Special Reports: Syria

From the Archives of ISSA's Defense & Foreign Affairs publications

October 2, 2013: Syria: Behind the Media and Politics

September 27, 2013: Syria: The Opposition Moves Under the Islamist Banner and Beyond the Influence of the US and Western States

September 17, 2013: After the International Community Withdraws Plans for Direct Military Involvement in the Syrian War, Jihadists Begin Revenge Attacks on the Civil Population

September 16, 2013: After the US-Russia Accord on Syrian CW, the US-Iranian Rapprochement Begins

September 13, 2013: The US “Defeat” of September 10, 2013, or the Chance to Avert a Strategic Collapse? Assessing Strategic Paths into the Near Future

September 9, 2013: Evidence of US and Saudi Engagement in Terrorist Initiation of Syrian Chemical Weapon Attack Now Gains Granularity and Specificity

September 3, 2013: The Strategic Consequences of Initiating War Against Iran’s Vital Ally

August 28, 2013: Mounting Evidence That the White House Knew, and Possibly Helped Plan, Syrian “Chemical Weapon” Attack by Opposition

August 22, 2013: Markale in Damascus? How Islamist Forces Have Used a Time-Honored Deception and “Self-Bombing” Technique to Pull in Foreign Sympathy and Support

May 30, 2013: Victory in Syria: But For Whom?

May 30, 2013: The View From Moscow 

May 9, 2013: The Road to Damascus is Paved With Ill-Intent

March 11, 2013: Complex Soup: “The-Eastern-Mediterranean,-Central-Asian,-East Asian,-Euro-Atlantic-and-Others” Unified Dilemma

December 7, 2012: Syrian Acquisition of Iraqi Chemical Weapons Noted in 2002; Qatar Now Reported Entering WMD Market

October 23, 2012: Beirut Assassination Highlights Extent of Lebanese Involvement in Anti-Syrian Fighting

October 19, 2012: Turkey Stumbles, But Washington Pushed; the Failed Interception of Russian “Military” Cargo to Syria

April 13, 2012: A Jihadist, Anti-Western Agenda is Being Forced on Syria

February 17, 2012: The Multi-Layered Wars of Syria: Why Assad is Gaining Strength, and Why the Greater Conflict is More Complex Than the Western Media Has Grasped

February 6, 2012: The Release of Abu-Musab al-Suri

April 29, 2011: The Strategic Impact of Syria’s Unrest

March 9, 2005: Hariri’s Death Now Seen as a Planned Catalyst for Resumed Major Conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean

February 16, 2005: Who Benefits From Hariri’s Death?

January 30, 2004: Iraqi WMD Debate and Intelligence Failed to View Total Picture, Including Syria

January 15, 2004: Growing Evidence of Syrian Involvement in Iraqi WMD, “Resistance”; Early Suspicions in Egyptian Air Disaster Investigation

October 10, 2003: Strike on Syria Emphasizes New Israeli, US Strategy; Iraqi CW, Weapons Programs Showing Important Links

August 12, 2003: Baghdad Bombing Continues to Raise Issues; HizbAllah Attacks on Northern Israel Appear Linked to Broader Tehran-Damascus Aspirations

October 28, 2002: Iraq Moves WMD Matériel to Syrian Safe-Havens

May 10, 2002: Syria Prepares an Asymmetric Warfare Doctrine to Cope With Israeli Military Advantages 

April 25, 2002: Syria, as Well as Iraq, Now Operational With Kolchuga OTHR Systems, Significantly Advancing War Readiness

January 28, 2002: Syria and Iran, Not Israel, Now Seem Likely Killers of Lebanese Militia Figure Elias Hobeika

January 11, 2002: Syria Introduces a New Government, But Challenges Remain to Pres. Bashar al-Assad

March 28, 2000: Following Disaster of Geneva Talks, Syria Makes Decisive Bid to Re-Arm, Effectively Ends Peace Process; US-Egyptian Talks Chilly

October 1, 1999: Syria’s Assad in Failing Health; Situation Reflects Internal Rivalries


October 2, 2013

Syria: Behind the Media and Politics 

This report is a compilation and streamlining of a series of Defense & Foreign Affairs reports prepared on the Syrian conflict during September 2013, but with the insertion of considerable areas of new and important data, particularly on Iran and Turkey.

Political and media representations of the conflict in Syria have tended to reinforce entrenched positions, making truth the primary casualty of war. Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky goes back to primary sources and historical knowledge to get to an unvarnished perspective. But the final twist in the tail may be that the Turkish leadership may have a strong lever in controlling Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament process. [Click here to go to that section.]

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.  September 24, 2013, saw the final nail driven into the coffin of the US and Western effort to influence, let alone control, the Syrian armed opposition.  

Abdul-Aziz Salamah, the political lead- er of Liwaa al-Tawhid in northern Syria, announced that 13 of the leading armed opposition organization inside Syria decided to unite their efforts under an Islamist-jihadist banner as the “Islamist Alliance”. The Alliance claims to represent more than 75 percent the rebels fighting the Assad Administration. The Islamist Alliance was established in order to create sharia throughout Syria and to formally reject the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as their legitimate representative. Significantly, the group includes some of the largest ostensibly moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as al-Qaida affiliated organizations. Khalid Khoja, a senior SNC official in Turkey, estimated that the 13 groups had around 20,000 fighters and that “they effectively control northern Syria”. 

The supreme leadership of al-Qaida warmly endorsed the new alliance in a special communiqué. “A group of powerful mujahedin units rejected the authority of the pro-Western Syrian opposition leadership abroad and called for it to be reorganized under an Islamic framework,” the al-Qaida communiqué read. “These forces call on all military and civilian forces to unite under a clear Islamic framework based on sharia law, which should be the sole source of legislation.” 

The immediate roots of this dramatic shift go back to mid-September 2013, when the leaders of the main jihadist organizations and other armed groups gave up on the potentially war-winning intervention by the US-led West and started to reconcile themselves with the irreversible loss of grassroots popular support and legitimization in the Syrian interior. Under such conditions, the jihadists’ stated goal of an Islamist sharia state against the wishes of both the vast majority of Syrians and the Assad Administration has now become the only viable objective for the armed opposition. This realization was a reaffirmation of the claim by neo-salafi jihadist leaders that there could be no genuine cooperation with, and support from, the US-led West irrespective of the routine political, intelligence and military cooperation with the sponsoring intelligence services including the “Mukhabarat Amriki”: that is, US intelligence. 

This stunning reversal was both inevitable and unexpected. The jihadist forces have dominated the armed struggle inside Syria since early 2012. The aid provided by the sponsoring states — Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia; all of whom have also been fronting for the US — enabled the jihadist forces to gradually dominate and/ or destroy the localized rebel forces recruited and run under the command of local chieftains from the local popular bases (tribes, villages, townships, etc.). By the Autumn of 2012, the remaining local militias had been driven into protecting their popular bases against the jihadists and thus out of the anti-Assad fighting. By Spring 2013, the majority of localized militias were inclined to make deals with the Syrian security forces in order to jointly withstand, and where possible defeat, the ascent of the jihadist forces. A minority of the localized militias allowed themselves to be swallowed by the jihadist forces because they had become the sole source of weapons and other supplies in the destitute Syrian interior. 

Meanwhile, since Spring 2012, officials of the “Mukhabarat Amriki” have closely supervised and effectively dominated on-site the distribution of military, logistical and financial aid to the Syrian armed opposition. Although the US never “formally owned” the massive weapon shipments from Libya, Pakistan, and Qatar, and subsequently also from the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, operatives of the “Mukhabarat Amriki” instructed their allies — the formal foreign sponsors of the Syrian opposition in Turkey and Jordan — in great detail and specificity who should get what weapons and other supplies, and when. 

The sponsoring intelligence services, including the “Mukhabarat Amriki”, never had any illusion as to who was getting these weapons and what was being done with the US-endorsed and -supervised distribution of weapons and ammunition. Formally, particularly for the consumption of political Washington, these weapons went to the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), led by Brig.-Gen. Salim Idriss, and through them to the FSA units and forces inside Syria. However, virtually all FSA-affiliated field commanders repeatedly complained that they did not get any weapons and supplies. Indeed, independent monitoring of the Turkey-origin convoys confirmed that the bulk of the weapons had always been delivered to jihadist forces. Furthermore, the jihadists intentionally received excess quantities which they used in order to lure and take over localized non-Islamist forces that were otherwise literally starving for food, supplies, and weaponry. In May 2013, a senior FSA commander reported that several FSA units with more than 3,000 FSA fighters joined the Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria alone. 

The current unraveling started in mid- September 2013. According to jihadist sources, more than 1,000 FSA fighters swore the oath of allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and the Jabhat al- Nusra Front in northern and eastern Syria, particularly in the province of ar-Raqqa. At the time, the jihadists already had between 7,500 and 10,000 fighters in the ar-Raqqa area. FSA sources conceded that the Raqqah Revolutionaries’ Brigade and the God’s Victory Brigade had pledged loyalty to the jihadists. The two brigades were part of the FSA as late as September 9, 2013. Thus, the last non- neo-salafi forces operating in the central Euphrates Valley — the bastion of the jihadist movement in both Syria and western Iraq — formally joined the jihadist cause. 

On September 20, 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham in eastern Syria announced that five FSA kitaeb (“battalions”) with more than 3,000 fighters swore the oath of allegiance to the Islamic State. As well, the entire Brigade of Nasr Salahuddin of the FSA joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham in northern Syria. 

Then, on September 24, 2013, Abdul-Aziz Salamah, the political leader of the Liwaa al-Tawhid, read the “Communiqué No.1” of the “Islamist Alliance” comprised of the 13 armed opposition organizations. 

“The mujahedin militant factions and forces that have signed this statement convened, consulted with each other, and concluded the following [four point agreement],” Salamah announced. 

“These forces and factions call on all military and civilian organizations to unite under a clear Islamic framework, set forth by the magnanimity of Islam, operating on the basis that sharia is the arbiter of governance and making it the sole source of legislation,” Salamah read. 

“This force believes that those deserving of representing it are those who have lived its burdens and shared in its sacrifices of honest sons,” Salamah’s statement reads. “This force feels that all groups formed abroad without returning to the country [and] without consulting those inside do not represent them, so the force will not recognize them.” 

The members of the “Islamist Alliance” explicitly refuse to accept the Western-sponsored political leadership. “Therefore, the National Coalition and its supposed government under the presidency of Ahmad Tumah do not represent them and will not be recognized by them,” Salamah stated. 

In conclusion, in the name of the “Islamist Alliance” Salamah urged “all militant and civilian organizations to unify their ranks and words, eschew division and discord, and put the interests of the ummah over that of any single group.” 

Of the 13 armed opposition organizations signing “Communiqué No.1” of the “Islamist Alliance”, only 11 are known: 

  • Jabhat al-Nusra for the People of Sham (al-Qaida’s formal arm in Syria); 

  • The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement (a 20,000-strong jihadist group that leads the Syrian Islamic Front); 

  • Liwaa al-Tawhid (an FSA brigade in the Aleppo area under the support of Turkish Military Intelligence); 

  • Liwaa al-Islam (Saudi-sponsored neo- salafi brigade that operates in Aleppo and Damascus in the ranks of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front); 

  • Liwaa al-Suqour al-Sham (a major FSA brigade that doubles as a member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front); 

  • The al-Fajr Islamic Movement (a large unit in the Syrian Islamic Front); 

  • The al-Noor Islamic Movement (a jihadist brigade that operates in Aleppo); 

  • The Noor al-Din al-Zanki Kitaeb (Saudi-backed jihadist battalions — or brigade — fighting in Aleppo); 

  • The Fastaqim Kama Umirta Group (local unit based in Aleppo); 

  • Liwaa al-Ansar (an FSA-affiliated predominantly jihadist brigade that fights in the Idlib and Aleppo regions); and 

  • The 19th Division (the largest and best organized FSA unit that fights in Aleppo as an ally of the Liwaa al-Ansar). 

On September 25, 2013, jihadist officials rushed to further explain the earthquake. “The main goal [of the “Islamist Alliance”] is to unify the fighting forces,” explained Bashir Saleh of Liwaa al-Taw- hid. He ridiculed the relevance and influence of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) inside Syria. “The problem is that the Coalition is outside and it doesn’t know what is happening inside,” Saleh explained. “Maybe one or two or three of the Coalition members have come and entered Syria but then they leave quickly like they are foreign visitors.” Abu-Zaki of Liwaa al-Suqour al-Sham also stressed the irreconcilable disconnect between the exiled leaders and the fighting forces inside Syria as the cause for the “Islamist Alliance” formation. “We welcomed our brothers on the outside to partake in the revolution,” Abu-Zaki explained. “But when they didn’t represent us and the demands of the revolution, then we had to release the statement.” 

The significance of the formation of the “Islamist Alliance” is not lost on the SNC leadership in Istanbul. SNC spokesman Louay al-Mokdad reported that Idriss had already called some of the rebelling leaders and commanders, “and they told us they signed this because they lost all hope in the international community”. But Idriss and al-Mokdad were quick to blame the perfidy of the US-led West for calamity that befell them. “We are really tired, Bashar al-Assad is killing us, all the West is betraying us, and they want to negotiate with the regime over our blood,” al-Mokdad quoted the commanders as telling Idriss. 

Ultimately, the prominence of Liwaa al-Tawhid and Liwaa al-Islam in the formation of the “Islamist Alliance” is the key to comprehending the true importance of the earthquake. Liwaa al-Tawhid has long been effectively controlled by Turkish Military Intelligence. The brigade is the biggest Free Syrian Army unit in the Aleppo area. It is used repeatedly by the Turks for their own purpose, for example fighting the Kurds. Similarly, the Liwaa al-Islam is one of the largest jihadist group in the Damascus area and in all likelihood was responsible for the August 21, 2013, chemical attack. The brigade is dominated by Saudi Intelligence and has performed numerous missions on the behalf of Riyadh. Hence, the mere prominence of Liwaa al-Tawhid and Liwaa al-Islam indicate the abandonment of the US and Western political effort and the chimera of moderate armed opposition not only by the FSA and jihadist forces but, significantly, by their sponsors Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and most likely Qatar. These three sponsoring states will now be focusing on the overt sponsorship of jihadist forces and neo-salafi jihadism in Syria and the entire Mashriq. 

On September 29, 2013, at around mid-day (local time), another group of 50 commanders of independent “battalions” and “brigades” in the Syrian interior announced their merger into, and pledged allegiance to, the new Islamic Army (al- Jaysh al-Islami). A printed communiqué was yet to emerge by month’s end, and the printed list of participants only identified 43 units by name. The insignia of the new organization has the jihadist black flag (the “al-Qaida Banner”) at the center and no Syrian symbol what-so-ever. 

The still-unidentified leader of Jaysh al-Islami stated that the initiative was the result of the common realization of all fighters and commanders that Islam and democracy do not combine, and that only an Islamic jihad would defeat the Assad Government and save “Bilad as-Sham” (not Syria). The leader referred to the SNC with derision, calling them “the five star hotel revolutionaries”. He stressed that nothing was being waged in Syria but an Islamist jihad against “the Nusairis” (‘Alawites, Druze, and other non-Muslims), and that this jihad would ultimately spread throughout the Mashriq. 

The political ascent of the jihadist groups in Syria and their pointed rejection of the Western-sponsored Syrian National Council (SNC) leadership in exile was a direct outcome of the Western handling of the chemical attack in Damascus. Relying on explicit assurances from SNC leaders in Turkey, the various rebel groups inside Syria expected the attack to quickly provoke a US-led Western military intervention leading to the toppling of the Assad Administration and the empowerment of an Islamist government in Damascus.  

This dynamic reinforced the earlier conclusion that the August 21, 2013, che- mical attack in Ghouta, eastern Damascus, was a jihadist self-inflicted provocation. 

Behind the Ghouta Attack 

The recent findings point increasingly toward the conclusion that the Ghouta chemical weapon use was indeed a self-inflicted attack by the Syrian opposition in order to provoke a US and Western military intervention against the Ba’athist Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad. Ultimately, it was hoped that a detailed chemical analysis by the UN of the agents used would provide some indication as to identity of the guilty party. 

The paucity of revealed facts highlighted how little was really known about the actual attack. There was, even by the end of September 2013, still no agreed upon number of fatalities, with unverified claims ranging from the US assertion of 1,429 fatalities to the French assertion that only 281 were killed. In other words, the French Intelligence number is about 20 percent that of the US assertion. Most Syrian opposition sources now put the number of fatalities at between 335 and 355, as does the non-governmental organization, Doctors Without Borders/Méd- ecins Sans FrontiPres (MSF). This is about 25 percent of the US number. Either way, this is too huge a gap not to be explained and substantiated. 

As it transpired, the data provided by the eventual UN report raised more questions than answers. Close reading of the detailed annexes of the UN report raise doubts about the veracity of their findings given the repeated caveats pointing to likely tampering with the evidence, possibly (probably) intentionally so. The UN report acknowledged that the Mission had no freedom of movement. “A leader of the local opposition forces who was deemed prominent in the area to be visited by the Mission, was identified and requested to take ‘custody’ of the Mission. The point of contact within the opposition was used to ensure the security and movement of the Mission, to facilitate the access to the most critical cases/witnesses to be interviewed and sampled by the Mission and to control patients and crowd in order for the Mission to focus to its main activities.” 

Furthermore, the affected population of injured from whom samples and evidence were collected by the UN Mission might have been tainted in advance by the opposition fixers who organized them for the UN Mission. “A prominent local medical doctor [affiliated with the opposition] was identified. This medical doctor was used to help in preparing for the arrival of the Mission,” the report explains. “Concerning the patients, a sufficient number was requested to be presented to the Mission, in order for the Mission to pick a subpopulation for interviews and sampling. Typically a list of screening questions was also circulated to the opposition contacts. This included the queries to help in identification of the most relevant cases.” Simply put, the UN Mission could not verify independently the state and degree of contamination of the overall population. Nor could the Mission determine independently who were the injured individuals selected and brought to them by the opposition. 

To-date, the US position in documents submitted to Congress has been that the victims died as a result of “nerve agent exposure”. Orally, however, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed the US had “proof” it was sarin. The French intelligence report also attributes the deaths to “chemical agents” without further identification. The most explicit finding to-date comes from the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Soil and cloth samples “tested positive for the nerve gas sarin”. The sarin in the cloth was in liquid form which soaked into the cloth. As discussed below, this finding reinforces the conclusion that “kitchen sarin” was used. Hence, so much will depend on the UN’s findings when their tests are completed.  

The claim that the agent used was a “military sarin” is problematic because military sarin accumulates (like a gaseous crystal) around the victims’ hair and loose threads in clothes. Since these molecules are detached and released anew by any movement, they would have thus killed or injured the first responders who touched the victims’ bodies without protective clothes, gloves and masks. However, opposition videos show the first responders moving corpses around without any ill effects. This strongly indicates that the agent in question was the slow acting “kitchen sarin”. Indeed, other descriptions of injuries treated by MSF — suffocation, foaming, vomiting, and diarrhoea — agree with the effects of diluted, late-action drops of liquified sarin. The overall descriptions of the injuries and fatalities treated by MSF closely resemble the injuries treated by the Tokyo emergency authorities back on March 20, 1995. The Tokyo subway attack was committed with liquefied “kitchen sarin”. 

The knowhow for this type of sarin came from North Korean Intelligence, and is known to have been transferred, along with samples, to Osama bin Laden in 1998. That the jihadist movement has these technologies was confirmed in jihadist labs captured in both Turkey and Iraq, as well as from the wealth of data recovered from al-Qaida in Afghanistan in 2001-02. 

Currently available evidence strongly suggests that the chemical agent used was improvised, kitchen-style sarin of the type known to be within the technical capabilities of the jihadist opposition. The Russian analysis of samples collected in eastern Damascus proved that the sarin used was “home made” — that is “kitchen sarin” — identical to the kind used in the Aleppo area by jihadist forces in March 2013, “only of higher concentration” than in the previous incidents. The UN report agreed with this finding in its analysis regarding the impact of the weather on the dissemination of the sarin, a dynamic, associated with heavy liquefied sarin, that is “kitchen sarin” and not military sarin which is dispersed by explosive power. 

Meanwhile, the mangled projectiles shown by the opposition, and which were tested by the UN inspectors, are not standard weapons of the Syrian Armed Forces. These projectiles — 330mm rockets — have very distinct ribbed-ring fins which are similar to projectiles used by the opposition in Aleppo, Damascus, and other fronts, with both high-explosives and undefined materials. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) retrieved a video claiming to be of the attack, but is most likely of a daylight testing of the launcher. The truck-mounted launcher included a chemical sleeve which was supposed to absorb leaks from the improvised warheads and not harm the launch crew; hardly the precaution taken with a military weapon. 

Moreover, the warheads used in Damascus were cylindrical tanks which cracked and permitted a Tokyo-style mixture of liquids, rather than the pressurized mix and vaporization at the molecular level by the force of core explosion in a standard Soviet-style chemical warhead. Had Syrian militarily-trained experts built these warheads, they would have used the upper pipe for the core- charge the explosion of which would have created a significantly more lethal vaporized cloud of the toxic agent. The mere fact that the pipeline remained empty suggests the work of amateurs found in the ranks of the improvised weapon makers of the jihadist opposition. 

As well, the opposition also pointed to cracked plastic pieces which resembled shreds from large blue plastic tanks/bottles (like big water-cooler bottles) fired by chemical launchers the opposition had bragged about in the past. These weapons are in agreement with the multitude of images of victims publicized by the opposition which did not show any injury due to shrapnel which would have come from Soviet-style chemical munitions of the type known to be in the Syrian military arsenal. 

Most important, of course, is the question “Who could have done it?” given the available data. Significantly, evidence collected by numerous Arab sources on the ground in the greater Damascus area and recently smuggled out of Syria narrows the scope of potential perpetrators and the reason for the attack. This evidence points to specific commanders of Liwaa al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra known to be cooperating in the eastern Damascus theater.  

On the night of August 20-21, 2013, and the early morning of August 21, 2013 — a day before the chemical attack — the jihadists’ Liberating the Capital Front, led by Jabhat al-Nusra, suffered a major defeat during Operation Shield of the Capital. Operation Shield of the Capital has been the largest military operation of the Syrian Army in the Damascus region since the beginning of the conflict. The jihadists also amassed a force of more than 25,000 fighters for their Front from 13 armed kitaeb [battalion-groupings].  

The main units belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra and Liwaa al-Islam. The other kitaeb were Harun al-Rashid, Syouf al- Haqq, al-Mohajereen, al-Ansar, Abu Zhar al-Ghaffari, Issa Bin Mariam, Sultan Mo- hammad al-Fatih, Daraa al-Sham, the Jobar Martyrs, and Glory of the Caliphate. They included both Syrian and foreign volunteers. (The mere gathering of so many kitaeb for the battle of eastern Damascus refutes the assertion in the US and French intelligence reports that the opposition was incapable of conducting coordinated large-scale operations and therefore the chemical attack must have been launched by Assad’s forces.) 

Around dawn on August 21, 2013, the Liberating the Capital Front suffered a strategic defeat in the Jobar entrance area. 

The Jobar entrance was the opposition’s last staging areas with access to the heart of Damascus; a place from where they could launch car-bombs and raids. The Jobar entrance is also the sole route for reinforcements and supplies coming from the Saudi-Jordanian-US intelligence base near Jordan’s major airbase and military facilities in al-Mafraq (from where the eastern route to Damascus starts) and distributed via the Ghouta area to the outlaying eastern suburbs of Damascus. The eastern route is so important that the efforts are supervised personally by Saudi Princes Bandar and Salman bin Sultan, and overseen by Col. Ahmad al-Naimeh, the commander of the opposition’s Military Council of the Southern Region and Horan.  

The jihadists’ defeat on August 21 effectively sealed any hope of a future surge from Jordan by CIA-sponsored jihadist forces because the jihadists who, starting August 17-18, 2013, were attempting to use the western route to Damascus from the base in Ramtha, Jordan, had by now been encircled and defeated not far from the Golan border with Israel. 

As the jihadist forces were collapsing, the Front commanders deployed an élite force to block at all cost the Syrian military’s access to the Jobar entrance area. The majority of the jihadists in this force were from Liwaa al-Islam and the rest from Jabhat al-Nusra. The commander of the force was a Saudi jihadist going by the nom de guerre Abu-Ayesha. (Abu-Ayesha was identified by a Ghouta resident called Abu Abdul-Moneim as the jihadist commander who had stored in a tunnel in Ghouta weapons some of which had “tube-like structure” and others looked like “huge gas bottles”. Abdul-Moneim’s son and 12 other fighters were killed inside the tunnel by a chemical leak from one of these weapons.) 

According to military and strategic analyst Brig. Ali Maqsoud, the Liwaa al-Islam forces arrayed in Jobar included “the so-called ‘Chemical Weapons Front’ led by Zahran Alloush [the supreme leader of Liwaa al-Islam]. That group possesses primitive chemical weapons smuggled from al-Qaida in Iraq to Jobar, in the vicinity of Damascus.” 

When the jihadist Front collapsed, the jihadist leaders decided that only a chemical strike could both stop the advance of the Syrian army and provoke a US military strike that would deliver a strategic victory for the jihadists. The chemical agents were then loaded on what Russian intelligence defined as “rockets [which] were manufactured domestically to carry chemicals. They were launched from an area controlled by Liwaa al-Islam.” 

Maqsoud is convinced the chemical weapons strike was launched at the behest of Washington and on Washington’s orders. “In the end, we can say that this [post-strike US] escalatory rhetoric aims to achieve two things. The first is strengthening [the US] position as leader of the opposition and imposing conditions in preparation for the negotiating table. The second is changing the [power balance on the] ground and stopping the Syrian army’s advance,” Maqsoud told al-Safir of Lebanon. 

The identification of Liwaa al-Islam under Zahran Alloush as the jihadist force most likely to have conducted the chemical attack raises major questions regarding the Saudi involvement and particularly that of Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Zahran Alloush is the son of a Saudi-based religious scholar named Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad Alloush. During the 1980s, he worked for then Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki al-Faisal in both Afghanistan and Yemen. 

Zahran Alloush was involved with the neo-salafi/Wahhabi underground in Syria since the 1990s, was jailed by Syrian Mukhabarat, and released in mid-2011 as part of Bashar al-Assad’s amnesty aimed to placate Riyadh. Zahran Alloush immediately received funds and weapons from Saudi intelligence which enabled him to establish and run Liwaa al-Islam as a major jihadist force. 

On July 18, 2012, Liwaa al-Islam conducted the major bombing of the headquarters of Syria’s national security council in Rawda Square, Damascus, assassinating, among others, Assaf Shawkat, Bashar’s brother-in-law and nominally the deputy Minister of Defense, Dawoud Rajiha, the Defense Minister, and Hassan Turkmani, former Defense Minister who was military adviser to then-Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa. In Spring 2013, Zahran Alloush helped the Saudis weaken the Qatari-sponsored jihadist forces in the Damascus area. In June 2013, he suddenly withdrew his forces in the middle of a major battle with the Syrian army, leaving the Qatari-sponsored First Brigade and Liwaa Jaish al-Muslimeen to be de- feated and mauled. 

Significantly, in late August 2013, the opposition insisted on having Zahran Alloush and Liwaa al-Islam secure and escort the international experts team when they collected evidence in the opposition-controlled parts of eastern Damascus. Zahran Alloush entrusted the task of actually controlling and monitoring the UN team to his close allied katiba, the Liwaa al-Baraa from Zamalka. Thus, the international experts’ team operated while in effective custody of those ji- hadists most likely responsible for the chemical attack.  

According to several jihadist commanders, “Zahran Alloush receives his orders directly from the Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan” and Liwaa al-Islam is Saudi Arabia’s private army in Syria. A UN official told Sharmine Narwani and Radwan Mortada of the Beirut Al-Akhbar that “Saudi intelligence was behind the attacks and unfortunately nobody will dare say that.” The UN official explained that he had learned this from “rebels in Ghouta”. 

The Bandar aspect is important to understanding strategic-political aspects of the chemical strike. 

Presently, there is no independent evidence connecting Bandar, or any other Saudi official, to the supply and use of chemical weapons in Damascus. There exist, though, the long-time connections between the various jihadist commanders and both Saudi intelligence and Bandar himself. However, Bandar’s threats in the meeting with Russian Federation (RF) Pres. Vladimir Putin cast a shadow on the question of Riyadh’s foreknowledge, and, given the uniquely close relations between Bandar and CIA Chief John Brennan, Wash- ington’s foreknowledge as well. 

On August 2, 2013, Prince Bandar had an unprecedented meeting with Pres. Putin at the Kremlin. 

Their meeting covered a host of issues ranging from future energy economy to the situation in Egypt to what to do about Syria. Throughout, Bandar made a huge mistake — believing that Putin was just like the successive US senior officials Bandar has dealt with in the past — namely, that like the Americans, Putin would also be easy to bribe with flattery, weapons acquisition, and oil-related cash. 

Putin was not. 

Of significance to the issue of the chemical strike in Damascus was the exchange between Bandar and Putin regarding the future of Bashar al-Assad. Bandar wanted Putin to support the toppling of the Assad Administration and its replacement with a Saudi-sponsored opposition administration. Bandar promised that Russia’s interests in Syria would be preserved by the proposed Saudi-sponsored post-Assad government. 

In this context, Bandar sought to both allay Putin’s concerns regarding jihadist terrorism and to deliver a veiled threat. “As an example,” Bandar stated, “I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move [also] in the direction of the Syrian territory without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syria’s political future.”  

Putin responded quietly. “We know that you have supported the Chechen terrorist groups for a decade. And that support, which you have frankly talked about just now, is completely incompatible with the common objectives of fighting global terrorism that you mentioned.” 

Toward the end of the meeting, Bandar again discussed the Syrian issue at length. He stressed that as far as Riyadh was concerned, there was no future for the Assad Administration. “The Syrian regime is finished as far as we and the majority of the Syrian people are concerned,” Bandar said, and they, the Syrian people, “will not allow President Bashar al-Assad to re- main at the helm.” 

Putin responded that Moscow’s “stance on Assad will never change. We believe that the Syrian regime is the best speaker on behalf of the Syrian people, and not those liver eaters.” Again, Bandar resorted to threats. He warned Putin that their dispute over the future of Syria led him, Bandar, to conclude that “there is no escape from the [US-led] military option, because it is the only currently available choice given that the political settlement ended in stalemate”. Bandar added that Riyadh saw no future for the negotiating process. 

Bandar expected such a military intervention to soon commence. 

Did he have any foreknowledge of a provocation to come? Significantly, Bandar insisted throughout his visit to Moscow that his initiative and message were coordinated with the highest authorities in Obama’s Washington. “I have spoken with the Americans before the visit, and they pledged to commit to any understandings that we may reach, especially if we agree on the approach to the Syrian issue,” Bandar assured Putin. 

Did the Obama White House know in advance about the Saudi claim to controlling jihadist terrorism in both Russia and Syria? Did the Obama White House know about Bandar’s anticipation of an US-led military intervention? 

Several Arab leaders, as well as senior intelligence and defense officials from the Arabian Peninsula are now convinced that the chemical strike was aimed to provoke a US-led military intervention which would in turn lead to the toppling of Bashar al-Assad and the empowerment of an Islamist government in Damascus. 

These senior intelligence and defense officials have privately expressed anger that the US had not [yet] struck at Syria, as was so widely anticipated in the Arab world. These notables point out that in late Spring, the top leaders of the Syrian opposition and its regional sponsors impressed on the highest authorities in Washington and other Western capitals the gravity of the situation. The opposition and sponsors warned that unless there was a major military intervention during the Summer, the struggle for Syria would be lost come Autumn. The leaders of the opposition and their sponsors now insist that they were assured in these discussions that the US and key West European powers were eager to provide such help and intervene in order to topple the Assad Administration and empower the opposition in Damascus. 

Given the political climate in the US and the West, the Arab leaders say that they were told, it was imperative for US and Western leaders to have a clear casus belli of an absolute humanitarian character. Recently (but before the chemical attack), the opposition and sponsors were asked for lists of targets to be hit by US- led Western bombing should there be a Western intervention. The opposition provided such target lists, convinced that their bombing was imminent. The leaders of the opposition and their sponsors now feel cheated, for there had just been an humanitarian catastrophe in Damascus with all the characteristics of the sought- after casus belli, and yet, there were no US and Western bombers in the skies over Damascus!  

Significantly, most of these Arab leaders and officials are not in the know. They do o’t pretend to have any specific knowledge of what happened in Damascus beyond the coverage in the Arab media. They complain so bitterly on the basis of their comprehension of how things should have been done given the overall strategic circumstances. And for them, such a self-inflicted carnage is the most obvious thing to do if that was what Washington and other Western capitals needed in order to have a viable casus belli for an intervention. 

Meanwhile, through August and September 2013,  the US case against the Assad Administration continued to crumble. 

“No direct link to Pres. Bashar al-Assad or his inner-circle has been publicly demonstrated, and some US sources say intelligence experts are not sure whether the Syrian leader knew of the attack before it was launched or was only informed about it afterward,” observed Reuters’ Mark Hosenball.  

A closer study of the much-touted electronic intercepts — which US Secretary of State Kerry cited as evidence — proves that Assad and his inner-circle were stunned by the news of the chemical attack. When the first reports of the chemical attack surfaced, a very senior Syrian military officer called in panic the artillery commander of the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army which is under the direct command of Maher al-Assad. 

The senior officer wanted to know if the brigade had fired any chemical munitions in contravention of the explicit orders of the top leadership not to do so. The artillery commander flatly denied firing any rocket, missile, or artillery. He added that he had already checked and confirmed that all his munitions were accounted for, and invited the general staff to send officers to verify on their own that all brigade’s munitions were in safe storage. The senior officers took the commander to task and he was interrogated for three days as a thorough inventory of the munitions was carried out. This artillery officer was returned to duty as it was confirmed beyond doubt that no munitions were missing. (Since there was no other chemical-capable unit in the area, the claim of rogue officers should identify from where and how they had obtained chemical munitions.)  

The reaction of the Assad inner-circle was in agreement with earlier observations by German Federal Intelligence Service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND).  

The BND reported that since the beginning of Spring 2013, Syrian brigade and division commanders had repeatedly asked the Presidency for permission to use chemical weapons against jihadist forces besieging them. The Presidency had always denied permission in strong and uncompromising terms. The BND has no indication, let alone proof, that this consistent policy changed on or before August 21. 2013. 

This was also the opinion of a very senior Iranian official in Beirut. When the news of the chemical attack first broke, a very senior HizbAllah official called the Iranian for advice. The BND intercepted the call. The HizbAllah official wondered whether “Assad had lost his temper and committed a huge mistake by giving the order for the poison gas use”. The Iranian senior official assured his HizbAllah counterpart that there was no change to Assad’s “long-standing steadfast policy of not using these [chemical] weapons”. 

The strongest evidence extrapolated from the UN report against the Assad administration is the attempted calculation of trajectories. The Mission identified a single BM-14 140mm rocket (most likely a smoke-emitting munition) in Moada- miyah, and several 330mm rockets main- ly in the Ghouta, Zamalka, and Ein Tarma areas. None of these weapons are known to be in the arsenal of the Syrian army. The calculations of trajectories by the UN and several US NGOs and media pointed out to various possible locations - all of them from the direction of, or in the vicinity of, known Syrian military units (the 104th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division on Mount Qasioun in north- west Damascus, the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division in northern Damascus, and the Mezzeh Military Airport to the south-west of Damascus). All the suspected launch locations are at least five miles (8.0467 km) from the actual military facilities. While Syrian military units could, in the scenarios of the US NGOs and media, “shoot and scoot”, so, too, could opposition forces in an attempt to implicate the Syrian military.  

However, the main question alluded to by the UN report, was to what extent could the remnants of the rockets be relied upon to calculate possible trajectories. Regarding the Moadamiyah area, the report noted: “The sites have been well- traveled by other individuals both before and during the investigation. Fragments and other evidence have clearly been handled/moved prior to the arrival of the investigation team.” The UN report noted that the same applied to the Ein Tarma and Zamalka area: “As with other sites, the locations have been well traveled by other individuals prior to the arrival of the Mission. During the time spent at these locations, individuals arrived carrying other suspected munitions indicating that such potential evidence is being moved and possibly manipulated.” Indeed, the UN Mission attempted to calculate trajectories on the basis of two projectiles, while the NGOs relied on three and five projectiles for their calculations. Moreover, since nobody knows the range of the 330mm rocket, the suspected locations are essentially intersection on the map of suspected lines indicating the general direction from which the rockets were launched. 

One of the main reasons for Washington’s accusatory finger at the Syrian military was the assertion that the chemical attack took place in the context of a Syrian military effort to recapture this part of the Damascus area. Having met stiff resistance and under immense pressure to decide the battle swiftly, Washington’s explanation goes, the Syrian military used chemical weapons in order to break the opposition. 

However, the Syrian Armed Forces have a long history of training by the Soviet Armed Forces and access to Soviet- era weaponry, both chemical agents and means of dispersal. Among these are huge quantities of the vastly more lethal VX and grenade-size aerosols optimized for dense urban environments. The Syrian commando was supplied with, and trained on, these systems starting the late-1970s when preparing to fight the jihadist insurrection then in some of Syria’s main cities. Hence, had the Syrian military wanted to clear the said areas with the use of chemical weapons, they would have used VX in aerosols with greater efficiency and lethality. And why not use the same VX-filled aerosols in other key urban battle-fronts like Aleppo or Homs to expedite victory? Why use “kitchen sarin” and wide-area-effect munitions which would only hinder military advance into contaminated areas? 

Hence, what is the basis for the Obama Administration’s confidence that “Assad did it” to the point of threatening military action which in all likelihood would evolve into US involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war? The most honest answer was provided on September 8, 2013, by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on CNN’s State of the Union program. McDonough asserted it was “common sense” that the Syrian Government carried out the chemical attack, and provided no further evidence to back his statement. Nobody pressed McDonough on this point. 

The US has long taken sides in the Syrian civil war and all the regional wars and strife integrated into it. 

The US placed itself as the self- anointed manager and arbiter of the outcome of this fateful dynamic. Nobody in the region believes the Obama White House’s assurances about a limited strike with no intent of “regime change”. After all, this was the exact assurances given by the Obama Administration on the eve of the UNSC’s vote on Libya solely in order to convince Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to abstain and let the resolution pass (which they did). Now, should the US strike Syria, alone or at the head of a makeshift coalition, the US would have crossed the threshold of active participation and leadership. Pressure would mount on the US to complete the job: to invade and get involved directly in the fighting, to secure the strategic weapon arsenals (which would take 75,000 to 100,000 troops by the Pentagon’s latest estimates), and to overthrow Assad and empower what Bandar calls “moderate” Islamists. 

Arab leaders and their Islamist protégés are now convinced that only the US can, and should, defeat the Assad Administration and empower the Islamists for them. Should the US shirk or dither, there would be more and worse provocations, and more innocent Syrians would die in the hands of their brethren and saviors until the US delivered Damascus to the Islamists-jihadists and their sponsors. 

After the catastrophe that post-Qadhafi Libya became, does Washington really want to try again in Syria? Wouldn’t confronting reality and the Islamists- jihadists be a more expedient way of doing things? 

After the US-Russia Accord, the US Courtship With Iran 

On Friday, September 13, 2013, the United States and the Russian Federation signed an agreement aimed to bring to an end the political fiasco engendered by the US Barack Obama Administration in the aftermath of the August 21, 2013, chemical attack in Damascus. 

The broad framework agreement avoided addressing the ostensible root cause for the sudden preoccupation with the Syrian chemical arsenal, and only set general guidelines for the eventual removal and/or destruction of Syria’s che- mical weapons (CW) by some time in mid-2014, provided the fratricidal violence and civil war would permit such undertaking. Significantly, the agreement applied to both the Assad Administration and the opposition.  

In return for this agreement, the Obama Administration foreswore the use of force in Syria, thus ending any chance for a US-led international intervention in Syria. While Assad’s Damascus promised to try and abide by the agreement even if the first reporting deadline is impractical, the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA’s) Brig.-Gen. Salim Idriss called the agreement “just a lie” and announced that the opposition would ignore it. 

Simply put, the CW interlude only accelerated the emergence of an old-new greater Middle East from the ashes of the “Arab Spring”. The crisis in and around Syria is thus returning to being dominated by the regional mega-trends.

See: Bodansky, Yossef: “Fragility of the Modern Middle Eastern State System Reflects a Return to Reliance on Traditional Societies”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, August 20, 2013.

The CW interlude has a lingering impact, but in the context of the US intrusion into the regional dynamics which the CW incident sought to amplify. Inside Syria, the legacy of the CW interlude is the acceleration and intensification of the existing trends. 

This acceleration is made easy by the bursting of the opposition’s expectations once the US military intervention failed to materialize. The morale devastation of the Syrian opposition — particularly the Turkey-based forces — is worse than anything the Syrian military has been capable of inflicting in more than two years of harsh war. It is probable that no amount of US-supplied weapons and funds could reverse the sense of despair and defeat. 

Syria, in May 2013, entered the final phase of the war. 

Both sides realized that barring a major Western military intervention in the Summer, Assad’s Damascus would become the irreversibly dominant power in Syria and the war would subside by Autumn/Winter (except for jihadist terrorism which would continue indefinitely). The clairvoyant old sheikhs of rural Syria have made the trend more pronounced for they predicted that Winter would be longer and colder than usual. Eid-al- Adha — the Feast of the Sacrifice — is  both the indicator of the well-being or destitution of the community (through the availability of lambs for slaughter and other quality foodstuff) and the start of the cold season. This year, Eid-al-Adha is in mid-October. This means that the destitute grassroots population would soon need even greater help in food, medicine, fuel and shelter, help which only Assad’s Damascus is currently providing unconditionally.  

In contrast, the Islamists-jihadists provide limited help only to the Sunni communities along the central Euphrates valley and on condition that they adopt Islamist ruling and governance. Hence, the slide of the population into the fold of the Assad Administration was accelerating, as anticipated.  

Assad’s Damascus is cognizant of this trend. Since the threat of a game-changing US-led intervention all but evaporated, the Syrian military has to face two major strategic threats: 

1. The lingering Islamist-jihadist cells in the urban slums and rural townships of the economic engine of Syria: the populated zone around the Damascus-Aleppo road, and weapons stockpiles they recently received from Turkey; and 

2. The possibility of a US-Jordanian-Saudi sponsored surge from the south to try and capture Damascus (tailored after the US-sponsored surge on Tripoli from Tunisia). 

Hence, Syrian military activities in September 2013 focused on addressing these two challenges. The Syrian military launched a major offensive to the south of Damascus. The military enjoyed active support from local Sunni Bedouin and Druze militias, while the local jihadist forces stayed away from the advancing forces. Hence, the Syrian forces could focus on national-level and trans-national jihadist forces (that is, Jabhat al-Nusra and its affiliates) and on blocking roads leading from northern Jordan). Throughout the rest of western and northern Syria, the military launched a multitude of localized raids and sweeps; again, with growing support from, and even participation of, Sunni Arab local self-defense militias. These localized military operations aim to destroy national-level and trans-national jihadist forces and the storage sites of the heavy weapons recently pushed into Syria from across the Turkish border. 

Localized and nationalist rebel forces largely stay out of the fighting because of the sweeping despair in their ranks. 

By late September 2013, the impact of the legacy of the CW interlude was palpable. Since early Summer, the opposition had great hopes and expectations that a US-led military intervention was imminent and would turn things around dramatically. The opposition was genuinely convinced that the defeat of early Summer would, by the magic of US and NATO bombing, transform into a strategic victory before Winter, and that the largesse and generosity of the affluent West would resolve all the endemic shortages so that Winter would not be horrendous. 

The US needed an excuse to intervene, and the opposition provided it. But no intervention happened and, in the aftermath of US-Russia agreement, none will happen. Hence, the grassroots know miracles won’t happen, and that Assad’s patron, Russia, won’t permit them to happen. Opposition commanders believe that there is no longer any point in holding on against the superior Syrian military now that it is clear that the US will not intervene militarily and turn around the otherwise lost war. Consequently, the slide into the fold of Assad’s Damascus is accelerating and expanding if only because the alternative — accepting the Islamist-jihadist reign during the harsh Winter — is unthinkable. 

The slowing down of the war in Syria was, by late September 2013, already having a devastating effect on neighboring Iraq. 

The main jihadist forces in the area — particularly the al-Qaida-affiliated Islam- ic State of Iraq and Sham — are emerging from the Syrian chaos and can afford to allocate resources (fighters, funds, weapons and bombs) to fighting the Shi’ite Arabs for the dismemberment of Iraq. The jihadist objective is to effect the de facto joining of Sunni western Iraq to the functioning jihadist al-Jazira with its bastion in the central Euphrates valley. 

Petrified about their ability to hold onto power in a region falling apart, Iraq’s Shi’ites — both the security forces and militias — are escalating their own war against the Sunni Arabs. Moreover, adamant on securing on-land lines of communications to Syria, the Iranians are deploying their own Shi’ite proxies (loosely organized under the banner of the Iraqi HizbAllah) to also fight Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. Hence the slew of car bombs by both sides and the overall fratricidal carnage should be expected to keep escalating in order to force Baghdad and Tehran into decisions they don’t want to make about the long-term Sunni-Shi’ite balance of power. 

The main unresolved issue hanging over the emerging greater Middle East is the rôle of Iran in lieu of the perplexing policy of the Obama White House. Presently, Pres. Obama was, by the beginning of September 2013, more desperate than ever before to attain a grand rapprochement with Iran and make a triumphant Nixon-style visit to Tehran. However, Mr Obama also seemed convinced that the only thing that matters to everybody all over the world are his words and not his actions. 

Since July 2013, once Hassan Rouhani started his transition to the Iranian Presidency, Mr Obama reached out in order to revive the Jarrett-Velayati venue of direct negotiations. The Obama White House sent letters, messages and emissaries to several leaders in Tehran. In late August 2013, Mr Obama sent a personal letter to Rouhani. In it, Obama proposed to “turn a new page” in bilateral relations and promised loosening of the economic sanctions. US emissaries also made all the usual promises: to prevent Israel from striking Iran; to accept a de facto nuclear Iran; to permit Iranian hegemony over the Persian Gulf and the regional energy economy; to permit the spread of Iranian influence into Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, etc.  

Initially, Obama seemed to be following on his promises. 

The semi-public pressure on Israel has been incessant, the disengagement from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States has been humiliating, the acceptance of Iranian domination over Iraq has been unconditional, and the protection of Egypt’s Islamists genuine if futile. Finally, Mr Obama had the financial sanctions on Iran unilaterally undermined (ostensibly in support of humanitarian causes). 

But Tehran’s profound mistrust of Washington endures. 

The sustenance of the on-land Shi’ite- dominated access to the shores of the Mediterranean is the greatest achievement of the mullahs’ rule, apart from the mere survival of the Islamic Republic. In preparations for the anticipated intervention in Syria, Washington started assuring Tehran that the Ikhwan-dominated administration which Obama’s Washington was planning to install in Damascus would not be anti-Iran and would guarantee all of Tehran’s strategic and econ- omic interests. 

Mr Obama failed to realize, however, the depth of hatred and mistrust between the Persian Shi’ites and the Arab Ikhwan. (That Iranian Intelligence and the IRGC were sponsoring Sunni jihadist entities, including Ikhwan-affiliated, against the West or Israel does not mean Iran trusts them.) Tehran cannot fathom that Obama does not comprehend the essence of Shi’ite-Ikhwan relations, and therefore interprets the Obama White House’s plans to empower Sunni Islamists in Damascus as a manifestation of Washington’s hidden agenda against the mullahs’ Tehran and Shi’ite Islam. 

Even Obama’s Washington could not ignore the adversarial impact that a US- led intervention in the Syrian war and the planned toppling of the Assad Administration would have on the nascent negotiations with Tehran. Realizing that a crisis which might affect the entire grand rapprochement was brewing, Obama dispatched his confidant, Jeffrey Feltman (the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs under Hillary Clinton), and the Sultan of Oman to meet with Iranian Supreme Leader “Ayatollah” Ali Khamene’i just a day before the chemical attack in Damas- cus. 

Both delivered Khamene’i and the Iranian upper-most leadership guarantees of Obama’s enduring commitment to a grand rapprochement which would include the sustenance, and even increase, of Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon, as well as the Persian Gulf. Tehran was non-committal and reluctant to accept any dependence on the goodwill of US-empowered Sunni Islamists in Damascus. Khamene’i warned Sultan Qabus that Tehran would reexamine the trust in the US sincerity on nuclear and all other pertinent issues should Iran’s posture in Syria and Lebanon be undermined. (The timing of Feltman’s and Qabus’ trips to Khamene’i suggests that Mr Obama knew that a major provocation was coming. There is no indication whether Obama knew it would be a chemical strike.) 

And then the Syrian CW crisis erupted. 

While Tehran would hear nothing about compromise over access to the shores of the Mediterranean, Tehran grasped the extent of the desperation of Obama’s Washington. If anything, Tehran’s resolve to triumph only strengthened in the aftermath of the chemical strike. Quds Force commander Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani briefed Iran’s Assembly of Experts that Iran “will support Syria to the end”. Iranian propaganda became virulent and threatened a regional war should the US strike Syria. Moreover, Iranian proxy militia groups in Iraq threatened that they would attack the oilfields of Saudi Arabia and cut off the “economic jugular” of the West if the US attacked Syria. At the same time, Iranian propaganda kept reiterating Tehran’s desire for the resumption of nuclear and other negotiations, even though Rouhani vowed Iran would not abandon or com- promise over its nuclear program. 

Hence, the moment the threat of a US- led military intervention in Syria was removed, there began a more intense direct negotiations. Tehran is both relieved and emboldened by Obama’s decision not launch strikes against Syria. Iran is determined to do its utmost to squeeze the best possible deal from the desperate Obama. In early September 2013, the Obama White House started boasting about “a possible thaw in long-frozen relations” with Iran. The Obama White House claimed to be “communicating with Tehran” and “moving behind the scenes toward direct talks” on reducing tensions, resolving outstanding problems and dis- putes, and normalizing relations.  

Obama hoped to revive direct negotiations and even potential face-to-face talks during Rouhani’s visit to UN General Assembly in late September 2013. Ultimately, Tehran seems convinced that Pres. Obama would not dare to confront Assad’s Damascus for fear of disrupting the fledgling US-Iranian bilateral negotiations, and Tehran intended to exploit this to the fullest. 

Tehran’s priorities are clear. 

In mid-September 2013, Maj.-Gen. Soleimani addressed a closed forum in Tehran about the crucial importance to Iran of victory in Syria. He stressed that “Syria’s pivotal rôle in defending the anti- US and anti-Israel resistance front [Iran, Iraq, Syria and the HizbAllah] in the region and its continued victories over the terrorists in the last one year are the cause of increased foreign pressures against Damascus.” 

He further elaborated that “the Syrian army’s continued victories against the rebel and terrorist groups in recent months have angered the enemies and increased their threats and attacks against the country”. It is therefore imperative for Tehran’s own vital interests to secure the ultimate victory of Syria. “In the eyes of the West, Zionists and the reactionary regimes, Syria’s real problem is not the ruling of the minority ‘Alawites or the lack of democracy, but the reality is that the West and the reactionary regimes know that the resistance’s powerful position in the region is indebted to the Syrian government,” Soleimani stated. 

Meanwhile, official Tehran considers the US-RF agreement the official removal of the threat of US-led Western intervention in Syria. “The new situation means in fact that any pretext for the United States and certain countries to engage in military action against Syria has been removed,” Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated. With the threat of a US intervention effectively gone and with Obama focused on the grand rapprochement, Iran and its proxies can increase their support for the Syrian war effort. 

The Jihadists’ Revenge 

The military and political dynamic in and around Syria continued to escalated since late in the week ending September 14, 2013, and more so in the days after that (September 15-16, 2013) with the Syrian military clearly having the initiative and the opposition forces either getting out of the war or venting their frustration and wrath on the civilian population. 

Meanwhile, Tehran continued to dominate the political exploitation of the crisis. Not to be left out, Ankara initiated on September 16, 2013, a major escalation in the fighting along the Syrian-Turkish border. 

The Syrian military intensified its offensive sweeps against predominantly jihadist strongholds in the northern and western parts of the country. This escalation evolved as ever larger segments of the nationalist and traditionalist opposition forces focused on the defense of their home communities rather than confronting the Syrian security forces. For their part, once contact is made with local leaders at the village and township levels, the Syrian Army avoids entering these communities and confronting their self-defense forces. On the contrary, the Syrian security forces are delivering both military and humanitarian aid to help the local self-defense forces withstand the jihadists. Consequently, the Syrian military can focus almost solely on jihadist enclaves: storm and clear them. 

The most intense fighting was taking place in the Idlib area and the greater Aleppo area. In the north-west, the military focused on clearing jihadist strongholds, cells and networks in the al-Arbaeen mountain area and surrounding villages in the Idlib region. The military reported the destruction of several storage sites of weapons and ammunition. The most intense fighting was against Jab- hat al-Nusra units. However, the Syrian Army also destroyed bases and arsenals of the locally-based jihadist forces of the Dra’a al-Jabal Brigade, the Squr al- Sham Brigade, the Ahrar al-Thawra Brigade, the Suyuf al-Haq Brigade, the Asar al-Sham Brigade, the al-Abbas Brigade, the Fursan al-Quds Battalion, the Ablin Battalion, the Omar al-Faruq Battalion, and the Maghawir Aryha Battalion. 

An interesting phenomenon reported by the Syrian security forces since the weekend of September 14-15, 2013, is that the food, supplies, and clothes of virtually all the jihadist fighters encountered in the northern and north-western parts of Syria were from Turkey. This meant that the opposition’s fighting forces could no longer rely on local villages for food and basic supplies, and that the majority of the jihadist fighters encountered were recent infiltrators who had to bring everything with them. 

In the greater Aleppo area, the Syrian security forces for the most part further expanded the secure zone surrounding the city and eliminated pockets of resistance inside the city. The scope and pace of these operations kept growing. Meanwhile, the jihadists’ abuse of civilian population — mainly the more affluent Sunni Arab — intensified in the greater Aleppo area. The jihadists were committing crimes, murders, and overall abuse in the name of resisting the government encroachment. Significantly, there has been discernable upsurge in crimes and abuses in the areas where the influx of jihadist foreign fighters were most pronounced. The jihadists — both local and foreign — accuse the population of betraying them and their sacred cause. They then rob and pillage in the name of jihad and for the needs of jihad. Since late in the week ending September 14, 2013, and the few days following, several thousand people were evicted from houses and apartments and forced into exile, their entire property behind. 

Meanwhile, the jihadist forces in the rural areas in northern and western Syria were increasingly focusing on taking their revenge against the civilian population who they are convinced has betrayed them and their cause. Thus, the abuse of the Christian-Aramaic city of Maaloula, and particularly the effort to force the population to convert to Islam under the threat of death, was a trend setter. The main objectives of the jihadists’ wrath are the ‘Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and all those defined as “Nusairis”. The forces of Jabhat al-Nusra received a fatwa by a very senior Islamist jurist ordering them “to kill the Nusairis, the enemies of God”. 

Late in the week (ending June 14, 2013), Jabhat al-Nusra fighters entered ‘Alawite villages in the Homs area and massacred civilians. The jihadists consider these atrocities to be more important than confronting the Syrian Army. “The people’s wall of fear has been broken, as this was the first time these villages were entered and such a high number was killed,” the Jabhat al-Nusra communiqué reads. These attacks were “in revenge for the killing in cold blood of Muslims and their women in Eastern Ghouta” by chemical weapons. 

The Turkish Leadership Connection With the OPCW 

Not to be ignored, Ankara was definitely, in mid-September 2013, making strenuous efforts to ignite the Turkish-Syrian border. 

On September 16, 2013, during the afternoon (local time), fighting between the Syrian army and jihadist forces attempting to withdraw back from the Idlib area across the Turkish border into the Hatay province escalated.  

The Syrian forces, backed and guided by one or two Mi-17 helicopters, were in hot pursuit after the jihadists. Several Turkish F-16s were scrambled from the Malatya air base to patrol over the area. According to the Turkish military, around 16:00 (local time), one Mi-17 strayed about 2 km across the Turkish border in the Yayladagi district of Hatay province. The Syrian military insists the Mi-17 was on the border line if it crossed the border at all, and if so then it was by a few meters only. Two F-16s immediately closed in and fired a few air-to-air missiles at the Mi-17 and shot it down. 

According to the Turkish military, the helicopter exploded in mid-air. According to the Syrians, the Mi-17 made an emergency landing on the border line. (There are disputes whether it came down on the Turkish or Syrian side.) According to the Syrian military, two of the aircrew were seen emerging from the helicopter alive. The Turkish military insists the two jumped by parachute and landed safely on the ground. Both the Turkish and the Syrian military agree that the two aircrew were immediately surrounded and summarily killed by jihadist fighters. Meanwhile, the jihadist forces withdrew safely across the border into Turkish territory. 

Meanwhile, in the early morning of September 16, 2013, the Turkish military committed the newly-formed jihadist brigade called Katibat al-Taliban to saving the Jabhat al-Nusra forces just across the border. In the days immediately after that, the Jabhat al-Nusra forces attempted once again to retake the town of Ras al-Ain on the Syrian border, just across from Turkey’s Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa, from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces holding it since July 2013. 

Although Turkish artillery provided fire support to the Jabhat al-Nusra forces, they failed to push the PYD defenders. Fighting was heavy, and large numbers of jihadist casualties were transported in Turkish ambulances to hospitals in Urfa, Turkey. Hence, the Katibat al-Taliban was committed to battle in a desperate effort to save the Jabhat al-Nusra from defeat. The Katibat al-Taliban is comprised almost exclusively of Kurdish jihadists, including ex-PKK fighters who became Islamists in Turkish jails and were offered amnesty and $1,000 if they joined the new unit. The Katiba is controlled by Turkish Military Intelligence and is commanded by Turkish jihadists (both Turks and Kurds). 

In the early afternoon (local time), the PYD forces defeated both the Jabhat al- Nusra and Katibat al-Taliban forces. The PYD launched a major counterattack from inside Ras al-Ain and pushed the jihadists toward the Turkish border. The PYD’s thrust continued despite heavy fire from Turkish artillery just across the border. Hence, three F-16s were scrambled from Diyarbakir airbase. The F-16s were fully loaded with air-to-ground ordnance. According to the Turkish military, the F-16s were dispatched to conduct reconnaissance flights over the Turkish- Syrian border in order to ensure that “the intensified clashes between PYD militants and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters” did not “stray across our border”. According to the Syrian-Kurdish leadership, the F-16s bombed the PYD’s forces and positions in order to compel the PYD to not only stop the pushing back of the Jabhat al-Nusra and Katibat al-Taliban forces, but withdraw from the border area and the town of Ras al-Ain. 

After the Turkish bombing, the PYD forces stopped their counterattack and withdrew back into their fortified positions inside Ras al-Ain. Fire ended by nightfall but both sides described the situation in the entire border area as very tense. 

But the on-going Turkish escalation along the border with Syria might be even more purposeful. 

The collection and destruction of the Syrian CW was legally designated to be accomplished by, or under the supervision of, the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). 

Putting aside the question if the OPCW is capable of such undertaking, there emerged a major political quandary. The chairman of OPCW is Ahmet Üzümcü of Turkey, a close ally and confidant of both Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Even if there existed in the past a remote chance that Damascus, Tehran, or Moscow would trust Üzmücü to be objective in dealing with the Syrian CW, the vitriolic anti-Syria and anti-Assad statements made by both Davutoðlu and Erdogan in the aftermath of the border clashes obliterated any such possibility. 

There should be no doubt that official Ankara was cognizant that the raising of the military tension along the border and the virulent political rhetoric would doom Üzmücü’s relations with Syria and Russia. Hence, Ankara is now in position to argue, on the basis of Üzümcü’s reports, that there is no chance Damascus would abide by the US-RF agreement and therefore the military intervention option should be reconsidered. 

Meanwhile, the impact of the intensifying jihadism-sponsoring on Turkey is fast approaching the irreversible point. Writing in the September 23, 2013, edition of the Milliyet, Kadri Gürsel warned that Turkey had transformed into the Pakistan of the Middle East while Syria had become its Afghanistan. “Turkish territory in the border region that arches from Hatay to Gaziantep is on the way to becoming the ‘Peshawar of the Middle East,’ that is, a region where the state has no control over the border and outlawed forces move as they like,” Gürsel said. “While we are Pakistanizing, our neighbor Syria — torn by a civil war — is in the grips of Lebanonization (ethnic and sectarian polarization), Somalization (collapse of public order and state) and Afghanization (dominance of al-Qaida and jihadists), with all those processes intertwined and mutually exacerbating each other.”  

Kadri Gürsel blamed the jihad-sponsorship policy of Ankara for the unfolding regional crisis. “Those capable of reading the map of the Syrian civil war would also discern this: If Turkey had not been Pakistanizing, Syria would not have been Afghanizing. It means that the jihadists — mainly the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra — could not have Afghanized Syria’s northern region bordering Turkey without logistical support from quarters in Turkey and easy access to Turkish territory and the Syrian border,” Gürsel observes. And just as the jihadization and radicalization of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area have evolved into the irreversible self-destruction of both countries and the ensuing destabilization of the entire South and Central Asia, so is the comparable transformation the Turkish-Syrian border region currently threatening to not only self-destroy both countries but set an entire volatile region aflame. The emergence of the “Islamist Alliance” is therefore just another inevitable step on the path to jihadist eruption.  

Iran Cautiously Triumphal? But an Obama Political “Success”? 

On the political front, Iran was setting the agenda for exploiting the ramification of the US-RF agreement both regionally and globally. The Iranian campaign intensified markedly on September 16, 2013, during a closed conference of top commanders of the Pásdárán (the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps: IRGC). Virtually all the key leaders of Iran addressed the conference.  

Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, set the tone. He stressed that the ongoing crisis in Syria is “merely part of a wider conspiracy plan” the West was pursuing all over the Middle East. “We are well aware that the disputes are not over one person or one president or the coming to power of a particular faction in Syria; it goes beyond that and it is obvious that the West has plans for the whole region,” Rouhani explained. “What has happened in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain are rings of a single chain of events which aims to impact the region and weaken the Resistance Front.” 

Rouhani asserted that Iran was not seeking to control the region. “Our discourse is one of fighting terrorism in the whole region,” he said. Regarding Syria, Rouhani emphasized, all of Iran’s “efforts are directed at restoring peace and stability to Syria, and [Tehran] will accept whomever the Syrian citizens choose to run their country”. 

The next address was by the IRGC Commander in Chief Maj.-Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari. He declared that “the world powers suffered their latest defeat against the Resistance Front when their conspiracy to launch a military strike against Syria failed”. However, Iran could not afford to rest of its laurels. “So far, the enemies’ plot for military intervention in Syria has failed,” Jafari warned, but that did not mean Iran’s enemies would not attempt to avenge their defeat elsewhere. It was because of Iran’s continued vigilance and military might, Jafari stated, “that almost all the schemes drawn up by the enemies against the Resistance Front have failed”.  

This development had profound ramifications for Iran’s own vital interests and strategic posture. “Given the fact that enemies cannot overcome the Resistance Front in Syria, they definitely cannot take any action against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Jafari concluded. 

Meanwhile, US Pres. Barack Obama was intensifying his campaign to meet Rouhani in New York during the late September 2013 UN General Assembly session, and there to reach a “grand rapprochement” virtually at any cost. However, Rouhani did not want to meet in person because Obama insisted on a brotherly-hug-and-kiss which Rouhani knew would not wash in Tehran. All the substance issues — the text of Obama’s statement that effectively conceded everything to Iran — had already been agreed upon by Sec. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Desperate to start the rapprochement, Obama called Rouhani at the last minute and twisted Rouhani’s hand on the phone. Obama reiterated his commitment to meeting all of Tehran demands, including far-reaching strategic compromises at the expense of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. “Obama’s phone call last week with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations,” Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice claimed.  

The greater Middle East will not be the same.


September 27, 2013

Syria: The Opposition Moves Under the Islamist Banner and Beyond the Influence of the US and Western States

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. September 24, 2013, saw the final nail driven into the coffin of the US and Western effort to influence, let alone control, the Syrian armed opposition.

Abdul-Aziz Salamah, the political leader of Liwaa al-Tawhid in northern Syria, announced that 13 of the leading armed opposition organization inside Syria decided to unite their efforts under an Islamist-jihadist banner as the “Islamist Alliance”. The Alliance claims to represent more than 75 percent the rebels fighting the Assad Administration. The Islamist Alliance was established in order to create sharia throughout Syria and to formally reject the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as their legitimate representative. Significantly, the group includes some of the largest ostensibly moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as al-Qaida affiliated organizations. Khalid Khoja, a senior SNC official in Turkey, estimated that the 13 groups had around 20,000 fighters and that “they effectively control northern Syria”.

The supreme leadership of al-Qaida warmly endorsed the new alliance in a special communiqué. “A group of powerful mujahedin units rejected the authority of the pro-Western Syrian opposition leadership abroad and called for it to be reorganized under an Islamic framework,” the al-Qaida communiqué read. “These forces call on all military and civilian forces to unite under a clear Islamic framework based on sharia law, which should be the sole source of legislation.” 

The immediate roots of this dramatic shift go back to mid-September 2013, when the leaders of the main jihadist organizations and other armed groups gave up on the potentially war-winning intervention by the US-led West and started to reconcile themselves with the irreversible loss of grassroots popular support and legitimization in the Syrian interior. Under such conditions, the jihadists’ stated goal of an Islamist sharia state against the wishes of both the vast majority of Syrians and the Assad administration has now become the only viable objective for the armed opposition. This realization was a reaffirmation of the claim by neo-salafi jihadist leaders that there could be no genuine cooperation with, and support from, the US-led West irrespective of the routine political, intelligence and military cooperation with the sponsoring intelligence services including the “Mukhabarat Amriki”: that is, US intelligence.

This stunning reversal was both inevitable and unexpected. The jihadist forces have dominated the armed struggle inside Syria since early 2012. The aid provided by the sponsoring states — Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia; all of whom have also been fronting for the US — enabled the jihadist forces to gradually dominate and/or destroy the localized rebel forces recruited and run under the command of local chieftains from the local popular bases (tribes, villages, townships, etc.). By the Autumn of 2012, the remaining local militias had been driven into protecting their popular bases against the jihadists and thus out of the anti-Assad fighting. By Spring 2013, the majority of localized militias were inclined to make deals with the Syrian security forces in order to jointly withstand, and where possible defeat, the ascent of the jihadist forces. A minority of the localized militias allowed themselves to be swallowed by the jihadist forces because they had become the sole source of weapons and other supplies in the destitute Syrian interior.

Meanwhile, as of back in Spring 2012, officials of the “Mukhabarat Amriki” have closely supervised and effectively dominated on-site the distribution of military, logistical and financial aid to the Syrian armed opposition. Although the US never “formally owned” the massive weapon shipments from Libya, Pakistan, and Qatar, and subsequently also from the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, operatives of the “Mukhabarat Amriki” instructed their allies — the formal foreign sponsors of the Syrian opposition in Turkey and Jordan — in great detail and specificity who should get what weapons and other supplies, and when.

The sponsoring intelligence services, including the “Mukhabarat Amriki”, never had any illusion as to who was getting these weapons and what was being done with the US-endorsed and -supervised distributed weapons and ammunition. Formally, particularly for the consumption of political Washington, these weapons went to the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, led by Brig.-Gen. Salim Idriss, and through them to the FSA units and forces inside Syria. However, virtually all FSA-affiliated field commanders repeatedly complained that they did not get any weapons and supplies. Indeed, independent monitoring of the Turkey-origin convoys confirmed that the bulk of the weapons had always been delivered to jihadist forces. Furthermore, the jihadists intentionally received excess quantities that they used in order to lure and take over localized non-Islamist forces that were otherwise literally starving for food, supplies, and weaponry. In May 2013, a senior FSA commander reported that several FSA units with more than 3,000 FSA fighters joined the Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria alone.

The current unraveling started in mid-September 2013. According to jihadist sources, more than 1,000 FSA fighters swore the oath of allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and the Jabhat al-Nusra Front in northern and eastern Syria, particularly in the province of ar-Raqqa. At the time, the jihadists already had between 7,500 and 10,000 fighters in the ar-Raqqa area. FSA sources conceded that the Raqqah Revolutionaries’ Brigade and the God’s Victory Brigade had pledged loyalty to the jihadists. The two brigades were part of the FSA as late as September 9, 2013. Thus, the last non-neo-salafi forces operating in the central Euphrates Valley — the bastion of the jihadist movement in both Syria and western Iraq — formally joined the jihadist cause.

On September 20, 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham in eastern Syria announced that five FSA kitaeb (“battalions”) with more than 3,000 fighters swore the oath of allegiance to the Islamic State. In addition, the entire Brigade of Nasr Salahuddin of the FSA joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham in northern Syria.

Then, on September 24, 2013, Abdul-Aziz Salamah, the political leader of the Liwaa al-Tawhid, read the “Communiqué No.1” of the “Islamist Alliance” comprised of the 13 armed opposition organizations.

“The mujahedin militant factions and forces that have signed this statement convened, consulted with each other, and concluded the following [four point agreement],” Salamah announced.

“These forces and factions call on all military and civilian organizations to unite under a clear Islamic framework, set forth by the magnanimity of Islam, operating on the basis that sharia is the arbiter of governance and making it the sole source of legislation,” Salamah read.

“This force believes that those deserving of representing it are those who have lived its burdens and shared in its sacrifices of honest sons,” Salamah’s statement reads. “This force feels that all groups formed abroad without returning to the country [and] without consulting those inside do not represent them, so the force will not recognize them.”

The members of the “Islamist Alliance” explicitly refuse to accept the Western-sponsored political leadership. "Therefore, the National Coalition and its supposed government under the presidency of Ahmad Tumah do not represent them and will not be recognized by them,” Salamah stated.

In conclusion, in the name of the “Islamist Alliance” Salamah urged “all militant and civilian organizations to unify their ranks and words, eschew division and discord, and put the interests of the ummah over that of any single group.”

Although 13 armed opposition organizations signed “Communiqué No.1” of the “Islamist Alliance”, only 11 are known:

* Jabhat al-Nusra for the People of Sham (al-Qaida’s formal arm in Syria);

* The Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement (a 20,000-strong jihadist group that leads the Syrian Islamic Front);

* Liwaa al-Tawhid (an FSA brigade in the Aleppo area under the support of Turkish Military Intelligence); 

* Liwaa al-Islam (Saudi-sponsored neo-salafi brigade that operates in Aleppo and Damascus in the ranks of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front);

* Liwaa al-Suqour al-Sham (a major FSA brigade that doubles as a member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front);

* The al-Fajr Islamic Movement (a large unit in the Syrian Islamic Front);

* The al-Noor Islamic Movement (a jihadist brigade that operates in Aleppo);

* The Noor al-Din al-Zanki Kitaeb (Saudi-backed jihadist battalions – or brigade – fighting in Aleppo);

* The Fastaqim Kama Umirta Group (local unit based in Aleppo);

* Liwaa al-Ansar (an FSA-affiliated predominantly jihadist brigade that fights in the Idlib and Aleppo regions); and

* The 19th Division (the largest and best organized FSA unit that fights in Aleppo as an ally of the Liwaa al-Ansar).

On September 25, 2013, jihadist officials rushed to further explain the earthquake. “The main goal [of the “Islamist Alliance”] is to unify the fighting forces,” explained Bashir Saleh of Liwaa al-Tawhid. He ridiculed the relevance and influence of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) inside Syria. “The problem is that the Coalition is outside and it doesn’t know what is happening inside,” Saleh explained. “Maybe one or two or three of the Coalition members have come and entered Syria but then they leave quickly like they are foreign visitors.” Abu-Zaki of Liwaa al-Suqour al-Sham also stressed the irreconcilable disconnect between the exiled leaders and the fighting forces inside Syria as the cause for the “Islamist Alliance” formation. “We welcomed our brothers on the outside to partake in the revolution,” Abu-Zaki explained. “But when they didn’t represent us and the demands of the revolution, then we had to release the statement.”

The significance of the formation of the “Islamist Alliance” is not lost on the SNC leadership in Istanbul. SNC spokesman Louay al-Mokdad reported that Idriss had already called some of the rebelling leaders and commanders, “and they told us they signed this because they lost all hope in the international community”. But Idriss and al-Mokdad were quick to blame the perfidy of the US-led West for calamity that befell them. “We are really tired, Bashar al-Assad is killing us, all the West is betraying us, and they want to negotiate with the regime over our blood,” al-Mokdad quoted the commanders as telling Idriss.

Ultimately, the prominence of Liwaa al-Tawhid and Liwaa al-Islam in the formation of the “Islamist Alliance” is the key to comprehending the true importance of the earthquake. Liwaa al-Tawhid has long been effectively controlled by Turkish Military Intelligence. The brigade is the biggest Free Syrian Army unit in the Aleppo area. It is used repeatedly by the Turks for their own purpose, for example fighting the Kurds. Similarly, the Liwaa al-Islam is one of the largest jihadist group in the Damascus area and in all likelihood was responsible for the August 21, 2013, chemical attack. The brigade is dominated by Saudi Intelligence and has performed numerous missions on the behalf of Riyadh. Hence, the mere prominence of Liwaa al-Tawhid and Liwaa al-Islam indicate the abandonment of the US and Western political effort and the chimera of moderate armed opposition not only by the FSA and jihadist forces but, significantly, by their sponsors Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and most likely Qatar. These three sponsoring states will now be focusing on the overt sponsorship of jihadist forces and neo-salafi jihadism in Syria and the entire Mashriq.


September 17, 2013

After the International Community Withdraws Plans for Direct Military Involvement in the Syrian War, Jihadists Begin Revenge Attacks on the Civil Population

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. The military and political dynamic in and around Syria continued to escalated since late in the week ending September 14, 2013, and more so in the days after that (September 15/16, 2013) with the Syrian military clearly having the initiative and the opposition forces either getting out of the war or venting their frustration and wrath on the civilian population.

Meanwhile, Tehran continues to dominate the political exploitation of the crisis. Not to be left out, Ankara initiated on September 16, 2013, a major escalation in the fighting along the Syrian-Turkish border.

*

The Syrian military has been intensifying its offensive-sweeps against predominantly jihadist strongholds in the northern and western parts of the country. This escalation evolves as ever larger segments of the nationalist and traditionalist opposition forces are focusing on the self-defense of their home communities rather than confronting the Syrian security forces. For their part, once contact is made with local leaders at the village and township levels, the Syrian Army avoids entering these communities and confronting their self-defense forces. On the contrary, the Syrian security forces are delivering both military and humanitarian aid to help the local self-defense forces withstand the jihadists. Consequently, the Syrian military can focus almost solely on jihadist enclaves: storm and clear them.

The most intense fighting has taken place in the Idlib area and the greater Aleppo area. In the north-west, the military focused on clearing jihadist strongholds, cells and networks in the al-Arbaeen mountain area and surrounding villages in the Idlib region. The military reported the destruction of several storage sites of weapons and ammunition. The most intense fighting was against Jabhat al-Nusra units. However, the Syrian Army also destroyed bases and arsenals of the locally-based jihadist forces of the Dra’a al-Jabal Brigade, the Squr al-Sham Brigade, the Ahrar al-Thawra Brigade, the Suyuf al-Haq Brigade, the Asar al-Sham Brigade, the al-Abbas Brigade, the Fursan al-Quds Battalion, the Ablin Battalion, the Omar al-Faruq Battalion, and the Maghawir Aryha Battalion.

An interesting phenomenon reported by the Syrian security forces since the weekend of September 14-15, 2013, is that the food, supplies, and clothes of virtually all the jihadist fighters encountered in the northern and north-western parts of Syria were from Turkey. This means that the opposition’s fighting forces can no longer rely on local villages for food and basic supplies, and that the majority of the jihadist fighters encountered were recent infiltrators who had to bring everything with them.

In the greater Aleppo area, the Syrian security forces have mainly further expanded the secure zone surrounding the city and eliminated pockets of resistance inside the city. The scope and pace of these operations keep escalating growing. Meanwhile, the jihadists’ abuse of civilian population — mainly the more affluent Sunni Arab — has intensified in the greater Aleppo area. The jihadists are committing crimes, murders, and overall abuse in the name of resisting the government encroachment. Significantly, there has been discernable upsurge in crimes and abuses in the areas where the influx of jihadist foreign fighters were most pronounced. The jihadists — both local and foreign — accuse the population of betraying them and their sacred cause. They then rob and pillage in the name of jihad and for the needs of jihad. Since late in the week ending September 14, 2013, several thousand people have been evicted from houses and apartments and forced into exile while leaving their entire property behind.

Meanwhile, the jihadist forces in the rural areas in northern and western Syria are increasingly focusing on taking their revenge against the civilian population who they are convinced has betrayed them and their cause. Thus, the abuse of the Christian-Aramaic city of Maaloula, and particularly the effort to force the population to convert to Islam under the threat of death, was a trend setter. The main objectives of the jihadists’ wrath are the ‘Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and all those defined as “Nusairis”. The forces of Jabhat al-Nusra received a fatwa by a very senior Islamist jurist ordering them “to kill the Nusairis, the enemies of God”. Late in the week, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters entered ‘Alawite villages in the Homs area and massacred civilians. The jihadists consider these atrocities to be more important than confronting the Syrian Army. “The people’s wall of fear has been broken, as this was the first time these villages were entered and such a high number was killed,” the Jabhat al-Nusra communiqué reads. These attacks were “in revenge for the killing in cold blood of Muslims and their women in Eastern Ghouta” by chemical weapons.

*

Not to be ignored, Ankara is definitely making strenuous efforts to ignite the Turkish-Syrian border.

On September 16, 2013, during the afternoon (local time), fighting between the Syrian army and jihadist forces attempting to withdraw back from the Idlib area across the Turkish border into the Hatay province escalated. The Syrian forces, backed and guided by one or two Mi-17 helicopters, were in hot pursuit after the jihadists. Several Turkish F-16s were scrambled from the Malatya air base to patrol over the area. According to the Turkish military, around 16:00 (local time), one Mi-17 strayed about 2 km across the Turkish border in the Yayladagi district of Hatay province. The Syrian military insists the Mi-17 was on the border line if it crossed the border at all, and if so then it was by a few meters only. Two F-16s immediately closed in and fired a few air-to-air missiles at the Mi-17 and shot it down.

According to the Turkish military, the helicopter exploded in mid-air. According to the Syrians, the Mi-17 made an emergency landing on the border line. (There are disputes whether it came down on the Turkish or Syrian side.) According to the Syrian military, two of the aircrew were seen emerging from the helicopter alive. The Turkish military insists the two jumped by parachute and landed safely on the ground. Both the Turkish and the Syrian military agree that the two aircrew were immediately surrounded and summarily killed by jihadist fighters. Meanwhile, the jihadist forces withdrew safely across the border into Turkish territory.

Meanwhile, in the early morning of September 16, 2013, the Turkish military committed the newly-formed jihadist brigade called Katibat al-Taliban to saving the Jabhat al-Nusra forces just across the border. In recent days, the Jabhat al-Nusra forces attempted once again to retake the town of Ras al-Ain on the Syrian border, just across from Turkey’s Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa, from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces holding it since July 2013. Although Turkish artillery provided fire support to the Jabhat al-Nusra forces, they failed to push the PYD defenders. Fighting was heavy, and large numbers of jihadist casualties were transported in Turkish ambulances to hospitals in Urfa, Turkey. Hence, the Katibat al-Taliban was committed to battle in a desperate effort to save the Jabhat al-Nusra from defeat. The Katibat al-Taliban is comprised almost exclusively of Kurdish jihadists, including ex-PKK fighters who became Islamists in Turkish jails and were offered amnesty and $1,000 if they joined the new unit. The Katiba is controlled by Turkish Military Intelligence and is commanded by Turkish jihadists (both Turks and Kurds).

In the early afternoon (local time), the PYD forces defeated both the Jabhat al-Nusra and Katibat al-Taliban forces. The PYD launched a major counterattack from inside Ras al-Ain and pushed the jihadists toward the Turkish border. The PYD’s thrust continued despite heavy fire from Turkish artillery just across the border. Hence, three F-16s were scrambled from Diyarbakir airbase. The F-16s were fully loaded with air-to-ground ordnance. According to the Turkish military, the F-16s were dispatched to conduct reconnaissance flights over the Turkish-Syrian border in order to ensure that “the intensified clashes between PYD militants and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters” did not “stray across our border”. According to the Syrian-Kurdish leadership, the F-16s bombed the PYD’s forces and positions in order to compel the PYD to not only stop the pushing back of the Jabhat al-Nusra and Katibat al-Taliban forces, but withdraw from the border area and the town of Ras al-Ain.

After the Turkish bombing, the PYD forces stopped their counterattack and withdrew back into their fortified positions inside Ras al-Ain. Fire ended by nightfall but both sides described the situation in the entire border area as very tense.

*

On the political front, Iran was setting the agenda for exploiting the ramification of the US-RF agreement1 both regionally and globally. The Iranian campaign intensified markedly on September 16, 2013, during a closed conference of top commanders of the Pásdárán (the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps: IRGC). Virtually all the key leaders of Iran addressed the conference.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani set the tone. He stressed that the ongoing crisis in Syria is “merely part of a wider conspiracy plan” the West was pursuing all over the Middle East. “We are well aware that the disputes are not over one person or one president or the coming to power of a particular faction in Syria; it goes beyond that and it is obvious that the West has plans for the whole region,” Rouhani explained. “What has happened in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain are rings of a single chain of events which aims to impact the region and weaken the Resistance Front.” Rouhani asserted that Iran was not seeking to control the region. “Our discourse is one of fighting terrorism in the whole region,” he said. Regarding Syria, Rouhani emphasized, all of Iran’s “efforts are directed at restoring peace and stability to Syria, and [Tehran] will accept whomever the Syrian citizens choose to run their country”.

The next address was by the IRGC Commander in Chief Maj.-Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari. He declared that “the world powers suffered their latest defeat against the Resistance Front when their conspiracy to launch a military strike against Syria failed”. However, Iran could not afford to rest of its laurels. “So far, the enemies’ plot for military intervention in Syria has failed,” Jafari warned, but that did not mean Iran’s enemies would not attempt to avenge their defeat elsewhere. It was because of Iran’s continued vigilance and military might, Jafari stated, “that almost all the schemes drawn up by the enemies against the Resistance Front have failed”. This development had profound ramifications for Iran’s own vital interests and strategic posture. “Given the fact that enemies cannot overcome the Resistance Front in Syria, they definitely cannot take any action against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Jafari concluded.

Meanwhile, US Pres. Barack Obama was intensifying his campaign to meet Rouhani in New York during the forthcoming UN General Assembly session, and there to reach a “grand rapprochement” virtually at any cost. 


Footnotes:

1. See: “After the US-Russia Accord on Syrian CW, the US-Iranian Rapprochement Begins”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, September 16, 2013.


September 16, 2013

After the US-Russia Accord on Syrian CW, the US-Iranian Rapprochement Begins

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. On Friday, September 13, 2013, the United States and the Russian Federation signed an agreement aimed to bring to an end the political fiasco engendered by the US Barack Obama Administration in the aftermath of the August 21, 2013, chemical attack in Damascus.

The broad framework agreement avoided addressing the ostensible root cause for the sudden preoccupation with the Syrian chemical arsenal, and only set general guidelines for the eventual removal and/or destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) sometime in mid-2014, provided the fratricidal violence and civil war permit such undertaking. Significantly, the agreement applies to both the Assad Administration and the opposition.

In return for this agreement, the Obama Administration foreswore the use of force in Syria, thus ending any chance for a US-led international intervention in Syria. While Assad’s Damascus promised to try and abide by the agreement even if the first reporting deadline is impractical, the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA’s) Brig.-Gen. Salim Idriss called the agreement “just a lie” and announced that the opposition would ignore it.

Simply put, the CW interlude only accelerated the emergence of an old-new greater Middle East from the ashes of the “Arab Spring”. The crisis in and around Syria is thus returning to being dominated by the regional mega-trends.

The CW interlude has a lingering impact, but in the context of the US intrusion into the regional dynamics which the CW incident sought to amplify. Inside Syria, the legacy of the CW interlude is the acceleration and intensification of the existing trends.

This acceleration is made easy by the bursting of the opposition’s expectations once the US military intervention failed to materialize. The morale devastation of the Syrian opposition — particularly the Turkey-based forces — is worse than anything the Syrian military has been capable of inflicting in more than two years of harsh war. It is probable that no amount of US-supplied weapons and funds could reverse the sense of despair and defeat.

Syria, in May 2013, entered the final phase of the war. Both sides realized that barring a major Western military intervention in the Summer, Assad’s Damascus would become the irreversibly dominant power in Syria and the war would subside by Autumn/Winter (except for jihadist terrorism which would continue indefinitely). The clairvoyant old sheikhs of rural Syria have made the trend more pronounced for they predict that Winter will be longer and colder than usual. Eid-al-Adha –the Feast of the Sacrifice — is  both the indicator of the well-being or destitution of the community (through the availability of lambs for slaughter and other quality foodstuff) and the start of the cold season. This year, Eid-al-Adha is in mid-October. This means that the destitute grassroots population will soon need even greater help in food, medicine, fuel and shelter, help which only Assad’s Damascus is currently providing unconditionally.

In contrast, the Islamists-jihadists provide limited help only to the Sunni communities along the central Euphrates valley and on condition that they adopt Islamist ruling and governance. Hence, the slide of the population into the fold of the Assad Administration is accelerating, as anticipated.

Assad’s Damascus is cognizant of this trend. Now that the threat of a game-changing US-led intervention has all but evaporated, the Syrian military has to face two major strategic threats:

1. The lingering Islamist-jihadist cells in the urban slums and rural townships of the economic engine of Syria: the populated zone around the Damascus-Aleppo road, and weapons stockpiles they recently received from Turkey; and

2. The possibility of a US-Jordanian-Saudi sponsored surge from the south to try and capture Damascus (tailored after the US-sponsored surge on Tripoli from Tunisia).

Hence, Syrian military activities are focused on addressing these two challenges. The Syrian military launched a major offensive to the south of Damascus. The military enjoys active support from local Sunni Bedouin and Druze militias, while the local jihadist forces stay away from the advancing forces. Hence, the Syrian forces can focus on national-level and trans-national jihadist forces (that is, Jabhat al-Nusra and its affiliates) and on blocking roads leading from northern Jordan). Throughout the rest of western and northern Syria, the military launched a multitude of localized raids and sweeps; again, with growing support from, and even participation of, Sunni Arab local self-defense militias. These localized military operations aim to destroy national-level and trans-national jihadist forces and the storage sites of the heavy weapons recently pushed into Syria from across the Turkish border.

Localized and nationalist rebel forces largely stay out of the fighting largely because of the sweeping despair in their ranks.

By now, the impact of the legacy of the CW interlude is palpable. Since early Summer, the opposition had great hopes and expectations that a US-led military intervention was imminent and would turn things around dramatically. The opposition was genuinely convinced that the defeat of early Summer would, by the magic of US and NATO bombing, transform into a strategic victory before Winter, and that the largesse and generosity of the affluent West would resolve all the endemic shortages so that Winter would not be horrendous.

The US needed an excuse, and the opposition provided it. But no intervention happened and, in the aftermath of US-RF agreement, none will happen. Hence, the grassroots know miracles won’t happen, and that Assad’s patron, Russia, won’t permit them to happen. Opposition commanders believe that there is no longer any point in holding on against the superior Syrian military now that it is clear that the US will not intervene militarily and turn around the otherwise lost war. Consequently, the slide into the fold of Assad’s Damascus is accelerating and expanding if only because the alternative — accepting the Islamist-jihadist reign during the harsh Winter — is unthinkable.

The slowing down of the war in Syria is already having a devastating effect on neighboring Iraq.

The main jihadist forces in the area — particularly the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Sham — are emerging from the Syrian chaos and can afford to allocate resources (fighters, funds, weapons and bombs) to fighting the Shi’ite Arabs for the dismemberment of Iraq. The jihadist objective is to effect the de facto joining of Sunni western Iraq to the functioning jihadist al-Jazira with its bastion in the central Euphrates valley.

Petrified about their ability to hold onto power in a region falling apart, Iraq’s Shi’ites — both the security forces and militias — are escalating their own war against the Sunni Arabs. Moreover, adamant on securing on-land lines of communications to Syria, the Iranians are deploying their own Shi’ite proxies (loosely organized under the banner of the Iraqi HizbAllah) to also fight Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. Hence the slew of car bombs by both sides and the overall fratricidal carnage should be expected to keep escalating in order to force Baghdad and Tehran into decisions they don’t want to make about the long-term Sunni-Shi’ite balance of power.

The main unresolved issue hanging over the emerging greater Middle East is the rôle of Iran in lieu of the perplexing policy of the Obama White House. Presently, Pres. Obama is more desperate than ever before to attain a grand rapprochement with Iran and make a triumphant Nixon-style visit to Tehran. However, Mr Obama also seems convinced that the only thing that matters to everybody all over the world are his words and not his actions.

Since July 2013, once then-President-elect Hassan Rouhani started his transition to the Iranian Presidency, Mr Obama reached out in order to revive the Jarrett-Velayati venue of direct negotiations. The Obama White House sent letters, messages and emissaries to several leaders in Tehran. In late August 2013, Mr Obama sent a personal letter to Rouhani. In it, Obama proposed to “turn a new page” in bilateral relations and promised loosening of the economic sanctions. US emissaries also made all the usual promises: to prevent Israel from striking Iran; to accept a de facto nuclear Iran; to permit Iranian hegemony over the Persian Gulf and the regional energy economy; to permit the spread of Iranian influence into Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, etc.

Initially, Obama seemed to be following on his promises.

The semi-public pressure on Israel has been incessant, the disengagement from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States has been humiliating, the acceptance of Iranian domination over Iraq has been unconditional, and the protection of Egypt’s Islamists genuine if futile. Finally, Mr Obama had the financial sanctions on Iran unilaterally undermined (ostensibly in support of humanitarian causes).

But Tehran’s profound mistrust of Washington endures.

The sustenance of the on-land Shi’ite-dominated access to the shores of the Mediterranean is the greatest achievement of the mullahs’ rule, apart from the mere survival of the Islamic Republic. In preparations for the anticipated intervention in Syria, Washington started assuring Tehran that the Ikhwan-dominated administration which Obama’s Washington was planning to install in Damascus would not be anti-Iran and would guarantee all of Tehran’s strategic and economic interests.

Mr Obama failed to realize, however, the depth of hatred and mistrust between the Persian Shi’ites and the Arab Ikhwan. (That Iranian Intelligence and the IRGC were sponsoring Sunni jihadist entities, including Ikhwan-affiliated, against the West or Israel does not mean Iran trusts them.) Tehran cannot fathom that Obama does not comprehend the essence of Shi’ite-Ikhwan relations, and therefore interprets the Obama White House’s plans to empower Sunni Islamists in Damascus as a manifestation of Washington’s hidden agenda against the mullahs’ Tehran and Shi’ite Islam.  

Even Obama’s Washington could not ignore the adversarial impact that a US-led intervention in the Syrian war and the planned toppling of the Assad Administration would have on the nascent negotiations with Tehran. Realizing that a crisis which might affect the entire grand rapprochement was brewing, Obama dispatched his confidant Jeffrey Feltman (the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs under Hillary Clinton) and the Sultan of Oman to meet with Iranian Supreme Leader “Ayatollah” Ali Khamene’i just a day before the chemical attack in Damascus.

Both delivered Khamene’i and the Iranian upper-most leadership guarantees of Obama’s enduring commitment to a grand rapprochement which would include the sustenance, and even increase, of Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon, as well as the Persian Gulf. Tehran was non-committal and reluctant to accept any dependence on the goodwill of US-empowered Sunni Islamists in Damascus. Khamene’i warned Sultan Qabus that Tehran would reexamine the trust in the US sincerity on nuclear and all other pertinent issues should Iran’s posture in Syria and Lebanon be undermined. (The timing of Feltman’s and Qabus’ trips to Khamene’i suggests that Mr Obama knew that a major provocation was coming. There is no indication whether Obama knew it would be a chemical strike.)

And then the Syrian CW crisis erupted.

While Tehran would hear nothing about compromise over access to the shores of the Mediterranean, Tehran grasped the extent of the desperation of Obama’s Washington. If anything, Tehran’s resolve to triumph only strengthened in the aftermath of the chemical strike. Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani briefed Iran’s Assembly of Experts that Iran “will support Syria to the end”. Iranian propaganda became virulent and threatened a regional war should the US strike Syria. Moreover, Iranian proxy militia groups in Iraq threatened that they would attack the oilfields of Saudi Arabia and cut off the “economic jugular” of the West if the US attacked Syria. At the same time, Iranian propaganda kept reiterating Tehran’s desire for the resumption of nuclear and other negotiations, even though Rouhani vowed Iran would not abandon or compromise over its nuclear program.

Hence, the moment the threat of a US-led military intervention in Syria was removed, there began a more intense direct negotiations. Tehran is both relieved and emboldened by Obama’s decision not launch strikes against Syria. Iran is determined to do its utmost to squeeze the best possible deal from the desperate Obama. In early September 2013, the Obama White House started boasting about “a possible thaw in long-frozen relations” with Iran. The Obama White House claimed to be “communicating with Tehran” and “moving behind the scenes toward direct talks” on reducing tensions, resolving outstanding problems and disputes, and normalizing relations.

Obama hopes to revive direct negotiations and even potential face-to-face talks during Rouhani’s visit to UN General Assembly in late September. Ultimately, Tehran seems convinced that Pres. Obama would not dare to confront Assad’s Damascus for fear of disrupting the fledgling US-Iranian bilateral negotiations, and Tehran intended to exploit this to the fullest.

Tehran’s priorities are clear.

In mid-September 2013, Gen. Soleimani addressed a closed forum in Tehran about the crucial importance to Iran of victory in Syria. He stressed that “Syria’s pivotal rôle in defending the anti-US and anti-Israel resistance front [Iran, Iraq, Syria and the HizbAllah] in the region and its continued victories over the terrorists in the last one year are the cause of increased foreign pressures against Damascus.”

He further elaborated that “the Syrian army’s continued victories against the rebel and terrorist groups in recent months have angered the enemies and increased their threats and attacks against the country”. It is therefore imperative for Tehran’s own vital interests to secure the ultimate victory of Syria. “In the eyes of the West, Zionists and the reactionary regimes, Syria’s real problem is not the ruling of the minority ‘Alawites or the lack of democracy, but the reality is that the West and the reactionary regimes know that the resistance’s powerful position in the region is indebted to the Syrian government,” Soleimani stated.

Meanwhile, official Tehran considers the US-RF agreement the official removal of the threat of US-led Western intervention in Syria. “The new situation means in fact that any pretext for the United States and certain countries to engage in military action against Syria has been removed,” Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated. With the threat of a US intervention effectively gone and with Obama focused on the grand rapprochement, Iran and its proxies can increase their support for the Syrian war effort.

The real fun has just begun.


September 13, 2013

The US “Defeat” of September 10, 2013, or the Chance to Avert a Strategic Collapse? Assessing Strategic Paths into the Near Future

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. There should be no ambiguity: the US and the West suffered a transformative strategic reversal on September 10, 2013, and Russia and Iran each separately made substantial strategic gains and consolidation as a consequence.

But the pivotal decision of September 10 by US Pres. Barack Obama to delay military strikes against Syria almost certainly forestalled what could have become an even more consequential move toward a strategic disaster for the US and West. The strikes would have also brought about a problematic outcome — almost certainly conflict, chaos, and national boundary changes for some states — for Turkey, Iran, Russia, and other Eurasian/Mashriq states.

The seeds of the predictable path toward this situation began with the US decision in early 2011 — by the Barack Obama White House — to work with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, to insert radical jihadist forces into Syria to overthrow Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad and to remove Syria as an ally of Iran. But, in fact, the framework for the September 10 reversal began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, when US Pres. George H. W. Bush refused to embrace post-Soviet Russia as a new component of the West. This was compounded by the actions of each successive US Presidency.

This failure by the West was married to the parallel stream of US failure — this time begun by US Pres. Jimmy Carter in 1978-79 — to support the Shah of Iran, and then, by precipitating the Shah’s downfall, to allow Iran fall into a profoundly anti-Western path.

US Pres. Obama has not yet comprehended the fact that the defeat which he was forced to accept on September 10 saved him — and his allies — from an even worse situation. There are indications that he might still attempt to use military force against Syria. That, however, would return the situation to a path of substantially broader conflict, uncertainty, and economic damage. But the events of September 10, 2013, provided the opportunity for a pause for the US and its allies to reconsider their strategic trajectory.

See: “The Strategic Consequences of Initiating War Against Iran’s Vital Ally”, by Gregory Copley, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, September 3, 2013.

A military move by the US and its allies against Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad would not be, as some alarmists have suggested, the trigger for “World War III”, but it would be a trigger for ongoing unrest which would further erode the global economy.

To begin to put this into perspective: In the immediate political framework, US Pres. Barack Obama’s decision on September 10, 2013, to postpone US military strikes against Syrian Government targets may have saved Mr Obama’s political reputation and influence from further erosion, but it also proved to be a significant turning point in the politics of the Mashriq, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf.

Saving Mr Obama’s immediate political credibility, both within the US and internationally, was a gift which Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin gave him by affording Washington the opportunity — and excuse — not to undertake the planned military strike against Syrian Government targets. Russia brokered an agreement with Pres. al-Assad for the Syrian military to surrender its chemical weapons to be controlled and destroyed by the interntional community. It was a gift which Pres. Obama was forced to accept with some embarrassment and, presumably, anger, because the benefactor, Russia (and its quasi-ally, Iran) understood that it was “better to give than receive”.

Pres. Putin gave Pres. Obama what Mr Obama said he wanted: the removal of Syrian Government chemical weapons. But giving Pres. Obama what he said he wanted took away from Mr Obama what, in fact, he really wanted: the removal of Pres. Bashar al-Assad and the pro-Iranian Syrian Government.

The primary impact of the unavoidable decision by Pres. Obama to “postpone” remotely-delivered military strikes against Syrian Government targets could well spell the terminal failure of the foreign-backed (and foreign-inserted) combat forces to remove Pres. Bashar al-Assad. In other words, the intense efforts by Pres. Obama, the Emir of Qatar, the Turkish Government of Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the Government of Saudi Arabia since early 2011 to remove the Assad Ba’athist Government of Syria may well have now ended in failure.

The planned US military intervention was supposed to have come at “the eleventh hour” to save the foreign-backed rebel groups — which are heavily comprised of non-Syrian fighters — from the grinding success which the Syrian Government and loyalist forces have increasingly had.

The conflict is far from over, but the outcome of Pres. Assad remaining in office represents, to some extent, a defeat for US strategic policy (as it now stands) in that Iran would retain access to the Mediterranean. and dominate the northern tier. This is antithetical to Western interests, and, to a degree, to the interests of Israel, but not nearly as damaging as the destruction of a cohesive, multi-ethnic/multi-confessional Syria which would result from the emplacement of a radical jihadist Sunni administration — or series of administrations — in an unstable, war-torn region.

But more significant, and positive from the US view of its interests in the region, the prospect of a coming end to the war in Syria could well be that Iran would withdraw its de facto state of war against Turkey. This could well mean the survival of the Turkish state rather than the prospect of a fractured Turkish state resulting from the planned Iranian-led indirect war of retaliation for Turkey’s rôle in attempting to destroy Iran’s vital strategic ally, the Ba’athist (read: ‘Alawite/neo-Shi’a) Syrian Government.

In other words, Pres. Obama’s “defeat” in his attempt to lead and successfully conclude the US-Saudi-Qatar-Turkish war against Bashar al-Assad (read Iran) may well have saved Prime Minister Erdoğan and the Turkish state. Had Pres. Obama proceeded with the military strikes against the Assad Government, he would almost certainly have expanded and protracted the Syrian conflict and the human turmoil and suffering in the region. He would also have certainly precipitated the Iranian war against Turkey.

Pres. Obama may still conduct military strikes against Assad Government assets, without first consulting the US Congress or gaining a genuine international consensus. The gesture from Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin — and agreed by Pres. al-Assad — to surrender Syrian military stockpiles of chemical weapons to international supervision and destruction allowed Pres. Obama to resile from his strident public commitment to a military strike, a move which was facing increasing Congressional and public opposition.

While Pres. Putin’s — and Pres. Assad’s — deal on Syrian military chemical weapons gave Pres. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry what they said they wanted, it did not given them what, in fact, they really wanted. The White House said it wanted to eliminate Syrian military chemical weapons, and it achieved this objective. The real White House objective, however, was “regime change”: the removal of the ‘Alawite-led Ba’athist Government of Syria and its replacement by a Sunni administration.

It is significant to inject, at this point, the fact that the chemical weapons inventory under Syrian Government control has been a millstone around Pres. al-Assad’s neck: he had no wish to use them, and it was politically unacceptable to do so, in any event. Having the weapons taken off his hands would free a significant number of disciplined Syrian military personnel for more effective work.

The removal of Syrian chemical weapons (although not the removal of HizbAllah chemical weapons) also diminishes the threat to Israel.

Significantly, the three major regional players (Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) had different perspectives as to what this “Sunni administration” should be. Each wanted its own Sunni force to dominate, and this was unlikely to lead to a successful or harmonious outcome, although any of the Sunni options being proposed by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia would have continued to exacerbate the outflow of minority populations from this “Fertile Crescent of Minorities”, including the Syrian Kurds, the Druze, Christian, and Jewish communities, among others.

See: “Victory in Syria: But For Whom?”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, May 30, 2013.

Meanwhile, although the Iranian clerical leadership is unhappy with the US attempts to remove Assad in Syria, and with the US persistence in imposing the economic embargo against Iran, there is a growing belief in Tehran that it is only the Obama White House which is suppressing Israel from launching a pre-emptive military strike against Iran. This remains the clerics’ overriding strategic concern, given that the probability of a US military strike against Iran is now negligible.

There appears to be a belief among Iran’s leading officials that Iran is close to its goal of creating a fully indigenous nuclear weapons capability and that it could then persuade the region (and the international community) to accept its nuclear status as an unalterable fact, provided it could achieve this goal before Israel launches a military strike. Thus, the restraining capability of the White House on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is seen as significant.

Indeed, Iran’s growing strength in the region – significantly, despite the embargo – means that the Iranian clerics can not only threaten Turkey, they can also threaten Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates. The Saudi and Qatari concerns over Iran, then, not only seem justified, but Iran’s hostility toward them has likely been heightened by the supposedly clandestine war they have waged against Iranian ally Syria.

See: “Iran Moves at Highest Level to Support the Newly-Declared ‘Republic of Eastern Arabia’ [in Saudi Arabia]”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, May 18, 2009.

Significantly, Saudi Arabia’s need for security protection may cause its leadership to attempt to strengthen its relationship with Washington in ways which put the Syrian adventure in the past. And Iran’s growing confidence could enable it to build on its tentative, discreet contacts with Washington as well, to keep Israel from posing a strategic threat.

The game is far from over.


September 9, 2013

Evidence of US and Saudi Engagement in Terrorist Initiation of Syrian Chemical Weapon Attack Now Gains Granularity and Specificity

Specific Involvement of Saudi Intelligence Chief Outlined

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. Accumulating new evidence regarding the August 21, 2013, chemical attack in Ghouta, eastern Damascus, raises most basic questions.

The recent findings point increasingly toward the conclusion that it was indeed a self-inflicted attack by the Syrian opposition in order to provoke a US and Western military intervention against the Ba’athist Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad. Ultimately, it will take the detailed chemical analysis by the UN of the agents used to provide the guidelines as to who’s the guilty party. 

The paucity of revealed facts highlights the reality that little is really known about the actual attack. There is still no agreed upon number of fatalities, with unverified claims ranging from the US assertion of 1,429 fatalities to the French assertion that only 281 were killed. In other words, the French Intelligence number is about 20 percent that of the US assertion. Most Syrian opposition sources now put the number of fatalities at between 335 and 355, as does the non-governmental organization, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). This is about 25 percent of the US number. Either way, this is too huge a gap not to be explained and substantiated.

It is still not clear what type of agent killed the victims.

To-date, the US position in documents submitted to Congress is that the victims died as a result of “nerve agent exposure”. Orally, however, Secretary Kerry claimed the US has proof it was sarin. The French intelligence report also attributes the deaths to “chemical agents” without further identification. The most explicit finding to-date comes from the UK’s Defence Science Technology Laboratory. Soil and cloth samples “tested positive for the nerve gas sarin”. The sarin in the cloth was in liquid form that soaked into the cloth. As discussed below, this finding reinforces the conclusion that “kitchen sarin” was used. Hence, so much will depend on the UN’s findings when their tests are completed.

See also:

“Markale in Damascus? How Islamist Forces Have Used a Time-Honored Deception and “Self-Bombing” Technique to Pull in Foreign Sympathy and Support”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, August 22, 2013. and

“Mounting Evidence That the White House Knew, and Possibly Helped Plan, Syrian “Chemical Weapon” Attack by Opposition”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, August 28, 2013.

The claim that the agent used was a “military sarin” is problematic because military sarin accumulates (like a gaseous crystal) around the victims’ hair and loose threads in clothes. Since these molecules are detached and released anew by any movement, they would have thus killed or injured the first responders who touched the victims’ bodies without protective clothes, gloves and masks. However, opposition videos show the first responders moving corpses around without any ill effects. This strongly indicates that the agent in question was the slow acting “kitchen sarin”. Indeed, other descriptions of injuries treated by MSF – suffocation, foaming, vomiting and diarrhoea – agree with the effects of diluted, late-action drops of liquified sarin. The overall descriptions of the injuries and fatalities treated by MSF closely resemble the injuries treated by the Tokyo emergency authorities back on March 20, 1995. The Tokyo subway attack was committed with liquified “kitchen sarin”.

The knowhow for this type of sarin came from North Korean Intelligence, and is known to have been transferred, along with samples, to Osama bin Laden in 1998. That the jihadist movement has these technologies was confirmed in jihadist labs captured in both Turkey and Iraq, as well as from the wealth of data recovered from al-Qaida in Afghanistan in 2001/2.

As well, it is not yet clear what weapons were used to disperse the chemical agent. The specifics of the weapon will provide the crucial evidence whether this was a military type agent of the kind available in the Syrian arsenal, or improvised, kitchen-style agent of the type known to be within the technical capabilities of the jihadist opposition.

Meanwhile, the mangled projectiles shown by the opposition, and which were tested by the UN inspectors, are not standard weapons of the Syrian Armed Forces. These projectiles have a very distinct ribbed-ring fins which are similar to projectiles used by the opposition in Aleppo, Damascus, and other fronts with both high-explosives and undefined materials. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) retrieved a video claiming to be of the attack, but is most likely of a daylight testing of the launcher. The truck-mounted launcher included a chemical sleeve that was supposed to absorb leaks from the improvised warheads and not harm the launch crew; hardly the precaution taken with a military weapon.

Moreover, the warheads used in Damascus were cylindrical tanks which cracked and permitted a Tokyo-style mixture of liquids, rather than the pressurized mix and vaporization at the molecular level by the force of core explosion in a standard Soviet-style chemical warhead. Had Syrian militarily-trained experts built these warheads, they would have used the upper pipe for the core-charge the explosion of which would have created a significantly more lethal vaporized cloud of the toxic agent. The mere fact that the pipeline remained empty suggests the work of amateurs found in the ranks of the improvised weapon makers of the jihadist opposition.

As well, the opposition also pointed to cracked plastic pieces which resembled shreds from large blue plastic tanks/bottles (like a water cooler’s huge bottles) fired by chemical launchers the opposition had bragged about in the past. These weapons are in agreement with the multitude of images of victims publicized by the opposition which did not show any injury due to shrapnel which would have come from Soviet-style chemical munitions of the type known to be in the Syrian military arsenal.

Most important, of course, is the question “Who could have done it?” given the available data. Significantly, evidence collected by numerous Arab sources on the ground in the greater Damascus area and recently smuggled out of Syria narrows the scope of potential perpetrators and the reason for the attack. This evidence points to specific commanders of Liwaa al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra known to be cooperating in the eastern Damascus theater.

On the night of August 20/21. 2013, and the early morning of August 21, 2013 – a day before the chemical attack – the jihadists’ Liberating the Capital Front, led by Jabhat al-Nusra, suffered a major defeat during Operation Shield of the Capital. Operation Shield of the Capital is the largest military operation of the Syrian Army in the Damascus region since the beginning of the conflict. The jihadists also amassed a huge force of over 25,000 fighters for their Front from 13 armed kitaeb [battalion-groupings].

The main units belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra and Liwaa al-Islam. The other kitaeb were Harun al-Rashid, Syouf al-Haqq, al-Mohajereen, al-Ansar, Abu Zhar al-Ghaffari, Issa Bin Mariam, Sultan Mohammad al-Fatih, Daraa al-Sham, the Jobar Martyrs, and Glory of the Caliphate. They included both Syrian and foreign volunteers. (The mere gathering of so many kitaeb for the battle of eastern Damascus refutes the assertion in the US and French intelligence reports that the opposition was incapable of conducting coordinated large-scale operations and therefore the chemical attack must have been launched by Assad’s forces.)

Around dawn on August 21, 2013, the Liberating the Capital Front suffered a strategic defeat in the Jobar entrance area.

The Jobar entrance was the opposition’s last staging areas with access to the heart of Damascus from where they could launch car-bombs and raids. The Jobar entrance is also the sole route for reinforcements and supplies coming from the Saudi-Jordanian-US intelligence base near Jordan’s major airbase and military facilities in al-Mafraq (from where the eastern route to Damascus starts) and distributed via the Ghouta area to the outlaying eastern suburbs of Damascus. The eastern route is so important that the efforts are supervised personally by Saudi Princes Bandar and Salman bin Sultan, and overseen by Col. Ahmad al-Naimeh, the commander of the opposition’s Military Council of the Southern Region and Horan.

The jihadists’ defeat on August 21 effectively sealed any hope of a future surge from Jordan by CIA-sponsored jihadist forces because the jihadists who, starting August 17/18, 2013, were attempting to use the western route to Damascus from the base in Ramtha, Jordan, had by now been encircled and defeated not far from the Golan border with Israel.

As the jihadist forces were collapsing, the Front commanders deployed an élite force to block at all cost the Syrian military’s access to the Jobar entrance area. The majority of the jihadists in this force were from Liwaa al-Islam and the rest from Jabhat al-Nusra. The commander of the force was a Saudi jihadist going by the nom de guerre Abu-Ayesha. (Abu-Ayesha was identified by a Ghouta resident called Abu Abdul-Moneim as the jihadist commander who had stored in a tunnel in Ghouta weapons some of which had “tube-like structure” and others looked like “huge gas bottles”. Abdul-Moneim’s son and 12 other fighters were killed inside the tunnel by a chemical leak from one of these weapons.)

According to military and strategic analyst Brig. Ali Maqsoud, the Liwaa al-Islam forces arrayed in Jobar included “the so-called ‘Chemical Weapons Front’ led by Zahran Alloush [the supreme leader of Liwaa al-Islam]. That group possesses primitive chemical weapons smuggled from al-Qaida in Iraq to Jobar, in the vicinity of Damascus.”

When the jihadist Front collapsed, the jihadist leaders decided that only a chemical strike could both stop the advance of the Syrian army and provoke a US military strike that would deliver a strategic victory for the jihadists. The chemical agents were then loaded on what Russian intelligence defined as “rockets [which] were manufactured domestically to carry chemicals. They were launched from an area controlled by Liwaa al-Islam

Maqsoud is convinced the chemical weapons strike was launched at the behest of Washington and on Washington’s orders. “In the end, we can say that this [post-strike US] escalatory rhetoric aims to achieve two things. The first is strengthening [the US] position as leader of the opposition and imposing conditions in preparation for the negotiating table. The second is changing the [power balance on the] ground and stopping the Syrian army’s advance,” Maqsoud told al-Safir of Lebanon.

The identification of Liwaa al-Islam under Zahran Alloush as the jihadist force most likely to have conducted the chemical attack raises major questions regarding the Saudi involvement and particularly that of Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Zahran Alloush is the son of a Saudi-based religious scholar named Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad Alloush. During the 1980s, he worked for then Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki al-Faisal in both Afghanistan and Yemen.

Zahran Alloush was involved with the neo-salafi/Wahhabi underground in Syria since the 1990s, was jailed by Syrian Mukhabarat, and released in mid-2011 as part of Bashar al-Assad’s amnesty aimed to placate Riyadh. Zahran Alloush immediately received funds and weapons from Saudi intelligence which enabled him to establish and run Liwaa al-Islam as a major jihadist force.

On July 18, 2012, Liwaa al-Islam conducted the major bombing of the headquarters of Syria’s national security council in Rawda Square, Damascus, assassinating, among others, Assaf Shawkat, Bashar’s brother-in-law and nominally the deputy Minister of Defense, Dawoud Rajiha, the Defense Minister, and Hassan Turkmani, former Defense Minister who was military adviser to then-Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa. In Spring 2013, Zahran Alloush helped the Saudis weaken the Qatari-sponsored jihadist forces in the Damascus area. In June 2013, he suddenly withdrew his forces in the middle of a major battle with the Syrian army, leaving the Qatari-sponsored First Brigade and Liwaa Jaish al-Muslimeen to be defeated and mauled.

Significantly, in late August 2013, the opposition insisted on having Zahran Alloush and Liwaa al-Islam secure and escort the international experts team when they collected evidence in the opposition-controlled parts of eastern Damascus. Zahran Alloush entrusted the task of actually controlling and monitoring the UN team to his close allied katiba, the Liwaa al-Baraa from Zamalka. Thus, the international experts’ team operated while in effective custody of those jihadists most likely responsible for the chemical attack.

According to several jihadist commanders, “Zahran Alloush receives his orders directly from the Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan” and Liwaa al-Islam is Saudi Arabia’s private army in Syria.

The Bandar aspect is important to understanding strategic-political aspects of the chemical strike.

No independent evidence ties Bandar to the actual chemical attack.

Presently, there is no independent evidence connecting Bandar, or any other Saudi official, to the supply and use of chemical weapons in Damascus. There exist, though, the long-time connections between the various jihadist commanders and both Saudi intelligence and Bandar himself. However, Bandar’s threats in the meeting with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin cast a shadow on the question of Riyadh’s foreknowledge, and, given the uniquely close relations between Bandar and CIA Chief John Brennan, Washington’s foreknowledge as well.

On August 2, 2013, Prince Bandar had an unprecedented meeting with Pres. Putin at the Kremlin.

Their meeting covered a host of issues ranging from future energy economy to the situation in Egypt to what to do about Syria. Throughout, Bandar made a huge mistake – believing that Putin was just like the successive US senior officials Bandar has dealt with in the past – namely, that like the Americans, Putin would also be easy to bribe with flattery, weapons acquisition, and oil-related cash.

Putin was not.

Of significance to the issue of the chemical strike in Damascus was the exchange between Bandar and Putin regarding the future of Bashar al-Assad. Bandar wanted Putin to support the toppling of the Assad Administration and its replacement with a Saudi-sponsored opposition administration. Bandar promised that Russia’s interests in Syria would be preserved by the proposed Saudi-sponsored post-Assad government.

In this context Bandar sought to both allay Putin’s concerns regarding jihadist terrorism and to deliver a veiled threat. “As an example,” Bandar stated, “I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move [also] in the direction of the Syrian territory without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syria’s political future.”

Putin responded quietly. “We know that you have supported the Chechen terrorist groups for a decade. And that support, which you have frankly talked about just now, is completely incompatible with the common objectives of fighting global terrorism that you mentioned.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Bandar again discussed the Syrian issue at length. He stressed that as far as Riyadh was concerned, there was no future for the Assad Administration. “The Syrian regime is finished as far as we and the majority of the Syrian people are concerned,” Bandar said, and they, the Syrian people, “will not allow President Bashar al-Assad to remain at the helm.”

Putin responded that Moscow’s “stance on Assad will never change. We believe that the Syrian regime is the best speaker on behalf of the Syrian people, and not those liver eaters.” Again, Bandar resorted to threats. He warned Putin that their dispute over the future of Syria led him, Bandar, to conclude that “there is no escape from the [US-led] military option, because it is the only currently available choice given that the political settlement ended in stalemate”. Bandar added that Riyadh saw no future for the negotiating process.

Bandar expected such a military intervention to soon commence.

Did he have any foreknowledge of a provocation to come? Significantly, Bandar insisted throughout his visit to Moscow that his initiative and message were coordinated with the highest authorities in Obama’s Washington. “I have spoken with the Americans before the visit, and they pledged to commit to any understandings that we may reach, especially if we agree on the approach to the Syrian issue,” Bandar assured Putin.

Did the Obama White House know in advance about the Saudi claim to controlling jihadist terrorism in both Russia and Syria? Did the Obama White House know about Bandar’s anticipation of an US-led military intervention?

Several Arab leaders, as well as senior intelligence and defense officials from the Arabian Peninsula are now convinced that the chemical strike was aimed to provoke a US-led military intervention which would in turn lead to the toppling of Bashar al-Assad and the empowerment of an Islamist government in Damascus.

These senior intelligence and defense officials have privately expressed anger that the US has not [yet] struck at Syria, as was so widely anticipated in the Arab world. These notables point out that in late Spring, the top leaders of the Syrian opposition and its regional sponsors impressed on the highest authorities in Washington and other Western capitals the gravity of the situation. The opposition and sponsors warned that unless there was a major military intervention during the Summer, the struggle for Syria would be lost come Autumn. The leaders of the opposition and their sponsors now insist that they were assured in these discussions that the US and key West European powers were eager to provide such help and intervene in order to topple the Assad Administration and empower the opposition in Damascus.

Given the political climate in the US and the West, the Arab leaders say that they were told, it was imperative for US and Western leaders to have a clear casus belli of an absolute humanitarian character. Recently (but before the chemical attack), the opposition and sponsors were asked for lists of targets to be hit by US-led Western bombing should there be a Western intervention. The opposition provided such target lists, convinced that their bombing was imminent. The leaders of the opposition and their sponsors now feel cheated, for there had just been an humanitarian catastrophe in Damascus with all the characteristics of the sought-after casus belli, and yet, there were no US and Western bombers in the skies over Damascus!

Significantly, most of these Arab leaders and officials are not in the know. They do o’t pretend to have any specific knowledge of what happened in Damascus beyond the coverage in the Arab media. They complain so bitterly on the basis of their comprehension of how things should have been done given the overall strategic circumstances. And for them, such a self-inflicted carnage is the most obvious thing to do if that was what Washington and other Western capitals needed in order to have a viable casus belli for an intervention.

*

Meanwhile, the US case against the Assad Administration continued to crumble.

“No direct link to Pres. Bashar al-Assad or his inner-circle has been publicly demonstrated, and some US sources say intelligence experts are not sure whether the Syrian leader knew of the attack before it was launched or was only informed about it afterward,” observed Reuters’ Mark Hosenball.

A closer study of the much-touted electronic intercepts proves that Assad and his inner-circle were stunned by the news of the chemical attack. When the first reports of the chemical attack surfaced, a very senior Syrian military officer called in panic the artillery commander of the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army which is under the direct command of Maher al-Assad.

The senior officer wanted to know if the brigade had fired any chemical munitions in contravention of the explicit orders of the top leadership not to do so. The artillery commander flatly denied firing any rocket, missile, or artillery. He added that he had already checked and confirmed that all his munitions were accounted for, and invited the general staff to send officers to verify on their own that all brigade’s munitions were in safe storage. The senior officers took the commander to task and he was interrogated for three days as a thorough inventory of the munitions was carried out. This artillery officer was returned to duty as it was confirmed beyond doubt that no munitions were missing. (Since there was no other chemical-capable unit in the area, the claim of rogue officers should identify from where and how they had obtained chemical munitions.)

The reaction of the Assad inner-circle was in agreement with earlier observations by German Federal Intelligence Service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND).

The BND reported that since the beginning of Spring 2013, Syrian brigade and division commanders had repeatedly asked the Presidency for permission to use chemical weapons against jihadist forces besieging them. The Presidency had always denied permission in strong and uncompromising terms. The BND has no indication, let alone proof, that this consistent policy changed on or before August 21. 2013.

This is also the opinion of a very senior Iranian official in Beirut. When the news of the chemical attack first broke, a very senior HizbAllah official called the Iranian for advice. The BND intercepted the call. The HizbAllah official wondered whether “Assad had lost his temper and committed a huge mistake by giving the order for the poison gas use”. The Iranian senior official assured his HizbAllah counterpart that there was no change to Assad’s “long-standing steadfast policy of not using these [chemical] weapons”.

One of the main reasons for Washington’s accusatory finger at the Syrian military was the assertion that the chemical attack took place in the context of a Syrian military effort to recapture this part of the Damascus area. Having met stiff resistance and under immense pressure to decide the battle swiftly, Washington’s explanation goes, the Syrian military used chemical weapons in order to break the opposition.

However, the Syrian Armed Forces have a long history of training by the Soviet Armed Forces and access to Soviet-era weaponry, both chemical agents and means of dispersal. Among these are huge quantities of the vastly more lethal VX and grenade-size aerosols optimized for dense urban environment. Syrian commando was supplied with, and trained on, these systems starting the late-1970s when preparing to fight the jihadist insurrection in some of Syria’s main cities. Hence, had the Syrian military wanted to clear the said areas with the use of chemical weapons, they would have used VX in aerosols with greater efficiency and lethality. And why not use the same VX-filled aerosols in other key urban battle-fronts like Aleppo or Homs to expedite victory? Why use “kitchen sarin” and wide-area-effect munitions that will only hinder military advance into contaminated areas?

Hence, what is the basis for the Obama Administration’s confidence that “Assad did it” to the point of threatening military action which in all likelihood would evolve into US involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war? The most honest answer was provided on September 8, 2013, by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on CNN’s State of the Union program. McDonough asserted it was “common sense” that the Syrian Government carried out the chemical attack, and provided no further evidence to back his statement. Nobody pressed McDonough on this point.

The US has long taken sides in the Syrian civil war and all the regional wars and strife integrated into it.

The US placed itself as the self-anointed manager and arbiter of the outcome of this fateful dynamic. Nobody in the region believes the Obama White House’s assurances about a limited strike with no intent of “regime change”. After all this was the exact assurances given by the Obama Administration on the eve of the UNSC’s vote on Libya solely in order to convince Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to abstain and let the resolution pass (which they did). Now, should the US strike Syria, alone or at the head of a makeshift coalition, the US would have crossed the threshold of active participation and leadership. Pressure would mount on the US to complete the job: to invade and get involved directly in the fighting, to secure the strategic weapon arsenals (which will take 75,000-100,000 troops by the Pentagon’s latest estimates), and to overthrow Assad and empower what Bandar calls “moderate” Islamists.

Arab leaders and their Islamist protégés are now convinced that only the US can, and should, defeat the Assad Administration and empower the Islamists for them. Should the US shirk or dither, there would be more and worse provocations, and more innocent Syrians would die in the hands of their brethren and saviors until the US delivered Damascus to the Islamists-jihadists and their sponsors.

After the catastrophe that Libya is today, does Washington really want to try again in Syria? Wouldn’t confronting reality and the Islamists-jihadists be a more expedient (and honest) way of doing things?


September 3, 2013

The Strategic Consequences of Initiating War Against Iran’s Vital Ally

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. Some serious and unintended medium- to long-term consequences of the intervention by Sunni Arab, Turkish, and Western governments and trans-national Sunni jihadist groups in Syria since 2011 are beginning to become apparent.

The pivotal transformation of one or more regional countries — apart from the changes to Syria itself — appears to have begun.

The process may have been exacerbated by the fact that, at the beginning of September 2013, the US and the UK had backed away from a commitment to comprehensive overt military conflict against the Assad Government in Syria. US Pres. Barack Obama had set up a strategic challenge, which he was then unable to meet, and the retreat of the US (even though the affair was still not over by September 2, 2013) was thus a self-inflicted wound, but one which also scarred the allies of the US.

But more immediately, the long-undeclared war between Turkey and Iran, for example, may now have crossed a threshold — a point of no return — despite the fact that these two states still have need of each other. Turkish Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rash initiation of confrontation with Iran has been politically suicidal because the Turkish economy cannot withstand a sudden loss of highly-subsidized oil and gas from Iran, and the ensuing public outrage when shortage and price-spike hit the grassroots.

And although the Turkish Government of Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan had, by late August 2013, begun to move away from its strident public endorsement of military action against the Syrian Government, the Iranian leaders knew that Erdoğan had already declared himself firmly as a strategic rival to Iran. The consequences of Erdoğan’s own political recklessness were also unraveling governance in Turkey, and his team leading the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party: AKP) was falling into opposing factions.

It is not inconceivable now to see Turkey emerge severely weakened, or even dismembered, within years, and new states — including a new sovereign Kurdish state — emerge from Turkey and the region. It is conceivable that Syria, if it survives intact, would be a patchwork of confederal societies.

The ramifications for Greece and Cyprus, Russia, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and the Balkans are all tied to this; and so, too, is the outlook for Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates. And if Turkey falters and fractures, then, conversely, Egypt may benefit. And the Eastern Mediterranean region’s energy development would take on new dimensions.

The foreign intervention in Syria was already mature — albeit still not spontaneously combusting within the Syrian population itself — by the end of August 2013. Even the ultimately-symbolic commitment of direct and indirect US military elements against the Syrian Government as a result of the alleged casus belli of a “chemical weapons attack” by Syrian Government forces against Syrian civilians1 could do little other than bring misery to all, and relief to none.

Strategic trend analysis attempts to assess the possible and probable outcomes of courses of action by looking more broadly at the terrain or context, and beyond the linear and reactive paths and obvious symbols of everyday politics. In the current example in the Middle East, the consequences were, by the beginning of September 2013, beginning to be fleshed out from the decision by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States in early 2011 — more than two years earlier — to transform street protests in Syria into an opportunity to overthrow Iran’s key ally, Syrian Pres Bashar al-Assad, and his Ba’ath Party Government.

None of the antagonists, in seeking to press advantage against Iran (and so righteous was their perception of their cause), attempted even to gauge the non-linear impact — the unintended consequences — which their actions would stir. Nor comprehend the strategic terrain in which their activities would play out, particularly as the coercive global power of the United States progressively evaporated because of an array of missteps.

There was little doubt that the four interventionist governments in the first quarter of 2011 saw opportunities to gain dominance and leverage by engagement in a number of street uprisings of that time which they saw as the collective and interactive beginning of a new era: the popularly misunderstood “Arab Spring”. This was seen as a trend they believed to be exploitable and universal within the Arab world, by channeling the trans-national forces of jihadism. This “Arab Spring”, they felt, could be applied — as Islamist forces had themselves attempted to do for some time in Chechnya and the Caucasus and into the reaches of Kashmir, the Balkans, and elsewhere2 — to re-writing borders and history.

In essence, it became a competition between Iran and Iran’s opponents; a conflict which often became distracted by the thought that perhaps it was a conflict between Sunnism and Shi’ism, or between Islam and the West. And it was a competition in which some — particularly in the West — forgot that regional cultures (and, in some cases, nation-states) were in a period of unrest for different reasons.3 The supposed monoculture of a Muslim ummah did not exist. And perhaps the only common feature was the reality that the West had walked away from — or had been driven by exhaustion from — a coercive and powerful domination of the region for the first time in 500 years.

And just as all cultures, as they spread, adapt and become subject to the geography in which they are nurtured, so different societies generate different patterns of logic and require different and unique paths which reflect their separate and unique marriages of people and terrain: this is the essence of geopolitics, the firmness of geography and the adaptive soft flesh of the polity.

Modernity — whether in the technology-driven West or the application of modern communications to the global Muslim societies — has generated the misperception that humanity is driven by overwhelming elements of commonality, rather than by individual and necessarily competitive cultures which are dominated by their own respective senses of terroir.

An amusing but instructive letter to the Editor of Britain’s The Financial Times in August 2013, from reader K. N. Al-Sabah, highlighted the confusion which the international community has in assessing the current Middle Eastern situation:

“Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad! Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi [commander of the Egyptian Armed Forces]. But Gulf states are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood! Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood! Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!
Gulf states are pro-US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states! Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.”

Even Mr al-Sabah’s amusing passage fails to capture the even-deeper complexities of often-contradictory competition and cooperation between societies in the region, and their ambiguous relations with the outside world. And it is worth bearing in mind that this web extends well into the Caucausus and into the Persian-Turkic-Mongolian hinterlands of Central Asia and the Indo-European human exchanges which traversed the region for the past few thousand years.

Respected writer and Balkan correspondent Misha Glenny noted in a blog in Carnegie Europe’s Strategic Europe website, on August 30, 2013: “In the years after 1618 [when the Thirty Years’ War began], the attempts by tiny principalities in central Europe to challenge the status quo acted as a vortex, sucking in almost every major power. The now fragmented territories of Syria can exert a similar force on the neighborhood and beyond.”

What seems clear is that the ambiguity being generated by the state of flux of the greater Middle East region, and particularly the conflict in Syria, is both within and across national lines. Clearly, however, several factors began emerging:

  1. There was strong and sustained popular support within the Arab Peninsula and Mashriq Sunni states — except from Qatar — for the rebuff which the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan al-Muslimin) received in Egypt at the hands of the Armed Forces, on July 3, 2013, and this tacitly strengthened the position of (and support for) Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad, who was perceived as fighting the Ikhwan and its related jihadist allies;

  2. There was significant Iranian support — albeit tacit and unexpressed — for the change of events in Egypt, because (as noted above), this was seen as removing some of the support for the jihadists and their Sunni supporters who were intent on toppling Iran’s key ally, the ‘Alawite Government of Pres. Assad in Syria;

  3. There was considerable Iranian hostility toward Turkey because of Turkey’s leading rôle in attempting to foment the collapse of the Assad Government in Syria. The Turkish Government, aware of this, attempted to seal a peace deal with the separatist Kurdish movement, the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan: Kurdistan Workers’ Party), to prevent a retaliatory sponsoring by Iran (and others) of a resurgent Kurdish uprising. The Turkey-PKK accord is now essentially at an end and the PKK fighters have been brought together in camps inside Iran, where they are being re-armed. PKK units, plus Kurds from northern Iraq and Syria, are now available to foment major security challenges to the Turkish state, and so, too, are Iranian-influenced ‘Alawite/Alevi communities in Turkey as well as Turkish Shi’a adherents. At the same time, the Kurdish Armed Forces are at their lowest ebb in terms of morale, loyalty, and efficiency since, perhaps, the introduction of military-led Kemalism in 1923, and therefore ill-equipped to face the anticipated major internal security challenges;

  4. There is a major perceptional change among many Arabian Peninsula leaders who had, over the past two years, seen the evaporation of Egyptian leadership and the rise of Turkish influence. Now, with the resurgence of Egyptian self-determination and the seeming collapse of Turkish foreign policy, many Arab states — except Qatar — are turning away from cooperation with Turkey. This could be seen as a de facto diminution of Arab strategic concern over Iranian power, but in fact is quite separate from that concern. Nonetheless, it does nothing to reassure Ankara at a time when it is becoming increasingly isolated, and facing concerted hostility from Tehran, Damascus, Baghdad, and Irbil. Of greatest concern to Turkey may be the decline in financial stimulus from Iranian and Arab sources4. Correspondingly, and in direct response to US and Turkish hostility to the new Government of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had committed major new funding to Cairo.5

  5. Within all of this, the Saudi intelligence services, in the form of Prince Bandar bin Sultan (Director-General of the General Intelligence Service and Secretary-General of the National Security Council), appear to have played a rôle of supporting jihadist opposition groups in Syria while at the same time attempting to negotiate a strategic coup de main with Russia, to attempt to change Russian support for Syrian Pres. Assad and Iran for a major alliance with Saudi Arabia. The extent of Saudi involvement in the current transformative process shows the extent and confusion of the Saudi position.6

On one hand, Saudi Arabia actively supports the overthrow of the Assad Government in Syria, on the grounds that it closely allied with Iran, which Saudi Arabia perceives — not without justification — as the overwhelming strategic power and threat in the region7. On the other (and perhaps to oversimplify), it supports the anti-Assad war in order to retain influence over Sunni dynamics in the region, in competition with neighboring Qatar and with Turkey, which support a separate (Ikhwan: Muslim Brotherhood) branch of Sunni extremism. This has led Saudi Arabia to bankroll and equip the al-Nusra Front pro-Wahhabi jihadist group in Syria to the point that it may well have been through Saudi Arabia that the chemical weapons used in the Ghouta incident on August 21, 2013, were introduced to al-Nusra.8 But it was clear that the close Saudi-US ties meant that the planned use of the chemical weapons was known to the US, and, via the US, to Turkey.

The Saudi concern over the Turkish-Qatari competition was clearly part of what helped determine Riyadh’s (and the UAE’s) overwhelming support for the military suppression of the Ikhwan and the Morsi Government in Egypt, but also the need for Saudi Arabia to find a regional champion to assist it vis-à-vis Iran required a revived Egypt. Apart from Egypt and Pakistan, Riyadh now has few options, and perceives the declining support offered by its US alliance with increasing alarm. Thus, Egypt and Pakistan — and perhaps the People’s Republic of China — begin to assume significant places in Saudi thinking. Pakistan, with the PRC’s endorsement, is the key to the Saudi deterrence against nuclear Iran. Pakistan has deployed ballistic missiles to Saudi bases, ostensibly for exercises, and Islamabad promised to deploy at least two nuclear warheads should unique strategic circumstances so demand. The tacit alliance which Riyadh maintains with Turkey, Qatar, and the US in overthrowing Assad in Syria also conform to the overriding fear of the existential Iranian threat.

  1. By no means the least important emerging factor (indeed, it may be the most urgent of them) is the reality that Iran, now fearing less and less the viability of a military confrontation with the US, is moving toward a comprehensive response to the challenges posed to its regional position by Turkey. In this, Iran might find numerous external supporters. But it is a strategy which could well be dangerous for Iran, given that it entails mobilizing Kurdish, ‘Alawite/Alevi, and Shi’a societies within Turkey. Among other things, this would implicitly promise support for irredentist activities by communities within Turkey, mostly supporting an independent Kurdish homeland. Such a Kurdish homeland could well extend into Syria and Iraq (where a quasi-autonomous Kurdish region already functions). But it could well also incite Iranian Kurds to join such a new Kurdish state.

  2. A key issue is the central rôle of the Obama White House dream of a US-Iranian “great rapprochement” in and around Syria. Early on, Obama sought to build a tripartite Islamist alliance of outside powers — Egypt, Turkey, Iran — which would jointly contain and control the Arab Middle East. The alliance was to weaken the Fertile Crescent of the Minorities (including Israel, which Washington “forbade” barred from striking Iran), and to pressure Saudi Arabia and the rest into compliance with Obama’s energy policy. However, the key issue was to integrate Iran into a pro-Western regional system which would cater to Iran’s strategic aspirations and convince Tehran that Obama was not out to constrain Iran’s ascent. This way, Tehran would have been convinced of Obama’s friendship and commit to the “grand rapprochement”, while Obama would be in position to convince the US Congress that integrated into a regional alliance Iran would no longer constitute an existential threat to the allies of the US.

The problem has been that Obama failed to comprehend the overriding importance of the on-land access to the Mediterranean for Tehran.

Moreover, the Obama White House was unable to convey this concept to the Iranian leadership, which, instead, merely saw the hostility in US actions against Iranian interests. Having to choose between rapprochement and the tripartite alliance, and between hegemony over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Tehran opted for the latter. Moreover, the ever-suspicious Tehran has interpreted Obama’s expectation that Iran gives up on the land corridor as a proof that Obama ultimately sought a weakened Iran. This perception, along with the realization that Obama is a weakling President who is betraying US’ allies for instant gratification, convinced Iranian Supreme Leader “Ayatollah” Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘I that he could not trust Obama to abide by a treaty with Iran no matter how much Obama was pressing for such a rapprochement. Hence, Iran is back to igniting the region by proxies. 

There are many other factors weaving into this equation, not least being the stability of the Caucasus, the future of Afghanistan after the Coalition withdrawal of forces (and new Presidential elections) in 2014; the future of Pakistani stability; the rôle and shape of Yemen, the Red Sea balance, and the outlook for Ethiopia (and neighbors); the position of the entire Nile riparian states’ network; the ability of the Greek and Cypriot governments to respond to the current Turkish situation (while combating their own internal economic/political demons); and the transformative nature of the Eastern Mediterranean energy basin, which could transform the fortunes of Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon, and possibly Turkey.

Behind all of this is the final transformation of Russia, which may see in the break-up of Turkey an easier access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea and a rise in regional influence in the broader area, and an ability to end the Turkish rôle as a possible spoiler in the East-West and North-South energy network which Russia has been developing. In all of this, the functioning of the Red Sea/Suez sea lane is critical.

What is also significant is that the threat of an ill-considered US military thrust — to regain some element of influence — could indeed well accelerate the process of regional transformation, without any prospect that such a mechanism would, in fact, assist in the reconstruction of US influence.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the USSR and the PRC leading the way in the use of proxy terrorist and agitprop forces against the West, given that the communist bloc powers lacked the ability to directly confront the West. The 1990s and first decade of the 21st Century saw Iran and Islamist powers resort to the sponsorship and direction of terrorist forces against the West, because those states lacked the ability to directly confront the West. But the second decade of the 21st Century has seen the US (and some of its allies) enter the realm of the use of proxy terrorist forces.

Is this a measure of the inversion of power? Has this become, in other words, the West’s only viable political option for power projection?


Footnotes:

1. See “Mounting Evidence That the White House Knew, and Possibly Helped Plan, Syrian “Chemical Weapon” Attack by Opposition”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, August 28, 2013; and  “Markale in Damascus? How Islamist Forces Have Used a Time-Honored Deception and “Self-Bombing” Technique to Pull in Foreign Sympathy and Support”, also by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, August 22, 2013.

2. See, for example, some of the books by Yossef Bodansky: Chechen Jihad: Al Qaeda's Training Ground and the Next Wave of Terror (2007, HarperCollins); Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (1999, 2001, Random House); Offensive in the Balkans: The Potential for a Wider War as a Result of Foreign Intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1995, International Media Corp./ISSA); and so on.

3. See “Fragility of the Modern Middle Eastern State System Reflects a Return to Reliance on Traditional Societies”, by Yossef Bodansky, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Policy, August 20, 2013; and as “The Middle East Drifts Back to Its Roots” in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 8-2013.

4. On August 28, 2013, for example, Abu Dhabi energy group Taqa said that it would delay until 2014 a $12-billion deal between Turkey and the UAE for the development of a coal project. Taqa said the delay had been for economic reasons, but Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz said that it was for “political reasons”, implying that it would not be consummated if political relations remained as they had become: uneasy. — source: The Financial Times, August 29, 2013.

5. “Saudi Arabia Promises to Aid Egypt’s Regime”, by Rod Nordland, in The New York Times, August 19, 2013: “By July 10, [2012], one week after the military takeover, the Saudis had put together a package of aid totaling $12-billion: $5-billion from the kingdom, $3-billion from the United Arab Emirates and $4-billion from Kuwait.”

6. See: “Saudis offer secret oil deal if it drops Russia”, by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, in The Daily Telegraph, UK, August 27, 2013. The author cited Russian and Lebanese media sources, and his article noted: “The details of the talks were first leaked to the Russian press. A more detailed version has since appeared in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, which has HizbAllah links and is hostile to the Saudis. As-Safir said Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord. ‘I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,’ he allegedly said. Prince Bandar went on to say that Chechens operating in Syria were a pressure tool that could be switched on an off. ‘These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no rôle in Syria’s political future.’” Subsequent Russian broadcasts confirmed that Prince Bandar had made such offers to the Russian Government. Prince Bandar reportedly met with Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin at the latter’s dacha in the first week of August 2011. The Telegraph article noted: “The Putin-Bandar meeting was stormy, replete with warnings of a ‘dramatic turn’ in Syria. Mr Putin was unmoved by the Saudi offer, though western pressure has escalated since then. ‘Our stance on Assad will never change. We believe that the Syrian regime is the best speaker on behalf of the Syrian people, and not those liver eaters,’ he said, referring to footage showing a jihadist rebel eating the heart and liver of a Syrian soldier. Prince Bandar in turn warned that there can be ‘no escape from the military option’ if Russia declines the olive branch. Events are unfolding exactly as he foretold.”

7. See, for example: “Iran Moves at Highest Level to Support the Newly-Declared “Republic of Eastern Arabia”” [within Saudi Arabian territory]. In Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, May 18, 2009.

8. The Lebanese media outlet, Al-Manar, on its website on August 31, 2013, cited a report by Associated Press correspondent Dale Gavlak — a report which was not used by AP itself, and was thus released through other websites — noting: “From numerous interviews with doctors, Ghouta residents, rebel fighters and their families, many believe that certain rebels received chemical weapons via the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and were responsible for carrying out the (deadly) gas attack,” writes Gavlak. Rebels [reportedly] told Gavlak that they were not properly trained on how to handle the chemical weapons or even told what they were. It appears as though the weapons were initially supposed to be given to al-Nusra Front militants. “We were very curious about these arms. And unfortunately, some of the fighters handled the weapons improperly and set off the explosions,” one militant named ‘J’ told Gavlak. “al-Nusra Front militants do not cooperate with other rebels, except with fighting on the ground. They do not share secret information. They merely used some ordinary rebels to carry and operate this material,” he said. His claims are echoed by another female fighter named ‘K’, who told Gavlak, “They didn’t tell us what these arms were or how to use them. We didn’t know they were chemical weapons. We never imagined they were chemical weapons.”


August 28, 2013

Mounting Evidence That the White House Knew, and Possibly Helped Plan, Syrian “Chemical Weapon” Attack by Opposition

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. There is a growing volume of new evidence from numerous sources in the Middle East — mostly affiliated with the Syrian opposition and its sponsors and supporters — that makes a very strong case, based on solid circumstantial evidence, that the August 21, 2013, chemical strike in the Damascus suburbs was indeed a pre-meditated provocation by the Syrian opposition.

The extent of US foreknowledge of this provocation needs further investigation because available data puts the “horror” of the Barack Obama White House in a different and disturbing light.

See: “Markale in Damascus? How Islamist Forces Have Used a Time-Honored Deception and “Self-Bombing” Technique to Pull in Foreign Sympathy and Support”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, August 22, 2013.

On August 13-14, 2013, Western-sponsored opposition forces in Turkey started advance preparations for a major and irregular military surge. Initial meetings between senior opposition military commanders and representatives of Qatari, Turkish, and US Intelligence [“Mukhabarat Amriki”] took place at the converted Turkish military garrison in Antakya, Hatay Province, used as the command center and headquarters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their foreign sponsors. Very senior opposition commanders who had arrived from Istanbul briefed the regional commanders of an imminent escalation in the fighting due to “a war-changing development” which would, in turn, lead to a US-led bombing of Syria.

The opposition forces had to quickly prepare their forces for exploiting the US-led bombing in order to march on Damascus and topple the Bashar al-Assad Government, the senior commanders explained. The Qatari and Turkish intelligence officials assured the Syrian regional commanders that they would be provided with plenty of weapons for the coming offensive.

Indeed, unprecedented weapons distribution started in all opposition camps in Hatay Province on August 21-23, 2013. In the Reyhanli area alone, opposition forces received well in excess of 400 tons of weapons, mainly anti-aircraft weaponry from shoulder-fired missiles to ammunition for light-guns and machineguns. The weapons were distributed from store-houses controlled by Qatari and Turkish Intelligence under the tight supervision of US Intelligence.

These weapons were loaded on more than 20 trailer-trucks which crossed into northern Syria and distributed the weapons to several depots. Follow-up weapon shipments, also several hundred tons, took place over the weekend of August 24-25, 2013, and included mainly sophisticated anti-tank guided missiles and rockets. Opposition officials in Hatay said that these weapon shipments were “the biggest” they had received “since the beginning of the turmoil more than two years ago”. The deliveries from Hatay went to all the rebel forces operating in the Idlib-to-Aleppo area, including the al-Qaida affiliated jihadists (who constitute the largest rebel forces in the area).

Several senior officials from both the Syrian opposition and sponsoring Arab states stressed that these weapon deliveries were specifically in anticipation for exploiting the impact of imminent bombing of Syria by the US and the Western allies. The latest strategy formulation and coordination meetings took place on August 26, 2013. The political coordination meeting took place in Istanbul and was attended by US Amb. Robert Ford.

More important were the military and operational coordination meetings at the Antakya garrison. Senior Turkish, Qatari, and US Intelligence officials attended in addition to the Syrian senior (opposition) commanders. The Syrians were informed that bombing would start in a few days. “The opposition was told in clear terms that action to deter further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime could come as early as in the next few days,” a Syrian participant in the meeting said. Another Syrian participant said that he was convinced US bombing was scheduled to begin on Thursday, August 29, 2013. Several participants — both Syrian and Arab — stressed that the assurances of forthcoming bombing were most explicit even as formally Obama is still undecided.

The descriptions of these meetings raise the question of the extent of foreknowledge of US Intelligence, and therefore, the Obama White House. All the sources consulted — both Syrian and Arab — stressed that officials of the “Mukhabarat Amriki” actively participated in the meetings and briefings in Turkey. Therefore, at the very least, they should have known that the opposition leaders were anticipating “a war-changing development”: that is, a dramatic event which would provoke a US-led military intervention.

The mere fact that weapon storage sites under the tight supervision of US Intelligence were opened up and about a thousand tons of high-quality weapons were distributed to the opposition indicates that US Intelligence anticipated such a provocation and the opportunity for the Syrian opposition to exploit the impact of the ensuing US and allied bombing. Hence, even if the Obama White House did not know in advance of the chemical provocation, they should have concluded, or at the very least suspected, that the chemical attack was most likely the “war-changing development” anticipated by the opposition leaders as provocation of US-led bombing. Under such circumstances, the Obama White House should have refrained from rushing head-on to accuse Assad’s Damascus and threaten retaliation, thus making the Obama White House at the very least complicit after the act.

Meanwhile, additional data from Damascus about the actual chemical attack increases the doubts about Washington’s version of events. Immediately after the attack, three hospitals of Doctors Without Borders (MSF: médecins sans frontières) in the greater Damascus area treated more than 3,600 Syrians affected by the chemical attack, and 355 of them died. MSF performed tests on the vast majority of those treated.

MSF director of operations Bart Janssens summed up the findings: “MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack. However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events — characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers — strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.” Simply put, even after testing some 3,600 patients, MSF failed to confirm that sarin was the cause of the injuries. According to MSF, the cause could have been nerve agents like sarin, concentrated riot control gas, or even high-concentration pesticides. Moreover, opposition reports that there was distinct stench during the attack suggest that it could have come from the “kitchen sarin” used by jihadist groups (as distinct from the odorless military-type sarin) or improvised agents like pesticides.

Some of the evidence touted by the Obama White House is questionable at best.

A small incident in Beirut raises big questions. A day after the chemical attack, Lebanese fixers working for the “Mukhabarat Amriki” succeeded to convince a Syrian male who claimed to have been injured in the chemical attack to seek medical aid in Beirut in return for a hefty sum that would effectively settle him for life. The man was put into an ambulance and transferred overnight to the Farhat Hospital in Jib Janine, Beirut. The Obama White House immediately leaked friendly media that “the Lebanese Red Cross announced that test results found traces of sarin gas in his blood.” However, this was news to Lebanese intelligence and Red Cross officials. According to senior intelligence officials, “Red Cross Operations Director George Kettaneh told [them] that the injured Syrian fled the hospital before doctors were able to test for traces of toxic gas in his blood.” Apparently, the patient declared that he had recovered from his nausea and no longer needed medical treatment. The Lebanese security forces are still searching for the Syrian patient and his honorarium.

On August 24, 2013, Syrian Commando forces acted on intelligence about the possible perpetrators of the chemical attack and raided a cluster of rebel tunnels in the Damascus suburb of Jobar. Canisters of toxic material were hit in the fierce fire-fight as several Syrian soldiers suffered from suffocation and “some of the injured are in a critical condition”.

The Commando eventually seized an opposition warehouse containing barrels full of chemicals required for mixing “kitchen sarin”, laboratory equipment, as well as a large number of protective masks. The Syrian Commando also captured several improvised explosive devices, RPG rounds, and mortar shells. The same day, at least four HizbAllah fighters operating in Damascus near Ghouta were hit by chemical agents at the very same time the Syrian Commando unit was hit while searching a group of rebel tunnels in Jobar. Both the Syrian and the HizbAllah forces were acting on intelligence information about the real perpetrators of the chemical attack. Damascus told Moscow the Syrian troops were hit by some form of a nerve agent and sent samples (blood, tissues, and soil) and captured equipment to Russia.

Several Syrian leaders, many of whom are not Bashar al-Assad supporters and are even his sworn enemies, are now convinced that the Syrian opposition is responsible for the August 21, 2013, chemical attack in the Damascus area in order to provoke the US and the allies into bombing Assad’s Syria. Most explicit and eloquent is Saleh Muslim, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which has been fighting the Syrian Government. Muslim doubts Assad would have used chemical weapons when he was winning the civil war.

“The regime in Syria ... has chemical weapons, but they wouldn’t use them around Damascus, five km from the [UN] committee which is investigating chemical weapons. Of course they are not so stupid as to do so,” Muslim told Reuters on August 27, 2013. He believes the attack was “aimed at framing Assad and provoking an international reaction”. Muslim is convinced that “some other sides who want to blame the Syrian regime, who want to show them as guilty and then see action” is responsible for the chemical attack. The US was exploiting the attack to further its own anti-Assad policies and should the UN inspectors find evidence that the rebels were behind the attack, then “everybody would forget it”, Muslim shrugged. “Who is the side who would be punished? Are they are going to punish the Emir of Qatar or the King of Saudi Arabia, or Mr Erdoğan of Turkey?”

And there remain the questions: Given the extent of the involvement of the “Mukhabarat Amriki” in opposition activities, how is that US Intelligence did not know in advance about the opposition’s planned use of chemical weapons in Damascus?

It is a colossal failure.

And if they did know and warned the Obama White House, why then the sanctimonious rush to blame the Assad Administration? Moreover, how can the Obama Administration continue to support and seek to empower the opposition which had just intentionally killed some 1,300 innocent civilians in order to provoke a US military intervention?


August 22, 2013

Markale in Damascus? How Islamist Forces Have Used a Time-Honored Deception and “Self-Bombing” Technique to Pull in Foreign Sympathy and Support

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. In August 1995, Western governments, and particularly the Bill Clinton White House, were in great quandary. The negotiations with the Serbs were going well as Pres. Slobodan Milosevic was demonstrating unprecedented flexibility and accepting virtually all the demands put forward by the West. Hence, it was becoming politically and legally impossible for the US-led West to launch the NATO military intervention which Pres. Clinton had promised Bosnia-Herzegovina leader Alija Izetbegovic the US would launch in order to quickly win the war for the Bosnian-Muslims.

Then, on August 28, 1995, at around 11:00 hrs local, a mortar shell appeared to hit the Markale market-place in Sarajevo, killing 38 people and wounding another 90. Russian Col. Andrei Demurenko, then the commander of UN Forces in Sarajevo, immediately rushed with an UNPROFOR team to the supposed Bosnian-Serb mortar positions and ascertained that none of them could have been used to fire the mortar rounds.

Demurenko’s report stated that the Bosnian-Serb forces were falsely blamed for the attack on the Markale.

Nevertheless, ostensibly in response to the massacre, NATO launched the air campaign against Bosnian-Serb forces and shortly afterwards decided the war in favor of the Bosnian-Muslims.

On August 31, 1995, Jean Daniel, then Editor of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, wrote an article titled “No more lies about Bosnia”. In the article, Daniel recounted an exchange he had just had with French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur about the NATO air campaign and the motivations for it. “They [the Muslims] have committed this carnage on their own people?”  Daniel asked. “Yes,” confirmed Balladur without hesitation, “but at least they forced NATO to intervene.”

*

The August 21, 2013, chemical attack in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, might become the Markale of the Syrian war.

On August 19, 2013, a UN expert delegation arrived in Damascus to study reports and evidence of earlier use of chemical weapons. The next day, they were presented with detailed scientific, technical, and military data about the alleged chemical attacks, soil contamination and why the Syrian Armed Forces could not have carried out these attacks. Russian and other foreign experts who studied the data separately found it compelling. The Syrian military also presented the UN team with detailed intelligence evidence about chemical weapons and production labs affiliated with the opposition discovered in Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

On August 21, 2013, the Syrian opposition announced a massive chemical attack in Ghouta which allegedly inflicted about 1,300 fatalities including hundreds of children. As in previous chemical attacks blamed on the Assad Administration, the attackers used the ubiquitous Sarin nerve gas. Immediately, the opposition flooded Western media with pictures of the dead, but provided no conclusive evidence about the attack and the perpetrators.

Moreover, initial opposition reports claimed the attack was conducted by a barrage of rockets. Subsequently, in the context of renewed outcries for a No Fly Zone, the opposition claimed that the chemical attack was a part of a massive bombing by the Syrian Air Force. Yet, the opposition’s pictures show no casualties suffering shrapnel wounds associated with aerial bombing. Stern denials by the Syrian Government of any involvement in the attack were largely ignored by the West. At the time of writing, the UN expert delegation and foreign diplomats were denied access to the attack site by the opposition forces ostensibly because of fear for their safety.

The context of the attack is of great significance.

Starting August 17 and 18, 2013, nominally Free Syrian Army (FSA) units — in reality a separate Syrian and Arab army trained and equipped by the CIA as well as Jordanian and other intelligence services — attempted to penetrate southern Syria from northern Jordan and start a march on Damascus. The US-sponsored war plan was based on the Autumn 2011 march on Tripoli, Libya, by CIA-sponsored army from Tunisia which decided the Libyan war and empowered the Islamists.

Two units, one 250-strong and one 300-strong, crossed into Syria and began advancing parallel to the Golan Heights border. Their aim was to break east and reach Daraa quickly in order to prepare the ground for the declaration of Daraa as the capital of a “Free Syria”. However, the CIA’s FSA forces met fierce resistance by the unlikely coalition of the Syrian Army, local jihadist forces (mainly the locally-raised Yarmuk Brigades), and even tribal units who fear the encroachment by outside forces on their domain. By August 19 and 20, 2013, the FSA units were surrounded in three villages not far from the Israeli border.

An attempt to use an Indian UNDOF patrol as human shield failed. The FSA commanders were now (ie: as of late August 21, 2013) pleading for massive reinforcements and an air campaign to prevent their decimation.

Meanwhile, on August 19, 2013, in Ghouta, more than 50 local opposition fighters and their commanders laid down their arms and switched sides. A few prominent local leaders widely associated with the opposition went on Syrian TV. They denounced the jihadists and their crimes against the local population, and stressed that the Assad Administration was the real guardian of the people and their interests. More than a dozen ex-rebels joined the Syrian Government forces.

Hence, the last thing the Assad Administration would do is commit atrocities against the Ghouta area and the local population which had just changed sides so dramatically. For the opposition, fiercely avenging such a betrayal and petrifying other would-be traitors is a must. Furthermore, in view of the failure of the march on Daraa and Damascus by the CIA’s FSA forces, there was an urgent imperative for the opposition to provoke a Western military intervention before the rebellion collapsed completely, and Assad consolidated victory.

In Obama’s Washington, there has been a growing opposition to intervention.

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who had just been to the Jordan and Israel on an inspection tour of the Syrian crisis, publicly doubted the expediency of an armed intervention, because supporting the opposition would not serve the US national and security interests. Dempsey wrote to Congress that while the US “can destroy the Syrian Air Force”, such a step would “escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict”.

There was no compelling strategic reason for such an undertaking. “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Dempsey wrote. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”

However, Pres. Obama’s own inner-most circle has made it clear that it is committed to “humanitarian interventionism” of the kind exercised in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya. Absent legitimate national interests, a US-led intervention must be based on humanitarian reasons such in retaliation to atrocities and chemical attacks.


May 30, 2013

Victory in Syria: But For Whom? 

The US White House, under President Barack Obama, was, by the end of May 2013, considering how to begin more direct engagement in the fighting inside Syria. The move reflected the growing realization — and pressure from Turkey — that the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his Iranian allies, had already, in reality, achieved a decisive victory. Could, and should, Western/Turkish intervention try to snatch victory from the maw of defeat? 

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. The fratricidal war in Bilad al-Sham — that is, historical Greater Syria (for the State of Syria hardly exists any more) — is about to cross its second crucial milestone. Both milestones — the first being in October 2011 — were major turning-points advancing a victory by the Assad Administration, not the Turkish- and Western-backed jihadist rebels. 

The predominantly Islamist- jihadist rebels were never close to victory. But they are now closer than ever to defeat. 

Meanwhile, the fratricidal war which keeps spreading throughout historical northern al-Jazira — the Arab interior or heartland — is consuming in its flames the territories of the states of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, while crossing the borders of both Turkey and Israel. The essence of the tidal-wave of grassroots violence now escalating and spreading through al-Jazira is that fratricidal violence will continue for decades to come — long after the war itself has been decided at the strategic political level. 

By the time these flames subside and the dust settles, there will emerge a completely new-old Middle East full of wrath, capitalizing on the legacy of past conquests and unresolved humiliations as the raison d’être for its very existence and quest for inflicting historic retribution and revenge. 

This anticipated gloom and doom is all but inevitable given the impact of the policies of the leading Western powers who insist in intervening in the Syrian crisis as well as the rest of the Islamist intifadas they still insist on calling “the Arab Spring”. The key point missed by the leading Western powers is that no matter how important the fighting between the Assad and allied Shi’ite forces and the jihadist rebel forces and their Sunni-jihadist allies has been, the truly decisive struggle has been over the soul of the silent majority of Syrians. And in this crucial battle the jihadists had already lost in the Autumn of 2011, but Assad’s Damascus is only now — in the Summer of 2013 — showing that it is prevailing. 

The overall dynamic engulfing the Greater Middle East must be examined within regional historical frameworks, because the essence of the intifadas is the rejection of modernity as represented by the modern Arab state and the embracing of traditional Islamic-Islamist socio-political frameworks in their stead. 

Indeed, the real situation in Syria is far more complicated than a mere civil war because of the unique rôle of both historic Bilad al-Sham and modern Syria on the fault lines between al-Jazira and the Fertile Crescent of Minorities. 

Historically, the region known as the Mashriq has always been dominated by the socio-political dynamics in the Arab heartland — al-Jazira — roughly from the shores of the Arabian Sea to northern Iraq, and from eastern Iraq to the Gaza Strip. This Arab cauldron — predominantly Sunni but including Shi’ite Arabs as well — has a tendency to spread roughly from south to north through the instrument of radicalization and jihadization to the detriment of Arab nationalism. This ascent is not only contained, but at times also reversed, by three external powers that seek to advance and expand into, as well as extend their influence and hegemony onto, these Arab lands. Historically, these were the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Caliphate, and the Egyptian Caliphate (that at its peak as the Fatimid Caliphate, 909-1171, was ruled by Ismaili Shi’ites). 

Throughout history and in earlier incarnations, these three powers have had hegemonic aspirations — through various means ranging from cultural-economic influence to outright military occupation — over the Mashriq. Presently, these three powers are reincarnated as Mahdivist Iran, neo-Ottomanist Turkey, and Ikhwani Egypt. 

The fault lines between the Arab cauldron and the surrounding great powers are comprised of a thin line of minorities which, together, constitute the core of the Fertile Crescent. These minorities are, from east to west, the Ahwazi Arabs of south-western Iran, the Kurds, the Alavis/Alawites, the Druze, the Maronites, and the Jews, as well as smaller minorities such as the Armenians and Cherkess/Circassians. This Fertile Crescent of Minorities has historically provided the stabilizing buffer regulating the spread of influence of Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. Initially, these minorities were discriminated against and oppressed by the various Arab rulers of the Mashriq. Between 1517 and 1917, the minorities along the Levant shores of the Mediterranean were relied upon by the Ottoman Sultans as the primary instrument facilitating their rule over the entire Mashriq. After 1917, Western powers have considered and used the Levant minorities as the purveyors of pro- Western strategic posture, modernity, and Westernization to the Middle East. As a rule, whenever the Fertile Crescent of Minorities, and especially their Levant section, was strong and viable, it constituted the key to regional stability and purveyor of modernity and growth. 

Thus, the crux of the lingering crisis in and around Syria is the fate of the minorities’ rule in Damascus and the potentially dramatic ramifications of its demise. The Bashar al-Assad Administration is based on the dominance of the Alawites and the Druze, who control the security apparatus, and the support of the urban economic élites comp

prised of westernized Sunnis, Orthodox Christians, and the Armenians. Moreover, the situation in Syria cannot be separated from the situation in Lebanon where the local minorities — the Maronites, Druze, ‘Alawites, and Armenians — are threatened by the ascent of the Iran-sponsored Shi’ite HizbAllah in the south and center, and al-Qaida affiliated jihadists in the north and Palestinian camps in the south. Hence, with perfect grand-strategic logic, Tehran is capitalizing on the plight of Assad’s Damascus in order to co-opt Syria’s minorities and further consolidate Iran’s strategic-hegemonic presence along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean (which is supplemented by Iran’s presence in the Gaza Strip and growing influence in Pres. Mohammed Morsi’s Ikhwani Egypt). Iran-sponsored war with Israel would therefore take on the last entrenched and adamantly anti-Iran minorities: the Jews, as well as the Druze and the Cherkess/ Circassians of Israel. 

Syria was still a functioning state when violence and civil disorder erupted there in early Spring 2011. Modern Syria is essentially the balancing of three foci of power: (1) The security apparatus which relies on the ‘Alawite, Druze, and Kurdish minorities; (2) An urban-economic élite which relies on westernized Sunni families, and Armenian and Orthodox Christian minorities; (3) A radicalized, conservative, and tribal Sunni population in the rural areas and increasingly the urban slums. Power in Damascus has always been based on two foci playing against the third. Starting the early-1970s, Rifaat al-Assad (brother of then president Hafez al-Assad and vice-president, and now exiled in Western Europe) consolidated an alliance between the security and economic élites which sustained stability in the country even after the exile of Rifaat and the death of Hafez. 

Bashar al-Assad rose to power in July 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez. He immediately promised the urban economic élite widespread reforms in return for their support for him succeeding his father. Instead of delivering, Bashar sought to transform the power system into an alliance with the radicalized Sunnis under an Iranian umbrella. He expected the Syrian Islamists to be satisfied with financial handouts and growing involvement in regional jihadist causes (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, etc.). Empowered by the Islamist intifadas all around them and inherently anti-Shi’ite, the Syrian Islamists demanded more domestic power and Sunni-Islamist character for the state. They rebelled in Spring 2011 when Bashar refused. 

It took Assad’s Damascus a few months to grasp the severity of the crisis and the intensity of the fighting. Soon afterwards, Damascus formulated a national strategy for confronting the crisis which is still in effect. The key to the Government’s strategy, starting in mid- 2011, has been the dividing of Syria into three strategic zones on the basis of their importance for the survival of the Assad Administration and the running of post-war Syria. The military priorities and resource allocation have since been based on this division: 

1. The minorities’ bloc comprised of the traditional lands of the minorities upon which the security apparatus relies. These are the ‘Alawite strip along the Mediterranean coastline between Lebanon and Turkey, the Druze area in the south-west up to the Jordanian and Israeli borders, and the Kurdish area in the north-east largely along the Turkish border but also part of the border with Iraq (where Syria’s oilfields are located). 

2. The economic-strategic belt which is the area where the national economy (industry and commerce), as well as defense industries and strategic stockpiles, are located. Geographically, this is a relatively narrow strip between Damascus and Aleppo which includes the two key industrial cities, Hama and Homs. This strip borders the ‘Alawite sector on the west and the Druze area on the south, but also borders Turkey on the north-west and north, and the rest of Syria on the east. 

3. The vast interior which is comprised of, essentially, the rest of Syria to the east of the belt and to the south of the Kurdish zone. This area enjoys access to parts of the border with Turkey and the porous borders with Iraq and Jordan. This area is inhabited mainly by Sunni tribes and extended families, both conservative Arab and Islamists, who cross over into Iraq and Jordan. This area is economically depressed because of endemic absence of water and lack of infrastructure (roads, electricity, etc.), and therefore does not have great prospects for the future. Hence, this region has been the source of internal migration to urban slums in the main cities. These areas are implacably hostile to Damascus — that is, to any government in Damascus — because of their unchangeable destitution, and are thus susceptible to radicalization. 

With the exception of the crucial slums in the main industrial cities in the economic-strategic belt and the Christian enclaves in the north-east, these strategic zones essentially overlap the three foci of power which make modern Syria. This explains the military strategy of Assad’s Damascus. 

The ultimate priority of the Assad administration — to secure the traditional regions of the key minorities — was attained in Summer 2011. A few clashes continued on the Jordanian and Turkish borders as a result of infiltration attempts. But these eruptions could not alter the basic reality that Damascus’s hold over these regions was, and still is, firm, and that the local population actively supports the Assad Administration and its war effort. Presently, these areas are essentially quiet with the local population is supporting the Administration. The minorities’ knowledge that they would be slaughtered under a Sunni-jihadist administration only reinforces their commitment to Assad’s Damascus. 

The second priority — to control the economic-strategic belt — is being implemented ruthlessly. The turning point came in the early Autumn of 2011 when the Assad Administration concluded that the crucial urban-economic élite in Aleppo and Damascus would not cast their lot with the rebels (and some would even ponder supporting the Administration). Consequently, Government forces could safely focus on forcefully suppressing the radicalized Sunni population of the urban slums and blue-collar neighborhoods who stood in the way of the region’s pacification and return to some economic activities. This approach was largely successful because rebel presence was quickly contained to several slums and neighborhoods rather than spreading into the rural areas. 

However, with the jihadist elements holding firm and even escalating strikes from their parts of Homs and Hama, the Administration’s efforts became more ruthless and desperate to the point of suppressing by heavy indiscriminate shelling and bombing some of the die-hard slums and neighborhoods in Homs and Hama. The secondary mission of the Government’s security forces was preventing the relentless efforts by Turkey-based jihadist forces to reach Aleppo in order to provoke insurrection, as well as prevent a similar jihadist infiltration from north-eastern Lebanon into nearby Homs and on to Hama. But the Assad Administration was adamant that it had to suppress the jihadist insurrection in the economic- strategic belt at all cost. By the Autumn of 2011, both Syrian Government and rebel leaders concurred that the Assad forces would soon succeed if left to their own devices. 

Strategically, the Assad Administration had already won the war in the Autumn of 2011. 

The traditional key to ruling modern Syria has always been an alliance between the minorities-dominated security and Sunni-dominated urban economic élites; and Damascus had already succeeded, by this time, in restoring this alliance. This success has been aptly demonstrated in the sustenance and cohesion of the Syrian security forces, which are predominantly Sunni, in the continuous, intense fighting and yet with minuscule rates of defection and desertion. In the strategic zones of Syria, the opposition remained — as at the end of May 2013 — contained in several slums and neighborhoods. The bitter fighting in Aleppo was, by late May 2013, a desperate yet doomed effort by the jihadists and their Turkish sponsors to challenge this status quo

This trend was clearly reflected in the popular support for the Assad Administration to the extent that reliable polling is possible. In the second half of December 2011, YouGov conducted a major poll commissioned by the Qatar Foundation throughout the Arab World. The key question was whether Bashar al-Assad should resign. The poll found that 55 percent of Syrians did not want Bashar al-Assad to resign as President; that is, 55 percent of Syrians wanted him to remain President. Significantly, in a poll conducted in December 2010, that is, just before the outbreak of the current crisis, only 46 percent of Syrians considered Bashar al-Assad a good president for Syria. The YouGov poll also found that 68 percent of Syrians disapproved of the Arab League sanctions. 

In contrast, the YouGov poll showed that outside Syria 81 percent of Arabs “want President Assad to step down”. The respondents based their opinion regarding Assad on the coverage of Syrian events on Arab Satellite TV news channels. In other words, Arab Satellite TV news channels such as the Qatar- based al-Jazeera and al-Arabia have had a profound impact on the regional public opinion in favor of the opposition to Assad while Syrian domestic public opinion increased its support for Assad. 

In early 2012, the Syrian deep interior remained the main lingering problem of the war. From a purely military point of view, the Government’s task was manageable. Violence and instability in the interior had negligible effect on the functioning of the Syrian State, for this depends on the minority zones and the economic belt, both of which were under the effective control of the Assad Administration. 

The primary tasks of the Syrian security forces were reducing the level of Islamist-jihadist insurrection in the area, and slowing down the flow of jihadist volunteers, weapons, and funds across the porous borders. Initially, the strategy of Damascus was based on holding onto some of the key cities in the interior and let everything else burn. To fight the jihadists, Damascus relied heavily on special operations in order to entrap and manipulate both the Syrian and Qatar-sponsored foreign jihadist elements. Ultimately, this strategy saved Damascus the need for massive use and widespread deployment of regular military forces Syria. 

Initially, the tendency of Damascus was to abandon hinterland and focus on consolidation of hold over strategic Syria — that is, the Damascus-Aleppo zone — against growing challenges from across the Turkish and Lebanese borders. Meanwhile, for the Turkey- based opposition leadership, the crux of the war for Syria was based on the realization of the strategic victory by Assad’s Damascus. Therefore, the self- anointed (although Western recognized) Islamist opposition leadership concluded that only a major military intervention by Western forces — of the kind that brought down the Qadhafi Administration in Libya and empowered an Islamist-jihadist regime in their stead — would be able to topple the Assad Administration and empower the Islamist opposition leaders in Damascus. Hence, the opposition strategy evolved around two foci: (1) Establishing conducive conditions for provoking or seducing or manipulating the US-led West to intervene militarily in Syria on behalf of the Islamists- jihadists as the US-led NATO did in Libya by creating the “Aleppo-is- Benghazi” political-media aura; and (2) Enforced Islamicization of the traditionalist Sunni Arab populace, marginalized by Assad’s Damascus even though they are the majority of Syrians, in order to demonstrate popular support for the opposition leadership and its Islamist character. 

Throughout, the economic élite desperately tried to stay out of the turmoil. This facilitated the crisis that befell on them. The jihadist suicide-bombing in Aleppo starting in February 2012 signaled a change whereupon Aleppo’s urban economic élite must get involved in war whether they liked it or not. During most of 2012, jihadist rebels projected themselves onto the hostile population. The jihadists attacked the established and well-to-do suburbs, and provoked the Syrian military into shelling and bombing areas where the population was inclined to support the Assad Administration. When this did not work, the jihadists destroyed most of Aleppo including historic and heritage sites of global importance, and emptied a few suburbs into forced exile in order to enhance the humanitarian crisis in Turkey in the hope of inducing an international military intervention. 

By the Autumn of 2012, rebel leaders in Aleppo admitted that between two- thirds and three-quarters of the indigenous population of Aleppo both hated and dreaded the jihadist rebels.  By then, the population could take the abuse no more and, starting with the Kurdish and ‘Alawite  suburbs, established local militias which took on the jihadists and pushed them out of many suburbs and neighborhoods of greater Aleppo. 

This turning point has since helped the Assad administration. 

The ascent of the jihadists was further complicated when Tehran had the Assad Administration release from jail the legendary jihadist commander and ideologist Abu-Musab al-Suri (who had been in Syria after special rendition by the US) and his close assistant, Abu-Khaled, sometime between late December 2011 and early January 2012. Back in the early 2000s, Abu-Musab al-Suri was sheltered by Iranian Intelligence and worked closely with the Quds Forces and their up-and-coming Commander, Brig.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Almost immediately, there began to emerge in Syria jihadist vanguard entities of the kind long advocated by Abu-Musab al-Suri. In late January 2012, for example, the previously unknown Jabhat al-Nusrah (Victory Front) published a video called “For the People of Syria from the Mujahedin of Syria in the Fields of Jihad”. A commander going by the nom de guerre al-Fatih (the Conqueror) Abu Muhammad al-Juwlani (that is, from the Golan Heights) delivered a jihadist address threatening the US, the West, the Arab League, Turkey and Iran, for their solidarity and collaboration with the Assad Government against the Sunni Muslims. He claimed that Jabhat al-Nusrah was active all over Syria — from Hama to Dara. The video concluded with a group of fighters in the contentious Idlib area who belonged to the Brigade of the Free Greater Syria (Kataeb Ahrar ash-Sham) swear their allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusrah. The implication was that these fighters now joined the real jihad: a Sunni jihad actually controlled by Assad’s closest allies in Tehran.

Meanwhile, in the Spring of 2012 there emerged a political imperative for Assad’s Damascus to reduce the level of fratricidal violence all over the country, as well as move forward toward a viable and legitimate negotiations process with the grassroots populace. Furthermore, because of family and tribal connections between the rural population in the deep interior and the slum dwellers in the western cities, as well as the tribal population in the villages surrounding the western cities and in Aleppo itself, Damascus could not ignore completely the popular dynamics and awakening in the interior. Thus, while the ongoing turmoil was incapable of threatening the Assad Administration and its continued consolidation of victory, the interior could not be left completely unattended for either.

The situation in Syria’s predominantly Sunni Arab interior remained complex.

The population there is overwhelmingly tribal and rural with pockets of urban extended families. The growing economic hardships of the past three decades, particularly the failure of the Soviet-style institutionalization of agriculture and the destruction of water resources (mainly due to experimentation with cotton growing), led to grass- roots alienation and rejection of the state system. Instead, the population has increasingly rallied around tribal and extended family frameworks in order to jointly survive the hardships. When blood-relation frameworks failed to remedy the situation, the youth abandoned the interior in quest of livelihood in either the urban slums in western Syria or in the ranks of the security forces which largely deployed near Syria’s borders and away from the interior. Hence, the population which had endured the hardships and remained stable in the Syrian interior was socially conservative and inward looking; that is, committed to the empowerment of tribe and extended family at the expense of the centralized state.

The lingering hardship, however, has left the grassroots population vulnerable to Islamist radicalization particularly by Gulf-origin charities which offered humanitarian assistance. The Islamist-jihadist leadership sought to capitalize on the population’s hardship and despair in order to impose Chechenization of the kind attempted by the jihadist leadership in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus since the mid 1990s. Chechenization is the term used to describe a profound transformation of a predominantly Muslim society from its traditional, largely pre-Islamic, structure to dominance by Islamist-jihadist elements which historically have been alien to that society. The outcome of Chechenization is not only the Arabization of that society’s value system, social structure and way of life, but society’s seemingly voluntary abandonment of its own cultural heritage and forfeiture of its manifest destiny in favor of complete subservience to pan-Islamic jihadist causes the realization of which are detrimental to the existental self-interest of that society.

Although Chechnization largely failed by the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, and the heavy- handed attempted implementation played a major rôle in the Russian victory in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, jihadist leaders elsewhere continue to consider Chechenization the key to long-term hold over otherwise hostile populations. Indeed, it was not by accident that starting the Summer of 2012 the supreme commander of the Jaish Muhajireen wa Ansar (the Army of Emigrants and Supporters) has been Emir Abu-Omar al-Chichani (the Chechen). The Jaish is the main organized force of the foreign mujahedin fighting in Syria in their own units (as distinct from those foreign volunteers integrated into jihadist units based on al-Jazira people: that is, Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese jihadists). In the second half of 2012, there were some 6,000-10,000 foreign jihadists under Abu-Omar al-Chichani.

In late Summer and early Autumn of 2012, the grassroots population in Syria’s al-Jazira largely rejected the heavy-handed attempts to enforce Chechenization.

Overwhelmed by the hardships of self-survival, the grassroots opted to withdraw from the struggle for Syria. Hence, the distribution of the popular standing in the war was: 25 percent of the population supported the Assad Administration, 15 percent supported the Islamist-jihadist rebellion, and 60 percent were “neutrals” who hated Assad but dreaded the jihadists and therefore stayed out of the war. This rejection by the grassroots compelled the jihadist leadership to abandon dealing with the grassroots and instead focus on inducing a Western military intervention. Meanwhile, despite the Western political support for, and Western media reports about, the Free Syrian Army and other ostensibly nationalist armed opposition, internally, the entire armed opposition was jihadist. There remained hair-splitting differences between various jihadist units, albeit mainly due to the whims of their charismatic commanders and religious guides rather than policy or ideology. Furthermore, the rebels’ logistical life-lines were increasingly controlled by Turkey and funded mainly by Qatar, and both made sure that localized forces that did not toe the jihadist line were stifled and starved into inaction.

Mohammad Morsi assumed office as the President of Egypt on June 30, 2012; a move which would have a major impact on the US-led policy toward Syria. Before Morsi’s ascent, Turkey was torn between two regional approaches to the Syrian and Mashriq crisis.

On the one hand, there was the possibility of consolidating a Sunni north- south bloc with Saudi Arabia which would confront an Iran-dominated Shi’ite east-west axis. On the other hand, there was the possibility of building with Iran a coalition of the outside forces that would destroy the Fertile Crescent of Minorities and suppress the Arabian hinterland (al-Jazira).

Turkey’s near total dependence on highly subsidized Iranian oil and gas further complicated Ankara’s decision making. Ultimately, Turkey’s objective has always been controlling Sunni Islam and Arabia’s oil.

Soon after Morsi’s ascent, Cairo introduced — and Obama’s Washington enthusiastically endorsed — a grand strategic arrangement based on a tripartite alliance of the outside forces encircling the Mashriq, jointly destroying the Fertile Crescent of Minorities, and ultimately suppressing and controlling al-Jazira.

The contemporary aspirations of the Islamist Tripartite Alliance — Iran, Turkey, and Egypt — are essentially the revival of their traditional quest for spheres of influence as Mahdivist Iran/Persia, neo-Ottomanist Turkey, and Ikhwani Egypt (as both the contemporary United Arab Republic and the reincarnation of historic Bilad al-Kanana). These three powers have long had hegemonic aspirations over the Mashriq through various means ranging from cultural-economic influence to outright military occupation. Their current ascent comes at the expense of Bilad al-Sham and al-Jazira (the Arab hinterland and the Arabian Peninsula, that is, Saudi Arabia). The web of mutual economic relations — particularly cheap energy supplies from Iran and the lure of huge profits from sanctions busting — overshadows the Sunni-Shi’ite disputes (that never fade away completely). At the same time, this Tripartite Alliance would also be creating a Sunni majority bloc — Turkey and Egypt — strong enough to contain Iran without alienating it. Turkey and Egypt would thus be able to capitalize on this dynamics to gain the willing subservience of the Sunni Arab world. 

In the second half of 2012, however, the US regional policy was dominated by Pres. Barack Obama’s quest for an historical rapprochement with Iran, virtually at any cost. Although secret bilateral negotiations have been going on for a couple of years now, it was only in Autumn 2012 that a major breakthrough took place during a face-to-face meeting in Doha, Qatar. As first disclosed by former IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps: Pasdaran) official turned CIA agent, “Reza Kahlili”, the Doha meeting was between Obama’s senior advisor and closest personal confidant, Valerie Jarrett, and Iranian Supreme Leader “Ayatollah” Ali Khamene’i’s confidant and advisor on international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati. Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran, where her father managed a hospital, and knew Velayati as a child. The personal trust between Jarrett and Velayati, coupled with her unique personal stature with Obama, delivered the dramatic breakthrough the Obama White House had been seeking since 2009. 

Obama’s determination to complete the historic rapprochement with Iran overshadows all other US considerations and policies in the Greater Middle East. 

Thus, Washington’s empowerment of the US-sponsored Tripartite Alliance was dominated by its impact on Obama’s quest for that historical rapprochement with Iran. Similarly, the Obama White House continued to support and empower Islamist-jihadist movements, particularly Ikhwan-affiliated, at the expense of US traditional allies considered anti-Iran including Israel and Saudi Arabia. In Autumn 2012, the Obama White House was doggedly pursuing a twin-track policy (without declaring it, of course: 

  • 1. The preference was a major deal with Iran. Under the conditions of the deal, Iran would retain preeminence/dominance in Syria (albeit without Assad) and Lebanon. Iran would also be a key member of the Tripartite Alliance with Turkey and Egypt which the US would empower over the Greater Middle East. Under such an arrangement there would be no need for Western/NATO military intervention for Iran will “deliver” Assad. 

  • 2. If there was no deal with Iran, the US would support (from behind) a Turkey-led NATO military intervention which would overthrow the Assad Government and empower Islamists-jihadists affiliated with the Muslim Brothers in Damascus. The crux of the US-sponsored world “recognition” of the new Syrian Council would aim at building the political justification for such an intervention. Ultimately, the US-led recognition of the Council as the sole representative of the Syrian people precludes negotiations and sets the conditions for a costly and needless military intervention. 

With Obama’s encouragement, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Ankara has become the dominant power behind the implementation of this strategy in tune with its neo-Ottoman convictions. Historically, the Ottoman Caliphate ruled the huge Mashriq by manipulating a devastated and oppressed Fertile Crescent of Minorities, while domineering the myriad of the Arab tribes, clans and extended families that lived within the Crescent: in al-Jazira. Fractured and devoid of national identities, these localized Arab entities could not resist the Ottoman overlordship. Presently, Ankara’s two preconditions for success in Syria and beyond closely resemble the Ottoman legacy: (1) the destruction of the Fertile Crescent of Minorities, the historic buffer between Arab al-Jazira and the outside forces; and (2) the destruction of Mashriq states, mainly Bilad al-Sham. Achieved together, these steps would effectively recreate the traditional socio-political tapestry which served the later days of the Ottoman Caliphate (of which British-ruled Egypt was not a part). 

Indeed, the primary outcome of the Autumn/Winter 2012 phase of the Syrian crisis was the demise of the modern Syrian state in favor of amalgamation of localized sub-state entities based on tribes and clans that are focused solely on self-preservation and self-survival. And the demise of the Syrian state has already reverberated in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. 

Meanwhile, the foreign-sponsored jihadists were focused on the “battles” for Aleppo and Damascus. They exploited the growing reluctance of Assad’s Damascus to commit the Syrian military to clashes with rebel forces. In Autumn/Winter 2012, most ground forces activities (with Damascus being the noteworthy exception) were aggressive and preventive foot patrols in contested streets and suburbs by various pro-Government militias (the ‘Alawite Shabiha, HizbAllah-trained Shi’ite forces, and a myriad of Sunni counterparts) and infantry small units. In cases of opposition attacks, the Syrian military largely preferred to respond with air-power: mainly helicopter strikes but occasionally also bombings by light strike aircraft. Thus, there was very little fighting inside Syria except for recurring acts of terrorism in the Damascus and Aleppo regions. The primary perpetrators of these fighting were jihadist forces sponsored from across the Turkish border that in Aleppo were joined by local criminal gangs now claiming higher motivations.  

However, it took a major humanitarian trauma for the grassroots starting with Eid al-Adha in late-October 2012 and continuing during the Winter of 2012/13 to profoundly change of the nature of the war in Syria. The crisis began with the communities’ handling of the unprecedented shortages during Eid al-Adha in late-October 2012. Whatever little aid reached Syria’s interior and slums — mainly meat and other foodstuff — was provided to the needy and destitute by non-government Islamist and localized charities. Thus, the quest for solution continued to take place in sub-national framework — urban slums, tribes, extended families — which, in turn, led to the ascent of militant irredentism, secessionism, separatism, and sectarianism — all of which breed insurrection, insurgency and terrorism. 

During the unusually harsh Winter of 2012/13, jihadist rebels, some controlled by Iran’s Quds Forces via Abu-Musab al-Suri, constantly destroyed UN and other international convoys of food and medical supplies, ostensibly because the supplies were to be delivered via Damascus and thus were legitimizing the Assad Administration. Consequently, the grassroots population not only suffered unprecedented hardships and shortages, but had to endure a discernible increase in the mortality of babies, infants, and the elderly. All the while, Arab satellite TV news channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabia continued to report and gloat over the huge sums of money donated by the West to the Syrian opposition in exile. The self-anointed Syrian opposition leaders and their Western allies were shown attending endless conferences and meetings in luxury hotels and resorts all over the world. The stark contrast between their own immense suffering and the opulence of their “leaders” made the grassroots give up on, and begin to profoundly hate, the Western-sponsored so-called opposition. Ultimately, with such prevailing trends the grassroots population could not last for long on its own and survive a harsh winter. Given the destitution of the vast majority of the Syrian grassroots population, they were now compelled to seek a source for basic aid and salvation which would not come from the Western-sponsored opposition leadership. 

Around the turn of 2013, the genuine leaders of both sides were cognizant that the war had long reached a dead end. On-site rebel commanders recognized that the ongoing “bleeding” of their forces by the Government and allied security forces in the course of the daily battles was intolerable. The jihadist forces would have crumbled absent the flow of fighters and supplies from Turkey. Meanwhile, Assad’s Damascus also gave up on regaining control of the Syrian hinterland even though one could not claim to be a viable government without controlling such major parts of the country’s territory. Hence, both positions indicated to senior Arab diplomats that “fatigue on both sides is peaking and morale is at an all-time low”. According to these diplomats, “these factors compel all sides to deal positively with the initiative and to attempt to find a political solution to the crisis”. But this was not to be. 

In early 2013, the US-sponsored Tripartite Alliance of Egypt, Turkey, and Iran was formally up and running. On February 6, the three presidents — Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran, Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, and Hamid Gul of Turkey — met in Cairo for a formal meeting aside of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) summit. 

The main issue was finding a way to bring about “an immediate settlement of the crisis and an end to the bloodshed in Syria”. The three presidents agreed on a plan based on unconditional cessation of hostilities, sending humanitarian aid, lifting all economic sanctions, and facilitating the return of all displaced to their homes. No mention was made of political negotiations or the fate of the Assad Government. The three presidents also addressed two other regional issues: (1) the growing threat of Israeli bellicosity and aggression; and (2) the deterioration of stability in the Arabian Peninsula and the adverse impact on the regional powers. Ahmadi-Nejad later described the outcome of the trilateral meeting as “very positive”.  

Nevertheless, the highest authorities in Tehran launched a major reassessment of the strategic situation in Syria and the entire region in order to formulate Iran’s grand strategic challenges and opportunities. Several leading strategic experts and senior officials were tasked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i with formulating Iran’s strategy. In the first week of February 2013, the Head of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, visited Damascus secretly to discuss the next phases in the crisis and war ... including the possibility of a major escalation. Around March 1, 2013, Khamene’i ordered all of the armed forces and security agencies of Iran “to prepare for war” with Israel and the US. Khamene’i was convinced that Tehran reached a point of decision in its relations with Washington and that Obama would soon have to either accept Tehran’s demands or go to war as advocated by Israel. Although he had not given up on the rapprochement with Obama, Khamene’i was nevertheless determined to be ready for the other possibility as well. Concurrently, Khamene’i dispatched his close confidante, Quds Forces commander Brig.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to personally make a thorough inspection of the situation in Syria. Soleimani led a small group of Iranian experts on a long tour of all of Syrian’s key military and security facilities, as well as the main battle fronts. Soleimani and his delegation also visited the main HizbAllah facilities in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Tehran’s strategic views were being articulated in a series of lectures by leading experts and senior officers to Iranian officers and other defense officials who would be tasked with implementing the new Syrian strategy.  

Back on February 13, 2013, Mehdi Taeb, the head of Khamene’i’s Ammar Strategic Base (Khamene'i’s think tank), a former Basij (militia) commander, and the brother of IRGC intelligence bureau director Hossein Taeb, delivered a speech at a Basij conference in Mashhad on the importance of Syria to Iran’s national security. Taeb stressed that Syria was an integral part of Iran that was more important to the defense of the Islamic Republic than some of Iran’s traditional parts. “Syria is [Iran’s] 35th province, and it is a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take Syria or Khuzestan, our top priority will be to preserve Syria. But if we lose the province of Khuzestan [to the Ahwazi Arabs] we could regain it as long as we keep Syria. [Thus,] by preserving Syria, we will be able to retake Khuzestan — but if we lose Syria, we will not be able to preserve Tehran,” Taeb asserted. Taeb told the Basij commanders of their growing rôle in the Syrian war. “Syria has an army, but it cannot wage the war within Syria’s cities. This is why Iran proposed establishing a Basij force, to conduct the fighting in the cities.” He noted that “the 60,000-strong ‘Syrian Basij’ was established; it has taken over the fighting in the streets from the army.” Taeb expected a growing number of Iranian Basij officers to be soon deployed to Syria in order to assist in training and running the Syrian Basij

On April 4, IRGC Deputy Commander Brig.-Gen. Hossein Salami delivered a lecture to senior officers about Iran’s regional strategy. He stressed that under current circumstances, where Iran is a major regional power, the security borders of Iran exceed by far Iran’s national territory. Iran’s support for Syria and the HizbAllah should be viewed in this context. “We have extended our security borders to the East Mediterranean and their [the US’s and Israel’s] deceptive ploys failed to stop our movement,” Salami stated. The surge westward is an important part of Iran’s ascent as a regional power with global aspirations. “Today, despite sanctions, economic pressures, psychological warfare and cultural invasion, Islamic Iran is advancing, and the people of this land will not allow the enemy to rejoice in exerting pressure,” Salami pointed out. Iran is expecting sworn enemies led by the US and Israel to resist and fight the ascent of Iran, but “Iran would achieve victory against the enemies under the guidelines of ... Khamene’i.” Salami assured his audience that Iran has unique capabilities “to deliver a crushing response to any military strike against the country” and emphasized that “any such measure could result in a war that would spread beyond the Middle East”. 

The main decisions Khamene’i reached in mid-April 2013 were that (1) Iran could not trust the US to deliver on the Tripartite Alliance or the great rapprochement; and (2) that Iran must be able to preserve and secure its vital strategic interests in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon even if the Assad Administration were to profoundly change policy or collapse. Simply put, the Iranians no longer fully trusted Assad’s Damascus to secure their vital interests should Damascus win the war. Tehran was increasingly apprehensive as to whether post-war Assad’s Damascus would follow Moscow’s regional strategy which means return to a de facto reliance on the Fertile Crescent of the Minorities (or, tacit non-belligerency toward Israel while keeping Iran at arms-length). Tehran has also become apprehensive about the possibility that the Islamist-jihadist leaders — Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia — might eventually convince the US to lead a NATO military intervention in Syria which would attempt to empower the Sunni Islamists- jihadists in a post-Assad Damascus. Either option would be unacceptable to Tehran for either would harm Iran’s vital interests. 

Immediately after Khamene’i made his decision, he dispatched very senior emissaries to Beirut to inform HizbAllah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that Tehran decided to “put all its weight into the ongoing battle in Syria” in order to secure “key advances on the ground within the next two months”, thus guaranteeing Assad’s and Iran’s victory. Khamene’i summoned Nasrallah to a highly irregular secret visit to Iran. Meanwhile, HizbAllah’s most senior commanders were instructed by their Iranian superiors that HizbAllah should amend its doctrine to focus on fighting a “pre-emptive war that aims to thwart threats before they extend and reach us”. This doctrinal change applied both to the Syrian and Israeli theaters. 

The extent of Tehran’s apprehensions and resolve to secure Iran’s vital interests virtually at any cost were articulated during Nasrallah’s emergency visit to Tehran in the last week of April 2013. He and his key aides were instructed by Khamene’i, Soleimani, and other senior leaders about Iran’s new strategy for Syria and HizbAllah’s rôle therein. Nasrallah’s meetings with Khamene’i and Soleimani focused on “the strategic vision of the overall situation in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran” given “the convergence of the grand strategic interests of the states of this [Shi’ite] axis”. The conviction of the upper-most leaders in Tehran, as conveyed by both Khamene’i and Solei- mani, was that “war with Israel is inevitable” and thus must be launched locally before Israel struck Iran’s national strategic infrastructure: that is, Iran’s nuclear program. According to Nasrallah’s aides, Khamene’i decreed that Iran “cannot lose” Syria and nominated Soleimani to ensure that this did not happen whatever the cost. 

The crux of the new Iranian strategy was to build into the Iran-led Shi’ite drive to help the Syrian Administration build separate capabilities for Shi’ite forces to take over Syria should Tehran lose confidence in Assad or if the US-led West intervened and threatened Assad. The main need was to unify the myriad Shi’ite forces currently in Syria — mainly Iranian Pasdaran, Basij, Intelligence and Special Forces, HizbAllah forces, Iraqi-Shi’ite militias (such as the League of the Righteous People and Kataeb HizbAllah), Gulf-Shi’ite militias and Pakistani-Shi’ite militias — along with the Syrian Shi’ite-‘Alawite militias, Gendarmerie and Basij-type units created by the Iranians and the HizbAllah into a single Iranian “Army” with a coherent High Command and its own command and control system. The HizbAllah was briefed that the “Army” was already 150,000 to 200,000 troops strong. Soleimani was personally in command of this “Army” in addition to his rôle in the Quds Forces. 

The growing strategic importance of creating grassroots Shi’ite presence in Syria was articulated by the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Maj.-Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi. On May 10,  2013, he delivered a lecture to IRGC senior officers that included an assessment of the situation in Syria. Firouzabadi said that a primary reason for the success of the Syrian Armed Forces in the current phase of the fighting was that “a HizbAllah-style resistance movement has emerged in Syria”. There was an irreversible turning point in the war in Syria. Firouzabadi explained that “the resistance in Syria has emerged triumphant owing to Assad’s prudence in dealing with the extremist groups and the hegemonic powers as well as the Syrian nation’s support for him”. Most important was Assad’s success in building a militant popular support base. “Thanks to Bashar al-Assad’s strategic rôle, a popular resistance with the same nature as that of Lebanon’s HizbAllah has taken shape across Syria and is solidifying,” Firouzabadi emphasized. As far as Firouzabadi was concerned, “the war in Syria has come to an end. Therefore, the enemies had better not interfere in Syria’s affairs anymore.” 

Meanwhile, despite the publicly stated commitment to Assad’s Damascus, Tehran was also busy organizing Shi’ite volunteers and expeditionary forces in Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan in order to rush reinforcements once the “Army” has to confront Syrian and/or Western forces. Nasrallah was told that Tehran was ready to commit some 500,000 Shi’ite fighters and unlimited resources into the war to secure Shi’ite dominance over Syria and Lebanon. Tehran was convinced that Maliki’s Baghdad would also commit forces and resources to the securing of the Shi’ite access to the Mediterranean. Returning to Beirut, Nasrallah and his key aides emphasized that Khamene’i and the upper-most leaders in Tehran were serious about seizing control over Syria and Lebanon should the need arise. Furthermore, Nasrallah’s aides asserted that if pushed to the corner, Tehran would not hesitate to make use of its “ultimate/doomsday deterrence capabilities” rather than lose Syria and Lebanon. 

Khamene’i’s sense of urgency, as reflected during Nasrallah’s visit, was the manifestation of escalating tension between Damascus and Tehran despite the latter’s all out support for the survival of the former. In late April and early May 2013, the situation had become inherently explosive because of the profound transformation of relations happening under the surface and behind the close military cooperation. 

Since the consolidation of the Hafez al-Assad Administration in the early 1980s (post-Hama and post-Lebanon war) and until very recently, the Assads’ Damascus was the dominant power in the Levant. That is, Tehran was dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of the Assads’ Damascus in order to reach the shores of the Mediterranean and sustain the vital links with HizbAllah. In Spring 2013, as a consequence of the decisive rôle of Iranian-HizbAllah elements and supplies in facilitating the Syrian strategic successes, Tehran decided that Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus now depended on Tehran for survival, and that the strategic relationship along the shores of the Mediterranean should reflect this new reality. In practical terms, Tehran insists that key Syrian strategic-military undertakings — from permitting Iranian supplies to HizbAllah via Syrian seaports to take precedent over Russian naval activities, to handing over strategic weaponry to HizbAllah despite promises to Israel to the contrary — be undertaken as dictated by Tehran. 

Assad’s Damascus does not see it this way and does not believe that the Iranian support warrants the subjugation of Damascus to Tehran. 

Moreover, an integral part of the Iranian-HizbAllah operations in shielding western Syria from Lebanon-based Sunni jihadist forces has been the concurrent Shi’itization of southern ‘Alawite villages in the areas where the Iranian-HizbAllah forces operate. And this reality is infuriating Assad’s ‘Alawite core supporters. Damascus is cognizant that Tehran cannot afford to have the Shi’ite on-land access to the Levant and HizbAllah cut by Turkey- sponsored Sunni jihadists. Hence, Tehran and its proxies would continue to invest everything possible in sustaining the Assad Administration and help winning the war for Assad’s Damascus. But both sides — Tehran and Damascus — are cognizant that the crucial issue of the pecking order of the key powers in the Levant would have to be decisively resolved sooner or later. Posturing has already begun under the surface. 

Israel’s bombing in early May 2013 of several military facilities in Damascus was first and foremost a swift destruction of relatively long-range missiles about to be handed over to HizbAllah. However, some of these facilities, in the Mt. Qassioun area, were of importance to Assad’s own survival, and they were hit solely because this was where the missiles were being stored and prepared for delivery. Hence, the bombing also constituted a message from Jerusalem to both Tehran and Damascus that Jerusalem would not permit drastic change in the rules of the game regarding who’s the boss in Syria. As far as Jerusalem was concerned, Assad remained the boss in Damascus and Tehran should accept this. 

In retrospect, Tehran’s growing apprehension, starting in early Spring 2013, was also reflected in the growing involvement of Iranian intelligence with the Sunni jihadist forces, even though they have been fighting major allies of Iran including Assad, Maliki, and the HizbAllah. Back in the Winter of 2012-13, opposition leaders in the deep interior warned that some of the most prominent jihadist forces, or at least major components thereof, were cooperating with Abu-Musab al-Suri and Iran-based senior commanders. Among these forces were the al-Faruq Forces or Brigades, Jabhat al-Nusrah and other al-Qaida affiliates. Growing numbers of Syrian and foreign jihadists commanders were arriving in Syria from Afghanistan-Pakistan and Iraq via Iran, bringing with them large sums of money and weapons. Moreover, several local-nationalist opposition networks were betrayed to the Syrian security forces by jihadists, causing irreparable damage to the indigenous internal operations. 

In the second half of February 2013, the jihadist high command consolidated a centralized strategic command structure of the jihadist forces in northern al-Jazira. The new command covers an east-to-west strip of more than 500 miles: from the western suburbs of Baghdad to Damascus and on to Ein Hilweh near the shores of the Mediterranean in southern Lebanon. The command also covered northern Iraq and Syria, where most of the fighting has been taking place, as well as northern and central Jordan. 

The main tasks of the new jihadist command are guided and controlled by a shura of senior commanders and spiritual guides. At first, the shura did not seem to have a discernable chief, and the activities of this command were limited to strategic-political guidance, theological guidance (which manifests itself in sermons and communiqués), logistical and financial support, weapon transfers, and, more recently, the transfer of commanders and élite forces throughout the theater. The shura did not have supervision or command authority over the daily fighting and other activities of the various jihadist kitaeb operating in north-western Syria and central Iraq.  

Although some of these jihadist forces are engaged in various anti- Shi’ite operations — including slaughter of Arab and Iranian pilgrims — there exist coordination and communication between the jihadist shura and IRGC Intelligence via the Quds Forces and the “al-Qaida” command center in Iran. There is strong indication that Abu-Musab al-Suri, Shawqi al-Islambouli, and several other jihadist luminaries associated with the Quds Forces communicate routinely with the new shura. The messages from Iran reflected the determination of the jihadist supreme leadership to transform the ongoing crises into a strategic campaign that will most likely escalate into the long-sought onslaught on Islam’s three holiest shrines in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.  

In late March 2013, the regional shura was further consolidated and refined in a “summit meeting” taking place in the Lebanon-Syria border area not far from Tripoli. Senior jihadist commanders from Egypt, the Sinai, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and North Lebanon gathered to plan for the coming fighting season. Senior representatives from Qatari and Libyan intelligence were also present. As well, Iranian and Turkish senior intelligence officials were hovering in the flanks of this gathering but do not participate. This meeting came in the aftermath of a few high-level meetings in Qatar, Libya, and Turkey which discussed jihadist sponsorship policies of the three countries particularly regarding Syria and the Gaza Strip. The jihadist commanders recognized that they could not topple the Assad Administration, and that a regional war leading to a Western intervention was their only way to get to Damascus and then to Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina. The jihadists strategized in this vane. 

Concurrently, there has also been a profound change in the fighting throughout Syria. In early April 2013, the Syrian military launched a complex strategic offensive under the command of Maher al-Assad. The primary objective of the offensive was to roll back recent rebel gains made possible by the flow of trained reinforcements and new weapons from Turkey. The main offensive was preceded by a series of commando raids and ambushes along and across the Lebanese border. Syrian and HizbAllah detachments hit several jihadist encampments and weapon storage sites earmarked for reinforcing the Damascus-area jihadists. The ambushes blocked the main approaches to Damascus. 

The initial focus of the main offensive was in the greater Damascus area. Syrian military activities were characterized by high-tempo offensive operations, high-quality pincer operations, and deep raids. In the other main cities — Homs, Idlib, Hama, and south-west of Aleppo — the pace of operations slowed down as greater ground forces units were committed to battle. The Syrian military was running their determined set-piece operations. The local commanders obviously lacked the newly-discovered skill and flexibility of their Damascus-area counterparts. Massive use of artillery and some commando raids supplemented the steady advance. Overall, Damascus demonstrated new resolve and vastly improved military capabilities, consolidating assertive combat operations in the major cities into a coherent strategic offensive.  

Overall, the rebels were on the defensive. 

After a couple of weeks, the Syrian military offensive was progressing rather well, although fairly slowly. Former Syrian senior officers with the opposition in Turkey expected the Syrian military to move faster. They acknowledge that the rebel forces were suffering major setbacks, that the noose around their urban strongholds was tightening, and that the isolating of the main theaters in western Syria from the cross- border safe-havens was having a major impact on the rebels’ overall posture. The only hope of the rebels was to hold long enough until the US-led West intervenes and save them. Both Syrian senior military officers and the former senior officers agreed that should the Syrian military campaign continued to evolve, it would be virtually impossible for the rebels to recover. Moreover, given the extent of the casualties already suffered by the rebels in the urban centers of western Syria, only a major influx of forces and weapons from across the borders would be able to resurrect the revolt even if the Syrian offensive was brought to a sudden halt. 

By late April 2013, the Syrian offensive focused on isolating the main cities along the Damascus-Aleppo highway from both Turkey and Lebanon. The Syrian military and HizbAllah decided not to attempt to complete the clean-up of the cities before they were certain that no reinforcements and supplies would arrive during the decisive fighting. Syrian forces now had better mobility, were better trained to use helicopters and air support. Most importantly, they were provided with excellent and timely intelligence by the local population and proved capable of exploiting it accurately, quickly, and relatively cleanly (that is, with minimal collateral casualties and damage). 

In mid-May 2013, the Syrian military with HizbAllah forces completed the occupation of Qusayr and quickly redeployed in order to complete the stifling of the jihadist pockets in Homs. The assault followed two weeks of preparatory Syrian-HizbAllah operations which isolated Qusayr from both Hermel, Lebanon, and the Syrian countryside. 

The occupation of Qusayr was a major strategic victory for Assad’s Damascus.  

The Syrian and HizbAllah forces effectively put an end to the jihadists’ ability to infiltrate weapons and reinforcements from Lebanon while the reverse route to the Sunni jihadist bases in north-eastern Lebanon — from Hermel to Tripoli — was now open for the HizbAllah to exploit. 

By the end of May 2013, it was now only a question of time before the Syrian and allied forces completed the occupation of Homs and Hama. The remaining jihadist forces in both towns have long been completely dependent on supplies and reinforcements from Lebanon. Some of the hard-core Islamist urban slums of Homs are densely built. Hence, massive use of artillery fire can be expected. 

The Syrian victory in the Qusay-Homs-Hama area left meaningful jihadist presence only in the Aleppo and Idlib areas. However, the predominantly-jihadist rebel forces in these areas were completely dependent on the flow of supplies and forces from southern Turkey. The sustenance of their operations in Aleppo and Idlib would have a huge political price for Erdogan’s Ankara. Damascus was now in position to contrast between the subsiding violence throughout Syria and the sustained violence near the Turkish border, and thus convincingly argue that only the cross-border sustenance of the jihadists kept the fighting going. 

Meanwhile, starting May 23, 2013, Tehran and Baghdad enabled sizeable Iraqi Sunni jihadist forces to reinforce the so-called “al-Qaida-affiliated” Syrian and foreign jihadist forces in central Syria, mainly in Deir-az-Zawur and Jabhat al-Nusrah-controlled Ar-Raqqah. This surge further integrated the jihadist forces in the entire al-Jazira, making future division of al-Jazira along the old Syrian-Iraqi border impossible. This surge aimed to help the key elements of Jabhat al-Nusrah and other so-called “al-Qaida-affiliated” Syrian, Iraqi and foreign jihadist forces controlled by the Quds Forces via Abu-Musab al-Suri and his group of senior jihadist commanders. As the Syrian military forces and their Iranian, HizbAllah and other Shi’ite allies have been consolidating control over the western parts of Syria, the Iran-dominated Sunni jihadists have been consolidating control over the predominantly-Sunni central parts of Syria (south of the Kurdish zone). These forces do not have to endorse Assad’s Damascus: they have to, and they do, reject the foreign-based, Western-endorsed opposition. 

Ultimately, however, the real key to the strategic success of Assad’s Damascus was the profound transformation of Syrian society during the Spring of 2013. 

These grassroots changes made the military victories of the Syrian military and their allies all but irreversible, thus sustaining the Assad Administration quite safely in Damascus. 

First indications of the major shift came in mid-April 2013. For example, when jihadist forces attempted to consolidate control over oil-rich eastern Syria, the local Masrib tribesmen asked the Assad Administration for Syrian military help against Jabhat al-Nusrah and other jihadist forces. The center of the clash was in the township of Masrib in Deir al-Zor province, where clashes between tribal militias and jihadist forces had been escalating since late March 2013. In mid-April, the tribal forces in the Masrib area found themselves incapable of resisting the better armed and better-trained jihadist forces and appealed to Damascus for help from the Syrian military. The Jabhat al-Nusrah forces retaliated by blowing up 30 houses in Masrib and killing their inhabitants. The Syrian military provided large quantities of weapons and ammunition to the tribal militias, enabling them to successfully attack the Jabhat al-Nusrah and other jihadist forces. The tribal forces reported killing 17 jihadists, including four foreign volunteers. 

The Masrib incident was the first confirmed case where major “neutral” tribal forces changed sides and joined Assad’s Damascus in order to be able to withstand and resist the jihadist onslaught. Since then, a large number of local and tribal militias have asked Assad’s Damascus for weapons, and escalated their fighting against the jihadist forces encroaching on tribal habitats and attempting to enforce neo-Salafism. The number of armed clashes between local militias and jihadist forces kept growing through May 2013. The “neutral” segment — about 60 percent of the Syrian population — hated Assad but dreaded the jihadists even more. Once the “neutrals” realized that the only way to persevere and preserve their traditional tribal way of life against the jihadist imposition of neo-Salafism was joining forces with the Assad Administration, they did. This development — rather than any military victory by the Assad military — was the key to Assad’s triumph. In early Summer 2013, the Assad Administration was getting very close to this point. 

By mid-May, information collected by various UN-affiliated humanitarian entities also confirmed that there had been a profound change in the popular attitude of the Syrian population in recent months. These unofficial conclusions were based on the aggregate data collected by the UN personnel as they have been dispensing food and humanitarian aid throughout Syria rather than a scientific polling. Still, the numbers are so distinct that they merit attention. According to the data, 70 percent of Syrians now supported the Assad Administration, 20 percent were “neutral” and wanted to be left alone, and only 10 percent supported the jihadists and other rebels. This means that the majority of the 60 percent of the “neutrals” decided that the jihadist threat was so great it merited a Faustian deal with the Assad Administration. This trend was in evidence throughout Syria since early 2013, but the data suggested that a large number of the “neutrals” had already taken side. 

The UN field people cited numerous grassroots leaders — all Sunni Arabs — explaining that it was possible to live quietly under the Assad Government for as long as one did not conspire against Damascus and that it was possible to resolve misunderstandings with talks and bribery, while the jihadists imposed themselves on every aspect of life and there was nobody to talk to. Moreover, the plight and destitution of the Winter of 2012/13 convinced the vast majority of Sunni Arabs that international humanitarian aid would reach them only if the jihadist were defeated and that only the Syrian military could accomplish this. 

Hence, ever greater segments of the population yearned to return to the Assad days, imperfect as they were. This was exactly what happened in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus in the early-to-mid 2000s. Having to choose between Chechenization imposing an Arab-Islamist way of life and retaining their Sufi traditions while living under Moscow’s Ramzan Kadyrov, the population overwhelmingly opted for the latter. Bashar al- Assad, like Ramzan Kadyrov, is not going anywhere because his people prefer him, imperfect as he is, to any alternate leader the jihadists offer. 

Consequently, the case made by Assad’s Damascus that the sole remaining fighting is from the Western- and Qatari-sponsored jihadists operating from across the Turkish border in the Idleb and Aleppo areas would now be even stronger and clearer. Moreover, there was now — that is, by the end of May 2013 — a systemic and fairly organized weapons and resources distribution inside Syria which delivered weapons and funds solely to jihadist hands. The attempt to control from Turkey or Jordan who gets weapons — that is, FSA-affiliates — is an exercise in futility. FSA commanders in Turkey are intentionally obfuscating, if not lying, about their associations and affiliations inside. Hence, the ability of “the international community” to impose an anti-Assad political solution on Syria has already been nixed by the grim realities on the ground. 

Come the full onset of Summer 2013, Ankara, Doha, Washington, and their allies will have to choose between accepting defeat in Syria and the victory of the Assad Administration, and between sponsoring a major cross-border escalation and surge into Syria which, irrespective of its outcome, would be Turkish and allied intervention in all but name. Moreover, it would be politically nearly impossible for the US-led West/NATO not to intervene should this surge be defeated by Damascus and its allies. Furthermore, with Turkey’s cross-border intervention no longer deniable, Damascus and its allies will be in position to unleash Turkey’s oppressed minorities starting with the ‘Alawites/ Alavis in the areas from where the jihadists operate and bringing in the Kurds (not to be forgotten, the bulk of the PKK fighters leaving Turkey these days relocate to camps west of Lake Urmia, in north-western Iran, controlled by the Quds Forces). It will be impossible for Erdogan’s Turkish military, emaciated as it is by the purge of Westernized officers, to stem the tide. 

Neither the complexities of the inner-Syrian struggle and the awakening of the deep interior, nor the travesty of the advocated foreign intervention should distract from the overall historic context of the crisis. 

The key to the future of the region is the Fertile Crescent of Minorities (from east to west: Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, ‘Alawites, Druze, Maronites, Jews, and Circassians), and especially their Levant section, because they constitute a buffer between the Arab Islamist upsurge and the hegemonic ascent of the Islamist outside powers: Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. Only a viable Fertile Crescent of Minorities — of which the ‘Alawites and Druze of Syria are presently the most beleaguered elements — can prevent the simmering Arab Middle East from conjoining with the Islamist- jihadist ascent of neo-Ottoman Turkey, Ikhwani Egypt and Mahdivist Iran — thus jointly creating an explosive critical mass. By then, the modern Arab states will have succumbed to fracturing along ethno-tribal lines — thus subjugating the entire al-Jazira to the dominance of the Islamist Tripartite Alliance. 

Hence, the main quandary facing the international community is not whether Bashar al-Assad the individual remains in power. Nor is it whether “his” Administration survives the upheaval. The main challenge in resolving the Syria crisis is preventing the replacement of an ‘Alawite-Druze dominated government by an Islamist- jihadist administration. No less important is the imperative to restore and preserve a viable modern Syrian state via meaningful political reforms, as well as economic recovery and modernization.  

It was — at the end of May 2013 — still possible to negotiate with the Assad inner-circle the establishment of a nationalist government in Damascus with emphasis on regionalization and diffusion of power which would ensure the rights of the Sunni Arab tribes, extended families and urban élite, as well as the nation’s minorities. Only the transformation of Syria through such negotiations would ensure that all pertinent international agreements to which Syria is beholden would remain valid. Ultimately, the restoration of Syria as a key to the Fertile Crescent of Minorities remains the real vital interest of the West. 

Thus, in addressing the turmoil in Syria special attention must paid not to throw out the baby (‘Alawite-Druze pre-eminence) with the bath water (ending the fratricidal violence). Democratic reforms must acknowledge the country’s Sunni majority and diversity of character and interests, but not at the expense of the minorities. The marginalization and destruction of the Syrian section of the Fertile Crescent of Minorities, even if in the name of democracy, not only would not elevate the Sunni majority but would cause cataclysmic upheaval throughout the greater Middle East. 

There are no instant-gratification panacea solutions to the Syrian crisis. Western leaders must resist the temptation to seek such solutions just because there are ugly images of violence on the satellite TV news. The Arab Middle East, of which Syria is a crucial component, is currently experiencing a peak in an historical convulsion spanning a quarter of a millennium. Ultimately, the Arab Middle East will have to find their own solution for their own problem. Action by the West is not a guarantee for conflict resolution.  

Western military intervention would more likely to spark a convulsion which would set the region aflame than help alleviate the crisis. Western leaders should internalize what Albert Einstein said: “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.”


May 30, 2013

The View From Moscow 

By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. In late April 2013, Russian experts who interacted with the top leaders in Damascus concluded that the day-to-day fighting did not constitute the primary yardstick for determining the state of the Assad Administration.  

The two main indicators were related to the fiber of key segments of the population: 

1. The minorities — Alawites, Druze, Orthodox Christians, Armenians, Aramaics, and Shi’ite Arabs — are all siding with Assad’s Damascus and are formulating their communal long-term plans on the assumption that Assad is going to win the war. This reinvigorated confidence is manifesting itself in the resilience of society and the military, as well as in the military’s assertiveness. (The only minority that is not part of this dynamics are the Kurds who are fixated with the consolidating of their Kurdish State that effectively seceded from both Iraq and Syria. The Kurds are pursuing their own interests and do not cooperate with the rebels.) 

2. The “neutral majority” — the tribal, rural, and urban clan Sunni Arabs — has given up on the ability of the Islamist-jihadist rebels to topple the Assad Government. Hence, this tormented yet silent majority is adamant on not antagonizing the Syrian military and security forces. They are inclined to make localized live-and-let-live deals with the Government, no longer object to their sons joining the military and security forces if they want to, and even pick up arms against rebel forces encroaching into their native zones. With this development, Damascus no longer fears that the Islamist-jihadist insurrection could transform into a genuine popular revolt. 

That said, the Russian experts concurred that a cessation of the actual fighting is nowhere to be seen. The Islamist-jihadist forces seek to topple the Assad Administration and establish an Islamic State in Damascus which would serve as the springboard for a regional jihad. They do not seek to win over the traditionalist-conservative Sunni Arab grassroots. With an unabated, and even growing, flow of weapons, funds and jihadist volunteers pouring in from all over the Muslim world and the West, there is no reason why the Islamist-jihadist forces should cease fighting. Their leaders, however, are cognizant that they will not be able to topple the Assad Administration on their own, and therefore will attempt to induce the West into a Libya-style intervention by provoking a humanitarian catastrophe. Meanwhile, since Iran, its allies and proxies, consider sustaining their access to, and foothold in, Syria and the Levant a vital interest, they will also continue to pour resources and troops into the fighting on Assad’s side. This will also contribute to prolonging the fighting and carnage. 

The Russian experts cautiously note the buds of what might become a profound change in Iran’s grand strategy. The Russians believe that there are faint indications of the revival of Tehran’s historic Persian-Shi’ite world-view and the beginning of the decline of the Khomeinist-Mahdist doctrine dominating the Islamic Republic. The historic Persian-Shi’ite world-view considered the Shi’ites, and particularly the Persians, a persecuted minority in a greater Middle East dominated by Sunnis. Therefore, as demonstrated in the Shah’s days, Iran reached out to other non-Sunni minorities in the greater Middle East — particularly Israel — in order to consolidate an alliance against their common Sunni foes: Arabs and Turks. After the Islamic Revolution, Tehran committed to an assertive Islamist-jihadist strategy based on leading an all-Islamic jihad aimed to jointly liberate the Muslim world from foreign dominance and influence. 

In this spirit, Iran recently entertained the idea of joining the Tripartite Alliance with Egypt and Turkey. Although the three powers are closely cooperating against common foes — be it Saudi Arabia or Israel — there emerged unease in Iran regarding the overtly Sunni character of Ikhwani Egypt and neo-Ottoman Turkey. The Russian experts contend that the upper-most leaders are still pondering the remote possibility of Iran changing course. However, they emphasize the significance of recent public statements against Holocaust denial and the softening of tone toward Israel. To the Russians, this development serves as an important indication that Tehran is reconsidering a return to the minorities’ camp — in which Israel is a key leading player — and abandoning the all-Islamic Tripartite Alliance. Iran’s reaching out to the PKK Kurds is also a profound change of policy, given Iran’s bitter war with PEJAK (the PKK’s Iran-based sister organization).

As a result, such a change in Iran’s world-view would have dramatic impact on the course of the war in and around Syria.  


May 9, 2013

The Road to Damascus is Paved With Ill-Intent 

The Biblical conversion of Paul to Christianity “on the road to Damascus” implied a turning point for the onetime antagonist of Christ. But now the road to Damascus is an unmarked and uncertain path, full of treachery and hidden motives ... 

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.  Events unfolding in the Levant — particularly with regard to the externally-sponsored conflict underway within Syria — during April and May 2013 were being played out like a flickering, imprecise lantern show in the international media, distorting and mis-directing major states’ policies toward the region.  

The actual events on the ground were on one planet; those same events portrayed in the international media and political arenas were on an entirely different one. But that was not by accident: there has been a strong element in reporting and policy statements of attempting to portray the origins and the “inevitability” of outcomes along the lines of wishful thinking. 

What is being disguised by all of this is an underlying series of conflicts, which Defense & Foreign Affairs has attempted to lay out over the past few years1. Again, there are several fundamentals: 

  • 1. The deep geo-strategic competition — indeed, profound strategic rivalry — between Iran and Turkey, something which is now coming to a head; 

  • 2. The historical rivalry between Russia and Turkey, briefly contained in recent years, but now resurging; 

  • 3. The evolving (over the past half-century in particular) fear on the part of the Sunni states and communities that Iran can and will strategically dominate them, not merely on the grounds of Iran’s Shi’a religion, but on historical Persian (ie: non-Arab) cultural and strategic drives (which have been apparent for more than three millennia); and 

  • 4. The reality that there is no external power presently in the Levant-Mashreq-Arabian-Persian Gulf-Red Sea region which has sufficient authority to ensure quiescence and compliance. This has not been the case for about 500 years. 

But on the current situation: To begin with, there were reports during the first week of May 2013 that chemical weapons had been used in the conflict in Syria, and this — very significantly — followed “concerns” by the US about possible use by the Syrian Government of chemical weapons, despite the fact that there had been no suggestion of such use. 

Then there were three significant strikes by Israeli Air Force aircraft (probably F-16Is launching a series of highly-accurate SPICE smart bombs and possibly other weapons from Lebanese airspace) against targets in Syria on May 5 and — against the Republican Guard base the Mount Qassyoun military facility outside Damascus — on May 7, 2013. 

Turkish and US official agencies indicated that the two events were linked, and made misleading — and knowingly incorrect — statements on some aspects of what were, in fact, two very separate and unrelated incidents. 

The statements by US and Turkish officials seemed to indicate that a “red line” had been crossed by the Syrian Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad, and that this opened the way for possible US intervention. 

All of this has been against a backdrop of an international portrayal of the Syrian situation that: 

  • (i) The Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad was about to collapse at any moment, a portrayal which had been defied by events for some three years; 

  • (ii) A spontaneous civil war was underway in Syria, despite the reality that it was a war promoted by the US and fueled by weapons, manpower, logistics, and propaganda, from Qatar, Turkey, and, to a degree, Saudi Arabia, with those players pursuing separate agendas which all entailed the removal of a pro-Shi’a ‘Alawite Syrian Government supported by, and supporting, the Shi’a Government of Iran; and 

  • (iii) The vilification of Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons (which was true insofar as this was the stated case by the West, but which case was supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia out of their direct geo-strategic competition with Iran, in the hope that the US and Israel would actually be prompted to fight Iran on their behalf). 

What has been attempted by the Turkish, US, UK, and some other governments and media is to obfuscate some of the realities, and blur other issues so as to portray a situation which is not realistic. That is not to plead a case for Pres. al-Assad or Iran, but rather to highlight that, if policy judgments are to be taken, that they be taken in light of the facts seen in appropriate context. 

Syria and Chemical Weapons 

The Syrian Armed Forces have long held stocks of chemical weapons. The Global Information System (GIS) and Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook have noted for some years: “Syria is considered to have chemical agents and munitions. It has a biological agents and munitions program and may already possess biological agents and munitions. Israeli and US analysts report that Syria has the capability to produce botulinum toxin, ricin toxin and anthrax at its two biological warfare centers. Additionally, Syria is considered by UK and US analysts as having the most sophisticated chemical weapons program in the Arab world. It has delivery systems suitable for use with chemical and biological munitions. Syria signed the Geneva Protocol with reservations, and signed but has not ratified the Biological Weapons Convention.” 

However, it is clear that the chemical weapons and CW doctrine and units in the Syrian Armed Forces are directly and absolutely copied from those of the (former) USSR. The claims of sarin gas being used in the current Syrian fighting, however, show a substance and use doctrine totally alien to Syrian Army practice. Defector debriefs have indicated that Syrian chemical weapons are designed for major urban warfare in which entire communities are targeted for destruction; they are not suitable, or designed, for open street warfare where Syrian Government forces would be exposed. As well, sarin is a substance — often made up in a bathtub concoction — used more by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups (such as the attack by members of Aum Shinrikyo on March 20, 1995, against civilians in a Tokyo subway).  

The principal chemical weapon in the Syrian arsenal is VX. 

“Evidence” of Syrian Government alleged use of “chemical weapons” came in the form of polluted soil samples provided by the Sunni jihadis fighting the Government. Significantly, however, there was no actual evidence of chemical weapons residual in these samples, nor in the corpses delivered as “proof” of a Government CW attack. Despite this, significantly, the US Government issued statements implying the credibility of the CW use reports by the Syrian Government, and noting that this was pushing the US closer to a situation whereby a “red line” had been crossed by the Assad Government, requiring US response. Not surprisingly, this was further promoted by the Turkish Government. 

However, by escalating a climate which, de facto, promoted a belief that the Syrian Government was using, or would use, chemical weapons, the US White House has begun to build acceptance for an escalation of US aid to the Sunni rebel groups to include, initially at least, weapons and munitions. That was strongly suggested by US Defense Dept. officials at the beginning of May 2013. 

There is clearly a process which was being created to generate or sustain the sense of “inevitability” that the tide was (still) turning against Assad, and the threat of US intervention remained high. As well, the confluence of events with the allegations of chemical weapons use and the Israeli air strikes, the impression was being given that Israel had now entered the fray in an attempt to ensure the overthrow of Assad. [However, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, emphasized in a statement May 6, 2013, that it had reached no conclusions about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war, but indicated that the “rebels” appeared to have been the ones using the sarin.] 

But it was clear that Israel’s actions had nothing to do with the media froth — stirred by politicians — about chemical weapons. Neither was there any indication that Israel wished to see the end of the Assad Government. 

Israel, Syria, and Turkey and Iran: A Love-Hate Quadrangle 

The Israeli strikes in early May 2013 against Syrian targets were all very carefully delineated to ensure a message as well as a military outcome. Firstly, Israel did nothing to strike at Syrian military units conducting their campaign against the jihadist insurgents. It targeted units conveying Iranian weapons being routed to HizbAllah units for use against Israel, particularly Fattah 110 missiles. 

The strikes can be seen as parallels to the Israeli Air Force strikes in late October 2012 against the Yarmouk factory and the Sudan Technical Center, near Khartoum, Sudan because these facilities were providing similar Iranian-developed weapons to HizbAllah and Gaza-based HAMAS. 

The US Associated Press noted on May 5, 2013: “Israel says the Iron Dome [anti-missile defense system] shot down hundreds of incoming short-range rockets during eight days of fighting against  HAMAS militants in the Gaza Strip last November [2012]. HizbAllah fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 2006 war, and Israel believes the group now possesses tens of thousands of rockets and missiles.” The logic of the May 2013 strikes was, for Israel, clear: Iran had attempted to test how far Israel’s restraint would go, knowing that, for the time being, Israel was anxious that Pres. Assad not be overthrown, largely because the Government of Israel believed a Sunni-dominated outcome would be far worse for Israel and the region. 

As well, from an Iranian standpoint, Tehran was conscious of the reality that it might have to move strenuously to safeguard its investment in Syria. A Sunni-dominated Syria would end, for the time being, any prospect of Iran’s strategic reach to the Mediterranean. Iran’s only other option would be to mend fences with Israel, and start to restore the millennia-old Iran-Israel partnership, as the late Shah of Iran had done. 

In the meantime, Iran has made it clear to the Turkish Government that Tehran would absolutely not allow Syria to go without a fight which could — and almost certainly would — ultimately entail “strategic actions” against Turkey on a number of fronts. Turkish Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdogan is already confronted by several major challenges: (a) the fact that the Turkish Armed Forces are largely impotent, because he decapitated their leadership out of fear of a new military coup d’etat to restore the General Staff’s supremacy in government; (b) the continuing demands for Kurdish rights; and — among many other challenges — an economy which is delicate and dependent on Russian goodwill to a far greater degree than he would readily wish to acknowledge. 

Prime Minister Erdogan attempted to mitigate the growing Kurdish situation by striking what he felt was a deal with the imprisoned leader of the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan: the Kurdish Workers’ Party), Abdullah Ocalan, who still languishes in a Turkish prison under sentence of death. On March 20, 2013 (Kurdish New Year), he announced an “historic call” to end the fighting between the PKK and the Turkish Government. The ceasefire would require all the PKK’s armed fighters inside the country to leave, a process which began in early May 2013. 

This — like the triumphal “deal” to normalize Turkish-Israeli relations brokered by US Pres. Barack Obama on March 22, 2013 — was, however, illusory. PKK sources, even as they began moving to safe- havens in Iraq in the first week of May 2013, acknowledged that Ocalan had made his “call” as one more step to stave off the hangman, and his followers understood that. But the fight was not, in reality, paused or shelved, and Iran has, in fact, stepped up its active support for the PKK and other Kurdish movements fighting the Turkish Government, mostly from safe-havens in Iraq. 

Iran has the capacity to mobilize the PKK and other Kurdish movements against Turkey, and this may be a challenge which the Erdogan Government cannot ultimately meet. In all of this, as well, the issue of the Armenian community’s potential rôle in all of this cannot be under-estimated, and Armenia — with a strong lobby in the US — is an ally of Iran, Greece, and Turkey.2 Moreover, the Greek and Cypriot governments have a stake in seeing an initiative to break up Turkey succeed, given the threats which Turkey has continued to make against Greek Ægean territorial waters and islands, and to continue its military occupation of more than one third of Cyprus (with attendant and ongoing blackmail of Cyprus to delay or confound the development of offshore Cypriot natural gas reserves). For now, and despite growing closeness between Mr  Erdogan and US Pres. Obama, Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are slipping further away; indeed, the EU itself is fighting for cohesion. 

Several critical strategic questions remain for Mr Erdogan, such as whether he can, through the grudging re-establishment of the restoration of “normal” diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, stave off Israel’s active participation in covert acts hostile to Turkey’s survival. At present, Israel has been persuaded that the preservation of Turkey would be in Israel’s strategic interests, but it is worth remembering that until the beginning of 1979, Israel fought hard to help sustain the unity and strength of Iran. 

That changed progressively over the subsequent decades to the point where the Binyamin Netanyahu Government of Israel has come to actively participate in steps designed to weaken and even dismember Iran. Turkey’s transformation from secular and anti-Islamist bastion to Islamist and anti-Israeli activist state may not have been hallmarked by a visible “revolution”, but its change is as profound as was the 1979 change in Iran. 

Washington may not have noticed it (although the White House has embraced it), but Israel can hardly much longer ignore it. 

In all of this, of course, Russia has a profound influence. When Turkey found itself strategically isolated at the end of 2008 and early 2009, it was forced to kow-tow to Moscow, which had the ability to cut off the flow of much of the transit oil and gas to Europe, via Turkey, from the Caspian. This would have devastated the Turkish economy, so Ankara made noises of friendship and cooperation with Moscow3. Not that there was any improvement in the historical animosity between the two, but the mutual containment situation prevailed briefly. Subsequently, however, Ankara has begun openly opposing Russian strategic interests, including Russian commitments to Syria. 

Moscow was not letting this confrontation pass unremarked. 

The US Obama Administration’s call for Russian help in removing Syrian Pres. al-Assad, therefore, should be seen as asking Moscow to act against its own interests, and yet Washington phrases the request as though Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin was somehow unreasonably supporting a dictator who was bound to fail. US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Pres. Putin in Moscow on May 7, 2013 (while also meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov) in the knowledge that both sides did not wish to appear at odds over the Syria issue. But it should be seen as extremely unlikely that Russia could be persuaded to act against its own vital strategic interests merely because Obama and Kerry want to support a situation which would ultimately be inimical to Russian interests in the area. 

From another perspective, the actions of Iran in the area need also to be seen through the prism of the forthcoming (June 14, 2013) Iranian Presidential elections, in which outgoing Pres. Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad was hoping to see a continuation of his policies through the election of his key protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i. This seems unlikely. 

This writer noted, in a report in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis of October 6, 2009: “Finding a way in which Ahmadi-Nejad can be removed from office [by the Supreme Leader] without further damaging the image of clerical governance, and finding a suitable replacement who has the authority of a Bonapartist, yet still subservient to the ‘Revolution’.”

“One clear candidate appeals to many clerics: Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf. Mayor Qalibaf, who has strong battlefield leadership credentials from his service in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran), is a strong opponent of Ahmadi-Nejad, and yet is seen as strongly nationalistic and supportive of the clerical system of government. Dr Assad Homayoun, President of the opposition Azadegan movement, told GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs that his sources indicated that there was movement toward replacing Ahmadi-Nejad with either an active Pasdaran leader, or a strong civilian such as Qalibaf.” 

That remains the outlook, and the influence of the Pasdaran should not be under-estimated, either in the election of a new leader, or in the strategic actions taken with regard to Syria. Israeli writer Brig.-Gen. (rtd.) Dr Shimon Shapira, writing in Jerusalem Issue Brief on May 5, 2013, even went so far as to say that Iran planned to take over Syria, citing a mid-April 2013 visit by HizbAllah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Tehran for meetings with Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamene’i and Gen. Qasem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Pasdaran. Suleiman reportedly prepared an operational plan named after him and “based upon the establishment of a 150,000-man force in Syria, the majority of whom will come from Iran, Iraq, and a smaller number from HizbAllah and the Gulf states”. 

Shapira went on to note: “Mehdi Taaib, who heads Khamene’i’s think tank ... recently stated that ‘Syria is the 35th district of Iran and it has greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan [an Arab- populated district inside Iran]’. Significantly, Taaib was drawing a comparison between Syria and a district that is under full Iranian sovereignty.” 

In all of this, in Iran, Israel, Turkey, the US, and elsewhere, we see the play of short-term interests — such as elections — versus long- term interests. 

Caught in the middle of all this, in many respects, is Cyprus and the development of the Eastern Mediterranean gasfields, held hostage by Ankara, which has promised to make investment and exploitation in and of the offshore Cypriot gasfields — and therefore the provision of an alternative energy supply for Western Europe, independent of Turkish transit fees — difficult. Turkey is holding out, logically, for a stake in the energy resources. 

In all of these developments, too, we see huge gambles being taken as Washington, Ankara, Doha, and Tehran attempt to win “throw-of- the-dice” gains before their situations change irreversibly.

Footnotes:

1. See, for example: “Syrian Acquisition of Iraqi Chemical Weapons Noted in 2002; Qatar Now Reported Entering WMD Market”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 11/12-2012; “Beirut Assassination Showed Lebanese Involvement in Anti-Syrian Fighting”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 10, 2012; “Turkey Stumbles, But Washington Pushed”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 10-2102; “Iran at Its Strategic Juncture”, by Dr Assad Homayoun and Gregory Copley, Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 7-2012; and “Suspended Belief”, by Gregory R. Copley, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 3-2013; and “Turkey’s Brinkmanship Bluster Hides Major Domestic Security, Internal Power, Economic, and Regional Strategic Problems” in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, October 18, 2011.

2. See “Turkey-Armenia Accord Stirs a Multitude of Strategic Issues and Potential Outcomes, as US Abandons Azerbaijan to Woo Iran’s Clerical Leaders” by Gregory R. Copley and Yossef Bodansky; and “Background: The Turkey-Armenia Rapprochement”, by Yossef Bodansky; in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, October 14, 2009.

3. See: “Turkey Makes its Strategic Choice: Russia”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, March 3, 2009; and “Turkey’s Strategic Options Shift as the Country Becomes Increasing Isolated”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, February 27, 2009.


March 11, 2013

Complex Soup: “The-Eastern-Mediterranean,-Central-Asian,-East Asian,-Euro-Atlantic-and-Others” Unified Dilemma

A butterfly flaps its wings at a nuclear test site in Punggye-ri in North Korea, and a political equation becomes a tidal wave in Tehran. It’s more complicated than that, but, yes, everything is related.

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. The confluence of a significant number of seemingly separate regional dynamics is determining the global strategic architecture. Militaries are increasingly studying “complex operations”, but the reality is that we are facing an era of growing simplicity in many aspects of military operations, but within increasingly complex and interactive strategic terrains in which military operations play a smaller, albeit significant, rôle.

Specialist regional analysts remain focused on the unfolding transformation of the respective individual regions and societies which they study. They also tend to reflect the changes — or priorities and attitudes — occurring in their home nation-states. However, a realistic perspective cannot be obtained without a look at the broader, global terrain as an integrated space. All societies and social, technological, and scientific trends, without exception, are in a period of great and complex metamorphosis, ending a period of fairly stable, predictable, incremental progression. And most of these trends interact.

Lip-service is paid to the interaction between social, strategic, political, economic, energy, food, water, and security factors, but the reality is that there remain great difficulties and inbuilt biases which militate against breaking from perspectives and policy decisions which are inherently stovepiped or predisposed.

And yet, increasingly, viable solutions to strategic challenges will only be feasible through a comprehensive understanding of the over- arching — or underlying — mosaic. Nowhere is this more critical than in achieving an understanding of the primary core issues facing the Eastern Mediterranean, Central Asia, East Asia, and the Euro-Atlantic (including European Union-North American) scenarios. They are all so fundamentally interrelated and interactive that any attempt to separate out, and dissect in isolation, specific “organisms” of the regions can only distort and exacerbate the emerging dynamic interplay.

That is not to deny the importance in their own right of any of the localized factors; rather, it is critical to see these core strands in relationship to the overall strategic terrain. And if the whole world is interrelated, it is perhaps important to focus on that area/dynamic which is metastasizing most rapidly: the Eurasian landmass and its peripherals into the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans, and the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian seas, and down into Africa.

What, then, are some of the core strands in that effervescing region which require immediate, contextual focus?

1. The question of Turkey’s survival as a unitary state, and the steps being taken — often competitively — to achieve or avoid this;

2. The question of the transformation of Iran;

3. Subordinate to the Turkish and Iranian transformations are the intrinsically-related and interconnected questions of the Syrian security dilemma and Qatar’s ambitions, along with the other dynamic of the future impetus of salafist-oriented Arabian politics (and what this does to the Muslim world as a whole);

4. The transforming global energy marketplace, and how this impacts on, and is impacted by, the emerging gas resource pool of the Eastern Mediterranean and the onshore European shale energy resources, and how this impacts the strategic outlook for the Russian Federation and geographically related areas of the former Soviet Union. And how the North American shale gas revolution is also changing markets (and demand from, for example, the Gulf of Guinea), while also separating North America from a common destiny with Europe;

5. Economic transformation in the European Union (EU) and the United States, and the impact of this in forcing a changing set of priorities and geographic orientations on both regions1;

6. Emerging stressors of growth and urbanization on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and India, and corresponding de-population in the Russian Federation;

7. Interaction of political and strategic actions of, for example, Iran and the DPRK (North Korea);

8. Sino-US bloc competition along the fault line of an “extended first island chain” of the Western Pacific, engaging Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Australasia (with ramifications for this competition extending into the Indian Ocean and therefore back through to the Eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia);

9. The impact on strategic outcomes of the effective end of the age of strategic nuclear weapons (not the end of nuclear weapons), given that this geo-strategic space holds the predominant volume of nuclear weapons (well, all the known ones); and so on.

There are, of course, many more strands which make up the skein, and perhaps some which may emerge as having great significance. How societies and leaders react; how civilizations and cultures transform — mature, age, die, are re-born — in the face of these broad strategic trends: all can change the direction of human events.

But these events are moving toward realities which will be fundamentally different to those of the 20th Century, so trying to see the pattern which will define itself over the coming few years can determine how best to cope in that future. An examination of all of the nine major factors — each a saga in itself — and their interaction with the whole would take a thesis longer than space for this report permits. But let us at least begin with Turkey, because the country is at a geopolitical pivot, and sees itself in that cast. It sees itself as the indispensable and irreplaceable hub of Eurasia.

But is it?

Turkey as the Self-Perceived Center of Everything

Turkey cannot — in its present situation — be viewed objectively merely through the lens of information and views published in the public media. Nor even through the perspective of historical continuum. It has become a chimera; a “Potemkin village” portrayal of what history told us was “Turkey”. As a strategic entity at this stage of the 21st Century, Turkey must be viewed through the basics of geography, population, resources, and the relative position of all of them vis-à-vis the regional terrain and global trends. From that point, it is then possible to build a new perspective on the “Turkish geo-strategic space”.

It is conceivable that the Turkish state will not exist in a decade from now, within the same space; the same borders. Turkey faces the risk of implosion and break-up if it fails to manage its domestic and regional affairs with great care. And there is strong evidence that the Government of Prime Minister Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan has failed in many of its strategic initiatives, creating — rather than calming — challengers in the region and domestically.

It is arguable that in the decade of his governance since 2003, the policies of Prime Minister Erdoğan — which he saw as essential to reach absolute control of the Turkish electorate — have won only a single new external ally, the Palestinian Authority. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu took office in May 2009 with a “zero problems” with neighbors policy, but that policy has, in fact, led to massive problems with virtually all of Turkey’s neighbors, to one degree or another, after a start which seemed set to imply a new era of viable Turkish relations with the region. To be fair, the Foreign Minister did later qualify his “zero problems” policy by noting: “It is possible to have zero problems if the other actors respect our values. It doesn’t mean that we will be silent in order to have good relations with all parties.”

Therein lies the rub: Turkey’s neighbors clearly do not respect Turkey’s values, even though, for the sake of Sunni Muslim goals, some regional states work with Turkey.

To gain and hold power, Mr Erdoğan’s Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party: AKP) had to neutralize the Turkish General Staff’s constitutional control of many aspects of government. And to do this, the Prime Minister essentially cut the head off the military leadership, through intimidation — aided by the stricture from the European Union (EU) that membership in the EU was impossible with the old military provisions of the Turkish Constitution — and successive arrests over alleged conspiracies, and the like. It was a delicate process, but today, the Turkish military is headed largely by non-military careerists who are pro-AKP former gendarmerie officers. But the Turkish military cohesiveness and capability — and its morale and loyalty to the Government — have evaporated.

The military — and the gendarmerie — have proven, in their broken state, incapable of suppressing Kurdish secessionist activities, mainly linked to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan: PKK). The Prime Minister is aware that this threat to Turkish unity is now perhaps the most serious and urgent of anything he faces, and is attempting to find a bridge to the PKK. These attempts, however, are foundering.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s antagonism of Russia — Turkey’s biggest trading partner, and the country which controls the east-west oil and gas pipeline traffic — and of neighboring Iran means that Turkey has now once again aroused two implacable and equally driven adversaries. Iran, in particular, has the power to mobilize not only Turkey’s Kurds, but also its Shi’a Muslim population. This is not to deny the continuation of day-to-day business between Turkey and Iran2 in the meantime, but there should be no mistaking the reality that “the gloves are off” as far as Tehran is concerned.

In part this is because Turkey chose to side with the US Barack Obama Administration and its key regional operational ally (for the moment), Qatar, in literally declaring war on Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad. “No problems” with neighbor Syria became “nothing but problems”, and antagonized not only Iran — Syria’s principal ally — but also Russia. These issues have been chronicled extensively by Defense & Foreign Affairs during the past two years3.

[What was ironic, in March 2013, was that the United Kingdom Government had continued to follow the British media line which supported the propaganda of the jihadists in Syria — promoted by the Turkish Government — as representing the population of the country. The UK was, as a result, committing military aid to the Sunni sponsored war in Syria, acting against broader British interests. The US State Dept., too, in early March 2013, began to announce in public what it had been doing in private for the past year or more: it would provide supplies and other assistance to the Syrian groups opposing the Assad Government.]

Suffice it to say that despite the attraction to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) interest in having Turkey as a member, Turkey’s actions in Syria and elsewhere in the region — seen as benefiting mostly the US and its allies (even though the longer-term outcomes may not benefit the US) — have gone against the interests of the SCO’s principal players: Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), both of which having strong interests in building a relationship with a stable Iran.

The vehemence of the Turkish Government’s behind-the-scenes hostility toward Iran, in part because of Mr Erdoğan’s views and in part because of the perceived utility of obliquely attacking Iran to gain Turkish leadership in the Sunni Muslim world, has also backfired, in part because the region remembered with distaste the earlier period of Turkish (Ottoman) overlordship and this counted for more than the staged anger by Ankara over the strong Israeli response to Turkish Government-backed provocation with the Mavi Marmara incident on May 31, 2010.

That the artificially-sustained political furor over the Mavi Marmara incident persists into 2013, and that observers in Israel, the West, and elsewhere even continue to take it at the face value given to it by Ankara is a distraction. The Turkish Government demands an apology for Israel’s actions in the incident. Many in Israel feel that an apology would allow Turkish-Israeli relations to resume, honor satisfied.

The reality is that Ankara will not allow any Israeli apology (for having acted in accordance with its own policies of securing its maritime quarantine of Gaza) to be acceptable. The demand for an “Israeli apology” is merely an opportunity to consistently place Israel on the defensive. The present Turkish Government has no intention of allowing for a rapprochement, even though it continues to use the “dangled carrot” as an inducement for Israel to continue to supply security equipment to Turkey and to induce Israeli cooperation on possible supply through Turkey of export gas from the Israeli Tamar offshore gas fields — the largest Mediterranean offshore organic gas deposit found to date — when it comes on line in April 2013.

Indeed, Israel did propose a pipeline to ship some gas to Europe via Turkey; Ankara failed to respond. Then, in March 2013, Israel signed a heads of agreement with Russia’s Gazprom to market those elements of the Tamar field earmarked for export. Thus Russia has continued to out-maneuver Turkey in dominating east-west energy delivery to Europe. Turkey thus clings to the hope that its military foothold in Cyprus — where Turkish forces have remained in control of 37 percent of the island since the Turkish invasion of 1974 — will enable it to extract a promise of control of some of the gas fields which extend into Cypriot waters. But this, too, is illusory: the “Catch-22” situation is that Turkish military occupation of Cyprus remains illegal and is the most critical constraint on Turkey joining the EU, of which Cyprus is already a member. But Turkey could perhaps negotiate a quid pro quo with Cyprus: military withdrawal for a special deal on gas from the Cypriot fields. Cyprus has already hinted that this could be available, but Ankara wants more than it can realistically expect to get, so it may end up with nothing at all.

Turkey’s supposed special relationship with Azerbaijan, a key supplier of transit oil and gas to Europe via Turkey, is also less secure than it might seem. As much as Azerbaijan has resisted subordination to Moscow, it is clear that Turkey has not helped Baku, whereas, very discreetly, Israel has and does support the Azerbaijan Government in many ways.

To break out of this seemingly intractable downward spiral — compounded by the reality that the Turkish economy is very much part of the “Potemkin village” and is less robust than has been portrayed — there are elements remaining in the Turkish Armed Forces who have recently and privately mooted encouraging a “military adventure” in which Turkey comes into a military clash with neighboring Greece over the issue of Ægean maritime jurisdiction (given that Turkey has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea — UNCLOS — which protects Greek claims to the Ægean islands and surrounding seabeds and exclusive economic zones).

The premise postulated by Turkish military sources is that this would either transform the Ægeran situation or, more likely, lead to the downfall of the AKP Government of Turkey. This would be, perhaps, one of the few options left to the old-school military in Turkey to rid itself of AKP Government which has oppressed it.

The litany of misadventures under the AKP include the discreet pursuit by Turkey of expanding its options in nuclear weapons acquisition. Turkey has played a key rôle as technology supplier in the nuclear weapons programs of Pakistan and Iran in the past (and therefore, indirectly, of the DPRK nuclear program). Despite the increasing dis-utility of nuclear weapons, Ankara feels that its prestige and strategic invulnerability are dependent on having weapons now held by many of the surrounding powers (EU, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, Russia).

It is not illogical, but neither is it a practicable strategic path.

Without belaboring the points, Turkey’s present dilemma includes:

  • Increasing domestic division, with the potential for much more, regardless of “public diplomacy” which claims to be addressing “the Kurdish problem”;

  • An economy which has had some overt indicators of growth, but which faces a real hollowness (and a discreet outflow of capital, offsetting the foreign direct investment), especially given the fact that Turkey depends existentially on the transit of energy which Russia has proven it can cut off at will;

  • Increasing hostility with its key neighbors: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Russia, Armenia (a strong Russian ally), Greece, and Cyprus, including the refusal to end the state of illegal military occupation of Cyprus;

  • Increasing refusal to meet the basic admission criteria for the EU, and merely using the threat of joining the SCO as a lever;

  • Declining utility as a NATO ally, given NATO’s own declining mission;

  • Increasing likelihood of being left out of the regional energy dynamic;

  • The failure of its policy to overthrow the Assad leadership in Syria, but, worse, the prospect that if Ankara persists in this approach, Iran would likely retaliate with retribution against Turkey; and so on.

Much of Turkey’s fate lies in its potential to leverage a rôle as the energy transit zone, and — ideally from Ankara’s standpoint — a possible rôle in actual energy production from onshore or offshore reserves. Turkey presently gets some 90 percent of its gas from imports, but in early March 2013 the Turkish Association of Petroleum Geologists estimated that Turkey had more than 1.5-trillion cubic feet of shale natural gas, with most of that coming from south-eastern provinces. That may be the glimmer to which the Turkish Government can pin some hopes.

As well, in January 2013, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz signed a 10-year deal with Algeria’s state- owned energy company, Sonatrach, for supply of 140-billion cu.ft. a year of liquefied natural gas (LNG). That contract was to reduce Turkish dependence on Russia for gas supplies. That helps Turkish independence for its domestic needs.

But, with Russia able and willing to re-direct much Caspian energy away from transit to Europe through Turkey (albeit at the cost of limiting Russia’s ability to transit the Dardanelles with its Black Sea Fleet), Turkey faces constraints on its attempt to create a revived Ottoman-like influence on the region. The Davutoğlu “no problems” policy has translated into a policy of seemingly deliberate, hubris-driven antagonism, even with its greatest traditional allies of the past half- century, the US and the UK.

For the moment, the US Obama White House and the US State Department have little option but to continue to use Turkey as a staging horse in the Levant and into Central Asia. However, the Turkish Government itself is making it difficult for its US sponsors by refusing to cooperate on EU entry conditionalities or on military withdrawal from Cyprus.

What Ankara has failed to recognize is the declining US ability — or willingness — to remain engaged in Europe (and therefore be able to pressure the EU, including Cyprus), and its declining ability to support Turkey. Even the latest US military supplies to Turkey, like those to Egypt, are facing increasing scrutiny from the US Congress and media.

What the US has thus far failed to do has been to determine its alternatives in the region, given that the White House and State Dept. are reluctant to support strengthened reliance on Israel, or know how to handle Egypt’s changing situation (even though Washington helped precipitate the Islamicization of Egyptian politics). But geostrategic alternatives are possible.

The primary question is where the US — and, indeed, where the EU — wishes to go. The EU wants a degree of stability in fossil fuel energy supplies, and this has tied it to solutions dominated in large part by Russia. Turkey had also played a secondary rôle as a transit state, but Russia has demonstrated that it can dominate that situation.

Looking to the broader geography, the question then can be asked whether Iran, indeed, is not a better alternative route for much of the outside world into the Central Asian marketplace of customers and resource suppliers.

In other words, is Iran, and not Turkey, the geopolitical pivot of Eurasia, given its access into the Eurasian heartland and its dominant control over the Persian Gulf?

This gets to the heart of that east- west energy dynamic, which presently links Central Asia with Europe, either northward via Russia, or southward via Turkey (or even, potentially, south of Turkey, via Syria and through the emerging Mediterranean supply chain). That, then, gets to some of the issue over Syria.

If the Syrian “civil war” were just that — a popular uprising against an unpopular tyrant — then why has the Western media reporting been so demonstrably wrong? Why has the “imminent collapse” of the Bashar Government not yet occurred? And why is the US pushing Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia (or supporting them) in arming, financing, and training the Sunni jihadist forces fighting the Syrian Government forces?

Iran wished to run gas pipelines through, essentially, Shi’a controlled areas of Iraq and then through Syria to the Mediterranean and thence to Europe. The US has opposed this, in part to exercise control over the Iranian Government through the international blockade of Iran. Qatar wanted to run a gas pipeline of its own to Europe, via Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and then Syria to the Med. But, prompted by loyalty to Iran, Assad vetoed a Syrian rôle. Qatar, from that point (apart from its ongoing attempts to secure a Sunni defensive position against Shi’a Iran) was committed to the removal of Assad, and the installation of a Sunni leadership in Syria, a move which would ensure the flight of most of the population of minorities, including Christians, Druze, and ‘Alawites, from Syria.

Not insignificantly, Russia continues to build the macro framework for east-west energy movement, and in late February 2013 Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich was in the PRC to attend a first meeting of the bilateral intergovernmental commission on energy cooperation, meeting with PRC Vice Premier Wang Qishan to discuss ties in the oil, gas, electricity and nuclear power sectors. Turkey, which portrays itself as a potentially valuable member of the SCO and an historically embedded member of Central Asia’s Turkic community, has been proving to be a troublesome, rather than a helpful, element in all of this.

So Turkey is not seen as the “indispensable” state in this matrix by anyone other than the US. Some in the EU have suggested that the Union would regret, in the future, not having Turkey as a member. But the only reason for that has been Turkey’s rôle as a transit source for energy for the EU. And given the changing nature of energy for Western Europe — with its own access to shale gas, the possibility of gas from the Greek-Cypriot-Israeli-Egyptian Med. fields, and with potential access to fossil fuels and solar-based fuel via the Mashreq — Turkey’s “indispensability” to the EU may be very short-term.

[Russia, to a large degree, is preparing for the prospect that Western Europe has long-term alternatives to Russian energy. A Bloom- berg news service report by Jake Rudnitsky on March 7, 2013, noted: “Russia is on course to send an unprecedented 25 percent of its crude exports to eastern markets by 2015 as rising demand from China and other Asian consumers attracts sales at the expense of Europe. The country sent 1.1-million barrels a day east in February (2013), or 22 percent of exports, according to Bloomberg estimates based on loading programs and Energy Ministry data. In October (2012), before the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean [ESPO] pipeline was expanded, it shipped 18 percent to Asia. OAO Transneft, the state pipeline monopoly, says the ESPO line will reach its full capacity in two years. The growth in eastern flows shows how the $23-billion ESPO link, Russia’s most expensive infrastructure project, is helping Pres. Vladimir Putin realize the country’s aim of shifting exports away from Europe to tap the faster-growing economies of the Asia-Pacific region. China’s crude imports from Angola, Iraq, Venezuela, and Russia grew by 14 percent to 33 percent last year, according to the Beijing-based Customs General Administration.”]

Where, then, does all this leave Turkey, other than as a state determined to resurrect its caliphate-derived dominance of the Eurasian and Arabian-Egyptian Muslim world? This may be the dream in Ankara, but achieving it requires a measure of diplomatic and military skills which Ankara seems to have lost.

Iran, North Korea, and …

Iran was the perfect ally of the West until Soviet agitprop worked unwittingly and hand- in-glove with the US Jimmy Carter Administration to see the removal of the Shah. Up to that point (ie: from World War II until early 1979), Iran, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Peninsula were stable. That arrangement, brought to the pinnacle of efficiency during the US Richard Nixon Administration (1969-1974), literally was key to Western success in the Cold War, a victory which was almost undone by Carter’s short-sightedness.

Post-Shah Iran has achieved for Moscow what had been attempted by the Soviet Union: it broke the Western ability to dominate the Northern Tier. Ultimately, as the US distorted its strategic policy with the second Gulf War (2003-2011) and the US-led Afghan War (2001- present), the West’s ability to sustain a dominant position in the Persian Gulf evaporated, and with it control of the region’s energy. That process also led to a growing sense of insecurity within the southern Persian Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar), and also marked the end of a phase of Western energy history.

Going forward, the West needs to ask whether the 20th Century pattern of fossil fuel acquisition, so focused for the latter part of the Century on the Middle East, is likely to be important for the 21st Century. Is it logical for the region to be of greater importance to the PRC, India, and, say, Europe as far as energy is concerned? And for how long? Are the changing dynamics of energy extraction going to transform the geopolitics of energy? Clearly, yes.4

But does that transforming energy pattern — including substantially increasing PRC and Indian import requirements — solely delineate the geostrategic importance of Iran? Clearly, no.

Iran, like Turkey, has historical and current aspirations to regional power. Iran, through its Persian heritage, had perhaps more of a history of cultural and civilizational dominance in the past than Turkey. Its current situation, however, is dominated not by Persian history, or even the modern history of Iran under the Pahlavi Dynasty, but by its attempt to rebuild power built around theocratic legitimacy of a type which led to confrontation with its former Western allies.

Iran’s clerical leaders, wary of rebuilding ties with old allies of the Shah, were also wary of almost all foreign suitors and most neighbors. It was logical that they should develop strong relations with other states which had experience in working outside the Western framework. But it was the relationship which developed between Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (DPRK) which has been the most strategically important for Tehran.

What has worked in this relationship, since Iran’s first theocratic leader, “Ayatollah” Ruhollah Khomeini, built a relationship with then-DPRK leader Kim Il-Song in the early 1980s, has been absolute cooperation in all strategic (and many economic) arenas. When the DPRK comes under perceived military pressure from the US, Iran creates a strategic distraction, and vice-versa. The development of strategic weapons, national command authority architecture, and so on, is all shared.5 The February 13, 2013, nuclear weapons explosion at an underground site at Punggye-ri, DPRK, was certainly a test of a weapon for Iran (as well as for North Korea), and paid for by Iran.6

But Iran has begun to expand its international networking since the original link-up with the DPRK, even though the North Korean link is the strategic key to Iran’s perceived sense of survival in a hostile world; it gives Tehran the belief that nuclear weapons possession will deter foreign attack. Now, however, Iran is attempting to operate in a world wider than merely fending off foreign military invasion; it is working to build a base of relations with Russia, the PRC, and other possible energy clients (including, for example, India).

As with Turkey, which could surge in terms of strategic goodwill from the EU and others if it achieved a face-saving way of withdrawing its forces from northern Cyprus, Iran could move from pariah to acceptable status in the international community if it agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program. However, much of the prestige of the leadership of each country is tied to the continuation of existing policies, whether these are viable policies or not. To weaken under pressure is — unless skillfully managed — to open the floodgates for domestic opponents.

Clearly, in the case of Iran, the psycho-political case for acquiring nuclear weapons merely as a deterrent against attack is strong. However, as the Pasdaran (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) leadership is aware, the warfighting utility of nuclear weapons is marginal at best, and clearly is not a cost-effective capability. Indeed, the distortion of national security spending caused by the required investment in nuclear weapons and delivery systems may be sufficient to actually degrade overall military and national security effectiveness. The United Kingdom, for example, is now undergoing a massive and destructive distortion of its ability to deploy a balanced military force because of the cost of its Trident submarine- launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program. Britain, in fact, could retain strategic credibility by limiting its nuclear deterrent to submarine- and surface-ship launched nuclear equipped cruise missiles, and aircraft-delivered nuclear systems.

Iran could, like Israel, equally move toward a cruise missile-delivered theater nuclear capability which might actually have some warfighting potential, as opposed to “city-killer” ballistic missile systems of questionable viability and survivability.

What we are seeing, then, in Iran, as with Turkey, is that policies are being made without a comprehensive understanding of the strategic terrain or a balanced view of the threats and opportunities being faced. Equally, however, the friends and adversaries of Turkey and Iran fail to understand the dynamic of decisionmaking governing the leaderships in Ankara and Tehran.

If Iran is to evolve — as it must — then external leaders must weigh whether it would change more in the absence of embargoes and threat, and with positive incentive. Equally, it should be asked whether the present iteration of Iranian leadership can break with its conditioning of paranoia as to external threats so that it can embrace change. Indeed, the current set of mixed messages — carrot and stick — being proffered by Washington are hardly conducive to changing that sense of paranoia in Tehran, or in Pyongyang, for that matter.

What are some of the realities facing the Iranian clerical leaders?

  • The Iranian political context has been changing since the Shah left the country in 1979, but it is having difficulty in transitioning to a fully “normal” administrative and political system which is regarded internally and externally as “legitimate”. This keeps the leadership on the defensive, but it appears not to know how to evolve fully into a comfortable — and accepted — system. But it has transformed substantially in the past three decades, albeit without the significant focus on modern- style approaches which would make its economy more efficient (à la the PRC, for example);

  • Iran has developed a defensive ring of alliance partners, but primarily depends on its security relationship with the DPRK for its “poison pill”-type deterrence of any foreign (meaning, for the most part, US) military threats, However, Iran has become defined by its alliance partners, in many respects. The acquisition of nuclear weapons, equally, provides only a deterrent capability and does not assist in warfighting or power projection (except for the provision of strategic prestige within its immediate region);

  • Change in Iran could well be stimulated by domestic economic conditions (either more widespread wealth or more erratic hardship spikes), but it is unlikely to be stimulated by direct external threat. Indeed, direct external threats against Iran have traditionally consolidated support for the status quo, and have caused change to be delayed or muted. The case of the Iraqi attack on Iran (the 1980-88 war) was a case in point, causing Iranians to rally around Khomeini at a time when he otherwise would have been ousted.

The Strategic Context

Turkey and the Iran-DPRK alliance are obviously not the sum total of the “complex soup” of the Eurasian, Euro- Atlantic and Asia-Pacific strategic matrix, but they represent, in many ways, the less stable elements in it. They are the components which can be described as “metastasizing”: growing a web of accidental and deliberate tentacles which cross into many arenas.

In many respects, Afghanistan may, after the US-led Coalition forces withdraw (in a meaningful sense) by 2014, may — in some areas — represent an area of ongoing instability, and may perhaps resume being a safe area for narco- traffickers and jihadis. But in itself it is not likely to be a base for the kind of broader “expeditionary” activities which could be ascribed to Turkey and Iran.

Pakistan — reconstituting itself after the Coalition operations which transited the country to and from Afghanistan — is more likely to gradually re-stabilize itself, in some respect with PRC help. The DPRK itself, as it has been for some decades, is most likely a source of strident rhetoric and nuclear and ballistic missile technology than a source of regional instability. The issues of troubles in North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and so on, will rumble along, but not in themselves in a way which should impede the continuing growth of “the new Silk Route”, which has already become so broad and multi- stranded that it should be re-named “the new Silk Carpet”.

The question will be whether this trans-Eurasian infrastructral and trading network will be focused around moving energy to Europe, or from Central Asia and the Persian Gulf to the PRC. And whether Western Europe needs Central Asian gas once its shale and Mediterranean gas flows begin.

In all of this, Turkey, for example, may have overplayed its hand and have become “surplus to requirements” as far as the EU or Russia are concerned. Even Iran might find its oil and gas commodities less valuable than at present. In this regard, the new energy technologies and sources (and particularly the shale- derived gas in the shorter term) could reinforce the US’ — and Canadian — tendencies toward introspection and (in the US case) isolationism. The Atlantic, as this writer has noted before, is becoming less contested water than it was in the 20th Century and earlier.

The PRC, meanwhile, had by March 2013 begun to take over the US’ position as the major importing nation for oil, largely because of the US’ growing ability to generate domestic energy. Will this, then, cause the PRC to redouble the kind of maritime capability to import oil across the seas? Or has it already discovered that it is worth investing its efforts in winning that energy across land routes to the Persian Gulf, Russia, and the Caspian Basin? And how much are we already seeing this begin to encroach on the low-cost energy which Western Europe has until now enjoyed? Will this in turn spur a great European regard for energy from West and North Africa, and from nuclear reactors?

Or will rising imported energy prices in Europe further dampen economic recovery, even as North America prospers? When will the United Kingdom, for example, begin shale energy exploitation on a large scale to offset its growing energy trade imbalance?

A butterfly flapping its wings in Punggye-ri in North Korea may not cause a hurricane in the North Sea, but it may be enough to eventually awaken politicians from their narrowly-focused domestic concerns. Everything is connected.

Footnotes:

1. See, for example, Copley, Gregory: “The Atlantic Vacuum; the Pacific ‘Full Sea’”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 7/2012. Also, in the same edition, by the same author: “A Very Different Global Pattern”.

2. See, for example, Copley, Gregory R.: “Iran Effectively Sidesteps Turkey ... With a major new agreement to deliver energy to Europe via Iraq and Syria, Iran continues to transform the region, and fuels the impetus and rivalry for Turkey’s new “Ottoman Region” moves”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 6-7/2011.

3. See, in particular, Bodansky, Yossef: “A Jihadist, Anti-Western Agenda is Being Forced on Syria”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, April 13, 2012. Also in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 3/2012.

4. See: Energy Security 2.0: How Energy is Central to the Changing Global Balance in the New Age of Geography. By Gregory R. Copley, Andrew Pickford, Yossef Bodansky, and David Archibald. Alexandria, Virginia, 2011: The International Strategic Studies Association.

5. See, for example, “DPRK Nuclear Test Almost Certainly Detonated a Weapon Intended for Iran; Further Detonations Expected”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, February 15, 2013. An updated version of that report appears in this edition of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, on page 20, as “DPRK Nuclear Detonation Was Almost Certainly For Iran”. Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of September 27, 2004, also carried the report “Iran, North Korea Test Deployments of National Command Authority Systems, New Nuclear Systems”. Also published as “Nuclear Age II: Iran, North Korea Test Deployments of National Command Authority Systems, New Nuclear Systems” in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 10/2004.

6. Iran began, in the early 1990s, to acquire externally-produced (ex-Soviet) nuclear weapons, and later acquired other warheads, believed to be from Ukraine and the DPRK. The viability of these weapons, other than as learning tools, cannot be accurately gauged, even by Iran. See initial reporting on this in the 2/1992 Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy: “Iran Acquires Nuclear Weapons And Moves To Provide Cover to Syria”.


December 7, 2012

Syrian Acquisition of Iraqi Chemical Weapons Noted in 2002; Qatar Now Reported Entering WMD Market

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s concerns, expressed on December 5, 2012, about the possible impending use by Syria of chemical weapons against US-backed dissident forces inside Syria have yet to be substantiated by intelligence, but this service did warn — on October 28, 2002 — that Iraqi Pres. Saddam had moved large stockpiles of chemical weapons and other matériel to Syria to avoid capture by Coalition forces invading Iraq.

The US Government was made aware of this intelligence at the time, but took no action at the time to track or control the ex-Iraqi chemical weapons material.

US official sources had suggested that the Syrian Armed Forces had mixed the precursors for sarin gas, preparatory to loading it onto air-delivered bombs, and that the mixed precursors had a 60-day life, by which time the substance would have to be weaponized and used. Given that Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad had committed not to use chemical weapons against the Syrian population, there was speculation that the CW weapons — assuming they were indeed in preparation — were being used as a potential deterrent to Turkish military action against Syria.

Of parallel, but equal, concern at the end of 2012, however, is the fact that — according to intelligence sources in the Persian Gulf — US ally Qatar, which is assisting the US in arming and supporting the jihadist opposition to Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad, was now actively seeking to acquire weapons-grade uranium on the international market. This, as with Qatar’s significant support for the Syrian Sunni opponents to the Bashar al-Assad Government, was seen as much a reaction to growing Iranian strategic dominance of the Persian Gulf and Levant.

There was no indication as to what Qatar sought to do with the uranium; neither was their any indication as to what Qatar could, in fact, do to use weapons-grade uranium in any meaningful military fashion, other than the creation of possible “dirty bombs”.

With regard to the former Iraqi chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, however, intelligence reaching GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs, indicated that it was possible that these could just as easily have fallen into the hands of jihadist Sunni opponents of the Syrian Government of Pres Bashar al-Assad as into the hands of the Syrian Armed Forces.

A GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs report entitled “Iraq Moves WMD Matériel to Syrian Safe-Havens”, dated October 28, 2002, noted:

Highly-authoritative, experienced GIS sources have reported that the Iraqi Government and Armed Forces have moved substantial caches of chemical weapons and related materials to safe-havens across the border into Syria, to avoid any chance of discovery by United Nations (UN) inspectors. 

Iraq moved stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear matériel as well as key production machinery and key experts to the Hsishi compound near Kamishli, in Syria, along with strategic weapons, ammunition, military fuels and other defense matériel, gold reserves, national archival records and national art treasures. It is believed that the moves took place in late August and early September 2002.

It is also understood that some of the matériel, production machinery and experts moved into Hsishi compound were from the al-Qaim facility, which had been based near the H-3 base area in Western Iraq. The al-Qaim facility had been involved, before 1991, almost exclusively in uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, but since it was reconstituted after the bombings of the 1991 Gulf War it was engaged in chemical and biological weapons development work, along with some nuclear-related activity. It is believed that some of the warhead materials for the chemical and biological weapons were at the al-Qaim facility, and that this is now in Hsishi.

The move reflects the earlier breakthroughs in strategic relations between Iraq and Syria, given the fact that Syria is strategically dependent on Iran, which has traditional rivalries and hostility with Iraq. The movement of Iraqi strategic combat matériel into Syria is the first tangible evidence of the accords which have been struck between Baghdad, Tehran, and Damascus in the escalation of the war against Israel and the US. The evidence provided a pointed reminder to those US White House security policy officials who had decried suggestions by some other White House staffers that Iran could be persuaded to help the US in its war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein.

The series of agreements between Iraq and Syria for the movement of Iraqi strategic assets into Syria were described in detail in the newly-released book, The High Cost of Peace: How Washington’s Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism, by Yossef Bodansky.

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily reported on April 4, 2002, that Iran and Iraq had achieved a working accommodation on deployment in a new war against Israel [see references, below], but the new move to place Iraqi CW matériel inside Syria reflects the first physical evidence of the implementation of this understanding. The April 4, 2002, report noted:

Iran’s al-Quds military forces — forces earmarked for the liberation of “al-Quds”: Jerusalem — were reported on April 3, 2002, to be preparing to move by land across Iraq, with permission from the Iraqi Government, to bolster anti-Israeli forces (Syrian and Iraqi) in the area of the Golan Heights.

Iraq’s al-Quds force of armor and mechanized infantry, under the command of Qusay Hussein al-Takriti, is now preparing to move into position at the junction of Syria, Jordan and Iraq from the major military base at H-3, one of the two major “H” bases named after the old pipeline stations in Iraq’s al-Anbar region. Both “H” bases were re-opened in early 2001, with their airfields refurbished, and with SA-6 surface-to-air missile systems installed. The al-Quds forces, under Qusay since mid-2001, include key Iraqi special forces units and the Hummarabi division of the Republican Guard, equipped with T-72 tanks. The total Iraqi al-Quds force is five to six divisions. Jordanian sources advise that the quality of the Iraqi special forces units, which have been operating in the area for about a year, including incursions into Jordan and through Jordan to the West Bank, are of a high quality. Based on information from various sources, it was understood that the Iraqi al-Quds forces were expected to move quickly across the top of Jordan into Syria and take up positions, as they did in earlier conflicts, in the area of the Golan Heights, facing the Israeli-occupied area.

Significantly, the Iraqi CW dumps inside Syria are (a) sufficiently close to the Iraqi al-Quds forces to be safeguarded by Iraq, and (b) ready for operational use against Israel.

Given the ongoing Syrian dependence on Iran, the latest move would indicate that the Iranian commitment to Iraq’s military plans to escalate the war against Israel as part of any Iraqi response to a US attack continues to be in effect. Although there has been no recent evidence of an actual commitment by the Iranian clerical leadership to the provision of Iranian troops to a new war against Israel — or, indeed, the Iraqi comfort level in having Iranian al-Quds forces physically transit Iraqi territory — it is clear that the clerical leadership in Iran has continued its commitment to providing practical support for Iraq’s war against both the US and Israel.

Significantly, Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Asad visited Kamishli and, reportedly, Hsishi Compound, in early September 2002, presumably to check on the Iraqi deployment.

As well, GIS sources indicated that the arrest by Turkish security forces of individuals with enriched uranium in September 2002 was connected with the supply of raw matériel for the Iraqi nuclear program, and that this was destined for Hsishi, not necessarily for immediate weapons use, but to re-start the Iraqi weapons program after the UN/US weapons inspectors had searched and destroyed any Iraqi capability left in-country, either through the UN program or through a US attack. Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of October 1, 2002, reported:

Turkish paramilitary police were reported on September 28, 2002, to have seized more than 15 kg (33 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium and detained two men accused of smuggling the material. Officers in the southern province of Sanliurfa, which borders Syria and is about 250km (155 miles) from the Iraqi border, were reportedly acting on information from an informant when they stopped a taxi cab and discovered the uranium in a lead container hidden beneath the vehicle’s seat. Authorities said that they believed the uranium came from an east European country and had a value of about $5-million. Israel Radio quoted Turkish police as saying that the uranium originally came from a former Soviet state. 

It was not immediately clear when the seizure operation was carried out. The Turkish Anatolian News Agency only gave the first names of the suspects, which appeared to be Turkish. Police in Turkey seized more than one kg of weapons-grade uranium in November 2001; that had been smuggled into Turkey from an east European nation. 

The reporting which began with this Service in 2002 provides some background to the current situation. However, it does not indicate the validity, or otherwise, of US estimates on the possibility of use of Sarin weapons by the Syrian Air Force. Indeed, given the fact that the Turkish and Qatari governments, working with Barack Obama White House, have issued consistently misleading reporting on the Syrian internal situation does not help in forming a balanced assessment of the Syrian situation.


October 23, 2012

Beirut Assassination Highlights Extent of Lebanese Involvement in Anti-Syrian Fighting

Analysis. From GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Stations Beirut and Damascus. The precisely-target bombing assassination on October 19, 2012, in the Christian Ashrafia area of Beirut of Brig.-Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, the Internal Security Force Information Branch Chief, and six other officials, highlighted an area neglected by external analysts and policy officials: the extent to which Lebanese security forces were actively engaged in working with the Syrian armed opposition, and in working to suppress the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based Shi’a HizbAllah paramilitary forces in supporting the Syrian Bashar al-Assad Government in the current civil war there.

It was a measure of the extreme danger which the Assad Government felt from the actions of Lebanese forces, which were discreetly working against it, in concert with other regional states and the US, that Damascus felt that it needed to take such a provocative act at a time when it is under enormous pressure.

One very senior source in Damascus told GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs: “It [the bombing] was a Syrian show. Al-Hassan was a fierce enemy of Damascus. He had been pressuring HizbAllah to stop moving forces to north-east Lebanon [from the Beqa’a Valley] in order to intervene in Hama-Homs area [of Syria] (especially should the Turkish army invade from Hatay and advance on Damascus). He also channeled help to the opposition in the Hama-Homs area and assisted the French-orchestrated defection of Manaf Tlass and others. [From Damascus’ standpoint], he had to go fast, and he did, in the middle of Maronite Ashrafia. There is no doubt, moreover, that others took note of the resolve, reach, and audacity of Damascus in protecting its interests.”

A report on October 20, 2012, from Beirut, by the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, noted:  “Syrian opposition forces have accused Hezbollah [HizbAllah] of actively taking part in the fighting in Syria, claiming that the Lebanese-based Shi’ite organization is firing hundreds of rockets into Syria on a daily basis.” It quoted Syrian opposition Local Coordination Committee-member, Mohamed al-Homsi, who accused HizbAllah of “intervening in the fighting alongside the Syrian regime with all of its power”. Al-Homsi, a member of the Homs Local Coordination Committee, claimed that “between 100 and 150 rockets and mortar shells are being fired by Hezbollah into the Syrian town of al-Qaseer and the surrounding villages on a daily basis, from the group’s military positions in Hermel [on the Syrian-Lebanese border].” He also revealed that the previous few days have seen a strong intensification in the barrage of rocket fire from Hezbollah into Syrian opposition-held territory. He told Asharq Al-Awsat “it has become clear that HizbAllah is taking part, with all of its strength, in this battle, which it considers itself to be a part of. HizbAllah has sent thousands of its troops, along with military equipment and arms, into Syria, deploying them throughout Homs and the surrounding areas, in addition to Hama, Aleppo, Zabadani and Damascus. They are engaging in fierce clashes with rebel forces”.

Al-Homsi also said that “HizbAllah fighters are teaching the al-Assad regular forces and pro-regime Shabiha militias how to fight street battles" adding “HizbAllah elements are actively taking part in the conflict in Homs, from suppressing protests to leading the battles in Deir Baalba, Baba Amr, al-Qaseer and elsewhere.”

Al-Akhbar’s English-language website noted on October 19, 2012, that Brig.-Gen. al-Hassan’s “last posting was as the head of the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF) controversial Information Branch, considered a divisive security apparatus because of the strong backing it enjoys from the opposition March 14 coalition, and a number of raids it conducted against people affiliated with the ruling March 8 coalition. He was in charge of the ongoing investigation against former Lebanese Information Minister Michel Samaha. Samaha was arrested in August over allegations that he was plotting to plant explosives in the northern city of Akkar at the behest of the Syrian government.”

The website went on: “The ISF's information branch was created in the aftermath of former prime minister Rafik Hariri's assassination in 2005. It was considered a counterweight to Lebanese military intelligence which is seen to have close relations with Damascus. The newly-formed security apparatus was largely trained and supplied by US and pro-US Arab intelligence services, including Saudi Arabia. Hassan was the head of late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s personal security team before the latter's assassination.”

On October 20, 2012, al-Akhbar went further, noting that al-Hassan’s “political rôle surpassed his tasks as head of a small military unit conducting a significant security operation in Lebanon and beyond. In regional politics, Hassan’s assassination is a prologue for a new and recurring global cold war, which hides underneath it real wars and bloody chaos in many countries, namely Syria. Also politically, the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan is at the heart of a battle that is open and out of control. All sides of the battle will do what they believe is right. But it will allow others, from outside both sides of the conflict, to interfere, play on contradictions, deliver messages, or even steer the boat in various directions.”

al-Akhbar also went on to note that al-Hassan had a very partisan and shadowy rôle in Lebanese politics, noting: “In a few years time, Hassan the officer built a professional security apparatus. He built a [police] unit that is somewhat connected to the state, yet leased its own space outside the state.”

Of great significance was the naming of Brig.-Gen. al-Hassan’s successor. On Sunday night, October 21, 2012, Internal Security Forces chief Ashraf Rifi appointed Colonel Imad Othman as al-Hassan’s successor. Othman is a Sunni police officer. He served together with al-Hassan in sensitive intelligence and security positions during the administration of Rafiq Hariri. He also was the Chief of the Grand Serail police forces during the tenure of Saad Hariri. Othman is also known as a fierce nationalist, anti-Syria/anti-HizbAllah, and a close ally of Saudi Arabia.


October 19, 2012

Turkey Stumbles, But Washington Pushed; the Failed Interception of Russian “Military” Cargo to Syria

The mid-October 2012 Turkish interception of an alleged Syrian military shipment was intended to build momentum for the case to intervene in Syria. But it backfired, and may have damaged US-Turkish trust, and given the upper hand to Moscow.

Analysis. By GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs staff. Turkey’s interception on October 10, 2012, of a Syrian Air A320 transport aircraft, allegedly carrying key air defense radar equipment for Syria from Russia, was initially portrayed as a major intelligence coup by Turkey and an indicator that Syria’s and Iran’s air defense networks had been seriously weakened. However, highly-placed sources in Ankara, Moscow, and Damascus have confirmed to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs that the reporting on the issue was Turkish disinformation, but, more importantly, that it may have been a direct result of US pressure to intercept the aircraft and force it to land at Ankara’s Esenboga airport.

In fact the aircraft was not carrying air defense radar equipment or military cargo.

The incident began to backfire by October 18, 2012. The fact that the incident had been either a mistake on the part of the Turkish Government, or manufactured — because the US Government had been discreetly pushing Turkey into this specific action — may well worsen US-Turkish relations and start to rebuild, to the degree possible, Turkish-Russian relations.

Ankara had initially attempted to portray the incident as a sign of Turkish resolve and efficient operational capability, in the period immediately following military activity between Turkish and Syrian forces on their joint border. However, there was subsequently strong evidence that the US, at White House insistence, had pushed Turkey to make the interception of the aircraft and that the White House had possibly mis-led Ankara as to the contents of the cargo.

Certainly, the Turkish Government subsequently — on October 18, 2012 — and discreetly tried to let the matter drop, but the Russian Government immediately stated publicly that the original Turkish claims had been incorrect. Russian Government spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on October 18 2012, in Moscow: “The Turkish side does not in principle question the legitimacy of the cargo that was seized but is unhappy with the transportation notification procedure. Our Turkish partners have now effectively retracted the initial allegations that there was ammunition on board.”

The parts in question were, in fact, spare parts for the radar in the Aleppo civilian airport (which was damaged by Turkey-based rebels) and had nothing to do with air defense. The CIA did alert the Turks to intercept the aircraft and the White House was helping with the beating of the drums in order to justify Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s build-up on the Syrian border and the unilateral imposition of Bosnia-style buffer zones inside Syria.

There was some suggestion that the visit of US Director of Central Intelligence David Petraeus to Ankara on September 2, 2012, for two days of talks with his Turkish counterpart, MIT [National Intelligence Organization (NIO) (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı: MİT)] Director Hakan Fidan, may have set the stage for the interception of the Syrian Air A320 just more than a month later.

Significantly, the Erdoğan Government, and probably MIT, had acted on October 10, 2012, like a well-oiled publicity machine, leaking “details” of their coup to the local and international media. Even opposition news outlets in Turkey showed admiration for the Turkish military’s handling of the incident. One extensive piece, in Taraf newspaper (and online), by writer Emru Uslu on October 15, 2012, was quick, in its conclusions, to point to the imminent end of Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, and an end to Iran’s effective air defense network.

The tenor of the article shows the clear hand of official leakers [comments in square brackets added by the translator]:

Ankara intercepted a plane [allegedly] carrying military gear from Russia to Syria. I researched the background of this controversial move from different quarters in Ankara.

(1) The interception [on Oct. 10] had nothing to do with postponement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ankara visit. It was not a political move.

(2) The plane wasn’t intercepted because it was carrying missiles or weapons. [The interception] was a finely adjusted move that would not contravene international law. It is probably the first fully thought-through, correct move by Turkey since the beginning of the Syrian crisis.

(3) Turkey knew in advance what was on the plane.  Turkish news media is reporting the intelligence received suggested [that the plane was carrying] purely military gear. [In fact] the intelligence was very detailed, giving a full listing of what was in the boxes.

Turkey followed a very clever step-by-step strategy and scored a major gain against Russia. It also acquired extraordinary military intelligence that could [potentially] be used in an international operation against Syria.

(4) I understand that when the plane neared Turkish air space, the Syrian pilot was told that if he entered that air space his plane would be required to land for a search. Simultaneously, F-16s were sent up to monitor the plane.

The timing of the warning issued to the pilot and the location of the plane was decided in such a way that the pilot couldn’t change his course. He was just about to enter Turkish air space. This is how Turkey managed to avoid legal liability. That is, if there was no military gear on the plane, Turkey’s argument was ready: “We warned the pilot before he entered Turkish air space. Nevertheless, he did not change his course. Therefore the landing of the plane was not enacted by military force but by voluntary decision.”

Our Foreign Ministry officials were also emphasizing that Turkey had not forced the plane down.

“If the pilot had not accepted our warning, he could have changed his course before entering our air space,” our diplomats say.

When asked why we sent up F-16s, the answer was: “That was a precaution. Because the pilot could have changed course and headed in another direction any time he wanted.”

The situation is like this: The Foreign Ministry thought of all scenarios that would be legally justified and in a brilliant move had the plane land in Turkey. At this juncture, Foreign Ministry bureaucracy and intelligence outfits have to be congratulated for their excellent management of the plane crisis. They did the right move at the right time to get the right result.

So what does all of this mean?

You have to pay attention to a piece of information from Russia. Cihan News Agency quoted Russian sources saying: “The plane was carrying 12 boxes packed with technical gear. This gear was for anti-aircraft radar bases belonging to the Syrian army.”

This is the most critical piece of information to enlighten the plane affair, and was also confirmed by our foreign ministry sources. It explains why no photographs of the gear were shared with the media and why the plane was intercepted.

It goes like this: Syria has Russian-made air defense systems. Western institutions don’t know the details of these systems. We are even told that this is the system that helped to down our F-4 plane last June. More critically, since the details of the Syrian air defense systems were not known, NATO could not calculate its losses in a potential operation against Syria. This is why NATO action against Syria has been deferred while NATO tried to learn the details of Syria’s systems.

Those not in the know could not understand why NATO was not intervening until now. They didn’t know that NATO’s biggest anxiety was not knowing the details of the Russian air defense systems.

The Syrian plane was intercepted so that NATO and Turkey could acquire critical parts that would provide the details of the electronic system — that is, the brain — of Syrian air defense.

Also judging from media reports, the source of the detailed intelligence about the plane was NATO itself. It allowed enough time for Turkey to draw up a finely adjusted plan to intercept the plane. NATO now has extremely sensitive information that will be needed in an operation and which has naturally provided Turkey with a significant edge over Syria.

The information obtained is not important only for possible action against Syria. It has also provided very valuable information to the Western alliance for any possible operation against Iran in the future. Iranian air defense systems are also based on Russian systems.

In short, from the Syrian plane we got the most vital secrets of Iran and Syria and the brain of their air defense and communication systems. Certainly it might expedite military intervention in Syria.

If I were in the place of Bashar al-Assad and his supporters, I wouldn’t resist after this point. Their last bastion fell with the data obtained from the plane.

Prime Minister Erdoğan was very much part of the operation, although the fact that he put his name and credibility on the line for an operation destined to be discredited indicates that both he — and perhaps the US officials — were deliberately mis-led by intelligence sources regarding the contents of the aircraft. It is even possible that good counter-intelligence by the Russian or Syrian governments fed mis-information to Washington. Nonetheless, on October 11, 2012, Mr Erdoğan said publicly: “One cannot carry defense industry equipment or arms, munitions... with civilian aircraft. … Unfortunately this rule was violated.” Syria, in response, accused Mr Erdoğan of lying, saying the charge “lacks credibility”.

By October 19, 2012, the news that the incident had been a major intelligence mistake, and that it may have damaged US-Turkish relations rather than damaged Moscow, still had not been understood by all the regional media, however. Al Arabiya, in a report by Abdullah Buzkurt, on October 19, 2012, noted: “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent harsh criticism of Russia, following the forced landing of a Syrian plane in the Turkish capital and Ankara’s exposure of its non-civilian cargo [it was, in fact, civilian — Ed.] destined for the Syrian defense ministry, must be an unambiguous indication to Moscow that friendly feelings in Ankara towards Russia should not be taken for granted. It appears there has been a serious miscalculation on the part of Russian policymakers that Turkey would keep compartmentalizing Russia and the Syrian crisis in separate baskets forever. They were wrong.”

This, and similar Turkish reporting, has begun to backfire faster than Ankara or Washington could have expected, and equally highlighted the possibility that there were continued impediments to any NATO military intervention to support Turkey in taking offensive action against Syria, or even pushing for the Bosnia-style buffer zones. At the same time, US, French, and Israeli intelligence estimates note that there were far fewer anti-Assad guerilla combatants functioning inside Syria than were earlier being estimated, and that they were — despite massive financial and weapons support from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia (and indirectly, the US) — dysfunctional to the point where their activities have been instrumental in building support for the Assad Government, rather than opposition to it.

Assad is by no means ready to depart the scene, and the Iran-Turkey-Syria scenario is moving more in Syria’s (and therefore Iran’s) favor.


April 13, 2012

A Jihadist, Anti-Western Agenda is Being Forced on Syria

The international community has been blindly following a jihadist-driven agenda for Syria; a solution the majority of Syrians reject, but which Turkey and Qatar have been driving. It begs the question: why are analysts in Washington — or Paris or London — not digging more deeply into what is really happening, given that the solution they have endorsed is so profoundly anti-Western?

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. The key test of the Annan plan and ceasefire to help end the widespread violence in Syria1 came on Friday, April 13, 2012, in the aftermath of the Friday Sermons across Syria, when agitated and incited masses came out of the mosques, ready to challenge anew the legitimacy of a non-Sunni-Islamist Government in Damascus.

The sensitive element was the thin line between vocal and virulent protests against Pres. Bashar al-Assad and attempts by armed elements in the ranks of the demonstrators to capitalize on the mass of unarmed humanity in order to break through the lines of the security forces, instigate clashes and seize buildings of tactical significance. In Hama, such a provocation evolved into a major clash as government troops attempted to break up the demonstration and fell into a rebel ambush. At least two soldiers were killed in this clash.

There were also a few major efforts at violating the ceasefire. Overnight, a large armed group attempted to cross from Turkey into Syria near the village of Khirbet al-Joz in Idlib Province. The group was engaged by Syrian security forces and pushed back across the border after a lengthy firefight. This is an area heavily patrolled by the Turkish security forces so that it is highly unlikely that the Turkish Government and Armed Forces would not have been aware of the infiltration attempt. Near Aleppo, rebel forces ambushed a military bus, killing two officers and wounding 24 soldiers. Altogether, some 15 fatalities were recorded in the first 24 hours of the cease- fire. In Damascus, government media warned that “the anti-government armed groups” were “intensifying criminal operations in an attempt to destabilize Syria and torpedo the [An- nan] plan.” Meanwhile, the Islamist media continued to urge people to demonstrate and riot in the streets under the rallying cry “A revolution for all Syrians!”

Moreover, foreign leaders, led by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu continued to issue demands unacceptable to the Assad Administration in the context of implementing the Annan plan. Washington, Ankara, and Doha lead the chorus demanding that the Syrian Armed Forces unconditionally withdraw from the entire inhabited and urban areas of Syria and surrender them to the rebel forces. They consider the reported withdrawals of Syrian Government troops from major cities insufficient because the mere presence of these forces around the cities constituted, in their view, undue pressure on the population in those areas. “This withdrawal must be total and comprehensive. Withdrawing from the cities but keeping the pressure on them doesn’t mean a real withdrawal. This withdrawal must be from all cities and towns to barracks and people must be assured they will not face another attack,” Davutoğlu stated.

These demands were made, even though the Syrian armed forces won the fight with the active support from key segments of the local population. Moreover, the majority of the urban population in Syria supports the Assad Administration (or, at the least, has demonstrated that it preferred them to the Islamist-dominated opposition). Thus, the issue at hand was not whether the Assad Administration’s security forces moved a few tanks and other armored vehicles a few more yards, but rather a challenge to the very existence of an ‘Alawite-led nationalist Administration in Damascus. French Pres. Nicolas Sarkozy dismissed the entire effort out of hand. “I do not believe in Bashar al-Assad’s sincerity, nor unfortunately in the ceasefire,” he told French I-Tele TV.

Barring the commencement of viable negotiations involving the real protagonists inside Syria, the fighting in Syria seemed, by April 13, 2012, set inevitably to resume after a brief interlude and even escalate as the weather improved. The Annan plan should be expected to keep faltering even though Annan himself declared that he was “encouraged by reports that the situation in Syria is relatively calm and that the cessation of hostilities appears to be holding”. Meanwhile, the United States, Turkey, and Qatar would continue urging a Bosnia- and Libya-style NATO intervention in support of “legitimate representatives” who had, in fact, already been rejected by the Syrian people and in the name of protecting civilians who had never asked for such intervention.

Thus, the primary explosive threat of the Syrian conflict was the growing dichotomy between the situation inside Syria and the relentless efforts by a myriad of external forces to exploit the conflict in pursuit of their regional and global interests.

This writer has discussed before, [in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy 2-2012, for example; see footnotes for hyperlink] that the traditional key to ruling Syria has always been an alliance between the security and economic élites. The security élite has been dominated by the main minorities — the ‘Alawites, Druze and Kurds — which remain staunchly loyal to the Assad Administration.

The economic élite has been dominated by Sunni urban families, as well as Armenian and Christian Orthodox families, in the main cities of western Syria; a strip between Damascus and Aleppo. Initially, the economic élite elected to stay out of the crisis and war, but it was increasingly siding with the Assad Administration: some by choice and some for lack of a better option.

By the first half of April 2012, the Assad Administration was close to restoring this alliance between the two most important foci of power. The Syrian Armed Forces had consolidated control over the economic-strategic Damascus-Aleppo belt. Moreover, the growing threat of jihadist terrorism as demonstrated in Aleppo left the urban-economic élite little choice but to cast their lot with the Assad Administration. The only impediment is the lingering insurrection in Homs and Hama which the ceasefire might help contain. The growing threat of foreign intervention was pushing Damascus to complete the pacification of Homs and Hama, albeit while markedly raising the level of violence and the ruthlessness of the crackdown

This trend was also reflected in the popular support for the Government to the extent that reliable polling is possible. In the second half of December 2011, YouGov conducted a major poll commissioned by the Qatar Foundation throughout the Arab World. The key question was whether Bashar al-Assad should resign. The poll found that 55 percent of Syrians did not want Bashar al-Assad to resign as President; that is, 55 percent of Syrians wanted him to remain as President. Significantly, in a poll conducted in December 2010, that is, just before the outbreak of the current crisis, only 46 percent of Syrians considered Bashar a good president for Syria. The YouGov poll also found that 68 percent of Syrians disapproved of the Arab League sanctions. In contrast, the YouGov poll showed that outside Syria 81 percent of Arabs “want President Assad to step down”. They based their opinion on the coverage of Syrian events on Arab satellite TV news channels.

In other words, Arab satellite news — such as Qatar-based al-Jazeera — has had a profound impact on non-Syrian regional public opinion, shaping it in favor of opposition to Assad, while domestic public opinion is actually more in favor of Assad. Moreover, to reiterate: the US and West have allowed themselves to claim a moral imperative for intervention in Syria in support of non-Syrian objectives, and particularly objectives desired by Sunni radicals answerable to the Turkish and Qatari governments.

The lingering problem is the Syrian deep interior. From a pure military point of view, the Government’s task is manageable. Violence and stability in the interior have a negligible effect on the functioning of the Syrian state, because this depends on the minority zones and the economic belt, both of which are under the effective control of the Assad Administration. The primary tasks of Damascus are reducing the level of Islamist-jihadist insurrection in the area, slowing down the flow of jihadist volunteers, weapons, and funds across the porous borders.

Initially, Assad’s strategy was based on holding onto some of the key cities in the interior and let everything else burn. To fight the jihadists, Damascus relies heavily on special operations in order to entrap and manipulate both the Syrian and Qatar-sponsored foreign jihadist elements. Ultimately, this strategy saves Damascus the need for massive use and widespread deployment of regular military forces Syria doesn’t have without sacrificing the Administration’s success.

However, there emerged a political imperative to reduce the level of fratricidal violence all over the country, as well as move forward toward a viable and legitimate negotiations process with grassroots populace. Furthermore, because of family and tribal connections between the rural population in the deep interior and the slum dwellers in the western cities, as well as the tribal population in the villages surrounding the western cities and in Aleppo itself, Damascus cannot ignore completely the popular dynamics and awakening in the interior. Thus, while this turmoil is incapable of threatening the Assad Administration and its continued consolidation of victory, it cannot be left completely unattended either.

The situation in Syria’s interior is complex. The population is overwhelmingly Sunni, tribal, and rural. The growing economic hardships of the past three decades, particularly the failure of the Soviet-style institutionalization of agriculture and the destruction of water resources mainly due to experimentation with cotton growing, led to grassroots’ alienation and rejection of the state system. Instead, the population has increasingly rallied around tribal and extended family frameworks in order to jointly survive the hardships. When blood-relation frameworks failed to remedy the situation, the youth abandoned the interior in quest for livelihood in either the urban slums in western Syria or in the ranks of the security forces that largely deployed near Syria’s borders and away from the interior. Hence, the population which has endured the hardships and remained stable in the Syrian interior is socially conservative and inward-looking; that is, committed to the empowerment of tribe and extended family at the expense of the centralized state.

This unique posture is the key to the tumultuous and largely hostile relationship between the majority of Syrians and the internationally recognized opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC). Simply put, the Syrian grassroots dread, and are hostile to, any centralized regime and/or form of governance which attempts to interfere in their daily lives, be it the Assad Administration in Damascus and its efforts to impose Ba’athism, or the Islamist Ikhwan-affiliated SNC which is committed to a centralized Sunni Islamic government in Damascus.

Meanwhile, as chaos has spread throughout Syria and as the Government virtually stopped functioning, it became evident to the grassroots in the interior that they could not stay aloof and isolated from the overall dynamic. The traditional population, their tribal and extended family leaders, started gravitating toward the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA), a loose coalition of like-minded localized forces and mini-groups. The SLA was formed in secrecy in March 2011 by representatives of local coordination committees. As wider circles of tribal and extended family leaders sought a framework for jointly resisting and enduring the crisis, they started coordinating and cooperating with the SLA. The SLA has relied on these grassroots components to organize regional forces to defend their people. In March-April 2012, the SLA leaders reported having more than 32,000 fighters, mostly part-time local defense units spread over most of Syria. In addition, some 71,000 youth were ready to join but could not because of lack of weapons and ammunition. The tribes and rural population affiliated with the SLA have been predominant in some 20 percent of the Syrian territory, mostly in the deep interior. SLA leaders reported having clandestine cells and armed networks across 80 percent of Syria.

Until this point, SLA military capabilities have been abysmal, despite widespread grassroots support. SLA forces are starved for everything, from weapons and ammunition to funds and supplies. However, even massive deliveries of weapons, funds, and supplies should not be expected to alter the diffuse and locally-focused character of the population which makes up the SLA. Nevertheless, for as long as the Bashar al-Assad Administration refuses to negotiate, it has been seen as imperative for the international community to assist and build the SLA as the genuine grassroots force capable of exerting real pressure and compelling negotiations to end the conflict. Meanwhile, the SLA has demonstrated its presence and relevance through the per- iodic explosion of car- bombs near Syrian security buildings in Aleppo and Damascus; detonations which have been mostly perpetrated and claimed by the loosely-affiliated Al- Nusrah Front.

Thus, the Assad Administration has been winning at the national strategic level and there has been nothing the SLA, or any other opposition entity, could presently do to reverse this trend. However, Assad’s Damascus cannot ignore the ascent of the SLA because Damascus will ultimately have to demonstrate the cessation of armed opposition and establish control over the interior. It would be far more logical and expedient for Assad’s Damascus to do so in the context of negotiations and power- sharing, than to achieve this through bloody, prolonged and exhausting mop-up operations all over the Syrian vast interior.

Meanwhile, the West, led by the US, Turkey, and Qatar, is striving to repeat in Syria the legacy of the interventions in Bosnia and Libya, irrespective of the realities on the ground or the desires of the local population. To justify such an intervention, the US leads a media campaign to portray the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as westernized and democratic when Arab governments and the Arab media know that this is simply untrue.

The Syrian National Council has always been a front of the more militant- jihadist wing of the Muslim Brothers [MB: the Ikhwan]. Once SNC leaders resolved to seek Western help and recognition, special effort was made by the MB leadership to conceal this relationship and pretend that the movement was led by westernized intellectuals, as symbolized by SNC leader, the ostensibly secular dissident, Burhan Ghalioun. However, Syrian MB leader Ali Sadr al-Din Bayanouni admitted in internal fora that the MB had nominated Ghalioun as the SNC leader merely as a “front” because he would be palatable to the West. “We did not want the Syrian regime to take advantage of the fact that Islamists are leading the SNC,” Bayanouni said. For his part, before becoming SNC leader, Ghalioun openly associated with the most conservative Islamist leaders and intellectuals of the MB and particularly MB’s spiritual leader Sheikh Yussuf al-Qaradawi whom Ghalioun called “my inspiration”.

 

Secret (Political) Lovers: Syrian National Council leader — and ostensible secularist — Burhan Ghalioun (left) with the radical Muslim Brothers leader, Sheikh Yussuf al-Qaradawi, whom Ghalioun called “my inspiration”.

 

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) — which is associated with the SNC, as opposed to the SLA, which is an interior- and tribally-based coalition of fighters — has never amounted to much of a force beyond the media claims of its Turkey-based leader, Col. Riad al-Asa’ad. Moreover, in order to guarantee recognition by, and support of, the Gulf States and the Arab satellite TV news channels which the Gulf states own, the FSA stressed its relations with jihadist elements. Indeed, the Arab media is full of ceremonies in which various jihadist elements such as the “God is Great Brigade” are shown swearing allegiance to the FSA and joining their jihad. In Arabic, the FSA’s war is a jihad for the establishment of an Islamist state rather than merely topple Pres. Bashar al-Assad. “To our fellow revolutionaries, don’t be afraid to declare jihad in the path of God. Seek victory from the One God. God is the greatest champion,” this Brigade’s commander declared while joining the FSA. “Instead of fighting for a faction, fight for your Nation, and instead of fighting for your [Syrian] nation, fight for God.” Moreover, Qatar tightly controls the funds of, and weapon supplies for, the FSA. Doha ensures that these go to Islamist-jihadist elements affiliated with, and controlled by, the key commanders of Qatar’s jihadist Foreign Legion [discussed in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 1-2012].

As well, the US-led interventionist policy leads to the needless aggravation and alienation of Russia, presently, a crucial supporter of the Assad Administration. Moscow’s basic strategy in the Middle East focused on restoring stability and permitting Russia to bide its time as chaos reigned. In Syria, as in all other Arab states and Iran, Russia is looking out for its own interests and has no commitment to any specific government or ruler. Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Middle East Studies Institute and one of the Kremlin’s leading Middle East experts, stressed this point. “Russia’s options regarding the situation around Syria are limited. ... Moscow’s current strategy enables Russia to save face and bide time in its own interests.” The Kremlin is apprehensive about foreign military interventions because of the unpredictable nature of their strategic outcome and not the fate of the government of the attacked countries. “A strike on Iran or Syria, if it ever happens, will weaken those who launch it. And whether or not there are more regime changes in the Middle East is not Russia’s problem,” Satanov- sky explained.

However, the US Barack Obama Administration insisted that there would be a new government in Damascus, rising as a result of a “regime change”. Thus, any US-sponsored new government in Syria would not be beholden to any agreement signed by either the Hafez or Bashar al-Assad administrations, including, specifically, the agreement of Syria with Russia on military installations in the ports of Tartus and Latakiya.

Whatever the importance to post- Cold War US national security of Russian presence on the shores of the Mediterranean, the mere unilateral assertion of this objective by the Obama White House has transformed the Russian involvement in Syria from that of bystander to a determined effort to save its military presence and installations from a “regime change”. The Kremlin is fighting to protect and secure the Russian access to the Syrian ports and not to support the Assad Administration, but the outcome is one and the same, and the results are showing in the military achievements of Assad’s forces as well as the deterring of NATO intervention.

Neither the complexities of the inner-Syrian struggle and the awakening of the deep interior, nor the travesty of the foreign intervention advocated by Washington, Ankara, and Doha should distract from the overall historic context of the crisis. At the core is the confrontation between resurgent Sunni Arab Islam- ism and the region’s aspirant non- Arab Islamist hegemonic powers: Mahdivist Iran and neo-Ottoman Turkey.

The Fertile Crescent of Minorities — from east to west counter-clockwise: Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, ‘Alawites, Druze, Maronites, Jews and Circassians — serves as the buffer, preventing a cataclysmic eruption.

Only a viable Fertile Crescent of Minorities — of which the ‘Alawites and Druze of Syria are presently the most beleaguered elements — can thus prevent the simmering Arab Middle East from conjoining with the Islamist ascent of Turkey and Iran and jointly creating an explosive critical mass.

Hence, the main challenge in resolving the Syria crisis is preventing the replacement of an ‘Alawite-Druze dominated Government by an Islamist- jihadist one. No less important is the imperative to restore and preserve a viable Syrian state via meaningful political reforms, as well as economic recovery and modernization of the entire region.

If a moderate, stable outcome was desired, then negotiations between the Syrian Liberation Army and the Assad Administration would need to be launched on the establishment of a nationalist government in Damascus, with emphasis on regionalization and diffusion of power which would ensure the rights of the Sunni Arab tribes, extended families and urban élite, as well as the nation’s minorities. The transformation of power through negotiations would ensure that all pertinent international agreements to which Syria was beholden would remain valid.

Ultimately, the restoration of Syria as a key to the Fertile Crescent of Minorities remains the real vital interest of the West.

Thus, in addressing the turmoil in Syria, special attention would have to be paid so as not to throw out the baby (‘Alawite-Druze pre-eminence) with the bathwater (ending the fratricidal violence). Democratic reforms would need to acknowledge the country’s Sunni majority and diversity of character and interests, but not at the expense of the pre-eminence of the ‘Alawite- Druze in official Damascus. The marginalization and destruction of the Syrian section of the Fertile Crescent of Minorities, even if in the name of democracy, not only would not elevate the Sunni majority but would cause cataclysmic upheaval throughout the greater Middle East.

There are no instant-gratification panacea solutions to the Syrian crisis. The Arab Middle East, of which Syria is a crucial component, is currently experiencing a peak in an historic convulsion spanning a quarter of a millennium.

Ultimately, the Arab Middle East will have to find its own solution for its own problem. Western intervention might be able to help alleviate the immediate crisis, but Western intervention might also spark a cataclysmic eruption that will set the region aflame.

Internalize what Albert Einstein said: “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.”

Footnotes:

1. The United Nations General Assembly and the Arab League in February 2012 appointed former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the UN and Arab League Special Envoy on the “Syrian crisis”. See also, Bodansky, Yossef: “Syria’s Multi-Layered Wars”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 2-2012 [Published in GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis on February 17, 2012, as “The Multi-Layered Wars of Syria: Why Assad is Gaining Strength, and Why the Greater Conflict is More Complex Than the Western Media Has Grasped”.]; and Bodansky, Yossef: “The Release of Abu-Musab al-Suri”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 1-2012 [Published in GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis on February 6, 2012, “The Release of Abu-Musab al-Suri”].


February 17, 2012

The Multi-Layered Wars of Syria: Why Assad is Gaining Strength, and Why the Greater Conflict is More Complex Than the Western Media Has Grasped

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. The intense fighting of late January and early February 2012 in Syria, coupled with the vastly improved manipulation of the jihadists there by Iranian intelligence (made possible largely by jihadist leader Abu Musab al-Suri and his followers) have already enabled Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Administration to take control over the war in Syria.

This means that Damascus once again largely controls the strategic narrative, but not each region, let alone each incident. Hence, barring a major foreign intervention — by troops, fire-power, weapons and funding — the Assad Administration should be considered over the hump, even though the predominantly Sunni-jihadist insurrection should be expected to continue for months or even years to come.

See also: Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, February 6, 2012: “The Release of Abu-Musab al-Suri: How the release from a Syrian prison of perhaps the most important jihadist ideologues reflects a delicate interplay between Iran, Syria, and the Sunni jihadist forces from Qatar, Turkey, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia”, by Yossef Bodansky.

The current conflagration in Syria is multi-layered.

First is the crushing of the western part of the Fertile Crescent of Minorities by neo-Ottoman Turkey, Mahdivist Iran, and a Sunni-Arab camp led by Saudi Arabia in order to enable the leading blocs to juggle for power. Second is the struggle between these blocs — a two-versus-one juggling — to determine the future of the Greater Middle East. Sub-plots here include the Saudi-initiated efforts to consolidate a north-south Sunni bloc with Turkey, which Qatar is trying to take over; the Iranian desperation to sustain the Shi’ite reach to the Mediterranean via the HizbAllah; and the Turkish-Iranian on-off alliance to suppress and overlord the Arabs. Third is the internal dynamic within Syria, which we discuss below. There are comparable struggles inside Iraq which are ignored because they are not as bloody as Syria’s; but their strategic significance is identical.

Moreover, the Iranian hegemonic surge includes the myriad of operations in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula in order to consolidate their hegemony over Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Gulf States.

For the industrialized West, this is the most important theater in the current upheaval in the Greater Middle East. The political working assumptions of the Arab governments are that: (1) Iran has already crossed the nuclear threshold; and (2) that Tehran has decided to maintain an Israel-style opacity in order not to aggravate an already tenuous situation.

Both assumptions are factually correct.

The conservative Arab governments, particularly Riyadh and Doha, are cognizant of both Tehran’s Mahdivist commitment to the destruction of Israel in the context of liberating Islam’s three holiest shrines in Jerusalem, Mecca, and Medina, which inevitably means the toppling of the House of al-Saud; and Jerusalem’s reticence to unilaterally strike Iran despite the mounting threat. Hence, the real Iranian threat lies in the Iranian dominance of the region’s oil and gas resources as well as their transportation to the industrialized West by pipeline and tanker.

The real impact of a de facto nuclear Iran lies in Iran’s hegemonic umbrella over the Arabian Peninsula and especially the Shi’ite-populated east where the bulk of the oil and gas reserves are located.

Iran effectively dominates energy-rich Iraq, and would not let go of Syria with its smaller oil reserves but crucial pipelines and ports, as well as Lebanon and its pipeline and port. And, of course, there are Iran’s own vast oil and gas reserves, as well as preferential access to these of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Hence, as far as the industrialized West is concerned, Tehran — rather than traditional Riyadh and Doha — is the real “owner” and “controller” of the Persian Gulf’s master spigot. In other words, the availability and price of oil now essentially depend on the goodwill of Tehran and to a far lesser degree on that of Riyadh and Doha.

Concurrently, there’s the mobilizing and radicalizing of the Arab street by all Islamist-jihadist trends and Administrations in the name of anti-Israel jihad as the lowest common denominator that will buy some legitimacy to any one of these actors. Iran is both sponsoring and exploiting this trend via the HizbAllah, HAMAS, Islamic Jihad, and a host of al-Qaida-affiliated entities in order to sustain some legitimacy in an Arab World turning to the anti-Shi’ite Muslim Brothers.

And, above all, there lingers the question whether these fateful struggles be conducted under an Iranian nuclear umbrella or even a Saudi one (to be provided by Pakistan and the PRC).

The security situation in Syria is also affected by domestic dynamics. Modern Syria is essentially the balancing of three foci of power: (1) Security apparatus which relies on the ‘Alawite, Druze and Kurdish minorities; (2) Urban-economic élite which relies on westernized Sunni families, Armenian, and Christian minorities; and (3) Radicalized and tribal Sunni population in the rural areas and increasingly the urban slums. Power in Damascus has always been based on two foci playing against the third. Starting the early-1970s, Rifaat al-Assad (brother of then-Pres. Hafez al-Assad and vice-president, and now exiled in Western Europe) consolidated an alliance between the security and economic élites which sustained stability in the country even after the exile of Rifaat and the death of Hafez.

Bashar rose to power in July 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez. He immediately promised the urban economic élite widespread reforms in return for their support for him succeeding his father. Instead of delivering, Bashar sought to transform the power system into an alliance with the radicalized Sunnis under Iranian umbrella. He expected the Syrian Islamists to be satisfied with financial handouts and growing involvement in regional jihadist causes (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, etc.). Empowered and inherently anti-Shi’ite, the Islamists demanded more domestic power and Sunni-Islamist character for the state. When Bashar refused, they rebelled.

The economic élite has consistently stayed out of the turmoil, thus facilitating the current crisis. The bombing in Aleppo on February 10, 2012, signaled a change, whereupon the urban economic élite must get involved on the side which promises them more. This turning point is playing into the hands of the Bashar al-Assad Administration.

The key to the current strategy of the Administration is that Damascus divided Syria into three strategic zones on the basis of their importance for the survival of the Administration and the running of the post-war country. The military priorities and resource allocation are based on this division.

1. The minorities’ bloc which is comprised of the traditional lands of the minorities upon which the security apparatus relies. These are the ‘Alawite strip along the Mediterranean coastline between Lebanon and Turkey, the Druze area in the south-west, up to the Jordanian and Israeli borders, and the Kurdish area in the north-east, largely along the Turkish border but also part of the border with Iraq (where Syria’s oilfields are located). Presently, these areas are essentially quiet with the local population committed to supporting the Administration. The minorities’ knowledge that they would be slaughtered under a Sunni-jihadist regime only reinforces the commitment to Assad’s Damascus.

2. The economic-strategic belt which is the area where the national economy (industry and commerce), as well as defense industries and strategic stockpiles, are located. Geographically, this is a relatively narrow strip between Damascus and Aleppo that includes the two key industrial cities Hama and Homs. This strip borders the ‘Alawite strip on the west and the Druze area on the south, but also borders the Turkey on the north-west and north, and the rest of Syria on the east.

3. The vast interior which is comprised of essentially the rest of Syria to the east of the belt and to the south of the Kurdish zone. This area enjoys access to parts of the border with Turkey and the porous borders with Iraq and Jordan. This area is inhabited mainly by Sunni Islamists and Arab tribes that cross over to Iraq and Jordan. This area is economically depressed because of endemic absence of water and lack of infrastructure (roads, electricity, etc.), and hence does not have great prospects for the future. Hence, this region has been the source of internal migration to urban slums in the main cities. These areas are implacably hostile to the Administration in Damascus — that is, any regime in Damascus — because they are implacably destitute and are thus susceptible to radicalization.

With the exception of the crucial slums in the main industrial cities in the economic-strategic belt and the Christian enclaves in the north-east, these strategic zones essentially overlap the three foci of power which make modern Syria. This explains the military strategy of the Assad Administration.

In this context, the military operations in Syria become fairly logical, thus permitting assessment of the Administration’s and the rebels’ prospects for success.

The ultimate priority of the Assad Administration — to secure the traditional regions of the key minorities — has already been attained. There continue few clashes on the Jordanian and Turkish borders as a result of infiltration attempts. But these eruptions cannot alter the basic reality that the Administration’s hold over these regions is firm and the local population actively supports the Administration.

The second priority — to control the economic-strategic belt — is being implemented ruthlessly. The turning point came recently when the Assad Administration concluded that the most crucial foci of the urban-economic élite in Aleppo and Damascus would not cast their lot with the rebels (and some even ponder supporting the Administration). Consequently, government forces could safely focus on ruthlessly suppressing the radicalized Sunni population of the urban slums and blue-collar neighborhoods which stand in the way of the region’s pacification and return to some economic activities. This approach is largely successful because rebel activities is now contained to several slums and neighborhoods rather than spreading into the rural areas.

However, with the jihadist elements holding firm and even escalating strikes from their parts of Homs and Hama, the Administration’s efforts become more ruthless and desperate to the point of ethnic cleansing some of the die-hard slums and neighborhoods in Homs and Hama. The secondary mission of the Administration’s security forces is preventing the relentless efforts by Turkey-based jihadist forces to reach Aleppo in order to provoke insurrection, as well as prevent a similar jihadist infiltration from north-eastern Lebanon into nearby Homs and on to Hama. But the Assad Administration is adamant on suppressing the jihadist insurrection in the economic-strategic belt at all cost, and will ultimately succeed if left to its own devices.

The third priority is reducing the level of Islamist-jihadist insurrection in the vast interior, as well as slowing down the flow of jihadist volunteers, weapons and funds from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. The Administration’s strategy is based on holding onto some of the key cities in the east to better control the Iraqi border, mainly Dar az-Zawr and Ar-Raqqah, as well as Abu-Kamal on the Iraqi border and the military city of Tadmur in the center, and let everything else burn. To fight the jihadists, the Administration relies heavily on special operations, particularly by Iran-controlled Sunni jihadist forces, in order to entrap and manipulate the Syrian jihadist elements. Although the initial success of this approach is showing, this is a long-term undertaking which will inevitably see some spectacular setbacks. However, since this approach saves the Administration massive use and spreading of regular military forces they don’t have, this is not an illogical approach.

As discussed above, the traditional key to ruling Syria is an alliance between the security and economic élites. Presently, the Assad Administration is well on its way to restoring this alliance between the two most important foci of power. The Administration’s military control over the economic-strategic belt and the growing threat of jihadist terrorism as demonstrated in Aleppo leaves the urban-economic élite little choice but to cast their lot with the Assad Administration. The only impediment is the lingering insurrection in Homs and Hama. The growing threats of foreign intervention is pushing the Administration to complete the crucial task of quickly and decisively pacifying Homs and Hama, thus raising the level of violence and the ruthlessness of the crackdown.

But this turning-point is far from being the end of the Syrian saga.

The vast Syrian interior and western Iraq are jointly the theater in which the fateful struggle over the future of the Greater Middle East is being waged between neo-Ottoman Turkey, Mahdivist Iran and a Sunni-Arab camp led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. None can accept the pacification of Syria before their own grand-strategic and historic struggles have been decided. While Iran can live with the denial of the predominantly Sunni-tribal Syrian interior and western Iraq to non-Shi’ite forces in order to sustain the east-west Shi’ite axis, both Turkey and the Arab bloc must control these Sunni-tribal lands in order to sustain the north-south Sunni bloc they aspire for. Only such a Sunni bloc would be able to withstand and contain the Iranian-Shi’ite ascent over the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.

Indeed, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are not going to give up anytime soon on their historic quest to reverse the Shi’ite-Iranian ascent. Hence, the possible consolidation of Bashar al-Assad’s reign and the restoration of the traditional alliance between the security and economic élites through the Administration’s control of their zones will neither stop the violence nor remove the likelihood of foreign intervention and flare-up of a wider regional conflict.

On the contrary, the more stable the Assad Administration becomes, the more determined Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia become to involve the industrialized West — that is NATO — in the military intervention ostensibly to topple the Assad Administration, but actually to reverse the Iran-Shi’ite axis. And herein lies the specter for the next explosion.

*

Because the conflagration in Syria is an historic phenomenon, it must be examined in historic terms and context. The upheaval in Syria pits the resurgent Sunni Arab Islamism against the region’s aspirant non-Arab Islamist hegemonic powers: Mahdivist Iran and neo-Ottoman Turkey.

Standing between them as a buffer and preventing a cataclysmic eruption is the Fertile Crescent of Minorities, from east to west against-the-clock: Ahwazi Arabs, Kurds, ‘Alawites, Druze, Maronites, Jews and Circassians. The sustenance of the Fertile Crescent of Minorities — of which the ‘Alawites and Druze of Syria are presently the most beleaguered elements — is an historic fulcrum. Only a viable Fertile Crescent of Minorities could provide the crucial buffer which would prevent the grassroots simmering of the Arab Middle East from conjoining with the Islamist ascent of Turkey and Iran; thus creating an explosive critical mass.

Hence, the main quandary is not whether Bashar al-Assad — the individual — remains in power; neither is it whether “his” Administration survives the upheaval. The real challenge is preventing the collapse of an ‘Alawite-Druze dominated government and its replacement by an Islamist-jihadist regime. But this would be a mere starting point toward. Far more important is the crucial imperative to restore and preserve a viable Syrian state via meaningful political reforms, as well as economic recovery and modernization of the entire region. Toward this end, it would be crucial to draw Damascus and Syria away from the Iranian embrace and influence. Ultimately, the restoration of Syria as a key to the Fertile Crescent of Minorities, and not placating the Syrian Muslim Brothers and other Islamist-jihadist forces, is the real vital interest of the West.

Thus, in addressing the turmoil in Syria, the West must be extremely careful not to throw out the baby (‘Alawite-Druze pre-eminence) with the bath water (ending the fratricidal violence). The undermining of the pre-eminence of the ‘Alawite-Druze in official Damascus in the name of a demography-based democracy, and the ensuing marginalization and destruction of the Fertile Crescent of Minorities, would cause cataclysmic upheaval throughout the greater Middle East.

Hence, Western leaders must resist the temptation to come up with instant-gratification panacea solutions just because there are ugly images of violence on the satellite TV news. The Arab Middle East, of which Syria is a crucial component, is currently going through a peak in a historic convulsion spanning a quarter of a millennium. Ultimately, the Arab Middle East will have to find their own solution for their own problem. The West might be able to help alleviate the crisis, but the West might also unintentionally spark a cataclysmic eruption which would set the region aflame.

Internalize what Albert Einstein said: “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.”


February 6, 2012

The Release of Abu-Musab al-Suri

How the release from a Syrian prison of perhaps the most important jihadist ideologues reflects a delicate interplay between Iran, Syria, and the Sunni jihadist forces from Qatar, Turkey, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. On February 2, 2012, authoritative jihadist sources confirmed one of the hottest rumors in jihadist circles worldwide: namely, that “Abu-Musab al-Suri Has Been Released From Prison” in Syria sometime between late-December 2011 and early-January 2012.

Abu-Musab al-Suri’s close assistant, known only as Abu-Khaled, was reportedly released with him.

Abu-Musab al-Suri is the nom-de-guerre of 54-year old Mustafa Setmariam Nasr, presently the most important ideologist of the global jihadist movement. Mustafa bin Abd-al-Qadir Setmariam Nasr was born in Aleppo, Syria, in October 1958 to a prominent and affluent Sunni family. Although his family has been conservative, he received the best Westernized education one could get in Aleppo of the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, he was attracted to jihadist causes from an early age and quickly became immersed in clandestine activities. In the late-1970s, shortly after he graduated from high school, he joined the Combatant Vanguard organization and participated in the early insurrection against the Hafez al-Assad Administration in Syria.

He was forced to flee Syria at the end of 1980. He spent the next year receiving advanced military and clandestine training from Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence in several safe houses in Iraq and Jordan. In late 1981, he was infiltrated by Iraqi intelligence back into Syria in order to assume a command position in the Hama uprising in early 1982. After the uprising was brutally suppressed, he escaped to Lebanon and from there emigrated to France and later to Spain in the mid-1980s using false papers. The jihadist movement arranged for him to marry a Spanish citizen, thus enabling him to obtain legal Spanish citizenship. Safe in Europe, Abu-Musab al-Suri began to emerge as one of the most sophisticated thinkers of the nascent jihadist movement, concentrating on the applicability of early jihads in Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine and the like to the consolidation of a global movement.

In mid-1987, Abu-Musab al-Suri and a few loyalists accepted the invitation of Abdallah Azzam — then the most important ideologist and organizer of the jihadist movement — to join him in Peshawar, Pakistan. In July, he became one of the closest personal protégés of Azzam and stayed in his immediate company until Azzam’s assassination in November 1989. Through Azzam, he met and befriended the young Osama bin Laden. One of the issues which preoccupied him was the proper relationship between mass-appeal Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brothers and small militant jihadist groups which act as catalysts and leaders particularly in times of crisis. He formulated his ideas in a 1,000-page study called The Syrian Islamic Jihad Revolution - Pains and Hope which he wrote in 1987-9 using the pseudonym Umar Abd-al-Hakim.

In the study, he analyzed the Hama Uprising and its lessons for future jihadist insurrections. Abu-Musab al-Suri stayed in Afghanistan-Pakistan until 1992, serving mainly as a senior instructor for Arab-Afghan commanders selected to form clandestine cells and networks in their home countries and Western Europe.

Abu-Musab al-Suri returned to Spain in 1992 and spent the next few years shuttling between Spain and the UK. He first concentrated on the consolidation of the jihadist clandestine network in Europe. Based in Geneva, Ayman al-Zawahiri was the senior commander of this effort. Starting 1994, and more so after 1996, he also focused on providing logistical, financial, military and ideological support to the nascent GIA (Armed Islamic Group) in Algeria and Western Europe.

The GIA emerged as a jihadist vanguard group which largely implemented his ideas. In 1996, he also established in London the Islamic Conflict Studies Bureau which served as the first modern and sophisticated public-relations and indoctrination face of the jihadist movement. The myriad clandestine activities of Abu-Musab al-Suri, especially in London, did not go unnoticed by the security services. The noose tightened in Autumn 1997, and he once again escaped to Afghanistan where he was greeted by Osama bin Laden with open arms. 

Initially, Abu-Musab al-Suri continued to run the public relations of the jihadist movements, organizing bin Laden’s most spectacular interviews with Western media in the late-1990s. The establishment in early-1998 of “the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” propelled Abu-Musab al-Suri to unprecedented significance. In principle, the Front was the small élite vanguard entity waging the jihad while mobilizing and awakening the larger grassroots trend which would soon be popularly known as al-Qaida. In Summer 2000, with the jihadist movement preparing for the next era of confrontation with the West, Abu-Musab al-Suri was entrusted with writing the long-term doctrine for the next phase of global jihad. He completed his magnum opus — a 1,600-page book called The Global Islamic Resistance Call’ — in August 2005. He signed the book as Abu-Musab al-Suri. This book is still the most prescient thesis on the long-term evolution of the jihadist movement and particularly the conduct of “global jihad”.

The Global Islamic Resistance Call provided both the practical and theological framework for the profound changes which the jihadist movement underwent in 2004-5 and articulated the future course. Abu-Musab al-Suri did so by adapting the jihadist doctrines of such luminaries as Abdallah Azzam to the prevailing conditions in the post-9/11 world. Philipp Holtmann noted: “Al-Suri’s [book] revives the jihad concept of Abdallah Azzam in a fundamentally different geopolitical situation. He uses Azzam’s defensive jihad concept to formulate a global strategy of terrorist attacks, and synthesizes this concept with the most violent tenets of the internal jihad paradigm.”1 The book itself is an extremely practical and pragmatic study of previous jihads, emerging trends in the world and realistically attainable objectives of the jihadist trend.

Abu-Musab al-Suri concluded that “global jihad” would ultimately be won by evolving, pragmatic and adapting vanguard whose spectacular struggle woulod excite and mobilize the grassroots into politically-significant “awakening” which would ultimately change the Arab-Muslim World. Despite al-Qaida’s post-9/11 notoriety, he warned against self-aggrandizement. “Al-Qaida is not an organization; it is not a group; nor do we want it to be,” Abu-Musab al-Suri wrote. “It is a call, a reference, a methodology.” Although al-Qaida was playing a major rôle in the then current phase of the worldwide Islamist uprising, it would ultimately give way to a new generation of populist movements.

Eventually al-Qaida’s leadership would be eliminated, he predicted, and the jihadist trend must be ready to smoothly hand over the mantle to a next generation of leaders.

The jihadist ideology for the mobilization of global jihad and struggle presently represented through al-Qaida would provide cover for the evolution of “leaderless resistance” comprised of a myriad of élite vanguard entities; that is, highly trained individuals or small autonomous groups operating separately but in accordance with a common master-plan and grand strategy. The objective of these vanguard groups was to wear down the enemy’s society and governments. Progress would differ from one country to another and from one region to another. However, sooner or later the jihad would transform in some countries or regions into “open fronts”; that is, overt Islamist insurrections. Abu-Musab al-Suri stressed that “without confrontation in the field and seizing control of the land, we cannot establish a state, which is the strategic goal of the resistance”.

The mere selection of the author’s nom-de-guerre — Abu-Musab al-Suri — was an audacious deviation from the then emerging trend in the jihadist movement. Al-Suri means the Syrian; that is, from a country called Syria. However, in 2004-5, Zawahiri was the driving force behind the extremely popular resurrection of identification of both individuals and jihadist entities by their traditional names rather than the modern states they divided into.2 If Zawahiri’s principles were to be followed, Abu-Musab’s affiliation should have been al-Shami; that is, from the traditional Bilad al-Sham or Greater Syria. However, Abu-Musab al-Suri argued in great detail in his masterpiece, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, that the initial “open fronts” and their success would be within the confines of existing modern states. Un-Islamic as they are, the existing Arab-Muslim states were reality and thus could not, and should not, be ignored. In this case, Abu-Musab al-Suri resurrected one of the quintessential tenets of the great Egyptian Ikhwan leader, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), even though he was not admired by al-Qaida’s Egyptian jihadist leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Abu-Musab al-Suri was very close to Iran and wrote mostly while sheltered there. He first explored getting shelter in Tehran back in 1998. He spent most of 2002-05 sheltered by Iranian Intelligence mainly in Marivan, north-western Iran. Several of his closest allies, mainly Saif al-Adel and Saad bin Laden, are from that period. Abu-Musab al-Suri played a crucial rôle in formulating the strategy of the jihadist war in Iraq in close cooperation with Tehran. Using the name Dr Abu-Hafiza the Moroccan, he spent four to six months in Fallujah in the first half of 2003, studying the war in Iraq. He then wrote the strategy for what would become the Iraqi intifadah. In late June 2004, as Abu-Hafiza, he represented Zawahiri in a summit in the Quds Forces HQ near Kermanshah, in western Iran, chaired by the up-and-coming Brig.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani (currently the Quds Force commander), and attended by all key Sunni and Shi’ite commanders. Soleimani decided on the joint strategy based on Abu-Hafiza’s study which would ultimately defeat the US and gain Iran control over Iraq.

They would continue to closely cooperate in overseeing and conducting the jihad in Iraq. (The Spanish indictment of Abu-Musab al-Suri for his rôle in the Madrid train bombing of March 11, 2004, included the assertion that he traveled from and to Tehran using high-quality Moroccan papers provided by Iranian Intelligence.)

Soon after The Global Islamic Resistance Call was published in August 2005, Abu-Musab al-Suri was summoned back to Pakistan and sent to jihadist centers and safe-houses in order to brief the hiding leaders about the future doctrine. Once again, he attracted attention. He was caught by the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) on the night of October 31/November 1, 2005, in Quetta while on his way to a meeting with senior jihadists. A few weeks later, he was handed over to the CIA and reportedly transferred to the “phantom prison” on Diego Garcia. There, Abu-Musab al-Suri was subjected to “intense interrogation” particularly on the whereabouts and hiding places of senior al-Qaida leaders. Abu-Musab al-Suri did not divulge much simply because he knew next to nothing. He had been led to safe meeting sites by jihadist security officials without any indication where he was. Around March 2006, he was the subject of special rendition to the Bashar al-Assad Government in Syria, in the hope that the local Mukhabarat be able to extract some useful data from him.

With that, Abu-Musab al-Suri vanished from the face of the earth until August 2011, when a couple of Syrian jihadists released in one of Bashar’s amnesties reported that they had learned in jail that Abu-Musab al-Suri was incarcerated in the General Intelligence headquarters in the Kfar Susa neighborhood of Damascus, and that he was in fairly good condition. One of the released Islamists said that “the sheikh [Abu-Musab al-Suri] saw in the past days a vision that he will have an important rôle in Syria, Bilad al-Sham. We ask Allah that it becomes true”.

*

Hence, the release of Abu-Musab al-Suri is a major event. He was released in the context of the fratricidal civil war in Syria, including the complex involvement of Iranian intelligence and the Pasdaran’s Quds Forces, rather than as a signal to the US or the West.

Although Osama bin Laden personally committed to intifadas since early 2011, the jihadist commanders in Syria were reluctant to take sides. At the core of bin Laden’s initiative are teams of highly trained jihadist operatives called “the Son of the Soil/Land” (Ibn ul-Balad) who deploy to intifada countries in order to assist the local Muslim Brothers and Islamist groups in their struggles against the local security authorities, Western intelligence services, and all other “enemies of Islam” and Islamism-jihadism.3

In Syria, the intifada was initially led by a younger generation of militant Islamist-jihadists from Syria’s sprawling urban slums. One of their key organizers and commanders is Feda Tarif al-Sayed, the son of Tarif al-Sayed, one of the senior jihadist leaders of the Hama revolt in 1982. Most of these jihadists were first recruited and trained by Syrian military intelligence as part of the effort to bolster the anti-US jihadist-dominated insurgency in Iraq. By the time these youth returned from Iraq, and some also from Pakistan-Afghanistan, they were devout followers of the al-Qaida global jihad doctrine. They established clandestine cells under the banner of al-Qaidat Jihad of Bilad al-Sham and waited for opportune time to revolt.

However, given the support the jihadist élite forces have been receiving from Iranian and Syrian intelligence, the leadership was reluctant to take sides. Sheikh Omar al-Bakri Muhammad (who was one of bin Laden’s key emissaries in the UK in the 1990s), emphasized that the Islamist movement in Syria did not want or need al-Qaida’s help. “If the Sunnis in Syria had called for al-Qaida’s help, al-Qaida would be everywhere in Syria,” Bakri explained, “but al-Qaida did carry out research among Sunnis in Syria and found that they were not in favor of a violent uprising”.

However, the jihadist leadership could not stay completely out of the escalating jihadist struggle in Syria. Therefore, at first the jihadist movement demonstrated presence on the ground through secondary and minuscule entities. For example, in November 2011, the leader of the al-Qaida affiliated and Syrian intelligence-sponsored Fatah al-Islam, Osama al-Shehabi, opined that the time was ripe for an armed jihad. “The regime’s brutal oppression of the Syrian people proves that it is time to change direction and use real weapons against the regime,” he wrote. “The revolution is a jihad; it is a war, prepare for jihad for Allah; scrutinize your intentions and take up arms, for they are your obligation.” In December 2011, Sheikh Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti, an influential salafist cleric, issued a fatwa sanctioning the use of force. “Why do you insist on confining yourselves to peaceful protests?” he wrote. “Is it a disgrace to kill those who kill us?”

Meanwhile, the real threat to both the jihadist movement in Syria and its Iranian sponsors was the concurrent ascent of Qatar’s jihadist Foreign Legion as a key player in the Syrian civil war. Buoyed by the success of its intervention in Libya, Doha sees itself as the rising power which will create a new regional posture post-Awakening/post-intifadas which would regulate the extent of Turkish and Iranian influence and presence in the Sunni Arab World, as well as ensure the flow of oil and gas to the West (particularly since Doha is afraid of an imminent collapse of Saudi Arabia).

Hence, in the Autumn of 2011, Qatar started building a “jihadist foreign legion” (as its detractors call it) to be able to intervene in Sunni contingencies. Qatar’s Chief of Staff, Maj.-Gen. Hamad bin Ali al-Attiya, is personally overseeing the military aspects of the program.

The first phase in the building of this jihadist foreign legion was completed toward the end of 2011in Hatay province, south-western Turkey (across the border from Syria’s Idlib province and the road to Aleppo). The Commander in Chief is Abdel Hakim Belhaj, from Libya. His deputies are Al-Mahdi Hatari (the former commander of the Tripoli Brigade) and Kikli Adem (Belhaj’s loyal right-hand man from his LIFG days). Both of them repeatedly crossed into Syria for coordination with local jihadist commandeers in November-December 2011. There are also several Iraqi and Egyptian senior commanders and officers that are veterans of various anti-West jihadist fronts. The HQ of the “Legion” is in Antakya, in a converted Turkish military garrison. The force in Antakya is about 2,500 fighters strong. It is divided into three main elements. The main fighting units are two 1,000-strong Brigades: (1) the Libyan Brigade, which is comprised mainly of LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) mujahedin and jihadist fighters trained in and by Qatar for the last war in Libya; and (2) the Iraqi Brigade comprised mainly of Iraqi Ansar al-Sunna mujahedin (which also keep conducting terrorist operations in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq) and a host of al-Qaida affiliated jihadist entities in Iraq.

The third 500-strong element includes the training, logistics, intelligence, and special operations elements. The majority of the personnel are Egyptians and Palestinians, as well as a few Gulf Arabs and a few North Africans. Significantly, most of them are veterans of the special forces and élite military units of their countries. As well, Pakistanis and Afghans provide training and logistics/maintenance cadres. A few Qatari officers control vital functions such as the communication links between the Libyan and Iraqi camps, and between the Legion and both the Turkish armed forces and military intelligence, and the Free Syrian Army. The jihadist Foreign Legion force in Antakya has its main facilities in the converted garrison in Antakya. The third element is based nearby. There are also two separate camps for the Brigades: a Libyan camp and an Iraqi camp. The Brigades also undergo intensive training for their forthcoming combat missions inside Syria.

By mid-December 2011, Doha, Ankara, and the leadership of the Syrian National Council which is affiliated with the Syrian Muslim Brothers put tremendous pressure on nationalist leaders of the Free Syrian Army to come under the umbrella of the Council and accept operational control via Qatar’s Legion. In December 2011, Turkey blocked all the bank accounts of the Free Syrian Army in order to coerce them to accept the pre-eminence of the Syrian National Council. Consequently, in early January 2012, the Free Syrian Army succumbed to pressure and signed an agreement with the Syrian National Council which would be guaranteed by Turkey and Qatar. According to Free Syrian Army senior officers, in January 2012, Qatar’s jihadist Foreign Legion became their major source of weapons and funding, and “Legion” fighters joined them in escalating the insurgency in Idlib, Homs, Hama, and Jabal al-Zawiya.

On January 15, 2012, Iran warned Qatar that it was committed to defending Syria against any “invasion”. Tehran noted that the Iranian-Syrian Defense Treaty applies to the use of international, multi-national and other foreign forces even if they are not enemies of, or part of a formal war with, Syria. Tehran believes that the overall situation in Syria is “good” and that barring the escalation of “foreign intervention” by the Qatar-sponsored forces, “the crisis can be resolved within two months or so”. Doha is worried by this ultimatum because Qatar did not expect such a blunt and threatening Iranian ultimatum when calling for Arab military intervention. Nevertheless, Doha remains convinced it is possible to reach an understanding with Tehran over Syria.

At the very same time, Iranian Intelligence and the Quds Forces were desperately attempting to reach deals with the Syrian Islamists, including the uppermost leadership of the Muslim Brothers, in order to both sustain the good relations that existed prior to the outbreak of the Syrian intifada, as well as ensure Iran a foothold in Syria in case Bashar was to fall. Tehran reached out to every group possible.

Back in October 2011, Iranian emissaries met Haytham Manna of the minor opposition group the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change in order to coordinate position for an opposition conference. Very little came out of it, because the leaders of the Syrian National Council would not communicate via intermediaries. Soon afterwards, Tehran reached out directly to Muhammad Taifour, the Deputy Superintendent of the Syrian Muslim Brothers and their representatives in the Syrian National Council. Taifour claimed that the Iranian emissary first proposed that the Brothers be four ministerial positions in a new Syrian government, but by mid-January 2012 was ready to give the Brothers entire government on the sole condition that Bashar al-Assad remained the country’s President. These discussions continue.

In late January 2012, Tehran also used HAMAS leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal to appeal to Doha, and via Doha to leaders of Islamist opposition in Syria. Toward this end, Imad al-Alami, who commanded the HAMAS networks in Lebanon, moved to Doha. The HAMAS trained and sheltered many of the young Syrian jihadists in its camps in northern Lebanon and south-west of Damascus, and now expected goodwill. Doha seems to be satisfied with this venue, for, on January 29, 2012, Qatari Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani brought Mashaal to Amman as part of his entourage for a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdallah II. This was Mashaal’s first visit to Amman since 1999. The Qataris asked Amman to support the HAMAS position in the reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority because HAMAS was providing Doha with crucial assistance regarding Syria. 

Abu-Musab al-Suri was released into this complex posture. The primary beneficiaries are the Iranians; specifically his past ally, Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Now the Commander of the Quds Force, Soleimani answers directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘i; that is, outside the command structure of the Pasdaran. He is considered Khamene‘i’s favorite candidate to succeed Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad as President of Iran. Significantly, the Iranian support for Syria is personally handled by Soleimani, who now visits Damascus frequently. He directly commands the Iranian and non-Iranian forces — including the HizbAllah and Palestinian forces — committed to supporting the Syrian forces. At the same time, Soleimani’s Quds Forces also support various jihadist forces operating against the Assad Government just to make sure that Iran was not left outside any future government in Syria. Bashar al-Assad knows this but can do nothing. The riots in mid-January 2012 in the city of Zabadani, on the Damascus-Beirut highway, came very close to the main Iranian Intelligence and Pasdaran facilities in Syria, and this alone raised the alarm in Tehran. Although Tehran arranged a ceasefire in Zabadani using intelligence contacts in Doha and Ankara, this eruption confirmed anew the gravity of the situation in Syria.

Hence, the objective in getting Abu-Musab al-Suri released was to have him intercede with, perhaps even take over, the main jihadist forces and particularly various vanguard movements.

Tehran hopes to have them cooperate with the Quds Forces toward resolving the Syrian conflagration. Iranian Intelligence and Quds Forces have maintained contacts with numerous opposition leaders and commanders, and sustained large-scale intelligence networks in their midst. However, Soleimani needs the jihadist prominence and theological credentials of Abu-Musab al-Suri in order to provide the Syrian jihadists with justifications for overt cooperation toward reaching post-war compromise and order.

Whether Bashar al-Assad departs or not is immaterial for Tehran for as long as they retain access to the coast of the Mediterranean and can sustain the HizbAllah in Lebanon overland.

On January 19, 2012, Soleimani personally briefed Khamene‘i on the situation in the main jihadist fronts. Regarding the situation in Iraq and south Lebanon, Soleimani said: “These regions are one way or another subject to the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its ideas.” He noted that these areas can serve as springboards for the spread of similar Iran-sponsored insurrections elsewhere in the Arab world. Asked to specify, Soleimani answered: “There is also possibility for this in Jordan.” Tehran is also capable of influencing other Islamist governments in order to fight “arrogant powers”. Soleimani stated that Iran was completely supporting the Assad Government in Syria because they believed it was destined to win. He observed that “most of the Syrian people loyal to the government”.

Soleimani then elaborated on the unique rôle of the Quds Forces in bringing about the current strategic posture. He stressed that, since the onset of the current crisis, the Quds Forces had been training and indoctrinating a growing number of jihadist youth from all over the region, most of whom are Sunnis. “The enemies are trying to besiege the Islamic Republic of Iran, but this [situation] is an opportunity for thousands of youth who play an influential rôle in the Islamic awareness to travel Iran and shed sensitivities of Iran-phobia by observing the an Islamic government founded on religious principles in Iran,” Soleimani said. He explained that the grassroots uprising throughout the Arab world was evolving from a social-political character and are assuming Islamist-jihadist character. He was convinced that this process would further evolve over time along the principles of the formation of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. Hence, it was imperative for Tehran to markedly increase its support for, and control over, these insurrections through the use of Quds Forces-trained Arab youth. “The Islamic Republic of Iran can control these revolutions and direct them towards the enemy,” Soleimani asserted. Khamenei promised Soleimani all the resources he might require.

On January 31, 2012, Khamene’i delivered a major speech to the participants of the Islamic Awakening and Youth conference in Tehran in which he highlighted the principles articulated by Soleimani. Khamene‘i was very optimistic about the future because “our youth are awake all through the Islamic world. There are so many traps on their way, but the devout and determined Muslim youth have saved themselves from such pitfalls. You see what has happened in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya, in Yemen and in Bahrain; what movement has begun in other Muslim countries. These are all good tidings.” This is because there is an across-the-board rejection of westernization in favor of Islam’s traditional values. “Today, neither Marxism is appealing, nor is the Western liberal democracy,” Khamenei explained. “Today, the highest attraction among the Muslim Ummah belongs to Islam, to the Holy Qur’an, to divine religions as the Almighty has promised that divine religion and revelations and the endeared Islam can guide humanity to prosperity.”

Khamene‘i warned the youth that there were still mighty challenges ahead. “You are triumphant; you are victorious; the future belongs to you. What has been done [thus far] has been a great job; but this is not the end of it all — this is important — this is just the beginning; it has [just] started. Muslim nations should continue their struggle so that they would be able to eliminate enemies in different arenas.” Given the extent of the West’s resistance, the struggle ahead would not be simple or short. “What is significant today is that the enemy, faced with the blow it has more or less suffered in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other countries in the region, is busy plotting and conspiring. [One] should be aware of the enemy schemes. [One] should be careful so that they would not steal people’s revolutions from them, [or] deviate courses. Use others’ experience. The enemy does a lot to deviate revolutions, to neutralize movements, to foil endeavors [that are made] and the blood that had been shed; one should be careful, one should be alert. You youths are the engines of these movements; be alert, be aware.”

Khamene‘i urged the youth to turn to Iran for help and inspiration because Iran “ha[s] had great experiences in the past 32 years. It is 32 years since we have been combating the enemies, we have been resisting, and gained victory over our enemies. There has been no single scheme that the West and the US have refrained from. ... They did all they afforded and at all points they were smacked in the mouth and defeated.”

The key to victory, Khamene‘i stressed, was all-Islamic unity. “Today, the Islamic movement in the Muslim world does not know Shi’a or Sunni; does not distinguish between Shafi’ite or Hanafite or Jafari or Maliki or Hanbali or Zaidi; does not know Arab or Persian or other nationalities; in this great field, all are present.” Khamene‘i rejected the idea of a monolithic Muslim world. To achieve true unity, it was imperative to take into consideration the distinction of each and every region, country and movement.

It was the joint effort of all diverse Muslim movements which would, he said, bring triumph. “A day will come when the Muslim Ummah, with the power and might of God, will rise to utmost majesty and independence. Muslim nations [should] while retaining their specifications and distinctions, stand under the single banner of the invitation to God and Islam; should be all together. It is then that the Muslim Ummah will find its glory. We in our countries have underground resources, strategic regions, plentiful natural facilities, remarkable figures, talented and advanced human resources; we should make efforts. God will bless these efforts, God willing.”

Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria, there began to emerge jihadist vanguard entities of the kind long advocated by Abu-Musab al-Suri. In late January 2012, for example, the previously unknown Victory Front (Jabhat al-Nusrah) published a video called “For the People of Syria from the Mujahedin of Syria in the Fields of Jihad”.

A commander going by the nom-de-guerre al-Fatih (the Conqueror), Abu Muhammad al-Juwlani (that is, from the Golan Heights), delivered a jihadist address threatening the US, the West, the Arab League, Turkey and Iran, for their solidarity and collaboration with the Assad Govenrment against the Sunni Muslims. He claimed that the Victory Front was active all over Syria, from Hama to Dara.

The video concluded with a group of fighters in the contentious Idlib area that belong to the Brigade of the Free Greater Syria (Kataeb Ahrar ash-Sham) swearing their allegiance to the Jabhat al-Nusrah. The implication was that these fighters now joined the real jihad.

Is this the initial handiwork of Abu-Musab al-Suri?


Footnotes

1. Philipp Holtmann, Abu Musab Al-Suri’s Jihad Concept, Tel-Aviv, The Moshe Dayan Center (of the Tel-Aviv University), 2009, p.19.

2. For contemporary analysis of this development and its significance see Bodansky, Yossef: “Zarqawi’s Jihad Into North Africa”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 6/2005; and Bodansky, Yossef: “Planning the ‘Great Ramadan Offensive’”, Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 9/2005.

3. For details, see Bodansky, Yossef: “After bin Laden: A New Framework for the Global Jihad”, in Defense & Foreign Affairs Stategic Policy, 4/2011


April 29, 2011

The Strategic Impact of Syria’s Unrest 

Analysis. Staff Report by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Analysts. Turmoil in the form of anti-Government protests in Syria in March and April 2011 grew more persistent, and the Government response grew more harsh. Not surprisingly: the outcome of the protests could have profound effects on the regional balance of power. A collapse of  control by Pres. Bashar al-Assad and his inner-circle in the Syrian Government could end, or diminish, Iran’s ability to have clear access to the Mediterranean, and its ability to supply and control HizbAllah forces in Syria and Lebanon. 

Iran, however, has hedged its bets, by maintaining close contacts with the Syrian Ikhwan — the Muslim Brothers (Sunni) — through the Iranian al-Quds Forces and Iraqi interlocutors. Ironically, it was Bashar’s deals with the Iranians, which included the Shi’itization of the ‘Alawites, which resulted in the grassroots backlash, by ‘Alawite and Sunni Syrian groups. 

Much of Iran’s strategic reach — its ability to demand attention from Europe, in particular — has derived from its reach through a disrupted Iraq into and through Syria and Lebanon. Iran appeared to have benefitted strategically, to some degree, when it took advantage of the political unrest in Egypt in early 2011, to ensure transit for some of its warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. This, however, was a token action; in reality, the military Government in Cairo is perhaps more wary of Iran’s encroachment into Middle Eastern dominance than the lackluster approach taken by former Pres. Hosni Mubarak. Egypt, in the bigger picture, sees Iran as a major strategic competitor for influence, but this would not extend to banning Iranian warship transit of the Suez except in periods of direct confrontation. Tactically, at present, the Egyptian Government is rapidly improving relations with Iran. A new, very senior Iranian Ambassador is on his way to Cairo. Egypt, in the short term, is looking for cooperation with Iran in order to contain the ascent of a Saudi-Pakistani strategic bloc which would diminish Egypt’s regional pre-eminence and which seems bound to have PRC support. 

The reality, however, is that there is very little meaningful external pressure — from the US or anywhere else — on the Syrian Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad to refrain from his strenuous repression of street protests. Most regional states, such as Israel, Turkey, and Syria (and even Lebanon), as well as the major powers in Europe, and Russia and the US, fear that the removal of Pres. Bashar’s ‘Alawite-led Government would lead to chaos in Syria. As a result, despite the leverage which Bashar gives to Iran, few are keen to see the “stability” of his rule ended. But much the same was said of Egypt and Libya. Fear of the unknown, and the belief that the status quo can be extended indefinitely, drives most policy-level appreciations of such situations.  

What has been surprising is that other ‘Alawite solutions have not been widely discussed. Clearly, Iran would not endorse the rise of Rifaat al-Assad, now in his early seventies and living in exile in Europe. Rifaat — the uncle of Bashar and the brother of the late Pres. Hafez al-Assad — would transform Syria into a market economy state, would withdraw Syrian forces (directly and indirectly) from Lebanon, and balance Syrian-Iranian relations with better Syrian-Western relations.  And he is just one of the possible factors. There are a number of Sunni contenders who have serious followings. 

The Syrian Sunni opposition is a tenuous coalition of exiled veterans of the Hafez al-Assad Government, the Syrian Muslim Brothers who escaped into exile during the 1980s, and a younger generation of Islamists-jihadists who rose to prominence in the past decade. 

The leader of the establishment veterans is Abdul Halim Khaddam, one of the few Sunni Muslims in the Ba’ath leadership. He was Vice- President of Syria from 1984 to 2005. Khaddam broke with Bashar over the political-economic reforms which harmed the Sunni urban élite. After his 2005 defection, he was embraced by Mubarak’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and France as the potential purveyor of a Sunni-dominated Syria. However, with virtually no grassroots following in Syria, Khaddam failed to deliver, yet he remains popular with Western governments. The leader of the Syrian Ikhwan is Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, who has been living as a political refugee in Europe (presently London) since the mid-1980s. In recent years, Bayanouni established himself as a “moderate Islamist” and allied with numerous exiled Arab Islamist leaders. Throughout, Bayanouni maintained contacts with, and a following among, Sunni communities in Syria.

The growing Islamicization of the Syrian Sunnis as a backlash to the Iran-sponsored Shi’itization increased his grassroots popularity and support from the Ikhwan as the undisputed leader. After the outbreak of the Syrian intifada, Bayanouni established a liaison office in Al- Azhar, Cairo, through which he contacts Western Governments (mainly the US) and the Muslim Brothers in Syria. Meanwhile, in the last years of the previous decade, Khaddam and Bayanouni sought to consolidate a political alliance which would combine Bayanouni’s grassroots presence with Khaddam’s acceptability in the West. Both worried about the ascent of a younger generation of militant Islamist-jihadists in Syria’s sprawling urban slums. These jihadists were first recruited and trained by Syrian military intelligence to bolster the anti-US jihadist insurgency in Iraq.

By the time these youth returned from Iraq, and some from Pakistan-Afghanistan, they were devout followers of the bin Ladinist global cause. They established clandestine cells and waited for the opportune time to revolt. Since Syrian intelligence still needed jihadists for operations in Iraq and increasingly also northern Lebanon, it limited its crackdown only to those caught actively conspiring against the Bashar al-Assad Administration. These jihadist youth are now the backbone of the Syrian intifada. One of their key organizers and commanders is Feda Tarif al-Sayed, the son of Tarif al-Sayed, one of the senior jihadist leaders of the Hamma revolt in 1982. 

One question, however, is whether the Syrian public frustration with Bashar has extended toward distrust for all of the ‘Alawite options — bearing in mind the delicacy of the political balance which allows this minority to hold the balance of power — and even an anti-Bashar (and anti-Hafez) member of the al-Assad family.  

But Iran clearly is the foreign power with the most access to the Bashar al-Assad Government, and as such has the support of technical capabilities of the intelligence services of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which is the one power least threatened — for the time being — by Iran’s Mediterranean ambitions. However, even Iran’s strategic attentions are now divided, having expended enormous support for destabilization activities in Mubarak’s Egypt (mostly through HAMAS and the Ikhwan), Saudi Arabia (in the so-called Islamic Republic of Eastern Arabia region), Yemen, and Bahrain (where it has traditionally pushed elements within the local Shi’a majority against the Sunni monarchy). It has also been attempting to dominate events in Iraq, and, with Turkey, to gain an appropriate position vis-à-vis the Kurds of the region.  

But more than that, it seems clear that the internal rift between Iranian Pres. Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad and “Supreme Leader” “Ayatollah” Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘i has become profound. Pres. Ahmadi-Nejad had, in April 2011, forced the resignation of Intelligence Minister Hojjat-ol Islam Heidar Moslehi, only to have the “Supreme Leader” reinstate the Minister. Ahmadi-Nejad immediately appeared to go into seclusion, failing to chair several Cabinet meetings, and not appearing in public. The incident moved the longstanding rift between the two leaders into the open, and was a sign that the Supreme Leader no longer felt that the President enjoyed the overwhelming support of the public and, far more importantly, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran).  

Has an over-extension of Iranian covert assets, plus the domestic power struggle, forced Tehran to “take its eye off the ball” with regard to Syria? Given Syria’s importance to Iran, it hardly seems likely that the security structure would allow this to happen. However, the attempt by Ahmadi-Nejad to dismiss Intelligence Minister Moslehi gives some indication that the security structure itself is at the center of the dispute. And clearly, Khamene’i’s support for Moslehi indicates that the camp of the Supreme Leader feels it now has most control over the Intelligence Ministry and almost certainly the key elements of the Pasdaran, presumably including the semi-autonomous al-Quds special units.  

Several questions need to be asked:  

1. How does Khamene’i hope to constrain or replace Ahmadi-Nejad? Are we witnessing the first rounds in a move to have the Majlis, or some other body, impeach Ahmadi-Nejad?  

2. Would dominance by the Khamene’i camp mean a more restrained policy of adventurism in the region, in light of the fact that much of the Arab world has galvanized firmly against Iran?  

3. Is there really a potential for a power vacuum in Syria in the unlikely event that Bashar was removed, or is it merely a case that external intelligence analysis has failed to understand the internal dynamic of Syria, as was the case with Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya (in particular)?   

4. To what extent are cyber security assets of the PRC and Iran working with Bashar to constrain street protests, and to what extent is electronic traffic a factor the street actions in Syria? 

Any diminution of Iran’s grip on Syria would dramatically change the strategic dynamic for Israel. Without the ability to trigger a Syrian and HizbAllah kinetic engagement against Israel, any unilateral Iranian move — even with nuclear-armed missiles — would be relatively meaningless (and would invite a destructive response against Iran from Israel). Israel (and Western and Arab states) cannot ignore asking whether non-Iranian-linked options are available for Syria.


March 9, 2005

Hariri’s Death Now Seen as a Planned Catalyst for Resumed Major Conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. It seems clear that the Syrian and Iranian governments are moving along a well-planned path, with solid strategic reasoning, to ignite a renewed civil war in Lebanon.

Apart from other priorities, the administrations in Damascus and Tehran seem committed to seeing the current political framework of Lebanon overturned and “democracy” instated so that a Shi’a government could be installed, reflecting the fact that the Shi’a is the largest confessional group in the country.1

The promise by Syrian Pres. Dr Bashar al-Assad in early March 2005 that he would be prepared to withdraw all Syrian forces from Lebanon2 is by no means a guarantee of the sovereignty of Lebanon, nor of peace in the region, even assuming that all uniformed Syrian military personnel are, in fact, withdrawn over the coming six months or so. Syria, after all, retains — with Iran — direct control over HizbAllah forces based in Lebanon and less directly controls or influences other armed groups operating in, from, and through Lebanon.

Indeed, it is more than probable that, without necessarily anticipating the scale and coordination of international pressures for a military withdrawal from Lebanon, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, 60, on February 15, 2005,  was deliberately designed to stir a major internal conflict — a civil war — in Lebanon which would force Israel to re-involve itself in Lebanon.

Even more, the Hariri assassination was almost certainly designed to provoke a situation whereby Syria, supported by the Iranian clerics, could create a situation in Lebanon whereby the Shi’a majority could be assisted in seizing national power and eradicating, once and for all, the 1943 power-sharing National Pact which artificially assigns the Presidency to the Maronite community, the Premiership to a Sunni Muslim, the Parliamentary Speakership in the Chamber of Deputies to a Shi’a, and so on.

Under this arrangement, the Deputy Speaker is a Greek Orthodox; the Defense Minister is a Druze; and the Commander of the military is a Maronite Catholic Christian.

The Ta’if Accords of 1989, while not accepted by all parties, called for the Cabinet to be equally divided by Christians and Muslims. Even that is unacceptable to the clerical leadership in Tehran, although the Syrian Government has found that it has successfully worked with Maronite Christian leaders in Lebanon in the past (including the current Presidency of Adm. Emile Lahoud).

Utilizing the example of Iraq, the now-dominant Shi’a could argue that an overthrow of the old National Pact and the Ta’if Accords would, in fact, bring “democracy” to Lebanon: the majority would rule. It is unlikely that all of the non-Shi’a would unite to outnumber the Shi’a in elections, and even though by no all Shi’a means follow the leadership of HizbAllah and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

And the Syrian-Iranian combine has the strength to make the changes in Lebanon. Even without a direct, uniformed Syrian military presence, HizbAllah, in particular, has been built up during the past few years with massive missile and rocket capabilities, far outstripping anything which the Lebanese Armed Forces could field.3

But such an initiative would be opposed vehemently by Lebanon’s Sunni and Christian communities, as well as by external forces. The base-line democratic theory of the rule of the majority does not work where the rights and opportunities of the minorities are not enshrined in both law and conscience.

Major Shi’a demonstrations — involving many tens of thousands of people — in Beirut on March 8, 2005, in support of Syria were ascribed by foreign observers to a rejection of foreign interference in the affairs of Lebanon. This is patently incorrect; they were a reflection of foreign interference (specifically Syria and Iran), and were organized by HizbAllah and Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah who are funded and armed by Iran and Syria. The Western press noted that the Shi’a rally, which followed even larger anti-Syrian rallies (up to 150,000 strong) in Beirut in preceding days, was equally not aimed against other Lebanese, but merely against “foreign interference”. Given the strength of both camps’ opinions (one for, one against Syrian military and intelligence presence in Lebanon), it is clear that both camps could easily be moved to harden their positions vis-à-vis each other.

It has for some time been evident that HizbAllah, and the Syrian and Iranian governments, have been ready for a major conflict. The Iranian Government has been unable to provoke the US or other Coalition forces into responding to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) goading to create a cross-border military engagement which would be seen as a US-led attack on Iran. The murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri was an oblique, and yet obvious, way to start the process.

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, February 16, 2005: Who Benefits From Hariri’s Death?

Not only does the catalyst action of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri blur the question of responsibility for the renewal of hostilities, it revives them in such a way as to create a maelstrom into which Israel can be easily drawn — or blamed — even if it attempts not to respond to the attacks which will inevitably come against it from HizbAllah and other forces in the Lebanese Beqa’a area.

The escalation which is now set to occur serves several purposes:

  1. It provides the Iranian clerics the opportunity to re-establish control over the larger dynamic of the region, even if it has achieved less than it desired in Iraq. The situation with regard to Iraq is no worse for the Iranian clerics than it was under Saddam, and in many ways it is much better. And by reasserting control over the dynamic in Lebanon, it moves the borders for Iran’s “defense” outward. Under the 2003-04 dynamic, the boundaries of pressure were closing in on the Iranian clerics; now, they are moving outward again.

  2. It sets the opportunity to change the governmental structure of Lebanon so that a Shi’a administration can come to power. This would move Lebanon away from its traditional dynamic as a Mediterranean-oriented trading power toward being an Eastward-looking country, with allegiances to Syria and Iran.

  3. It allows a revival of the dispute with Israel, and sets the tone for Syria and Iran to dominate the leadership of this dispute, helping to solidify the leadership of both the clerical powers in Tehran and the ‘Alawite minority leadership in Damascus.

  4. It reignites the hostility toward Israel at a critical time when an Israeli and Palestinian Authority (PA) modus vivendi might have been possible, and could stop Israel from defining de facto borders along the West Bank and with Gaza. And in this context, it also undermines PA Chairman Mahmud ‘Abbas by almost certainly dividing loyalties — as the new conflict escalates — among the various Palestinian factions.

  5. It uses the US policy of “democratizing” the Middle East against the US.

The fact that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has said that a full withdrawal of Syria's troops was unacceptable while Lebanon remained in a “state of war” with Israel is significant: Israel and Lebanon are not, in fact, in a “state of war”, either declared or undeclared at present. Sheikh Hassan’s HizbAllah is in a “state of war” with Israel, and that shows the approach being taken.

At the same time, there are indirect consequences of the actions. The current and anticipated situations in Lebanon reinforce the xenophobia and religious tendencies which are coming to the fore in neighboring Turkey, and this certainly serves Syrian and Iranian purposes in that this tendency breaks Turkey away from its traditional relationships with the US and Israel.

Some observers have indicated that the “success” which the US, French, Saudi, and German governments have had in exerting pressure on Syria to start to abide by UN Resolution 1559 of September 2004, which demands the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, indicates that similar pressures could be brought to bear on Turkey to withdraw its forces from Cyprus in compliance to several UN resolutions. But such pressure would only be brought to bear on Turkey if a Turkish-Western break was seen as inevitable or actual. In the meantime, the Turkish General Staff (Türk Genelkurmay Baskanligi: TGB) will see the potential for collapse in Lebanon as an urgent reason to retain and possibly reinforce its military presence off the Lebanese coast.

And lest there be any misunderstandings about whether the Bashar al-Assad Government is becoming more attuned to the West and toward a more moderate approach to issues — as has been anticipated by, for example, some key British officials, on the basis of Pres. Bashar’s marriage to a Sunni Muslim Englishwoman, Asma Akhras — the publication in 2005 of a new, Syrian edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion should dispel such doubts. This virulently anti-Semitic document, purporting to be a Jewish plan for world domination, has long been discredited, and its publication aims at inciting anti-Israeli sentiment.

The new book — shown with the permission of the Egyptian Government at the Egyptian International Book Fair in January-February 2005 — is published by Dar Al-Awael Publishing House with the express permission of the Syrian Ministry of Information, and under the banner of [First Lt.-Gen.] Mustafa Tlass, until May 2004 Syrian Minister of Defense.

It should also not be overlooked that the overall new dynamic led by Tehran and Damascus has a distinctly anti-Saudi character. Quite apart from the fact that the assassination of Rafiq Hariri was claimed by the previously-unknown4 An-Nosra wal Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham (Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria)  who said that was a “suicide attack” [there is no evidence that it was a suicide attack] to avenge Hariri's close ties with the Saudi Government, the dynamic aims at consolidating an Iranian/Shi’a controlled arc over the region, something which is distinctly threatening to the Wahabbist-Sunni leadership of Saudi Arabia, which has its own dissident Shi’a minority in the Eastern Province to face. In this instance, then, whether it is realized widely in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or not, there is for the first time real (although discreet) common cause between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Whether the Saudi leadership could publicly resist the populist appeal of the new Syrian-led anti-Semitism is, however, questionable. But a renewed focus on “an external threat” — which Israel has been projected to be by the Iranian, and most Arab, leaderships over the past decades — is not what the Saudi leadership needs at present: Crown Prince ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud has been trying to bring about a restructuring which would result in a more representative base of government in Saudi Arabia, something which would allow domestic frustrations to be channeled and defused more productively than the old approach of constantly pointing to Israel as the source of all their problems.5

Overall, then, an overall perspective on the developments which have their focus on the murder of Rafiq Hariri shows the importance of Iran, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. And while the short-term headlines belong to the West, the longer-term planning has been the domain of Tehran and Damascus.


Footnotes:

1. It is estimated that 65 percent of the Muslim population in Lebanon is Shi’a. In 1999, out of a total population of 3.77-million Lebanese, 70 percent of the population (2.64-million) was estimated to be Muslim, and of these 65 percent (1.7-million) were estimated to be Shi’a. Ref.: www.islamicweb.com/beliefs/cults/shia_population.htm. It is believed, through anecdotal evidence, that the Shi’a population has risen more substantially than other population sectors during the past five years, but, in any event, the Shi’a represent the largest single confessional bloc in Lebanon. To this should be added the small, but influential, ‘Alawite (Shi’a sect) grouping. When the 1943 National Pact was drafted, the ‘Alawite community — also known as Nusayris; believers in the divinity of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed — were regarded by mainstream Islam as apostates and infidels, and thus sought to avoid the annexation of Lebanon to Syria. Subsequently, however, because the leadership of Syria passed into ‘Alawite hands with Hafez al-Assad’s coup in 1970, the Iranian clerical leadership which came to power under “Ayatollah” Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 caused the (now-deceased, believed assassinated by the Libyan Government) Iranian (Qom)-born Lebanese cleric, Imam Sayyed Moussa as-Sadr to issue a fatwa to the effect that the ‘Alawis were Muslims. This edict is still controversial, especially considering the fact that several ‘Alawi beliefs are seen by mainstream Islam as heretical, and the belief that although the sect has some origins in the Sevener Movement, a pre-Islamic Christian Gnosticism, which was subsumed in the Eighth Century with the 11th Shi’a Imam al-Hasan al-Askari (d.873) and his pupil Ibn Nusayr (d.868). The small ‘Alawite community in Lebanon (some 50,000) is now seen as important to bolstering the position of Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad, given that ‘Alawites comprise only some 11 percent (1,950,000) of the Syrian population.

2. The commitment to abide by the Ta’if Accords was reiterated following a summit of Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese Pres. Emile Lahoud in Damascus on March 7, 2005, although the US Government, and others, said that the commitment was insufficiently strong.

3. Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, on February 14, 2003, in an report by Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky entitled Iran’s Delicate Transformation Pushes Clerical Leadership in Direction of Further Support for Terrorism, Conflict, noted: “Hence, Tehran committed to preparing to spark an Arab-Israeli war by providing the HizbAllah with an arsenal of heavy weapons, including more than 10,000 missiles and rockets. First to arrive in the Summer of 2002 were several hundred long-range, Iranian-manufactured 240mm Fajr-3 with range of 40km/25 miles and 333mm Fajr-5 rockets with range of 72km/45miles. Both missiles have a standard 220lb/100kg warhead. Strategically, most important was the delivery in the Autumn of 2002 of numerous Zalzal-2 missiles to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) contingent in southern Lebanon. Although not accurate, the 610mm Zalzal-2 has a range of 210km/130miles with a standard 1323lb/600kg warhead, covering all of central Israel to the northern Gaza Strip. The Zalzal-2 is thus capable of easily reaching the greater Tel Aviv area. With a smaller warhead, the Zalzal-2’s range can be extended to at least 320km/200miles, which means covering Israel’s Dimona-area nuclear reactor facilities. The Zalzal-2 missiles are hidden in underground storage bases in Tyre and Sidon areas under Pasdaran control.”

4. In such circumstances, “previously unknown” often implies that a group has been created for the occasion to take responsibility for a certain action, and that it does not, in fact, exist.

5. Saudi Arabia had, by March 3, 2005, undergone its first-ever community-level elections, with municipal elections held in Eastern Province, Asir, Jizan, Najran, and Baha Regions. On February 10, 2005, first-round municipal elections took place in Makkah (Mecca), Madinah, Qasim, Tabuk, Hail, Al-Jouf. Northern Border Province municipal elections were scheduled to take place on April 21, 2005, in the last phase of the process.


February 16, 2005

Who Benefits From Hariri’s Death?

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. The significant questions following the bombing assassination of former (five-times) Lebanon Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, 60, on February 15, 2005, are: (i) who benefits from his death?; and (ii) what are the likely ramifications of the bombing?

Mr Hariri was killed along with 14 other people when a bomb — estimated to have at least 350kg (770 lb.) of explosives — was detonated as his motorcade left the Parliament building in Beirut. About 100 people were also wounded in the blast. A previously unknown Islamist group — An-Nosra wal Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham (Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria)  — claimed responsibility for what it said was a suicide attack to avenge Hariri's close ties with the Saudi Government.

Given that the anti-Saudi Government attacks have been coordinated by al-Qaida-linked Islamists for the most part, the communiqué which was sent to al-Jazeera television in Doha, Qatar, was clearly meant to indicate the involvement of a branch of al-Qaida. And while it is possible that al-Qaida-linked operatives could have undertaken the attack, it is clear that the attack took considerable resources, skill, and planning. And in Beirut today, these resources exist mostly under the control of Syrian- and Iranian-linked Shi’a groups, including HizbAllah.

Mr Hariri’s increasing hostility toward the Syrian Government and the Syrian military occupation in Lebanon had begun to have an impact on Damascus, and also on Iran’s ability to dominate the region. Any Iranian or Syrian military action against Israel would require the ongoing ability of Iranian and Syrian leaders to control the movement of Syrian and irregular forces through Lebanon. Mr Hariri’s stand had brought about a UN resolution demanding Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and the US,  French, and other governments were increasingly ready to support this position.

Prime Minister Hariri on September 7, 2004, announced the possibility of reshuffling his Government as from September 17, 2004, after four ministers, including three from the Democratic Gathering bloc led by the Druze leader Walid Junblat, gave their resignation to protest the amendment of the constitution on September 3, 2004. The announcement came after an urgent meeting between Prime Minister Hariri, Pres. Emil Lahoud and the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, to discuss the future of the Government which had been split since its vote to permit extending the term of office for Pres. Lahoud for a further three-years. Minister of the Environment Fares Bueiz was the first to announce his resignation. He said in a press conference that the constitutional amendment created several gaps and weakened the Lebanese position before foreign pressures. His resignation was followed by that of the ministers of Trade and Commerce, Culture, and Expatriates. The resignation of the four ministers destabilized the Government, but did not require it to resign because what is required constitutionally was that one third of its members, 10 ministers, to resign before the Government was considered dissolved.

Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri resigned his Administration on October 20, 2004, without giving an official reason for his move. However, he suggested in an interview earlier in October 2004 that if he left the Government, it would be over differences with the president regarding Syrian influence in Lebanese politics. Mr Hariri said that he would not form the next Government, but would return to Parliament, where he helped lead a bloc of Christian and Muslim legislators increasingly opposed to Pres. Lahoud. Pres. Lahoud was then compelled to hold talks with Parliament to select a new cabinet, and Mr Hariri’s successor must be another Sunni. But many Sunnis have opposed Pres. Lahoud since he accepted the extension of his Presidential term.

With Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation, Pres. Lahoud called on Omar Karami, 70, who was prime minister in 1990-92, to form a new Government.

After the bombing, anti-Syrian opposition leaders in Lebanon called for a three-day general strike, the resignation of the Government and a Syrian troop withdrawal, saying it held the governments in Beirut and Damascus responsible for Mr Hariri’s death.

The Security Council in September 2004 had adopted Resolution 1559 calling for a halt to foreign interference in Lebanon and a withdrawal of foreign troops.

The size of the weapon used, the skills used to make it, and the significant and audacious placement of the device — quite apart from the question of who benefits from the action — all point to major government involvement in the attack. Few foreign governments have the requisite freedom to insert an operation of this scale into such an area: only the governments of Syria and Iran, which have extensive on-the-ground assets in much of Lebanon. And also on the question of who benefits from the attack, the answer is that only Syria and Iran are likely to derive any benefit from the affair, except possibly Pres. Emil Lahoud personally.

It is unlikely that Pres. Lahoud would have risked the potential for civil war to be resurrected just because Mr Hariri opposed him. But the Syrians and Iranians, who both wanted Pres. Lahoud to stay in office, and who also had much larger strategic issues at stake, would have no such qualms. The question, however, is whether the action provides the chaos which could help Syria and Iran to further their control over Lebanon at this critical time in the Palestinian-Israel negotiations, or whether the move might raise the ire of Lebanese and turn a larger number of them against Syrian and Iranian military occupation of Lebanon.


January 30, 2004

Iraqi WMD Debate and Intelligence Failed to View Total Picture, Including Syria

Anaysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. Discussion and analysis of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs relating to the former Iraqi Administration of Pres. Saddam Hussein has seriously — and virtually from the beginning — missed the point. By focusing entirely on Iraqi WMD programs within the physical borders of Iraq, and by refusing to discuss contextual issues, the arguments missed the point that the bulk of the Iraqi WMD work since 1991 was conducted outside the borders of the country, this being a result of the lesson which Saddam derived from the 1991 Coalition war against him.

There is a very substantial, historical chain of intelligence — much of which has been cited and verified by Global Information System (GIS) HUMINT sources over the past 14 years and some of which has been verified by external sources — resoundingly confirming this position, which can be summarized as follows:

1. Documents Moved to Syria: In essence, documentation of that small portion of the WMD program which was administered directly in Iraq was moved, along with other sensitive material and resources, to the Hshishi Compound at al-Qamishli (Kamishli) in Syria, just near the Iraqi border, in August-September 2002. This was noted by GIS at that time.1

2. R&D Conducted in Libya: The great bulk of the work on WMD and on associated missile delivery systems, however, was conducted since 1991 in a partnership with Libya, and also with Egypt, at facilities in Libya, in order to keep the programs away from US and United Nations (UN) probes. That, too, was noted by GIS.2

Assuming that these two points can be demonstrated, does this, then, constitute a failure of US, British and other foreign intelligence? Or does it constitute a failure not just of intelligence, but also a failure of policymakers and policy-level managers of the intelligence communities in the West to allow or encourage an examination of the Iraq situation within a broader strategic context?

From 1991 onwards, Saddam was principally focused on the fact that the UN had a mandate — a search warrant — to inspect all of the physical territory of Iraq. That meant that maintaining any meaningful research and development (R&D) facilities or test capabilities on prohibited weapons within the borders of the country would be virtually impossible. But, given that the “search warrant” extended only within the confines of Iraq, it was logical and expedient that any WMD R&D should be conducted under Iraqi control, but outside the country’s borders.

Moreover, once this decision was taken, and implemented, it was important to sustain the focus of UN inspections on Iraqi territory and to discourage inspections or analysis on weapons programs elsewhere. This meant that Iraqi weapons programs — or hints about them — within Iraq had to be sufficiently enigmatic as to attract attention; the game had to be drawn out, and no suspicion should be allowed to fall on external programs.

Given the billions of dollars which Saddam had invested in WMD, and the fact that WMD and associated delivery systems represented his only chance at strategic independence, it was inconceivable that he would not have engaged in massive strategic deception operations in the hope that, as partially demonstrated in 1991, once the US/West/UN had gone through Iraq as comprehensively as possible, he would then be free to re-import his strategic capacity, by that time at a proven and operational level. This option was lost, however, not because the US George W. Bush Administration was aware — at the White House level — of the specifics of the deception and re-deployment of WMD programs, but because of the intuitive belief by the White House that Pres. Saddam was engaged in a strategic-level build-up which threatened the region and Western interests.

Saddam utilized his best efforts and international contacts and alliances to limit the scope of debate and UN inspections to an extremely finite set of conditions, all of which focused solely on the Iraqi territory. In this, he was almost totally successful.

However, there were numerous failures to maintain the total secrecy of his actions at an operational intelligence level. This may have been inevitable, given the scope of the WMD programs being conducted in Libya, for example, where an estimated Iraqi workforce of up to 20,000 scientists, engineers and workers were engaged in WMD and missile development, and in other countries, such as Mauritania (intended as a launch site for ballistic missiles to threaten the US), where Iraqi intelligence officials were conducting aspects of the strategy.3

What has emerged from the pattern of intelligence available is that Pres. Saddam took the opportunity, possibly shortly after the 1991 defeat of his Armed Forces in the first US-led Coalition war against Iraq in 1990-91, to move his WMD programs to one or more safe havens abroad. It was known, even at that point, that Iraq maintained extensive deployments of forces and some basing inside Sudan, and that Saddam and Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi were closely aligned in that they perceived threats from the same quarters: (a) the United States, and (b) radical Islamists. Equally, they increasingly came to the same view that they needed to work with the Islamists because the various Islamist groups — ranging from Osama bin Laden’s organization to the Iranian-led Shi’a groups — also felt threatened by, and hostile to, the United States.

The thread of a common enemy has historically woven groups together, and this has been consistently evident in Iraqi relations with radical Islamist militant groups, including those of Iraq’s geopolitical rival, Iran. Significantly, Libyan leader Qadhafi, although concerned about the threats to himself from Islamism, had consistently maintained strong relations with the Iranian clerical leadership, again based on the concept that they both faced a mutual and overwhelming enemy in the US. Libya’s supporting rôle in the bombing of Pan Am flight PA103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, was directly at the request of Iran (and Iran’s proxy, Syria), for example, something which has gradually been acknowledged by the US Intelligence Community.

On November 8, 2000, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily noted:

“The Libyan acquisition of NoDong-1 SSMs is the result of a joint Egyptian-Iraqi-Libyan crash program to overcome delays in production of indigenous SSMs. Initially, the Egyptians and the Iraqis wanted to expedite the production of their own missile in Libya. Cairo arranged for Tripoli to provide cover for the revival of the Bad’r/Condor program which could no longer take place in Iraq and now also not in Egypt because of the exposure by the US of the North Korean (DPRK) rôle and a consequent US pressure to stop the program. Therefore, the Libyans initiated their relations with the DPRK on behalf of Cairo and Baghdad.”

That report, by GIS Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky, and based on known and reliable intelligence sources, continued:

“... [I]n the late Summer of 1999, Cairo and Baghdad urged Tripoli to purchase North Korean NoDong-1 SSMs on their behalf with the idea that Libya would keep a few of them for its own use. At the behest of Pres. Mubarak and Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein, Col. Qadhafi instructed General Abu-Bakr Jabir, the Libyan Defense Minister and Army Chief of Staff — who also holds overall responsibility for the Libyan missile program — to personally devise a more direct way to acquire these missiles. Desperate for hard currency, Pyongyang expressed willingness to deliver numerous NoDong-1 SSMs the moment hard currency was delivered in a ‘safe laundered method’. A North Korean delegation arrived in Tripoli to discuss the operational requirements and, in October 1999, General Abu-Bakr Jabir signed a deal with them for the supply of NoDong-1s and related technological expertise. In the Tripoli negotiations, the Libyans stressed the imperative to have the missiles deployed operationally immediately after their arrival in Libya.”

What is significant about the flow of intelligence which GIS has obtained on Libya, Iraq, Egypt and other regional states on this matter over more than a decade is that most of it derives from GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs’ own human intelligence (HUMINT) networks, which have been developed privately since the beginning of the 1970s. This has been coupled with reporting from other intelligence agencies which has often confirmed aspects of the total picture. What is also significant is that the US intelligence services in particular, and, to a lesser extent, the UK, have failed to sustain any continuity or depth of HUMINT collection in Libya. As well, US HUMINT with regard to Iraq has been patchy at best, varying from non-existent to massive and sudden build-ups. The result has been a lack of historical knowledge and a lack of broader contextual appreciation. Most specialists brought by US services onto the Iraq problem, when it periodically re-emerged, were either not experienced in Libyan issues, and were — most importantly — told strictly to confine their activities to the territory of Iraq or to Iraqi officials visibly able to be identified abroad.

During the Cold War, US intelligence and policy officials and diplomats vied to work on the “main threat”: the Soviet Union. The intelligence, diplomatic and threat assessment community remains in the same mode: career paths are associated with participation in the “main threat”. After September 11, 2001, this became perceived as Islamist-based terrorism and Iraq. All other areas, even when they related to the “main threat”, were dismissed or ignored, unless a policy directive from the highest levels explicitly demanded investigation of a link.

This remained particularly true of intelligence relating to Libya, which was considered by the US intelligence community to be a dead issue, largely based on two criteria: the fact that the White House ignored it, and the fact that Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi said that he had renounced terrorism and radical strategic ambitions. In fact, evidence shows that Qadhafi’s ongoing — and unrealistic — belief that the US would repeat its military attacks of the Reagan era (April 14,-15, 1986) led him to make constant “gestures” of rapprochement and reconciliation with the US and UK while he continued, with as much secrecy as possible, on the path of strategic weapons development and in the conduct of destabilizing political actions in a wide range of countries, from South Africa and the Philippines to Ethiopia, Somaliland, Mauritania, and so on.

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs carried extensive intelligence, based on reporting from within the Libyan leadership and Qadhafi’s family circles as well as other Libyan sources, repeatedly detailing the Libyan strategic weapons programs, including the missile developments involving Iraq, Egypt, Iran and North Korea (DPRK), and WMD programs (particularly chemical and biological weapons) conducted with Iraq and Egypt. These were consistently ignored by the US intelligence and diplomatic community, despite very specific references which should have triggered a verification process, and particularly as the US State Dept. and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) committed themselves to a rapprochement and normalization of ties with the Qadhafi Administration based on an admission of responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing.

[Significantly, on January 28, 2004, The Washington Post, quoting unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials, named Dr Abdul Qadir Khan and Mohammad Farooq as the two men who acted as middlemen to supply nuclear weapons technology to Iran and Libya. One of the officials involved in the current investigation said that while the “money trail’ provided some of the evidence against Dr Khan and Mr Farooq, the most damaging information was given by Iran and Libya to the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), which then passed it along to Pakistani authorities.]

Only a refusal by the US Congress and the White House to accept the State and CIA approach on forgiveness of Qadhafi for the Lockerbie bombing stopped the Lockerbie settlement from leading to a normalization of US-Libya relations. This led to the belief by Qadhafi — by now, in 2003, seriously ill with cancer — that the Bush Administration had targeted Libya for military action. By this point, as well, Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein had ceased to be a factor. It was clear that, despite the presence of numerous Saddam family members in Libya,4 Saddam’s capture by US forces meant that the alliance on strategic weapons would now come to nothing.

Significantly, as long as Saddam Hussein had eluded capture by US forces, Qadhafi did nothing to reveal, or to stop, the missile and WMD programs which were underway inside Libya, and which were supported by a major core of Iraqi and Egyptian scientists. Even well after the defeat of Iraqi military forces — but while the Arab world continued to believe, to some extent, that Iraqi guerilla forces would rise up and expel the Coalition occupying forces, the plan which Saddam himself had put in place in November 20025 and conveyed to his close associates, presumably including Qadhafi — Libya persisted with plans designed to make the WMD programs strategically effective.

One such ongoing plan was the attempt to overthrow the Government of Mauritania. Pres. Saddam had long realized that Iraqi technology would not, in the foreseeable future, be able to lengthen the range and payload — to the point where they could credibly threaten US and European targets — of the family of ballistic missiles which Iraq had developed based on original Soviet Scud ballistic missile technology and on Scud-derived NoDong missiles. In order to achieve a viable platform from which to reach the US, he planned to subvert Mauritania. To that end, he had begun the process of winning over the Mauritanian Armed Forces, initially through gifts of old tanks, and then through training programs in Iraq, under which Mauritanian military officers were brought into the Ba’ath Party ideology.

Saddam, however, needed the help as well of Libya and Libyan-linked Islamists to attempt the coup. Libya had a long history of attempting to overthrow the Mauritanian Government. [See History section, GIS Mauritania country study.] But with the conventional war in Iraq over by April 2003, and the value of the multi-billion dollar investments by Iraq, Libya and others in the Libya-based WMD/missile programs now open to question, Qadhafi, using his management of the Mauritania coup planning, caused the pro-Iraqi Ba’athists in the Mauritanian Army to work with Libyan and Islamist figures to utilize this last opportunity to seize power in Mauritania.6

The last-ditch coup attempt in Mauritania failed, and details of Ba’athist and Libyan involvement were to gradually emerge as the Government of Mauritanian Pres. Col. Ma’aouiya Ould Sid’ Ahmed Taya tracked down, arrested and prosecuted the coup plotters through 2003. By late 2003, then, Qadhafi was faced with the fact that the WMD program had lost its principal sponsor, and he was faced with the fact that many thousands of Iraqi employees in Libya were now not being paid; and that the WMD program had lost its potential to achieve strategic leverage and that, in fact, the linkage between Saddam and Qadhafi was now a major liability and an actual cassus belli for the US to use to attack Libya militarily.

The Egyptian Government came to the same conclusion and may have already withdrawn its officials engaged in the Bad’r/Condor missile program aspects of the project at al-Kufrah, in Libya near the Egyptian border. Indeed, it may have been an Egyptian withdrawal which triggered Qadhafi, in 2003, to seek support and to enquire about acquisition of new, longer-range ballistic missiles — Shahab-3s — from Iran rather than persist in attempting to improve the range of the NoDong-1s which Libya acquired for the coalition of Iraq, Egypt and Libya from the DPRK in 2000.7

By late 2003, there was no chance that the WMD program could be successfully implemented by Libya alone. Qadhafi, as well was terminally ill, and there was increasing infighting among his family over the succession, particularly challenging for Saif al-Islam, the son who was named heir, and who lacked a power base at home. Saif al-Islam knew that the only chance of a stable succession lay in convincing the US, UK and EU states that Libya would, under him, move to a new era of conventional government, so that the major foreign powers would provide him with the power base and protection which he lacked at home. Older members of the “revolutionary” clique around Qadhafi complained that Saif al-Islam persuaded Qadhafi to make the statement on November 19, 2003, in which he renounced WMD.

It is critical to bear in mind that for the preceding decade and more, Qadhafi had consistently denied that he was engaged in WMD programs, denying also any links with Islamist terrorists or terrorists of any kind. This lie was accepted by the international policy community, and yet when Qadhafi admitted what GIS had long said was the case — that such Libyan WMD programs did, in fact, exist8 — he was greeted as a reformer by the UK Government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, and also by some US politicians. Equally significant is the fact that Qadhafi had ensured that, through the Lockerbie settlement, significant funds (up to $900-million) were to go to Washington and New York law firms, providing a pressure point on Washington policymakers of almost unprecedented levels. For many politicians, there was more to be gained by carefully assisting Qadhafi than in exposing him.

Qadhafi’s sole remaining option, by the end of 2003, if he was to avoid the risk of a US attack and if he wished to see Saif al-Islam succeed him, was to abandon the decades of work and billions of dollars he had poured into WMD and missile programs and into his links with radical Islamist groups. In so doing, he could (and it appears has been successful to) pre-empt US political investigations which would ultimately have tied Libyan WMD programs into those of Iraq (and Egypt). He has not, however, abandoned other work with many African radical groups, including insurgent groups in Darfor, Sudan, terrorists and insurgents in Ethiopia and aimed at Somaliland (which dominates the egress of the Red Sea).9

Among the additional intelligence which began to point in recent years to the fact that Iraq had moved its WMD and missile programs offshore was the involvement of officers of the Iraqi Navy in the strategic weapons programs in Iraq, despite the fact that the Iraqi Navy, to all intents, effectively ceased to exist as a result of the Coalition’s actions against it in 1991.10 It became clear that these naval officers were engaged in the clandestine movement of personnel, equipment and other resources to and possibly from Libya in the years following the 1991 Gulf War, and perhaps earlier.

The fact that some significant strategic matériel, including weapons, documents and other matter, had gone to Syria before the Coalition began military operations in Iraq had, by late 2003, become accepted, and had, as well, been confirmed by a high-level Syrian defector. But apart from the initial note of the transfers of this material by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of October 28, 2002, footnoted [1] below, the physical presence of theater ballistic weapons — which may or may not have had chemical and/or biological warheads — was noted by Australian Special Forces troops during the war. The mobile ballistic systems had been moved into Syria before hostilities began, and had moved back into Western Iraq on the night of March 27-28, 2003, in order to assume firing positions against Israel. The actions of the Australian Special Forces drove the missile batteries back into Syria.11

GIS reports in 2003 also questioned the rôle of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency leader, Mohamed el-Baradei, in suppressing or manipulating intelligence and perceptions relating to the Iraqi and Libyan WMD programs. Significantly, el-Baradei attempted to interpose himself into the Libyan situation following Qadhafi’s December 19, 2003, announcement that he was “relinquishing” his WMD programs. This appeared to be an attempt to stage-manage the closure of the Libyan WMD programs in such a way that Egyptian and Iraqi involvement was denied. [Dr el-Baradei is himself an Egyptian.]

Dr el-Baradei and others claimed, following the announcement by Qadhafi, that the WMD programs were at least five years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon. The truth is that nuclear weapons capability, while not imminent, was — when the Iraqi and Egyptian scientific and financial backing were engaged — significantly closer than five years. However, it is true that the jointly-owned (Iraqi, Egyptian, Libyan) NoDong-1 missile batteries were already capable of strategically threatening southern European targets with chemical, and possibly biological weapons. Libyan and Iraqi scientists had already shown a significant capability to weaponize chemicals and possibly biological agents. As of 2000, they had a longer-range ballistic delivery system available to them than they had ever before possessed.

It is significant that Israeli intelligence sources pointed out that when the batteries of NoDong-1s became active in 2000, they were targeted at Southern European cities, not at Israel. This may have been out of concern that knowledge of targeting of Israel by the systems would have provoked a pre-emptive Israeli strike.

The clear, and now mounting, evidence that Iraq and Libya had sought to seize power indirectly in Mauritania so that they could use it as a launch site to threaten the US — once longer-range missiles were developed from the basic NoDong-1s, as was being attempted — and that this indicated a readiness date which was sooner, rather than later. The evidence suggests that while Qadhafi and Saddam may not have contemplated a war with the US, they did, however, believe that having a viable nuclear capability would buy them protection and invulnerability to US interference in their activities. There is clear evidence, as well, that the DPRK Administration of Kim Jong-Il and the Iranian clerical leadership today also accepts this logic: nuclear weapons and an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system guarantees invulnerability from US attack. In the case of Iraq and Libya, the move to Mauritania was meant to compensate for the fact that true ICBM capability would take too long to develop, and therefore a launch facility closer to the US was required.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that earlier, contextual analysis and a broader understanding of underlying issues and relationships of Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein and his peers in the region (as well as in the DPRK) could have assisted in providing better operational intelligence which could have enabled a more efficient conduct of the war. In this, there was a clear failure of intelligence, but more particularly of intelligence direction at a political and policy level, both in the US and in the UK. The ongoing refusal to acknowledge the rôle of Libya and Col. Qadhafi in the broader picture was also partly attributable to financial and commercial incentives being offered to the UK and US (as had earlier been successfully undertaken by Libya with regard to Italy, France and Germany).

The current refusal to acknowledge the regional linkages which tie the Saddam Administration in closely with the actions of Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt and the Palestinian and other subsidiary subnational or transnational groups (including al-Qaida) is, to a large extent, governed in the US by the fact that there is strong pressure, not least from the US State Dept. and Secretary of State Colin Powell, not to “widen the war” in the face of international and domestic pressures. However, this position significantly hurts the incumbent US Bush Administration, which took a major political gamble by taking the war to Iraq based on an “intuitive” understanding of the threat which Saddam Hussein posed to regional and Western interests.

For many career intelligence and diplomatic officials, acknowledgement of the Iraq-Libya-Egypt-Iran-DPRK linkages (but particularly Iraq-Libya), at this stage, would be embarrassing. These officials have chosen the approach that, if all goes well, the Libya “problem” will now go away, albeit leaving a considerable gap in the public knowledge which could be politically beneficial to the re-election of US Pres. George W. Bush.

Footnotes:

1. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, October 28, 2002: Iraq Moves WMD Matériel to Syrian Safe-Havens. This report noted, in part:

“Highly-authoritative, experienced GIS sources have reported that the Iraqi Government and Armed Forces have moved substantial caches of chemical weapons and related materials to safe-havens across the border into Syria, to avoid any chance of discovery by United Nations (UN) inspectors. 

“Iraq moved stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear matériel as well as key production machinery and key experts to the Hsishi compound near Kamishli [al-Qamishli], in Syria, along with strategic weapons, ammunition, military fuels and other defense matériel, gold reserves, national archival records and national art treasures. It is believed that the moves took place in late August and early September 2002.

“It is also understood that some of the matériel, production machinery and experts moved into Hsishi compound were from the al-Qaim facility, which had been based near the H-3 base area in Western Iraq. The al-Qaim facility had been involved, before 1991, almost exclusively in uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, but since it was reconstituted after the bombings of the 1991 Gulf War it was engaged in chemical and biological weapons development work, along with some nuclear-related activity. It is believed that some of the warhead materials for the chemical and biological weapons were at the al-Qaim facility, and that this is now in Hsishi.

“The move reflects the earlier breakthroughs in strategic relations between Iraq and Syria, given the fact that Syria is strategically dependent on Iran, which has traditional rivalries and hostility with Iraq. The movement of Iraqi strategic combat matériel into Syria is the first tangible evidence of the accords which have been struck between Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus in the escalation of the war against Israel and the US. The evidence provided a pointed reminder to those US White House security policy officials who had decried suggestions by some other White House staffers that Iran could be persuaded to help the US in its war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein.”

The report — drawn from GIS HUMINT sources in the area — also noted: “Significantly, Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad visited Kamishli and, reportedly, Hsishi Compound, in early September 2002, presumably to check on the Iraqi deployment.”

2. This assertion was noted in a wide range of GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily reports. On November 19, 2002, for example, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily noted: “The strategic, as well as the physical and commercial, linkages between the DPRK, Iraq and Iran — as well as Libya — on nuclear weapons and strategic delivery systems has now become clear and of sufficient consistency as to imply a degree of coordinated political activity.” Among the many other such reports by GIS, the Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of June 2, 2003, was headlined: Reports Place Saddam, Scientists in Libya, But GIS Sources Believe Only Qusay in Libya; Uday in Belarus.

3. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily report of June 10, 2003.

4. On April 11, 2003, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, in a report entitled Libyan Aircraft Collects “VIP Group” From Syria; Flies Back to Libya, gave details of the movement by a Libyan Air Force Il-76 transport of Iraqi leadership figures to Libya from a Syrian military airfield, al-Mazah, near Damascus on April 10, 2003. On April 15, 2003, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily reported that “a second Libyan Air Force transport aircraft flew into, and out of, al-Mazah AB [Damascus] on Sunday, April 13, 2003, collecting an Iraq-related cargo of people and baggage”.

5. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, November 8, 2002: Iraqi War Planning and Strategy Show Detailed Preparations for a Geographically Wide and Multi-Layered Conflict.

6. In reporting on the attempted coup on June 8-9, 2003, in Mauritania, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily on June 10, 2003, noted: “[T]he Ba’athists, mostly in the Army, had been brought under Iraqi Ba’athist influence when the Iraqi Government of Pres. Saddam Hussein donated 34 T-54/55 main battle tanks to the Mauritanian Army some years ago” (in the 1990s, after Saddam had begun moving Iraqi WMD work outside of Iraq).  See also Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, December 23, 2003: Evidence of Libyan Involvement in Mauritania Coup Attempt Highlights Qadhafi’s Strategic Direction. Apart from discussing Libyan involvement in the attempted coup in Mauritania (which entailed tracked Libyan payments to at least one Mauritanian Islamist leader), the report said: “...[E]ven following the collapse of the Iraqi Administration of Saddam Hussein, Libya was, with Iran, negotiating for longer-range missiles, Iranian-built or modified Shahab-3s, apart from the NoDong-1s which were delivered to Libya from the DPRK and paid-for by Libya, Iraq, Egypt and possibly Iran.”

7. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, November 8, 2000: Libyan NoDong SSMs Reported Targeting Southern NATO Sites and Israel. See also the Daily reports of December 23, 2003, and September 4, 2003: Libya, Iran, DPRK Discuss New Strategic Missile Procurement. See also Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of May 8, 2002: US Now Focuses Attention on Libya as Hostile State, While Libya Moves Rapidly to Bolster Strategic Ties With Iran.

8. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, December 22, 2003: Libyan WMD Programs, Long Cited by GIS, Admitted as Qadhafi Begins Rear-Guard Action to Stave Off US Attack. And Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, January 22, 2004: Qadhafi “Rear Guard” Action Attempts to Halt US Discovery of WMD Link With Iraq.

9. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, January 28, 2004: Eritrea Recruiting Mercenary Special Forces as Preparations Mount for Resumption of War With Ethiopia. And the Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of January 27, 2004: Puntland Warlord Preparing for Attacks on Somaliland. Both reports highlight Qadhafi’s involvement in Horn of Africa insurgency. Indeed, his “settlement” with the US on Lockerbie was only for show; he immediately, in private circles and at the 2003 Revolution Day celebrations, recanted his accord with the US. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, September 5, 2003: Qadhafi Denies Responsibility for Lockerbie; Calls US Leaders “Prostitutes” and Privately Alleges He Has Bribed Key US Officials to Achieve Closure on Case .

10. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, October 2, 2002: Iraq Believed Using Riverine Barges, Vessels, for WMD Storage, Development and Possible Launch.

11. See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, March 31, 2003: Iraq Signifies Readiness to Engage Israel; Tests SSM Deployments in Western Desert. As the report noted, “On March 30, 2003, Israeli Military Intelligence Director Maj.-Gen. Aaron Ze’evi-Farkash briefed the Knesset on the conflict and singled out ‘the unique, sacred work’ of the Australian special forces in preventing missile attacks on Israel.”


January 15, 2004

Growing Evidence of Syrian Involvement in Iraqi WMD, “Resistance”; Early Suspicions in Egyptian Air Disaster Investigation

Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS UN Correspondent. GIS sources termed “very credible” an early January 2004 report by Syrian journalist and human rights activist Nizar Najoef on the specific locations of Iraqi WMD in Syria. Najoef, now living in France, in a letter to the Dutch daily Die Telegraaf identified three sites in Syria which he claimed housed Iraqi WMD:

  1. A North Korean-built tunnel system beneath near al-Baida, about two kilometers from the town of al-Misiaf. This tunnel complex is believed to house Office 489 of the Cipher and Document Security, a branch of the Syrian “national security apparatus”.

  2. A factory controlled by the Syrian Air Force (Al Quwwat al Jawwiya al Arabiya as Souriya) near the village of Tal Snan, between the cities of Hama and Salamiyeh.

  3. A second tunnel system near the city of Sjinsjar on the Syrian side of the Syrian/Lebanese border. This complex is used by the 661 battalion of the Syrian Air Force.

Najoef said that he had received this information from a “senior Syrian intelligence official”. His claims were consistent with earlier reports by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily sources about the movement of Iraqi WMD into Syria with the full consent and cooperation of both the Syrian Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad and the Iraqi Government of the now-deposed former Pres. Saddam Hussein. On October 28, 2002, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily report entitled Iraq Moves WMD Matériel to Syrian Safe-Havens noted:

Highly-authoritative, experienced GIS sources have reported that the Iraqi Government and Armed Forces have moved substantial caches of chemical weapons and related materials to safe-havens across the border into Syria, to avoid any chance of discovery by United Nations (UN) inspectors. Iraq moved stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear matériel as well as key production machinery and key experts to the Hsishi compound near Kamishli [al-Qamishli], in Syria, along with strategic weapons, ammunition, military fuels and other defense matériel, gold reserves, national archival records and national art treasures. It is believed that the moves took place in late August and early September 2002.

Najoef’s mention of Sjinsjar was particularly notable because of its proximity to Lebanon and the significant possibility if not probability that segments of the Iraqi WMD matériel moved to Syria had subsequently been moved to Lebanon, in particular the Beqa’a Valley. Because of Iran’s influential rôle in the Beqa’a, the presence of Iraqi WMD there would additionally implicate Iranian acceptance of their presence, at the very least; between a few hundred and a few thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) are based in the Beqa’a, with their command divided among their own institutional chain of command, the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, and the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. There had been numerous other reports of the movement of Iraqi WMD into Iran proper under the watch of Pasdaran commander Mohammed Baqer Zolghadr, although GIS sources could independently confirm these claims.

The January 9, 2004, finding by Danish Forces of as many as 200 120mm mortar shells just south of the Iraqi city of Amara potentially containing some form of blister agent could, if confirmed, be expected to be used by various elements in Washington to their own ends, respectively. [Iraq disclosed to UNSCOM that it filled 120mm mortar shells with CS tear gas starting in the early 1980s, but UNSCOM was unable to determine how much CS tear gas had actually been produced or how many shells had been filled; GIS UN sources noted that UNMOVIC remained suspicious of Baghdad’s claim that CS was the only chemical agent actually utilized in this fashion.] Members of the US Bush Administration in favor of strong action against Syria, notably Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-Pres. Dick Cheney, would likely attempt to buoy their case by building on this discovery, advocating that the finding of Iraqi WMD in Iraq strengthens the popular international legitimacy of the March-April 2003 US-led Coalition action against Iraq, easing the way for a harder-line approach toward Damascus.

National Security Adviser Dr Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and chief political adviser Karl Rove, all of whom had played a rôle in preventing US military forays into Syria under a “hot pursuit” rubric during the major conflict stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom, would conversely point to the finding of WMD in Iraq as weakening the “case” that Iraqi WMD had been moved into Syria. Already, on January 9, 2003, National Security Adviser Rice told a press conference that the US had no credible evidence that any such movement of Iraqi WMD into Syria had occurred, saying: “We don’t, at this point, have any indications that I would consider credible and firm that that has taken place …” 

Complicating the regional dynamics by January 12, 2004, were the remaining unanswered questions regarding the January 3, 2004, crash on take-off from Sharm el-Sheikh of Flash Airlines Boeing 737, which killed all 148 passengers, including 135 French tourists, four with dual US-French citizenship. Forensic evidence at the crash site was still being collected, but GIS sources noted that the aircraft literally disintegrated a fraction of a second after all electric/electronic systems died without warning. GIS sources described this sequence of events as “odd, to say the least”, and noted that it implied a physical intervention at a junction of the aircraft’s electrical system. This was possible, by the use of an explosive or corrosive device, because, on this older-model Boeing 737, there was, indeed a single point at which all electrics could be cut, but it was not possible for them all to fail concurrently through normal means.

Perhaps critically, the 737 crashed into the Red Sea. It is standard practice, where feasible, for terrorists to bring down targeted flights over water in order to obfuscate any subsequent investigation into such an incident’s cause; nitrates, a main component of bombs, are damaged by seawater, preventing authorities from recovering the sort of microscopic residue that could conclusively prove the cause of a given crash, as had been the case in Pan American Flight 103 which crashed over land on December 21, 1988, after it exploded in mid-air over Lockerbie, Scotland. Pan Am 103 would have exploded over water, as planned, but the aircraft had been delayed for almost an hour on the runway in London, altering its expected location when the bomb’s timer activated the explosives.

GIS sources also deemed credible, though by all means not conclusive, a claim of responsibility for the downing of Flash Airlines Boeing 737. The claim was made by the Osama bin Laden-affiliated Yemeni group Ansar al-Haq (Followers of the Truth) in a telephone call to the Agence France Press (AFP) bureau in Cairo, warning that Air France flights would subsequently be targeted because of the recent French banning of Muslim headscarves in state schools. GIS sources confirmed that the operative who called in the message on behalf of the Yemeni group was actually an Egyptian himself. This appeared indicative of the layered, multi-ethnic nature of the bin Laden network, which remained marked by the presence of a hard core of expert Egyptian Islamists led by the Egyptian Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri and intimately linked to the government of Iran. On this point, GIS sources maintained that Zawahiri was now spending significant amounts of time in Iran, by some accounts rather openly.  Bin Laden, too, had been “in and out” of the Iranian Islamic Republic since the fall of the Taliban Administration in Afghanistan following the US military action against that Administration beginning in October 2001. The al-Qaida leader’s presence in Iran had been decidedly lower profile than Zawahiri’s with reports that bin Laden had altered his appearance, having gained weight, died his beard black, and was now regularly wearing an Iranian-style black turban.

As reported in GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily on December 17, 2003, by mid-December 2003 Iran had deployed Lebanese HizbAllah chief Imad Mugniyah to Iraq to coordinate “spectacular” attacks against Coalition Forces with the aid and assistance of Iraq-based Pasdaran­detachments. GIS sources acknowledged but could not confirm rumors circulating in the region that Mugniyah was specifically planning major upcoming anti-Coalition attacks for some time in late March or early April 2004, maintaining that intelligence about any planned Iran-backed Mugniyah attacks was, as yet, still not time-specific.

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, December 17, 2003: Imad Mugniyah Now in Iraq; “Iraqi Resistance” Set to Evolve in Response to US Offensive, Capture of Saddam.

At the same time as Iran increased its involvement in Iraq, there was also growing information about the key rôle of Syria in organizing the “Iraqi resistance”. GIS sources confirmed further reporting from Najoef’s “Syrian intelligence official” as well as from some US-based Syrian opposition groups on the specifics of Damascus’s involvement in these activities. 

GIS Bosnian Muslim sources also confirmed on January 14, 2004, that a regular “pipeline” of Bosnian Islamist fighters, plus some foreign mujahedin were moving from Bosnia to Syria and then on to Iraq, with complete Syrian Government assistance, and were in many cases taking weapons with them.


 

October 10, 2003

Strike on Syria Emphasizes New Israeli, US Strategy; Iraqi CW, Weapons Programs Showing Important Links

Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS UN Correspondent. Israel's October 5, 2003, air strike against a reported terrorist training camp in Syria marked a significant escalation of pressure on Damascus by both Jerusalem and, it appeared, Washington. In spite of public statements to the contrary by US and Israeli officials there was some indication that the October 5, 2003, attack on Ein Tzahab facility would not have been undertaken by Israel without at least tacit acceptance in advance by the US Bush Administration. The attack had to be considered within this context and within the pattern of the newly-aggressive US stance toward Damascus.

Significantly, given the inseparable nature of the Syrian-Iranian strategic relationship, the emerging US and Israeli firmness against Syria's ongoing involvement in anti-Western activities must also be interpreted as sending a message to the Iranian clerical leadership which had been investing heavily in a range of activities to stave off US pressure since the Coalition attacks began on Iraq in March 2003.

The pressure on Syria -- and by default, Iran -- came as significant Iraqi chemical weapons were discovered moving out of Iraq into Kuwait, ostensibly en route to an "unnamed European country", which GIS sources believe could, in fact, be Islamist forces linked to al-Qaida and Iran in the Balkans.

The Syrian target of the Israeli strike had apparently been selected more for its symbolic value than any measurable tactical gain. The attack marked the first Israeli strike inside Syria since Israel's October 1973 war against Egypt and Syria. Additionally, the proximity of the site targeted to Damascus [approximately 50 km] emphasized the seriousness of the attack. Israel's message to Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad was clear: the Syrian Government would be held directly responsible for the actions of the Palestinian groups it protects, trains, and directs. Israel's spokesman at its UN Mission in New York, Ariel Milo, reiterated this to GIS, explaining: "Israel's action in Syria was in self-defense and Syria is the country that harbors and assists the terrorists." And on October 7, 2003, Israel Radio quoted an unnamed Israeli official as warning that if Damascus did not "get the message" that "Syria will be a target for further attacks, like any terrorist target in Gaza". The Israeli Government subsequently released an aerial photograph noting potential targets in-and-around Damascus.

Equally significant was the immediate reaction of the US Bush Administration. A statement released on October 5, 2003, by the White House declared that the US believed Syria to be "on the wrong side of the war on terrorism" and in a joint pres-conference with Kenyan Pres. Mwai Kibaki on October 6, 2003, Pres. Bush reiterated: "Israel's got a right to defend herself ... Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland." Even initial Israeli announcements about the strike paid deference to the US, with Israeli Government spokesman Avi Pazner telling the international press on October 5, 2003: "Syria has been warned more than once by the United States that it should close all the facilities of the Islamic Jihad . Apparently it has not done so."

While the US Bush Administration seems committed to avoiding another full-scale military conflict until at least after the November 2004 US presidential election, there remained increasing signs by early October 2003 that US Pres. Bush had embarked on a more aggressive strategic approach toward Syria. This approach had already made itself evident in the form of recent US raids on the Iraqi-Syrian border.

To that end, US counter-insurgency operations in Iraq had, as of early September 2003, increasingly centered on strikes against the nomadic Arab tribes inhabiting the Iraqi-Syrian border region with strong ties to the Syrian Government and intelligence establishment. The final go-ahead for such operations was reportedly given by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on September 14, 2003 , the final day of the Secretary's week-long visit to Iraq.

The initial focus was on the Anaza tribe, as reported extensively in a September 22, 2003, dispatch from the authoritative Middle Eastern web-based information service, Debka.com, which clearly has strong sources within the Israeli intelligence community. According to this report, troops of the US 101<st> Airborne Division had engaged Anaza forces and captured their tribal chief, Sheikh Ibrahim Hanjari, and his top deputies, along with a large arsenal of weapons, ammunition, landmines, rocket-propelled grenades, and explosives, all prepared for shipment into and throughout Iraq. US Forces also detained 80 armed Saudis as well as 48 armed Syrians, Yemenis, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Sudanese, and Palestinians. Additionally, US Forces found documents and mail "proving that the Anaza -- from chiefs down to the lowliest Bedouin -- run the pipeline smuggling Arab and Al Qaida fighters of various nationalities through Syria into Iraq".

The arrests were particularly sensitive because the Anaza bloodlines are linked to the Saudi Royal Family. The report also claimed that US Forces had seized a number of what were described as "Saudi suitcases crammed with millions of dollars" with one raid seizing $1.6-million in US $100 bills.

The US had also appeared more active in working against Syria in Lebanon. The details of US plans for any such action in this venue remain unclear, but GIS sources rejected internet and Lebanese media reports that the US sought to involve former Lebanese Pres. Michel Aoun in this process. GIS sources emphasized that in spite of continuing popularity in some Lebanese Maronite Christian circles, Aoun's links to and support for the now-deposed Ba'athist Administration of former Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein negated any possibility that Washington would consider backing the former president in an effort to break Damascus' hold on Beirut.

Still, US attempts to deal with Syria more aggressively continued to be constrained by the international post-action criticism of the cassus belli for the US-led Coalition war in Iraq. As GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily reported on July 29, 2003:

"Increasingly, it appeared that finding WMD in Iraq would prove critical to the US Bush Administration's handling of Syria and Iran. Though the US had assembled a large coalition of nations in the so-called 'Coalition of the Willing' for Operation Iraqi Freedom, any attempts to gain international backing for military action against Damascus or Tehran could be anticipated to be far more difficult, particularly if 'proof' of Iraqi WMD had still not been found. While the tactical limitations of the current US military stance continued to be an obstacle to any such moves, the political and diplomatic fronts had, by late July 2003, proved to be equally restrictive."

Even Syrian Pres. Assad, when asked in a September 30, 2003, interview for the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera about US allegations against Syria, explained: "I would then ask him [US Pres. Bush] where the weapons of mass destruction are in Iraq, because at this point it is clear that they do not exist."

An October 1, 2003, report in the Kuwaiti pro-Government daily al-Siyassah had claimed that Kuwait security forces had prevent an attempt to smuggle $60-million of "chemical weapons and biological warheads from Iraq to an unnamed European country". According to the report, the Kuwaiti Interior Minister Sheikh Nawwaf Al Ahmed Al-Sabah claimed that the "smuggled arms" would be turned over to the US FBI at a later date. GIS sources, though, could not independently confirm this, and US Authorities seemed to be taking a cautious, wait-and-see approach.

The September 2003 release of the Iraq Survey Group's (ISG) interim report had done little to pacify critics of the Iraq War. Nevertheless, UNMOVIC spokesman Ewen Buchanan told GIS that the report from ISG director and former UNSCOM weapons inspector David Kay contained "new information" that UNMOVIC had been unaware of until the document's release. Buchanan specifically pointed to at least two instances: Iraqi research of Congo Crimean Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF) and Iraq's continuing covert ability to manufacture fuel propellant "useful only for prohibited Scud -variant missiles".

Both of these programs were in clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1441, as well as all previously passed UNSCR resolutions pertaining to Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire agreement. The international community's unwillingness to recognize this fact appeared directly related to the lack of international backing for any US moves to deal more forcefully with Syria and Iran. Equally, Tehran and Damascus would continue to seek to discredit US Pres. Bush and the validity of the March-April 2003 Iraq War as one component of their larger strategies to prevent the US from taking action against their own respective countries.


August 12, 2003

Baghdad Bombing Continues to Raise Issues; HizbAllah Attacks on Northern Israel Appear Linked to Broader Tehran-Damascus Aspirations

Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS staff. The August 7, 2003, terrorist-style bombing in Baghdad, the escalation of HizbAllah attacks from Lebanon into Israel and other evidence now points to a comprehensive effort by Iran and Syria to distract US from expanding its “war on terror” to focus on Iran and Syria.

The sponsors of the August 7, 2003 , bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad remained unclear as of August 10, 2003 , as GIS sources noted “contradictory forensic evidence” at the scene which left the perpetrators as yet unknown. While US officials in the days following the strike had raised the possibility of Ansar al-Islam involvement, GIS sources maintained that this was based more on public relations than fact. A credible report in the UK’s The Daily Telegraph on August 10, 2003 , suggested that the bomb used may have been constructed in Syria , but GIS sources could not independently confirm this.

US officials on August 8-9, 2003 , emphasized that the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad had been an externally organized operation. Lt.-Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Director of Operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that the bin Laden-linked “Kurdish” Islamist group Ansar al-Islam may have been involved. The professionalism of the strike was evident; a minivan filled with explosives had reportedly been parked in front of the embassy on the night of August 6, 2003 , and detonated the following morning by rocket-propelled grenades fired from a separate vehicle by a four-man team. In an interview with The New York Times on August 9, 2003 , Chief Executive of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) L. Paul Bremer added: “The intelligence suggests that Ansar al-Islam is planning large-scale terrorist attacks here. So as long as we have, as I think we do, substantial numbers of Ansar terrorists around here I think we have to be pretty alert to the fact that we may see more of this.” The attack, which killed 19 and injured some 60, was the most well-coordinated attack to date by Iraqi resistance groups, and came during a time of increasing frustration from many circles regarding the growing effectiveness of the Coalition reconstruction operation.

Notably, the Coalition had on August 9, 2003 , reached an agreement with the major tribal leaders of the central Iraqi town of Fallujah facilitated by the town’s mayor, Taha Bdewi Hamid Al-Alwani. The understanding centered on increased cooperation between local Fallujah citizens and Coalition forces to help stop the attacks on Coalition troops, most of which had occurred in the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle bordered within the area between Baghdad, Tikrit, and ar-Ramadi. The significance of seven major Sunni Arab tribal leaders signing any agreement with the Coalition would not be lost on Saddam Hussein and his supporters. Furthermore, while the announcement in the first week of August 2003 that the bounty on Coalition troops had been raised from US$1,000 to US$5,000 may have portended increased attacks on Coalition forces in the short term, the apparent necessity to raise the price for such strikes spoke volumes about the difficulties Saddam was encountering finding Iraqi allies outside his immediate circle of stalwart Special Republican Guards, Saddam Fedayeen, and Ba’athist loyalists [this force of Saddam allies, by some credible reports, numbered as high as 60,000].

Yet, Saddam had found no such shortage of non-Iraqi fighters supplied by Iran and Syria .

Both Tehran and Damascus remained suspicious of US intentions in the region, and constantly conscious of the possibility of US military action against their respective nations. The continued presence of some 167,000 Coalition forces in neighboring Iraq had done nothing to assuage this concern. Although the bulk of US forces remained focused on reconstruction and rebuilding in Iraq , the Iranian and Syrian leaderships were evidently wary of the potential for them to turn their attention to targeting the leaderships in Tehran or Damascus .

Thus, the driving force behind the joint Iranian-Syrian post-Saddam Iraq policy was a perceived need to facilitate an increasingly deadly and difficult post-conflict situation for US and Coalition forces [the much feared “quagmire” in US and Western circles and the much vaunted “jihad” on the Arab and Muslim “street”, respectively]. Iraq, in the circumstances anticipated and actively encouraged by Tehran and Damascus, would become first a distraction from any possible move against Iran or Syria, second a warning against any US intervention in the Middle East, and last, in the long term, a renewed ally and link in a resurgent Tehran-Damascus-Baghdad axis.  

While there was, by August 11, 2003 , no solid basis for reports of Ansar al-Islam involvement in the August 7, 2003 , bombing in Baghdad , GIS sources stressed that there was no doubt that Ansar al-Islam members were filtering back into Iraq from Iran with the help of the Iranian Government. The Ayatollah Khamene‘i Government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran) had sustained the Northern Iraq-based group and facilitated the escape of hundreds of its members [and, importantly, its leadership] into Iran after Ansar’s primary bases in and around Bayara had been destroyed in Coalition air and Special Forces raids during March-April 2003 Iraq War. 

Tehran ’s decision to redeploy the group — infiltrating its members back into Iraq starting in April 2003 and continuing through August 2003 — was a significant move. While Iran maintains strong ties with the Ayatollah Mohammed Baker al-Hakim-led Badr Brigades, Ansar al-Islam was an ideal strategic tool for Iranian anti-Coalition actions in Iraq; its strong ties to Iraqi intelligence allow for better integration of operations with the Saddam-led forces than would the Badr Brigades [which have a history of antagonism with the now-deposed Saddam Government]. Additionally, the group’s linkage with the bin Laden group provides a ready stream of Sunni Islamists, trained and ready for martyrdom operations, a tactic which had, by early August 2003, failed to play a key rôle in the Iraqi resistance. Because of their operational efficiency and propaganda value, it could be anticipated that suicide missions would play a larger rôle in the future, particularly with the increasing presence of Islamist and non-Iraqi forces.

On the issue of Iranian actions in Iraq, Dr Assad Homayoun, head of the Washington DC-based Iranian opposition group, the Azadegan Foundation, and Senior Fellow at the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), told GIS on August 10, 2003: “Iran wants to bring pressure on the US both in Iraq and Afghanistan to decrease US pressure on the Iranian regime. These operations almost certainly involved the Pasdaran.” Dr Homayoun noted the ongoing presence of al-Qaida leaders in Iran under the Government’s protection as related to these efforts.

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs had documented the rôle of Iranian and Islamist forces in Iraq in a May 30, 2003 , exclusive report which noted:

Very well-placed first-hand sources reported to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily on May 29, 2003 , that officials working directly with Iranian Minister of Intelligence & Security Hojjat ol-Eslam (Mohammad) Ali Yunesi have reportedly met in recent days in Tehran with officials of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party to discuss the formation of a new terrorist operation to target US interests.

 

As well, other sources in Tehran, confirming the meetings, said that there was also a strong possibility that the Iraqi Ba’athists also met with former Iranian Pres. Hojjat ol-Eslam Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani — the key power in current Iranian strategic policy — and possibly with the Supreme Leader, “Ayatollah”  Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘i, in order that the senior Iranian clerics could satisfy themselves that such a link with the Iraqi Ba’athists, who are Sunni Muslims, could be trusted not to go against the plans of the Iranian Shi’a leaders. However, there is now strong evidence that the Iraqi Ba’athists, who are by definition secular socialists as well as mostly Sunni Muslims, are working very closely both with the Iranians and with the radical Islamists.

Sources within the bin Laden group — nominally called al-Qaida — told GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs in late May 2003 that some of the attacks inside Iraq against US troops were conducted by combined Ba’athist-Islamist forces.

The precise purpose of the HizbAllah attacks on Northern Israel was, through August 11, 2003 , still unclear. HizbAllah had promised revenge attacks for the July 2003 killing of one of its members, Ali Saleh, in a Beirut car bombing the group blames on Israel . Saleh had reportedly worked as a driver for the Iranian Embassy in Beirut . Regardless, GIS sources confirmed that the HizbAllah strikes could not have been carried out without permission from Tehran and Damascus .  

 

The shelling and Katyusha missile attacks on Northern Israel appeared to represent a key component of the Iranian-Syrian strategy. Both states recognize the need to reassert their ability to threaten Israel and, in turn, remind the US that Tehran and Damascus still retain the capability to spark a regional war involving the Jewish state if the US “dared” to take action against Syria or Iran . The attack, which included anti-aircraft munitions fired from South Lebanese HizbAllah positions laterally at IDF targets, struck the Israeli radar facility on Mt. Dov, a key node of the IDF’s strategic defense planning [specifically an early warning tool] for a Syrian invasion through Southern Lebanon.

 

As critical, Syria and Iran appeared intensely aware of the upcoming US presidential elections in November 2004. The aggressive actions of the US Bush Administration in Afghanistan and Iraq and harsh rhetoric toward Syria, Iran, and North Korea, in contrast to the policies of former US Pres. William Clinton, seemed to emphasize the need to affect a change of government in Washington. The Democrats, the US opposition party, had, by August 2003, yet to choose its candidate, but the widespread criticism within the party of the Bush Administration’s handling of the “war on terror”, in particular the war in Iraq , provided a welcome alternative to Pres. Bush. While no specific intelligence was available, there were strong indications that, Tehran and Damascus, which had used terror attacks in attempts to affect the outcome of Israeli presidential elections, viewed the use of a similar tactic as necessary to remove Pres. Bush.

 

One GIS source recalled that Iran, in particular, had been “obsessed” with US elections ever since its ability to influence the 1980 US presidential election that saw Ronald Reagan defeat incumbent US Pres. Jimmy Carter in a landslide. The defeat of Pres. Carter came, in part, because of the hostage situation at the US Embassy in Tehran which occurred under Pres. Carter’s watch.

 

Thus, the eventual “full” violation of the hudna as well as increased HizbAllah bombardments could be expected to further these ends. US Pres. Bush had maintained high ratings in polls since the September 11, 2001, attacks, largely because of his foreign policy. That foreign policy, as of August 2003, stood on three cornerstones:

 

1.The successful war in Iraq as a prelude to a free, democratic Arab ally.

2.The US-backed Israeli-Palestinian Roadmap to ease tension in the region.

3.The successful prevention of another spectacular terror attack on US soil.

 

In Iraq, Tehran and Damascus sought to create a destabilizing situation which could viably appear to the US public as a military “quagmire” to prove the failure of the Iraq War. In Israel, they sought to re-ignite the Palestinian intifada and, perhaps, goad Israel into military action in Southern Lebanon to prove the failure of Pres. Bush’s roadmap. And in the US homeland, they sought to facilitate another spectacular attack to prove the failure of the US “war on terror”, and, in turn, affect “regime change” in Washington. Iran and Syria clearly seek to regain the strategic initiative and place the US back on the defensive. Removing the US Bush Administration has emerged as a significant long-term component of that effort.


October 28, 2002

Iraq Moves WMD Matériel to Syrian Safe-Havens

Exclusive. Analysis. With input from GIS stations and sources in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Highly-authoritative, experienced GIS sources have reported that the Iraqi Government and Armed Forces have moved substantial caches of chemical weapons and related materials to safe-havens across the border into Syria, to avoid any chance of discovery by United Nations (UN) inspectors. 

Iraq moved stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear matériel as well as key production machinery and key experts to the Hsishi compound near Kamishli, in Syria, along with strategic weapons, ammunition, military fuels and other defense matériel, gold reserves, national archival records and national art treasures. It is believed that the moves took place in late August and early September 2002.

It is also understood that some of the matériel, production machinery and experts moved into Hsishi compound were from the al-Qaim facility, which had been based near the H-3 base area in Western Iraq. The al-Qaim facility had been involved, before 1991, almost exclusively in uranium enrichment for nuclear weapons, but since it was reconstituted after the bombings of the 1991 Gulf War it was engaged in chemical and biological weapons development work, along with some nuclear-related activity. It is believed that some of the warhead materials for the chemical and biological weapons were at the al-Qaim facility, and that this is now in Hsishi.

The move reflects the earlier breakthroughs in strategic relations between Iraq and Syria, given the fact that Syria is strategically dependent on Iran, which has traditional rivalries and hostility with Iraq. The movement of Iraqi strategic combat matériel into Syria is the first tangible evidence of the accords which have been struck between Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus in the escalation of the war against Israel and the US. The evidence provided a pointed reminder to those US White House security policy officials who had decried suggestions by some other White House staffers that Iran could be persuaded to help the US in its war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein.

The series of agreements between Iraq and Syria for the movement of Iraqi strategic assets into Syria were described in detail in the newly-released book, The High Cost of Peace: How Washington’s Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism, by Yossef Bodansky. [See review in Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, October 21, 2002.]

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily had earlier indicated that the Saddam Administration had long been taking steps to ensure that the Iraqi so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs — including ballistic missile development, chemical and biological weapons programs, and nuclear weapons and nuclear-related “dirty” weapons — were protected from both discovery and destruction. The earlier steps had included the long-term policy of undertaking much of the research and development (R&D) for Iraqi weapons in Libya, in programs which often overlapped Libyan and Egyptian strategic weapons development. As well, the security options included, and continue to include, the placement of WMD matériel, laboratories and operational launch options on riverine barges operating on the Tigris-Euphrates rivers system.

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily reported on April 4, 2002, that Iran and Iraq had achieved a working accommodation on deployment in a new war against Israel [see references, below], but the new move to place Iraqi CW matériel inside Syria reflects the first physical evidence of the implementation of this understanding. The April 4, 2002, report noted:

Iran’s al-Quds military forces — forces earmarked for the liberation of “al-Quds”: Jerusalem — were reported on April 3, 2002, to be preparing to move by land across Iraq, with permission from the Iraqi Government, to bolster anti-Israeli forces (Syrian and Iraqi) in the area of the Golan Heights.

Iraq’s al-Quds force of armor and mechanized infantry, under the command of Qusay Hussein al-Takriti, is now preparing to move into position at the junction of Syria, Jordan and Iraq from the major military base at H-3, one of the two major “H” bases named after the old pipeline stations in Iraq’s al-Anbar region. Both “H” bases were re-opened in early 2001, with their airfields refurbished, and with SA-6 surface-to-air missile systems installed. The al-Quds forces, under Qusay since mid-2001, include key Iraqi special forces units and the Hummarabi division of the Republican Guard, equipped with T-72 tanks. The total Iraqi al-Quds force is five to six divisions. Jordanian sources advise that the quality of the Iraqi special forces units, which have been operating in the area for about a year, including incursions into Jordan and through Jordan to the West Bank, are of a high quality. Based on information from various sources, it was understood that the Iraqi al-Quds forces were expected to move quickly across the top of Jordan into Syria and take up positions, as they did in earlier conflicts, in the area of the Golan Heights, facing the Israeli-occupied area.

Significantly, the Iraqi CW dumps inside Syria are (a) sufficiently close to the Iraqi al-Quds forces to be safeguarded by Iraq, and (b) ready for operational use against Israel.

Given the ongoing Syrian dependence on Iran, the latest move would indicate that the Iranian commitment to Iraq’s military plans to escalate the war against Israel as part of any Iraqi response to a US attack continues to be in effect. Although there has been no recent evidence of an actual commitment by the Iranian clerical leadership to the provision of Iranian troops to a new war against Israel — or, indeed, the Iraqi comfort level in having Iranian al-Quds forces physically transit Iraqi territory — it is clear that the clerical leadership in Iran has continued its commitment to providing practical support for Iraq’s war against both the US and Israel.

Significantly, Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad visited Kamishli and, reportedly, Hsishi Compound, in early September 2002, presumably to check on the Iraqi deployment.

As well, GIS sources indicated that the arrest by Turkish security forces of individuals with enriched uranium in September 2002 was connected with the supply of raw matériel for the Iraqi nuclear program, and that this was destined for Hsishi, not necessarily for immediate weapons use, but to re-start the Iraqi weapons program after the UN/US weapons inspectors had searched and destroyed any Iraqi capability left in-country, either through the UN program or through a US attack. Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily of October 1, 2002, reported:

Turkish paramilitary police were reported on September 28, 2002, to have seized more than 15 kg (33 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium and detained two men accused of smuggling the material. Officers in the southern province of Sanliurfa, which borders Syria and is about 250km (155 miles) from the Iraqi border, were reportedly acting on information from an informant when they stopped a taxi cab and discovered the uranium in a lead container hidden beneath the vehicle’s seat. Authorities said that they believed the uranium came from an east European country and had a value of about $5-million. Israel Radio quoted Turkish police as saying that the uranium originally came from a former Soviet state. 

It was not immediately clear when the seizure operation was carried out. The Turkish Anatolian News Agency only gave the first names of the suspects, which appeared to be Turkish. Police in Turkey seized more than one kg of weapons-grade uranium in November 2001; that had been smuggled into Turkey from an east European nation. 


May 10, 2002

Syria Prepares an Asymmetric Warfare Doctrine to Cope With Israeli Military Advantages

Analysis. By GIS Staff. Continuing instability in the strategic situation of the Levant, between Israel and a coalition of states supporting the Palestinian Authority (PA), means that the prospect of major conventional war remains significant, and these trends have been monitored closely over the past two years by the Global Information System (GIS).1 Within this framework, the Syrian Armed Forces have, over recent years, been attempting to modernize and have, during recent months, been changing force dispositions with the apparent aim of preparing for imminent major conflict. This report looks at how the Syrian Armed Forces could approach such a conflict.

As noted earlier in GIS reports, the Syrian leadership of Pres. Bashar al-Assad seems expressly knowledgeable of the fact that any major military conflict with Israel would be unlikely to result in a victory for Syria, although any Israeli military success would almost certainly not include the occupation by Israel of any additional Syrian territory and would lead to a consolidation of Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s fragile control over the leadership. As well, also as noted by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily [April 25, 2002], the recent Syrian acquisition of long-range passive Kolchuga early warning radar from the Ukraine would have reinforced Syrian belief that a greater level of warning of imminent attack by Israel was possible than was previously the case.

Given the level of control by the Syrian and Iranian governments of the Lebanese Shi’ite HizbAllah terrorist and guerilla movement, Syria has clearly been aware of, and complicit in, renewed HizbAllah attacks on Israel Defense Force (IDF) positions and settlements have led to retaliatory Israel Air Force (IAF) strikes against HizbAllah positions in Lebanon and could lead to Israeli assaults against the Syrian military infrastructure in Lebanon. If this were to transpire, it is feasible to envision Syria defending its forces in Lebanon — now deployed in defensive positions in the Beqa’a along the Damascus-Beirut main highway — and conducting military operations along the Golan Heights.

Syria, since 1948, has been defeated by Israel in four wars, and Syrian forces have been repeatedly engaged and destroyed by the IDF in numerous other-than-war engagements. Furthermore, Israel and Syria are diametrically opposed on the issue of the Golan Heights; Israel opts to retain the “high ground” as a strategic buffer and for its command of the surrounding battlefield; Syria remains committed to the policy that the Golan Heights should be returned. Finally, IDF operations in the West Bank area of the Palestinian Authority and the subsequent hostility by most Islamic states (Egypt, Iraq, Iran, etc.) have all led to a marked increase in tension between Israel and Syria.

  • The Global Information Systems (GIS) reported on April 8, 2002 in Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily: One to two divisions began to move during the first week of April 2002, from positions mainly in and around Beirut. They were being moved to positions still within Lebanon, but along the key Beirut-Damascus highway, the main defensive position of the Syrian forces during the 1984 Israeli incursion into the Beqa’a. Lebanese and Syrian sources have indicated that they anticipate a similar thrust by the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in the next round of hostilities, anticipated to begin within April 2002. It was estimated that most of the Syrian force in Lebanon, some 35,000 troops, would be deployed in new defensive positions to prepare for the IDF thrust.

However, the fact remains that despite losing every major conflict since 1948, the Syrian military is one of the largest, best-trained, and capable military forces in the Middle East. Along with being respected as a highly disciplined and motivated force, the Syrian army is known to developed the tactical skills necessary to breach the layered IDF defenses on the Golan Heights.

  • According to GIS Ground Force Battle Order statistics, Syria has roughly the same number of mechanized and armored divisions (12), with Syria having more tanks (albeit older models) than the IDF (4,750 versus 3,415) and much more artillery pieces (2,081 versus 1,495).

  • The Syrian Army maintains five divisions (2nd Corps: 1st, 3rd, and 11th Armored Divisions and the 4th and 10th Mechanized Infantry Divisions) along the Golan Heights and Damascus and can deploy approximately 4,500 armored personnel carriers (APC).

  • Syrian Special Forces are considered to be extremely influential on the battlefield (by the IDF) and their 1996 redeployment along the Mt. Hermon slopes brought Israel and Syria to the brink of war.

It is doubtful that the Syrian armed forces would be able to launch a successful conventional assault on the state of Israel (the IDF’s defensive doctrine requires overwhelming retaliation against an attacking enemy. and it is estimated that Syria would ultimately lose up to 80 percent of its inventory of military equipment). If the Syrians did attempt an offensive the general consensus of the western intelligence community is that it would be to quickly assault and occupy Mt. Hermon and parts of the Golan Heights and defend these positions (if indeed they could be captured) until the UN-dictated truce in the hope for an advantageous bargaining position in the ensuing peace talks (The outbreak of war in the Golan Heights would generate intense international pressure for a cease-fire, and in the ensuing post-war diplomatic environment Syria may achieve gains).

  • The IDF’s superiority in conventional warfare is unquestioned. Many members of the US and UK intelligence community agree that Israel would be able to destroy a Syrian assault within 24 hours (The Israel Air Force is assessed to be able to achieve complete air supremacy over Syria within 12 to 16 hours).

  • The IAF downed more than 80 aircraft and destroyed nearly the entire surface-to-air missile (SAM) system of the Syrians in Lebanon in 1982 without sustaining a single loss, negating 20 years of heavy Syrian investment in air defense (radar, surface-to-air missiles, and fighter/interceptors).

  • During the past two decades, the IDF has pushed to the leading edge of military technology (unlike the Syrian Army which has remained “technologically stagnant” since the mid-1980s). For example, the improvement of precision-guided munitions has vastly improved IAF bombing capability. All the IDF’s premier battle tanks (Merkava, Magach, and M60A1) are equipped with night-fighting and digital fire-control systems and armed with advanced munitions. Israel’s defense procurement budget is more than double that of the Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Palestinians and Israel has created an armed force which is disciplined, well-trained (combined-arms capable), highly mobile and superbly armed.

In a defensive posture, however, the well-entrenched Syrian military is formidable and worthy of respect despite its outdated weaponry. Reports indicate that the heavily fortified defense zone between Damascus and the Golan Heights has grown to include two independent artillery brigades and two independent anti-tank brigades with up to 1,200 T-54/55 tanks in hull-down static defense positions. There are some 100 122mm M-31/37 and 50 152mm M-37 field guns in static defensive positions and up to 300 85mm M-44 and 100mm T-12 anti-tank guns, protected by large scale minefields and supported by massed anti-aircraft guns.

  • With a (non-reserve) strength of some 396,000 personnel (GIS sources), the HQ of the Syrian Army is the capital and the majority of combat units are deployed along an arc from northwest to southwest, facing the Golan Heights and Lebanon. The Army Command in Damascus directly controls the Republican Guard Mechanized Division (an armored division in all but name), which is equipped with around 350 T-62/72 main battle tanks, 350 BMP-2/3 armored infantry fighting vehicles and BTR-60/70 armored personnel carriers. In addition, there are 50 BRDM-2 armored reconnaissance vehicles, 30 122mm 2S1 and 20 152mm 2S3 self-propelled artillery, 50 23mm ZSU-23-4 self-propelled air defense and 30 122mm BM-21 multiple rocket launchers. This unit always receives the latest and best equipment, such as the T-72M main battle tanks, BMP-3 armored infantry fighting vehicles and will be the first to be re-equipped with new self-propelled guns. Additionally the Army Command has direct control of several independent motorized infantry brigades, including the “Desert Guard” and the élite 120th Mountain Infantry Brigade.

  • Syrian Reserves amount to approximately 322,000 soldiers (GIS sources), forming units which include the 2nd Armored Division in Aleppo, while the 12th and 13th Motorized Divisions would be formed from the best of the two armored brigades, two independent armored regiments, 30 infantry brigades and three artillery brigades. While the standard of training is reasonable, equipment is of very poor quality and limited in number.

  • Syrian armored divisions are structured along traditional Soviet Army lines. The armored brigades are equipped with approximately 300 T-62 M/K and T-72 main battle tanks and 50 BRDM-2s. The mechanized infantry brigades are equipped with approximately 300 BMP-1/2/3 infantry fighting vehicles and BTR-50/60/70 APCs.

  • Syrian mechanized infantry divisions are also organized by Soviet style doctrine. Each has approximately 200 T-55/62/72 main battle tanks, 250 BMP armored infantry fighting vehicles and BTR 152/60 armored personnel carriers and, 50 BRDMs. Supporting units include artillery and air defense.

  • The field artillery regiments each have 30 122mm 2S1 self-propelled artillery, while the air defense regiments attached to the armored divisions provide considerable cover with 30 ZSU-23-4 self-propelled guns and batteries of SA-9 and SA-13 mobile surface-to-air missiles. The infantry units within all twelve front-line divisions have an effective anti-tank capability, with large numbers of AT-3, AT-4, AT-5, AT-7, AT-10 and AT-14 guided weapon systems.

The Syrian Army which exists today is nearly the same force that fought the IDF during Peace for Galilee in 1982, albeit without a consistent supplier of weapons, ordnance and other defense systems (the former-Soviet Union). Western sources report that a large number of Syrian equipment is inoperable or combat ineffective specifically due to the absence of the centralized depot maintenance system (provided by the former-Soviet Union). This mitigating factor has manifested itself in the deterioration of combat strength because equipment has become increasingly obsolescent and poorly maintained. Immense re-supply problems for the Syrians were the result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, moreover, the Syrian economy suffered which resulted in a considerable degrading of the military’s combat efficiency. Ramifications of this became apparent in the Autumn of 1998 amid rising tensions between Turkey and Syria (because of the late Pres. Hafez al-Assad’s overt support for Kurdish PKK guerillas). Analysis of this indicates that Syria was incapable of mounting a serious deployment of forces on the Turkish border.

  • Syria has a large tank fleet consisting exclusively of tanks of former Soviet design. Two-thirds of the fleet are older models (variants of T-55 and T-62) but the remainder are T-72 tanks including the only T-72A tanks to leave the former Soviet Union. Upgrades include explosive reactive armor, gun launched ATGM capability and fire control improvements.  Syrian tactical employment of tanks is based on former Soviet doctrine.

  • The Syrians used their $2-billion Gulf War boon to purchase 400 surplus T-72 tanks and 300 self-propelled artillery pieces from the former-Soviet Union.

A second weakness which pervades all branches of the Syrian military was the timidity of commanders to show initiative or react independently (outside the prescribed chain of command). This has the effect of crippling the ability to “shoot-move-and-communicate” in order to adapt to a changing battlefield.

In the 1990s, however, the Syrian military increasingly began using asymmetric battlefield tactics in an attempt to effectively exploit Israel’s sensitivity to casualties. The Syrian High Command also included in their rhetoric the looming possibility of chemical or missile attacks.  Additionally, Syria has aggressively pursued an asymmetric strategy in its overall plan to take back the Golan Heights, including state support of terrorist/guerilla operations in southern Lebanon.

  • Reports indicate that the Syrians have been heavily investing in surface-to-surface missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Its strategy has been to concentrate on the asymmetric battlefield where it could better compete with Israel.

  • The Syrians can field FROG-7, SS-21, and SS-22 short-range missiles and Scud B and C long-range missiles.

  • Reports indicate that Syria currently has approximately 100 chemical warheads armed with Sarin and VX nerve agent. The Western intelligence community has also stated that Syria has a very viable CBW program. It is generally believed that these are a deterrent to the Israeli non-conventional threat and reserved for strategic use only.

In July 1998, Chief of staff Gen. Hikmat Shihabi was replaced by Gen. Ali Aslan (Senior IDF officers have described Syrian Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Ali Aslan as an activist). Western intelligence sources indicate that while Aslan is still an alumnus of the Soviet school, he encourages independent action and the delegation of command. Israeli military doctrine is closely studied with an emphasis on armored and combined unit operations.

  • During Israel’s Operation Peace for Galilee, Former Deputy Chief of General Staff for Training and Operations Lt.-Gen. Aslan, directed a reinforced Special Forces battalion along with two Syrian armored battalions to effectively delay a much larger Israeli armored force from advancing into the Chouf Mountains for three days.

Syria has been slowly developing and implementing a new doctrine (asymmetric) aimed at neutralizing the advantages of Israel’s technologically superior military. Unable to compete with Israel’s immense defense budget, Syria instead has opted to offset and nullify Israel’s technological advantages with simple, and inexpensive means, utilizing its vast ATGM inventory and Special Forces.

  • The Syrian Army has had light anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) systems in its inventory since the late 1960s. During the October 1973 war, Israeli armored units were devastated when Egyptian and Syrian troops fired AT-3 Sagger missiles at them.  Since the introduction of these systems into its inventory, Syria has maintained one of the most capable portable ATGM inventories in the Middle East. Syria employs ATGMs on many different launch platforms.

  • In 1998, Syria reportedly purchased from Russia 100 launchers and 1,000 Kornet anti-tank missiles as a cheap offensive weapon, several hundred Metis-M launchers with an estimated 3,000 missiles, and several thousand RPG-29 launchers with 15,000 rockets.

Syria’s new doctrine realizes that to engage the IDF without an asymmetric strategy would be folly. Instead the Syrians are training to engage Israeli forces in-close, utilizing antitank teams and hoping to effectively nullify the IDF’s technological superiority (air power and standoff precision-guided munitions). This “close battle” plan emphasizes extensive use of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) by small hunter-killer teams This doctrine seeks to limit the threat from Israeli precision strikes and increase number of Israeli casualties by keeping Syrian troops in constant contact with the enemy.

Damascus apparently believes that the low-profile targets created by dispersed infantry antitank teams would be more effective and lethal than aging Syrian armor, which the IDF would most likely destroy quickly. In keeping with this doctrine, it can be assumed that the Syrian forces would most likely block avenues of approach (limiting Israeli advantages in speed, firepower, and maneuver) and “channel” incoming IDF armor into killing zones and fire sacks, by the extensive deployment of landmines. This in turn would expand the opportunity for the Syrian forces to utilize their extensive array of anti-armor weapons within the killing zones.

It must be expected that the Syrian Armed Forces have traded intelligence regarding effective tactics with other Arab states and/or insurgent groups. Tactics developed in Grozny, Chechnya, by anti-Russian mujahedin forces (also trained by, to some extent, and aligned with al-Qaida), included “hugging the enemy” (close-combat).

Syria has developed a considerable special forces (SF) capability since the creation of its very first such unit in 1958 in the form of the 1st Parachute Battalion. The Syrians are determined to make considerable use of Special Forces in their asymmetric doctrine (Reports indicate new strategic alliance between Syria and Iraq with both nations beginning to share both training and intelligence). During wartime Syria’s Special Forces (primarily composed of members of the ruling Alawi sect) proved the most effective fighting force in the country’s military.  In the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Special Forces elements captured Israel’s observation complex on Mt. Hermon and held it until the last day of fighting. Almost seven percent of the Israeli troops killed in the October 1973 war died in assaulting Mt. Hermon.

The SF Command in Damascus commands the 14th Special Forces Division (1st, 2nd 3rd and 4th SF Regiments are deployed on the Golan Heights, specifically in the Mount Hermon area and in Lebanon). There are also an additional ten independent SF Regiments (some of which routinely deploy to Lebanon).

Al-Sa’iqa (not to be confused with Egyptian units of the same name) is the premier special forces regiment in the Syrian Army. Al-Sa’iqa is trained in special operations techniques including: hostage rescue, intelligence gathering, clandestine operations and long-range reconnaissance and patrol (unconfirmed sources have stated that former-East Germans and non-Israeli Jews are attached to the unit). Al-Sa’iqa is reported to have operated with some success in Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and within Israel.

Will this asymmetric strategy enable the Syrians to effectively defeat an Israeli invasion, only time will tell. Western strategists are divided on this point: Some state that technology is not a viable substitute for the willingness to sacrifice (they point out that “willingness” is on the decline in Israel’s increasingly affluent society but not apparently on the Palestinians). Others vehemently argue that the development of sophisticated weaponry and modern battle doctrine has the marked result of decreasing casualties and overwhelming a more technologically-challenged foe.

The IDF still considers Syria a formidable threat despite its isolation and poor economy.

Works Cited

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Copley, Gregory R. “No Slowdown in Momentum Toward War Between Israel, PA and Others”, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, April 18, 2002.

Halevi, Yossi Klein. “Israel’s Tripwire Is Up North”, The Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2002.

“The ‘Vicious Circle’ Of Violence”, The Washington Post, April 14, 2002.

Hirst, David. “Arab Army On Israel’s Border,” The Washington Times, April 10, 2002.

De Yuong, Karen. “US Fears 2nd Front In Mideast Conflict”, The Washington Post, April 10, 2002.

Copley, Gregory R. “Arab-Israeli Confrontation Now Ready to Move to Full War Status Almost Immediately; A Broad, Relatively Protracted Strategic Conflict Likely”, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, April 4, 2002.

“Breakdown of Arab Summit Acts as Watershed; Escalation of War Against Israel Now Seen as Imminent”, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, March 28, 2002.

Wood, David. “Experts Fear A Widening War In Volatile Middle East And South Asia”, Newhouse News Service, October 10, 2001.

Bennet, Richard M. “Fighting Forces: An Illustrated Anatomy of The World’s Great Armies”, Barrons Educational Series, 2001.

Bennet, Richard M. “The Syrian Military: A Primer”, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, August/September 2001.

Kondaki, Christopher D. “Down to the Wire: Tactics at the Start of the Next Middle Eastern War”, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, August 29, 2001.

“Syria Deploys Additional Armor into Lebanon’s Beqa’a”, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, August 22, 2001.

O’Sullivan, Arieh. “Does Syria really have a war option?”, The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition, May 25, 2000.

“Syria’s Intelligence Services: A Primer”, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, July 2000.

“Syria’s Praetorian Guards: A Primer”, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, August 2000.

Bodansky, Yossef. “Bin Laden, Syria, Iran Join for New Offensive Against Israel”, Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, August 21, 2000.

Bodansky, Yossef. “Syria Embarks on a Massive Purchase of Weapons”, Freeman Center for Strategic Studies, July 1997.

Bodansky, Yossef. “Escalation in the North”, Freeman Center for Strategic Studies, July 1997.

Bodansky, Yossef and Forrest, Vaughn S. “Approaching the New Cycle of Arab-Israeli Fighting”, US House of Representatives Task Force on Terrorism & Unconventional Warfare, December 10, 1996.

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Moreaux, J.M. “The Syrian Army”, Defence Update, No. 69, 1985.

Fitzgerald, Benedict F. “Fighting Armies: Antagonists in the Middle East; A Combat Assessment”, Greenwood Press, 1983.

Dawisha, Karen. “The USSR in the Middle East: Superpower in Eclipse”, Foreign Affairs, Winter 1982-83.

Herzog, Chaim. “The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East”, Random House, 1982.

Deeb, Marius. “The Lebanese Civil War”, New York: Praeger, 1980.

Dyer, Gwynne. “Syria”, World Armies, New York: Facts on File, 1979.

Rosen, Steven J. “What the Next Arab-Israeli War Might Look Like”, International Security, Spring 1978.

Pajak, Roger F. “Soviet Military Aid to Iraq and Syria”, Strategic Review, Winter 1976.

Haddad, George M. “Revolutions and Military Rule in the Middle East: The Arab States”, Robert Speller and Sons, 1971.


April 25, 2002

Syria, as Well as Iraq, Now Operational With Kolchuga OTHR Systems, Significantly Advancing War Readiness

Exclusive. From GIS Damascus and other sources. GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily sources confirmed that the Syrian Air Defense Command, which operates under the Army with Army and Air Force manpower, had acquired at least one Ukrainian Kolchuga long-range (OTH) passive radar system. As well, the sources confirmed that the Syrian Government transacted the procurement of $100-million worth of Kolchuga OTHR systems for Iraq. It is understood that both the Iraqi and Syrian sites are now operational.

The acquisition of such long-range passive radar systems gives Iraq and Syria considerably enhanced confidence in anticipating and dealing with any possible air strike by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), and possibly accounts for much of the present pace of Iraqi and Syrian ongoing preparations for conflict with Israel. It is believed that the Iraqi Kolchuga systems have been deployed at or near the H-2 and H-3 bases in the West of Iraq, operated by the Air Defense Force of the Iraqi Air Force to provide early warning of Israeli Air Force movements.

The Kolchuga system has also been sold to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in a deal concluded in the first quarter of 2002. The system is unique on the world market, although the technology has been under development for sometime, and a far more comprehensive system began operational testing in Australia in 1992.

No 1 Radar Surveillance Unit (1RSU) was formed on July 1, 1992, by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) at Mt. Everard, 50km from Alice Springs in Central Australia. The unit was the first to operate the High Frequency Over-The-Horizon Radar (OTHR), known as the Jindalee system. The Unit’s rôles include conducting wide-area surveillance operations of the sea-air gap, at distances of up to 2,000km from the coastline, and training leading up to the introduction of the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) early next century. The Jindalee OTHR is also used as a research and development tool for scientific purposes and for the further development of the multi-radar JORN. Australian sources confirmed to GIS that, in fact, Jindalee could detect targets well into the Northern hemisphere.

It had been hinted in some US media circles that the Iraqi acquisition of the Kolchuga occurred through a Jordanian intermediary. This, however, is not the case, as GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily sources have now confirmed. However, the Ukrainian state arms-export company, Ukrspetzexport, did highlight the Kolchuga at the SOFEX-2000 defense exhibition which opened in Amman, Jordan, on April 17, 2000. The Kolchuga system, made by the Donetsk-based Ukrainian company, Topaz, was first shown at the IDEF-99 defense exhibition in 1999. The system was upgraded in 2000. Topaz has said that the Kolchuga system was capable of making an accurate evaluation of land targets at a distance of 600km and air targets at a distance of 800km, ample distances for Syrian and Iraqi purposes. Topaz has also claimed that the Kolchuga system had a greater ability to detect stealthier aircraft and — because of its passive system — was more difficult to detect.

Ukrainian Pres. Leonid Kuchma has been implicated in approving the transfer of the Kolchugas to Iraq, and would have had to authorize the transfer also to Syria. It was possible, the GIS sources believed, that the Iraqi Kolchugas were sold using Syrian end-user certificates.

According to the Topaz Director-General, three Kolchuga systems were also sold to Ethiopia in 2000. The Head of the State Export Control Service, Olexandr Leheida, reportedly confirmed that valid Ethiopian end-user documentation was provided for that sale, although some Ukrainian media have speculated that the Ethiopian systems were, in fact, intended for Iraq. However, GIS analysts believe that Ethiopia’s requirement for the systems — to safeguard against possible future Eritrean attacks — was sufficient that it would not have acted on Iraq’s behalf. Technicians from Topaz traveled three times to Ethiopia to assist in setting up the system (in July 2000, June 2001 and February 2002). At least one of these trips coincided in time with the armed conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea when the UN embargo imposed on them by Resolution #1298 was still effective. The embargo was lifted by the UN Security Council resolution on May 16, 2001. It was unclear whether Ethiopia acquired the original variant of the Kolchuga, or the upgraded system.

The original system could cover 300 land km and 600 air km. A research program funded by Ukrspeteksport enabled mathematicians in one of Kyiv Research Institutes to use an updated calculation technique and extend the Kolchuga coverage radius to 600 land km and 800 air km.

Ukrainian intelligence (SBU) Chief Volodymyr Radchenko and Ukrainian counter-intelligence service chief Serhiy Makarenko have now become heavily involved in the issue. It was alleged that the Kolchuga systems were to have gone to Iraq via Jordan in crates from the Ukrainian Kraz engineering factory, although at least one Ukrainian source has said that no exports from Kraz went to Jordan during the time the systems were sent to Iraq. It was therefore considered more likely that the systems went, as GIS sources have said, through Syria. The official who apparently arranged the sale to Iraq, Valeriy Malev, the head of Ukrspeteksport, has since died. 

Ukrainian sources have said that the cost to Topaz to manufacture the Kolchuga was appr. $2.8-million per system, and that the market price was $5-million per unit. They also confirmed that Iraq acquired four of the systems, but paid $100-million for them, instead of $20-million.


January 28, 2002

Syria and Iran, Not Israel, Now Seem Likely Killers of Lebanese Militia Figure Elias Hobeika

There was growing controversy on January 27, 2002, over who ordered the assassination in Beirut on January 24, 2002, of Lebanese militia leader Elias Hobeika. The assassination was initially blamed on Israel, but there was now a strong possibility that Syria (with Iranian support), not Israel, was behind the car bomb explosion in a Beirut suburb which killed the former militia commander who led the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in two Beirut refugee camps in 1982. A variety of Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese groups were known to have been hostile to Hobeika.

Lebanese sources told GIS on January 27, 2002, that the assassination was unlikely to provoke a return to any significant fighting in Lebanon, but was symptomatic of the fact that the relatively new Syrian Government of Pres. Bashar al-Assad was attempting to reinforce its writ in Lebanon, possibly in preparation for conflict with Israel.

Lebanese officials on January 24, 2002, initially accused Israel of staging the massive blast which killed Hobeika and three of his bodyguards, tearing the facades off of nearby buildings and damaging many cars in the area. Israel emphatically denied any connection with the murder of Hobeika, who led the primarily Maronite Christian militia during the Lebanese civil war from 1975-1990. Allied with Israel during the 1982 Israeli invasion into Lebanon, Hobeika switched sides and was later backed by Syria.

Hobeika was best known for leading his militia in a massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in 1982, an incident which was blamed on Israel. He recently said that he was willing to testify against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was Defense Minister at the time, in a Belgian court case. The Belgian court was to decide whether Sharon could be prosecuted for war crimes in a case brought by survivors of the massacre. Hobeika, who claimed he was innocent, was not named in that case, and there were suggestions that he was prepared to divert blame to Sharon in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Sharon was found indirectly responsible by an Israeli commission of inquiry at the time and forced to resign as Defense Minister but was not indicted on criminal charges. Hobeika, however, was accused of having led the slaughter.

Nagi Najjar, director of a Lebanese advocacy group in the US, said on January 27, 2002, that rather than Israel it is far more likely that Syria is behind the blast, noting: "It's possible that the Mossad [Israeli Ha-Mossad Hamerkazi Lemodi’in Vetafkidim Meychadim: Central Institute for Intelligence and Special Missions] is behind it but nothing of this caliber happens without the green light of the Syrians."

Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976 on the pretext of restoring order to the country and was later given an Arab League mandate to be there. That mandate was repealed in 1982 but Syria remained and is still the main powerbroker in Lebanon.

Najjar said that the Syrians had two things to gain: the Syrians could use the incident as a pretext to arrest and interrogate the Christian underground, but Hobeika had also become a liability to the Syrians. Since one of Hobeika's former bodyguards wrote an exposé about him in 1999, he had become a burden to the Syrians. In his book, From Israel to Damascus, Robert Hatem, alias Cobra, wrote in detail about the exploits of Hobeika. The following year the former minister was not re-elected for a third term in the Lebanese Parliament.

Najjar said that Hobeika's "fingerprints" were found after every assassination and bombing in Lebanon. The Syrians had tried to groom him as a political asset for the country. But everyone, the Palestinians, the HizbAllah, the Druze and the Lebanese Army all hated him, Najjar  said. He had for some years been under the direct protection of the Syrian Secret Service head, Brig.-Gen. Ghazy Khanon.

"No one dares to play around with the Syrian order in Beirut," Najjar said. "Everyone [knew] that you don't play around with Hobeika. If Hobeika was going to fall he would drag with him all the Syrians. ... [It appears that] this time the Syrians wanted to finish up with him."

According to Najjar, there were also other factors which could point to Syrian involvement. The neighborhood, for instance, where the car bomb exploded is a stronghold for Lebanese and Syrian intelligence. Middle East expert Dr Eyal Zisser of the Tel Aviv University agreed that Israel would not have had any reason to kill Hobeika but said it was too early to lay the blame on anyone else. He said: "As far as Israel goes, it was history. This guy had no relevance for Israel."

Zisser said the Prime Minister of Israel could not just decide that he wants to take revenge on someone and order an attack. "This is not the way things work in Israel. It is really ridiculous to say that Israel is behind it." According to Zisser it was too early to point the finger at anyone, particularly since Hobeika had so many enemies. Hobeika was also said to have been deeply affected by the massacre of many of his family members and his fiancé by Palestinian terrorists in Damur in 1976. For the Lebanese, it "re-opened the files of the civil war", Zisser said, and the Lebanese were not interested in doing that. 

The assassination of Hobeika was the first major car bomb attack in Lebanon in eight years.

In a report dated January 27, 2002, Nagi Najjar, Executive Director of the Lebanese Foundation for Peace, noted:

Blaming Israel and Sharon was the easy part of the Hobeika assassination as the real mastermind accomplices and executors were Syria and Iran and their proxies in Lebanon whose agenda involved blaming Israel and destabilizing the entire region.

The events surrounding the charges brought against [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon are bizarre at best and beyond comprehension at worst. ... The bizarre stands forth when we discovered a few months ago that all the evidence touted by the Lebanese Government vanished (sources say under instructions of Ghazy Kanaan, Syrian ruler of Lebanon) and wasn’t to be found nor reconstructed by “eyewitnesses”. And we are to believe that the Lebanese Government did not know this prior to their charges against Sharon though they announced that they too would initiate court proceedings in Lebanon as well as send a team of attorneys to Belgium. ... 

For the last several months, Kanaan prepared Hobeika with false allegations concerning the case in Belgium in order to exonerate Hobeika from responsibility for the murders at Sabra and Shatilla. This removed Syria’s culpability for the murders, place the blame directly on Israel, and gave European Arabists a political tool to pressure Israel into making more concessions in the latest peace negotiations.

Syria and Iran secretly agreed to the assassination of Hobeika, exposed by the book From Israel to Damascus, to be an unproductive and dangerous political asset who became a major embarrassment as he could easily drag them into many uncomfortable, political issues. ...  Of course, the Lebanese media in a political feeding frenzy immediately accused Sharon of the murder [of Hobeika] and ignored all the hatreds extant among the many groups, mostly Arab, that hate Hobeika. This conveniently provides both Belgium and Lebanon with an excuse to blame the failure of any future trial on a lack of witnesses.

That the Lebanese Government is a puppet to the Syria regime is no longer news as is the fact that the Lebanese Government does nothing without Syrian approval and that would include the murder of Hobeika. It’s politically expedient to place blame on Israel as the released information does not substantiate any condemnation of Syria for the murder.

The region where Hobeika was murdered is in the center of the intelligence area of Beirut, and the entire area is under tight Lebanese Army and Syrian surveillance. Indeed, some of Hobeika’s retinue were committed to his security and well armed as he knew of the dangers he faced and his many enemies. For Israel or Israeli agents to penetrate this area is possible but foolish and highly unlikely, as if Israel wanted Hobeika neutralized it would have chosen a different fashion. Hobeika died as the result of traditional Syrian and Iranian styles used in Lebanon. This car bomb style was also used on President Rene Moawad and Mufti Hassan Khaled, Sunni leader. In light of Hobeika’s frequent visits to the beach for scuba diving, Israel’s choice would have been to confront Hobeika in the water in a more silent and mysterious fashion.

Today, the Lebanese Government is diverting the process of the assassination to Israel and are not revealing the truth behind this crime. The killers are the same ones who gave condolences to his family and walked at his funeral. It took place in Hazmieh, a neighborhood in Beirut, where most of the secret intelligence posts of the Lebanese Army and Syrian intelligence forces are located. The intelligence services have a strong presence in this area of the city that is very close to the Syrian controlled Ministry of Defense and five minutes by car to the southern suburbs of Beirut where HizbAllah has its largest terrorist stronghold in the country. It is highly unlikely that any Israeli Mossad action would venture into this part of Beirut, especially after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. As Israeli Foreign Minister Peres stated: “Israel is out of Lebanese politics for the moment.”

Hobeika’s enemies were legend and included HizbAllah, Lebanese patriots, Israelis, and Palestinians. Druze member of Parliament Marwan Hamade who blames Israel was himself a victim of an assassination attempt by Hobeika in the Lebanese war. Israel is easily dismissed as an assassin, for Hobeika is not important and certainly not on Israel’s list of priorities. While the Palestinians despised Hobeika for the killings at Sabra and Shatilla and another Palestinian camp in 1982 (both camps were known as breeding grounds for international terrorists), it is highly problematical that they were responsible as the murder was somewhat sophisticated and not in their style.

The southern suburbs of Beirut is the place where the United States hostages in the eighties were held for a long duration before they were transferred by HizbAllah to the Beqa'a Valley and distributed among small Shia towns. Additionally, this style of assassination is very similar to the booby trapped cars HizbAllah used in southern Lebanon against the IDF; all were exploded by remote control against the enemy. Knowing that many people have an interest in Hobeika’s assassination in Lebanon, Syria and HizbAllah in coordination with Lebanese intelligence blamed Israel for the murder. The salient question of responsibility relies theoretically on who has the ability, sophistication, and capability, of mounting and executing this terrorist operation? Certainly, not the weakened and abused pro-Israeli Christians of Lebanon.

HizbAllah is responsible and the only militia that kept its full military capability, its full terrorist intelligence structure operational and well in order to carry out such operations. It is HizbAllah who operated successfully against the Israeli Army in southern Lebanon with Iran's help and support, and they would not find it difficult to carry out an assassination against Hobeika in Hazmieh. Hobeika was an easy target for HizbAllah in these times of changing dynamics in the Middle East.

Syria is also a sponsor of HizbAllah and along with Iran had to resolve the schism between HizbAllah hatred of Hobeika that was due to Hobeika’s attempts at murdering numerous members of HizbAllah during the Lebanese war. Syria after the publication of the book “From Israel to Damascus” considered Hobeika a liability who could drag Syria into unwanted embarrassments. Therefore, Ghazy Kanaan, proxy Syrian ruler of Lebanon, manipulated and controlled Hobeika’s every move.

HizbAllah’s hatred of Hobeika involves the four Iranian diplomats murdered by Hobeika during the Lebanese war; the car bomb directed at the spiritual head of HizbAllah, the Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein FadlAllah, spiritual leader of HizbAllah; and the almost three hundred Shia prisoners that were executed in the Karantina district under Hobeika’s orders during the Lebanese war. The families of the Shia murdered hated Hobeika and applauded his death.

This assassination is an old account settled today by HizbAllah to prepare the way for a new regional dynamic and Iran is responding to today’s realities by flaring up the region, supplying missiles to HizbAllah that could reach deep into Israel. These missiles have been used against Israel in an Iranian attempt to kindle a regional war involving Israel after the debacle of the Karine-A weapons ship headed for Gaza. The new Iranian agenda has one goal: the destruction of Israel, the leadership of the Islamic nations in the Middle East, and preventing the United States from brokering any Middle East peace. Iran shares with Bin Laden the same political agenda involving the Islamic takeover of Israel and the removal of all United States presence from the region.

The state of alert among IDF soldiers along the northern border continues. The fear is that HizbAllah will continue to fire at outposts and towns along the border, and perhaps even try to kidnap soldiers again.

A mini-war has started and Israel’s newspaper Maariv reported January 25, 2002, that “HizbAllah is trying to intensify the fighting along the border and to drag Israel into warfare," according to a senior source in the northern command. The source referred to two firing incidents on the northern border two days ago when HizbAllah tried to down an Israel Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle and shelled IDF positions on Har Dov.” The Iranian hatred of Israel is demonstrated by the Grand Ayatollah Haj Sheikh Mohammad Fazel Lankerani (reported by Tehran’s Jomhuri-ye Eslami) who issued a fatwa (religious ruling) January 13, saying in part: “All Muslims have a duty to protect Jerusalem, which is the first shrine of Muslims, and they have a religious law obligation toward the Islamic land of Palestine; it is incumbent upon them to make every effort and to use all their resources to liberate Palestine, God willing.”

In its last visit to Damascus, the United States delegation gave the Syrian regime a very serious warning that terrorism will not be tolerated in the region, and what Washington meant by terrorism was HizbAllah. HizbAllah understood that its control of Lebanon would end, but the Secretary-General of HizbAllah NasrAllah defiantly criticized the Bush administration’s definition of terrorism and planned on continuing their jihad.

Responding to Washington’s pressure, Damascus for domestic purposes promised Washington to curb HizbAllah after the United States warnings. However, HizbAllah and Iran were concerned at Syria’s attitude as it did not conform with Iran’s who has its own agenda in the region. HizbAllah executes Iranian policy in Lebanon as does HAMAS and Islamic Jihad in Israel. The Iranian plan would destabilize the region, culminating in a war against Israel, and preventing any rapprochement or package deal between Washington, the moderate Arabs states pushing for a resolution to the Middle East conflict, and Damascus. Iran's objective is to keep the young, inexperienced Damascus regime under its reign, promote the Iranian influence within Syrian and Lebanese politics, and keep Lebanon as an operational base for HizbAllah to prevent any conflict resolution by the United States in the Middle East.

Ghazi Kanaan, titular Syrian ruler of Lebanon, protected Hobeika against many assassination attempts from HizbAllah in the past but no longer. Indeed, intelligence sources reveal that Kanaan prepared Hobeika over a period of three months for his testimony in Belgium and reversed his course in order to camouflage the murder after it became apparent that Hobeika was a liability. With the dangerous momentum that is approaching in the Middle East, the after Afghanistan syndrome, the missile firings against Israel, Hobeika’s assassination was a double message from HizbAllah to the players in the region that Iran has its own agenda and no one dare challenge it. That was the double message sent by Iran, executed by HizbAllah, and directed to the Middle East participants.

In the war against terrorism, it would be in the best interests of the United States to focus on Iran and Syria, as Iran is exporting its Islamic agenda through terror overseas to be executed by its own terror networks: HizbAllah, HAMAS, and Islamic Jihad.


 

January 11, 2002

Syria Introduces a New Government, But Challenges Remain to Pres. Bashar al-Assad

Analysis. From GIS stations in Damascus and elsewhere. Pres. Bashar al-Assad on December 22, 2001, swore in a new 34-member Cabinet which, like the previous Administration, was led by Prime Minister Dr Mohammad Mostafa Miro. In his speech to the new Government, the President stressed the priority given to the fight against corruption. He called for a modernization of the laws and for the pursuit of the ongoing reform of the economy. He also mentioned the importance of tackling the water problems the country was facing. The new Syrian government was formed the previous week amid growing and persistent calls to speed up economic reforms. The new Government includes an increased number of independent members in the economic and technical portfolios although the defense and foreign affairs ministers were retained from the previous Cabinet, an indication that there had been no fundamental shift in the top power structure.

The Syrian Government has, since the September 11, 2001, given lip service to supporting the US-led "war on terrorism", but has, however, then diverged from the US position by claiming that the major Syrian-supported terrorist groups, such as HizbAllah, were not in fact terrorist organizations. This divergence was at first "overlooked" by the US which was initially preoccupied by prosecuting military operations in Afghanistan, against al-Qaida and the Taliban, and in building international and domestic (US) support for the prosecution of a long-term, global war against terrorist groups and their supporting/host countries. It is now apparent, from public statements by US officials, and from private sources within the US Bush Administration, that the US is, however, now focusing on Syria as one of the downstream targets for the "war on terrorism", while at the same time giving Pres. Bashar al-Assad an opportunity to move closer to the US.

There is no evidence that Pres. Bashar is willing, or indeed able within the constraints of his power base, to change Syria’s position; and there is no evidence that the US is about to let Syria off the hook. The Syrian Government, meanwhile, has postured itself publicly as though it were in harmony with the US and as though the US was not, in fact, gearing up for strikes at Syria or Syrian bases in Lebanon.

A move by Syria to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) at the December 19-20, 2001, meeting in Geneva was blocked by the United States and Israel. This reflected the strong, and growing tendency of the US Government to directly confront and oppose the Syrian leadership, while still holding out the opportunity for Syria to embrace the US-led "war on terrorism". Until late October 2001, there was a reluctance in the US to directly confront Syria on its links with terrorist groups — most notably HizbAllah, which is directly sponsored by Iran, and logistically handled by Syria — but this has now given way to more strenuous pressure by Washington on Damascus.

The Syrian Government had been lobbying members of the 143 country WTO to help facilitate Syrian entry into the body. However, behind-the-scene objections by Israel and the United States prevented the application from being put on the formal agenda of the WTO's ruling General Council for consideration at its meeting. Economic and security considerations related to the Arab-Israeli crisis and the derailed Middle East peace efforts, the consideration by Washington of Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism, and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, weighed in on the decision. On November 19, 2001, John Bolton, US Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, publicly named Syria as one of six states, seeking the deployment of biological weapons agents, noting: "We believe that Syria ... has an offensive BW (biological weapons) program." Syria’s application was unlikely to be considered" in light of its increasing rôle in the application of the Arab League economic boycott against Israel, a full WTO member. The 22-member League's Principal Bureau for Boycott of Israel, is located in Damascus.

Syria’s rôle in sponsoring HizbAllah, and supporting various armed Palestinian and Lebanese anti-Israeli groups, is profoundly linked into the Syrian leadership and into the Syrian-Iranian strategic relationship which is at the core of Syria’s structure. One of the factors bearing on the prospect of US attacks against Syria over the HizbAllah links is the implicit fact that this then requires the US to acknowledge Iran’s clerical leadership as the ultimate sponsor of HizbAllah and the financing source for many other terrorist groups aimed against both the US and Israel. US strategic policymakers, such as one of the key US Defense Department officials, Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs) Peter Rodman, do indeed acknowledge this, and note that the "war on terrorism" would also lead to US support for Iranians to overthrow the clerical leadership in their country.

There appears to be disbelief in Damascus that the US Government would consider moves against it militarily, especially following eight years of US Clinton Administration temporizing and accommodation with Syria. However, there is every indication from Washington that Syria is likely to be a target of the US, after Somalia but before Libya.

Syrian-Turkish relations had been improving during much of 2001, to the point where many senior Israeli officials were questioning the validity or viability of the Israeli-Turkish alliance which was meant to ensure that Turkish forces could distract Syrian forces in the north in the event of a new Arab-Israeli war. Much of the Syrian-Turkish disharmony related to differences on the uses of the Tigris-Euphrates river system’s waters, as well as over the presence in Syria of anti-Turkish Kurdish forces. Syria had, following Turkish military interventions across their mutual border, suppressed the Kurdish safe-havens which had been used against Turkey, thus improving Turko-Syrian relations. [Indeed, the Kurdish situation had improved, as far as Syria and Iran were concerned, to the point where Iran could ship logistical weapons support for HizbAllah across from Iranian Kurdistan, through Iraqi Kurdistan and into northern Syria, on a land-bridge. Subsequently, however, Iran also began using conduits through Turkey, illegally moving support items for HizbAllah through Turkey and using the Turkish branch of HizbAllah.]

It should be noted that the question of water access is absolutely critical to Syrian agricultural and social survival, and the question of upstream retention of supply by Iraq is of critical national concern. So, despite the improvement in Turko-Syrian relations during 2001, a Syrian official in late November 2001 indicated that Syria and Iraq were once again concerned about Turkey's commitment to a 1987 agreement on sharing the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. After meeting his Iraqi counterpart Rasul Abdel Hussein al-Sawadi, Syrian Irrigation Minister Taha al-Atrash said: "Turkey has released an average of only 450 cubic meters of (Euphrates) water per second in the year 2000-2001." Syria and Iraq have called on Turkey to return to negotiations over the allocation of water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, talks broken off nine years earlier. The request came in a joint statement issued by Syrian Irrigation Minister Taha al-Atrash and his Iraqi counterpart, Rasul Abdel Hussein at the end of several days of talks in Damascus in late November 2001. There was no immediate response from Turkey.

The Euphrates and Tigris have their sources in eastern Turkey. The Euphrates flows through Syria to Iraq. The Tigris flows along the north-eastern border of Syria into Iraq. Turkey reduced the flow of water to Syria by two-thirds in 2000 owing to a severe drought. A 1987 agreement requires Turkey to release to Syria 500 cubic meters (17,500 cubic feet) of Euphrates water per second from its Atatürk Dam in south-eastern Turkey. In the past, Turkey has said it was committed to the 1987 agreement and that on average it sends more water than the agreement called for, even though the amount drops below 500 cubic meters per second during dry spells.

Meetings of the joint Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish committee on water-sharing were suspended nearly nine years ago due to opposition from Turkey, which is also facing a severe water shortage.

Domestically, Pres. Bashar al-Assad still faces strong opposition from his uncle, Rifa'at al-Assad, who, in the event of a major upheaval (such as a new war with Israel), could still supplant him. Significantly, although most of Hafez al-Assad’s loyal team opposed the rise of Rifa’at al-Assad, they now see him as the one person who can legitimize the transfer of power from Hafez al-Assad’s Administration. These officials, who were railroaded to some extent into supporting Bashar’s rise to power, recognized that there were many who questioned the changes of constitution needed to allow Bashar to assume office. Moreover, they now fear that Bashar’s younger generation are upsetting the system to the point where the whole ‘Alawite-Druze control of Syria might evaporate. As a result, these older officials seem prepared to tolerate Rifa’at’s policies, which include a complete Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon, in order to allow the Beirut banking and business sector to rise again, benefiting Syria and the entire Middle East. Rifa’at would also cut off practical hostilities with Israel, although he could not admit to a "peace treaty" with Israel which would result in an end to much Muslim support for him.

Rifa’at would bring about a considerable liberalization of Syria’s investment and political process, risking the rise of the Sunni majority, although it should not be assumed that Rifa’at is seen as naïve within the Syrian context. As a former militia leader, he has proven himself ruthless in suppressing his opponents, and it would be expected that he would continue in this vein, but with the additional realization that Syria needs to be modernized to be viable. He is supported, discreetly, by the US — since the introduction of the Bush Administration in 2001 — on the basis, as one key US official said privately: "He’s a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch."

Rifa’at al-Assad would be expected to put into the succession line, assuming he was able to seize power, one of his sons, Sumar al-Assad, who was, until 2001, running a pan-Arab satellite television station from London. Sumar, who visited Washington DC for ISSA’s Strategy2000 conference in June 2000, has been "kept clean", politically, so that he would represent an acceptable face to a possible Rifa’at Administration.

Rifa’at’s team hopes that the coming crisis with Israel could also be used to unseat Bashar.

Key pro-Rifa’at officials include:

  • Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister First Lt.-Gen. Mustafa Tlas;

  • Prime Minister Dr Mohammad Mostafa Miro, re-appointed on December 22, 2001, to the Premiership;

  • Vice-President Abd al-Halim ibn Said Khaddam; and others.

Conclusions:

  1. The likelihood is high to severe that a major implosion will occur within the Syrian leadership within the next two years, whether internally or externally triggered. This could lead either to a consolidation of the rule of Bashar al-Assad, and a consequent further repression of the Syrian economic and political system, or it could lead to Bashar’s removal and possible replacement by Rifa’at al-Assad, Bashar’s uncle. The latter eventuality would significantly enhance the stability and security situation in Syria, and open up the prospect for investment and operations by foreign corporations;

  2. The likelihood is high to severe that Syria will become involved in a conflict with Israel within the coming two years, and will suffer economically and politically until that conflict as relations with the US, the European Union, Turkey and Israel decline. This process will be exacerbated by the US-led "war on terrorism" which has already targeted Syria;

  3. The likelihood is high to severe that the Syrian economy will undergo a significant decline in 2002 as oil revenues continue to remain flat. This could worsen further if Syrian-Iraqi relations were to suffer, removing the re-sale of Iraqi oil from the Syrian economy;

  4. The likelihood is regarded as medium that political unrest in Iran during the coming two years could reduce the flow of Iranian oil support for Syria, at least temporarily. It would be expected that even a moderate, pro-Western Government, coming to power in Iran, would continue support for Syria while reducing support for HizbAllah and the war against Israel.


March 28, 2000

Following Disaster of Geneva Talks, Syria Makes Decisive Bid to Re-Arm, Effectively Ends Peace Process; US-Egyptian Talks Chilly

EXCLUSIVE. Highly-reliable sources in Damascus and Moscow have confirmed to Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily/GIS that following the pivotal breakdown in the Clinton-Assad summit in Geneva on March 25, 2000, the Syrian Government has begun urgent negotiations for major purchases of the latest Russian military equipment to re-equip large sections of the Syrian Ground Forces and Air Defense Forces. Syrian officials told Russian Government officials that they wanted totally new equipment across the board to re-equip at least two divisions of Ground Forces, plus other Air Defense systems. The current initiative is, according to the sources, the start of a major Syrian defense build-up in all defense sectors.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad made the decision immediately following his abortive "summit" meeting with US President Bill Clinton in Geneva on Saturday, March 25, 2000. The meeting was apparently set up, at least in part, by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who arrived in Washington on Sunday, March 26, 2000, for a six-day visit to the US. Meetings between Pres. Mubarak and Pres. Clinton in Washington DC on Monday, March 27, 2000, were reported by reliable sources to be "icy".

The Egyptians, in the expectation of progress with the Syrians, had begun dispatching officials to work on details of what had been expected to be a renewed series of peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Syria, when requesting the weapons from Russia, warned that unless the weapons were provided quickly and under favorable conditions, they would consider approaching the US and/or Western Europe for weapons and political commitments. The matter was initially raised on March 23, 2000, in a telephone conversation between Pres. Assad and Russian Foreign Minister Ivan Ivanov. Pres. Assad demanded that Russia commit "within a few weeks" to a speedy delivery of "a huge arms deal", including S-300 (SA-10/SA-12 anti-missile missile system), T-80 main battle tanks, various artillery systems, as well as upgrades of existing systems. The Syrians also want some strike aircraft.

On March 27, 2000, after the Clinton-Assad "summit", Syria requested additional items and insisted that outstanding Syrian debt to Russia for weapons, as well as the cost of the current deal, would be re-worked into a long-term debt under favorable conditions. 

Russian officials were reportedly unimpressed. A similar deal was requested by Syria in 1999 and this fell through when Russia refused to sell offensive weapons as part of the package. Russia also refused to accept the Syrian payment terms. 

It is understood that a turning point in the Clinton-Assad talks occurred when Pres. Clinton told Pres. Assad that any major US commitment of funds to Syria — as part of an overall peace package — would have to be approved by the US Congress, which must authorize all US Government expenditures. In fact, it is probably unlikely that Pres. Clinton would have mentioned this to the Syrian President had it not been for the fact that several key US Congressmen had sent a letter to Pres. Clinton reminding him that he could not make any commitments of funds without Congressional authorization. The letter also urged him to effect immediate withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon in accordance with the Ta'if Accords of 1979, and UN Security Council Resolution 520.

It became immediately apparent to Pres. Assad, then, that the "glue" for a peace package was not there.

One immediate fall-out from the collapse of the Syria-Israel-US peace process is the negative impact on US-Egyptian relations. Pres. Mubarak had thought that an Egyptian-brokered peace process would have improved Egypt's chances of winning Congressional support for continued US aid funding for Egypt. Now, apart from failing to have a victory to show Congress, Pres. Mubarak is understood to be seen by Pres. Clinton and his advisors as the cause of the failure of the Assad-Clinton "summit".

There was, however, little chance that the meeting could have achieved a major breakthrough. There was, in any event, a significant gap in the perceptions of the Syrian and the US delegations. White House sources indicated that the Clinton Administration efforts were hastily-conceived and "desparate", hoping to achieve a measure of success which would boost Pres. Clinton's image before he left office. "He needs something significant to ensure that he doesn't go out with just the Monica Lewinsky scandal as the overriding legacy," one source said. "Don't think winning a Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an Israeli-Syrian peace, or an India-Pakistan settlement, hasn't been discussed around here. Now it seems unlikely that anything substantial can occur in the coming few months, at least of the scale being sought."

However, it appears that the ramifications of a failed Geneva "summit" were not considered by the White House. It now seems increasingly likely that Syria will harden its position vis-à-vis Israel and therefore also with regard to Syrian activities in Lebanon. This will have certain follow-on repercussions with regard to HizbAllah and Hamas terrorist activities, as well as to Israeli plans to demilitarize South Lebanon.

A Member of the Lebanese Parliament, Muhammad Funaysh, of the "al-Wafa Bloc for Resistance" and a leader of the HizbAllah Party in Lebanon, made it clear on March 27, 2000, that HizbAllah would continue to fight, in any event, regardless of any political negotiations. "The field operations of the Islamic Resistance do not depend on the political developments in the negotiations. Confrontation against the Israeli enemy is one of the options that is available to the Islamic Resistance. The facts on the ground military operations; not political developments." 

He continued: "... We want to deny the Israeli enemy every opportunity to benefit from any development or situation that could alienate the resistance from its Lebanese environment. ... Consequently, the field operations of the Islamic Resistance cannot be made dependent on the transient political changes as if the resistance was like a robot reacting only to these political developments and changes. The Islamic Resistance is indeed a daily jihad that stems from faith and that is linked with the will and morale of the fighters."

Meanwhile, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud on March 26, 2000, said that Syria's military presence in his country was only temporary. Pres. Lahoud said he was confident that Syria was not committed to remaining in Lebanon, and would withdraw when it suited Lebanon's interests, not Israel's. He was commenting on reports that members of the United States Congress had asked President Clinton to put pressure on Pres. Assad to withdraw his 35,000 troops from Lebanon, something which, in light of the failed meeting between Pres. Assad and Pres. Clinton, now seems unlikely in the short-term.

US Congressional sources indicated on March 27, 2000, that additional sanctions were now being considered against Syria if it failed to start effecting a withdrawal of forces from Lebanon. Congress had wanted to see a simultaneous withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. Israel has committed to this process.


October 1, 1999

Syria’s Assad in Failing Health; Situation Reflects Internal Rivalries

Highly reliable sources in Damascas and Beirut report that Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad, 69, is in extremely poor health and is suffering from depression which is affecting the strategic direction being taken by the Government. Several sources indicated that Pres. Assad was suffering from what have been referred to in the past by his associates as “black moods”: a depression which has paralyzed decisionmaking. Pres. Assad underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 1997, which stirred fights between followers of the President's brother and son over who would succeed to the Presidency.

Apart from the President's poor health — and the specifics of his ailments cannot be confirmed — he is known to have become depressed when his Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Shara, required urgent medical attention for a heart condition several weeks ago. No surgeon in Damascus would, apparently, attend to the Minister for fear of failure. Ultimately, Foreign Minister al-Shara had to be taken by ambulance to Beirut, where he had a successful heart bypass operation at the American University Hospital. The Minister almost died as a result of the delays.

Meanwhile, the President's health and depression have fuelled a reignition of the fight for succession between Pres. Assad’s younger brother, Rif’at al-Assad (a former Vice-President, former commander of the Defense Brigades, and now head of intelligence), and the President's son, Bashar al-Assad, now 33 or 34. Clashes between pro-Bashar and pro-Rif’at supporters on October 11, 1997, had left 30 people wounded. Now the fight has resumed. Bashar al-Assad, who trained as an opthalmologist in London, had given little thought to the Presidency until his older brother, Maj. Basil al-Assad, was killed in a car accident in January 1994. He is now a lieutenant-colonel and commander-in-chief of the Republican Guard.

It is known that while there is no apparent threat to security inside Syria at present, due to the President’s illness, there has been a distinct paralysis in strategic decisionmaking. Certainly anything relating to the peace process with Israel has come to a halt, as has any ability to act decisively in Lebanon. This situation has been exacerbated by the convalescence of the Foreign Minister.

The changing situation inside Syria will have an impact on (a) Iranian activities with regard to HizbAllah inside Lebanon and Syria's ability or inability to respond to those activities; and (b) the commitment by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon by mid-2000. As well, the situation will affect the directions taken by the Lebanese Government and the various Lebanese factions, who are clearly influenced by Syria's actions. In short, with paralysis in Syria, there is only one dynamic set of elements in the overall peace process: the forces sponsored by Iran, and particularly HizbAllah and Hamas. The others must wait and see what will happen in Damascus.