MIDDLE EAST: CONFRONTATION BETWEEN U.S. AND IRAN IN SYRIA INTENSIFIES

The Great Muslim Civil War — and Us: Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, June 22, 2017— This week marks six months since the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which classifies Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 line, including in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, as illegal.

Welcome to the Shia Corridor: Ben Cohen, JNS, June 23, 2017 — If you haven’t encountered the term “Shia corridor” yet, chances are that you will in the coming weeks, particularly if the ongoing confrontation between the US and Iran in Syria intensifies.

A Rare Consensus: Eric R. Mandel, Jerusalem Post, June 25, 2017— After speaking with foreign policy experts and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle last week, there was a rare consensus that we shouldn’t harbor any illusions about our strategic Arab alliances in the Middle East.

Prospects for a Near East Treaty Organization: Jose V. Ciprut, BESA, June 10, 2017— US President Donald Trump’s “pilgrimage” to Riyadh, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Rome was carefully choreographed.

 

On Topic Links

 

Arab States Issue Ultimatum to Qatar: Rick Moran, American Thinker, June 24, 2016

President Trump’s Arab Alliance Is a Mirage: Antony J. Blinken, New York Times, June 19, 2017

US Strategy and Israel’s Stake in Eastern Syria: Jonathan Spyer, Jerusalem Post, June 23, 2017

Resistance Axis Forces Directly Threaten U.S.: We Are On The Brink Of War On Syria-Iraq Border: N. Mozes, MEMRI, June 14, 2017

 

 

 

THE GREAT MUSLIM CIVIL WAR — AND US                                                            

Charles Krauthammer

                                       Washington Post, June 22, 2017

 

The U.S. shoots down a Syrian fighter-bomber. Iran launches missiles into eastern Syria. Russia threatens to attack coalition aircraft west of the Euphrates. What is going on? It might appear a mindless mess, but the outlines are clear. The great Muslim civil war, centered in Syria, is approaching its post-Islamic State phase. It’s the end of the beginning. The parties are maneuvering to shape what comes next. It’s Europe, 1945, when the war was still raging against Nazi Germany, but everyone already knew the outcome. The maneuvering was largely between the approaching victors — the Soviet Union and the Western democracies — to determine postwar boundaries and spheres of influence.

So it is today in Syria. Everyone knows that the Islamic State is finished. Not that it will disappear as an ideology, insurgency and source of continuing terrorism both in the region and the West. But it will disappear as an independent, organized, territorial entity in the heart of the Middle East. It is being squeezed out of existence. Its hold on Mosul, its last major redoubt in Iraq, is nearly gone. Raqqa, its stronghold in Syria and de facto capital, is next. When it falls — it is already surrounded on three sides — the caliphate dies.

 

Much of the fighting today is about who inherits. Take the Syrian jet the United States shot down. It had been attacking a pro-Western Kurdish and Arab force (the Syrian Democratic Forces) not far from Islamic State territory. Why? Because the Bashar al-Assad regime, backed by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, having gained the upper hand on the non-jihadist rebels in the Syrian heartland (most notably in Aleppo), feels secure enough to set its sights on eastern Syria. If it hopes to restore its authority over the whole country, it will need to control Raqqa and surrounding Islamic State areas. But the forces near Raqqa are pro-Western and anti-regime. Hence the Syrian fighter-bomber attack.

 

Hence the U.S. shoot-down. We are protecting our friends. Hence the Russian threats to now target U.S. planes. The Russians are protecting their friends. On the same day as the shoot-down, Iran launched six surface-to-surface missiles into Syrian territory controlled by the Islamic State. Why? Ostensibly to punish the jihadists for terrorist attacks two weeks ago inside Iran.  Perhaps. But one obvious objective was to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arabs the considerable reach of both Iran’s arms and territorial ambitions.

 

For Iran, Syria is the key, the central theater of a Shiite-Sunni war for regional hegemony. Iran (which is non-Arab) leads the Shiite side, attended by its Arab auxiliaries — Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite militias in Iraq and the highly penetrated government of Iraq, and Assad’s Alawite regime. (Alawites being a non-Sunni sect, often associated with Shiism.) Taken together, they comprise a vast arc — the Shiite Crescent — stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. If consolidated, it gives the Persians a Mediterranean reach they have not had in 2,300 years. This alliance operates under the patronage and protection of Russia, which supplies the Iranian-allied side with cash, weapons and, since 2015, air cover from its new bases in Syria.

 

Arrayed on the other side of the great Muslim civil war are the Sunnis, moderate and Western-allied, led by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan — with their Great Power patron, the United States, now (post-Obama) back in action. At stake is consolidation of the Shiite Crescent. It’s already underway. As the Islamic State is driven out of Mosul, Iranian-controlled militias are taking over crucial roads and other strategic assets in western Iraq. Next target: eastern Syria (Raqqa and environs). Imagine the scenario: a unified Syria under Assad, the ever more pliant client of Iran and Russia; Hezbollah, tip of the Iranian spear, dominant in Lebanon; Iran, the regional arbiter; and Russia, with its Syrian bases, the outside hegemon.

 

Our preferred outcome is radically different: a loosely federated Syria, partitioned and cantonized, in which Assad might be left in charge of an Alawite rump.  The Iranian-Russian strategy is a nightmare for the entire Sunni Middle East. And for us too. The Pentagon seems bent on preventing it. Hence the cruise missile attack for crossing the chemical red line. Hence the recent fighter-bomber shoot-down. A reasonable U.S. strategy, given the alternatives. But not without risk. Which is why we need a national debate before we commit too deeply. Perhaps we might squeeze one in amid the national obsession with every James Comey memo-to-self?

 

 

Contents  

             

WELCOME TO THE SHIA CORRIDOR

Ben Cohen

JNS, June 23, 2017

 

If you haven’t encountered the term “Shia corridor” yet, chances are that you will in the coming weeks, particularly if the ongoing confrontation between the US and Iran in Syria intensifies. What was initially a sideshow to the main battle against Islamic State in Syria is fast becoming the main focus of attention. In recent weeks, the US has shot down at least two Iranian armed drones over Syria. A Syrian regime bomber jet supposedly attacking Islamic State positions near Raqqa was also downed, after it ventured too close to positions held by US-allied forces. Armed skirmishes have been reported between US-allied forces and Iranian-backed Shia Islamist militias. The Russians — allied with Iran in supporting the tyrant Bashar al-Assad in Damascus — are also part of this dangerous equation, going so far as to declare that Moscow’s generals will treat US-led coalition aircraft flying west of the Euphrates River in Syria as “potential targets.”

 

What does Iran hope to achieve here? To start with, it’s important to note that the international legitimacy the mullahs have enjoyed since the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 is starting to fragment. The US Senate this month voted to slap new sanctions on Iran for its violations outside the terms of the nuclear deal, such as its use of ballistic missiles and its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such political moves invariably have a significant economic impact, which is why Western banks continue to advise caution towards companies tempted to invest in Iran.

 

None of this fretting is of much consequence to the overtly revolutionary wings of the Iranian regime, most obviously the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is built to retain its enormous power with or without sanctions in place. But the eclipse of the Obama administration’s engagement strategy with Iran highlights once again that it is institutions like the IRGC, much more than one or another foreign minister sounding reasonable and eloquent, that define the nature of power and influence in the Islamic Republic.

 

This is where the “Shia corridor” comes in. Iran’s goal to become the dominant power in the Islamic world involves more than religious or ideological influence. It requires the boots of Iran and its proxies on the ground — as demonstrated already in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. It requires that Iran has easy, uninterrupted access to all those parts of the region where it exercises political control.

 

On one level, the idea of a Shia corridor seems a little fantastical. Almost 2,000 miles separate Tehran from the Mediterranean coast to its far west. The road between the two points is distinguished by rough terrain and the presence of numerous militias along the route, many of them belonging to Sunni Islamist factions hostile to Iran. In addition to heavy defenses on the ground, the corridor would need effective aerial warning systems, given Israel’s demonstrated willingness to bomb weapons shipments between Iran and its allies in Syria and Lebanon. Can a country with an ailing economy like Iran’s, that is now facing an increasingly hostile administration in Washington, DC, really carve out such a corridor unopposed?

 

The point, for now at least, is Iran is doing precisely that — assisted by the lack of a defined US policy towards not just the Iranian nuclear program, but its entire regional role; the absence of any appetite among the Europeans for a confrontation with Tehran; and the unprecedented support coming from Iran’s traditional foe, Russia, thanks to President Vladimir Putin’s benevolence. In other words, Iran will face obstacles to its contiguous territorial path only if its adversaries — not just America, but also Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, among others — are willing to place them there.

 

Does the advance of the corridor so far warrant such concern? At the end of May, a few correspondents in the region, among them the Israeli journalist Seth Frantzman and the American reporter Dexter Filkins, reported that Iranian-backed militias had seized a cluster of villages along the Syrian-Iraqi border, thereby securing an encumbered road link between the IRGC in Tehran and its client in Damascus. “The development is potentially momentous,” Filkins wrote in the New Yorker, “because, for the first time, it would bind together, by a single land route, a string of Iranian allies, including Hezbollah, in Lebanon; the Assad regime, in Syria; and the Iranian-dominated government in Iraq. Those allies form what is often referred to as the Shiite Crescent, an Iranian sphere of influence in an area otherwise dominated by Sunni Muslims.”

 

While those same Sunni Muslims are divided between those who see the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran as their main enemy, and those who accord that distinction to Israel and the US, Iran is presenting a unified Shia revolutionary stance towards the outside world. Iran has allies all the way from Lebanon to Bahrain, and Iran is their unmistakable leader. When looked at on the map, this status conveys the possibility of an Iranian empire that Tehran’s actions in the field seek only to reinforce.

 

The consequences for Israel of a Shia corridor are, needless to say, acute. Since the war in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, Israel has been acutely aware of Iran’s ability to wage direct war on its territory, through the missile barrages of its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. The existence of a land corridor will transform Iran’s capacity in this regard, perhaps to the point where a land-based war launched against Israel from Syria and Lebanon could be as perilous as a nuclear attack.

 

For some time now, it has been an established fact that Hezbollah has increased its number of missiles pointed at Israel by a factor of 10, with newer and deadlier models now in operation — despite the existence of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, passed in 2006, which demands that Hezbollah disarm entirely. A land corridor would make any attempt to enforce this resolution a much harder task. As always, Israel is prepared for the worst. But how it responds will depend, more than anything else, on how the Trump administration copes with the reality that America is once again locked in combat with its adversaries.

                                                                                   

Contents  

                                          

A RARE CONSENSUS

Eric R. Mandel

Jerusalem Post, June 25, 2017

 

After speaking with foreign policy experts and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle last week, there was a rare consensus that we shouldn’t harbor any illusions about our strategic Arab alliances in the Middle East. US President Donald Trump’s realignment back to our Sunni Gulf “allies” makes sense on the surface, as we share the goal of curbing Iran’s obsession to dominate the region.

 

But if we ally ourselves with them, will the Saudi and Gulf States stop supporting radical Sunni jihadists? Will the new Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman be a reformer and a transformative king moving Saudi Arabia into modernity, or will he be reckless and adventurous, creating instability in the region? Don’t forget how hopeful it seemed to many, including Hillary Clinton and secretary of state John Kerry, that the London-trained ophthalmologist Bashar Assad would bring enlightened reform to Syria. It is inaccurate to analyze the region and our choices exclusively in terms of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide. An equally essential filter to understand the conflicting realities is to separate those nation-states who support political Islamism and those who don’t, e.g. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt.

 

Political Islamists, whose goal is a worldwide caliphate, have both Shi’ite and Sunni adherents. They may pursue that goal by conquest or terrorism, as do Islamic State (Sunni) and Iran (Shi’ite), or they may create adherents by providing food, shelter and schooling to disadvantaged Islamic populations. The Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni) subscribes to both strategies, which misled the Obama administration into advocating for the MB as a moderating force within political Islamism, ignoring their actions and words, such as “jihad is our way,” and “dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”

 

Aligning exclusively with either side of these divides, whether Sunnis vs. Shi’ites, or political Islamists and their enablers (Iran/Turkey/Muslim Brotherhood/ Qatar) vs. Egypt/Saudi Arabia/Kuwait/UAE is problematic at best. America must balance bad or worse choices to achieve its strategic goals. The choices are not always clear or satisfying, as there are befuddling realignments between and within the multi-dimensional divides.

 

In the world of political Islam, the lines of Sunni and Shi’ite blur: Shi’ite political Islamist Iran supports Sunni political Islamist Hamas, the progeny of the Sunni political Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Shi’ite political Islamist Hezbollah and Sunni political Islamist Hamas have been meeting and coordinating their actions, with the shared goal of the destruction of the State of Israel. Another player with shifting allegiances within the political Islamist world is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who turned his nation from the only secular Sunni democracy in the Middle East into a political Islamist state, threatening American interests.

 

Regarding the “status quo” Sunni Wahhabi monarchies embraced by President Trump, Elliot Abrams expresses a post-9/11 view in The National Review that “Wahhabi Islam is at least a gateway drug for extremism…Saudi preachers, mosques, and schools teach…moderate versions of Islam are impure and must be replaced by the only true version.” Let us be clear: there is little commonality of values between America and Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Aaron David Miller referred to Arab nations like Saudi Arabia as tribes with flags. Saudi Arabia is a family owned nation-state run by the descendants of the 19th wife of the clan’s founder, Ibn Saud.

 

So are the Saudis any less supportive of sources of terrorism than in the past? In some ways yes, but they have miles to go, as they still look the other way as wealthy private Saudi citizens continue to give major backing to radical Sunni jihadist actors. Yet their rhetoric toward Israel has moved from hostile to conciliatory. The government-controlled Al Riyadh said recently that “there is no reason for Arabs to unjustifiably demonize Israel,” according to the UK Spectator.

 

Democrats I met with in Congress emphasized a point Antony Blinken, president Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state, made in The New York Times. “Saudi-exported, ultra-conservative Wahhabism, which breeds intolerance around the world, is no less dangerous to Western interests than Iran’s support for radicalism, regional meddling and expansionism.” Perhaps, but in the Middle East world of bad and worse choices, Iran clearly falls on the more dangerous side for American interests. Blinken’s equivalence is more about not undermining president Obama’s foreign policy legacy, the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA). Ever since president Obama allowed the Iranian nuclear agreement to supersede American interests in reining in Iranian hegemony, the Sunni world lost faith in American resolve to both protect them and thwart Iranian expansionism.

 

Complicating this picture are the Gulf monarchies Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, which support Sunni jihadists and claim to be against Iranian interests. They are genuinely worried about the dangers of the rise of political Islamism supported by Qatar, which threatens their totalitarian dynasties. At the same time, they paradoxically funnel money for their supposed enemy Iran through their secretive banking systems. But what motivates all the Gulf States is their fear of Iran; so helping the Iranian regime may simply be a form of appeasement.

 

Every one of these Gulf nations with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia wants American bases on their soil as a deterrent to Iranian territorial aspirations. The UAE vs. Qatar crisis is also be about getting an American base in Abu Dhabi, rather than exclusively the stated goal of stopping Qatari support for terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Jazeera and Hezbollah. Going forward, American interests will be advanced if the United States fosters normalization of Sunni-Israeli relations, reins in Iranian hegemonic ambitions and restrains Gulf State support for Sunni jihadists Aligning with peoples and nations that do not share Western values but do advance our interests is the filter and context to understand our choices in 2017 and beyond.

 

 

Contents

PROSPECTS FOR A NEAR EAST TREATY ORGANIZATION

Jose V. Ciprut

BESA, June 10, 2017

 

US President Donald Trump’s “pilgrimage” to Riyadh, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Rome was carefully choreographed. This first foreign trip by a novice president turned out to be a masterstroke. The trip achieved several critical objectives. Mr. Trump wished to create a semblance of unity with allies who had come to question the strength of their respective relationships with the US. He designated a common enemy by suggesting that ancient hatreds can no longer be afforded, and by urging that strategic realignments grounded on a region-wide alliance are not only desirable but feasible. This ambitious agenda eschewed detailed specifics, relying on strict adherence to prepared scripts.

 

By going to Riyadh first, Trump conveyed the impression that he considers the Saudis a top priority. This tacit statement, made before a global audience, so flattered the Saudis that a page replete with historic disappointments was promptly turned. By insisting on visiting the Western Wall without Israeli escort; by discouraging a performance by a Palestinian Christian youth band eager to display its Palestinian national insignia at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; by avoiding the Knesset; and by electing to meet the aging president of the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem rather than Ramallah, the US president made clear that, at this stage, he would not allow politicized symbolism to cast doubt on his stylized impartiality. His speeches in Riyadh, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem were consistent in their cordiality.

 

The flash visits to the Western Wall, Bethlehem, and Yad Vashem took place even as Britain was mourning the Manchester bombing and a “Day of Rage” was in full swing on the West Bank. The US president called for compassion across the region just as yet another knife-wielding Palestinian Arab had to be neutralized in Netanya. His intercessions were hence timely, conveying a sense of urgency.

 

Trump convincingly remarked that not only those who commit violent crimes, but also those who incite to violence by rewarding criminality in the name of a higher cause ought once and for all to cease and desist. By neither outlining nor so much as alluding to a new road map, and by unequivocally leaving the matter to the parties to debate, he reserved a role for the US as even-handed facilitator. Trump’s administration seems determined not to propose, let alone impose, any ends, means, methods, or style. This fresh approach, with its focus on “the collective need for realistic security-mindedness”, permits all the regional stakeholders to expand their thinking. That thinking could include one particularly intriguing alternate future. It is possible to imagine a wholesale security redesign for the region – one that would include Israel, as well as an autonomous Palestinian entity thriving in peace and prosperity alongside it. This scenario would be conceivable only after the enemy factions agree as one to live in constructive acquiescence to the existence of the Jewish democratic State of Israel.

 

Over the past fifty years, new realities have swept the Middle East. Nasser’s pan-Arabism and the Muslim Brotherhood’s pan-Islamism both failed (although their remodeled ideals are currently being approached through other means by the 57-member Organization of Islamic States). Egypt has been won over by the West. Both Jordan and Egypt have sustained a cold peace with Israel. The “Arab Spring” has led to sporadic implosions that in turn spawned several failed states. Syria has been internally destroyed. Yemen is in agony. Iran has developed an appetite for regional hegemony, with recourse to militias abroad. Iraq and Libya have yet to experience a semblance of stability. Afghans, Chechens, and many other dissatisfied Muslims are fighting for their respective brands of fundamentalism, often engaging in zero-sum games with their own coreligionists. Lebanon remains in its apparently eternal existential dilemma. An increasingly Islamist Turkey has developed its own ambitions across the region by means that have polarized its population. African nations bordering on the Red Sea continue to experience internal unrest. Cyprus has yet to be reunified, and the Kurds’ destiny in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria is still undetermined…

[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]

 

 

Contents

 

On Topic Links

 

Arab States Issue Ultimatum to Qatar: Rick Moran, American Thinker, June 24, 2016—The crisis in the Gulf over Qatar's ties to terrorism and Iran took an even more serious turn as Arab states issued an ultimatum to Doha demanding that it close the propaganda media outlet Al Jazeera, cut ties with Iran, remove a Turkish military base, and pay reparations. Qatar is not expected to comply with any of these demands.

President Trump’s Arab Alliance Is a Mirage: Antony J. Blinken, New York Times, June 19, 2017—Tweeting first and asking questions later is not a good way to make policy — especially in the Middle East. In a recent salvo, President Donald J. Trump took credit for a decision by one set of American partners — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — to sever relations with another, Qatar.

US Strategy and Israel’s Stake in Eastern Syria: Jonathan Spyer, Jerusalem Post, June 23, 2017—The downing on June 18 of a Syrian Air Force SU-22 by a US Navy F-18 Super Hornet over the skies of northern Syria sharply raises the stakes in the emergent standoff in the country. This standoff is no longer between local militias, nor between regional powers. Rather, through interlocking lines of support, it places the United States in direct opposition to Russia.

Resistance Axis Forces Directly Threaten U.S.: We Are On The Brink Of War On Syria-Iraq Border: N. Mozes, MEMRI, June 14, 2017—On June 9, 2017, forces of the resistance axis, which is headed by Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, reached the Syria-Iraq border. This is an important accomplishment of these forces vis-à-vis the U.S. and its allies, and it not only boosts the morale of the resistance but it is key in the continued struggle over the future of Syria and the balance of power in the region.