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Can Assad’s Syria Survive Revolution?

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The outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 surprised many people. Until that time, it seemed that the 40-year reign of the Assad dynasty, at first under its founder, Hafiz, and then under his son and heir, Bashar, had succeeded in turning Syria into a strong and stable state with governmental institutions, military, and security forces.

Even social and economic systems appeared quite sturdy and effective.

Yet a year and a half of bloody fighting between the regime and the rebels has undermined most of the achievements of the Assad dynasty and turned Syria into a failing state on the verge of disintegration. Most state institutions have ceased to function. The bonds that united the various religious and ethnic communities, tribes, and regions—that took many long years of hard work to forge—are rapidly unraveling. In addition, Syria has become a kind of punching bag with foreign actors, both regional and international, intervening freely in the country’s internal affairs.

How did the revolt spread so quickly to all parts of Syria, striking such deep roots among wide segments of the Syrian society? How has the Assad regime managed, for the time being and in contrast to other Arab regimes rocked by the recent upheavals, to survive the lethal challenges facing it? And how has it been able to maintain its cohesion and strength to the point where many observers do not preclude the possibility of its ultimate survival?

The Outbreak of the Syrian Revolution

The revolution in Syria, in contrast to the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, was at its base a peasants’ revolt, a protest by the Sunni periphery against what was perceived as the Baath regime’s turning its back on the country’s rural population. Only later did the rebellion take on additional dimensions with jihadists joining the struggle because of the regime’s “heretical” Alawite nature and because of its alliance with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah. In the name of jihad, thousands of volunteers have streamed into Syria from all over the Arab and Muslim world[1] though jihadist slogans probably did little to arouse Syrians to join the ranks of the revolution.

Revenge was another dimension that developed with time, stemming from the regime’s increasingly violent efforts to suppress the waves of protest. It is clear that the regime’s brutality served to expand the circle of participants in the revolution. Many who joined were motivated specifically by the desire to take revenge for the spilled blood of their family members and relatives or for the destruction of their home villages and towns by the regime’s forces.[2]

Paradoxically, in the past, the Sunni rural population had been one of the regime’s foremost mainstays. It was one of the main partners in Syria’s ruling coalition of minorities and the periphery, led by members of the Alawite community, who were in turn headed by the Assad dynasty. This coalition served as the basis for the Baath revolution of March 1963, and later as the basis of support for the “Corrective Movement” and for Hafiz al-Assad’s seizure of power in November 1970.

With the passage of time and especially from the beginning of the 2000s, it seemed as if the Syrian regime had ceased reflecting Syrian society. The regime even seemed to have turned its back on the rural areas and the periphery. Beginning in 2006, Syria experienced one of the worst droughts the state had ever known with the damage felt most intensely in the Jazira region of northeastern Syria and in the south, especially in the Hawran region and its central city of Dar’a.

These regions were also adversely affected by the government’s new economic policies, which aimed at changing the character of the Syrian economy from a socialist orientation into a “social market economy.” The aim of these policies, led by Vice Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, was to open Syria to the world economy, encourage foreign investment, and promote activity in the domestic private sector so as to ensure economic growth and enable the regime to cope with its domestic and economic challenges: rapid growth of the population, backward infrastructure and lack of advanced industry, over-reliance on agriculture, etc. The new policy was backed by Bashar al-Assad, who seemed to have underestimated the importance of the Baath party’s socialist ideology as well as its institutions and networking, mainly in the periphery. One conclusion to be drawn from the negative reactions to this policy in the periphery was that while the Syrian regime did indeed manage to preserve its image of strength and solidity during the first decade of the 2000s, its support base was considerably narrowed. It lost the broad popular support that it had enjoyed among the Sunni population in the rural areas and the periphery after it turned its back on them.[3]

And so, from the time the revolution broke out in March 2011 in the city of Dar’a, the rebellion spread like wildfire to all the rural areas and the periphery, including the northern part of the state, the Jazira region, and later, the agricultural towns of Homs and Hama. The revolution reached the large cities, Damascus and Aleppo, only at a much later stage.

The Tlas Family and the Town of Rastan

An illustration of this turmoil can be found in the story of the Tlas family from the small town of Rastan. Headed by Mustafa Tlas, the family was one of the pillars of the Baath regime, a living example of the close alliance between the regime and the Sunni periphery on the one hand, and between the Sunni and the Alawite officers led by the Assad dynasty on the other.

Rastan itself is the third largest town in the Homs district and numbers about 40,000 inhabitants according to a 2004 census. It is located on the main road between Aleppo and Damascus, on the segment between the towns of Homs and Hama, about 20 kilometers from Homs and 22 kilometers from Hama. Rastan’s residents earn their livings from agriculture and light industry, notably the rock quarries for which the town is known.[4]

The town has two main clans, the Hamdan, the larger and stronger of the two, and the Firzat. The Tlas family belongs to the Hamdan clan. One of the family’s members, Abdel Qadr Tlas, served as the mukhtar (administrative head) of Rastan from the end of the Ottoman period into the French Mandate period. As a young man, Mustafa Tlas, Abdel Qadr’s son, became the ally and right hand man of Hafiz al-Assad. The two met at the Homs Military Academy, during the officers’ course in which they were enrolled after joining the Syrian army in November 1952. They were roommates during the course, and their paths never parted thereafter. They advanced in rank together and, in November 1970, seized power in Damascus with Hafiz leading and Mustafa helping him. At that time, Tlas was serving as commander in chief of the army and was quickly appointed minister of defense, a post he held until his retirement in 2004.

Tlas was in office during the brutal suppression of the Islamist revolt against the Baath regime in 1976-82, which peaked with the massacre of the citizens of Hama in February 1982. His last task was, in essence, to help Assad’s son Bashar grow into his father’s big shoes.[5]

Tlas also established an economic empire. One of its showcases was a publishing house. He used this firm as a vehicle for publishing, in addition to works of other authors, his own “scholarly” writings, memoirs, and even poetry. Tlas married Lamya Jabiri, a member of the Aleppine aristocracy, and the couple had four children: two daughters—Nahid, who married a Saudi businessman and moved with him to Paris, and Sarya—and two sons—Firas, who became a successful businessman in Damascus, and Manaf, who chose a military career. Manaf was known as a close friend of Bashar al-Assad and served as a brigade commander in the Republican Guard Division, an elite unit formed to protect the regime.[6]

Rastan and the Start of the Revolt

In addition to being home to the Tlas family, Rastan also serves as a faithful reflection of the Sunni periphery. It is not surprising that when the Syrian revolution broke out, the town became one of the revolt’s focal points. As early as the beginning of April 2011, the town square statue of Hafiz al-Assad was reportedly smashed to pieces as demonstrators shouted with joy.[7] This was a symbolic act clearly expressing the town’s disengagement from the Baath regime and from the Assad dynasty. However, Rastan is too strategically located to be given up. Since it is on a main road linking northern and southern Syria and close to the towns of Homs and Hama, it became a major scene of bloody battles between the regime’s army and the insurgents, in which scores of the town’s residents were killed.

The protest movement in Rastan did not bypass the Tlas family. The members of the family who were officers and soldiers, like many of their friends and colleagues, could not ignore the pressure of the unfolding events or the fate suffered by their relatives, neighbors, and home town.

The first Tlas family member to join the revolt was Abd al-Razzaq Tlas, who announced his desertion from the regular Syrian army as early as June 2011. He has subsequently served as commander of the Faruq battalion associated with the Free Syrian Army, which operates in the region of Homs. As time passed, Abd al-Razzaq has become one of the closely watched symbols of the revolution. Thus, for example, innumerable interpretations were given to the fact that he has begun to grow a beard though this action did not necessarily stem from religious motives. His image was not damaged even after rumors were spread about his involvement in a sex scandal though he was apparently removed from his position as battalion commander.[8] Additional members of the Tlas family followed him into the revolution until finally, in the summer of 2012, the reverberations reached the home of Mustafa Tlas. This was quite late in the game and only after it began to seem as if the days of the Assad regime were numbered.

During the first months of 2012, Mustafa Tlas, suffering from health problems, moved to Paris to be near his daughter Nihad. His son Firas soon followed and established contacts with opposition figures and began participating in resistance events abroad.[9] At the beginning of July 2012, Manaf announced his defection from the ranks of the regime. In an interview with al-Arabiya news network, he explained, “I do not see myself as a senior figure in the ranks of the regime but rather as one of the sons of the Syrian Arab army who opposes barbarism and murder of innocents and the corrupt government … I hope for the establishment of a united Syria and for its rebuilding as a state that does not believe in or promote revenge, discrimination, or selfishness.”[10] Immediately after Manaf’s defection, several opposition figures began to mention him as a possible leader of Syria after Bashar’s hoped-for fall. Other opposition figures, however, came out firmly against the idea.[11]

The steps taken by those members of the Tlas family serve as a graphic example of what was happening all over Syria during the past year and a half. They are good indicators of how people who had been strong supporters of the Assad regime turned their backs on it when they felt that it had betrayed them or no longer served their interests.

The Survival of the Regime

Every coin and almost every story has two sides, and so it is with the story of Syria. One side of the story has to do with the fact that the insurgents’ uprising spread quickly and struck deep roots. The other side of the story has to do with the regime and the undeniable fact that it has so far been able to survive. One explanation for this focuses on the built-in weaknesses of the opposition,[12] which is a faithful reflection of the Syrian society: Both opposition and society suffer from divisions and fragmentation based upon ethnic, religious, regional, socioeconomic, and other differences. Another explanation focuses on the international community’s lack of will or ability to intervene in Syria. A third explanation highlights the sources of the regime’s strengths, calling attention to the fact that the regime survives, not only because of its opponents’ weaknesses, but also because of the reserves of power at its disposal.

One source of the regime’s strength lies in the support it receives from the members of the minority communities, who serve as its social bases. These include the Alawites (12 percent of the population), the Druze (5 percent), and most of the Christians (13 percent). The Kurds (10 percent), including those who live in the regions bordering Turkey and Iraq, have for the most part, not turned against the government either. Many Kurds have exploited the revolution to throw off government control and advance the cause of partial Kurdish independence. Nevertheless, the Syrian Kurds as a whole have refrained from joining the ranks of the opposition or coming out openly against the Assad regime.

Another source of regime strength lies in the fact that while turmoil has come to the suburbs and the slums of Aleppo and Damascus, the revolution has not ignited among urban Syrians, including the Sunni bourgeoisie of the big cities. Most big city residents have chosen to remain on the sidelines and not support the protests, fearing that this leap would result in political instability, as happened in Iraq or Lebanon, at immense costs.

Part of the reluctance stems from the economic benefits the urban bourgeoisie enjoy, especially during recent years thanks to the regime’s economic policies. Some have to do with the bourgeoisie’s age-old resentments, reservations, and aversion toward the periphery and the rural regions and their inhabitants. The numbers of urban dwellers are considerable. Some 55.7 percent of Syrians live in cities. Around 8 million (out of the total population of 23 million) live in the country’s three large cities: Aleppo—2.98 million; Damascus—2.52 million; and Homs—1.27 million. Most of the Christians live in these three cities.[13]

Since most opposition activists come from rural areas, most incursions into the big cities, including Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, have been carried out by insurgents from nearby rural regions. They penetrate the big cities mostly through the slum neighborhoods and suburbs, which are often inhabited by recent migrants from the periphery and rural areas. These migrants generally maintain connections with relatives back home, and it is from there that the armed bands come. But because the bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo have refrained from joining the insurgents,[14] the Syrian opposition has been denied victory photos such as those from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which made it clear that the die had been cast in Egypt and that the youth were on the revolution’s side. In Syria, for the time being, the youth in the big cities prefer to remain shut up in their homes.

Another source of the regime’s strength lies in the loyalty of its institutions, in particular, the army, the security apparatuses, the state bureaucracy, and the Baath party apparatuses. Indeed, in many cases, using the party’s networks, the regime was able to recruit and mobilize local families in various areas, including Sunni neighborhoods, which have become local militias fighting for the regime. These include members of the Sunni community in particular with the emphasis on the Sunni periphery.

Loyalists in Rastan

Returning to Rastan, it is clearly not a big city but of the rebel periphery. But it is also undisputable that many of its residents remain loyal to the regime. In the Tlas family, some have joined the ranks of the rebels, but others maintain neutrality, and still others continue to work for the government. Thus, Talal Tlas serves as Syria’s deputy minister of defense and Ahmad Tlas serves as the commander of the First Corps, the most important military unit in southern Syria.[15] And the various branches of the Tlas family continue to live together in Rastan; battles in the town take place between rebels and army forces that come from outside in order to attack.[16]

Beside these two senior Tlas members, there are others still serving loyally as army officers, perhaps because they consider this to be in their best personal interest and a good way to advance their careers. Their position is quite different from that of the younger officers, like Abd al-Razzaq Tlas, who has his whole future before him. Joining the ranks of the revolution promises him a brilliant future should it succeed. In any case, as a young officer, he did not have nearly as many vested interests to leave behind and potentially lose. The situation of the senior and middle level officers is much different. They could lose everything, all their achievements, their ranks, pensions, possibilities for further advancement, and other benefits and privileges. Joining the revolution means sacrifice for a vague future full of unknowns. The revolutionary future holds out the promise of great rewards for the youth, but not necessarily for the symbols of the old regime.

It is clear that as long as the members of the Tlas family and people like them give the regime their support, it will be able to survive. Only about 10 percent of the army’s manpower has defected. The other 90 percent, both soldiers and officers, the great majority of whom come from the Sunni periphery, continues to stand united around the regime, giving it the breathing space it so desperately needs.

Conclusions

The story of the Tlas family and their town, Rastan, attests to the complexity of the Syrian picture. The regime is losing blood daily; little by little support for it diminishes. Since the eruption of the revolution, the trend has clearly been in one direction only. Nevertheless, the regime retains reserves of support that enable it to survive. A dramatic shift in the situation, such as Bashar’s assassination or an unexpected intervention by the international community, could give the insurgents the push they need and bring about a major change in the course of the conflict. But the example of the Tlas family and Rastan suggests that the struggle for Syria will still take a long time to unfold.

Eyal Zisser is dean of the faculty of humanities and the Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair of Contemporary Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University.

[1] The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2012; Al-Monitor, online news, Oct. 18, 2012.
[2] Fouad Ajami, The Syrian Rebellion (Stanford: Stanford University, 2012), pp. 69-156.
[3] Eyal Zisser, “The Renewal of the ‘Struggle for Syria’: The Rise and Fall of the Ba’th Party,” Sharqiya, Fall 2011, pp. 21-9; Hanna Batatu, Syria’s Peasantry: The Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables and Their Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 131-75. For economic data, “Syria—Country Report,” Economist Intelligence Unit, Apr. 2011.
[4] The Annual Report for 2004, Central Bureau of Statistics, Prime Minister’s Office, Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus; “Syria: Mining,” Encyclopedia of the Nations, accessed Dec. 7, 2012.
[5] Mustafa Tlas, Mira’t Hayati (Damascus: Dar Tlas lil-Nashr, 1995), vol. 1, pp. 240-310; Sami Moubayed, Steel and Silk, Men and Women Who Shaped Syria, 1900-2000 (Seattle: Cune Press, 2006), pp. 89, 255.
[6] Al-Hayat (London), July 12, 2012; al-Jazeera TV (Doha), July 14, 2012.
[7] Asharq al-Awsat (London), Apr. 7, 2011; al-Arabiya TV (Dubai), Apr. 6, 7, 2011.
[8] Reuters, June 6, 7, 2011; al-Jazeera TV, June 6, 2011; BBC Radio in Arabic, Feb. 12, 2012; Aron Lund, “Holy Warriors: A Field Guide to Syria’s Jihadi Groups,” Foreign Policy, Oct. 15, 2012.
[9] Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), June 28, 2012; al-Jazeera TV, July 1, 2012.
[10] Reuters, July 14, 2012; al-Arabiya TV, July 24, 2012.
[11] Al-Hayat, July 19, 24, 2012.
[12] See, for example, BBC News, Nov. 12, 2012; Itamar Rabinovich, “The Anarchy Factor in Syria,” The Straits Times (Singapore), May 3, 2012.
[13]General Census,” Central Bureau of Statistics, Prime Minister’s Office, Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus, accessed Dec. 21, 2012.
[14] Reuters, July 18, 19, 2012; al-Hayat, Aug. 23, 2012.
[15] Syrian TV-24, Aug. 1, 2012.
[16] “Al-Markaz al-I’lami fi Rastan,” YouTube.com, July 22, 25, 2012.

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Middle East

Iran in Iraq

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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It is exactly the withdrawal of the 2,000 US soldiers from their current positions in Syria and Jordan – an operation that continues at considerable speed – which is creating significant strategic space for Iran.

President Trump also claims he wants to keep an indefinite amount of US soldiers in Iraq, just to control Iranian movements and developments towards the Syrian border with Iraq.

Hence it is quite probable that, in the near future, the already evident tensions between Hezbollah and Israel on the Bekaa-Golan border could explode. In this case, the clash could certainly involve also the Iranian forces, as well as Bashar al-Assad’s ones and even other Sunni and Lebanese groups stationing in that area.

In this phase the primary goal of the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God” and of Assad’s himself – who can no longer say no to Iran – is to provide effective missiles to the Lebanese and Iranian-Syrian forces to hit the positions in  Northern Israel.

And later possibly shift from the control of the Bekaa-Golan axis directly into the Jewish State.

In this phase, however, Iran wants to avoid a conventional confrontation with Israel and its US allies.

Currently, also in the areas it currently holds in Syria, Iran is interested only in its traditional asymmetric war, which enables it to have a low-cost clash with the minimum use of its forces.

This, however, does not enable us to think about an Iranian war against Israel that is only at low intensity: we should recall, in fact, the operations of the Iranian UAVs in the Israeli airspace of February 2018 or the many missile test launches in June 2018.

Also the Jewish State, however, does not want an open clash. In fact, since 2013 Israel has carried out over 230 operations in Syria, especially against the trafficking of arms for Hezbollah, in addition to many operations – in the “war between wars ” – against the Iranian bases in Syria at least since 2017.

In the statements made by Hassan Nasrallah in February 2019, however, Hezbollah maintained that if there were a clash between the Shiite “Party of God” and Israel, it would not be necessarily confined to the Syrian-Lebanese or to the Lebanese-Israeli system, but it would immediately involve all the “voluntary” forces of the Arab world.

All the organizations that, in various capacities, are part of the Iranian system between the Lebanon and the Sunni area south of Israel will certainly be used by the “Iranian Revolutionary Guards” to operate against the Jewish State in an integrated way.

The “corridor” line between Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Lebanon -which is the Iranian target in the Syrian war – is the axis along which all future operations against the Jewish State will take place. It is a broad and very difficult front to hold for both sides, namely Israel and Iran.

Hence, in principle, the future scenarios could be the following: a) a conventional war in Northern Lebanon, with the participation of Hezbollah, Iran, the Hamas network already present on the Litani river and some Syrian groups.

Or b) a clash on the Bekaa-Golan border initially focused on the Syrian territory, thus leaving Southern Lebanon free for a possible secondary attack on Israel, at a later stage of operations.

This war against Israel would clearly be waged by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, by the Iranian Pasdaran, Hezbollah, the Shite groups on the Syrian border, as well as Hamas and the Southern Sunni Islamic jihad and, in all likelihood, also by the pro-Syrian groups present along the border of the Palestinian National Authority with the Jewish State.

Finally, there could be c) a “dual war” in the Lebanon and Syria at the same time, with the further and subsequent support of Hamas and Islamic jihad attacks on Israel from the South.

It should also be recalled that the Houthi guerrillas in Yemen are already capable of blocking the Israeli maritime interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and across the Red Sea.  Not to mention the always possible attacks of Iranian missile positions in Iraq towards the Jewish State, thus probably resulting in further attacks on the remaining US units between Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

In this case, only two considerations can be made: Israel’s future war in the Lebanon would certainly be less limited than the operations already carried out from 1978 to 1982 until 2000 (the stabilization of Hezbollah) and the actions of 2006.

We can also add that currently the Iranian, Sunni and Syrian forces will shift – as quickly as possible – from an attack against the Israeli critical infrastructure to a real counterforce occupation on the ground.

However, will the Hezbollah and Iranian centres of gravity, as well as those of the Sunni forces in the Lebanon, be quickly identified by Israel in an upcoming attack?

However, in the future is it not ever more probable to have a wide area of action from the North, which will imply – from the very beginning – Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian positions all along the Syrian border with Israel?

Moreover, what will the Russian Federation do?

Will it want to be hegemonic throughout the Middle East and hence will it reach a sort of agreement with Israel, or will it choose the old strategic posture of acting as defender of the Arab world against the Jewish State?

Where would Russia go with such an old and weak geopolitical perspective?

Whatever happens, the Russian Federation will be the keystone of every operation between Israel, the Lebanon and the Syrian-Iranian axis.

Therefore Russia has only two options: either it steps aside in the future Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli conflict – and hence runs the risk of losing all its power also in Syria – or it chooses to take part in the clashes, possibly indirectly, to favor one party or the other, but only at the right time.

In the future, however, Russia will never do anything to trigger the Syrian fuses again.

Every war operation across Syria runs the risks of undermining above all Russia’s new strategic assets.

In a short time, however, the United States could support the Israeli missile defences. Later Russia could support Iran and Syria only to be consistent and fulfill a commitment made, thus preventing them from using the Russian advanced weapons on Assad’s territory. Furthermore the United States could support Israel, but also an international diplomatic effort that would turn the clash into a short and conventional war, without Israel’s “access to the extremes”, in the customary style in place since 1973.

At that juncture, Israel could choose to systematically weaken the enemy forces, or to divide the opponents, according to the strategy of the Horatii and the Curiatii or of the “distant friend”. Or, as it has already proven it can do, Israel can destabilize Syria and possibly even Iraq on the border of Iraq with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The extent to which Israel can still trust the United States in this operational and strategic choice is largely uncertain, if not unlikely.

If possible, in the future Israel can organize only a cold peace with Russia, thus increasing – however -its possibility to put pressure on the Russian Federation, also at military one.

The first rule for the Jewish State will always be to avoid splitting and fragmenting its forces. Hence it will always primarily need to immediately identify the enemy’s centre of gravity, although complex and resulting from alliances between different strategic aims.

Hence what can Hezbollah alone do in this phase?

The “Party of God” could avoid bringing the clash with Israel to Southern Lebanon, so as to avoid turning its primary assets into relatively easy targets for Israel.

A movement like the Shiite “Party of God”, but without a Lebanese hinterland or a cover area between the Litani river and Beirut, does not stand a chance and is defeated at the outset.

How much would Syria participate in the operations against Israel?

Probably, as much as to be able to decide the political effects of the war on its border with the Lebanon, but never so much as to use up its forces, in view of a destabilization on the Golan region.

Furthermore, how and to what extent would Iran arm the Houthi with a view to stopping the Israeli supplies in the Red Sea?

Is it possible that the Houthi’s primary goal for Iran is precisely to keep Saudi Arabia away from the new war in the Lebanon?

Would Iran better use them solely for putting pressure on Saudi Arabia, especially pending a Shite uprising from Bahrain, so as to later reach the Saudi provinces – with a Shiite majority – of Baharna, al-Qatif and Al- Ahsa, with the powerful and hidden Twelver Shia community of the Nakhawila, who have always lived in Medina?

You cannot do everything at the same time.

Or Iran and Hezbollah could opt for a low-medium intensity “long war” on the Israeli borders.

As far as we can currently know, however, Hezbollah has not yet clear ideas in mind.

This Shite movement is ever more the result of the many tensions within the complex and now fragmented Iranian regime.

According to the most reliable sources, however, the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God” has at least 110,000 missiles and rockets on the border with Israel.

Iran has at least 3,800 of them between the Litani border and the Bekaa-Golan axis.

Nevertheless 80% of these Iranian missiles cannot yet reach the Israeli territory while ensuring operational safety and security.

Apart from those left by Russia – and closely monitored by it – Syria still has few own missiles, all controlled directly from the Moscow’s Centre for the Aerospace Forces.

Obviously, the only potential that Hezbollah can use is currently its missile and military system in Southern Lebanon.

Also Iran closely monitors Southern Lebanon and, as far as we know, it has a dual command chain for the most relevant missiles.

Hence, time is short for a “war between wars” of the Lebanese, Iranian and Syrian Shiites against Israel.

Nevertheless, while the Party of God’s centre of gravity is so evident and small – and Lebanese only – Israel can always attack massively and in a very short time, thus blocking Hezbollah’s response and implicitly threatening any Lebanese Shiite allies.

Hence, for the “Party of God” the problem is also to be ready for an effective war against Israel, but without ever involving the Lebanese territory, which could become a necessary safe haven after the first Israeli salvos.

Therefore, a concrete possibility is that Hezbollah, Iran and a part of Syria create their guerrilla groups along the Bekaa-Golan and Iraq-Lebanon “corridor”, with a view to distributing the efforts against Israel and avoiding the immediate elimination of their centre of gravity by Israel.

There are currently around 20,000 Shiite foreign fighters in Syria, although Iran has always claimed to have called and trained at least 180,000.

Hence an inevitably slow mobilization – an easy goal of interdiction by the Israeli air forces.

However, Hezbollah’s missiles alone are enough to saturate Israeli defenses.

However, despite the recent Iranian support, the salvo quality and accuracy still leaves something to be desired.

Currently the only possibility for Iran and the Shiite Lebanon against Israel is to launch a limited attack and then use diplomacy and the international business and influence networks to contain and curb the strength of Israeli response.

Hence a good possibility for the Jewish State is to exploit or support Iran’s tendency to trigger a non-conventional conflict, but with the obvious possibility that, from the very beginning, the Syrian or Lebanese conflict may expand directly also onto the Iranian territory.

Hence, we could think of a further effort by Israel to “keep the Americans in”, but even the “Russians in” – just to paraphrase what Lord Ismay said about NATO -as well as to move Hezbollah away from the borderline of the Litani river and the Bekaa-Golan axis, well over the 80 kilometers already requested by Israel.

If Russia remains in Syria, as is now certain, it will have no interest in a long war in Syria or in the Lebanon.

Hence, it could slowly separate its forces from the Shiite and Syrian ones, or ban some areas to the Shiite guerrillas that Iran has already called in Syria.

The Israeli military services, however, have already signaled the presence of Iranian forces from the border with Israel to Northern and Eastern Syria, with a strong Syrian-Lebanese and Iranian military pressure that will almost certainly take place around the upcoming Israeli elections of April 9.

Shortly afterwards, Israel shall assess President Trump’s proposal for a definitive peace between Israel and the Palestinian world.

A peace that will change the whole strategic formula of the Greater Middle East.

Hence, it is not hard to foresee that the Gaza Strip will become an area of overt and full-blown war, put in place by Palestinians and their Iranian supporters.

Over the last few days, major incidents have already occurred at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Therefore the electoral tension in Israel will be a further trigger of very strong and future political-military actions in the North and in the South.

At the Northern border, between Bekaa and Golan, there will be further tensions that will lead to actions by Shiite guerrilla organizations on the Israeli territory.

Both Hezbollah and the Al Qods Brigades of the “Iranian Revolutionary Guards” will choose the right time to hit the Jewish State with their missiles, obviously when the tension towards the Gaza Strip reaches its peak.

Or – but it is not an alternative option – along the border between the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Israel.

There is nothing to prevent the Shiite organizations from using Russian positions as shields, which will obviously never participate in the operations of their Syrian-Iranian or Lebanese allies against Israel.

During the Israeli electoral period, the Palestinian jihadist organizations will operate especially between Judea and Samaria. They will possibly be even supported by the Russian Federation, which still plays the card of Palestinian unity both to compete with Iran and to organize the support for Russia by the Sunni world.

Nevertheless, nothing prevents us from thinking that Russia also has some political “champion” within the Israeli electoral campaign.

Not surprisingly, the first Conference for Palestinian Unity began in Warsaw on February 13, with as many as 60 countries invited and the initial proposal for mediation by the United States.

Nevertheless, precisely on February 11-13, a new inter-Palestinian Conference was organized in Moscow, with the participation of Hamas and other groups of the Sunni jihad.

What does Russia want to obtain from these operations?

Firstly, Russia wants to avoid a new Iranian hegemony in this region that Russia has always nurtured.

For obvious purposes, which have little changed since the end of the Cold War.

Secondly, the Russian Federation wants to win the geopolitical support of this unified Palestinian region, with a view to becoming the real broker of a new Middle East peace, thus ousting both the United States and the much sillier “mediators” of the unaware and now comical Union European.

Hence, the Russian Federation’s bet is a minimax, as we would say in mathematical terms: to reach the primary goal, that is the Russian hegemony over the whole Middle East, with the minimum effort, i.e. the systematic negotiation with all actors.

In all likelihood, Russia will ask the Jewish State to reduce the military pressure eastwards and southwards, but only to replace it with its own future “deterrence force” at the edges of the various borders.

Obviously, by using all Russia’s allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will discuss these issues in his upcoming meetings with President Putin in Moscow on February 21.

However, Syria and Iran will certainly not be the only topics of the bilateral talks with President Putin.

Hence, as already said, the Iranian and the Lebanese Shiite forces, the proxies of the Shiite guerrillas that Iran has called in Syria, the Iranian special forces and those of Bashar al-Assad are moving away from the border with Israel to gather in Northern and Eastern Syria, up to the border with Iraq.

This is really bad news for the Israeli decision-makers.

Currently Iran – with its “revolutionary” groups called from Afghanistan, Iraq and even Pakistan – but also the Hezbollah and the Pasdaran special units, are quickly moving away from the Golan region and -hence – become hard to be attacked by the Israeli forces.

This obviously happens because of the USA leaving its positions – a withdrawal that Iran wants to capitalize quickly and fully, thus removing forces from Syria and, hence, reaching full strategic depth in Iraq, a country from which Iranian missiles can still reach the Israeli territory.

Iran’s plan is therefore to leave the various militias, its Shiite proxies and a part of Hezbollah on the Syrian-Israeli border, as if they were various buffer areas, so as to later protect itself permanently from the Israeli attacks and anyway make it hard for the Israeli forces to control Northern Israel militarily.

Said forces could not control remote operations, if not when it is too late.

Hence, Israel is currently the primary target of the missiles owned by the Palestinian jihad, both in the South and in the East, as well as of the Iranian and Shiite forces in Iraq, of Hezbollah in the north and of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Not to mention the Iraqi networks of Iran and part of its Shiite proxies.

It will be a war on several fronts and with centers of gravity other than the usual ones.

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Middle East

Iran: How to Avoid a War

Rahul D. Manchanda, Esq.

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Upon closer inspection, it appears that the Islamic Republic of Iran has a relative near dearth of human rights organizations operating freely within that country.

Although Iran has apparently allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations, as all as some foreign nations to inspect from time to time its weapons facilities and nuclear power apparati, there does not seem to be a corresponding level of interest generated both externally or internally in investigating the various human rights complaints and abuses within Iran.

To be sure, this is the ultimate Achilles Heel of Iran – and a massive glaring fact that Western powers such as the United States, Israel, and other nations seize on to justify bombing the current government of Iran into oblivion.

On a more sick and hypocritical level the fact that Gulf States nations such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also constantly issue clarion calls for regime change or war with Iran, when they themselves host numerous and countless violations of human rights against women, minorities, religious organizations, and “heretics,” still this only underscores the geopolitical reasons that these aggressive nations want to change or destroy the current Iranian regime.

In order to both diffuse and defray these attacks, Iran has no other real choice other than to augment and increase their internal human rights organizations to both monitor as well as organically implement change in their country, subject to the will of their governed people.

By doing so, Iran could effectively accomplish 2 goals: (1) maintain their current government with relative stability; and (2) organically grow and develop to adequately and accurately transform their government into one that faithfully represents the interests and aspirations of its people, rather than appearing to subjugate and suppress them.

To be sure, Iran would be giving up some of its internal and external sovereignty by allowing more human rights monitoring agencies to actively police and report on its internal human rights conflicts and complaints, but it would go miles towards placating its enemies, removing their arguments for regime change/outright disastrous war, and would also allow for Iran to approach modernity with the rest of the world, rather than being trapped in a society/culture which really has nothing in common with the rest of the civilized world, any more.

In a similar vein, if the Iranian regime is truly serious about joining the league of modern nations, then they should not be afraid or closed off with regards to implementing this.

A nation must be confident in itself, its government, and its own culture, but should also evolve and reflect global change as it presents itself by and for the will of its people, not repressing them as such.

Iran has apparently had a troubling history with appointing human rights organizations in the past, as is reflected by its handling and treatment of the Human Rights Activists in Iran (also known as “HRAI” and “HRA”) which is a non-political non-governmental organization composed of advocates who defend human rights in Iran, which was founded in 2006.

This HRAI organization supposedly was set up to keep the Iranian community and the world informed by monitoring human rights violations in the country and disseminating the news about such abuses.

Additionally, HRAI was allegedly enacted to strive to improve the current state of affairs in a peaceful manner and support strict adherence to human rights principles.

However, the Islamic Republic of Iran has apparently moved to both dismantle and arrest many of the organization’s leaders and representatives, beginning in 2010.

Specifically, on March 2, 2010, the government of Iran moved to break up HRAI.

During the subsequent reconstruction of the organization, the organization apparently registered as a United States non-profit organization and was invited to attend the annual NGO Conference sponsored by the United Nations.

While the Iranian government may have a reason to distrust the impetus/motivations of the United States, Israel and the Gulf States, it really has no reason to distrust the United Nations, which has historically been its only real honest broker/ally.

Adding insult to injury, the HRAI has also been invited to join the World Movement for Democracy and to participate in the human rights events sponsored by the governments of Canada, the United States and the European Union.

The Islamic Republic of Iran can not (and should not) avoid this issue any further.

Merely parroting the mantra that “Saudi Arabia engages in more (or less) human rights abuses” is no longer adequate to stave off and prevent the war drum that is heading Iran’s way.

There are simply too many financial, oil and gas, military industrial complex, geopolitical, and human rights reasons and powers fixated on either regime change or outright war with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

If Iran is truly a confident nation that values it past history and desired future, it must drastically increase and augment its human rights organizations (to get on par with the United States, Europe, and Israel) and move forward to finally embrace its place in the sun as its leaders supposedly state that they want.

If not, then it deserves exactly what it is probably going to get, more war, destabilization, destruction, disorientation, and disarray, similar to what happened to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other nations with closed door human rights policies.

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Middle East

The new strategic axis between the Russian Federation and Iran

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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On February 11 last the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, arrived in Beirut, shortly after the establishment of a new Lebanese government that, although led by an old friend of Westerners, namely Hariri, is certainly one of the recent governments closest to Hezbollah.

Minister Javad Zarif offered the Iranian support to the new government – “support in all sectors”.

Besides the Foreign Minister, the Iranian delegation was composed of a select group of 30 Iranian businessmen, who met Lebanese and Palestinian businessmen.

It is the first sign of an Iranian “grip on the Lebanon” by the Shiite Republic of Iran, which will lead to many strategic, geopolitical and economic changes.

It is obvious that, at the end of clashes in Syria, Iran wants to secure a stable centre of power in the Mediterranean region, in close contact with Israel and towards the East Mediterranean gas area which – as often noted – will be very important in the future.

Nor should we forget that Zarif’s visit was scheduled precisely on the day of the 40thanniversary of Imam Khomeini’s Shite revolution – a political symbol which should certainly not be overlooked in a country with a large Shite population.

Same religion, same political leadership – this seems to be the meaning of this careful choice and coordination of dates.

Hence both Russia and Iranthink that the new stability in the Syria led by Bashar al-Assad is based above all in the Lebanon.

Both Russia and Iran, however, have indicated – at least indirectly in the case of Russia – Hezbollah, in particular, as their primary point of reference in the Lebanon.

For the Russian Ambassador to Beirut, currently only the United States can trigger a conflict with Iran, given its regional policy.

As to the probable future conflict between Israel and the Lebanon, Ambassador Zasypkyn believes that the situation is much more unstable and even more controllable.

In other words, Russia still relies on its power of political and military deterrence in Syria to avoid a clash between Hezbollah and Israel – a war that would put a strain on both its new hegemony in the Middle East and stability in Syria.

Just one day before Zarif’s visit to the Lebanon, the Russian envoy to Jerusalem had reassured the Israeli government that Hezbollah was a “stability force” throughout the region.

Probably Russia cannot yet do without Iran, both in Syria and in the Lebanon, and accepts – like it or not – that the primary link in the Lebanon is between the “Party of God” and the new government led by Hariri.

But how long can it last?

If Hezbollah decided to exert new pressure on Israel, Russia could quickly lose its grip on Southern Syria and miss its primary goal of becoming the rotating platform of the Greater Middle East.

Inter alia, the signals coming from the Lebanese Shiite military group are very clear: on February 7 last, Hassan Nasrallah openly called for the rearming of Lebanese forces (obviously) only by Iran and later made it clear that, in a possible US future attack to support Israel, Hezbollah would immediately fight on the Iranian side.

Nasrallah also asked to make the new Iranian “advanced” missiles available to the Lebanon, as well as sensor systems and tactical and signals intelligence.

It is therefore the request for a real strategic parity between Southern Lebanon and Israel.

This means that the Lebanese Shiites’ aim is to eliminate all kind of US interference in the region and later put pressure – not just at military level – on the Jewish State that, without the US support, would be forced to accept a downward and uncertain peace.

This is the first goal of both Iran and Hezbollah, but certainly not of the Russian Federation.

Nevertheless, in his Lebanese meetings, Javad Zarif – who implicitly accepted Hezbollah’s request for help – also made it clear that Bavar 373 – a missile launching and air defence system very similar to the Russian S-300 – was ready for the forces of the “Party of God”, but also for the Lebanese regular army.

“Bavar” means “belief”, albeit in a strictly religious sense, while the number 373 reminds of the soldiers belonging to the final ranks of the Twelfth Imam.

Iran is full of political symbols that must always be taken into account.

Bavar 373 is a well-copied surface-to-air missile system – probably from the Russian S-300 system that appeared in Iran for the first time in 2015.

The system uses the Iran-made missile called Sayyad-4 having a range of 150 kilometres. It also uses advanced radars that – as the analysts who saw Bavar 373 at work maintain – can saturate at least sixty targets at the same time.

It is therefore obvious to imagine what will immediately happen: sooner or later Israel will have the opportunity of destroying the Iranian networks in the Lebanon with a surgical operation. In all likelihood, however, Hariri’s government will refuse Iran’s offer, thus allowing Russian weapons and, above all, the S-300 missiles to arrive in the Lebanon.

It should be recalled that the S-300 missiles will be carefully monitored both from the Russian bases in Syria, which will never be abandoned by Russia, and simultaneously from the Russian missile site.

Obviously Iran does not object to the transfer of Russian weapons to the Lebanon. Quite the reverse.

Furthermore, the Shite regime will soon maintain that, since the United States still arm and train the Kurds against the so-called Caliphate, it also regularly and lawfully arms their Hezbollah units against the same enemy, and with equivalent devices and systems.

Hence Iran’s and Russia’s primary goal is the total expulsion of the United States from Syria and from the Lebanese and Israeli Mediterranean coast.

Once completed this operation, Russia will ask Israel for a new deployment of its potentials against Hezbollah and the Palestinian jihad forces, which are also in Iran’s calculations.

And possibly, in the future, in Russia’s calculations.

However, as far as we currently know, the final US withdrawal from Syria should be completed by the end of April.

But, again, what is the reason underlying this new Russian interest in the “Party of God”?

It is already clear that Russia does not want to remain alone in Syria.

The Russian Federation, however, does not even want Iran to undermine its regional hegemony, since it believes that everything Iran can ask is the stability of its “corridor” from Iraq to the Lebanon, but only under Russia’s control.

Hence taking Hezbollah away from Iran’s hands is vital for the Russian Federation, which desperately needs strategic buffers to control Syria by isolating Iran’s primary instrument, namely Hezbollah.

As already seen, also on February 11 last, in its talks with Netanyahu’s government, Russia maintained that “Hezbollah was a peace force”.

This also makes us understand that President Putin has no interest in stopping the Israeli operations against the tunnels of the Shiite military organization.

Again, for Russia, the possible conflict between Israel and Lebanon can only break out because of the United States, considering that Hezbollah supported only the lawful government of Damascus, unlike what the United States did since the beginning of hostilities.

Hence Russia believes that the United States should tone down its attacks on Iran, with a view to reducing the Shiite Republic’s pressure on Hezbollah and the current Lebanese government.

Is this hypothesis reasonable? Both yes and no.

Certainly, if the United States wants a prolonged war (this is the sense that Iran attributes to the US statements), the most likely reaction will be an Iranian attack that will set fire to the whole “corridor” and destabilize the Golan region.

Nevertheless, is it not equally probable that the US Presidency’s brags were just a strategic “trial balloon” and boasts for internal use?

As is currently probable, it is precisely Russia that wants the “Party of God” shift from a clear Iranian dominance to a stable (and hegemonic) Russian protection.

If this happened, Russia would avoid paying too high a Syrian price to Iran. It would also have a military organization at its disposal that could well secure the East Mediterranean region and keep – again on Russia’s behalf – peace and stability of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whose Armed Forces it never liked much.

Three important considerations shall be made in this respect: the S-300 operating systems that Russia has left in Syria since last October are not yet operational.

This means that Russia has not yet decided what to do with them in Syria.

Furthermore, Iran has not yet completed the factory and has not yet started the production of “advanced” missiles on the Syrian territory.

It was, in fact, mere psyops to show to Israel and the USA a greater development stage than the real one and to underline the impending  danger of an Israeli attack.

Finally, Iran has not yet accepted the pressing Russian request to quickly move the centralized command of its forces in Syria, which operates from the Damascus International Airport area.

All Iranians are still there and they will stay there for a long time.

Therefore, in essence, Russia believes that all these post-truths are the result of an American and Israeli psywar operation, designed to clearly separate the Iranian, Russian and Lebanese interests and hence rebuild a security network in Syria and in the Lebanon.

Precisely in response to said alleged psyops, Russia is currently trying to place the whole “Party of God” movement under its wing, at a time when it knows very well that the Iranian support for Hezbollah is weak and economically unpredictable.

Hence a new Hezbollah, which would act as a watchdog in Syria and ensure the security of the coasts south of Latakia and Tartus. It would also enable Russia to have access to the wide universe of Sunni and Shite “resistance” movements opposing the Israeli expansion.

Russia wants a stable Israel, but small and less powerful than it currently is.

We have already seen important signs of this operation during the Sochi meeting between Putin, Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani held on February 14 last.

On that occasion President Putin clearly reaffirmed his support for Hezbollah, i.e. his “grip on the group”, and the possible use of this new protection for both Turkey and obviously Iran.

Probably Russia knows that Iran can no longer afford to support the very expensive “Party of God”, as well as the whole jihadist network south of Israel.

According to Russian plans, however, Iran and Turkey will never be able to use the new arrangement of the “Party of God” on their own.

In addition, Rosneft has already penetrated the complex and largely autonomous Lebanese natural gas market which, as already noted, has left the sphere of the Cairo Conference.

A twenty-year agreement between the Russian natural gas giant and the Lebanese government is already in place for a storage site in Tripoli.

As soon as the USA leaves the Middle East, Russia will immediately occupy the oil and gas sites and positions.

But it will do so on its own, without parallel agreements with Syria or Iran.

Moreover, from now on, the Lebanon explicitly wants Russia to manage the relations between the Lebanon and Syria that, as is well-known, have never been particularly peaceful.

The variable of the Lebanese real independence from Syria is the central point of Russia’s current posture and, hence, of its specific focus on Hezbollah.

The one billion US dollar agreement of military transfers from Russia to the Lebanon, which has been much discussed in Western capitals, is a first sign showing that Russia does not want Iran in the Lebanon, but can accept it among the other secondary players, above all in Syria.

The Russian-Lebanese trade has risen from 423 million in 2016 to the current 800 million, with a market dominated by Russian energy transfers to the Lebanese market.

In all likelihood, in the future Russia will support Hezbollah’s request that the Israeli deep-sea Leviathan gas field illegally acquires some of the resources of the Lebanese gas fields.

The threat is clear: if Russia fully supported the Lebanese requests, there would be the possibility of a beginning of hostilities between the “Party of God” and Israel. At the end of a short, but harsh confrontation, said hostilities would be mediated exactly by the Russian Federation.

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