regional approach has paid dividends largely because of the vacuum left by the partial US disengagement from the Middle East.  In so far as Moscow has sought to directly challenge Washington in an area from which the US did not wish to be dislodged, the Russians have been speedily apprised of the true balance of power (see the Battle of Khasham, 2018, when Russian-supported militias attempted an incursion across the Euphrates and were slaughtered by US air and artillery strikes). Still, the US under President Joe Biden shows no signs of wanting to come roaring back to major commitments in the region. 

A more important Achilles heel for Moscow’s regional approach is currently becoming apparent, however.  Namely, a notable lack of financial resources.  In this regard, ‘victory’ in Syria is becoming something of a burden.  The European Union is remaining currently firm that there will be no money for reconstruction unless a process of political transition from dictatorship begins.  Iran, Russia’s partner in Syria, has no money.  Moscow, also, doesn’t have resources to spare.  The result is that Russia is currently presiding over a broken, fragmented country, in which the main fighting fronts may no longer be moving, but nothing has been settled. The Iranian project, and the Israeli retribution it triggers, are a further disruptive element.  This lack of resources is also impacting on stability inside the regime controlled parts of Syria.  In restive Dera’a province, where the uprising that led to the civil war began in 2011, there were large demonstrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the outbreak.  Last week, 21 members of the regime’s 4th Armored Division were killed by unidentified militants outside the town of Mzayrib in the province.  It is all very far from the ‘victory’ proclamations of 2018 and 2019. 

In this regard, Lavrov’s visit to the UAE is worthy of particular attention.  The Russians and the Emiratis share the desire to rehabilitate the Assad regime and normalize Syria’s situation.  The Russians may well be looking for ways to introduce Emirati resources into the ruin of Assad’s domain, though Abu Dhabi will need to be wary of violating US sanctions in too obvious a way. 

But the broader picture – of the stark gap between meager resources and self-perception as a major power – is the essential reality of Moscow’s position in the Middle East.  It means that ultimately Russia must of necessity be reactive and tactical, but that its shrewd tactical moves will then be cloaked in the appearance of great power strategy.  The material results of such an approach, when observed closely, are likely to be considerably more modest than they initially appear.  Moscow understands the Middle East, and plays its games deftly and well. But that is because in many ways it resembles some of its regional partners rather more than it would perhaps readily admit.  

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Who Bombed the Saudi oil facility at Ras Tanoura?

Jerusalem Post, 12/3

On Sunday, a series of drone and missile attacks were launched at military and oil industry related facilities in Saudi Arabia.  Among the sites targeted was the oil storage yard at Ras Tanoura, which is the site of the world’s largest offshore oil-loading facility.  A refinery is also located in this area.  A missile was launched at a residential compound maintained by the Saudi state oil company Aramco in the area of Dahran.  Taking responsibility for the attacks, the Yemeni Ansar Allah Houthis) movement also claimed to have launched attacks on military targets in the Saudi cities of Dammam, Asir and Jazan. 

These attacks were the latest episode in a process of escalation currently under way in the region.  In it, the Iranians are mobilizing both their own forces and the full range of their proxies, in a campaign of attacks against the US and its allies.  The attacks on a US facility at the Erbil airport in northern Iraq on February 15th, the rockets on US personnel at the Balad airbase on February 20th, the placing of limpet mines on the Israeli-owned cargo ship MV Helios Ray in the Gulf of Oman on February 26th, the rockets launched on US facilities at the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq’s Anbar Province on March 3, and the current Houthi offensive on the city of Marib all constitute elements of this offensive campaign. 

The claim by the Houthis of responsibility for the latest attacks on Ras Tanoura and Dahran is of particular note.  Houthi Spokesman Yahya Sarea, quoted by al-Jazeera on March 7, said that the organization fired  ‘14 drones and 8 ballistic missiles’ at the above mentioned targets, in a ‘wide operation in the heart of Saudi Arabia.’ 

The array of proxy political-military organizations maintained by Teheran across the region are useful, among other reasons, for the cloak of deniability that they afford the Iranians in their power assertion across the Middle East. When it suits Iranian purposes, such organizations as the Iraqi Ktaeb Hizballah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Syrian Quwaat al-Ridha group and others openly proclaim their loyalty to the Islamic Republic and its system of government.  At other times, they present themselves as independent actors, merely inspired by the Iranian example.

 The level of credible deniability available to a particular proxy tends to wax and wane with time, however.  The Lebanese Hizballah group, for example, is straightforwardly a creation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). This can be discerned from the movement’s own history, from its iconography, and from the statements of its own leaders.  Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, for example, in mid-2018, was reported by Iranian media as saying that the Iranian system of government vilayet a-Faqih, or guardianship of the jurisprudent) was above the Lebanese constitution, and its orders binding. 

Yet for many years, the fiction of Lebanese Hizballah as an independent, home-grown, home-directed organization was dutifully maintained in most media coverage and research work on the organization, and in the perceptions of western governments, as informed by their local representatives in embassies across the region.  Attempts by Israeli or other voices to point out the obvious flaws in such a perception were dismissed as simplistic or as propaganda. 

Today, perceptions regarding Lebanese Hizballah have shifted somewhat.  There are a number of reasons for this.  Firstly, the broader network of ‘Hizballah’ franchises in other countries (Iraq, Syria, Bahrain) is more widely known.  Secondly, Lebanese Hizballah’s activities on behalf of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war have exposed its role as an instrument of Iranian regional policy in a way that is difficult for all but its most ardent defenders to dismiss.   

The Yemeni Ansar Allah, or Houthi, movement, however, largely retains the portion of ‘deniability’ which other Iran-linked or Iran-controlled groupings have lost.  The Iranian preference for using the Houthis as the preferred address to which current attacks on Saudi Arabia can be attributed may derive from this perception of the movement.  Any designation of the Houthis as an Iranian proxy is still often presented as simplistic, failing to account for local realities and conditions, much the way that Lebanese Hizballah was seen before 2014 or so.

Is there any basis to the notion that the Houthis, in contrast to the various Hizballahs, are a genuine local movement, pursuing independent objectives outside of the framework of the Iranian regional project?

There is some basis to this claim.  Unlike the various Hizballah franchises, Ansar Allah is not a creation of the Revolutionary Guards per se.  It was not established directly by IRGC cadres, as were the Hizballahs of Lebanon and Iraq.  Rather, the movement derives from local initiatives emerging in the 1990s, opposed to the US invasion of Iraq, hostile to Israel and to Jews, and influenced by the Shia political Islam of Mohammed Hossein Fadlallah.  The Houthis and the communities from which they draw their support are adherents to the Zaidiya branch of Shia Islam, the oldest Shia trend.  The Iranians and the Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi Shia who follow them, by contrast, are Twelver Shias. 

But the differences are of degree, not of kind.  The IRGC officers who presided over the establishment of Hizballah franchises in Lebanon and Iraq organized and brought together young Shia inspired by the Iranian revolution and regime.  The IRGC in Yemen has played a similar role, albeit interfacing with more crystallized prior existing organizations. 

Evidence of active Iranian support for the Houthis has been available for at least a decade.  In 2012, an Iranian vessel carrying surface to air missiles, Katyusha rockets, RPG-7s and other ordnance was seized en route to Yemen. Then Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015 confirmed in a public statement that the US was aware of Iranian support for the Houthis.  Support appears to have increased dramatically over the last half decade, as the Houthis have launched their bid for power in Yemen, and captured the capital, Sana’a. 

But while Houthi military capabilities have undoubtedly improved thanks to Iran in recent years, the perception of the group as not dependent on Teheran appears to remain a major asset for the movement, in the eye of its patrons. The Houthis, for example, were the first to claim responsibility for the strategic attack on the Saudi Aramco oil plants in Abqaiq and Khureis on September, 2019.  A UN investigation later cast doubt on the claim. It noted that the drones and land attack cruise missiles used in the attack had a sophistication probably beyond the reach of the Houthis.  Later, Reuters reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had ordered the attack.   

A similar logic may well apply to the current round of attacks on Ras Tanoura and other facilities.  The Houthis are without doubt supported by Iran.  But is it likely that the sophisticated drone and ballistic missile attacks which Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing are the work of a north Yemeni militia, deciding of its own accord to carry out act of a war against a US-aligned state?  The balance of probabilities must lean toward a more direct Iranian role, at the decisionmaking and very possibly also at the operative level.  The (vital) role of the Houthis, meanwhile, is political. They enable Teheran to avoid any process of retribution. For as long as the fiction is accepted. 

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The Siege of Marib

Jerusalem Post, 26/2

Largely ignored by the global media, the fighting in Yemen between the Saudi-supported government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Iran-supported Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement, is currently at its most intense since 2018. The Houthis (named after the clan that established and leads the movement) are besieging the city of Marib, located in a gas-rich region of the country. The offensive matters because of the impact it is having on the lives of the people of Yemen, including more than a million displaced persons who live in Marib. But it is also important because of what it indicates regarding broader changes under way in the strategic balance and direction of the Middle East.
The Marib region contains an oil refinery and supplies gas to all of Yemen. It is the last area in Yemen’s North still controlled by the Hadi government. Its loss would thus represent a major strategic blow to the government’s cause. The Houthis, who launched the current phase of their insurgency against the government in 2014, control the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.

The Houthi insurgency followed the toppling of the Western-backed, long-standing regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012. Saleh, abandoned by his former Western backers, allied with the Iran-supported Houthis against the new government, and together they took the capital. The Houthis then turned on Saleh and killed him in December 2017. Evidence has since emerged to suggest that this killing was carried out under the direct orders of then IRGC/Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

A Saudi-led and United Arab Emirates-backed intervention to prevent the conquest of the entire country by the Houthis commenced in 2015. Yemen is of strategic importance because at its southern tip, the Bab el-Mandeb (Gate of Tears) Strait controls access between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
This is a choke point for vessels making their way from the Persian Gulf toward the Suez Canal. A massive volume of natural gas, oil and petroleum-based products on the way to the canal and to European and US markets makes its way through the strait every day. In all, around 9% of all seaborne-traded crude oil and refined petroleum products pass through the strait.

Control of access to this gateway by an Iranian client would represent an enormous strategic gain by Tehran. It would give the Iranians the ability to disrupt or shut down a significant volume of oil traffic to the West at a stroke. The Saudi- and Emirates-supported intervention succeeded in preventing the Houthis from capturing the southern tip of Yemen, and thus acquiring control of the strait. They proved unable, however, to defeat Ansar Allah in its entirety.

In a pattern that has become wearingly familiar in the Middle East over the last decade, the country then became divided into de facto areas of control, and subject to a massive humanitarian crisis. The current offensive on Marib is the most intense episode of fighting since 2018, and is an attempt by the Houthis and their backers to break the long stalemate and regain momentum toward their objective of conquering the entire country.

Pro-government defenses at Sirwah, to the west of Marib City, have collapsed in recent days. As a result, the frontline is now located roughly 20 km. (12 miles) from Marib City, according to Reuters. Hundreds of fighters on both sides have been killed. At present, however, the lines are holding, and the government maintains air superiority, which may prove crucial in preventing the taking of the city by the Houthis in the period ahead.

Marib is home to between one million and 1.5 million refugees. More than 1,500 families have been displaced since the current round of fighting began on February 6. Around 116,000 people left their homes in Yemen in the course of the last year, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.

THE HOUTHI offensive commenced on February 6. The timing is crucial to understanding the dynamic. On February 4, US President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of US support for the Saudi war effort.

“This war has to end,” the president said. “To underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war on Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
Two days later, the US administration unconditionally revoked the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist designation. The Houthi offensive toward Marib began on the same day. The Houthis also commenced a series of drone attacks on Saudi Arabia.

The desire for an end to war in Yemen is understandable. The humanitarian crisis is acute and urgently in need of attention. Some 250,000 people have lost their lives in a half decade of war.

Unfortunately, however, the US has leverage over only one of the sides. The net result of the removal of support for the Saudi-led side has thus predictably not led to a move toward ending hostilities. Rather, it has resulted in increased aggression by the pro-Iranian side, which now perceives itself as facing an isolated and crumbling opponent rather than an adversary enjoying the backing of a major power.
The sequence of events leading to the Houthi push toward Marib is indicative of a sharp change of perception in Washington, DC, which is producing rapid results in the Middle East. The element of the previous administration that dealt with the Middle East shared the core perception of the region held by key US allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to this conception, a contest for power in the Middle East is under way between rival camps.

This contest is fought partly through proxies. It is a battle for strategic space, and the control of resources and key geo-strategic locations. The camp of which Saudi Arabia and Israel are members is one committed to alliance with the West, and to preserving the strategic architecture in place in the region since the end of the Cold War. It is opposed principally by Iran and its allies and proxies. Arguably, Turkey and its allies constitute an additional anti-status quo power axis.
Reading from this map, support for the Saudi cause in Yemen was obvious and axiomatic. The country is of strategic importance. A pro-Western alliance is fighting a pro-Iranian one. Iran must be prevented from reaching Bab el-Mandeb. No further discussion required.

The Biden administration’s reversal of this straightforward stance with regard to Yemen is the latest evidence that it is reading from a very different map. Together with the administration’s attempt to sideline Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it suggests that an earlier dynamic has been reestablished. This dynamic, familiar from the Obama period, is one in which allies are reined in and unilateral concessions are made to Tehran, in the hope that this will produce a change in behavior further downstream.

Seen from this perspective, local allies who wish to take a firm stance against Iranian aggression rapidly start to look like a nuisance, a greater impediment to progress than the supposed adversary.
Saudi Arabia appears already to have acquired this distinction with regard to the new administration. The desperate defense of Marib currently underway is the direct result. With regard to the broader administration intent that lies behind all this, the offensive in Yemen, combined with the flurry of rocket attacks against US targets in Iraq by Iran-linked militias, would suggest that as of now, it appears to be producing increased Iranian aggression rather than its intended opposite.

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The Ankara-Islamabad Axis

Jerusalem Post, 12/2

A joint military exercise involving the Turkish and Pakistani special forces commenced this week in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan.  The exercise, dubbed ‘Ataturk XI-2021, is to focus on counter terror operations.  It is the latest manifestation of an emergent strategic alliance of these two countries, with significant implications – both for the Middle East, and for south Asia.

Turkey and Pakistan’s growing closeness has deep foundations.  These are two countries following a similar trajectory.   Both were allies and assets of the US and the west during the Cold War. Both have moved far from this position in the last two decades, and are increasingly estranged from Washington.  Both are medium sized powers, governed today by a type of Islamic nationalist outlook. Both, importantly, are seeking an alternative alignment to their former ties with the west, which in a time of growing global polarization is leading both Islamabad and Ankara toward greater closeness with China. 

So what form are the increased ties taking?  Arms purchase is a significant indicator.  Turkey is now Pakistan’s fourth largest source of arms, as Islamabad seeks alternatives to the west for its source of weaponry (the main exporter of arms to Pakistan is now China). 

Pakistan is in the process of purchasing four Turkish-built MILGEM corvette ships from the Turkish state-owned defense contractor ASFAT.  It has also placed an order for 30 T-129 Atak helicopters.  The total cost of orders placed by Pakistan for the purchase of Turkish weapons systems is now in excess of $3 billion.  The importance of this relationship goes beyond economic and commercial factors.  Both Pakistan and Turkey have justified concerns regarding the possibility of western sanctions as a result of the policy directions they wish to pursue.  Reducing dependence on western weapons systems is a way of broadening options. 

The growing closeness is also reflected in the diplomatic sphere.  Pakistani senior officials have expressed support for Turkey in the disputes over gas exploration in the east Mediterranean.  A series of joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean, involving the navies of both countries and including violations of Cypriot and Greek territorial waters and airspace took place over the last year.  Similar joint exercises have also been held in the Indian Ocean. 

Turkey, in turn, in a development causing concern in New Delhi, has begun to support Pakistani claims in Kashmir.  President Recep Tayepp Erdogan said in February, 2020 that the issue was as important to Turkey as it is to Pakistan.  Referencing the events of the Turkish war of Independence, Erdogan said ‘And now, we feel the same about Kashmir today. It was Çanakkale yesterday and Kashmir today; there is no difference between the two.”  Turkey raised the issue of Kashmir at the UN General Assembly in September, 2019, shifting from a policy of non-interference on an issue which India regards as an internal matter. 

In this regard, recent reports in regional media (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Hawar News) suggesting that Turkey is in the process of deploying its Syrian Islamist client militias in Kashmir have raised concerns, though no concrete evidence for these allegations has yet emerged.  

The strategic partnership between Ankara and Islamabad is raising concerns also in the nuclear realm.  Pakistan is a nuclear power, with 160 deployed warheads.  Erdogan, in a September 2019 speech, said that “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But (they tell us) we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept,” in a statement quoted by Reuters.  He continued that “We have Israel nearby, as almost neighbors. They scare (other nations) by possessing these. No one can touch them.” 

Turkey currently possesses two nuclear reactors, Tr-1 and Tr-2, maintained by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority. The country has rich uranium deposits. It thus possesses both the will and the raw materials to develop a nuclear capacity.  It currently lacks only the required knowledge to do so.  Pakistan, which is not a signatory to the NPT, possesses this knowledge.  While no concrete evidence of active cooperation in this regard has yet emerged, it is worth recalling that  Turkey was a covert hub for the activities of the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan twenty years ago. 

The alliance between Pakistan and Turkey is taking place in a rapidly shifting strategic landscape.  The old post Cold War US led security architecture, and the assumptions that surrounded it can no longer be relied upon. In the major events of the region over the last decade – the Syrian civil war, the revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, the competition over gas resources in the East Mediterranean – the US has been notably absent, as it recalibrates its priorities and modes of engagement. 

As a result of this absence, new connections and new power nexuses are emerging.  From this point of view, the coming together of two mid-sized states inclined towards versions of Sunni political Islam and seeking major revisions of the current power balance in their respective neighborhoods, in their favor, makes logical sense. 

Both Turkey and Pakistan are also eager to connect their ambitions to the strategic advance of China.  Turkey is of importance to Beijing as a transport hub on the way to the Mediterranean and to Europe, and as a priority country for investment in infrastructure.  Turkey is an observer country at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It is noteworthy that Erdogan’s efforts to present himself as a leader both of the world’s Muslims and of all peoples ethnically associated with the Turks do not extend to solidarity with the Turkic Muslim Uighurs, on whose fate he has been notably silent. 

Pakistan’s relations with China are deep and of long standing, related to the joint geopolitical rivalry with India.  Pakistan has been the recipient of investments worth $11 billion, in the framework of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative).  These have centered mainly on modernizing the country’s rail system.  A project to build a direct rail link from China, via Pakistan and Iran, to Turkey is in the process of being revived. The ITI (Istanbul, Teheran, Islamabad) line would be the first regular rail link between China and Turkey.  It is expected to begin operating in 2026, according to a recent report in Nikkei. 

A joint declaration by the foreign ministers of Turkey, Pakistan and Azerbaijan, signed in Islamabad on January 13 referenced the joint stances on Kashmir, the Aegean dispute, Cyprus and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.  The document is a useful summing up of the current reality of Turkish and Pakistani synergy. The Ankara-Islamabad axis looks set to form a significant and powerful presence on the complicated geopolitical chessboard of west and south Asia.     

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Yemen’s Houthis designated terrorists: Pompeo’s parting gift

Jerusalem Post, 15/1

US designation of Houthis in Yemen forms part of efforts to cement hardline strategy toward Iran

In a statement issued  Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that his office was set to inform Congress of its intention to designate the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen (better known as the Houthis) as a foreign terrorist organization and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity.  The Houthis have been engaged in an intermittent insurgency against the government of Yemen since 1994.  The insurgency escalated sharply in 2014, when the movement seized the capital, Sanaa, and the surrounding areas.  It has since held Sana’a, and today remains in control of a large swathe of the territory of Yemen.  The Houthis’ capture of Sana’a triggered a Saudi-led intervention in 2015. 

This intervention is usually depicted in western media as a resounding failure, and proof of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman’s impulsiveness and inexperience.  But while the war in Yemen has without doubt produced great suffering for the civilian population, the Saudi and Emirati-led intervention did succeed in forestalling the potential strategic disaster which would have accompanied a Houthi conquest of the entirety of Yemen. 

The Yemeni interior consists largely of sand and rock.  But the country abuts a strategic choke point of global importance. This is the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea.  Bab el-Mandeb is a vital route for oil and natural gas shipments passing from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea and on to the Suez Canal.  Around 9% of total global petroleum products pass through the strait.  Had the Houthis captured the area in 2015, it would have given their patrons – Iran – the ability to choke off the Strait at will, and thus hold the world economy to ransom.  The Saudis and their allies failed to reconquer the entirety of Yemen from the pro-Iranian forces.  But they did protect Bab el-Mandeb.  Similarly, the intervention prevented the main port of Yemen, al-Hudayda, from falling under the complete control of the Houthis. 

The result is that Yemen, like a number of other Arab countries, is now subject to de facto division and ongoing conflict.  The Houthis control the capital and a large part of the populated center of the country. The government of Prime Minister Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi controls much of the sparsely populated east, and the strategically important south and western coastal areas.  The pro-government side has itself fractured.  The separatist, UAE-supported Southern Transitional Council controls the port of Aden and a section of the southern coast. 

To make matters yet more complicated, two rival Salafi jihadi networks – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State group are active on the ground. 

So divided Yemen represents one of the friction points for the regional clash between rival alliances.  On the one hand, an uneasy coalition of pro-Saudi and pro-Emirati elements (tacitly backed by Egypt and Israel).  On the other, a pro-Iran Shia militia. 

The Houthis differ from other pro-Iran forces in the region in a number of ways.  Unlike Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Badr Organization and other such militia groups, the Ansar Allah is not the direct creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It is built, rather, around north Yemeni tribal structures. The Houthis themselves are a north Yemeni branch of the Banu Hamdan tribe.  They follow the Zaidiya branch of Shia Islam, whereas the Iranians and their clients in Iraq and Lebanon are Twelver Shia. 

These differences have been used by some observers to suggest that the Houthis belong to a different category when compared to other Iran-supported militias, and that it is therefore simplistic to define events in Yemen along the lines of a proxy conflict. 

But while local conditions should not be ignored, the weight of evidence for extensive Iranian support to the Houthis is overwhelming.  This week, an article in Arab News offered new and intriguing detail regarding the process whereby Teheran ensures the flow of weaponry to their Yemeni allies. 

Arab News interviewed four Yemeni fishermen who revealed that they had been brought to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, via a humanitarian flight to Oman. They had then been trained by Iranian personnel in the use of GPS, camouflage and in control and maintenance of vessels. The men had been deployed in the Somali coastal city of Berbera, from where they would engage in the transport of Iranian consignments of Iran across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to the Houthis in Yemen.  They revealed an ongoing, complex and extensive arms supply operation. 

Iran uses the territory in Yemen controlled by the Houthis for the launching of missiles on Saudi Arabia.  The Houthis also provide a convenient, ostensibly independent address, at which Teheran can ‘park’ acts for which it prefers not to claim responsibility.  For example, the Houthis claimed responsibility for the very significant,  extensive and sophisticated attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in September, 2019.  The attack involved the use of drones and cruise missiles, and was far beyond capabilities that the Houthis could have mustered independently. 

The 11th hour designation by the US is clearly intended to help formalize and cement the current Administration’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran, to the greatest extent possible.  Pompeo and his team at the State Department have been the driving force behind the maximum pressure which has largely succeeded in holding Iran in place over the last two years.  The designation to designate the Houthis appears to be part of a series of moves intended to make it difficult for the incoming Administration to move back to a path of appeasement of Iran. 

It is questionable if these moves will succeed.  Iranian support for the Houthis will not be seriously impacted by the move.  Teheran is obviously indifferent to such designations.  A number of aid agencies expressed concern that the designation may make it harder for the transfer of food and humanitarian aid into Houthi controlled areas.  But what the move perhaps reveals most clearly is concern on the part of Pompeo and his team that much of the momentum built up of pressure on Iran and its proxies is now set to go to waste.  This concern is shared in a number of regional capitals, including Jerusalem.  It remains to be seen whether these concerns will be realized in the period ahead.  But either way, the designations of the Houthis as a terrorist organization, while clearly representing an accurate description of reality, is unlikely to impact on the developing situation in a very significant way.  

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Iran’s Shia militias are standing by for US sanctions to be eased

Jewish Chronicle, 15/1/21

I met Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside the oil town of Baiji, in Sunni central Iraq, five years before he was killed by an American drone. The war against ISIS was at its height, and the Iranian military mastermind Qasem Soleimani – who met his end alongside Muhandis in January 2020 – had taken command of Iraqi Shia militias. There were already rumors about their murderous behavior toward Sunni civilians. That day, Muhandis was in good humor, calm and amused by the western journalists seeking an audience, and the high-ranking Iraqi Army officers who hung on his every word.   

Five years on, both Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Major General Qassem Soleimani lie in their graves.  The militia strength which they built together in Iraq, however, remains very much alive. It is part of a wider archipelago of client political-military organisations, seeded by Iran across the Middle East, from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean Coast. The creation of this network was Soleimani’s life’s work.  Al-Muhandis was his friend, protégé, and key lieutenant in Iraq.   

The demise of the two men, combined with the US policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Tehran, has brought the Iranian militia structure in the Middle East to its knees. But whether the incoming US Administration will maintain that pressure is an open question, and one that keeps leaders up at night across the region. 

Iran’s proxy network was one of the main beneficiaries of the collapse of governance across a large swathe of the Arab world that began with the Arab Spring.  In Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the crumbling of the state allowed Soleimani to plant his client groups, building covert Iranian strength.   

In all of these countries, the goal was the same. Tehran did not seek to capture official state power. Rather, it wanted to transform the state into a weakened host body, allowing its parasitic militia to act with impunity. The long list of its armed groups shows the scale of the threat: the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen, Kata’ib Hezbollah – Muhandis’ organisation – in Iraq, Lebanese Hizballah, the Afghan Fatemiyun group and the Pakistani Zeinabiyun – not to mention the myriad of militia in Syria.  

Over the last two years, however, their advance has largely been halted, if not reversed. Largely, this has been achieved by the United States, and is one of Donald Trump’s most notable foreign policy legacies. 

There is no doubt that the deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis left the militia structure decapitated. Assassination is an uncertain weapon, sometimes resulting in the emergence of a leader more formidable than the one removed. Thankfully, this has not been the case here. Esmail Ghaani, who replaced Soleimani at the head of the Qods Force, and Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, now heading the pro-Iran militia structure in Iraq, are proving far less capable than the men who preceded them. The militia structure worked primarily on informal relationships, created by Soleimani over a period of years. These cannot simply be handed over to a replacement. 

Alongside the drone strike that killed them came the US policy known as ‘maximum pressure’. The sanctions imposed on the Iranian oil, financial and banking sectors in 2018 starved the Iranian economy of funds. This meant the closing of the tap for the militias. Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, suffered a 40 per cent reduction funding in 2020. Similarly, the four top pro-Iran militias in Iraq saw their income fall from £3-4 million per month to £1-2 million.  

The lack of leadership and money is having a dramatic affect. In Syria, where there is no large Shia population, Iran depends on financial handouts to fill the ranks. These are no longer available. In Iraq, where the militias have their own sources of income, discipline and unity have begun to break down. On December 20, for example,rockets were fired at the US Embassy in Baghdad.  While a small pro-Iran militia claimed responsibility, the attack was criticised by two of the larger militias, Asab Ahl al Haq and Ktaeb Hizballah. These organizations and others like them control oil fields, checkpoints, real estate and land. Their independent economic resources mean that they are evidently not prepared to mutely follow orders from fresh commanders for whom they have little respect.    

There is now a real possibility that the militias could be poised for a return. President-elect Joe Biden has made clear his desire to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear accords with Iran. As a prerequisite, Tehran is insisting on the lifting of all sanctions. In an attempt to focus American minds, it has threatened to expel international nuclear inspectors from the country on 21 February, unless the money starts to flow again.   

An early capitulation by the Biden Administration would give away any leverage that the US currently holds, and reduce any chances of achieving the improved deal the president-elect has said that he wants. Lifting sanctions would revitalize the cashflow to the militias, threatening to revive their forward motion. Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Major General Qasem Soleimani are gone. Muhandis will stay in Najaf, where they buried him, until further notice, and Soleimani will not be leaving the Kerman Martyrs Cemetery in southeast Iran any time soon. But the structures these men created have not been wrecked. They are only low on fuel. It is up to Biden whether they stay that way. 

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