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December 5, 2016 / 5 Kislev, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘middle’

Securing a Future for Religious Minorities in the Middle East

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

{Originally posted to the JNS website}

You have to wonder if the barbarians fighting under the flag of the Islamic State still believe that 72 virgins will be waiting for them in paradise once they become “martyrs.”

I say this not because the leaders and foot soldiers of ISIS have suddenly woken up to the possibility that this belief is based, according to several scholars, on a mistranslation of the relevant verse of the Qu’ran; that would be expecting too much of them. I say this because they have already had a taste of that paradise here on earth, as a result of their campaign of genocide against the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq and Syria. One aspect of this horrific slaughter has been the kidnapping of thousands of Yazidi women and girls to serve as sexual slaves to these savages.

A recent report from the U.N. Human Rights Council – a body that spends most of its time condemning Israel for alleged human rights violations – sheds some light on both the scale and the nature of the genocide, which was ignored by the international community for far too long. The campaign against the Yazidis was launched by ISIS over two years ago, in Aug. 2014, when its forces began an assault upon the Yazidi villages in Sinjar, a district in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh. At least 5,000 Yazidis have been killed during the genocide, while 3,200 women and children remain in ISIS captivity. About 70,000, estimated to make up 15 percent of the overall Yazidi population, are reported to have fled Iraq.

The stories related by the U.N. report will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has studied genocide over the last century. Men and boys are either executed or forcibly converted, while women and girls exist solely for the use and pleasure of ISIS terrorists. The manner of the persecution is gruesome. “After we were captured, ISIS forced us to watch them beheading some of our Yazidi men,” said one 16-year-old girl. “They made the men kneel in a line in the street, with their hands tied behind their backs. The ISIS fighters took knives and cut their throats.”

Despite this reign of terror, the Yazidis have not been destroyed as a distinctive group. Before the ISIS attacks began, around 700,000 Yazidis are said to have lived in Iraq, the largest single concentration of the religion’s followers. Kurdish in terms of their ethnicity, the Yazidi faith is described by scholars as syncretic, which means it combines elements of other religions, including Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. Based on that, it’s worth noting that ISIS isn’t the only Islamist group that regards the Yazidis as infidels. The theology of more mainstream Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, assigns them a similar status.

Presently, the main focus for the Yazidis is the rescue of their women and girls from the clutches of ISIS. Often this is done through ransom payments, involving middlemen who collect huge sums from their families – one recently reunited family paid a total of $34,000 for their two daughters – which are then paid to ISIS. After their release, both girls said they didn’t expect that they would see each other again, describing their captors as “dirty and abusive,” who subjected them to regular beatings.

What this illustrates is the need for greater physical security for the Yazidis, as well as for other religious minorities in the region, if and when ISIS is defeated. Without that concrete measure, continued religious and ethnic conflict in the Middle East will target vulnerable minorities first and foremost.

For that reason, the decision of the Iraqi parliament on Oct. 4 to reject Yazidi and Assyrian Christian appeals for separate provinces should spark concern. “The Iraqi people reject any decision that partitions the Nineveh province. The people of the city determine the destiny of their city in the post-Islamic State (IS) stage,” said Ahmed al-Jabra, a Sunni member of parliament, justifying the vote. Conveniently, for the Sunni Arab population, the vote also means that Yazidis and other minorities, who have been dispossessed from the region, will be reluctant to come back. Viyan Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament, has already said that Yazidis will be wary of returning to the Nineveh province without significant changes in its administration.

It was Dakhil who first alerted the world to the slaughter of the Yazidis in 2014, when her emotional plea to the world to save her people went viral on the internet. In a speech earlier this year at the U.N. in Geneva, arranged by the dedicated staff of the U.N. Watch nongovernmental organization, Dakhil declared, “The international community has to support us, to call upon the U.N. Security Council to recognize what is happening to us as genocide, and to refer our case to the International Criminal Court.” And there are signs that process is in motion, with both the U.S. and British governments formally acknowledging that the Yazidis have experienced a genocide in the legal sense of the term.

What is worrying is that measures to protect the Yazidis from future brutalities have been set back by the Iraqi parliament decision. As Jews from Middle Eastern countries know only too well, being a minority in the midst of profound instability in Arab and Muslim societies is not a fate anyone would want. The only way to protect yourself is by exercising some significant degree of self-determination, including the right of self-defense, secured by international guarantee. After all, we Jews were only able to say “Never again” once we secured the means to prevent further persecution, in the form of the state of Israel. The other religious minorities of the Middle East deserve no less.

Ben Cohen

RASG Hebrew Academy Middle School’s Community Service Day

Monday, October 10th, 2016

RASG Hebrew Academy Charlotte Rohr Middle School held a Day of Community Service on Thursday, September 22. The Rosh Hashanah-inspired event was used as an impetus to highlight the attribute of chesed – kindness –which Jews try to emulate all year but particularly during the holiday season.

Activities included packaging and delivering meal baskets to the Kosher Food Bank, visits to local senior centers to deliver cards and flowers and sing songs with residents, and visiting early childhood classrooms at the Hebrew Academy to help the teachers and play with the younger children.

 

Hebrew Academy students participating in Day of Service.

Hebrew Academy students participating in Day of Service.

 

RASG Hebrew Academy is a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, serving students through 12th grade through the light of Torah and academic excellence and inspiring each child to improve the world.

The school is located at 2400 Pine Tree Drive in Miami Beach. For more information visit www.rasg.org or call 305-532-6421 ext 105.

Shelley Benveniste

Newsweek Middle East Editor Goes on Anti-Semitic Twitter Rant

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

{Originally posted to the Tower Magazine website}

An editor of Newsweek Middle East launched into a Twitter tirade invoking several anti-Semitic tropes late last week, including that Jews are greedy and are not descended from biblical Hebrews, and therefore have no historical connection to Israel.

After the magazine was criticized by pro-Israel bloggers last week for creating an inaccurate documentary video about the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the magazine’s senior deputy editor, Leila Hatoum, responded harshly, calling her critics “Zionist trolls,” accusing them of worshiping money, and falsely claiming that Jews are not Semites and therefore not native to the Middle East. (The term anti-Semitism was coined by the 19th century German journalist Wilhelm Marr, who opposed Jewish emancipation and sought to popularize a term that would make Jew-hatred sound more scientific.)

The video that Hatoum shared claimed that references to “Palestine” prior to 1948 meant that an Arab Palestinian state used to exist. In fact, the artifacts that the video claimed to have proven its case actually showed that Palestine was under British control, not independent; one document even contained the Hebrew initials for “Land of Israel.”

Hatoum’s Twitter rant was first exposed by Israeli blogger “Aussie Dave,” who had been one of the chief critics of the video Hatoum posted. The blogger subsequently discovered earlier offensive tweets that Hatoum wrote, including an (inaccurate) claim that Adolf Hitler’s mother, girlfriend, and doctor were Jewish.

Hartoum also cited the discredited “Khazar” theory of the origins of today’s Jews to try to prove that modern Jews or Jews who lived in Eastern Europe are not descended from biblical Jews.

In reality, the shared Middle Eastern ancestry of Jewish communities, including those who resided in Europe, has been established by multiple genetic studies. “Historical evidence suggests common origins in the Middle East, followed by migrations leading to the establishment of communities of Jews in Europe, Africa and Asia, in what is termed the Jewish Diaspora,” researchers explained in a 2010 study published by Nature that traced “the origins of most Jewish Diaspora communities to the Levant.” (Notably, the study also revealed “a close relationship between most contemporary Jews and non-Jewish populations from the Levant,” including Palestinians.)

Media watchdog Honest Reporting noted that Newsweek Middle East is editorially independent of Newsweek and is owned by the Dubai-based ARY Digital Network. The watchdog organization wondered if Newsweek would be pleased to have “their brand name being dragged through the mud by the likes of Leila Hatoum and the anti-Israel propaganda being produced on the Newsweek Middle East site.”

The Newsweek video highlighted what Shany Mor referred to in the January 2015 Issue of The Tower Magazine as “the mendacious maps of Palestinian ‘loss,’” which uses historically inaccurate information to argue that an independent Palestine disappeared due to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The series of maps referred to by Newsweek conflate different aspects of land control. One shows inhabited areas, another shows a proposed partition plan, and two more show political control. Mor argued that if one looked at a series of maps showing the history of Palestinian political control, a more accurate picture would emerge:

The categories of political control and international partition plans are quite easy to map out over time. Since the concern of those publicizing the maps above is Palestinian control of land, we can illustrate this with a more honest series of maps showing areas of political control, using the same years as the original—adding one for clarity.

002_Shany_Mor_Political_Control_Map

As seen above, 1946 has exactly zero land under Palestinian Arab control—not autonomous, not sovereign, not anything—as it was all under British authority. We could go further back in time, to the Ottoman era, for example, and the map wouldn’t change in the slightest. 1947 sees no changes to the map, as Palestine was still under British control. Before the war in June 1967, control is divided between three states, and none of them is Palestinian. The 2005 map would be exactly as it is presented in the original series, showing the very first lands ever be ruled by Palestinian Arabs qua Palestinian Arabs. To clarify this a bit more, I have added a map from 1995, showing the withdrawals undertaken during the first two years of the Oslo process, just up to but not including the 1997 Hebron Protocol.

In fact, if we zoomed in a bit more, we would see how the peace process of the 1990s resulted in the first time a Palestinian Arab regime ruled over any piece of land. This occurred in 1994 with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and Jericho. That control steadily expanded over more and more land during the years leading up to the failed final status talks. Much of it was then lost during the second intifada, but eventually regained as violence died down, and the Gaza disengagement even expanded it slightly. All of these Palestinian land gains have taken place in the last 20 years and every square meter of it came not from Turkey or Britain or Jordan or Egypt, but from Israel alone; and nearly all of it through peace negotiations.

After being presented with evidence of the inaccuracy of similar maps that they had posted, both MSNBC and the textbook company McGraw-Hill acknowledged their error. But months after the maps were thoroughly discredited, Newsweek Middle East risked its credibility by publishing them again.

 

Tower Magazine

Far East Meets Middle East in Summit for Religious Leaders

Monday, September 12th, 2016

By Michael Zeff/TPS

Jerusalem (TPS) – Over 20 religious leaders from east Asia arrived in Israel Monday for a four-day summit in Jerusalem. Participants came from countries such as China, South Korea, India, and Japan, representing spiritual traditions of Taoism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Jainism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. Throughout the upcoming week, they will come face to face with Arab and Israeli religious leaders of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

“It is time to expand the Israel-Asia dialogue from only diplomatic and economic spheres to religion, spirituality and faith,” summit coordinator Simona Halperin told Tazpit Press Service (TPS). “This is a first meeting in history between the religious leaders of Judaism and those of the eastern faiths.”

The summit was a joint project between the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the American Jewish Committee and the World Council of Religious Leaders (WCRL). Notable guests included the president of the Buddhist Association of China, Xuecheng, Swami Avdeshanand Giri, spiritual leader of millions of Indian Hindus, and Bawa Jain, Secretary-General of the WCRL.

President Reuven Rivlin greeted summit participants.

“Welcome to Jerusalem, the holy city to the religions of the sons of Abraham,” Rivlin told the guests. “Your arrival is a very special event, for many years the interaction between our religions hardly even existed.

“This is no longer the situation, as your visit today shows,” Rivlin said.

Xuecheng and Swami Giri also addressed the summit, saying religious leaders should take a leading role towards solving worldwide social and environmental challenges.

“I’m very happy to be here,” said the Swami. “We have a saying in our colloquial tongue: ‘When you have dialogues, then the wisdom dawns and knowledge comes.’ Dialogue imparts clarity.”

Xuecheng expressed his hope to make lasting friendships among religious leaders in Israel. “Only if we make true friends we can really set the goal of mutual respect and understanding. the Chinese religions are working very hard to call out other religions to help in the construction of a peaceful world,” he said.

According to Halperin, during the four days of the summit the religious leaders will meet with rabbis from all Jewish streams, as well as with Muslim, Druze and Christian leaders. The group will tour holy sites and discuss current events including global warming, the environment, the status of religion in contemporary society, the role of religion in peacemaking and more.

“Our spiritual worlds are very close to each other in that they are not missionary religions which makes them very open and tolerant,” Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and Orthodox rabbi. “I feel a unity and comradery between our peoples, more so than with the western world and Christianity.”

TPS / Tazpit News Agency

Does the Times Want Middle East Peace?

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

{Originally posted to the Commentary Magazine website}

Something very odd has been happening in the Middle East and, as Sunday’s editorial in the New York Times illustrates, it has a lot of liberals seriously depressed. What’s bothering them? It turns out their collective noses are out of joint about progress toward Middle East peace and the fact that the Palestinian campaign that seeks to avoid direct talks and isolate Israel is failing. If that wasn’t bad enough, a series of diplomatic breakthroughs are happening on the watch of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man that the Times and the so-called “peace camp” has been busy slandering as an opponent of peace.

After several decades of unremitting hostility, some of the fiercest opponents of Israel are starting to view the Jewish state very differently. Covert ties with Saudi Arabia are now becoming more open. Egypt, whose cold peace with Israel remained frozen in open hostility since Anwar Sadat’s assassination, has a government that is no longer shy about treating Israel as an ally if not a friend. Jerusalem’s relations with much of the Third World, especially African nations, are also warming up.

Those who care about thawing tensions between Jews and Arabs should be applauding all of this. That’s especially true of those voices that spend so much time deploring Israel’s isolation and the idea that it is an armed camp that is locked in perpetual combat with the entire Muslim and Arab world. But the Times and others on the left are lukewarm about these positive developments for their own reasons.

The first is that Israel and its Arab neighbors have been drawn together in large part through their mutual antipathy for Obama administration policies, and most specifically about the Iran nuclear deal. The Times has been one of the principal cheerleaders of the pact, which its advocates incorrectly claim has ended the nuclear threat to Israel and the Arab states. But those nations that are targeted most directly by Iran—Israel and Saudi Arabia—understand that U.S. appeasement of Iran advances the latter’s drive for regional hegemony as well as merely postponing the moment when it will achieve nuclear capability. The coming together of other Middle East nations in reaction to this travesty is evidence that those most at risk consider Obama’s false promises and his desire for a general U.S. retreat from the region a clear and present danger to the region.

Just as important is the Palestinian dismay about the willingness of many in the Arab world to embrace Israel as an ally. The irony is that both the Saudis and Egyptians hope to use their new ties with Israel to jump-start peace talks and Israel has signaled its willingness to try again. But that is exactly the opposite of what the Palestinian Authority wants. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is appalled about the idea of being pushed into negotiations with Israel again because it will force him to either refuse peace offers (as he did in 2008) or to blow up the talks (as he did in 2014) to avoid being cornered again. The PA prefers to stick to its strategy of refusing negotiations while asking the United Nations to recognize their independence without first requiring them to make peace with Israel. New talks with Israel mean that strategy, which allows the PA to keep refusing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, would be thwarted.

Ever since 1967, any hope of Arab reconciliation with Israel has been frustrated by Palestinian rejectionism. But that is a luxury that Cairo and Riyadh can no longer afford because of the nuclear deal and the rise of Islamist terror groups such as Hamas in Gaza, Iran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries in Lebanon as well as ISIS. Egypt rightly sees Hamas and ISIS as direct threats that must be faced. Moreover, Israel’s fears that a withdrawal from the West Bank would lead to a Hamas takeover there are viewed with more understanding in Cairo than they are at the Times.

Contrary to the Times assertion that neither Israel nor the Palestinians want peace, the Arab states understand that it is the latter that is unwilling to negotiate, let alone end the conflict for all time. As the Times notes, better relations between Israel and the Arab nations do not preclude a peace deal with the Palestinians. But those nations can’t wait for a sea change in Palestinian political culture that might permit them to finally say “yes” to peace to occur before they can cooperate with the Israelis to provide for their mutual security.

The outrage here is that when faced with a development that represents genuine progress toward ending the conflict, the Obama administration, its media cheerleaders and the rest of the left are nonplussed. They’re not only still stuck in an outdated concept about the centrality of the Palestinian problem but would prefer to see Netanyahu’s outreach fail rather than concede that they were wrong.

Jonathan S. Tobin

Turkey, Syria, And The Mess In The Middle East

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

The systematic and pervasive purge being conducted by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fueling analyses in many quarters that Mr. Erdogan is using the recent abortive coup as a vehicle for realizing his long-held desire to assume near dictatorial powers.

Indeed, many now fear that the biggest casualty of the recent events in Turkey will likely be Turkey’s heretofore growing democracy. Given Turkey’s key role in NATO, this will force Turkey’s NATO allies, particularly the United States, to make a choice between working with a country liable to be led by a dictator for the foreseeable future or drumming Turkey out, thereby undermine the alliance.

It is also likely to lead to a revisiting of events surrounding the Arab Spring when the U.S. and other nations threw in their lot with domestic challengers of several dictatorial governments. The U.S. of course had by then already deposed Saddam Hussein.

Although many of the dictators in question were savage despots, they kept their countries together. Indeed, it was because Saddam Hussein was no longer on the scene that ISIS was able to come into existence, establish its pseudo-caliphate, and wreak the murderous havoc it has.

This is a singular moment for the United States. President Obama has vowed that Syrian president Bashar Assad will not survive in office, but that vow affects American efforts in the region to eliminate ISIS because it means Syrian rebels seeking to oust Mr. Assad will not be challenged by any firepower the U.S. directs at ISIS, which has seized much of Syria.

Yet the rebels’ success in diminishing Mr. Assad’s power works against the goal of defeating ISIS. Further, the Russians, who are also trying to defeat ISIS, are supportive of the Assad regime and opposed to the rebels.

So any possibility of joint and effective action to destroy ISIS is undermined by the U.S. refusal to accept the survival of Mr. Assad.

Editorial Board

Middle East Strategic Outlook – July 2016

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016

{Originally posted to the Gatestone Institute Website}

Saudi Arabia

Approval of the National Transformation Plan

The Saudi Cabinet approved (June 6) the National Transformation Program (NTP), part of Saudi Vision 2030, led by Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The NTP is supposed to be the basis for laying out targets to be met by government ministries and departments. The NTP was well received not only be the Saudi mainstream media (to be expected) but by the Saudi social media that represents to a great degree the public opinion of the younger Saudi generation. It may be expected that Prince Mohammad bin Salman will continue to take steps in the framework of his initiative that will, at least, preserve the sense of momentum and the public support he is enjoying.

Saudi-US Relations

In this framework, Mohammad bin Salman visited Washington DC in a bid to sell his project and himself as the future Saudi leader. During the visit, and especially in the meetings with officials from Congress and the security and intelligence Community, he also sought to build his own stature as future king and as the leader who must be at the helm throughout the period of implementation of his “Vision 2030” plan and beyond. His goal therefore was also to usurp Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef’s status as the favorite of the Washington officialdom as the successor to King Salman. This status derived not only from Washington’s respect of the Saudi rules of succession, but also from his years-long and tight cooperation with US agencies on security and counter-terrorism issues. Therefore, Mohammad bin Salman made an effort to project himself as a preferred effective interlocutor on those issues. The fact that Mohammad bin Salman was accorded meetings with President Obama, an honor usually reserved for heads of state, and the red-carpet reception he received, indicates that the administration now considers him as a likely future king and therefore seeks to establish a dialog with him and influence him.

Iraq

The War against the Islamic State

The liberation of Fallujah from the “Islamic State” after a month-long campaign (23 May-26 June) may be an important milestone is not the “beginning of the end” and it will certainly not lead to a stronger and more unified Iraqi state. The campaign and its anticipated aftermath will only exacerbate the sectarian divide in the country and encourage further conflict, whether in the name of the “Islamic State” or its successor under another name

The overt American support for the Iranian involvement[1] will also serve to rally Sunnis to an anti-American position. By backing a military campaign against Sunnis in which Shiite militias and Iran played a direct role, the US-led international coalition was fighting against the symptom — the Islamic State — while actually exacerbating the main problem: the sectarian divide in Iraq. Therefore, the American involvement in the Fallujah campaign will not buy it Sunni gratitude. The view of the US as pro-Shiite and pro-Iranian must have been enhanced by Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement (28 June) that Iran’s presence in Iraq is helpful to American attempts to beat back the threat of the Islamic State, and the praise heaped on the Shiite militias by the US special envoy tasked with defeating the Islamic State, Brent McGurk[2].
Many Sunnis — in Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar Province — view the Fallujah campaign as part of a strategic Iranian plan to take control, through its Iraqi proxies, of central and western Iraq, from the Diala Governorate on the Iraq-Iran border to the Iraqi-Syrian border, in order to create a safe land-bridge from Iran through Syria to Lebanon. To achieve this objective, the Sunnis of western Iraq have to be weakened and denied the ability to stage a meaningful resistance[3].

No End to the Political Stalemate Expected

The paralysis of the Iraqi Parliament further complicates the situation. The parliament cannot reach agreement on the composition of a new cabinet, and cannot pass the 2016 budget. While Iraq can continue to muddle along with a caretaker government under al-‘Abadi (just as Lebanon “survives” without electing a president), passing a reduced 2016 budget is a sine qua non for execution of the agreement that that the government reached in May with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a low-interest loan of $5.4 billion and for loans from other international institutions.

Iran’s interest is to maintain its control over the government in Baghdad, On one hand, this calls for a relatively stable and cohesive Shiite establishment. On the other hand, Iran enhances its position in Baghdad by playing one party against the other and positioning itself as the only acceptable broker between the different Shiite factions. In the eyes of Tehran, Muqtada al-Sadr is a loose cannon, and al-‘Abadi is too close to the West and therefore must be held in check. By maintaining the innate instability of the Shiite political system, Iran attempts to preserve the Iraqi Shiites’ dependency on it to bridge the differences between the different factions.

Therefore, the Shiite infighting will continue as long as al-Sadr is around. This is clear to Iran and to al-Sadr’s rivals and increases the possibility that an attempt will be made to assassinate him. In such a case, the reaction of those elements in the Shiite community who currently support him will be violent and extreme, possibly ultimately leading to the total breakdown of the Shiite political establishment that Iran is trying to prevent.
Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Iraq

In contrast to its singular status as power-broker in Iraq, the situation in Syria and Lebanon does not bode well for the Iranian strategy. Since these two theaters are critical for Iran’s regional designs, it has no options for an exit strategy, disengagement or even reduction of its footprint. Its primary agent, Hezbollah is suffering setbacks on all the fronts. Without massive Russian military support in Syria, Hezbollah has had to resort to repeated tactical withdrawals and it and the Iranian forces are suffering increasingly heavy fatalities, wounded and fighters taken as prisoners by the Syrian Sunni rebels. In addition to that, the rebels know their own turf better, limiting Hezbollah’s ability to deploy more troops in the more sensitive areas of the theater. Nevertheless, Hezbollah is committed to increase its footprint in the Syrian theater and cannot back down — even as its growing casualties cause increasing discontent within its Shiite Lebanese constituency[4].

Iran is entering a new stage of war in Syria which evokes the situation that the Soviet Union found itself in in Afghanistan in 1985. Until that year, the Soviet Union achieved no decisive victory over the mujahedeen, but also did not lose any battle on the ground. Like the Soviet Union in that stage of the Afghan war, Iran has achieved no decisive victory, but has incurred significant domestic opposition to the war and has no additional resources that could tip the scales. In light of this, our forecast is that the current situation in Syria will become a stalemate for all the parties at least in the months to come.
Israel-Syria-Lebanon

In these circumstances, a conflict with Israel does not serve the interests of either Iran, Hezbollah or Syria. Therefore, all four parties (and Russia) have adapted themselves to a routine of tolerance towards Israeli attacks on Syrian and Hezbollah targets that endanger Israel directly or threaten Israel’s “strategic edge” in the Syrian-Lebanese theater. In a series of actions directed towards enhancing Israel’s deterrence, the IDF held an extensive war game (12-14 June) based on a scenario of confrontation with Hezbollah. Subsequently, Israeli aircraft hit a Syrian military target near the Israeli border and uncharacteristically released a communiqué that the target had indeed belonged to the Syrian regime and had been hit in response to shelling by the Syrians near the border fence.

Hezbollah seems to be losing its predominance even within the Lebanese theater itself, where it had been almost unchallenged for decades. The attrition of Hezbollah in Lebanon is weakening it within the Shiite community. At the same time, the large (1.4 million) Syrian Sunni refugee population has effectively changed the demographic status quo in Lebanon and created a large restive population for whom Iran, Shiites and particularly Hezbollah are the prime enemy.
Syria

Bashar Assad is defiant, but not delusional

On June 7, Bashar Assad delivered a speech to the newly “elected” Syrian Parliament. This was his first major speech since the collapse of the peace talks sponsored by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Geneva in April. Assad vowed to retake every inch of the country from his enemies, and effectively dismissed the concept of a peaceful transition of power, which is at the heart of the ISSG’s approach to the resolution of the crisis.

Assad is not — as the US State Department implied — “delusional”. He clearly perceives no military or political threat to his rule. He may rationally asses that Secretary Kerry’s reported “Plan B” that called for escalated military action if Assad continued his defiance will not receive support of President Obama, who will be reluctant to increase the American military involvement in Syria and to risk damaging Iranian-American relations and the nuclear agreement, which is the centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

Assad also most probably assesses that neither Hillary Clinton, whose Libyan experience will discourage her from intervention, nor Donald Trump, who has laid out a non-interventionist foreign policy approach, would undertake a more active involvement in Syria than that of President Obama. Assad therefore felt free to obstruct the international efforts to transport emergency aid to civilians trapped in rebel-held areas, and to reject in his speech the August 1 deadline set by the US for developing a transition plan leading to his stepping down.

Assad’s attitude, the limits of the American, Iranian and Russian interventions and the absence of any additional forces that could appear in the theater and tip the scales means that the war will grind on. It may be expected, therefore, that in the coming months, the Syrian efforts to implement “ethnic cleansing” of Sunnis in the north will continue and even escalate, resulting in a growing stream of refugees into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This will continue to destabilize these countries and to pose a challenge to a weakened Europe.
Iran

New Political Appointments

It may be assumed that the Iranian leadership understands that restoring full control by the Assad regime over all of Syria is unrealistic and it has an undeclared “Plan B”. This would entail defining “useful Syria” as the stretch of land from Damascus along Lebanon’s border through Homs to Aleppo and along the Syrian coast that would be essential for the above objectives. This “useful Syria,” however, does not correspond territorially with the “useful Syria” that Russia envisions. Russia’s “useful Syria” focuses on maintaining a viable “Alawistan” that would enable Russia to maintain a beachhead on the Mediterranean and a presence on the Turkish border.

There has been disagreement inside the Iranian power elite since the Syrian uprising began to deteriorate into a full-fledged civil war. The disagreement focused on the extent of the Iranian investment of resources to support Assad’s objective of restoring the regime’s control over the entire country.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which dominated the policy on Syria and was the key executor of the policy through the Qods Force and Hezbollah, has supported these objectives. Other Iranian power-brokers — notably those associated with the Rouhani camp — have warned against a Syrian quagmire and have opposed tying Iran to Assad’s fate. They argue that while it is of strategic importance to prevent Syria from falling into the hands of radical Sunni groups, it is not prudent to insist on Assad remaining in office, particularly in view of his use of chemical weapons against his own population. (The use of chemical weapons is a sensitive issue in Iran since their use by Saddam Hussain against the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war.)

The recent appointment of Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani as military and security coordinator of the Iran-Syria-Russia joint cooperation group, and the reshuffle in the Foreign Ministry, may indicate a move towards willingness to project more flexibility vis-à-vis the Syrian peace process even before the anti-Assad forces have been crushed militarily, and a formal willingness to consider the possibility of a post-war Syria without Assad personally.

This was implied in the statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after his meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, that “there will be no solution if we focus on any individual [i.e. Bashar Assad],” and that the process must “focus on institutional dispersion of power and the future form of governance, through which it will be possible to reduce or even eliminate the centrality of the role of any individual or ethnicity.”

If Iran no longer insists on Bashar Assad staying in power, it could open the road to some procedural progress in the peace talks, which have been blocked by the dispute regarding his future, with Western powers and the Sunni Arab states insisting on his departure. However, the damage done by the civil war is irreversible. Even if some formula is found that would facilitate negotiations, the crux of the crisis is whether Syria will return to be dominated or even co-ruled by an Alawite minority. The Assad regime and Iran (and even Russia) cannot accept a Sunni-dominated Syria that would inevitably take revenge on the Alawites and destroy all the assets that Iran has built up over the last thirty years.

The Financial Sanctions Issue

The US administration is continuing in its determined efforts to convince the Western business community to invest in Iran. In May, John Kerry and US Treasury Department officials met with European bankers in London to tell them “legitimate business” is available to them in Iran and to “dispel any rumors” regarding future American sanctions on Iran. The administration’s message was that as long as the banks do their normal due diligence, “they are not going to be held to some undefined and inappropriate standard.”

Nevertheless, the international banking system continues to view Iran as high-risk and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Regardless of the credibility of the guarantees of the current American administration, which will not be in office after January 2017, the reluctance of the international financial community to approach Iran derives from real risk assessment. Iran ranks 130th (out of 168) on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index” and 118th on the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” list.

Given the current state of affairs, these goals are far from achievable. The approval of the Iran Petroleum Contract (IPC) model does not guarantee its implementation, given the opaque and informal character of the Iranian economy. The goals of the regime’s Five Year Plan are also not clearly detailed and it is difficult to see how they can be achieved. Furthermore, Iran cannot comply with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) rules without a fundamental transformation of its economic structure and the very essence and worldview of the regime. Taking into consideration the leadership structure, the predominance of the Supreme Leader and the position of the IRGC in economy, such a move is impossible.
The Kurdish Factor

The alliance between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Movement for Change (Gorran) is openly challenging the Barzani clan’s dominance of Kurdish politics and raises the pressure on Massoud Barzani. To consolidate his popularity among the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s population, Massoud Barzani might therefore resort to “patriotic” acts, like holding his promised referendum on Kurdish independence soon, which PUK-Gorran will not be able to oppose. This could lead to “Kurexit” (Kurdish exit from Iraq), which would be the result not of well-thought-out strategic planning but of Kurdish political infighting.
Israeli-Turkish “Reconciliation”

The Israeli-Turkish reconciliation is a formal step that will certainly not revive the golden age of Israeli-Turkish relations. Turkey will continue to support Hamas and to incite against Israel in international fora, though it will stick to the letter of the agreement and will take advantage of the economic opportunities afforded by the reconciliation.
The French Peace Initiative

The chances that the French peace initiative will succeed in relaunching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are very slim. The Israeli position remains that negotiations must take place directly between Israel and the Palestinians, and not through international fora. The French initiative, however, will encourage the Palestinian Authority to reject alternative proposals for direct negotiations, pending the international conference.
Terrorism

The spate of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State during the period of this report highlights the disconnect between the situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the threat of Islamic State or al-Qaeda inspired jihadi terrorism in susceptible countries. Most the latest attacks took place in Muslim countries (Istanbul, Turkey in June; Dhaka, Bangladesh in June; Baghdad, Iraq in June, and Mecca, Qatif and Medina in Saudi Arabia on July 4) in which the ability to “profile” potential attackers is limited and security measures are weak.

The explanation put forward by the American administration that the attacks reflect the Islamic State’s “despair” in the face of its defeats in Syria and Iraq over the last months is specious. International terrorism “to strike fear in the hearts of Allah’s enemies” has been a hallmark of the Islamic State since its beginning and it does not need the excuse of military defeat in Syria and Iraq to continue to carry out such attacks. Furthermore, these attacks were obviously planned many weeks or even months in advance. The Islamic State will continue to attempt to carry out such attacks according to its strategy to project its jihad into the heartland of its enemies — into Europe and in the territory of its enemies in the Middle East.
Spotlight on the Saudi Economic Transformation Plan

Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s economic plan represents far more than economic change: it calls for no less than a transformation of the nature of the Saudi state and political order through creation of an economically independent citizenry. The developments in the level of education of the Saudi population and particularly the potential of Saudi women entering the upper levels of the workforce, coupled with the high level of unemployment among those parts of the society, are among the unspoken drivers of the Vision 2030 plan. The goal of this process is to gradually replace the waning traditional tribal and clerical power base of the regime with a young professional economic power base out of concern that the high percentage of (unemployed) youth in the country would be a recipe for social unrest that, along with the loss of the influence of the traditional Wahhabi power base to more radical anti-establishment Salafi clerics, may destabilize the country.

Mohammad bin Salman seeks therefore to mobilize their support by making Saudi society advanced technologically and by creating a large number of jobs in technology. Monitoring of social media shows significant support for Mohammad bin Salman and his plans among the younger Saudi population, including high expectations that the economic initiatives will be followed by social change — loosening religious controls and social restrictions, expanding women’s rights and increasing social mobility. The Saudi leadership, however, is on the horns of a dilemma; accelerated change will raise the ire of the conservative elements in the elite, whereas a sense among the younger population that change is too slow will give rise to a crisis of expectations and subsequent instability.

Dr. Shmuel Bar is a senior research fellow at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Studies at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, and a veteran of Israel’s intelligence community.

[1] Secretary of State, John Kerry, declared that Iran has been very “helpful” in Iraq.

[2] McGurk said that Iran-backed Shiite militias are mostly helpful in Iraq, though some go rogue: Most of them do operate under the control of the Iraqi state, but about 15-20% of them actually do not, “and those groups are a fundamental problem”.

[3] This Sunni suspicion finds support in statements of senior Shiite Iraqi leaders like former PM Nouri al-Maliki, whose hard-handed policies towards the Sunnis in Anbar Province fed the rise of the “Islamic State”, and who now praises the role of Iran and the Shiite militias, and accuses Iraq’s Sunni political leaders of supporting terrorism.

[4] Hassan Nasrallah (26 June): “The defense of Aleppo is the defense of the rest of Syria, it is the defense of Damascus, it is also the defense of Lebanon, and of Iraq. … It was necessary for us to be in Aleppo and we will stay in Aleppo. We will increase our presence in Aleppo…”

Gatestone Institute

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/middle-east-strategic-outlook-july-2016/2016/07/19/

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