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Behind the Lines: Israel-Syria border escalation

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This week’s events on the Israel-Syrian border are testimony to the extent to which the effective disintegration of the Syrian state is producing a new security reality in the North.

Once, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime sought to conduct its business via Israel’s border with Lebanon. The Syrians would seek to place pressure on Israel by supporting paramilitary proxies in Lebanon, which would launch attacks on Israeli forces and communities.

The precise reversal of this situation now appears to be the reality.At the same time, the direct Syria-Israel line would be kept silent, out of fear of Israeli retribution.

On the assumption of Hezbollah responsibility for the attacks, which at present appears the most likely explanation, the movement is using the Syria-Israel border as a site for attacks on Israeli forces.

For both political and military reasons, meanwhile, it prefers to keep the Israel-Lebanon frontier quiet.

Hezbollah played a major part in the notable military successes enjoyed by the regime recently – culminating in the capture of the town of Yabrud this week. Yet the Shi’ite Islamist movement is not currently in great shape.

It has suffered a major loss to its standing in Lebanon, because of its involvement in the fighting in Syria.

Its attempt to portray itself as a pan-Islamic, anti-Israel force rather than a sectarian Shi’ite militia is now severely tarnished. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of Lebanese now view the organization unfavorably.

Sunni Lebanese are growing increasingly unwilling to accept Hezbollah’s de facto domination of Lebanon. In Tripoli and in Sidon, support among young Sunnis for the Syrian rebels and for Salafi jihadi politics is rapidly increasing.

And there are around a million new Sunnis in Lebanon – refugees from the fighting in Syria, whose attitudes toward Assad’s Hezbollah allies can be guessed at.

The growth of Sunni Islamist violence in Lebanon means that Hezbollah can no longer guarantee the safety of its own Shi’ite community. A string of bomb attacks in the movement’s Dahiye quarter in south Beirut has led to a depletion of the area population.

Some Shi’ite Lebanese now prefer the relative security of their south Lebanon villages close to the Israeli border to remaining in Beirut.

For all these reasons, Hezbollah is evidently keen to avoid using Lebanese soil as the launchpad for renewed strikes on Israel.

In addition, Hezbollah’s Iranian patrons are also likely to oppose any provocation emanating from south Lebanon. Tehran has invested enormously in replenishing and increasing Hezbollah’s missile capabilities (to 100,000 projectiles, we are told) since the 2006 war. This capability is there to serve Iran’s strategic aims; it is not to be placed at risk for tactical purposes.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah had a clear motive for striking at Israel – in response to ongoing Israeli moves to interdict the movement’s attempts to transport sophisticated weapons systems from Syria to Lebanon.

The February 24 raid on Janta in the eastern Bekaa was particularly likely to generate a response from the movement, because it took place a few kilometers onto Lebanese soil.

This is the most likely explanation for the recent string of attacks. Hezbollah’s apparent attempts at retribution, however, are cautious to the extreme.

They are taking place from Syrian soil, not Lebanese. And they are not accompanied by a claim of responsibility. Indeed, the roadside bomb placed in the Har Dov area on March 14 was accompanied by a false claim of responsibility, which some media outlets unwittingly broadcast.

This claim, supposedly from the Sunni jihadi Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) group, did not emanate from or appear on any of the sites or accounts officially associated with that organization, according to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who tracks the activities of ISIS and other jihadi groups.

ISIS, in any case, has no history of activity in south Lebanon, no presence in southern Syria, and probably would not have the ability to avoid both Hezbollah and IDF surveillance in order to operate in Har Dov.

Israel’s response to the additional explosive device placed on the border on March 18, which injured four IDF soldiers, was of a scale and magnitude without precedent since the beginning of the civil war in Syria.

For the first time, major facilities of the Syrian Arab Army were targeted. These included, according to the IDF’s statement, “a training facility, military headquarters and artillery batteries.”

Clearly, Israeli defense planners have concluded that forces on the opposite side were attempting to change the rules of engagement.

Israel’s response – in a manner familiar on the Lebanese border in the past and in Gaza more recently – is intended to raise the price of increased aggression to a level sufficient to cause the other side to desist from further provocations, without leading to a general deterioration into armed conflict.

For many years prior to 2006, Israel’s border with Lebanon was managed in such a fashion – first against the PLO, then from the early ’90s, against Hezbollah. Periodic provocations would result in “rounds” of violence, which would be followed by tense periods of subsequent silence.

It appears likely that the border between Israel and Syria is now set to take on these characteristics, after a long period in which only the conventional armies of Israel and Syria faced one another across the border, and paramilitary activity was outside the rules of the game.

This is testimony to how much the balance of power in relations between elements of the Iran-led regional bloc has changed. Hezbollah has played a central role in aiding Assad’s recovery. It is now evidently able to demand a return of the favor.

Israel, meanwhile, is facing a complex new reality in the North. While the claim of ISIS responsibility this time was almost certainly false, there are al-Qaida type elements among the Syrian rebels and their Lebanese supporters who seek to reach the border and commence action against the Jewish state.

Fighting against these elements are the Shi’ite jihadis of Hezbollah, and various other components of Iran’s regional bloc.

The task facing Israel at present is to neutralize or deter both of these warring forces, while at the same time avoiding if possible being drawn into a direct, unlimited conflict with either. It remains to be seen whether this week’s response will be sufficient to bring the current “round” to a conclusion, or whether Hezbollah and Assad’s army will seek a further exchange of fire.

At present, the former looks most likely. But with the Syrian state in ruins, al-Qaida- associated jihadis trying to reach the border, and the power balance between Assad and Hezbollah severely shifted, a new reality in the North has been born.

The Israel-Syria border is now an active conflict zone once more.

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Climate change: UAE and Russia eye geopolitical and commercial mileage

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Climate change, much like war, could prove to be a geopolitical and commercial gold mine. At least, that is the take of DP World, Dubai’s global port operator, and Russia’s sovereign wealth fund.

DP World is partnering with the fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) to create an all-year round maritime sea route from Europe to Asia through the Arctic.

“Time is money in business and the route could cut travel time substantially more than traditional trade arteries for cargo owners in the Far East wanting to connect with Europe, coupled with benefits to the Russian economy,” DP World chairman and CEO Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem told the Arab News.

In partnering with DP World, RFID brings to the table Rosatom, Russia’s atomic energy agency, which operates nuclear-powered ships that could ply the route, and Norilsk Nickel, a mining and commodities company.

Dubai and Russia are betting that climate change, which has dramatically shrunk the Arctic ice sheet in the past two decades, has made possible what eluded Europeans for centuries: ensuring that the Northeast Passage linking the Northern Atlantic with the Pacific is accessible all year round even if rail remains faster than carrying cargo by ship.

The commercial and geopolitical implications of all year-round passage are significant.

Beyond challenging the status of the Suez Canal as the foremost link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Artic route would grant Russia the one thing it has so far failed to achieve in its partnership with China: a key role in the transportation linkages between Europe and Asia that the People’s Republic is seeking to create with massive investment in its Belt and Road initiative.

That role would be bolstered by the fact that the Arctic route would cut the maritime journey from Northeast Asia from somewhere between 34 and 45 days through the Suez Canal to 23 days via the Northeast Passage.

“Because of global warming, there are some things happening that open some opportunities. Russia has this frozen coast all of the seasons. Now it’s opening up and it’s possible to navigate for nine months. When you have special ships, you can actually have 12 months navigation,” RFID CEO Kirill Dmitriev told the Saudi paper.

The partnership with Dubai gives a new laese on life to Russian aspirations to become a key node in Belt and Road linkages after Russia failed to persuade China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEC) to invest in converting the Trans-Siberian Railway into a high-speed link that would connect St. Petersburg with the Far East.

CREEC  last year definitively dashed Russian hopes, declaring that the “the high-speed rail through Russia will never pay off.

In a further setback, China simultaneously opted for an east-west road link through Kazakhstan after efforts to complete a Moscow-St. Petersburg highway as well as a ring road around the Russian capital and a Volga-Kazakhstan road stalled.

Frustrated with the lack of Chinese interest, state-run Russian Railways is itself investing heavily and reaching out to Japan to significantly increase freight traffic on the almost 9,300-kilometre-long trans-Siberian route.

The rail company aims to increase by a factor of 100 the number of containers transported from Japan to Europe from 3.000 last year to 300,000 and tonnage by 50 percent from less than 90 million to 180 million, according to Russian Railways first vice president Alexander Misharin.

Mr. Misharin told Nikkei that the investment, including US$745 million last year, involves laying double tracks, linking the railroad to seaports and automating the system.

Mr. Misharin was hoping to cooperate with Japan Railways Group to create a door-to-door cargo transportation system between Japan and Europe that would reduce transportation time to at most 19 days. He said the Russian rail company was looking at building logistics centres with Japanese trading firm Sojitz.

Upgrading the Trans-Siberian Railway would significantly bolster Russia’s geography as a key bridge in the emergence of Eurasia, the gradual integration of Europe and Asia that ultimately would erase the seemingly artificial division of one landmass into two continents.

It would also significantly facilitate linking the railway to the Belt and Road by making it financially feasible.

That is less far-fetched with China Railway International Group lending Russia US$6.2 billion for the construction of a 790-kilometre long Moscow-Kazan high speed rail line, envisioned as the first phase of a link between the Russian capital and Beijing that would cut travel between the two cities to two days.

To secure the loan, Russia agreed to use Chinese technology and construction equipment.

Russia has also expressed interest in linking its Trans-Siberian Railway to the Chinese-controlled Pakistani port of Gwadar, a Belt and Road crown jewel.

Russia is betting that the combination of the Northeast Passage and upgraded Trans-Siberian rail links would make its positioning as a transit hub significantly more attractive.

That is true even though the Northeast Passage is too shallow for giant box ships that traverse the Suez Canal and lacks the kind of ports capable of accommodating those vessels. The Passage is likely to see primarily smaller container ships.

One way or the other, DP World, expecting to operate ports that Russia plans to build along an Arctic route, would emerge a winner by expanding its global footprint. “We were always missing Russia. Russia is a link,” DP World’s Mr. Sulayem said.

Said Russian shipping giant Sovcomflot CEO Sergey Frank: “Trade is growing and there is space for everybody. If the cargo originates in the south part of China, it will go through the Suez. If it originates in Northern China, the NSR (Northern Sea Route) will be seriously considered. Cargo will always find the fastest way to move.”

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Iran-US Tensions Are Unlikely to Spill into War

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To the south of Georgia trouble is brewing as Iran and the US (and its allies) are almost openly engaged in a military competition around the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

True, Georgia does not share a border with Iran, but its close economic and cultural relations with Tehran might be further endangered. It is unlikely that the US will tolerate Georgia’s neutral position in a potential conflict between the two states. Therefore, the Georgian government will find itself in a difficult position but will most likely act according to wider US interests in the South Caucasus. Even if a military conflict does not ensue (as explained below), Georgian-Iranian relations will take a hit.

The US recently announced plans to set up a multinational military coalition to protect the waters around Iran and Yemen, particularly commercial routes where about $554 billion worth of trade, mainly oil and gas, passes through the Straits of Hormuz each year. The military confrontation between Iran and the US could cause disruption, costing the biggest trader, Saudi Arabia, $3.5 billion a week, but also negatively impacting many Asian shippers.

This comes on top of what happened last month when Iran came close to war with the US after Tehran’s unprecedented decision to shoot-down a US drone with a surface-to-air missile. Back then, the US officials, including President Donald Trump, said that this could trigger retaliatory strikes. According to various sources, Trump green-lighted a limited air-strike against Iran’s surface military capabilities but cancelled the decision some minutes later when fighters were in the air.

The root of Iranian-American tensions lies in the differences regarding Tehran’s nuclear program. Washington abandoned the nuclear agreement the world powers reached in 2015 and Iran recently announced it has reached a high level of uranium production.

The tensions, as said above, induced the US and its allies, primarily in the Persian Gulf, to create a coalition. This is a very good example of what kind of future naval coalitions the US will be able to muster to prevent a certain group of countries from controlling vital economic choke points such as the Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Malacca in Asia. But this also raised an alarm among politicians and the world’s analytical community that we might see a military confrontation between the US (and its allies) and Iran. First, it should be emphasized that Iranians understand well that a military confrontation would be deadly for the country’s economy, leading to potential unrest in various regions. Second, a military confrontation with the US is simply beyond the Iranian resource base. However, it is also true that the US does not want to engage Iran as the latter is a completely different story from what the American forces did during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And it is not about Iran’s far superior military capabilities than those of Iraq: the major difference lies in geographic factors.

A look at the map shows that Iran’s major population centers are surrounded by almost impregnable mountains and deserts as well as water barriers. In the west and northwest are the Zagros Mountains, which bar Iran from Iraq. In the north, the Elburz Mountains as well as Armenia’s mountainous lands serve as a defensive shield. The Caspian Sea to the north and the Arabian Sea to the south are yet more impregnable barriers. To the east and northeast lie the harsh climate of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Turkmenistan’s semi-barren steppe-lands keep Iran’s provinces more or less safe (barring occasional attacks by nomadic peoples).

The fact of being both geographically contained and geographically defended has defined the Iranian grand strategy from the ancient Persian empires to modern Iran. The country’s mountains and deserts have made it almost impossible to conquer and then keep under control. Consider, for example, several of history’s greatest conquerors. The Mongols and, later Tamerlane successfully invaded the Iranian plateau, but to keep it, they either had to deploy tens of thousands of troops (which they were unable to do) or co-opt the local population (which they did) by allowing them to participate in the country’s governance. The same goes for Alexander the Great, Iran’s most successful conqueror. Following his conquest of the land, he co-opted the local elites to hold onto the state – and after he died, Iran quickly regained its independence.

Iran and the US want to avoid a direct military clash, but also do not want to lose their face among their respective allies. Still, the attempts to diminish tensions between the two powers become less and less effective as Iran grows its nuclear-related capabilities and the US sees less and less room to entice Tehran into a mutually beneficial understanding.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

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Algerian soccer success is a double-edged sword

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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It took Algeria barely two weeks to charge Algerian soccer fan Samir Sardouk and sentence him to a year in jail for harming the national interests of his country.

Mr. Sardouk was convicted for shouting “There is no God but Allah, and they will come down” during the African Cup of Nation’s opening match in the Egyptian capital of Cairo on June 21.

Four other Algerians were given six-month suspended sentences for lighting firecrackers in the stadium.

Mr. Sardouk’s slogan referred to demands put forward in months of mass anti-government protests that all those associated of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s long-standing president who was toppled in April, be removed from office.

Mr. Sardouk’s sentencing casts a shadow over the Algerian squad’s achievement in reaching the African Cup final for the first time in 29 years after defeating Nigeria.

Together with celebrations of Algeria’s earlier qualification for the African Cup’s semi-finals after defeating Ivory Coast, it demonstrates the risk for autocrats and illiberals who use sports in general and soccer in particular to project their country in a different light internationally and polish their tarnished images by associating themselves with something that evokes the kind of deep-seated passions akin to the power of religion.

If celebrations of Algeria’s semi-final qualification and subsequent victory over Nigeria are anything to go by, an Algerian triumph in the finals, like past soccer victories in countries like Egypt and Iran, are likely to inspire rather than distract anti-government protesters.

Algerians fans in France took to the streets in Paris, Marseille and Lyon within hours of Algeria reaching the final. Their celebrations were mired by violence.

Similarly, the semi-finals celebrations spilled over into mass anti-government protests despite a huge police presence on the streets of Algiers and Paris added to the significance of Mr. Sardouk’s conviction. The protesters demanded a “civilian, not a military state”

Algerian police reportedly detained a dozen demonstrators. “There is a clear desire to prevent peaceful marches in Algiers, the deployed security device says it all.” tweeted Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH).

African Cup-related Algerian fan violence precedes the 2019 tournament. A massive brawl between players and fans mired a 2014 Libya-Algeria African Cup qualifier.

Violence associated with this year’s tournament was nonetheless minimal when put into the context of violence in Algeria having become a norm prior to this year’s revolt and the fact that the uprising has been largely peaceful.

The apparent shift away from violence is all the more remarkable given Algerian psychologist Mahmoud Boudarene’s assessment in 2014, a time of multiple soccer-related incidents.

“Violence in Algeria has become ordinary and banal. Hogra, the word Algerians use for the government’s perceived contempt for ordinary citizens, has planted a sickness in Algerian society. People feel that the only way to get anything done is to have connections or threaten the peace. It is a system where hogra and social injustice rule. Social violence has become the preferred mode of communication between the citizen and the republic — today in our country everything is obtained through a riot,” Mr. Boudarene told the Associated Press at the time.

This year’s popular revolt, inspired by lessons learnt from the 2011 popular Arab revolts, has emboldened protesters and given them a sense of confidence that is likely to ensure that potential African Cup final celebrations-turned-protest remain largely peaceful.

With Algeria having qualified for the final, the Algerian defence ministry, despite the police posturing, was preparing six military planes to fly 600 fans to Egypt for the African Cup final.

The gesture underlined soccer’s political importance and constituted an attempt by the military to align itself with the Algerian squad’s success.

The significance of soccer makes Mr. Sardouk’s sentencing all the more remarkable despite the assertion that his slogan mired Algeria’s march towards soccer victory.

For starters, it sought to draw a dividing line between national honour and protest in a country where a majority are likely to be soccer fans.

He was convicted at a time that Algeria has been wracked by protests since February in support of political reforms that would dismantle the country’s long-standing, military-dominated regime with a more transparent and accountable government.

The conviction is also noteworthy because Mr. Sardouk’s protest, coupled with acts of defiance by militant Egyptian soccer fans, threatened to turn the African tournament into a venue for the expression of dissent from across the Middle East and North Africa, a region populated by autocratic, repressive regimes and wracked by repeated explosions of poplar anger.

Finally, the sentencing was striking because it violated the spirit of both the military’s effort to retain a measure of control by co-opting the protests and a long-standing understanding with militant soccer fans that preceded the recent demonstrations that allowed supporters to protest as long as they restricted themselves to the confines of the stadium.

The Algerian military’s attempt to curtail fans and co-opt the revolt bumps up against the fact that the protesters, like their counterparts in Sudan, Morocco, Pakistan and Russia, have sought to avoid the risks of the military seeking to implement a Saudi-United Arab Emirates template to blunt or squash the protests.

The core lesson protesters learnt is that the protests’ success depends to a large extent on demonstrators’ willingness and ability to sustain their protests even if security forces turn violent. An Algeria that emerges from the African Cup final as the continent’s champion would give the protesters a significant boost.

It also constitutes an opportunity to ensure that Algeria does not revert to an environment in which violence is seen as the only way to achieve results.

Said a former senior Algerian intelligence official: “We will return to violence if there is no real democratic transition. The African Cup doesn’t fundamentally change that but does offer a window of opportunity.”

Author’s note: This story first appeared on Africa is a Country

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