Saturday, May 02, 2015

Iran gains by keeping ISIS going

From Business Insider, 1 May 2015, by Armin Rosen:

...Michael Pregent, an analyst and former US Army intelligence officer, created a map ... showing the “priority” and “secondary” defensive front lines for Iran, the Kurds, and the Assad regime, [and] the areas that are most vital to the sides’ war objectives.

The map shows that the strategic fault-lines in Iraq and Syria have nothing to do with the country’s internationally recognised borders, or even with the “borders” of ISIS’s “Caliphate.” And it reveals something important about the coming fight against ISIS.

As the map demonstrates, the jihadist group’s domain lies beyond both Iran and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s priority defensive boundary.

... the map shows that “Iran has no intent of defeating ISIS.”

... ISIS has been defeated nearly everywhere the group has been fought on the ground.

Michael Pregent:
“The map tells a story...ISIS is able to maintain territory because it’s unopposed. But where it’s opposed it loses territory, in both Iraq and Syria.”
The black ring cutting through central Iraq and Syria is there because the region’s military actors just aren’t interested in challenging hte group in those areas.

Iran wants to preserve its proxies’ control over Baghdad and Damascus...

Iraqi Shiite militia fighters raise up their weapons as they celebrate pushing back ISIS militants on Sept. 3, 2014, on the road between Amerli and Tikrit, in Iraq.

And Iran actually has something to gain from keeping the ISIS problem going. As long as the group survives, Iran can claim that their allies in both countries are the only thing preventing a jihadist takeover — an argument that raises Tehran’s prestige and ensures a degree of international support for their allies in both countries. 

(It’s also an argument that seems to be working.)

“Iran needs the threat of ISIS and Sunni jihadist groups to stay in Syria and Iraq in order to become further entrenched in Damascus and Baghdad...”
Recent events in Iraq make a lot more sense once it’s clear that Iran and its allies don’t see much of a need to advance its red lines deep into Sunni areas. For instance, Ramadi, which is right outside of Baghdad, was only reinforced with around 3,000 troops as ISIS moved against the town in late April...

The city is so sparsely reinforced because it ‘s primarily Sunni, and falls along a populated, Sunni-heavy, hard-to-defend axis that includes Fallujah and the Sunni Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib.

The “red line” is drawn at the Shi’ite neighbourhoods that lie beyond a defensible position near Abu Graihb. 

Shi’ite Iran and its militia partners in Iraq aren’t as willing to fight and die for a place that sits beyond their primary line of defence ..

Iran continues to cheat and deceive

From the Australian, 2 May 2015, by AFP:

Mohammad Javad Zarif
Liar, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in the United Nations General Assembly. 
Source: AP 

Iran is actively trying to buy nuclear technology through black-listed companies, according to a confidential UN report, citing information from the British government.  
The claims — which if true would violate UN sanctions — were made to a UN panel of ­experts just weeks after world powers reached a framework deal with Iran on curbing its ­nuclear program.

“The UK government informed the panel on the 20 April 2015 that it ‘is aware of an active Iranian nuclear procurement network which has been associated with Iran’s Centrifuge Technology Company and Kalay Electric Company’,” the report said.

KEC is on a UN list of black-listed Iranian companies for its ties to the nuclear program.

Friday, May 01, 2015

What Does It Mean to Be ‘Pro-Israel’?

From Commentary, 21 April 2015, by Sohrab Ahmari, editorial-page writer for the Wall Street Journal in London:

As Barack Obama’s presidency stretches into its final quarter, relations between the United States and Israel have reached the breaking point. Having come into office determined to put “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem, as the president told Jewish leaders in 2009, the Obama administration is now discarding the basic assumptions underpinning the U.S.-Israel alliance. The equities of the Arab–Israeli conflict, the nature of the Iranian threat, the region’s security architecture—all the old certainties have given way to the president’s quest for a rapprochement with the Iranian regime and a new balance of power in the Middle East.

Even as it seeks a regional order that will come at Israel’s expense, however, the White House professes a great love of the Jewish state. Those who doubt this love, administration spokesmen say, are “politicizing” the Israel issue. This raises a critical question: What does it mean to be pro-Israel in the age of Obama?

That America and Israel are in some fundamental sense diverging is beyond question.

Speaking in March before a gathering of the progressive advocacy outfit J Street, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called for ending “an occupation that has lasted 50 years.” He was probably referring to the “occupation” of territories the Jewish state acquired after winning a defensive war in 1967. The 50th anniversary of that victory is still two years away. Perhaps McDonough was rounding up.

Ending the occupation of the West Bank through a negotiated settlement has been a bipartisan aim of U.S. diplomacy. But to speak of it as McDonough did—as if the Jews made a wanton land-grab half a century ago and must now disgorge its fruits—was a stunning departure from the traditions of American policy, not to mention the historical record. Here was the U.S. president’s chief of staff sounding not unlike, say, a Norwegian anti-Israel activist.

Days earlier, in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest issued a thinly veiled threat that Washington might withdraw its support for Jerusalem at the United Nations. Netanyahu, in the heat of the campaign, had just made remarks ruling out the formation of a Palestinian state during his premiership. These ill-phrased comments were open to misinterpretation by a hostile press, and his later warning to supporters that Arab Israeli voters were coming out “in droves” was ugly.

The prime minister soon clarified his statehood position and apologized to Israeli Arabs, but the White House kept hounding him. Speaking to the Huffington Post after the election, Obama reiterated the UN threat: “We take him at his word when he said that [statehood] wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region”—as if Netanyahu’s hardnosed view of Palestinian statehood was the only cloud in the otherwise friendly Mideast skies.

By contrast, when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called Israel a “rabid dog” in 2013, an unnamed senior U.S. official told BuzzFeed that this made him feel “uncomfortable.” Khamenei’s genocidal sloganeering—for what does one do with a rabid dog?—didn’t draw condemnation, let alone delay Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with the Tehran regime. Having reportedly dissuaded Netanyahu from taking military action against Iran’s nuclear-weapons program during his first term on the grounds that he would make sure Iran never got the bomb, Obama in his second term started talks that quickly became predicated on the inevitability of Iran’s becoming a nuclear power.

For his cooperation, Netanyahu was labeled a “coward” and a “chickenshit” by Obama officials speaking anonymously to the press. And Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein told the child Netanyahu to “contain himself.”

Israel’s defense on the world stage, once a transcendent cause, is now hostage to the whims of a vindictive president who has pinned his legacy to turning away from America’s traditional allies, Israel above all. The administration’s cheerleaders in the media and surrogates within the American-Jewish community may pretend otherwise, but the Jewish state now faces a White House that is oblivious to regional realities, is disdainful of the Israeli body politic, and is flirting with the lexicon and tactics of delegitimization.

Yet this turn away from Israel has been accompanied at every step by barrages of pro-Israel platitudes. The worse the White House’s treatment of Jerusalem gets, the more ardent its pro-Israel rhetoric becomes.

“Ours is a deep and abiding partnership between two vibrant democracies,” said McDonough in the same speech that saw the administration adopt the logic of Arab rejectionists. “Our commitments to our partnership with Israel are bedrock commitments, rooted in shared fundamental values, cemented through decades of bipartisan reinforcement,” said U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, days before the White House hinted at the possibility of abandoning Israel at the Security Council.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice even broke into Hebrew in her ode to the U.S.-Israel bond at this year’s gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Our alliance grows l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation,” she said, adding: “President Obama’s commitment to Israel is deep and personal. I know, because I see it every day. I first saw it when I accompanied then–Senator Obama to Israel in 2008. I saw it when he surveyed with horror the stacks of charred rockets that Hamas had fired on Israel.” This, from the same White House that tried to block munitions transfers to the Israel Defense Forces amid last summer’s Gaza operation, which was launched to silence Hamas rockets targeting civilian population centers.

The dissonance between the Obama administration’s rhetoric and reality isn’t limited to its Israel policy. From the Sunni Arab states to Ukraine, American allies have grown accustomed to a White House that professes the deepest love even as it shirks old commitments and embraces their enemies. In Israel’s case, the gap between rhetoric and treatment is especially wide, and appalling, since few American allies enjoy as much popular support as the Jewish state does. Saudi Arabia, the Baltic States, France, and Brazil are all allies, but you don’t see thousands of Americans descending each year on Capitol Hill to lobby on their behalf.

The administration’s bet all along has been that it can degrade the alliance from within while maintaining an outward narrative of stalwart support for Israel. This strategy has largely succeeded, and the best measure of its success is the sense of disorientation today within the pro-Israel camp, especially among many pro-Israel Democrats as they come to grips with how, in 2015, abandoning Jerusalem to the diplomatic wolves at the UN is not only a possibility—but can even be justified as an act of tough love for a wayward Jewish state.

How did we get here? The Obama administration’s efforts to redefine the term pro-Israel to mean nearly its opposite have benefited from three broad developments that have blindsided the actual pro-Israel community.

First, beginning in the president’s first term, administration supporters in the journalism and think-tank worlds began promoting figures and ideas once relegated to the fringe into the mainstream of elite opinion. Anti-Israelism, often bleeding into Jew-hatred, has long thrived on the American far left and especially among academe. But whereas in Europe post-1967 anti-Israelism quickly found a home within mainstream social democracy, the U.S. Democratic Party largely resisted its tug.

Until the arrival of Barack Obama, that is. The Obama administration didn’t create the anti-Israel waves now engulfing the Democrats. The hostility had already been bubbling beneath the surface in the early-2000s Net-roots and blogs, such as Democratic Underground and Daily Kos, which began shaping progressive discourse on foreign policy after the attacks of 9/11. But the Obama administration learned to harness that hostility, opening the door to some of its messengers.

Consider the Center for American Progress (CAP). The progressive think tank has served as a brain trust for the Obama administration, with leaders and fellows cycling in and out of government in the Obama years. CAP’s blog, Think Progress, is where many of the administration’s talking points first percolate. It has also been a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment. In the winter of 2011, CAP faced a crisis over a Think Progress staffer’s repeated use of Israel-firster—a term with origins in the white-nationalist movement—to describe American supporters of the Jewish state. The staffer resigned, and CAP issued an apology.

The “Israel-firster” brouhaha and its aftermath masked a still more troubling fact: that Think Progress’s approach to the Middle East as a whole is Israel-obsessed, shaped by the belief that Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories is a unique evil, a stain on the American soul. “Like segregation in the American South, the siege of Gaza (and the entire Israeli occupation, for that matter) is a moral abomination that should be intolerable to anyone claiming progressive values,” wrote Think Progress blogger Matt Duss in May 2010. Five years later, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough would speak about the conflict in similar, if more muted, terms.

Or take the liberal New America Foundation, which in 2013 lent its platform to Max Blumenthal, an anti-Israel agitator who routinely compares the Jewish state to Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the Obama State Department, was then and remains president and CEO of New America. Pressed on its invitation to Blumenthal, New America took refuge in its commitment to free inquiry. “Free societies need this kind of cleansing discussion, and they need to be able to tolerate and hear it even when it’s ‘unbalanced’ or ‘goes too far,’” wrote Atlantic magazine correspondent and New America board member James Fallows at the time. This was a dodge. Critics weren’t calling for Blumenthal to be censored, but for New America to account for failing to fulfill its gatekeeping function against cranks.

And herein lay the crux of the matter. Slaughter and Fallows were correct that inviting Max Blumenthal isn’t tantamount to endorsing all his views. Even so, such invitations shift the margins of the debate, so that positions that seemed outlandish and reprehensible a few years ago attain respectability, or at least they enter the realm of the possible. One day it seems crazy for the United States to join with the tyrants and anti-Semites at the United Nations to pressure the world’s sole Jewish state. The next day, it doesn’t.

Influential think tanks and journalists would have taken the Obama administration only so far. To radically alter the U.S.-Israel relationship, the White House also needed the backing of a domestic lobby to counterbalance the pro-Israel establishment led by AIPAC. Bonus points if this new lobby could lay claim to Jewish values and identity.

Enter J Street. Founded in 2008, J Street presented itself as the progressive alternative to Jewish organizations that, it charged, march in lockstep with Israeli leaders, no matter how misguided or immoral their policies.
The organization was to be a “home for pro-Israel, pro-peace” Americans, who worry that Israel’s failure to extricate itself from the lives of some 5 million Palestinians will soon threaten its status as either a Jewish or democratic state. If Israelis on their own lacked the will to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve a two-state solution, then it was up to progressive American Jews to bring peace, by pressing the levers of U.S. power if need be.

To meet this aim without abetting Israel’s enemies would have required immense ideological discipline on the part of the new lobby. J Streeters would have to take seriously the perils facing the Jewish state, including Iran’s nuclearization, the rise of political Islam, and the campaign in elite quarters to delegitimize Israel. They would have to respect the sovereign decisions of the Israelis, recognizing that it is they—not American Jews with anguished consciences—who would have to pay the price in blood for any ill-conceived land-for-peace schemes. And they would have to retain a sense of perspective about the relative importance of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: The moral coarsening wrought by a decades-long occupation is a real tragedy, but it is a minor one in a region of Sudanese g√©nocidaires, Baathist chemical warriors, and homosexual-hanging ayatollahs.

As it soon became clear, however, J Street’s leaders had entirely different notions of what it means to be pro-Israel.
J Street has flirted with elements of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement and lobbied against congressional sanctions on Iran. It helped promote the UN’s Goldstone report, which accused Israel of war crimes in 2009’s Gaza operation only to be retracted by its author, the South African jurist Richard Goldstone. A campus chapter of J Street discarded the “pro-Israel” half of its motto in 2009. “We don’t want to isolate people,” the chapter reasoned, “because they don’t feel quite so comfortable with ‘pro-Israel,’ so we say ‘pro-peace.’” And Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami has refused to say whether his organization is Zionist: “It is silly to insist that any organization that supports Israel say it is Zionist.”

Most important, the organization has been a standard-bearer for the hoary theory of “linkage,” which holds that much if not all the instability in the Middle East, and the threats to the United States emanating from the region, can be attributed to the absence of a negotiated settlement to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute. As Ben-Ami wrote in a 2010 New York Times letter to the editor: “An analysis of the Obama administration’s calculus on Middle East policy should reflect that many in the Jewish community recognize that resolving the conflict is not only necessary to secure Israel’s future, but also critical to regional stability and American strategic interests.”

The eruption of popular uprisings across the Arab world, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, and North Africa’s descent into Islamist chaos have shattered the linkage theory, and yet it remains at the heart of J Street’s Mideast vision—notwithstanding the more than 200,000 people killed and millions more displaced in Syria’s civil war, the collapse of several Arab states, the ISIS rampage in Mesopotamia, and the widening sectarian war pitting the Sunni world against Shiite Iran and its proxies. In this way, J Street melds the parochialism of Jewish politics with the Israel obsession of the progressive left.

It has often been so with the Obama administration. Recall how Secretary of State John Kerry spent days conducting shuttle diplomacy between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while a slaughter of biblical proportions was underway next door in Syria. True to linkage-theory form, Kerry even blamed the absence of a two-state solution for the rise of Islamic State, telling reporters last October that stalled Israel–Palestine peace talks are “a cause of [ISIS] recruitment and of street anger and agitation.” As a Hill lobby, J Street has had triumphs few and far between—one of the Iran sanctions measures it opposed passed the House 414 votes to six, a typical legislative outcome for the group—but that was never the point. In J Street, the Obama administration found a Jewish voice to echo its own misconceptions about the Middle East, and its antipathy for Israel.

Finally, the Obama White House brought the mainstream Jewish establishment to heel by framing low-cost assistance—military aid and, until recently, support at the UN—as unprecedented acts of generosity. And the president and his senior officials learned that parroting vapid pro-Israel-speak suffices to persuade many American Jews that the administration has Israel’s back. There’s a reason journalists have created parody bingo charts for speeches at AIPAC confabs: Check off unbreakable bond, all options on the table, and special relationship, and you win.

The Obama administration’s turn against Israel, moreover, benefited from a new style of pro-Israel advocacy that has come into fashion in the last two decades. Under this model, the case for Zionism first formulated more than a century ago by Theodor Herzl doesn’t suffice to legitimize the Jewish state. Rather, pro-Israel organizations must highlight every sign of the tolerance of the Jewish state: Look at this gay-pride parade in Jerusalem! Behold this Arab Muslim serving proudly in the IDF! It’s not that these achievements should be ignored: Zionism has proved an extraordinary triumph of liberal nationalism. But the trouble with such feel-good hasbara is that it betrays an inner insecurity or defensiveness about Israel rather than confidence. It does little to persuade the convinced Israel-haters, who are rarely known for their faith in liberal democracy to begin with. Such advocacy, moreover, is a double-edged sword: The more you uphold Israel as exceptionally moral, the more every moral failing will count against the Jewish state. One should be proud of the achievements of Israeli liberalism but remember that even if the Jewish state were a tenth as tolerant, it would still be as legitimate as every other nation, with politicians just as prone to occasional lapses into demagogy as the ones occupying the White House.

Groups such as AIPAC, moreover, prize access to lawmakers and civic leaders above all—an understandable reaction to the bitter lessons of Jewish history. That, plus the fact that American Jews still vote overwhelmingly Democratic, has meant that these groups are cautious to a fault about confronting a president who carried nearly 80 percent of their community in 2008 and nearly 70 percent four years later. That forbearance at crucial points in the past six years allowed the White House to have its way on key personnel and substantive debates. AIPAC, for example, stayed out of Chuck Hagel’s nomination battle for secretary of defense, despite the former senator’s cringe-inducing record of apologetics for Iran. The group was also slow to embrace the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, aimed at strengthening the administration’s hand in negotiations with the Tehran regime.

As the White House’s anti-Israel outrages pile up, patience might run out. The administration senses the threat. In an interview published after the Lausanne talks, Obama told the New York Times:

It has been personally difficult for me to hear…expressions that somehow…this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest—and the suggestion that when we have very serious policy differences, that that’s not in the context of a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face.

American and Israeli leaders, the president said, shouldn’t “try to work with just one side” in each of their countries. This appeal for bipartisanship was a classic Obama rhetorical gesture. Having upended the alliance, in part by deploying politics of the basest sort, the president now says those opposed to the changes are politicking an arena that should be left beyond politics. When I launch policies that harm you, it’s out of love and because I know your interests better than you do. Let’s not get political.

Perhaps the Obama administration and its allies will stretch the term pro-Israel beyond all recognition, thus prompting a more honest discussion, in the United States and in Israel, about what it means—and what it doesn’t mean—to support the Jewish state. Such a debate would have a salutary, clarifying effect within the pro-Israel camp. If we’re lucky, being pro-Israel will once again come to mean treating an ally like an ally; not demanding a beleaguered democracy in the world’s least free and least stable region to behave like a Scandinavian country when defending itself; and giving Israelis, like free people everywhere, the space to determine their own national destiny and even make their own mistakes.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Who really cares about Palestinian Arabs?

The international media continues to ignore the "plight" of the Palestinians living under the rule of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as well as a number of Arab countries, especially Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
...The international community pays attention to Palestinians only when they are "victims" of Israel. The continued obsession of the media with Israel allows the Arab countries, as well as the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, to proceed with their systematic violations of human rights and freedom of speech.

The international community seems to have forgotten that Palestinians live not only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also in a number of Arab countries, especially Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Western journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict regularly focus on the "plight" of Palestinians who are affected by Israeli security policies, while ignoring what is happening to Palestinians in neighboring Arab countries.

These journalists, for example, often turn a blind eye to the daily killings of Palestinians in Syria and the fact that Palestinians living in Lebanon and other Arab countries are subjected to Apartheid and discriminatory laws.

A Palestinian who is shot dead after stabbing an Israeli soldier in Hebron receives more coverage in the international media than a Palestinian woman who dies of starvation in Syria.

The story and photos of Mahmoud Abu Jheisha, who was fatally shot after stabbing a soldier in Hebron, attracted the attention of many Western media outlets, whose journalists and photographers arrived in the city to cover the story.

But on the same day that Abu Jheisha was brought to burial, a Palestinian woman living in Syria died due to lack of food and medicine. The woman was identified as Amneh Hussein Omari of the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, which has been under siege by the Syrian army for the past 670 days. Her death raises the number of Palestinian refugees who have died as a result of lack of medicine and food in the camp to 176.

The case of Omari was not covered by any of the Western journalists who are based in the region. As far as they are concerned, her story is not important because she died in an Arab country.

Had Omari died in a village or refugee camp in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, her story would have made it to the front pages of most of the major newspapers in the West. That is because they would then be able to link her death to Israeli measures in the West Bank or the blockade on the Gaza Strip. The same journalists who report about the harsh economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not seem to care about the Palestinians who are being starved and tortured to death in Arab countries.

Nor are the journalists reporting to their readers and viewers the fact that more than 2800 Palestinians have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the civil war there four years ago. A report published this week by a Palestinian advocacy group also revealed that more than 27,000 Palestinians have fled Syria to different European countries in the past four years. The report also noted that Yarmouk camp has been without electricity for more than 730 days and without water for 229 days.

Earlier this month, another report said that eight Palestinians died of torture while in Syrian prison. Three of the victims were women, including 22-year-old Nadin Abu Salah, who was pregnant when she died. The report said that 83 Palestinians died of torture in Syrian prison during March this year.

These Palestinians are unfortunate because they do not live in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The international community pays attention to Palestinians only when they are "victims" of Israel.

Similarly, the international media continues to ignore the "plight" of Palestinians living under Palestinian Authority (PA) rule in the West Bank and Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.
In the West Bank, PA security forces continue to arrest Palestinians who post critical remarks on Facebook or speak out against Palestinian leaders.

Last week, for example, the Palestinian General Intelligence Service arrested Khalil Afaneh, an employee of the Wakf (Islamic Trust) Department, for "slandering" Yasser Arafat on his Facebook page.

On April 25, the PA arrested journalist Ahmed Abu Elhaija of Jenin as he was on his way to attend a conference in Jordan. No reason was given for the arrest, which is not the first of its kind involving Palestinian journalists and bloggers.

 Who cares about this Arab woman, shopping at an open-air market in Gaza, complaining to Al Jazeera News about a new tax being imposed by Hamas, April 25, 2015? (Image source: Al Jazeera video screenshot)

...The situation regarding the Gaza Strip is not much different. Most stories that appear in the international media ignore the practices and violations committed by Hamas against Palestinians. Take, for example, Hamas's recent decision to impose a new tax on a number of goods. The decision has drawn sharp criticism from many Palestinians, with some openly calling for a rebellion against Hamas.

Again, this is not a story of interest to many Western journalists based in the Middle East, mainly because Israel is not involved.

By turning a blind eye to the plight of Palestinians in Arab countries and under the rule of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, journalists are doing a disservice not only to their publics, but also to the Palestinians themselves. The continued obsession of the media with Israel allows the Arab countries, as well as the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, to proceed with their systematic violations of human rights and freedom of speech.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Hezbollah is stretched thin

From Times of Israel, 27 April 2015, by Mitch Ginsburg:

...Hezbollah – is stretched thin, pulled in different directions by the axles of its ideology, raising a host of questions for Israel as tensions flare along the northern border.

On Sunday night, after two airstrikes in Syria that were attributed to Israel, forces on the Syrian Golan Heights, apparently operating under the auspices of Hezbollah, attempted to lay a mine along the border fence targeting IDF personnel. The squad was picked up by Israeli surveillance and killed by an IAF aircraft.

The questions that linger in the wake of that strike and counter-strike relate to the clandestine war waged in the shadow of the Syrian civil war: 

  • To what extent do the covert actions risk a full-scale war? 
  • Is such a development at this time in Israel’s favor? 
  • And what, precisely, are the restraining factors?

...the Iranian angle looms largest. The Iranian-Shiite affiliation, which has risen to the fore amid the Syrian civil war, drew Hezbollah into combat in Sunni Syria, forced it to bury hundreds of its men, and tarnished the Lebanese part of its identity. But it also restrained it in its response to alleged Israeli action, several former military officers said.

In January, after an Iranian general and several senior Hezbollah operatives were killed, reportedly by Israel, in the Syrian Golan, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, flew to Beirut. Many assumed he was there to ensure that Hezbollah’s response to the allegedly Israeli action would be sufficiently sharp. Brig. Gen. (res) Shimon Shapira, a former military secretary to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, asserted that the opposite was true.

“He went there to restrain them,” he said, “to ensure that Israel was not given a pretext to act with massive force.”

Chief of the Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani, attends a meeting of the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, Iran, September 17, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, File)
Chief of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani, attends a meeting of the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, Iran, September 17, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, File)

He asserted that the entire notion of deterrence vis-√†-vis Hezbollah, in fact, “is an illusion” and that the sole reason for restraint is Iran, which wants to ensure that its investment in Hezbollah – in cash and in arms – is saved for its true designation, as a deterrent against an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Former national security adviser Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, today a fellow at Bar Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies, assented. He said that from the Iranian perspective, if Hezbollah triggers a war with Israel and is forced to pull its fighting rank out of Syria, “there is no way to save [Syrian President] Bashar [Assad],” because Iran, which has sent cadres of advisers to Syria, is not about to send the necessary number of troops.

Additionally, of course, there is the overarching goal of serving as the primary deterrent against an Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities, he said, but added that too firm a grip on the reins, curtailing Hezbollah’s ability to act, could render it “a paper tiger,” which Iran can ill afford.

Militarily, Amidror said, “there are tremendous advantages” to Israel launching a preemptive war. Citing the 1956 campaign in the Sinai – in which Israel seized control of the heavily fortified desert within a week – and the 1982 Lebanon War – in which four divisions tore through Lebanon and reached the outskirts of Beirut within a similar time frame – he said that he is aware “of at least one person” within Israel’s security establishment who is eager for Hezbollah to overstep its bounds in response to the allegedly Israeli airstrikes. Israel, in such an instance, he said, could capitalize on that, as it did in June 1982 after the London assassination attempt on Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov, and strike Hezbollah while it is stretched thin.

Diplomatically, though, he said, the price Israel would pay, in the face of a preemptive war that left Lebanon in tatters, would be painful indeed.

Instead, what seems to have developed is a peripheral battle in which both sides adhere to “the rules of the game,” said Brig. Gen. (res) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s Research Division and a new senior research associate at the JCPA. “And I think that it is clear that just as they, in the rules of the game, may try to build firepower, so too is it permissible for there to be reports about Israeli attempts to thwart that.”...

Iran is forced to support a weakened Syria at great cost

From Christian Science Monitor, 27 April 2015, by Nicholas Blanford:

Iran already spends $35 billion a year to prop up the Assad regime, according to one estimate. Iranian officials say Syria is of supreme strategic importance.

A rebel fighter from the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement reacts as they fire grad rockets from Idlib countryside, towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stationed at Jureen town in al-Ghab plain in the Hama countryside, April 25, 2015. The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement is participating in an operation providing backup support for fellow rebel fighters in Jisr al-Shughour after they took control of the area.

BEIRUT, LEBANON — Iran has proven critical in helping keep President Bashar al-Assad in power after four years of bloody war, dispatching thousands of soldiers and paramilitary fighters to bolster Syria’s flagging army and billions of dollars in loans to prop up its economy.

Yet, despite this massive show of support, the Assad regime in the past month has lost ground against opposition forces in a series of battlefield reversals. And, crucially, it faces a serious shortage of fresh soldiers and militiamen willing to continue fighting, making it ever more reliant on Iran, its close ally of 35 years.

Iranian officials have declared that Syria is of supreme strategic importance, and appear unwilling to reconsider the military option in defeating the anti-Assad rebels. The question is how much longer Iran, a country burdened by international sanctions, can afford to continue allocating funds, materiel, and manpower to Mr. Assad while incurring ever greater animosity – and now blowback – from the region’s Sunni states.

“The Iranians could probably provide additional foreign fighters … but at a certain point the marginal utility of additional foreign forces becomes smaller and smaller,” says Robert Ford, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Middle East Institute and US ambassador to Syria between 2010 and 2014. “It’s not that the rebels will overwhelm the regime, but I think the regime’s position becomes harder and harder as the war of attrition slowly slides against it.”

The Syrian Army is estimated to have suffered 80,000 to 100,000 dead and wounded in four years of war, dealing a punishing blow in terms of manpower and morale. To compensate for the weakened army, the Iranians brought in thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps soldiers, fighters from Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah party, and Shiite paramilitary forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. It also helped establish the 80,000-strong National Defense Force militia composed of Assad loyalists, mainly Alawites, a Shiite splinter sect to which Assad belongs.

While Iran’s military aid has bought the Assad regime some breathing space, it still lacks sufficient strength to launch multiple offensives and is forced to choose carefully where to deploy its forces.

“There is not a critical mass available [for Assad] to achieve victory,” says a former Syrian official who requested anonymity. “To prevail, 200,000 to 300,000 mothers need to be convinced to send their sons to fight. But why would a Sunni mother and father send their son to die for Bashar al-Assad?”

The critical manpower shortage is compounded by the recent coordination on Syria policy between the region’s Sunni powerhouses – Saudi Arabia and Turkey – in cooperation with Jordan and Qatar.

In early March, Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed on the “necessity of enhancing support to the Syrian opposition in a way that aims at yielding results.”

Strategic bridge to Hezbollah
Those results have been quick to materialize. In just the past month, the Assad regime has lost the city of Idlib in the north, Bosra ash-Sham in the south, and the Nasib border crossing with Jordan. On Saturday, rebel groups captured another northern town, Jisr al-Shughour. In the south, an Iran-led offensive in Deraa and Quneitra provinces has stalled against tougher than expected opposition, while a much-anticipated Hezbollah-led offensive in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus appears to have been postponed.

The capture of Jisr al-Shughour means that anti-Assad forces control the two largest urban areas in Idlib Province. It also allows them to mount a westward offensive on Latakia, a regime stronghold on the Mediterranean coast. If the rebels succeed in driving Assad’s forces further south from Idlib, the link between Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo would become perilously thin.

Syria represents the vital geo-strategic cog connecting Tehran to Hezbollah, the nucleus of an “axis of resistance” against Israel and Western ambitions for the Middle East.

In February 2014, Mehdi Taeb, a senior Iranian cleric, underlined the importance of Syria to Iran in stark terms, saying it is a “strategic province for us.”

“If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or [the Iranian province of] Khuzestan, the priority is to keep Syria,” he said. “If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

Iran doesn't need Aleppo
Diplomatic sources in Beirut estimate that Iran spends between $1 billion and $2 billion a month in Syria in cash handouts and military support. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy to Syria, recently told a private gathering in Washington that Iran has been channeling as much as $35 billion a year into Syria, according to one of the participants at the meeting.

“Iran has always considered Syria its gateway to the Arab region. I don’t think that assessment has changed,” says Randa Slim, a Hezbollah expert and a director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

Still, Assad’s recent setbacks in the south and north of the country may compel Iran to reconsider its military options in Syria, including the possibility of advising Assad to abandon Aleppo if the rebels extend their reach in Idlib province.

The loss of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the country’s commercial engine, would represent a major psychological blow to the regime. But Iran’s strategic interests in Syria do not require Assad’s control over the entire country, only the vital corridor connecting Damascus to Tartous on the Mediterranean coast, which runs adjacent to the border with Lebanon. That corridor would enable Iran to continue providing weapons to Hezbollah.

“Iran is not committed to the person of Bashar al-Assad.… They’re committed to preserving their interests in Syria,” says Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

No partners other than Assad regime
However, Iran has invested so heavily in the regime – to the exclusion of other parties in Syria – that Tehran has little choice but to double down on its embattled ally.

“Outside the regime, Iran has no contacts in Syria. Syrian businessmen trade with other Arab countries,” says the former Syrian official, adding, ironically, that the billions of dollars handed by Iran to Syria “is financing Syrian imports from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, not from Iran.”

If the nascent deal between Iran and the international community over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program is concluded in the coming months, it could end the crippling sanctions on Tehran, swelling the country’s coffers once more. 

But the combination of a more assertive Sunni regional alliance against Assad and the desperate shortage of manpower to fend off anti-Assad rebels potentially bodes ill for the Syrian regime – and Iran’s reach into the Levant – in the long term, analysts say.

“I often think of this situation as the German army in World War I in 1917 being slowly ground down on the Western Front,” says Ford, the former ambassador to Syria. “I think it’s a slow progression, and the Iranians can slow it further, but I would be surprised if they can reverse this.”

Lawsuits may soon be coming to the New Israel Fund

From Times of Israel, 21 April 2015, by Edwin Black*:

A stunning new Israeli Supreme Court decision has upheld most of a 2011 Israeli law enabling civil recovery actions against those that proliferate Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli individuals, companies, and institutions. 

Most of the Law Preventing Harm to the State of Israel by Means of Boycott was sustained in a recent ruling — the court’s strongly-worded majority opinion, seven concurring opinions and dissent covered 233-pages. The newly enabled addition to Israel Civil Tort Law 62A covers the total Israeli domain, that is, the Jewish State delineated in 1948 and all territory under Israeli control, including the West Bank. As such, those suffering losses by BDS activity can sue for actual damages. Punitive damages are disallowed under the ruling.

Critics are predicting litigation against the New Israel Fund (NIF) and its NGO grantees that promote BDS.

For its part, the NIF and its grantees that fought hard against the law during the run-up to the Supreme Court decision have almost universally condemned the decision as an attack against freedom of expression and democracy.

By way of background, the NIF was pivotal in the early establishment of the international anti-Israel boycott through its funding of the Coalition of Women for Peace and other activities. After widespread criticism, the NIF stopped funding the Coalition of Women for Peace. However, many key NIF grantees, such as Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI), remain vibrantly involved in the BDS movement.

...The NIF policy statement accessed April 20, 2015 asserts: “NIF will not fund global BDS activities against Israel nor support organizations that have global BDS program. However, NIF opposes the occupation and subsequent settlement activities. NIF will thus not exclude support for organizations that discourage the purchase of goods or use of services from settlements.”

The much-criticized civilian settlements exist on disputed former Turkish colonial land unambiguously set aside for Jewish and Arab national self-determination under international law after World War I, and re-affirmed after World War II with the establishment of the United Nations. Due to endless Arab-Israeli wars since non-binding UN Resolution 181 initiated a bi-national partition of the land into two states, the lines between the parties have never been mutually agreed upon or delineated. Israel claims the land under international law, while the international community mainly rejects the claim. Nonetheless, the settlement lands are now covered by the recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling. Moreover, many BDS activities target all of Israel, including Israeli universities in Tel Aviv and Haifa, the national shipping line Zim, as well as such products as Ahava cosmetics and Sodastream.

The Supreme Court justices were unusually vocal in their support for the anti-BDS law. Justice Hanan Melcer declared, “Calling for boycott and participating in it, therefore, can sometimes be considered ‘political terror.’” Justice Yitzchak Amit denied the law was a violation of freedom of expression while excoriating the academic boycott, pointing out, “The cultural-academic boycott of Israel is intended to paralyze and silence political expression, to make one opinion and one ‘truth.’”

Certainly, the Israeli law now resembles ordinary tort law in England and the United States wherein some speech has legal consequences, including defamation, infringement, and business interference.

With the new legal ruling, BDS critics predict litigation to recover damages from the NIF and its grantees engaged in the BDS movement. After the ruling, Ronn Torossian, an entrepreneur who has written about the NIF, confirmed: “Immediately following the legal decision, a high profile uber-wealthy donor advised me of his intent to fund anyone who sought to sue the New Israel Fund for aiding and abetting boycotts of Israel. The NIF boycotts hurt both Israel and Palestinian Arabs and is simply racist at its core. It’s anti-Democratic and wrong.”

The mood may have been cemented a month before the Israeli ruling, when prominent New York civil rights litigator Robert J. Tolchin, who in 2012 helped a Florida family secure a $323 million judgment from Iran and Syria arising from terrorism, sent a strongly worded notice to the NIF. Filled with citations from U.S. law, the letter declared itself “a warning that the New Israel Fund should under no circumstances support, publicly or privately, any boycott or similar effort against the Israeli government or the nation’s organizations, academic institutions, corporations or other entities.”

Richard Allen of JCC Watch, stated, “I certainly hope a lawsuit happens. New Israel Fund and its donors have been financing the BDS against Israel and it has been very effective. Now, they have even carved out a space for Jewish organizations to find this acceptable. But it is assisted suicide.”

...Prominent civil rights attorney, Alyza Lewin, president of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, commented, “An overwhelming majority of the Israeli Supreme Court relied on American constitutional principles that give wide protection to free speech to uphold an Israeli law that wisely protects the Israeli economy against calls for destructive commercial boycotts.”

Three attempts by this reporter to secure comment from New Israel Fund communications director Naomi Paiss and/or her staff were unsuccessful. But in the past, the NIF has stated its activities are aimed at achieving a more democratic state.

*Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust, and his recent book on NGOs Financing the Flames.