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The significance of Iran’s presence in Syria

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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At least since 2014 the presence of Iranian forces in the Syrian war has certainly ensured both political stability and military success on the ground for Assad’s regime. Some Syrian sources maintain that since December 2013 Iran’s engagement in the Syrian conflict has cost at least 6 billion US dollars a year, while other Western sources think the financial support provided has been twice as much.

With at least 3,200 soldiers and officers from the Revolutionary Guards and other Shiite semi-official organizations, composed mainly of Afghan and Pakistani militants, Iran is second only to the Russian Federation in terms of engagement in the Syrian war to support Assad.

Moreover, Hezbollah – the Lebanese militant Shiite faction – is present in Syria with at least 4,500 soldiers and officers, but there are other Shiite groups, such as the People’s Mobilization Units (PMU), the former “popular defence brigades”, operating in the Syrian region.

In all likelihood, it was Iran to persuade Russia to intervene in support of  Assad, but the logic of Russia’s presence in the Syrian war is much more complex than it may appear at first glance.

In fact, the Russian Federation has placed the war against Daesh-Isis at the centre of its presence in the Syrian region, thus creating a new network of relations with the whole Arab world, including the one previously connected to the United States.

Russia made it clear it was necessary to eradicate the most immediate and severe danger for all Sunni Arab States, namely jihad, and this has led to its establishing new and effective relations with all those States.

Furthermore, Russia’s presence is a sign conveyed to Westerners that Syria’s “cantonization” will never be accepted by the Assads’ Russian traditional ally because this would mean creating missile, terrorist, geoeconomic and naval positions that would directly undermine Russian interests in both the Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East, up to the Southern borders of the Federation.

Let us examine, however, the forces still operating in the Syrian war, including the smallest ones.

In addition to the friendly countries operating on the ground, support for Syria – including at military level – is provided by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Polisario Front, also in clear contrast with Morocco, which indirectly supports – also through Saudi Arabia – the forces of the Syrian Democratic Army that is armed and supported mainly by the United States.

Besides the aforementioned Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, on the ground there are also some Palestinian groups and some Iraqi forces supporting Syria, especially with regard to intelligence and military activities on the border between Syria and Iraq.

Diplomatic support to Assad-led Syria is provided by Oman, Bolivia, Venezuela, Pakistan, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Armenia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The Syrian Alawite regime is also backed militarily and economically by Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Vietnam and India.

Russia has also sent to Syria some Chechen and Dagestan battalions as combat forces.

However, the opponents of the Assad regime – and hence of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – include many groups of various origins, obviously all Sunni. Let us analyse them.

Jabhat al-Nusra, now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, is a network created by al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria in 2011 – which became known in January 2012, during the possible Syrian “Arab Spring” – which also operates in the Lebanon, as well as in Syria.

Since its inception said movement was supported by Qatar and Turkey.

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya is a coalition of jihadist groups  supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, as well as Kuwait and Qatar.

Therefore, if Syria remains a Shiite Iran’s ally, at geoeconomic and political levels the strategic risk for the Gulf Emirates and for Saudi Arabia itself may become very high, especially in a phase of oil and financial crisis such as the current one.

Iran’s control over the Greater Middle East and the Persian Gulf would block any geopolitical autonomy of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with evident repercussions on the management of their oil resources.

The groups opposing Assad’s regime also include Asala wal-Tamiya, a coalition supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Indeed, it was armed precisely by the United States and in the past it had operational links with Daesh-Isis.

Jabhat al-Shamiyah is an alliance of nineteen jihadist groups originating from the Muslim Brotherhood and this is exactly the reason why a Syrian ally like Egypt tacitly supports Assad’s Alawite regime.

Jaysh al-Muhjahiddin is a further alliance of various Sunni guerrilla groups, all trained in Qatar, which in December 2016 merged with two other jihadist groups and later joined Ahrar al-Sham.

Therefore tribal equilibria, strategic and operational advantages, as well as interests of the funding countries, are at the origin of this multiplying and merging of militant jihadist groups.

Ajnad al-Sham is a typically Salafi group, always operating closely with Ahrar al-Sham.

Jaysh al-Islam, identified as terrorist organization by Russia, Egypt, Iran and Syria, is the second main pole of the Saudi indirect presence in Syria.

On the contrary, the groups siding with the Syrian Baathist government include Quwat Muqatili al-Ashair, a tribal force in which there is also a Druze contingent.

The list of these groups also include Liwa al-Jabal, consisting of five units  originating from the Suwayda Governorate.

The pro-Assad forces count also Saraya al-Tuhid, the fully Druze force allied with Hezbollah, which was created in October 2016.

It is also worth recalling Labuat al-Jabal, the female Druze brigade created in July 2015.

Again in the Suwayda Governorate there is Qatib Jalamid Urman, patrolling mainly the border between Syria and Jordan. The Druzes operate also with Qatib Humat al-Diyar.

The Syrian Christians contribute to defend Assad’s regime with Asad al-Qarubim, a brigade created in 2013 after the attack on the Saidnaya Monastery.

There are other five Christian brigades, divided between Damascus, Homs and Quraytin, which were established to defend the Christian holy places in Syria and currently operate – together with Hezbollah and the Syrian Arab Army – throughout the Syrian national territory.

Conversely, Quwat al-Ghabab are the brigades created by the Greek-Orthodox communities and operate in Hama, Latakia and Tal Uthman.

The list of the groups siding with Assad’s regime also include Quwat Wad al-Sadiq, created in 2012 at the Sayyidah Zaynab Shiite Shrine near Damascus, which is connected with Hezbollah and composed of both Shiites and Druzes.

It is also worth recalling Liwa Muqtar al-Thiqfi, created in 2016 in memory of the ancient commander who attempted to avenge – against the Umayyads – the sacrifice of Imam Husseyn.

It operates on the Latakia front and is directly linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Unlike the other smaller brigades, it is a force of approximately 5,000 units.

Again in the Latakia area, there is Saraya al-Arin, a Shiite group founded in 2015, while Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is present in the ​​Sayda Zaynab region, the centre of the traditional Shiite presence in Syria.

The group Liwa al-Imam Zayn Abidin, created in 2013, operates in Deir el Zur, the place at the core of the clash between what remains of Daesh and the Syrian regime, which has just been liberated by the “tigers”, namely the special forces of the Syrian Arab Army.

On the contrary, Liwa al-Jalil, the Galilean brigade founded in 2015, is a secular, leftist, nationalistic, Arab and pro-Palestinian organization.

The Syrian-Palestinians also operate within Quwat al-Jalil, created in 2011, while the “Leopards of Homs” (Fuhud Homs),  a special operations regiment, operates in the desert areas around Homs and have also participated in the Syrian Arab Army’s actions in the Daraya region.

Also Liwa Qibar, established in 2013 and counting  4,000 units, is active in Homs.

It has also operated at Hama and al-Mansura.

Qatib al-Jabalui is an Alawite military structure operating in Homs, Dara, and in the Jazal areas.

Another of the many pro-Assad groups, namely Fuj Mughuyr al-Badiya, set up in 2015, has carried out its actions in the desert of Homs and Aleppo. It is connected to the Shaytat tribe that is active in Deir El Zur.

Also Liwa Asad al-Huseyn was created in 2015 and is mainly active in Latakia.

Liwa Dir al-Watan was founded in 2015 and designed with the specific aim of defending Damascus.

These are the main groups supporting Assad’ Syrian Arab Army, accounting for 50% of its forces.

This means that all the brigades listed here are worth 50% of the Syrian Arab Army.

Furthermore, in Syria, Hezbollah immediately divided into two groups: Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi, fighting mainly in the Tartus and Aleppo regions, and Quwat al-Ridha, operating in Damascus and in the neighbouring areas.

Both groups operate in close contact with Assad’s forces.

While Russia wages its war in Syria, Iran tightens the clamps on the Syrian forces.

In the Qalamun region there is also Quwat Dir al-Qalamun, namely people’s brigades trained by the Syrian Arab Army that control the Al-Hadath pipeline and participate in the clashes against jihadists between Aleppo and Nassiriya.

People’s brigades coordinated by the Syrian Air Force military intelligence operate also in Hama.

Finally, the Fifth Assault Corps is a counterinsurgency organization set up in 2012 within the Syrian Armed Forces with the fundamental support of Hezbollah and Iran.

It is present in nine Syrian provinces and supervises enlistments, as well as closely controlling Syria’s civil society.

Hence what does Iran want to obtain with its engagement in Syria?

Firstly, Iran obviously need to establish safe transit routes to logistically support Hezbollah in the Lebanon.

This is the real strategic danger for Israel, rather than the danger constituted by the Golan Heights, which have somehow already been made safe.

Secondly, an equally important Iranian goal is to closely monitor the Euphrates valley, which is rich in oil deposits that must not be acquired by the United States and its allies, still present north of the Euphrates.

With a view to accomplishing this strategic linkage, the Shiite Republic must transit through Iraq so as to reach Aleppo from Palmira.

Another Iranian route to penetrate the Syrian desert could start exactly from Deir El Zor and later expand into the Hasakah Province.

In fact, Iran has already sent over 3,000 Revolutionary Guards and People’s Mobilization Units (PMU), namely the Shiite paramilitary forces, to the area between Tanaf and Deir El Zor.

As to the other channel, considering that there are no significant Shiite, Druze or Alawite forces in the region, the Pasdaran are dealing directly with the Sunni tribes between Hasakah and Aleppo.

Russia, however, is backing the Iranian operations with its air forces.

Nevertheless Russia will not accept Iran’s gradual penetration of the Syrian State and military structures for a long period of time.

For the time being, precisely with a view to blocking Iran’s influence, the Russian Federation’s proposal has been to quickly establish a Fifth Division of the Syrian Arab Army.

This would obviously serve to absorb – under the Syrian command – the tribal and territorial forces that could soon become pawns of the Iranian game in the Syrian desert.

Nevertheless – as is locally customary, and considering that the ongoing war has even enhanced these traditions – the various militias that have so far agreed to enter the Fifth Division have maintained their chain of command and their tactical and strategic autonomy.

Hence, Assad, is about to accept – de facto if not de iure – the Iranian droit de regard enabling it to control his territory and his armed forces.

Therefore, in the absence of a rational US strategy in Syria and vis-à-vis Iran, Russia thinks that the best thing to do – at least for the time being – is to support Iran in Syria and Iraq so as to exploit its potential against the United States and keep the Turkish ambitions on Western Syria under control.

This happens while the Kurds are turning into a pro-Western militia to control Turkish operations in Syria – in tacit agreement with Russia.

 Moreover, the United States has already decided to defend the YPG Kurds (and, in the future, the PKK ones) only against the Turkish aims, while Iran and Russia will try to control all Syrian borders, including those with Turkey where US interposition forces are currently present.

Hence either the United States sends other troops to control Iran’s expansion within Syria – for the time being favoured by Russia – or the United States is bound to withdraw completely from the Syrian-Iraqi 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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Israel’s new Global Strategy

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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If we want to study Israel’s political and military positions, we must at first analyse Syria.

For Israel the problem in Syria is Russia, although it is apparently Iran.

In fact, one of the de-escalation areas is in the Golan Heights  and certainly the Jewish State does not like that Iran and Hezbollah can easily and quietly operate in the Golan area, even without warlike acts but under the protection of Russia, which is also the guarantor of the whole area.

In particular, the Israeli government wants the Russian Federation to never intervene in favour of Iran.

However, if Iran and the Shiite forces leave Syria, Russia’s control to ensure Syrian stability will weaken and probably even crumble.

Hence Israel wants Russia and even Syria to push Iran away from Syria, by threatening a real war on Syrian soil, along with the United States.

The United States and Israel could overthrow Assad and, in any case, remove Russia from the area, and hence from the Middle East. This is one of Russia’s primary aim, i.e. to stay in the Greater Middle East and in the Mediterranean region with strong and decisive power. But would the United States accept this anti-Russian operation? I do not think so. The United States would initially participate and later move away, after having completed the first operations successfully. After the first headlines on the New York Times, it would go back home. The United States either takes possession of an area for twenty years -as was the case in Afghanistan – or confines itself to quick strategic operations.

In the current Syrian situation, however, will the United States still be a reliable partner for Israel, apart from the possible war?

Probably not. The United States already has its Kurds who, after the US withdrawal from Syria, immediately decided to fall into Assad’s arms, with a view to opposing Turkey.

Furthermore, what would be the configuration of the Syrian-Iranian system after this attack on the Syrian Baathist regime? Probably more dangerous than it is today.

A great coalition is needed to destroy Shiite Iran’s  hegemonic designs, certainly with the United States, but also and above all with Islamic partners, not only Saudi Arabia.

Russia would never accept such a project.

Russia wants to avoid not only the stabilization of current Syria, which, in fact, is now a Russian client State, but also a new war in the Greater Middle East.

Hence Israel’s friendship with Russia is possible and desirable, but the only true and realistic possibility of containing Iran within Syria, or on the Israeli borders, is anyway to strongly isolate the Shiite power within Assad’s area, which may also be Russia’s goal.

This also in view of strengthening Russia’s increasingly close relations with Saudi Arabia, a fierce competitor and opponent of Iran, which could be decisive in a post-war reorganisation and reconstruction of Syria.

Hence any realistic strategy for harshly containing Iran must be based on a preliminary agreement between Russia and Israel.

Moreover, it should be recalled that Russia absolutely needs the Jewish State at economic, technological and strategic levels.

These are some of the topics I had the opportunity of discussing openly and frankly with my friend Moshe Ya’alon, when I recently presented the Israeli edition of my latest book in Jerusalem.

Hence a preventive war on Syria to destroy the Iran-Hezbollah axis? Probably so. I also believe that, in all likelihood, there could be a substantial military disregard and disinterest of Russia, which would thus no longer have many contacts with a dangerous oil competitor, namely Iran, which has very different oil and gas policies from Russia.

Not to mention, however, that Saudi Arabia is already making its war in Yemen, certainly with a view to avoiding the pressure of a Shiite group such as the Houthi, but also and above all to taking possession of the new (huge) oil reserves of Kharkhir and Najran – apart from the fact that currently 60% of Yemeni oil is already “stolen” from Saudi Arabia, through former Yemeni President Mansour Hadi.

Obviously the clash in Yemen also regards control over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, through which 3,800 million barrels of Middle East crude oil transit.

Syria, however, is still a big, polymorphic country, which has always been politically unstable and, in any case, with Christian minority areas -Druze and Shiite or para-Shiite areas – that could turn out to be too hard a nut to crack in view of waging the blitzkrieg, the lightning war that has always been in the style of the Israeli strategic thinking.

Moreover, given the current presence of many Iranian armaments in the Lebanon and, probably, in the Golan Heights, a very quick attack should be based on an extremely careful analysis of the positions and forces of Shiite groups by the Israeli intelligence services.

Anyway, a quick attack should avoid Israel’s countermove on its Northern borders.

Hence, to date the only logical operation would be to define a Syrian geopolitics shared with Russia, which has parallel interests and controls the Shiite forces on the field.

Indeed Russia is looking for a reliable ally to counter Iran’s territorial claim on Syria itself.

The agreement signed by Israel with the USA and Russia, at the end of July 2018, also enabled Israel to accept the presence of the Syrian army on the Golan border, albeit over eighty kilometres away from the boundary line.

This implies that the Israeli Armed Forces will not wage  war to undermine Russia’s prospects and Syrian operations outside the borders with Israel. A clear  acceptance of Russian protection over Assad’s armies.

The United States has now abandoned its Southern client States, namely the “democratic jihadists”, if any, which is a sign of the clear US inability to think in a strategically correct way.

In fact, both Russia and Israel know that the Syrian clash is a war that can affect the whole world, not just the Middle East. It is not the usual story of “democracy” against “terrorism”.

The Syrian clash has been the trigger of a possible world war.

The United States has instead interpreted the war in Syria as a mere war on terror, a sort of geopolitical tranquilizer.

Obviously Israel has greatly strengthened its positions in the Golan area, but will it be enough? I do not think so.

The possibility for Iran (which funds and trains also the Islamic jihad south of Israel) to start a regional clash against the Jewish State also from the Gaza Strip is such as not to allow excessive confidence in the current status quo.

Meanwhile, in Asia there is Israel’s economic, but also political opening.

Obviously Israel’s motivation lies in the fact that Asia will be the dominant region at economic, but also at political and military levels.

Hence the opportunity – to be seized in the near future – of a geopolitical connection between China and Israel, which could easily influence also the Greater Middle East.

Except for Singapore and Burma, all Israeli official relations with the Asian countries date back to the period following the collapse of the USSR.

Trade with China and the other Asian powers is already significant: in fact, it amounts to 15 billion US dollars.

Considering the current trade tensions between China and the USA, the relationship between China and Israel could become crucial, especially in the high-tech field.

There is also a project at stake, i.e. the Med-Red, a Eilat-Ashdod railway line that could be a terrestrial alternative to the Suez Canal, with very noticeable strategic effects, which are barely imaginable today. Chinese investment would be relevant in this respect, considering the geographical and political symmetry of Red-Med with the New Silk Road.

While the EU – with its current trade laws, substantially punishing the Jewish State – remains a substantially enemy area, Israel is opening to Asian trade – and China’s, in particular – which largely replaces trade with the EU.

These economic facts have wide strategic implications:  unlike the old “Rhine” Europe, not reached by the new “Silk Road”, Israel is connecting to Central Asia’s great development area and hence is slowing down its ties with the USA and, even more, with Europe, which is now hypocritically anti-Semitic.

Asia is therefore a sort of insurance policy – also at geopolitical level – of the Jewish State against the West, which will be ever less friendly in the future.

In any case, Israel can always open up preferential channels in the East, if they are closed in the West.

Nevertheless the Jewish State does not certainly want to diminish its relations with the USA and Europe today, although its relations with the East will certainly increase, including those having a security nature.

Hence if the relations with the USA cool down, even from a political viewpoint, Israel could establish good contacts with India while, due to its excellent relations with Iran, China may not be Israel’s exclusive partner in the East.

Again at regional level, a long-term – if not definitive – solution to the Palestinian issue could be useful.

If the borders between the Jewish State and the PNA are not made safe, that strategic link will always be used as a thorn in the flesh against Israel, which will never become a global player unless it quickly gets rid of the old geopolitical memories of so many regional wars.

How can we resolve tension with Palestine, which could be exploited in the future by anyone who wants to weaken the Jewish State?

The solution of placing the PNA in Jordan’s hands is not very rational.

The Hashemite Kingdom has not the economic, and probably not even the military, strength  to swallow the whole Palestinian area up.

Jordan can certainly become an element of control over the Palestinian territories, but nothing more.

The solution of the State to be built, however, has now failed and certainly not because of Israel.

Hence what could be the solution? We could think about an area controlled and economically supported by Islamic countries – pro quota – but certainly not by Iran.

I see no other possible options.

It is certain, however, that the strengthening of good economic relations with Egypt, Jordan, even with Saudi Arabia, would be useful also for solving the Palestinian issue.

Another fact to be considered is the strategic superiority of the Jewish State in the field of active and passive cybersecurity, which can harshly remove many tensions before they arise.

Certainly, for the Jewish State, cyberwarfare gives the possibility of weakening the infrastructural and protective networks of the enemy so as to make it unable to fight.

It is also certain that Israel is a world leader in this sector, but it must always keep up, because the pace of change in this field is very fast.

Nevertheless cyber-mercenaries are also coming – and there will much work here.

Obviously, although the excellence of the Israeli cyberstrategy is well-known, we shall keep and further improve it and, above all, target and direct remote operations – even temporarily – against new enemies and adversaries, never targeted before.

Enemies change, but it is good to never trust eternal friendship.

It will be good, however, to currently move away from the Western model of the “showbiz society”, which does not make young people focus on technical, scientific, rational and historical education and training – as today happens also in Israel- and go back to of our parents’ and grandparents’ model, with better education and hence more effective “nationalization of the masses” also in the Armed Forces.

We also need to invest even more in schools and universities although Israel has not yet reached the disastrous situation of many European countries and, above all, of Italy.

It will also be very useful to improve the relationship between universities and the productive and military system.

This is very difficult, but I really believe that the Jewish State will succeed once again.

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Inside the Beltway: Iran hardliners vs Iran hardliners

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Alarm bells went off last September in Washington’s corridors of power when John Bolton’s national security council asked the Pentagon for options for military strikes against Iran.

The council’s request was in response to three missiles fired by an Iranian-backed militia that landed in an empty lot close to the US embassy in Baghdad and the firing of rockets by unidentified militants close to the US consulate in the Iraqi port city of Basra.

“We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor,” Mr. Bolton said at the time.

Commenting on the council’s request, a former US official noted that “people were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”

Then US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, like Mr. Bolton an Iran hawk, worried that military strikes would embroil the United States in a larger conflagration with Iran.

The request, moreover, seemed to call into question US President Donald J. Trump’s promise to America’s European allies that he would rein in Mr. Bolton who has a long track record of advocating military action against Iran.

Months before joining the Trump administration in the spring of 2018, Mr. Bolton drafted at the request of Mr. Trump’s then strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, a plan that envisioned US support “for the democratic Iranian opposition,” “Kurdish national aspirations in Iran, Iraq and Syria,” and assistance for Iranian Arabs in the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan and the Baloch who populate the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Iran’s neighbouring Sistan and Baluchistan province.

Frustrated by the Trump administration’s failure to respond to his suggestions, Mr. Bolton published the memo in December 2017.

Almost to the day two years after the publication and two months before the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Mr. Bolton asserted in a policy speech in Cairo, that the United States had “joined the Iranian people in calling for freedom and accountability… America’s economic sanctions against the (Iranian) regime are the strongest in history, and will keep getting tougher until Iran starts behaving like a normal country.” Mr Bolton was referring to harsh US sanctions imposed in 2018 by Mr. Trump after withdrawing the United States from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Bolton’s plan stroked with Saudi thinking about the possibility of attempting to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities. The thinking was made public in a November 2017 study by the International Institute for Iranian Studies, formerly known as the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, a Saudi government-backed think tank.

The study argued that Chabahar, the Indian-backed Iranian deep-sea port at the top of the Arabian Sea, posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.” Pakistani militants claimed in 2017 that Saudi Arabia had stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite fighters.

Mr. Bolton’s memo followed an article he wrote in The New York Times in 2015 headlined ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’ at the time that President Barak Obama was negotiating the international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Bolton argued in the op-ed that diplomacy would never prevent the Islamic republic from acquiring nuclear weapons. “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed,” Mr. Bolton wrote.

The memo was written at about the same time that Mr. Bolton told a gathering of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq that “the declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran” and that “before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran.”

While Mr. Bolton has remained outspoken even if he has been careful in his wording as national security advisor, other past advocates of military action against Iran have taken a step back.

Mike Pompeo has since becoming secretary of state hued far closer to the Trump administration’s official position that it is pursuing behavioural rather than regime change in Iran. But as a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Pompeo suggested in 2014 launching “2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity.”

While the Trump administration has largely explained its hard line towards Iran as an effort to halt the country’s missile development, roll back its regional influence, and ensure that the Islamic Republic will never be able to develop a nuclear weapon, Mr. Bolton has suggested that it was also driven by alleged Iranian non-compliance with the nuclear accord.

“Report: Iran’s secret nuclear archive ‘provides substantial evidence that Iran’s declarations to IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency) are incomplete & deliberately false.’ The President was right to end horrible Iran deal. Pressure on Iran to abandon nuclear ambitions will increase,” Mr. Bolton tweeted this month, endorsing a report by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

Based on Iranian documents obtained by Israel, the report identified an allegedly undeclared Iranian nuclear site. “Documentation seized in January 2018 by Israel from the Iranian ‘Nuclear Archive’ revealed key elements of Iran’s past nuclear weaponization program and the Amad program more broadly, aimed at development and production of nuclear weapons. The material extracted from the archives shows that the Amad program had the intention to build five nuclear warhead systems for missile delivery,” the report said.

Similarly, Mr. Bolton this month told Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu on a visit to Jerusalem that “we have little doubt that Iran’s leadership is still strategically committed to achieving deliverable nuclear weapons. The United States and Israel are strategically committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.”

Mr. Bolton’s assertion contrasted starkly with then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ assessment in his 2017 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community that “we do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Bolton’s hardline position within the Trump administration could be cemented if Iran were to decide that upholding the nuclear agreement no longer served its interest. Anti-agreement momentum in Iran has been fuelled by the European Union’s seeming inability or unwillingness to create a financial system that would evade US sanctions and facilitate trade with Europe.

Mr. Bolton’s hard line has also been bolstered by the imposition of European Union sanctions on Iran’s ministry of intelligence and two individuals on charges of plotting to kill leaders of an Iranian Arab separatist movement in Denmark and the Netherlands.

An Iranian abrogation of the nuclear agreement would likely lead to a reshuffle of the Iranian cabinet and the appointment of hardliners that would in turn bolster Mr. Bolton’s argument that the Iran issue has to be resolved before the United States can militarily truly disengage from the Middle East and South Asia.

Hardliners like Mr. Bolton may have one more development going for them: Disillusionment in Iran with the government of President Hassan Rouhani is mounting.

The disappointment is being fuelled not only by the failure of the nuclear accord to drive economic growth and the government’s mis-management of the economy and inability to take on nepotism, vested interests such as the Revolutionary Guards and the growing income gap accentuated by the elite’s public display of ostentatious wealth, but also the fact that Mr. Rouhani appears to have lost interest in reform and implementing change.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Rouhani´s second term has been extremely ignorant (about the demands) of the twenty-four million people who make up Iranian civil society. Most of the reformists believe that he no longer wants to interact (with the reform movement). All that concerns him is to emerge from the remaining two years (of his second term) undamaged, and thus maintain his privileged spot in the pyramid of power,” said Abdullah Naseri, a prominent reformist and adviser to the former president Mohammad Khatami. Mr. Naseri was referring to the 24 million people who voted for Mr. Rouhani.

A reformist himself, Mr. Khatami warned that “if the nezam (establishment) insists on its mistakes… (and) reform fails, the society will move toward overthrowing the system.”

The roots of Mr. Bolton’s thinking lie in a policy paper entitled US Defense Planning Guidance that has been in place since 1992. The paper stipulates that US policy is designed “to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources under consolidated control be sufficient to generate global power.” The paper goes a long way in explaining why the US and Saudi Arabia potentially would be interested in destabilizing Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities.

Iran scholar Shireen Hunter suggests that squashing Iran’s ambition of being a regional and global player may be one reason why senior Trump administration officials, including Mr. Bolton, Mr. Pompeo and Rudolph Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, alongside the Saudis support the Mujahedin e-Khalq even if its domestic support base is in question.

“The MEK was willing to support Saddam Hussein and cede Iran’s (oil-rich) Khuzestan province to Iraq. There is no reason to think that it won’t similarly follow U.S. bidding,” Ms. Hunter said referring to the Mujahedeen’s support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

Mr. Bolton appeared to be fortifying what amounted to the most hard-line approach towards Iran in an administration that was already determined to bring Iran to its knees by elevating Charles M. Kupperman, a long-time associate and former Reagan administration official, to deputy national security adviser.

Mr. Kupperman, a former Boeing and Lockheed Martin executive, previously served on the board for the Center for Security Policy, a far-right think tank advocating for a hawkish Iran policy founded by  Frank Gaffney, a former US government official who is widely viewed as an Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist.

Similarly, Mr. Trump, reportedly on Mr. Bolton’s advice, hired this month Richard Goldberg as the national security council’s director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction.

As a staffer for former Senator Mark Kirk, Mr. Goldberg helped write legislation that served as the basis for the Obama administration’s sanctions regime on Tehran prior to the nuclear deal. He went on to work for the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates a hard line towards Iran.

Earlier, Mr. Bolton hired Matthew C. Freedman, who in March 2018, together with Messrs. Kupperman and Bolton registered the Institute for a Secure America as a non-profit organization on the day that Mr. Trump announced Mr. Bolton’s appointment as national security advisor.

A long-standing Bolton associate and one-time member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, Mr. Freedman worked in the 1980s and 1990s as a foreign lobbyist with Paul Manafort, who managed Mr. Trump’s election campaign for several months and was last year convicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the campaign and Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Messrs. Bolton, Kupperman and Freedman also established in 2015 the Foundation for American Security and Freedom to campaign against the Iran nuclear deal.

David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who wrote a definitive history of the National Security Council described Mr. Bolton as a man “who has never crossed a bridge he hasn’t burned behind him, who is surrounding himself with what appears to be a second-tier group of advisers who have spent a disproportionate amount of time on the swamp side of things — as consultants or working on his extreme political projects.”

Said journalist and political commentator Mehdi Hasan: “You underestimate John Bolton at your peril… In 2003, Bolton got the war he wanted with Iraq. As an influential, high-profile, hawkish member of the Bush administration, Bolton put pressure on intelligence analysts, threatened international officials, and told barefaced lies about weapons of mass destruction. He has never regretted his support for the illegal and catastrophic invasion of Iraq, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Now, he wants a war with Iran.”

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Middle East

Syria’s Kurds: The new frontline in confronting Iran and Turkey

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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US President Donald J. Trump’s threat to devastate Turkey’s economy if Turkish troops attack Syrian Kurds allied with the United States in the wake of the announced withdrawal of American forces potentially serves his broader goal of letting regional forces fight for common goals like countering Iranian influence in Syria.

Mr. Trump’s threat coupled with a call on Turkey to create a 26-kilometre buffer zone to protect Turkey from a perceived Kurdish threat was designed to pre-empt a Turkish strike against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that Ankara asserts is part of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish group that has waged a low-intensity war in predominantly Kurdish south-eastern Turkey for more than three decades.

Like Turkey, the United States and Europe have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Turkey has been marshalling forces for an attack on the YPG since Mr. Trump’s announced withdrawal of US forces. It would be the third offensive against Syrian Kurds in recent years.

In a sign of strained relations with Saudi Arabia, Turkish media with close ties to the government have been reporting long before the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul that Saudi Arabia is funding the YPG. There is no independent confirmation of the Turkish allegations.

Yeni Safak reported in 2017, days after the Gulf crisis erupted pitting a Saudi-UAE-Egyptian alliance against Qatar, which is supported by Turkey, that US, Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian officials had met with the PKK as well as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey says is the Syrian political wing of the PKK, to discuss the future of Syrian oil once the Islamic State had been defeated.

Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu Agency reported last May that Saudi and YPG officials had met to discuss cooperation. Saudi Arabia promised to pay Kurdish fighters that joined an Arab-backed force US$ 200 a month, Anadolu said. Saudi Arabia allegedly sent aid to the YPG on trucks that travelled through Iraq to enter Syria.

In August last year, Saudi Arabia announced that it had transferred US$ 100 million to the United States that was earmarked for agriculture, education, roadworks, rubble removal and water service in areas of north-eastern Syria that are controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces of which the YPG is a significant part.

Saudi Arabia said the payment, announced on the day that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the kingdom, was intended to fund stabilization of areas liberated from control by the Islamic State.

Turkish media, however, insisted that the funds would flow to the YPG.

“The delivery of $100 million is considered as the latest move by Saudi Arabia in support of the partnership between the U.S. and YPG. Using the fight against Daesh as a pretext, the U.S. has been cooperating with the YPG in Syria and providing arms support to the group. After Daesh was cleared from the region with the help of the U.S., the YPG tightened its grip on Syrian soil taking advantage of the power vacuum in the war-torn country,” Daily Sabah said referring to the Islamic State by one of its Arabic acronyms.

Saudi Arabia has refrained from including the YPG and the PKK on its extensive list of terrorist organizations even though then foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir described in 2017 the Turkish organization as a “terror group.”

This week’s Trump threat and his earlier vow to stand by the Kurds despite the troop withdrawal gives Saudi Arabia and other Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt political cover to support the Kurds as a force against Iran’s presence in Syria.

It also allows the kingdom and the UAE to attempt to thwart Turkish attempts to increase its regional influence. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have insisted that Turkey must withdraw its troops from Qatar as one of the conditions for the lifting of the 18-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state.

The UAE, determined to squash any expression of political Islam, has long led the autocratic Arab charge against Turkey because of its opposition to the 2013 military coup in Egypt that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and the country’s first and only democratically elected president; Turkey’s close relations with Iran and Turkish support for Qatar and Islamist forces in Libya.

Saudi Arabia the UAE and Egypt support General Khalifa Haftar, who commands anti-Islamist forces in eastern Libya while Turkey alongside Qatar and Sudan supports the Islamists.

Libyan and Saudi media reported that authorities had repeatedly intercepted Turkish arms shipments destined for Islamists, including one this month and another last month. Turkey has denied the allegations.

“Simply put, as Qatar has become the go-to financier of the Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical offshoot groups around the globe, Turkey has become their armorer,” said Turkey scholar Michael Rubin.

Ironically, the fact that various Arab states, including the UAE and Bahrain, recently reopened their embassies in Damascus with tacit Saudi approval after having supported forces aligned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for much of the civil war, like Mr. Trump’s threat to devastate the Turkish economy, makes Gulf support for the Kurds more feasible.

Seemingly left in the cold by the US president’s announced withdrawal of American forces, the YPG has sought to forge relations with the Assad regime. In response, Syria has massed troops near the town of Manbij, expected to be the flashpoint of a Turkish offensive.

Commenting on last year’s two-month long Turkish campaign that removed Kurdish forces from the Syrian town of Afrin and Turkish efforts since to stabilize the region, Gulf scholar Giorgio Cafiero noted that “for the UAE, Afrin represents a frontline in the struggle against Turkish expansionism with respect to the Arab world.”

The same could be said from a Saudi and UAE perspective for Manbij not only with regard to Turkey but also Iran’s presence in Syria. Frontlines and tactics may be shifting, US and Gulf geopolitical goals have not.

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