REGIONAL ROUND-UP (I): WHITE HOUSE BACKS IRANIAN SHIITES AND QATAR, AS LIBYA SINKS INTO CHAOS & VIOLENCE

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Contents:

 

Friend and Foe in Syria:  Lee Smith, Weekly Standard, Mar. 2, 2015 — Last week, outgoing chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces Benny Gantz told an American audience that it’s important the international community defeat both camps of regional extremists.

A Naive U.S. Welcome for Iran in Iraq: Washington Post, Mar. 5, 2015 — In devoting 250 of the 6,800 words of his state of the union address to the fight against “violent extremism,” president Obama offered a boilerplate description of his policy.

Arabs: Why is Obama Siding With Supporters of Terrorism?: Khaled Abu Toameh, Gatestone Institute, Feb. 26, 2015 — The Egyptians are furious with U.S. President Barack Obama for meeting in the White House this week with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Stabilizing Libya May Be the Best Way to Keep Europe Safe: National Post, Feb. 24, 2015 — It was another weekend of chaos and violence in Libya, as the country’s second civil war continues.

 

On Topic Links

 

El-Sisi Urges ‘Arab Ready Force’ to Confront ISIS, Questions if US ‘Standing By’ Egypt: Fox News, Mar. 9, 2014

Syria's Civil War Could Stabilize Its Region: Daniel Pipes, Washington Times, Feb. 26, 2014

Heartbreaking Times: Jonathan Spyer, Jerusalem Post, Mar. 7, 2014

NATO Bombs Cleared the Path for IS in Libya: Jeffrey Simpson, Globe & Mail, Feb. 18, 2014

                                                                                                                                                

                                               

FRIEND AND FOE IN SYRIA                                   

Lee Smith

Weekly Standard, Mar. 2, 2015

 

Last week, outgoing chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces Benny Gantz told an American audience that it’s important the international community defeat both camps of regional extremists. The way Gantz sees it, on one side there are Sunni radicals, like the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate. On the Shiite side are Iran and the Revolutionary Guards expeditionary unit, the Quds Force, as well as Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias. In urging European, Arab, and, of course, American officials to band together to defeat Middle Eastern extremism of all varieties, Gantz was nominally tapping into a consensus position. After all, the White House convened a summit last week to “combat violent extremism,” so surely the United States and its allies can agree that all types of radical violent actors—Shiite or Sunni, secular or otherwise—are equally bad.

 

The reality, however, is that the government Gantz recently served has made clear distinctions between extremist groups in the Middle East, and has backed its preferences on the ground for certain actors in the Sunni camp. The Obama White House has also signaled its priorities, acquiescing to, if not actively supporting, the Iranian-backed Shiite axis. Thus the United States and its longtime ally Israel have reached yet another point of strategic divergence over Iran, one that may soon widen.

 

The January 18 Israeli strike on a three-vehicle convoy in the Golan Heights carrying six Hezbollah fighters, a senior officer of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and as many as five other Iranian officials was the clearest indication yet of Jerusalem’s top priority—Iran. It’s possible that the IRGC/Hezbollah delegation was plotting an attack that Israeli officials deemed urgent. But the key point the strike showed is that Jerusalem will not allow Iran to open up a second front on the borders of Israel from the Golan, in addition to its Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon.

 

The evidence that the Israelis have no such immediate concerns regarding the Sunni rebels fighting against the Assad regime is that this was the first time Israel targeted the region around Quneitra, Syrian territory that the rebels have controlled for a year. Presumably, for the present at least, the Israelis have turned a blind eye to rebel activities—even though those units surely include fighters from Nusra, one of the groups that Gantz says should be defeated.

 

“Israel has been reportedly working with rebel brigades in southern Syria for a while,” says Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Israel has provided medical treatment not just to Syrian civilians but also fighters. It’s a channel of communication, then, they’re talking to them, and likely sharing intelligence, in the full knowledge that these rebel units cooperate with Nusra against the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and the IRGC.”

 

The issue, as Badran notes, is that Israel perceives the Iranian axis not just as the strategic threat, but also as the immediate threat. There may come a day that the anti-Assad rebels, especially Nusra, will be a serious problem for Israel, but at present Jerusalem’s chief concern isn’t nonstate Sunni militants with rocket-propelled grenades, but a state sponsor of violent extremism that is seeking a nuclear weapon. Moreover, as the regional press has reported, the IRGC campaign to retake Quneitra, with Iranian officers not simply advising Assad’s forces and its Hezbollah allies but actually fighting, is apt to force a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran for the first time. It’s hardly surprising then that Jerusalem sees a vital interest in keeping IRGC troops off its border, even if that involves coordination with rebel groups that include Nusra forces.

 

The Obama administration has a different set of regional priorities. First is to cut a deal with Tehran over its nuclear weapons program. Second is to prevent a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland, with a watchful eye especially on the foreign fighters in the Syrian war who may be dispatched to an American city to conduct a Charlie Hebdo-style operation.

 

Both of these goals have brought the administration into alignment with Tehran. The White House believes that if it accommodates Iranian interests, from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq to Yemen, then Iran will be more willing to forsake, or at least postpone, its nuclear ambitions. As for the second, the administration believes that Iran shares an interest in halting the spread of Sunni jihadism. Accordingly, the White House has partnered with Iran and its allies in Iraq to fight ISIS, shared intelligence with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and promised Iran not to attack Assad’s dwindling forces in Syria.

 

The upshot is that the Obama White House has a very different picture of the region from Israel, and sees it almost exactly as Iran and its allies do. Where Israel’s security needs require it to hold its nose and work with Nusra-affiliated groups to keep the Iranian axis at bay, the White House makes no distinction between the Islamic State and Nusra, which it designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has the same picture of the world as former administration envoy to Syria Robert Ford. “Nusra Front is just as dangerous” as the Islamic State, Ford said last week. “And yet they keep pretending they’re nice guys, they’re Syrians.” From Nasrallah’s perspective, Nusra Front and the Islamic State “are essentially one and the same .  .  . [and] must be fought, without distinction.”

 

One obvious question, which wasn’t lost on Ford, was whether an active White House policy to bring down Assad, as Obama stipulated in August 2011, might have prevented the appearance of Nusra and other jihadist groups in Syria. As many analysts warned at the time, if the White House stood by idly while the war raged, the conflict might destabilize every U.S. ally on Syria’s borders, including Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. Thus, it is largely the White House’s negligence that has compelled U.S. allies, including Israel, to partner with potential enemies against what they perceive as an even greater threat.

 

Further, there’s a possibility that some of those allies may be drawn into the Syrian war in order to defend themselves against the Iranian axis. For instance, if the anti-Assad rebels fail to hold what has become for Jerusalem a buffer zone on the Golan, that will put Iranian troops on Israel’s border and make confrontation likely.

 

And there’s an even more worrisome possibility. According to a Wall Street Journal report last week, White House officials are concerned that a U.S. attack on Assad’s forces in Syria might lead Iranian-backed militias to begin targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. After repeated American assurances over the last few months that Assad won’t be touched in the campaign against Islamic State, it’s unlikely that the White House is about to call Iran’s bluff. But Israel can’t possibly give the IRGC carte blanche on its border. Obama’s regional policy has made American allies as well as American soldiers hostages of Iran—and pushed us ever further from our chief regional ally.

 

                                                                                   

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A NAIVE U.S. WELCOME FOR IRAN IN IRAQ    

Washington Post, Mar. 5, 2015

 

U.S. commanders are taking an upbeat view of Iran’s close involvement in an assault by Iraqi forces on the city of Tikrit, which has been held by the Islamic State since summer. After reporting that two-thirds of the attackers were from Shiite militias and the operation had “overt . . . Iranian support,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said in a congressional hearing Tuesday that “if they perform in a credible way . . . then it will in the main have been a positive thing.” 

 

Such optimism seems shortsighted. While any reduction in the Islamic State has benefits, the Tikrit operation raises multiple red flags. The United States was excluded by the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi; meanwhile, Iran has dispatched its own ground forces, artillery and drones. The assistance is being overseen by a notorious general, Qassem Suleimani, who previously supervised attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.

 

Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, is part of Iraq’s Sunni heartland, so the heavy involvement of Shiite Iran and the militias allied with it could turn what is supposed to be a counterterrorism campaign into a sectarian bloodbath. Even if it does not, a victory would advance Tehran’s goal of extending its influence across Iraq, rather than being limited to the central government in Baghdad and Shiite-populated areas.

 

Mr. Abadi, who took office promising reconciliation with Sunni leaders, is saying that Tikrit will be turned over to Sunni police and tribes when it is recaptured and its refu­gee population invited to return. But fewer than 1,000 Sunni fighters are included in the 30,000-strong attacking force; the government has not delivered sufficient arms to Sunni tribes willing to fight the Islamic State. Moreover, Shiite militia leaders, as The Post’s Erin Cunningham reported, have portrayed the offensive as revenge for a massacre of mostly Shiite Iraqi soldiers by the Islamic State in June. For his part, Mr. Abadi alarmed human rights monitors by declaring that “there is no neutral party” in Tikrit and that residents not siding with the attackers would be considered supporters of the Islamic State.

 

The Tikrit operation underlines the Obama administration’s ill-advised dependence on Iran in an under-resourced Iraq strategy. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. officials say a tacit division of labor has developed between Iranian and U.S. forces, with American commanders focused on a planned offensive to retake Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control, this year. But Iraqi officials are describing Iran as more committed than the United States and expressing irritation at the Obama administration’s slowness to provide resources. They have a point: Iran has deployed the front-line tactical advisers that President Obama has refused to authorize.

 

By allowing Iran to take the military lead in Tikrit and other parts of Iraq, the United States might speed the destruction of the Islamic State. But the administration is also risking the undoing of all the work that has been done since last summer to prevent Iraq from fragmenting along sectarian lines — and it is allowing Iran to take another step toward replacing the terrorist regime with its own malevolent hegemony.

         

                                                                        

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ARABS: WHY IS OBAMA SIDING WITH SUPPORTERS OF TERRORISM?

Khaled Abu Toameh                                                                                                                              

Gatestone Institute, Feb. 26, 2015

 

The Egyptians are furious with U.S. President Barack Obama for meeting in the White House this week with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. They say that the Obama Administration has once again turned its back on moderate Arabs and Muslims by endorsing those who support and fund Islamic terror groups.

 

The meeting between Obama and the emir of Qatar came shortly after Egypt accused the emirate of supporting terrorism. Obama was quoted as saying that "Qatar is a strong partner in our coalition to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL. We are both committed to making sure that ISIL [ISIS/Islamic State] is defeated, to making sure that in Iraq there is an opportunity for all people to live together in peace."

 

Obama's decision to host the emir of Qatar and his ensuing statements in praise of the emirate's role in "combating" the Islamic State have drawn sharp criticism from the Egyptians and other Arabs and Muslims. Many Arabs and Muslims see the meeting between Obama and al-Thani as a gift to Qatar for its continued support of Islamic radical groups in different parts of the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

 

The meeting came less than a week after the Egyptian envoy to the Arab League, Tareq Adel, accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. In response, Qatar recalled its ambassador to Cairo for "consultations." The latest crisis between Cairo and Doha erupted after Qatar expressed reservations about Egypt's airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya in retaliation for the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. On the eve of Obama's meeting with the emir, Egyptian sources revealed that Qatar was providing weapons and ammunition to members of the Islamic State in Libya. The sources said that 35 Qatari aircraft were involved in transferring weapons and ammunition to the terror group.

 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his regime consider Qatar to be one of the main supporters and funders of Islamic terror groups. They believe that without Qatar's support and money, Islamic terror groups would not have been able to launch numerous attacks on Egyptian soldiers in Sinai, and Hamas would not be in control of the Gaza Strip. But President Sisi and his regime are equally furious with Obama for his public embracing of the Qatari emir. Sisi is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia next week to hold urgent talks with King Salman bin Abdel Aziz on the crisis between Egypt and Qatar. According to reports in the Egyptian media, Sisi is also expected to complain to the Saudi monarch about Obama's support for Qatar at a time when Egypt and other Arab countries are engaged in fighting Qatari-backed terror groups.

 

The Egyptian president is hoping that the Saudis will use their influence to convince Obama to stop supporting a country that openly backs terror groups. The government-controlled media in Egypt is now full of articles and cartoons strongly denouncing Obama's policy toward Qatar. Such attacks on Obama could not have surfaced in the media had they not been approved by Sisi and his top aides in Cairo. One cartoon, for example, features Obama standing next to the emir of Qatar at a press conference and declaring, "We have recalled our emir from Qatar for consultations." This cartoon is intended to send a message that Obama and the Qatari emir, a major supporter of Islamic terrorism, are buddies.

 

The Egyptian condemnations of Qatar are also directed at the Obama Administration, which seems to be losing one Arab ally after the other because of its perceived support for Qatar and its proxy, the Muslim Brotherhood. Writing in the Al-Makal newspaper, columnist Ahmed al-Faqih launched a scathing attack on Qatar and the US in an article that carried the title "The Qatari dwarf that feeds the ISIS monster." Al-Faqih claims that Qatar is nothing but a pawn in the hands of the US and the Israeli Mossad, and that Qatar uses its resources to support terrorism. Another columnist, Ahmed Musa, wrote that Qatar, "which is allied with Israel and the US," was being used to fight Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Libya and Syria. "Qatar us conspiring against Egypt to serve the interests of terror groups and organizations," Musa said, noting the close ties between the Qataris and the US Administration. "The Qatari regime has aligned itself with the murderers of the Muslim Brotherhood and the terrorists of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, and is paying them billions of dollars."

 

Arab political analysts are not only concerned about Obama's close relations with Qatar, but also his ongoing attempts to appease Iran. They argue that what is needed now is a serious US policy to counter terrorism, as well as a new and harsh approach toward Iran. As Obama was welcoming al-Thani, Qatar continued to face charges of supporting Islamist groups. The Egyptians say Qatar provides "financial, logistical and media support for terrorist leaders." Qatar is also one of the biggest funders of Hamas, whose leader, Khaled Mashaal, is based in Qatar's capital, Doha. During the past few years, Qatar has provided Hamas with hundreds of millions of dollars — money used to purchase and develop weapons to attack Israel.

 

Meanwhile, Iran continues to expand its presence in Arab countries such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthi militias have contributed to the collapse of the government there, Secretary of State John Kerry said this week. In Syria, Iran is deeply involved in backing the regime of Bashar Assad and Hezbollah in their fight against opposition forces. Iranian generals and military experts are also operating in the Golan Heights along the border with Israel. In Iraq, hundreds of military advisors from Iran are operating, according to a Reuters report. The report quoted Iraqi officials as saying that Tehran's involvement is driven by its belief that Islamic State is an immediate danger to Shi'ite religious shrines. The Iranians have helped organize Shi'ite volunteers and militia forces to defend Iraq against Islamic State terrorists.

 

As for Lebanon, the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah continues to maintain a powerful security and political presence there. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has helped Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Hezbollah by exporting the technology that it has for the production of missiles and other equipment," Revolutionary Guard Air Force commander Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh was quoted recently. By the time Obama's term in office ends, Iran will most likely be in control of more Arab countries, and Qatari-backed terror groups will be much stronger, killing more Muslims and non-Muslims.

 

                                                                       

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STABILIZING LIBYA MAY BE THE BEST WAY TO KEEP EUROPE SAFE                                               

National Post, Feb. 24, 2015

 

It was another weekend of chaos and violence in Libya, as the country’s second civil war continues. Though Libya has been largely out of Western headlines since NATO helped topple former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, peace never truly returned to the north African nation.

 

After years of skirmishing and political manoeuvring, outright warfare returned to Libya last year. Today, the internationally recognized central government is working out of hotel rooms and rented houses in the eastern city of Bayda, while the official capital, Tripoli, along with the western part of the country, is controlled by an uneasy coalition of Islamists and ethnic militias. The armed forces have generally opposed the Islamists, but have not truly aligned with the official government — indeed, it might be more accurate to say the official government is working hard to align itself with the military, which is conducting open warfare against the Islamist coalition. Assassinations and terror bombings are common all across the country. Powerful weapons, including military grade ordinance, are everywhere.

 

Calling Libya a failed state is therefore something of an understatement. There is no effective national government; the military is fighting its own private wars; what little economy the country has is highly dependent on oil production, and the price of oil has crashed. Thousands have fled their homes or tried to leave the country. All of this represents a terrible tragedy in human suffering and wasted opportunity. But the real danger may only be settling in now — which is why the West, particularly our allies in Europe, are suddenly paying attention to Libya once more.

 

Earlier this month, an offshoot of ISIS released a video showing the slaughter of 21 Egyptian men. They were Coptic Christians who had travelled to Libya for work. The ISIS terrorists butchered the Christians on a Mediterranean beach, and boasted that the group would soon be able to operate in the “southern crusader states” across the sea. “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission,” the video’s narrator said.

 

Conquering Rome aside, the threat is real. Libya has an enormous shoreline along the long-peaceful Mediterranean. If ISIS establishes a presence there, there is plenty of opportunity for chaos. Cruise ships could be attacked and commerce disrupted if Libya becomes what some experts have warned will be a “Somalia on the Mediterranean.” ISIS has also boasted of its plans to insert its fighters into southern Europe aboard the migrant smuggling ships that carry hundreds of thousands to the continent each year — and that, until now, the Europeans have shown little real interest in stopping.

 

Italy, at least, seems to be changing its tune. It has deployed troops in Rome to safeguard high-value targets and is considering steps to guard its coasts. But this is not a problem for Italy alone. All of Europe is vulnerable to the threat spilling out of the Middle East. Finding a way to stabilize Libya and shore up its government(s) will not be an easy task. But it may be the best way to keep Europe safe.

 

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On Topic

 

El-Sisi Urges ‘Arab Ready Force’ to Confront ISIS, Questions if US ‘Standing By’ Egypt: Fox News, Mar. 9, 2014—Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in an exclusive interview with Fox News, appealed to the U.S. to play a greater role in helping his country fight terrorism — as he urged the creation of an "Arab ready force" to confront the Islamic State and similar groups.

Syria's Civil War Could Stabilize Its Region: Daniel Pipes, Washington Times, Feb. 26, 2014—Population shifts resulting from Syria's four-year long civil war have profoundly changed Syria and its three Arabic-speaking neighbors: Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Heartbreaking Times: Jonathan Spyer, Jerusalem Post, Mar. 7, 2014—Kobani refugees faced a bitter winter on the Turkish-Syrian border, yet there was one bright spot: The fight to rid the Kurdish Syrian town of Islamic State jihadists was officially declared over on January 27.

NATO Bombs Cleared the Path for IS in Libya: Jeffrey Simpson, Globe & Mail, Feb. 18, 2014—In the midst of the Libyan rebellion of 2011, foreign affairs minister John Baird dropped into Benghazi. Fired up to support the foes of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the Harper government and other NATO countries, notably France and Britain, were bombing positions across Libya.

 

 

                                                                    

               

 

 

 

                      

                

                            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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