Iran’s response: the ‘Strategy of Tension’ 

Jerusalem Post, 1/6

The United States and its allies are currently in the opening stages of the pursuit of a strategy to contain and roll back the Islamic Republic of Iran from a number of points in the Middle East.  This strategy is set to include an economic element (renewed sanctions, a military aspect (involving Israeli action against Iran in Syria, and the Saudi/UAE campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, and a primarily political effort (in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Lebanon).

Iran can be expected to respond with a counter-strategy of its own, designed to stymy and frustrate western and allied efforts.  What form will this Iranian response take?  What assets does Iran possess in the furtherance of this goal?

First of all, it is worth noting what Iran does not have:  Teheran is deficient in conventional military power, and as such is especially vulnerable when challenged in this arena.  The Iranians have neglected conventional military spending, in favor of emphasis on their missile program, and their expertise in the irregular warfare methods of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods Force.

In Syria over the last months, Israel has demonstrated that Iran has no adequate conventional response to Israeli air actions.

In Yemen in recent days, as government forces close in on the vital Hodaida port, so Iran’s weakness in this field is once more revealed.  Hodaida, held by the Houthis, is the main conduit for Iranian supplies to the rebels.  It is likely to fall in the period ahead.

Economic sanctions may also limit Iran’s ability to finance its various proxies.  Nevertheless, Iran possesses in the Qods Force of the IRGC a doctrine and praxis for the establishment, assembling and utilization of proxy political-military forces which still has no serious rival in the region.  It will be these assets and these methods which Teheran will be seeking to utilize to strike back at its enemies in the period ahead.

In Lebanon, thanks entirely to the use of these methods, Iran is at its strongest.  There is no prospect in the immediate future for Iran’s opponents to challenge Teheran’s de facto domination of this country through its proxy Hizballah.  Recent statements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggest the beginnings of an acknowledgement by the US that Lebanon  is  effectively controlled by Hizballah.  But it is difficult to locate within the country any mechanism today capable of seriously challenging the Shia Islamist party.

The recent events in Gaza may well offer an example of the kind of options available to Iran in its efforts to counter US and allied moves against it.  Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a wholly owned franchise of the IRGC.  While the apparent ‘motive’ for its commencement of rocket fire was the killing of three of its militants by the IDF after a failed IED attack.  This incident, however,  would not normally have been of sufficient magnitude to generate the largest barrage of rockets since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.  It is probable, therefore, that the escalation in Gaza this week was an example of Iran’s ability to mobilize a proxy on one front to place pressure on an adversary, as a result of events taking place in another arena.

Yet this week’s events also demonstrate Iran’s limitations.  Hamas is not a wholly owned franchise of Teheran.  And the joint interest of Israel, Hamas and Egypt in avoiding a descent to a 2014 style conflagration served to put a lid on the escalation.

As noted above, in Syria, Iran has so far found no adequate response to Israel’s intelligence domination, and its willingness to take air action against Iranian infrastructure.

Further east, however,  in the Kurdish-administered, US-dominated 30% of Syria east of the Euphrates, the Iranians may find an arena more to their liking.  Here, a fledgling, US-associated and Kurdish dominated authority rules over a population of about 4 million people, including many Sunni Arabs.   In this situation, the IRGC’s methods of agitation, assassinations, the fomenting of unrest from below are directly relevant.

Unidentified gunmen are already operating in this rea.  A prominent Kurdish official, Omar Alloush, was assassinated on March 15th.  Graffiti denouncing ‘Ocalan’s dogs’ has appeared in Arab-majority Raqqa city.   This week, demonstrations took place at four locations across the city demanding that the Kurdish dominated YPG quit the area.

It is more usual to attribute the guiding hand behind this activity to Turkish state bodies, rather than Iran.  But an IRGC officer looking for vulnerabilities and areas of potential counter pressure on the US and its allies in the neighborhood would surely focus his eyes on this US guaranteed enclave.

More broadly, while Israeli air action may make the Iranians think twice in terms of deployment of heavy weapons systems in Syria, the broader Iranian project of establishing local client militias and stationing proxy forces on Syria soil remains largely untouched and invulnerable to Israeli air action.

Similarly, in Iraq, the ongoing coalition negotiations and Iran’s domination of the Popular Mobilization Units and their political iteration the Fatah list offers Teheran ample scope for action. Fatah came second in the elections, with 47 seats to 54 for Moqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon list.  Much will depend on the nature of the government that will emerge from the 90 day coalition building period now under way.

But whatever coalition emerges, the independent, Iran-controlled, armed element is there to stay in Iraq.  For Iran, a controlling influence in Iraq is a necessity, not a luxury. And with Saudi efforts to build influence in the country under way, this looks set to form a central arena for competition.

Again, the evidence of recent years shows that where Iran enjoys an advantage over its rivals in such arenas is in its greater ability to utilize paramilitary and terrorist methods.   There are already some indications of possible targeting of elements linked to the Sairoon list.  Unknown assailants bombed two offices linked to the Sadrists on May 15th.   One was placed at an office of the Saraya al-Salam, the Sadrist militia. The other targeted a religious organization linked to Sadr, Malek al-Ashtar.  In addition, on May 25, a double IED attack on the Iraqi Communist Party’s headquarters in Baghdad took place. No group has claimed responsibility for any of these attacks.

The evidence suggests that Iran’s methods are at their strongest where it can take on its opponents within a populated area, in a mixed political and military context, and weakest where it faces conventional resistance and a hard border separating it from its enemies.  This means that in the emergent contest, Iran is strongest in Lebanon and regime-controlled Syria, powerful and dangerous in Iraq and potentially in the Kurdish controlled, US guaranteed part of Syria, and weaker and with fewer options in Yemen and Gaza.

Iran enjoyed and benefited from the moment when the Arab world was at its most fragmented, and the west at its most rudderless.   That period may now be coming to an end. The ‘strategy of tension’, utilizing political and paramilitary means, eschewing conventional ones, remains the IRGC’s preferred method of struggle.  The period now opening up in the region will determine its continued efficacy.





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Game on: The New Strategy of the US and its allies in the Middle East

Jerusalem Post, 25/5

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s outlining of 12 conditions that Iran would need to meet in order to make possible a new nuclear deal amounts to a call for the wholesale reversal of Iranian regional strategy.  The conditions stated are not only, or primarily, concerned with the nuclear program.  In addition to a call for the IRGC’s Qods Force to end ‘support for “terrorists” and “militant” partners around the world,’ there are specific demands for cessation of support to Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Houthis in  Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria.

These are not a list of demands issued with the expectation that they will be met.  Rather, they are a clear setting down of US goals in an emerging strategy to contain and roll back Iran’s advance in the region.

So what are the practical aspects of such a policy?  And what might Iran’s response be to an attempt to implement it?

Iran today is a country in the midst of an economic and environmental crisis.  The Rial has fallen 47% against the dollar since January.  The country is blighted by drought. Precipitation across the country fell by 46% in the last 50 years. Tehran has seen a 66% drop in rainfall in just a year. This is impacting on the agricultural sector.  Bad management, corruption and a failure of the JCPOA to generate expected levels of foreign investment compound the problem.  Unrest and demonstrations continue in many parts of the country.

At the same time, Iran is in danger of imperial overstretch.  It is heavily committed in two ongoing regional conflicts – in Syria and Yemen – and also has major assets requiring investment in Lebanon (Hizballah), Iraq (the Shia militias) and among the Palestinians (Islamic Jihad, Hamas).  While Iran is dominant in Lebanon, and ascendant in Syria and Iraq, it has achieved final and conclusive victory in no area.

A strategy seeking to contain further Iranian gains and then to roll Iran back is likely to focus on increasing the cost of Iran’s adventures abroad, to exacerbate internal tensions, while subjecting Iran to tactical humiliations and defeats, in order to reduce any domestic benefit to be accrued from Iranian regional commitments.  Teheran will thus be forced either to spend more on its commitments, exacerbating the problems at home, or to pull back, with the accompanying humiliation and loss of prestige.

Thus, the intention will be to raise the cost, and reduce the benefits accruing to Iran from its policy of interference and sponsorship of proxies in neighboring countries.

What precise form is this effort likely to take? Firstly, it is important to note that this is not to be a US effort alone.  Rather, the clear intention is to mobilize US allies who share the concerns regarding the Iranian threat.

There are three areas in which the effort is likely to be undertaken – military, economic and political.

Regarding military activity, there are currently two fronts of active conflict occurring in the region between Iran and US allies. These are the Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen, and Israel’s actions to prevent Iranian consolidation and entrenchment in Syria.

It is unlikely that the events of May 10th will prove the final round of conflict between Israel and Iran. It is notable that this round came from an unsuccessful Iranian attempt to respond through missile fire for earlier Israeli operations.  Apart from their practical application, the Israeli operations have the value of forcing the Iranians into an arena in which they are very weak – that of air power and air defense – thus hitting at their prestige.  The Iranians currently have the choice of appearing to desist from further attempts at developing their infrastructure, or facing the certainty of Israeli action in an area in which they have little ability to respond.

In Yemen, it has become commonplace to describe the Saudi/Emirati intervention as a quagmire and a failure.  In reality ,however, the intervention prevented the Iranian supported Houthis from reaching the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait.  Houthi advances have stopped, and since the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, it is not clear what the goals of the Houthis’ rebellion are, beyond survival.

A third important conventional military front is eastern Syria, where US and French forces in cooperation with local allies hold around 30% of Syrian territory, including the greater part of the country’s oil and gas resources.  This territorial holding prevents the operation of a contiguous Iranian land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean and to the border with Israel.  It also offers an example of a successful US partnering with a local proxy. Its maintenance is crucial.

Regarding the economic front,  the US policy of renewed sanctions is already in operation.  New sanctions have been imposed in recent days on five Iranian officials suspected of involvement in the Iranian program to provide missiles to the Houthis.  The US Treasury Department, meanwhile, imposed sanctions on officials of Iran’s Central Bank in the days following the decision to quit the nuclear deal.  The officials were suspected of helping to move IRGC funds to Hizballah in Lebanon.  The Treasury has announced new sanctions on members of Hizballah’s Shurah Council.   Notably, US and UAE officials also cooperated in recent days in disrupting a currency exchange network maintained by the Qods Force of the IRGC.

There is more to come.  Sanctions are due to be placed on the acquisition of dollar banknotes by Iranian institutions.  Penalties for institutions dealing with Iran’s Central Bank and other designated bodies are also forthcoming.  All are designed to stretch the Iranians to the limit, producing either retreat or internal unrest.

In the political field, Iraq is now the central arena.  The Iranians suffered a setback in the recent elections. With the 90 day coalition forming period under way, the issue will be the make up of the new government.  The key player here on the pro-US side will be Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis have been quietly growing their involvement in Iraq in recent months.  Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion in loans and $500,000 in export credits for reconstruction following the war against IS.  Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman hosted Moqtada al-Sadr, the main winner of the elections, in Riyadh last year.  Direct flights have been resumed.  The Saudi goal is to revive Iraqi Arab identity, as a counterweight to Iran’s sectarian,non-Arab appeal to Iraq’s Shia Arab majority.   Oil rich Basra province is a focus of Saudi activity.

The issue in Iraq will not be the complete expulsion of the Iranian influence, but rather to set up a counterweight to the Iranians, again forcing Teheran to spend time and energy on preventing the erosion of its position.

Lastly, it is possible that clandestine activity is underway in connecting those in Iran itself opposed to the Iranian regime with the expertise and funding of US allies.

Will this project succeed?  It appears to derive from an attempt to locate Iran’s weak spots and exploit them.  The Iranians, without doubt, will be seeking to develop a counter strategy along similar lines against the US and its allies.  The region, as a result, is entering a new strategic chapter.  The game is afoot.


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Whoever you vote for – Hezbollah Wins

Jerusalem Post, 11/05

Lebanon’s May 6 elections have resulted in the further consolidation of Hezbollah and its associated movements within the legal frameworks of the state. The movement and its allies won over half of the seats in the 128-seat parliament. At the same time, the 2018 elections do not appear set to usher in any fundamental alterations to the status quo in Lebanon.
The majority achieved was not sufficient as a basis for constitutional change to alter the rules of the game related, for example, to the sectarian power-sharing agreements that underly Lebanese political life.

However, Hezbollah and Amal and co will have comfortably more than their own “blocking third” in parliament, sufficient to prevent any changes not to their liking.

Hezbollah and Amal swept the boards in the Shia parts of the country, confirming and consolidating their domination of this sector. Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah declared himself satisfied with the results, saying they confirmed Beirut as a “capital of the resistance.”

The biggest losers were the Future Movement of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri. This list saw its representation in parliament decline from 34 seats to 21, with Hariri-supported candidates losing to Hezbollah supported Sunnis in Beirut and Tripoli.
The decline in Hariri and al-Mustaqbal’s levels of support reflect the sense that the March 14 project of which they were a part is a busted flush.

Following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and the subsequent assassination of then-prime minister Rafiq Hariri, March 14 sought to stand for a notion of Lebanon as a sovereign state, run by its institutions, and with weaponry kept out of politics.

This is a project that has clearly failed. Its first testing point was in 2006 when Hezbollah carried out the attack on an IDF patrol on the Israeli side of the border which precipitated the 2006 war. This incident indicated that despite March 14’s nominal role as the governing authority, it was incapable of preventing a political party with its own militia and backed by a foreign power (Iran) from going to war at a time and in a manner of its choosing.

Its second testing point came in May of 2008 when it was established that March 14 had no ability to challenge Hezbollah writ within Lebanon, as well as on the matter of the movement’s violent campaign (or “resistance” as it prefers to term it) against Israel. At that time, the March 14 led government sought to act against Hezbollah’s de facto control of the Beirut International Airport. Amal and Hezbollah then took over west Beirut in 48 hours, forcing the government to reverse its planned measures.

The third and final burial of the March 14 project for the normalization of Lebanon came with the Syrian civil war. At that time, Hezbollah was tasked by Iran with helping to make up for the Assad regime’s shortfall in manpower. It proceeded to do so, placing the population of Lebanon including its Shia constituency at acute risk, again with no permission sought.

All these facts explain the eclipse of March 14 and Hariri. They are, quite simply, a project that has failed.

What will result from the elections will be a coalition government likely to include both Hezbollah and its allies, and the defeated remnants of the March 14 alliance, whose main component, the Future Movement, is led by Sa’ad Hariri. It is possible that Hariri will himself return as prime minister in the new coalition to be formed. But because of the new parliamentary arithmetic, Hezbollah and its allies will have a higher representation in the new coalition.

Analyses by Lebanese commentators of the elections have been as ever characterized by nuance, subtlety and sophisticated understanding of the sometimes labyrinthine nature of Lebanese politics. As ever, however, they have tended to focus on the minutiae of levels of support and hence of representation in the next coalition, noting the role of a new election law this time in necessitating new tactical electoral alliances, and hence breaking down the old clear structures of March 14 and its rival March 8 movement.

Analysis of minutiae and process, while worthwhile, can also play the role of obscuring the larger picture and its implications. It is therefore important also to note these. The forced resignation and then rapid non-resignation of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri in November 2017 demonstrated the essential powerlessness of the Lebanese Prime Minister on crucial matters.

The elements other than Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese governing system are there to play the role of convincing the world that something of the state remains, and that the country has not simply become a fully fledged puppet of Tehran and its militias.

For this purpose, elections are held, in line with international norms, parties contest constituencies, real issues are also at stake.

There is a large swathe of national policy entirely off limits to the political discussion, and not contested by it. This is the sphere of foreign policy and “national security.”

In this regard, a governing coalition in which Hezbollah is stronger will play the role of further integrating national institutions with those of the “resistance.” But even if this were not the case, the “resistance” bodies are already stronger than those of the state, these bodies are decisive in the decision of when and with whom to make war, and this is not a reality subject to change at the ballot box. That is the salient truth regarding Lebanon today, and its presence should not be obscured by a focus of discussion on electoral laws, constituencies and alliances.

This has been the reality for some time. Israeli planners are well aware of it. In the West, however, there are those who have yet to acknowledge the situation, despite its plainness. From this point of view, Lebanese parliamentary elections are not quite the empty charade of polls in autocratic countries – but like such sham elections, they serve to obscure the core truths of who wields power in the system, and who does not. That is, in Lebanon, in 2018, whoever you vote for – Hezbollah (i.e. Iran) wins.

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The Waiting Period

Australian, 11/5

It is spring in Israel. On the face of it, all appears normal. Yet underlying the everyday is the hint of tension. The low buzz that presages violent events. We know it well in Israel and it has been all around for weeks.

Two nights ago, there was an eruption. The special forces unit (Quds) of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps launched 20 missiles at northern Israel. Israel’s Iron Dome shot down four of them. The others landed in Syria. Israel’s Air Force launched a counter attack. Iranian storage facilities and logistics sites in Syria were targeted along with five Syrian air defence systems.

As the smoke cleared, an uneasy calm returned. Probably not for long.

A series of milestones is approaching in coming weeks, any of which could precipitate further strife. The extended period in which Israel managed to keep itself largely one step removed from the chaos of the Middle East seems to be drawing to a close.

Donald Trump announced this week he will withdraw the US from the nuclear deal with Iran. The stage is set for a return to open confrontation between the US and Iran.

The US has commitments in the region (in Iraq and eastern Syria, in particular) which would be vulnerable to violent pushback by Iran through its proxies.

Israel’s ongoing efforts to roll back Iranian gains in Syria will constitute an element of this larger contest. This, in turn, will increase the chance of confrontation between Israel and Iran.

As Israeli Housing Minister (and former general) Yoav Gallant told Bloomberg News this week, “It’s clear that friction between Iran and the U.S. can lead to a situation in which Iran decides to deploy Hezbollah against Israel … That’s their tool.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week expressed Israel’s readiness for such a confrontation, if it comes. ‘“We don’t want an escalation, but we are prepared for every scenario. We don’t want confrontation, but if there needs to be one, it is better now than later,” the Prime Minister told reports following a meeting of Israel’s Cabinet.

With the situation regarding Iran at such a point of tension, other events which would normally command centre stage are being relegated to a secondary role. Nevertheless, the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14 is set to cause an uptick in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The opening will be followed on May 15 by the culmination of Hamas’s six-week “March of Return” campaign in the Gaza Strip. This series of marches to the border fence is intended to revive the fortunes of Hamas, whose Gaza domain is isolated and cash strapped. May 15 is also the anniversary of the State of Israel’s declaration of independence (though strictly speaking the declaration took place on the 14) and is remembered by Palestinians as the date of their Nakba (catastrophe).

It is possible there will be attempts to break through the border fence. Israeli communities are located as little as one kilometre from the fence, so the situation will be tense.

It is worth remembering that Gaza is not hermetically sealed off from the stand-off with Iran in the north. Teheran possesses its clients among the Palestinians, who may be directed to escalate the situation. The small Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation is a wholly owned franchise of Iran. Hamas’s relations with Teheran are more complex and the movement sought in recent years to distance itself from the Iranian regime. Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar has worked to patch up relations over the last year abd in August Sinwar declared that Iran was once again the largest backer of Hamas.

But it the northern tier of Syria and Lebanon that remains by far the gravest concern for Israel. It is here the ambitions and agendas of Iran appear most directly set on a course of potential collision with the Jewish state.

Iranian assistance has been vital to the cause of Bashar al Assad since the the uprising against him in early 2011. The Syrian president, whose regime rests on a narrow platform of sectarian support, was beset from the beginning by a problem of insufficient loyal manpower. It is the Iranians, not the Russians, who addressed this vital issue throughout the war.

However, Iran, in its usual fashion, did not elect to strengthen the existing, regime-controlled Syrian Arab Army. Rather, in accordance with similar methods pursued in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran has preferred to create its own, Revolutionary Guards-controlled structures in Syria. These defend the Assad regime, to be sure, but they are not under its sole control. Thus, Iran organised and created the National Defence Forces, consisting of Syrian volunteers, mainly from non-Sunni communities and now numbering 50,000 to 60,000 fighters.

Iran also mobilised its proxies throughout the region and brought them to Syria to plug the manpower gap. Thus, there are today about 6000 Lebanese Hizballah fighters on Syrian soil, along with perhaps 3000 Revolutionary Guards personnel and an additional 10,000 to 15,000 members of other Iran-supported Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As the rebellion against Assad has continued to lose ground, so the construction of Iranian infrastructure in Syria has continued. The examples of Hizballah in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq indicate that Iran’s version of assistance is not dismantled when the threat has subsided.

Israel is concerned that this infrastructure, with its contiguous land link to Iraq and thence to Iran itself, is intended primarily for use as a tool of pressure and violence against the Jewish state. Iran is openly and noisily in favour of the destruction of Israel. It wishes to achieve this goal through a long-war strategy of attrition and harassment. Entrenchment in Syria would significantly increase the Iranian ability to pursue this strategy.

While the local and regional militias pose a challenge, the main worry in Jerusalem is the hardware that Iran is seeking to import and base in Syria. Consolidation of this infrastructure – UAV bases, surface-to-surface missiles and anti-aircraft batteries – appears to be what Israel is most determined to prevent.

On April 9, Israeli aircraft struck at a drone facility maintained by the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace force at the T4 base near Palmyra. Fourteen people were killed, among them seven Iranians, including a Revolutionary Guards colonel, Mehdi Deghdan Yazdeli.

On April 30, Israeli aircraft carried out a larger scale raid on two points – the 47 Brigade base south west of Hama, and the Nayrab military airbase close to Aleppo. The New York Times reported that the strikes killed 16 people, including 11 Iranians, and destroyed 200 missiles.

On May 9, following reports of “irregular Iranian movements” in southern Syria, explosions were heard south of Damascus. Israel opened public bomb shelters in the Golan Heights. Regional media reported that Israel attacked an army base south of Damascus, where Iranian personnel were based. Nine militiamen were killed, according to the usually reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Then, in the early hours of May 10, the Iranians launched their 20 missiles, and Israel responded. The Iranian strike was not successful, and it is not clear whether Teheran will consider it to have constituted sufficient retaliation for the Israeli action on April 30. Given the scale of the Israeli response to the attack, this seems unlikely.

What form is further Iranian action likely to take?

Iran has a number of options. It possesses a global terror infrastructure and might seek to attack an Israeli facility or an Israeli or Jewish target abroad. In the past, Teheran and Hizballah have sought retribution in this way. The attack in 1994 on the Amia Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, and the murder of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012 are examples of this.

Alternatively, Iran could instruct its Lebanese Hizballah proxies to carry out an attack on Israeli forces across the border from Lebanon. This is how Teheran sought to retaliate for the killing by Israel of a number of Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah personnel close to the Golan Heights in January 2015.

Israeli planners were expecting Iran’s retaliation for the nine dead militiamen was likely to be carried out in Syria, probably with the help of Shia militia personnel on the ground. It was not the first time Iranian personnel have been killed by Israel on Syrian soil. But it was the first time Iranian facilities, not those of proxy groups, were targeted. The Iranian action on May 10 was the first time Israel was directly targeted in a real-time conventional military operation led by the Revolutionary Guards. This is likely to set the pattern for further events to come.

So where is all this heading? Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that allowing Iran to consolidate its infrastructure in Syria would be “agreeing to the Iranians placing a noose around our necks”. This, the defence minister said, would be prevented “at all costs”.

It is not entirely clear, of course, what “consolidation”, “entrenchment” and their prevention actually mean, or could entail. Does Israel require that all presence of the Iranians be removed from Syria, down to the last proxy fighter? If so, then conflict between Teheran and Jerusalem is a near inevitability, since there is no chance of Iran acquiescing to this except by coercion. On the other hand, if the Israeli intention is to prevent the Iranians from transferring certain weapons systems into Syria – advanced anti-aircraft systems, ballistic missiles, UAVs – then conflagration may not be so imminent.

Iran has an interest in keeping to what it is good at. What it is good at is developing paramilitary proxy political-military organisations. This is the key to its success in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. What it is much less good at is conventional warfare, particularly in the air. The country has a poorly equipped, Cold War-era air force. It possesses ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel, to be sure. But Israel has in recent years developed in cooperation with the US some of the most advanced missile defence systems in the world. Iran’s own defences against Israeli retaliation, meanwhile, are far less developed.

This means that Iran may well prefer to absorb Israeli strikes, carrying out a token retaliation for form’s sake. Such an approach would derive not from pacific intentions. Rather, the Iranians would calculate that it is in their interests to continue to quietly build their strength in Syria, while absorbing periodic Israeli disruptions of their arrangements. Since the Iranians may well be engaged, as in Lebanon and Iraq, in a project concerned with the long-term transformation of these countries into clients/puppets of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the immediate settling of scores may not be deemed of paramount urgency.

Of course, this begs the question as to whether Israel will wish to acquiesce to the pursuit of such an Iranian strategy, with all it implies for the future security of Israel. In the meantime, following the fire and smoke of the night of May 10, and until the next move, we are back to the waiting period.

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The Great Distraction of Punitive Airstrikes

New Republic, 16/4

Despite escalating worries about Russia in past weeks, the skies did not fall in as a result of the American-led punitive raid on Syria’s chemical weapons storage and research facilities Saturday morning.  Great care was taken to avoid hitting the many facilities and sites within ‘Assad-controlled’ Syria which are in fact administered by powers other than the Syrian dictator – namely, Russia and Iran. .  “A perfectly executed strike,” the president declared on Twitter.  “Mission accomplished.” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley struck a similar tone of satisfaction.  ‘“If the Syrian regime uses this poisonous gas again,’ she told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council,  ‘the United States is locked and loaded.”

A great victory, then—depending on whom you ask. Damage was done to Assad, a tyrant responsible for the deaths of an increasingly uncountable number of his own civilians.   The careful planning seems to have prevented anything but angry rhetoric from Russia. And the participation of France and the United Kingdom lent at least some air of multilateralism.

But while the tactical prowess of western armed force over Syrian air defenses was confirmed, it is not quite clear what else has been achieved. Assad will remain in power. The humanitarian crisis persists. Rule-of-law fans and anti-interventionists are displeased by yet another questionable strike under U.S. and international law. And arguably, the focus on checking off proportionate punishment for chemical substances represents a diversion from the issues really at stake in Syria.

U.S. and western officials were keen to note that the operation of recent days did not represent an intervention in the Syrian civil war. A “one time shot,” Defense Secretary James Mattis called it. It may therefore be assumed that the western stance toward that war remains unchanged.  Earlier this month, President Trump declared his intent to  withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, “ideally” within six months. These forces are currently guaranteeing a western-aligned, Kurdish-dominated entity that controls 28% of Syria, including the greater part of its gas and oil assets.

If the withdrawal of these forces means that U.S. air power will also no longer be employed to keep Assad, the Iranians and the Russians out of this area, then the region will certainly be reconquered by the regime and its allies. Support for the non-jihadi rebels in the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra, meanwhile, was ended in December, and renewed regime bombardment, despite last year’s “de-escalation zone” truce, began in March — the removal of chlorine from the equation is unlikely to change rebels’ fate.

Right now, therefore, the Syrian war seems likely to end in strategic triumph for Assad, Iran, and Russia. Western allies, including Israel, are deeply concerned at what is likely to follow from a geopolitical perspective.

Iran is currently engaged in the construction of an extensive infrastructure in Syria. This comprises, according to a recent article by leading researcher Ali Alfoneh, three elements: the construction of permanent bases, the maintenance of Revolutionary Guards and proxy militia forces on Syrian soil in considerable numbers, and the recruitment of local ‘Syrian Hizballah’ type forces such as Quwat al-Ridha from the Homs area, al-Ghalibun from the Sayida Zeinab area in Damascus Governorate and the 313 Brigade from the Deraa area.

Tehran seems to intend to extend this structure to the area immediately east of Quneitra Crossing and the Golan Heights, in order that it may serve as a tool of pressure and potential aggression against Israel. Currently, the enclave controlled by the U.S. and its allies—including the non-Islamist rebel-controlled enclave in Deraa, which birthed the Syrian revolt—blocks Iran’s ability to develop the contiguous land corridor it seeks to extend all the way from the Iraq-Iran border.

U.S. withdrawal of support for these areas, and their subsequent collapse, would mean that Israel would be facing this advance alone—a scenario which has already sparked concern in Israeli media.

Israeli officials have made clear that the entrenchment of this Iranian project and its extension to the border are utterly unacceptable to Jerusalem. The large-scale raid last week on the T4 base outside Palmyra, in which seven Iranian personnel including a colonel were killed, was an indication of the direction of Israeli policy. As Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated following this operation, “Accepting Iranian entrenchment in Syria would be to accept Iranians putting a chokehold on us. We cannot allow that.”

In other words, although the U.S. and Russia appear to have avoided conflict over Syria, the current strategy seems almost guaranteed to leave Iran and Israel on a collision course. When the current western barriers to Iranian advancement are removed, Iran and its allies will finish off the rebel and Kurd forces that remain. Thus consolidated, Iran will then be the dominant actor in a giant land area stretching from the Iraq-Iran border to the Mediterranean Sea and the Syrian border with Israel. Israel will at this point seek Russian assurances to curb a further Iranian advance — which it is unlikely to get. What happens after that is the stuff of strategists’ nightmares.

When seen from this point of view, the destruction of a number of Assad’s CW research facilities might be seen as at best a diversion from the main point. Not only Syria’s humanitarian nightmare, but also the practical geopolitical problems, remain unchanged. The strikes were a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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Erdogan’s Shadow Army 

Jerusalem Post, 13/4

In the collapsed and fragmented space that comprises much of today’s Middle East, the key to success increasingly lies in the ability to combine political strategy with military muscle, under a single banner and in a single structure.   Examples abound.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are today the foremost practitioners of political and revolutionary warfare in the region.  Their skills in this regard are the primary reason for the situation in which Iran today controls Lebanon, and has a dominant hand in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Turkey is the latest country to enter this crucial, if shadowy, field.  The SADAT Defense Consultancy, founded on February 28, 2012 by former Brigadier General Adnan Tanriverdi, is Ankara’s instrument in this area.  Its activities are testimony both to the changing nature of the Turkish state, and to the process by which power and influence are currently built and held in the Middle East.

To understand the role that SADAT is set to play, lets first take a look at the advantages that similar structures afford the states that utilize them.

The IRGC, unlike the Iranian conventional armed forces, or ‘Artesh,’ is commanded by people absolutely loyal not to the state, but to the governing regime and its goals.  These are ‘political soldiers’, notably available for mobilization both in defense of the regime at home, as well as in the furtherance of its goals abroad.

The proxy party-militia structures which the Iranian IRGC excels at creating and controlling in turn have the advantage of informality, and deniability, when compared with conventional forces.  They permit Teheran to support and engage in paramilitary and terrorist activity globally – attacks on Jewish civilians in Burgas and Buenos Aires, assassination of Kurdish politicians in Vienna and Berlin etc – while continuing to take its place in the halls of diplomacy and trade as a supposedly conventional member of the ‘international community.’

The IRGC remains the exemplar for this type of warfare. Other countries have been slower to develop structures able to perform a similar function.  But the gaps are closing.

The Russians, predictably, have entered the game over the last half decade.  Irregular ‘volunteers’ were the Kremlin’s preferred tool for sparking the ferment in Donetsk and Lugansk Provinces of eastern Ukraine which led to the Russian conquest of these areas in 2014.  Military contractors connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner company have played a crucial role as auxiliaries and deniable ground cannon fodder for the Russians in Syria.  Many of the individuals engaged with this company are themselves veterans of the fight in Ukraine.

So, to SADAT: According to its website, the company’s mission is to ‘establish a Defensive Collaboration and Defensive Industrial Cooperation among Islamic Countries to help Islamic World take the place where it merits among Super Powers by providing Consultancy and Training Services.’

The Turkish version of the website sounds a little less like a run of the mill private military contracting firm.  Western states are described as ‘imperialist’, ‘crusader’ countries.

SADAT’s founder Adnan Tanriverdi is an artillery officer who later specialized in asymmetric warfare. A former head of the Home Front Command in Northern Cyprus, he was expelled from the army because of his Islamist convictions in 1997.   Tanriverdi’s ties to President Recep Tayepp Erdogan and the circles of the ruling AKP are of long standing.

A recent analysis by longtime Turkey-watcher Michael Rubin for American  Enterprise Institute noted eyewitness reports of armed SADAT personnel involved in the suppression of the coup attempt of July 2016. The failed coup heralded the beginning of a comprehensive attempt by the Turkish president to re-make the Turkish armed forces along lines more amenable to himself.

As part of this process, hundreds of officers dismissed for Islamist leanings are being reinstated.

And as part of this process, Adnan Tanriverdi was himself appointed Chief Military Advisor to the President in late 2016.

SADAT has been heavily involved in Turkey’s training of Syrian Sunni Arab rebels for the fight against Assad.  The company established a number of facilities in the Marmara region for this purpose at the beginning of the Syrian war.  According to a 2012 report in the oppositionist Aydinlik newspaper,at least one of these training facilities was located at a Turkish military base in the Golcuk district of Kocaeli,  formerly maintained as a training center by the Turkish Navy.

The Syrian rebellion in northern Syria is today only able to survive because of the support of Turkey.  SADAT has played a key role in the development and facilitation of this relationship.

Tanriverdi himself does not deny SADAT’s contacts with the ‘Free Syrian Army,’ but in a July, 2016 article in Cumhurriyet he was quoted as noting that both the Turkish state and the US supported the Syrian opposition, and that SADAT’s contacts were carried out with the knowledge of the Turkish authorities.

Of course, the term ‘Free Syrian Army’ is a wide one, and considerable evidence exists to suggest that elements of the Turkish state were directly offering assistance to the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra at certain stages during the war in Syria.

With crucial elections approaching in 2019, there are widespread fears in opposition circles that the government is training militias for use to intimidate government opponents.  One opposition politician, Meral Aksener, founder and leader of the nationalist Good Party, told a leftist newspaper that SADAT was behind these training camps.  The company denied the allegations.

Unsurprisingly, there is an Israel angle to SADAT’s activities.  In an article quoted by MEMRI, Tanriverdi described Israel as ‘the outpost of the new Crusade and a dagger in the heart of Islam.’ In the article, Tanriverdi envisions the equipping and training of a Palestinian conventional army which would, in partnership with a united army of Islam, defeat and destroy Israel.

 Turkish academic Cemil Tekeli, was arrested in January by Israeli authorities and deported from the West Bank because of suspicions that he was assisting Hamas in money-laundering.  Tekeli is a close associate of Adnan Tanriverdi, according to a report in Makor Rishon, which published a picture of the two together.

So – engagement in assisting proxies abroad, providing muscle for a repressive political strategy at home and planning war with Israel. President Erdogan is engaged, according to many, in a historic project of dismantling the republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk nearly 100 years ago and replacing it with a new, Islamic entity. This new entity will require new institutions.   The shadow warriors of SADAT appear to be in the process of establishing one of the most notable of these.

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The Sultan’s Pleasure: Turkey Expands its Operations in Syria and Iraq

Jerusalem Post, 30/3

Turkish forces this month entered Afrin City, bringing Operation “Olive Branch,” launched on January 20, to a successful conclusion. Latest reports suggest that the Turks are now set to seek to enter the neighboring Kurdish-controlled town of Tal Rifaat, after reaching an agreement with the Russians allowing them to contest its control.

According to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 78 Turkish soldiers were killed in the Afrin fighting, along with 437 Turkey-aligned Syrian Sunni rebels. SOHR puts Kurdish casualties as 1,500 killed in the operation.

All indications suggest that for Turkey, the recent battles were only a phase in a larger process. So where might Turkey turn next? And what is the goal of the Turkish campaign?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, following the fall of Afrin, that “we marked a comma. God willing, a full stop will come next…. Now we will continue this process, until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab [Kobani], Tel-Abyad, Ras al-Ayn (Sere Kaniyeh) and Qamishli.”

These are the main towns of the Kurdish-controlled area further east. A Turkish push toward them would mean a comprehensive attempt to destroy the Kurdish autonomous zone that has been in existence east of the Euphrates since the withdrawal of Assad’s forces from the area in July 2012.

It would also mean the near certain prospect of a collision between Turkish and US forces. Officially, there are 2,000 US military personnel in the area. The real number is probably considerably larger, perhaps twice this figure. The US maintains a number of facilities east of the Euphrates. These are held in cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is the US partner in the war against Islamic State, but which would also form the main element resisting a Turkish push eastward.

The town of Manbij is currently the main issue of contention. West of the Euphrates and with a mixed Arab and Kurdish population, it is nevertheless currently controlled jointly by the SDF and the Americans. Turkey has made clear that it intends to remove its Kurdish opponents from the town.
Given the extreme risks inherent in any such drive eastward, however, it appears more likely that Turkey will satisfy its immediate appetites for further strikes at its enemies elsewhere.

Despite Erdogan’s grammatical metaphors, the taking of Afrin did represent a kind of “full stop” for the Turks. It completed the acquisition by Ankara of a sizable, contiguous enclave in northwest Syria. The Afrin canton was a “missing piece” separating two areas of de facto Turkish control.

In Operation “Euphrates Shield” in late 2016, the Turks carved out an area of control between the towns of Azaz and Jarabulus along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Meanwhile, Turkish forces also entered northern Idlib province, which remains under the control of Sunni Islamist rebels.

The destruction of Afrin joins these two areas, giving Turkey a contiguous area of control, from Jarabulus to northern Idlib. The Turks have made clear they have no intention of handing these areas over to the Assad regime. So Ankara now has its own little bit of fragmented Syria, alongside the various enclaves of other powers.

This is of importance to Erdogan. He will be able to present himself as the champion of the Sunni Arab population of Syria, and the guarantor of the remnants of its rebellion against the Assad regime.

As the earliest and most consistent supporter of the Syrian Sunni rebellion, the Turkish leader stood to appear humiliated by the final eclipse of their cause. The Russians, by permitting the Turks and their rebel foot soldiers to enter Afrin, have allowed Erdogan to salvage some dignity from his situation. In affording him this concession (against the will of the Assad regime), Moscow has served its broader goal of drawing the Turks further away from their already severely eroded alliance with the West.

With their northwest Syrian enclave largely secured, and the area further east dangerous to approach, because of the American presence, there are indications that the Turks are looking further afield for further victories against the Kurds.

Turkish aircraft have in recent days been in action over the skies of northern Iraq, bombing what Ankara claims to be a presence of PKK guerrillas in the Qasr-e area of Erbil province. The Turkish military is presently engaged 15 km. across the border into the Kurdish Regional Government area, in the Sidakan area in northern Iraq.

Erdogan has threatened in recent days to carry out a military operation against PKK guerrillas located in the Sinjar Mountain area of northern Iraq. The fighters of this Kurdish organization have been in this area since the summer of 2014, when they opened a corridor to rescue Yazidi civilians trapped on the mountain by the advance of ISIS.
The PKK has announced its willingness to leave Sinjar and has begun to hand security facilities over to the local Yazidi YBS forces. Given the links between these forces and the PKK, however, it is not yet clear if this will be sufficient to prevent a Turkish incursion into the area.

There are those among the Iraqi Kurds who fear that these activities may presage a more general Turkish attempt to comprehensively root out and destroy Ankara’s PKK enemies in northern Iraq.

A larger-scale Turkish assault into Dohuk and Nineveh provinces to carve out an enclave between the Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria is not an impossibility. But it would be carried out against the wishes of the US, Iran, and the government of Iraq, and may be too large a morsel for Turkey to attempt at the present time. Nevertheless, the lower-level attacks on Kurdish targets in Iraq look set to continue and intensify.

Meanwhile, inside the area of Kurdish control in eastern Syria, a mysterious organization called Harakat al-Qiyam has carried out a number of attacks on individuals linked to the Kurdish-led authorities in recent months. Many observers calculate that this group may be backed by the Turks, constituting an irregular accompaniment to overt military action further east and west.

IN ALL three areas – the Afrin operation, the (alleged) links to Harakat al-Qiyam and the air activity and threatened incursion into Sinjar and northern Iraq – the contours and direction of Turkish activity are clear.
Ankara has set as a strategic goal to destroy the Kurdish gains that resulted from the fragmentation of Syria and Iraq over the last half decade. Turkey also wishes to present itself as the natural leader and patron of Sunni Arab communities in both countries.

In asserting these goals, Ankara will partner with or oppose other local powers (Iran, the government of Iraq, the Assad regime), according to immediate tactical needs. Similarly, Turkey is likely to tread carefully around the larger powers, whose will it cannot oppose (the US, Russia), seeking to draw neither too close nor too far away from either.

After the capture of Mosul from ISIS, speaking of Turkey’s activities in Iraq, Erdogan said, “We cannot draw boundaries to our heart, nor do we allow that.” The surrounding territories and populations in the nominal states of Syria and Iraq appear set to receive the full and heartfelt attention of Turkey, to the sound of revived Ottoman marching tunes – whether they like it or not.


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