Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

Iran’s Syrian Front — Who is to counter Iran’s destabilizing activity?

February 22, 2018

Assad’s atrocities grow as Tehran builds a new anti-Israel satellite.

Smoke rises from the rebel held besieged town of Hamouriyeh, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Feb. 21.
Smoke rises from the rebel held besieged town of Hamouriyeh, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Feb. 21. PHOTO: BASSAM KHABIEH/REUTERS

Bashar Assad’s Syrian military committed more atrocities this week, bombing the opposition stronghold of Eastern Ghouta and killing at least 200. Rescue workers had to haul dead civilians from the rubble, including a family of five. As everyone deplores the killings, the point to keep in mind is that the driving political power here is Iran and its attempt to make Syria part of its growing Shiite-Persian empire.

Iran has propped up Assad since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, and along with Russia is largely responsible for the regime’s survival. After its 2016 victory in Aleppo and the ouster of Islamic State from Raqqa, this axis is now trying to roll up the last opposition strongholds. The trio will then use Russia-sponsored peace talks to re-establish Assad’s control over Syria. Russia will keep its military bases, and Iran wants to establish a new imperial outpost on the border with Israel.

Toward that end, Iran is building a robust military presence of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops, Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, foreign fighters from Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, and local Syrian militias in Assad-controlled areas. Iran’s ultimate goal is “the eradication of Israel,” as the leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, said recently.

Military analysts estimate Hezbollah could have more than 100,000 rockets pointed at Israel from its home base in Lebanon and possibly from Syria too. An Iranian redoubt in Syria would open another front in a war with Israel from which to launch more rocket and other attacks. U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster worried publicly in December about “the prospect of Iran having a proxy army on the borders of Israel.”

Tehran’s confidence abroad is growing despite its recent protests at home. Earlier this month Iran-backed forces launched a drone from Syria’s Homs area into Israeli air space. The Israeli military shot down the drone and sent F-16s to bomb the base from where the drone operated, as well as other military targets. The mission was a success, but the Israelis lost a fighter jet, the first such loss since the early 1980s.

The provocation is a sign that Iran is turning its attention from propping up Assad and toward establishing a more permanent presence in Syria, including the construction of military bases and weapons factories. Iranians are investing in Syria’s local economy to help Assad “rebuild,” and working to convert local Alawites to Shiite Islam.

Iran is also exploiting a “cease-fire” in southwestern Syria that the U.S. negotiated with Russia last year. Russia is supposed to stop Iran from building up its forces there, but the U.S. has been left to protest feebly as Russia lets Iran continue.

That leaves the policing to Israel, which has bombed Iranian and Hezbollah sites in Syria many times in the last year, including an Iranian base southwest of Damascus in December. On Sunday at the Munich security conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves” and “not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”

Israel’s military is formidable, and the country is protected by a robust antimissile system. But even Israel’s defenses would be strained by 1,500 to 2,000 incoming missiles a day from Syria and Lebanon, especially if Iran succeeds in upgrading Hezbollah’s arsenal to precision-guided weapons. Hezbollah attacks from civilian centers, which means an Israel-Lebanon conflict would be an extensive and bloody undertaking, as Israeli forces would have to attack fighters near homes and hospitals.

If the Trump Administration is worried about this gathering storm, you can’t tell from its actions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson toured the region last week and called for a “whole, independent, democratic Syria with no special demarcations dividing Syria and with the Syrian people selecting their leadership through free and fair elections.” That’s something John Kerry might have said, with a similar lack of credibility with Iran or Russia.

Mr. Trump promised in October to work with allies to counter Iran’s “destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region,” but in Syria the U.S. has shown no strategy for doing so. Meanwhile, an Iran-Israel conflict grows more likely by the day.

Appeared in the February 22, 2018, print edition.


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Iran nears completion of ‘Shiite Crescent’ across Middle East; land bridge to pose U.S. challenges

A Hezbollah fighter looks toward Syria from the fields of the Lebanese border village of Brital. Iran is making its greatest progress to date toward its goal of creating a "Shiite Crescent," a land connection from Iran to Lebanon, where Tehran-backed Hezbollah militants have a long-established political foothold. (Associated Press/File)
A Hezbollah fighter looks toward Syria from the fields of the Lebanese border village of Brital. Iran is making its greatest progress to date toward its goal of creating a “Shiite Crescent,” a land connection from Iran to Lebanon, where … more >
 – The Washington Times – Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Iran has virtually completed a “Shiite Crescent” of influence across the heart of the Middle East, using a string of battlefield successes to link a network of allies and proxy forces now spanning from nation’s border with Iraq all the way to Lebanon.

The crescent, a longtime strategic goal meant to confront rival Sunni Arab powers led by Saudi Arabia, includes several semipermanent bases established in territory claimed as the radical Salafi Sunni Islamic State movement recedes. It also presents a strategic challenge to the U.S. presence in the region that the Trump administration is still struggling to meet.

Pentagon officials say they have military options to challenge Iran’s growing regional clout, but senior U.S. commanders have little appetite for direct confrontation — particularly if it has a high likelihood of drawing Iranian proxy forces in IraqSyria and Lebanon.

With Islamic State fighters now squeezed into small pockets of territory in Syria’s southern Deir el-Zour region and elsewhere along the Euphrates River Valley, the U.S.-led coalition battling the terrorist group hopes to begin paring back its military operations in the region. This summer, by contrast, Iranian-allied militias set up a road link stretching from Iran’s western border to Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

Iran is making its greatest progress to date toward its goal of creating a land connection from Iran to Lebanon, where Tehran-backed Hezbollah militants have a long-established political foothold, said Sarhang Hamasaeed, the head of Middle East Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“It may not be the desired path [Iran] wanted, but they now have a path” for an uninterrupted land bridge lined with allied or proxy forces directly from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea, Mr. Hamasaeed said in an interview on Monday.

Tehran has long sought the land bridge to Lebanon, where the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah has proved to be its most potent ally in the rivalry with Sunni states and with Israel, with which Hezbollah has repeatedly clashed.

The physical link to Lebanon “is a symbolic win for the Iranians,” said Jennifer Cafarella, the senior intelligence planner at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

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While the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, has long had a sophisticated logistics operation in place to move weapons, materiel and supplies to Lebanese Hezbollah as well as other proxy forces in Iraq and Syria, the emerging Shiite Crescent is a testament to Tehran’s ability enlist proxy forces among indigenous regional forces to challenge its adversaries.

“What you [now] have, nevertheless, is a slick operation in Tehran that is looking to project its influence far beyond its borders — and it has been quite successful in doing this with relatively little effort,” said H.A. Hellyer, a senior nonresident fellow on Middle East affairs at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “It’s been a lot of return on very little investment.”

That return on investment has been substantial.

In Iraq and Syria, Iranian-backed Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, trained and supported by Iranian military advisers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other Iranian government entities, have become an increasingly powerful influence in territory once held by Islamic State.

“The PMF is the guarantor” of the land bridge crossing IraqMr. Hamasaeed said.

Tehran is also increasing pressure on the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to fully incorporate the Popular Mobilization Forces into the country’s national security apparatus.

Prominent Iranian Shiite cleric Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani on Friday pressed the Baghdad government to fully implement plans to fold the Shiite militias into the country’s armed forces. Mr. al-Abadi formally federalized the militias as the campaign to drive Islamic State from its northern Iraqi stronghold of Mosul kicked off last year.

In Syria, Iranian paramilitaries constitute the bulk of President Bashar Assad’s ground forces, which have been slowly gaining ground in the wake of Islamic State’s defeats in the country.

Regime forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, retook the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo last year. Since then, government troops and Iranian militias have quickly secured former Islamic State redoubts in al-Bab, Deir el-Zour and other strongholds in the Euphrates River Valley.

“It is an expeditionary force,” Ms. Cafarella said about the array of paramilitary and proxy forces in Iraq and Syria that are allied under the Iranian flag. “It is much more than just Lebanese Hezbollah.”

Building the bridge

Much of the construction of the Crescent took place in the shadows, “below the threshold” that might have sparked a stronger U.S. response, Ms. Cafarella said. While Washington and its allies focused on the war against Islamic State, Tehran was positioning itself “to dominate the peace after ISIS,” she said.

That U.S. focus on Islamic State “afforded Iran so much time and freedom of action” to organize their proxy forces that the country’s land bridge into Lebanon is now a reality, Ms. Cafarella said.

The Iranian exile opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which fiercely opposes the Islamic regime in Tehran, says Iran’s presence in Syria goes far beyond what most regional analysts say. A recent report by the MEK-tied National Council of Resistance of Iran, which in the past has produced major exposes of Iran’s nuclear and military establishment, concluded that the “Iranian regime had deployed 70,000 fighters to Syria” by July 2016.

It also said Tehran has spent $100 billion on the Syrian civil war over the past five years and pays $1 billion in salaries for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shiite paramilitary mercenaries deployed there.

But growing opposition from Sunni forces inside Iraq could fracture the Shiite militias’ hold on territory, said Mr. Hamasaeed. “It is not a done deal yet,” he said.

Iraqi lawmakers are pressing the al-Abadi government to rein in the Shiite paramilitaries. They argue that the benefits of having the militants on the battlefield are outweighed by the influence their presence affords Tehran inside the country.

Salim al-Jabouri, speaker of the Iraqi parliament and a Sunni Muslim, last month called on Mr. al-Abadi to disband the majority of the Shiite paramilitary groups over growing fears of Iranian influence sparking renewed sectarian violence in the country.

“We need to bring balance to the Iraqi military” and larger security forces, he said last month on a visit to Washington, noting that not all of the Shiite paramilitaries organized underneath the banner of the Popular Mobilization Forces posed a threat to the country’s stability.

Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, the highest-ranking Sunni in the al-Abadi government, said the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces “have their own political aspirations, their own [political] agendas. … They are very dangerous to the future of Iraq.”

But Tehran could look to Iraq’s parliamentary elections next year to politically solidify the Popular Mobilization Forces’ battlefield gains in IraqMr. Hamasaeed said.

The political wings of the Shiite-led Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (also known as the Khazali Network), and Kata’ib Hezbollah are already rallying support among Iraq’s Shiites to lock in parliamentary seats in next year’s elections. The armed factions of these groups have been accused of sectarian violence and extrajudicial killings during operations against Islamic State in Fallujah.

Mr. Abadi could curb the rising political clout of the Shiite groups by fully integrating the Popular Mobilization Forces into the Iraqi security forces, but that move has perils of its own. If Baghdad is unable to bring the Popular Mobilization Forces to heel, then the move could cement Iran’s influence into the Iraqi political system for decades, Mr. Hamasaeed said. “We are now at a point of competition on which of these two scenarios could happen,” he added.

Limited options

There is little indication that the Trump administration is planning a major push to curb those efforts. On the campaign trail and in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump has largely kept the focus on the fight to eradicate Islamic State.

Members of Mr. Trump’s national security team signaled this year that rolling back Tehran’s proxy armies in the Middle East would be a main pillar of the administration’s get-tough policy with Tehran, but few details have emerged.

President Trump has focused much of his attention on the nuclear issue and the 2015 deal that the Obama administration helped negotiate. Mr. Trump has also moved closer to Israel and cultivated better ties with Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt in an apparent bid to curb Tehran’s regional ambitions.

But with Islamic State’s grip on the Middle East now effectively shattered and Iran’s goal of forging a land bridge into Lebanon now within grasp, the attention of Washington and the Arab world has begun to shift, Mr. Hellyer said.

“As ISIS goes on the back burner in terms of priorities, Iran is going to be far more of a first-level priority” for the U.S. and Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, he said.

But there are limits to how much the U.S. administration — and the U.S. public — want to get involved in the Middle East’s long-standing rivalries, Mr. Hamasaeed said.

“The U.S. military does not have the appetite to engage this militarily,” he said.

The U.S. has sought to apply pressure away from the battlefields of the region. U.S. officials elevated their public condemnation of Hezbollah on Tuesday, adding that two of the Iran-backed terrorist group’s top operatives to a special State Department most-wanted list and asserting that all of the group’s factions — even those holding political office in Lebanon — are part of the same terrorist operation.

Washington has provided Lebanon with more than $1.5 billion in military assistance since 2006, and U.S. special operations forces have been providing training and support for the Lebanese army since 2011, according to Reuters.

More recently, CIA Director Mike Pompeo attempted to reach out to Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and other top Iranian security officials, warning Tehran to rein in its efforts to expand its influence in Iraq and Syria.

“What we were communicating … was that we will hold [Mr. Soleimani] and Iran accountable for any attacks on American interests in Iraq by forces that are under their control,” Mr. Pompeo said Sunday during the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in Southern California.

But short of military action, there is no incentive for Iran’s hard-line leaders to acquiesce to Washington’s demands and scuttle years of effort to forge a land bridge to LebanonMs. Cafarella said.

Iran has no intent or interest in surrendering any of its gains in Iraq and Syria,” she said.


Israel’s Elite Intelligence Unit 8200 Helped Foil ISIS Plane Bombing, Army Reveals

February 21, 2018


The success late last year follows reports in May that Israel helped stymie an attempt by the group to put a bomb on a passenger plane

.An illustrative photo of a Mitsubishi passenger airplane, 2015.
An illustrative photo of a Mitsubishi passenger airplane, 2015.Bloomberg

Israeli intelligence helped foil an Islamic State passenger-plane bombing against a Western country late last year, after the 8200 intelligence unit passed on crucial information, the Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday after the lifting of a gag order.

According to the IDF, arrests were made at a very advanced stage of planning, possibly reflecting the latest such success by Israeli intelligence in a matter of months.

In May, The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that U.S. President Donald Trump had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about an Islamic State plan to slip a laptop rigged with a bomb onto a passenger plane. The foreign press ascribed the intelligence to Israel.

In recent years the high-tech 8200 unit has been studying the Islamic State’s threat to Israel, Jews and Israeli tourists around the world. Now that the group has been defeated in Syria and Iraq, 8200 is keeping an eye on its fighters who have scattered – some to their home counties and some, worryingly for Israel, to the neighboring Sinai Peninsula.


Members of the Israel Defense Forces intelligence and cyberwarfare Unit 8200, in 2013.

Cyberwarfare troops from the Israeli army’s Unit 8200.Moti Milrod

The 8200 unit and the IDF’s telecommunications forces recently thwarted an Iranian hacking attack against private and government Israeli sites after learning of the attempt early in the process.

Daesh ambushes Iraqi Shiite-led force, killing 27 fighters

February 19, 2018

Baghdad declared victory against Daesh last year. (AP)
BAGHDAD: Daesh militants have ambushed a group of Iraq’s Shiite-led paramilitary fighters, killing at least 27.
The Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias, said on Monday that the attack took place the previous night in the Al-Saadounya area, southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, when the paramilitaries were conducting overnight raids.
The PMF says the attackers were disguised in army uniforms. It says clashes lasted for at least two hours and that some of the militants were killed while others fled the area.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, a spokesman for Iraqi military, blamed Daesh “sleeper cells” and said Iraqi forces were searching the area to find the perpetrators.
Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on its Aamaq news agency.

The ultimate rent-a-war being fought in Syria

February 16, 2018

By Thomas L. Friedman

Two weeks ago, standing on the Syria-Israel border in the Golan Heights, I wrote a column positing that this frontier was the “second most dangerous” war zone in the world – after the Korean Peninsula.

I’d like to revise and amend that column. Having watched the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, where North and South Korean athletes marched last week into the stadium together in a love fest; and having also watched Israel shoot down an Iranian drone from Syria, bomb an Iranian base in Syria and lose one of its own F-16s to a Syrian missile; and after US jets killed a bunch of Russian “contractors” who got too close to our forces in Syria, I now think the Syria-Israel-Lebanon front is the most dangerous corner in the world.

Where else can you find Syrian, Russian, American, Iranian and Turkish troops or advisers squaring off on the ground and in the air – along with pro-Iranian Shi’ite mercenaries from Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan; pro-US Kurdish fighters from northern Syria; ISIS remnants; various pro-Saudi and pro-Jordanian anti-Syrian regime Sunni rebels and – I am not making this up – pro-Syrian regime Russian Orthodox Cossack “contractors” who went to Syria to defend Mother Russia from “crazy barbarians” – all rubbing against one another?

As The Washington Post pointed out, “In the space of a single week last week, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel lost aircraft to hostile fire” in Syria.

The term “powder keg” was invented for this place. But if this story has crept up on you and left you confused as to what United States policy should be, let me try and untangle it for you. The bad news and the good news about the war in Syria is that all the parties involved are guided by one iron rule: You don’t want to “own” this war.

This is the ultimate rent-a-war.

Each party wants to maximise its interests and minimise the influence of its rivals by putting at risk as few of its own soldiers as possible and instead fighting for its goals through air power, mercenaries and local rebels.

They’ve all learnt – Russia from Afghanistan, Iran from the Iran-Iraq war, Israel from south Lebanon, and the US from Iraq and Afghanistan – that their publics will not tolerate large numbers of body bags fighting any ground war in the Middle East.

The writer believes the Syria-Israel-Lebanon front is the most dangerous corner in the world; all parties in the conflict want to maximise their own interests and minimise the influence of their rivals by putting at risk as few of their own soldiers as possible and instead fighting for their goals through air power, mercenaries and local rebels. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

President Vladimir Putin wants to be able to tell Russians that “Russia is back” as a superpower and he’s the kingmaker in Syria – but he isn’t putting any Russian soldiers at risk.

Instead, Mr Putin is using Iran to provide ground forces and enlisting contractors, like those Cossacks from a private Russian company named Wagner, to fight and die – as dozens did the other day in a US airstrike – on the ground.

Iran, which just witnessed an uprising by its own people, demanding that Teheran spend its money at home, not in Syria, is subcontracting the ground war that Russia subcontracted to Iran to Iran’s proxies – Hizbollah and various Shi’ite mercenaries from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This way Iran can control Damascus and use Syria as a forward base to put pressure on Israel but pay “wholesale”, not “retail”.

US Special Forces are arming and advising Kurdish fighters from northern Syria to carry out the ground war against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is using Sunni rebels to fight the same Kurds.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan all use various Sunni rebels to fight the pro-Iranian, pro-Shi’ite regime forces, and Israel is using the long arm of its air force.

In 2003, I had warned in a column in the run-up to the US toppling of Saddam Hussein: “The first rule of any Iraq invasion is the pottery store rule: You break it, you own it. We break Iraq, we own Iraq.”

So in Syria today, the abiding rule is: “You own it, you fix it.”

And because no one wants to own responsibility for fixing Syria – a gargantuan project – they all want to just rent their influence there.

There is something very 21st century about this war. But this is distressing. It means none of the local parties has enough power, resources – or willingness to compromise – to stabilise Syria from the bottom up, and none of the external parties is ready to invest enough power and resources to stabilise it from the top down.

The “good news”, sort of, is that because everyone is so “loss averse” in Syria, it’s less likely that any party will get too reckless.

The Iranians and Hizbollah will most likely continue to prod and poke Israel, but not to such a degree that the Israelis do what they are capable of doing, which is to devastate every Hizbollah neighbourhood in Lebanon and hit Iran’s homeland with rockets; Israel knows that its high-tech corridor along its coastal plain would be devastated by Iranian rockets coming back.

Maybe, eventually, the players will get tired and forge a power-sharing accord in Syria, as the Lebanese eventually did in 1989 to end their civil war.

Alas, though, it took the Lebanese 14 years to come to their senses. So get ready for a lot more news from Syria.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline ‘The ultimate rent-a-war being fought in Syria’.

Jihadists looking to Egypt’s Sinai for new home base: army

February 15, 2018


© EGYPTIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY/AFP | An image grab taken from a handout video released by Egypt’s defence ministry on February 9, 2018 shows Egypt’s army spokesman Tamer al-Rifai
CAIRO (AFP) – After crushing blows in Iraq and Syria, global jihadists could be eyeing Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as a new home base, the army said Thursday, as it presses an offensive in the region.Cairo last week announced a major operation against jihadists across swathes of territory, including the volatile region which has been at the heart of a persistent Islamic State group insurgency.

The security sweep in the Sinai, Nile Delta and Western Desert near the border with Libya comes as the country prepares for polls next month in which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seeking re-election.

Army spokesman Tamer el-Refai said at a press conference broadcast Thursday that intelligence showed that jihadists were planning “to create a new terrorist home base in another area that could potentially be the Sinai Peninsula”.

The spokesman told a tightly controlled press conference that 53 jihadists have been killed since the start of the operation, while more than 600 people have been detained.

There was no way to independently verify the figures given.

In November, Sisi ordered his armed forces chief of staff to restore security in Sinai within three months after militants killed more than 300 worshippers at a mosque.

Egypt has been under a state of emergency since April last year, after two suicide bombings at churches claimed by IS killed at least 45 people in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

Rebuilding Iraq and Buying Influence: U.S., Kuwait and Iran Among Donors

February 14, 2018


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on allies in the fight against the Islamic State militant group to contribute more in Iraq’s reconstruction—but Iran has also pledged its support after contributing heavily to the battle against the jihadis next door.

Tillerson made his remarks Tuesday at a ministerial meeting of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, in Kuwait City. Coinciding with Tillerson’s visit, Kuwait also launched Monday the three-day Kuwait International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq, during which Iraqi officials revealed an estimated $88 billion price tag to rebuild the country after its cities suffered an onslaught from both ISIS and the forces that defeated the jihadis.

At the ministerial meeting, Tillerson said the U.S. would extend a $3 billion line of credit to the Iraqi government and urged coalition partners to do more for the war-torn country in order to prevent a resurgent ISIS, Reuters reported.

Related: Trump says U.S. spent $7 trillion on Middle East “mistake,” now Iraq may cost $88 billion more to rebuild

“The end of major combat operations does not mean that we have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS. ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands and other parts of the globe,” Tillerson said. “Without continued attention on the part of coalition members, we risk the return of extremist groups like ISIS in liberated areas in Iraq and Syria and their spread to new locations.

“Each of us must continue our commitment to the complete defeat of ISIS. Maintaining stabilization initiatives is essential in this regard. If communities in Iraq and Syria cannot return to normal life, we risk the return of conditions that allowed ISIS to take and control vast territory,” he added.


Iraqi men check a site in the city of Mosul where bodies of alleged ISIS fighters remain on January 11, 2018. Six months after their three-year occupation of Iraq’s second city came to a violent end last summer, the corpses of ISIS militants remained rotting in the rubble. “If communities in Iraq and Syria cannot return to normal life,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “we risk the return of conditions that allowed ISIS to take and control vast territory.”AHMAD MUWAFAQ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Tillerson emphasized the importance that the initiatives to stabilize Iraq “be fully funded,” but U.S. officials have told Reuters that the Trump administration had no plans of pledging any money directly to the conference. Instead, the outlet quoted one senior State Department official as saying the U.S. would instead seek private investment to assist Iraq and let willing Arab partners foot most of the bill.

The money would reportedly be used both to reconstruct Iraq and counter foreign influence, likely referring to neighboring Iran, which shared a Shiite Muslim majority with Iraq and served as the leading regional rival to both the U.S. and its Gulf Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during the Kuwait International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq, in Kuwait City, February 13, 2018.

Iran, however, was also planning on taking part in the Kuwait-led initiative to rebuild Iraq. Tehran offered substantial support to the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria via majority-Shiite Muslim militias, which have fought alongside the armed forces of both nations. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reportedly arrived Tuesday in Kuwait to participate at the conference.

“As in the past, Iran will keep playing its supporting and constructive role in the reconstruction and economic development of Iraq in the post-ISIS era as it has always played the same role in other political and security fields,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency.


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah (right) give a press conference on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Kuwait City, on February 13.STR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Iraq has suffered from 17 consecutive years of warfare since the U.S. invaded to overthrow President Saddam Hussein in 2003. Amid the ensuing U.S. occupation, jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq—which would later form the Islamic State of Iraq and ISIS—launched deadly attacks against civilians and soldiers. This stirred further sectarian violence between newly empowered Shiite Muslims, increasingly disillusioned Sunni Muslims and a number of religious and ethnic minorities, such as the Kurds, who have their own nationalist aspirations.

ISIS rose from the unrest in 2013 and expanded across half of Iraq as well as neighboring Syria, where a sectarian conflict was also raging as a mostly rural, Sunni Muslim rebellion backed by the West, Turkey and Gulf Arab states tried to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite Shiite Muslim and ally of Iran and Russia. The U.S. gathered an international coalition to support a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS in both countries, while Iran backed its own local allies battling the militants in a campaign later backed by Russia in Syria.

The U.S. and Iran have both blamed each other for destabilizing the Middle East and of attempting to use the unrest to further their own influence in the region. Trump called out the “evil dictatorship” in Tehran in his “America First” National Security Strategy that accused Iran, along with North Korea, of being “determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people.”

Trump has also charged Iran with funding terrorism and of developing ballistic missiles he felt threatened the security of nearby countries, leading him to decertify and potentially scrap a historic nuclear deal reached between the U.S., Iran and other major nations in 2015. Iran has denied these charges and has called on Trump to respect international commitments made by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Iran is heading toward a social explosion

February 12, 2018

Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist who famously forecast the “end of history”. (AFP)
DUBAI: Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist who famously forecast the “end of history,” told the World Government Summit in Dubai that Iran was heading toward a crisis caused by social tensions between generations within the country.
“In Iran. there has been a social revolution going on beneath the surface. There is a young population, well-educated women in particular, who do not correspond to the rural, conservative power structure that runs the country. It’s headed toward some kind of explosion and I’m not sure of the outcome, but it is not a stable situation.”
His warning came during a sobering speech that highlighted many of the challenges facing government and policy-makers, from the weakness of international institutions to the threat of cyber and biological warfare, and the rise of “strongman” leaders in many parts of the world.
Fukuyama said that recent disturbances in Iran were partly because of climate change factors such as drought and water shortage, which often caused violence and cut across all the other risk factors.
“A lot of the recent unrest in Iran had environmental causes. Ground water sources were being overused, leading to drought. A lot of violence in the world is due to climate change,” he said.
There were some positives in an otherwise gloomy analysis of global affairs. In conversation with Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of foreign affairs, he said that the Gulf states had shown that it was possible to establish credible economic and political models without the influence of Western liberal democratic institutions.
“The Gulf has got the ‘liberal’ part well. It has security and the rule of law and property rights. Maybe the democratic aspect has been shown to be not that necessary.
“The Gulf is showing the rest of the Arab world how to do it. The problem with the Arab world has been not being able to establish stable states. Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen are all failed states to some degree or other,” he said.
Fukuyama said that Tunisia, where he has traveled recently, was the only democracy to come out of the Arab Spring upheavals of 2011. “But they are not delivering economic growth. The country will not collapse but it is hanging by a thread.”
He agreed that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the precursor to American disentanglement from the region, and that there was now a serious risk of “big power” confrontation in Syria. The dominance of the US from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the global financial crisis was an anomaly. There has never been a period when one state had so much power. Now the US is not reacting well because it’s used to being in charge.
Fukuyama said that the US was being “displaced” by China, which already has a bigger economy by some measurements. “The global financial crisis discredited the economic systems of the USA and the European Union. The ‘one belt, one road’ policy of China is hugely ambitious, shifting the entire global center of gravity to central Asia with the aim of moving China to a new stage of their national development.”
He said that financial markets were underrating the risk of serious military conflict in Korea. “It could be a replay of the Korean War of the 1950s,” he said.
But he said that the most serious threat to the global liberal order came from within Western countries, where populism, anti-globalization and anti-migration sentiment had led to the rise of a class of “strongman” leaders who were undermining the institutions of their countries.
He said that the “old poles” of capitalism versus communism were dead, but were giving way to “identity politics” — clashes between ethnicities and religions, where compromise was harder to achieve. He said that Islamic terrorism was an example of identity politics.


Israel-Syria-Iran Flare-up: With Newfound Confidence, Assad Moves From Threats to Action — Slippery slope toward growing war

February 10, 2018


If it turns out Iranian soldiers or ‘advisers’ were killed in the Israeli strike, the situation may go from bad to worse

.Netanyahu and cabinet ministers on the Golan Heights, February 6, 2018

Netanyahu and cabinet ministers on the Golan Heights, February 6, 2018 קובי גדעון / לע”מ

The incident Saturday on the Israeli-Syrian border signifies a grave escalation in the ongoing conflict between Israel on one hand and Iran and the Assad regime on the other. The threats have been replaced by actions – the exchange of fire on the border and deep within Syrian territory – and these tensions have no end in sight.

According to the Israeli army, this is what transpired: In the early morning, an unmanned Iranian aerial vehicle launched from the T-4 Syrian airbase near Palmyra in the south of Syria. The drone entered Israeli territory through the northern Beit She’an Valley and was shot down by an Israeli helicopter. In response, Israeli air force fighter jets attacked and destroyed the Iranian trailer in Syria from which the drone was launched.

During the strike, Syrian aerial defense systems opened heavy fire at the Israeli jets. One of them, possibly hit by Syrian fire, was abandoned by the view over Israeli territory. The pilots were taken to hospital, where one is in serious condition.

>>The threat of war between Israel, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah | Analysis <<

The dramatic and unusual fact that the pilots ejected from the F-16 will probably be talked about extensively in the media in the coming hours, but one must not ignore the bigger implications of the events.

Israel has, according to reports, already attacked a joint Syrian-Iranian weapons factory last September, followed by an attack on an Iranian militia base near Damascus in December. This morning, however, is the first time a manned Iranian target has been bombed. So far reports from Syria are few, but if soldiers or “advisers” were killed in the Israeli strike, it’s a different story altogether.

What does Iran want with the Israeli border? Since last summer, Israeli leadership has been warning of an Iranian attempt to gain a foothold in Syria, riding on the Assad regime’s success in the civil war. This attempt includes deployments in southern Syria of some 10,000 Shiite militia fighters from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, under the auspices of Iran; erection of weapons factories in Syria; and Iranian talks with the Assad regime to establish an aerial and maritime base in Syria.

The incursion into Israeli territory, which seems planned, is both a violation of sovereignty and a severe provocation. IDF spokesman Brigadier General Ronen Manelis used harsh words this morning, saying Iran is dragging the region into jeopardy and will pay the price. It seems, from his rhetoric, that this exchange is far from over.

The Assad regime has long warned Israel that it would respond to Israeli strikes against convoys and weapons depots tied to Hezbollah in Syrian territory. A severe warning of this sort was sounded last week, after a bombing – attributed to Israel – of a weapons development facility near Damascus.

The launch of anti-aircraft missiles on Israeli jets came as a response to Israeli incursion into Syria, but it is also an expression of the regime’s newfound sense of power. Last March, in the same area of Palmyra, anti-aircraft missiles were fired at Israeli jets. One of the missiles, which entered Israeli territory, was intercepted by the Arrow defense system. That incident took place shortly after the regime took control of Aleppo. Since then, Assad has retaken practical control of over 80 percent of Syrian territory. In recent weeks, the regime has been carrying out a brutal campaign against rebel strongholds, including in an enclave near Damascus. Syrian self-confidence is also manifested in its willingness to exchange blows with Israel.

The bombing of the Iranian trailer from which the drone was launched comes days after a publicized visit to the Golan Heights by Israeli cabinet ministers, armed with their uniform Uniqlo coats. But the signs of conflict have been felt in the air for months. The prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief have relayed warnings to Syria, Iran and Lebanon. A senior Israeli official estimated back in December that the advent of Shiite militias in southern Syria places Iran and Israel on a collision course.

This tension, more than ever, is pulling in the big powers. For Russia, which still has fighter squadrons and sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries in northern Syria, the Assad regime – and even the Iranians, to some extent – are part of Moscow’s camp, which has the upper hand in the Syrian civil war. The Trump administration has been signaling a more resolute stance towards the Iranians as compared with the Obama administration, which feared intervention in the country and was worried about thwarting what it perceived as its greatest achievement: The Iranian nuclear deal signed in Vienna in the summer of 2015. Did President Trump give Netanyahu a green light to engage Iran in the north?

We are in the midst of a day of fighting on the Golan Heights, but the sides are on a very slippery slope.

Iraq starts operation to clear planned oil route to Iran

February 7, 2018


KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi forces launched on Wednesday an operation to consolidate control of an area near the Iran border to be used for the transit of Iraqi oil, the military said, highlighting concern about mountainous terrain where two armed groups are active.

Iraqi oil officials announced in December plans to transport Kirkuk crude by truck to Iran’s Kermanshah refinery. The trucking was to start last week and oil officials declined to give reasons for the delay other than it was technical in nature.

 Image result for Iran’s Kermanshah refinery, photos

Reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Maher Chmaytelli


Image result for Kirkuk oil fields and the town of Khanaqin, map, iraq

Iran’s Kermanshah refinery is near Khanaqin

U.S. “Sold” Pre-Emptive War with Iraq in 2003 — Now Iran is In The Crosshairs

February 6, 2018

Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state, made a case for military action against Iraq to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times

Fifteen years ago this week, Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, spoke at the United Nations to sell pre-emptive war with Iraq. As his chief of staff, I helped Secretary Powell paint a clear picture that war was the only choice, that when “we confront a regime that harbors ambitions for regional domination, hides weapons of mass destruction and provides haven and active support for terrorists, we are not confronting the past, we are confronting the present. And unless we act, we are confronting an even more frightening future.”

Following Mr. Powell’s presentation on that cold day, I considered what we had done. At the moment, I thought all our work was for naught — and despite his efforts we did not gain substantial international buy-in. But polls later that day and week demonstrated he did convince many Americans. I knew that was why he was chosen to make the presentation in the first place: his standing with the American people was more solid than that of any other member of the Bush administration.

President George W. Bush would have ordered the war even without the United Nations presentation, or if Secretary Powell had failed miserably in giving it. But the secretary’s gravitas was a significant part of the two-year-long effort by the Bush administration to get Americans on the war wagon.

That effort led to a war of choice with Iraq — one that resulted in catastrophic losses for the region and the United States-led coalition, and that destabilized the entire Middle East.

This should not be forgotten, since the Trump administration is using much the same playbook to create a false impression that war is the only way to address the threats posed by Iran.

Just over a month ago, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that the administration had “undeniable” evidence that Iran was not complying with Security Council resolutions regarding its ballistic missile program and Yemen. Just like Mr. Powell, Ms. Haley showed satellite images and other physical evidence available only to the United States intelligence community to prove her case. But the evidence fell significantly short.

It’s astonishing how similar that moment was to Mr. Powell’s 2003 presentation on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — and how the Trump administration’s methods overall match those of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. As I watched Ms. Haley at the Defense Intelligence Agency, I wanted to play the video of Mr. Powell on the wall behind her, so that Americans could recognize instantly how they were being driven down the same path as in 2003 — ultimately to war. Only this war with Iran, a country of almost 80 million people whose vast strategic depth and difficult terrain make it a far greater challenge than Iraq, would be 10 to 15 times worse than the Iraq war in terms of casualties and costs.

If we want a slightly more official statement of the Trump administration’s plans for Iran, we need only look at the recently released National Security Strategy, which says, “The longer we ignore threats from countries determined to proliferate and develop weapons of mass destruction, the worse such threats become, and the fewer defensive options we have.” The Bush-Cheney team could not have said it better as it contemplated invading Iraq.

The strategy positions Iran as one of the greatest threats America faces, much the same way President Bush framed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. With China, Russia and North Korea all presenting vastly more formidable challenges to America and its allies than Iran, one has to wonder where the Trump team gets its ideas.

Though Ms. Haley’s presentation missed the mark, and no one other than the national security elite will even read the strategy, it won’t matter. We’ve seen this before: a campaign built on the politicization of intelligence and shortsighted policy decisions to make the case for war. And the American people have apparently become so accustomed to executive branch warmongering — approved almost unanimously by the Congress — that such actions are not significantly contested.

So far, news organizations have largely failed to refute false narratives coming out of the Trump White House on Iran. In early November, news outlets latched onto claims by unnamed American officials that newly released documents from Osama bin Laden’s compound represented “evidence of Iran’s support of Al Qaeda’s war with the United States.”

It’s a vivid reminder of Vice President Cheney’s desperate attempts in 2002-03 to conjure up evidence of Saddam Hussein’s relationship with Al Qaeda from detainees at Guantánamo Bay. It harks back to the C.I.A. director George Tenet’s assurances to Mr. Powell that the connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden was ironclad in the lead-up to his United Nations presentation. Today, we know how terribly wrong Mr. Tenet was.

Today, the analysts claiming close ties between Al Qaeda and Iran come from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which vehemently opposes the Iran nuclear deal and unabashedly calls for regime change in Iran.

It seems not to matter that 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11 were Saudis and none were Iranians. Or that, according to the United States intelligence community, of the groups listed as actively hostile to the United States, only one is loosely affiliated with Iran, and Hezbollah doesn’t make the cut. More than ever the Foundation for Defense of Democracies seems like the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans that pushed falsehoods in support of waging war with Iraq.

The Trump administration’s case for war with Iran ranges much wider than Ms. Haley’s work. We should include the president’s decertification ultimatum in January that Congress must “fix” the Iran nuclear deal, despite the reality of Iran’s compliance; the White House’s pressure on the intelligence community to cook up evidence of Iran’s noncompliance; and the administration’s choosing to view the recent protests in Iran as the beginning of regime change. Like the Bush administration before, these seemingly disconnected events serve to create a narrative in which war with Iran is the only viable policy.

As I look back at our lock-step march toward war with Iraq, I realize that it didn’t seem to matter to us that we used shoddy or cherry-picked intelligence; that it was unrealistic to argue that the war would “pay for itself,” rather than cost trillions of dollars; that we might be hopelessly naïve in thinking that the war would lead to democracy instead of pushing the region into a downward spiral.

The sole purpose of our actions was to sell the American people on the case for war with Iraq. Polls show that we did. Mr. Trump and his team are trying to do it again. If we’re not careful, they’ll succeed.

Correction: February 5, 2018 
An earlier version of this article included outdated information about the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Sheldon Adelson is no longer a donor to the organization.