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Hezbollah and the war in Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he war in Syria against Assad’s Alawites and his post-Baathist State began with the people’s uprising of March-April 2011. Mass demonstrations in the traditional Sunni areas of Hama and Homs, to which the pro-government organizations responded with rallies supporting Bashar al-Assad and his regime.

It was the usual pattern of the Arab Springs: civil unrest, mass and non-violent uprising, to which the regime was bound to react violently, thus leading to radicalization in which the jihad “foreign legion” set in.

This should happen after the old Rais leaving and after the international organizations certifying it is a “democratic fight”.

Gaddafi’s fall was triggered off by a small revolt of some prisoners’ relatives in Benghazi.

Later the Libyan militants of the “League for Human Rights” came – of whom there was no trace before – and shortly after a submarine of the French Navy arrived, bringing weapons and trainers.

Again in 2011, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, also the sister of Al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, participated in the demonstrations, while the team of stewards for controlling the crowd in those more or less spontaneous demonstrations was provided by the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the time, one of the books recommended by the Ikhwan of the Muslim Brotherhood was exactly “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” by Gene Sharp, the founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, a real handbook for organising non-military and non-violent subversion.

That text and that technique had already been found in the techniques used by the OTPOR network in Serbia, a group opposing Milosevic’s regime.

OTPOR was a group of young people trained in the US Diplomatic Mission to Budapest, Hungary.

In fact, after the crisis of the Syrian regime following the 2011 events, the barbed wire was removed from the sensitive borders and Sunni jihadists began to arrive in Syria from Jordan and Turkey, who immediately settled on the border between Syria and the Lebanon – or better between Al Qusayr and the Ghouta region – to seal and hold Damascus as if in a vice.

It is also worth recalling that, even before rising to power, Bashar al-Assad was directly responsible for the Lebanese dossier and, hence, for the close and direct relations between the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

The situation changed with the bombing of the Syrian intelligence headquarters in Rawda Square on July 18, 2012, in which the following people died: the Syrian Defence Minister; Bashar’s cousin and Defence Deputy-Minister, Asef Shawkat; the Deputy-President of the Republic, Hassan Turkmani, and finally the Head of the intelligence services, Hafez Makhlouf.

It has not been ascertained yet whether the attack was perpetrated by a suicide bomber or was carried out with explosives detonated remotely.

They were explicitly mentioned, as “brothers” and “martyrs”, by the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, in his speech of May 25, 2013 expressing the Lebanese Shiite group’s full military and operational support to Assad.

Hezbollah had already intervened with its “shadow armies”, in the first phase of the clashes between the Alawite leader’ Syrian Arab Army and the Sunni and jihadist forces, but only on the narrow border line between Syria and the Lebanon.

Hence, the “resistance axis” between Iran, Hezbollah and Assads’ Syria was created by means of weapons – an “axis” that the Syrian and the Shiite Lebanese propaganda had been spreading for years.

The Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah policy line was opposed to a Sunni but, more explicitly Saudi, project to conquer Syria, marginalize the Alawites and confine them only on the Mediterranean coast and later come to a clash or to Iran’s regionalization.

The first slogans of the pro-Assad protesters, in 2011, were mainly against the Saudi king and sometimes against the Jordanian one.

Certainly, today the presence of Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict has proved to be decisive in the defeat of the various organization of the Sunni jihad and the Free Syrian Army – born from a split of Assad’s Armed Forces, again in 2011, and later turned into an instrument for projection of the Turkish force, especially in Northern Syria.

The losses of the Lebanese “Party of God” are supposed be at least 1,500 soldiers, while Israel has not yet decided how to move in Syria, except for the defence of the Golan Heights, thus waiting for its various enemies to destroy one another.

With one exception, made explicit precisely by Prime Minister Netanyahu in June 2013: we need to evaluate and respond to the new and disturbing presence of Hezbollah in Syria.

Moreover, in addition to the “resistance axis” between Iran, Syria and the Lebanese “Party of God”, we must also consider Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which resumed its official relations with Iran in July 2016, with Iran providing economic aid and military support while – as stated, at the time, by Hamas political bureau – “Saudi Arabia made our proposals fade away”.

It should be noted that, in the Yemenite war, Hamas – the political-military arm of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood – had defended President Mansour Hadi against the Houthis, namely the Shiite followers of the Seventh and Last Imam, supported by Iran.

Yemen is clearly the bridgehead for controlling Saudi Arabia and having access to the Persian Gulf but also, indirectly, to the Suez Canal.

It is also strange that the EU dependence on international trade has not led the European decision-makers to think that whoever controls that region holds in his hands the jugular vein of the whole Eurasian peninsula’s maritime trade.

Currently, however, the European decision-makers’ strategic culture and sensitivity is virtually zero.

Moreover, the presence of the “Party of God” in Syria allows a wide deployment and dislocation of forces, as well as a sort of Syria’s “colonization” by Iran in exchange for its strong support to Hezbollah just inside the Lebanon .

Hezbollah has become hegemonic in the Lebanon and hence can be turned into a kind of “Middle East army” for the entire Shiite world gravitating around Iran.

Between Iran and the Lebanon, thanks to the Shiite “Party of God”, a series of “demographic gaps” between Syria and Iraq towards the Lebanon can be created – and this is already happening today.

The poles of this new Iranian Shiite demographics are the areas of Kefraya and Fuah, from where the residents – mostly Shiites – have been directed to the West Damascus neighbourhood – characterized by a Sunni majority – while the latter will settle in Kefraya and Fuah, in the areas vacated by the Shiites, if the international agreements on the “Four cities” still apply.

Therefore Iran wants full continuity with the Lebanon and this is the reason why it is planning a real population exchange between Northern and Southern Syria.

This also implies Shiite control of the Turkish-Syrian border – and hence of NATO.

Furthermore Hezbollah will settle in Madaya and Zabadani, the cities it has contributed to defend from the “takfiri” (the Sunni apostates) and from “terrorists” – just to use the terminology of the Lebanese Shiite propaganda.

In Daraa, 300 Iraqi Shiite families have already settled in the areas vacated by the Sunni forces after the “ceasefire” of last September.

We can easily understand what this means for the Jewish State’ security.

A pincer-shaped movement between North and South, between the border with Southern Lebanon, dominated by the “Party of God”, and the South, with Hamas which is armed and trained by Iran, is one of the worst possible scenarios for Israel.

Only a new relationship with Egypt and Jordan could strategically counterbalance this threat.

As President Trump has already stated, currently the United States does not necessarily want a Syria without Assad, because “it is up to the Syrian people to choose” and, in any case, “Assad is better than the jihadists”.

Furthermore, the Syrian President responds to President Trump’s advances assuming that “Syria and the United States can be natural allies”.

In more explicit terms, Assad wants to be part of the new alliance “against terrorism” in the region, but the problem is that the United States will never accept strategic continuity from Tehran to the Roman temples of Baalbek on the Lebanese coast, nor strategic closure towards Israel.

A good possibility of solving the issue lies in the Russian presence in the region.

Russia has every interest in supporting the Jewish State and an equal need to stay and control Syria so as to prevent Iranian pressures on its military bases in Tartus and the control of its communication lines in the Syrian territory.

Obviously President Trump does not want Iran standing in his way in the future Middle East “anti-terror League” – and certainly he does not want to have to deal with Ansar Allah of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, with the Fatemyoun Division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, created in Afghanistan by Shiites who fought in Syria, and with the Zaynaboyoun Brigade of the over one thousand Pakistani Shiites, as well as – of course – with Hezbollah.

In the plans of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the “Shiite highway” goes from Iran to Iraq up inside Syria; it enters north of Aleppo up to the West-Mediterranean coast and then turns south into the Lebanon up to its border with Israel, in Naquora Maron el-Ras.

However, the tension between Russia and Iran, which could favour a new presence of the United States in the region, is already visible.

Vladimir Putin clearly wants Hezbollah to leave the Syrian territory soon.

Obviously Iran has no interest in pressing the “Party of God” to go back into the Lebanese ranks – Hezbollah is essential to control the above-mentioned “Shiite highway”.

Moreover, Bashar al-Assad is too experienced not to understand that delivering much of his country to the Iranians and to the Lebanese Shiite will push him politically into a corner and will deprive him of the essential Russian support for his freedom of manoeuvre with Iran.

The US Congress and the six countries of the Gulf Security Council also require the implementation of the above stated ”Agreement of the Four Cities”, namely Madaya, Al Fuah, Kafariya and Zabadani, the cities “punished” both by the Shiite and the Sunni jihadist forces.

The Agreement, reached at the same time as the Astana ceasefire, envisages that sick people and other people at risk be evacuated and medicines and food be delivered to the residents.

However, as you may expect, clearing out a city means to conquer it.

As stated before the US Congress, the best way to weaken Hezbollah is to block the Iranian arms shipments reaching the Lebanon through Syria.

A great Sunni bloc in Central Syria would avoid the strategic continuity between Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolution Guards, thus enabling Bashar al-Assad to rule a territory large enough to have credible power in the region.            

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Chinese purchases of Iranian oil raise tantalizing questions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A fully loaded Chinese oil tanker ploughing its way eastwards from two Iranian oil terminals raises questions of how far Beijing is willing to go in defying US sanctions amid a mounting US military build-up in the Gulf and a US-China trade war.

The sailing from Iran of the Pacific Bravo takes on added significance with US strategy likely to remain focused on economic rather than military strangulation of the Iranian leadership, despite the deployment to the Gulf of an aircraft carrier strike group as well as B-52 bombers and a Patriot surface-to-air missile system.

As President Donald J. Trump, backed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appears to be signalling that he is not seeking military confrontation, his administration is reportedly considering a third round of sanctions that would focus on Iran’s petrochemical industry. The administration earlier this month sanctioned the country’s metals and minerals trade.

The sailing raises the question whether China is reversing its policy that led in the last quarter of 2018 to it dramatically reducing its trade with Iran, possibly in response to a recent breakdown in US-Chinese trade talks.

“The question is whether non-oil trade remains depressed even if some oil sales resume, which I think it will. That’s the better indicator of where Chinese risk appetite has changed. Unfortunately Iran‘s reprieve will be limited—but better than zero perhaps,” tweeted Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, head of Bourse & Bazaar, a self-described media and business diplomacy company and the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

A Chinese analyst interviewed by Al Jazeera argued that “China is not in a position to have Iran’s back… For China, its best to stay out” of the fray.

The stakes for China go beyond the troubled trade talks. In Canada, a senior executive of controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is fighting extradition to the United States on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.

Reports that Western companies, including Kraft Heinz, Adidas and Gap, wittingly or unwittingly, were employing Turkic Muslims detained in re-education camps in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang, as part of opaque supply chains, could increase attention on a brutal crackdown that China is struggling to keep out of the limelight.

The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the crackdown but has stopped short of sanctioning officials involved in the repressive measures.

Bourse & Bazaar’s disclosure of the sailing of the Pacific Bravo coincided with analysis showing that Iran was not among China’s top three investment targets in the Middle East even if Chinese investment in the region was on the rise.

The Pacific Bravo was steaming with its cargo officially toward Indonesia as Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was touring his country’s major oil clients, including China, in a bid to persuade them to ignore US sanctions.

A second tanker, the Marshal Z, was reported to have unloaded 130,000 tonnes of Iranian fuel oil into storage tanks near the Chinese city of Zhoushan.

The Marshall Z was one of four ships that, according to Reuters, allegedly helped Iran circumvent sanctions by using ship-to-ship transfers in January and forged documents that masked the cargoes as originating from Iraq.

The unloading put an end to a four-month odyssey at sea sparked by buyers’ reticence to touch a cargo that would put them in the US crosshairs.

“Somebody in China decided that the steep discount this cargo most likely availed … was a bargain too good to miss,” Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai, told Reuters.

The Pacific Bravo, the first vessel to load Iranian oil since the Trump administration recently refused to extend sanction exemptions to eight countries, including China, was recently acquired by China’s Bank of Kunlun.

The acquisition and sailing suggested that Bank of Kunlun was reversing its decision last December to restrict its business with Iran to humanitarian trade, effectively excluding all other transactions.

The bank was the vehicle China used in the past for business with Iran because it had no exposure to the United States and as a result was not vulnerable to US sanctions that were in place prior to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

China’s willingness to ignore, at least to some extent, US sanctions could also constitute an effort to persuade Iran to remain fully committed to the nuclear accord which it has so far upheld despite last year’s US withdrawal.

Iran recently warned Europe that it would reduce its compliance if Europe, which has struggled to create a credible vehicle that would allow non-US companies to circumvent the sanctions, failed to throw the Islamic republic an economic lifeline.

In a letter that was also sent to Russia and China, Iran said it was no longer committed to restrictions on the storage of enriched uranium and heavy water stocks, and could stop observing limits on uranium enrichment at a later stage.

Russian president Vladimir Putin warned in response to the Iranian threat that “as soon as Iran takes its first reciprocal steps and says that it is leaving, everyone will forget by tomorrow that the US was the initiator of this collapse. Iran will be held responsible, and the global public opinion will be intentionally changed in this direction.”

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The Iran Question

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Will there be war with Iran?  Will there not be war with Iran?  The questions are being asked repeatedly in the media even though a single carrier task force is steaming up there.  The expression is old for the latest carriers are nuclear powered.  Imagine the mess if it was blown up.

There are two kinds of weapons in the world … offensive and defensive.  The latter are cheaper, a fighter plane compared to a bomber.  If a country does not (or cannot afford to) have offensive intent, it makes sense to focus on defense.  It is what Iran has done.  Moreover, its missile centered defense has a modern deadly twist — the missiles are precision-guided. 

As an Iranian general remarked when questioned about the carrier task force:  some years ago it would’ve been a threat he opined; now it’s a target.  Iran also has a large standing army of 350,000 plus a 120,000 strong Revolutionary Guard and Soviet style air defenses.  In 2016 Russia started installation of the S-300 system.  It has all kinds of variants, the most advanced, the S-300 PMU-3 has a range similar to the S-400 if equipped with 40N6E missiles, which are used also in the S-400.  Their range is 400 km, so the Iranian batteries are virtually S-400s.  The wily Putin has kept trump satisfied with the S-300 moniker without short-changing his and China’s strategic ally.  The latter continuing to buy Iranian oil.

Iran has friends in Europe also.  Angela Merkel in particular has pointed out that Iran has complied fully with the nuclear provisions of the UN Security Council backed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action i.e. the Iran nuclear deal.  She is mustering the major European powers.  Already alienated with Trump treating them as adversaries rather than friends, they find Trump’s bullying tiresome.  President Macron, his poll ratings hitting the lowest, is hardly likely to engage in Trump’s venture.  In Britain, Theresa May is barely able to hold on to her job.  In the latest thrust by senior members of her party, she has been asked to name the day she steps down.

So there we have it.  Nobody wants war with Iran.  Even Israel, so far without a post-election government does not want to be rained upon by missiles leaky as its Iron Dome was against homemade Palestinian rockets.

Topping all of this neither Trump nor Secretary of State Pompeo want war.  Trump is as usual trying to bully — now called maximum pressure — Iran into submission.  It won’t.  The wild card is National Security Adviser John Bolton.  He wants war.  A Gulf of Tonkin type false flag incident, or an Iranian misstep, or some accident can still set it off. 

In Iran itself, moderates like current President Hassan Rouhani are being weakened by Trump’s shenanigans.  The hard liners might well want to bleed America as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Iran’s game just started

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By announcing that Iran will begin keeping its excess uranium and heavy water, the Islamic Republic now sends a firm and clear message to the west, exactly one year after U.S. president, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from its nuclear deal with Iran. 

At this point, it seems that Iran has made a wise decision. Over the last year, the European troika has not only done anything to revive the nuclear deal or bring any kind of benefit to the Iranian nation, but they have actually backed up U.S. by developing new plans to undermine Iran’s “missile work”, and diminish its “power in the region” as well as its “nuclear technology”.  

As stated in clauses 26 and 36 of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if the other side fails to meet its obligations, Iran is entitled to partially or completely end its commitments as well. So, Iran’s recent decision could be analyzed both on legal and strategic terms. 
However, it seems that the strategic aspects of Iran’s decision are even more important than its legal aspects. This decision is strategically important because it stops Washington and European troika to carry out their anti-Iran scheme, a dangerous scheme that they actually started devising when Trump took the office in 2017.  

At the time, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, and Emmanuel Macron, the French president played a major part in carrying out the west scheme. A scheme based on enforcing Iran to keep its “nuclear promises” and stay committed to a “distorted nuclear deal” while “U.S. had abandoned the deal”, and at the same time, trying to “diminish Iran’s power in the region” and “reduce its missile activities”. 

All other actions of Europeans toward Iran were also simply targeted at carrying out this major plan, including how they constantly changed their strategies toward Tehran, and how Germany, U.K. and France intentionally delayed in launching the alternative trade mechanism (Instex) with Iran.  

Now, Iran’s decision to keep its Uranium and heavy water is definitely in compliance with JCPOA, and more importantly, it will seriously undermine the “American-European” joint plan against Iran. This also explains why French government was so distressed by Iran’s new nuclear strategy and had such a quick reaction, considering that Emmanuel Macron, the French president and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister both have had important roles in carrying out the American-European anti-Iran scheme. 

At any rate, what is clear now is that the game has just started! And the Iranian political system and specially the foreign ministry have a great mission to run this game wisely.  

In following days, the European troika might want to force Iran into changing its decision by threats such as reviving the European Union sanctions against Iran or even taking Iran’s case to the United Nations Security Council (so that Trump administration can meddle in Iran’s affairs). But, it is time for Iran political system to be adamant in its decision.  

The Iranian Foreign Ministry should clearly ask the Europeans to choose one of these options, either Iran will “further reduce its commitments to the nuclear deal” or the Europeans should do something practical to “protect the rights of Iranian nation”. 

It is also necessary that the Iranian political system reveals the American-European joint anti-Iran scheme to the people so that the true nature of Europeans is showed to Iranians. In that case, Europe and specially the European troika will completely lose their reputation.    

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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