It is exactly the withdrawal of the 2,000 US soldiers from their current positions in Syria and Jordan – an operation that continues at considerable speed – which is creating significant strategic space for Iran.
President Trump also claims he wants to keep an indefinite amount of US soldiers in Iraq, just to control Iranian movements and developments towards the Syrian border with Iraq.
Hence it is quite probable that, in the near future, the already evident tensions between Hezbollah and Israel on the Bekaa-Golan border could explode. In this case, the clash could certainly involve also the Iranian forces, as well as Bashar al-Assad’s ones and even other Sunni and Lebanese groups stationing in that area.
In this phase the primary goal of the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God” and of Assad’s himself – who can no longer say no to Iran – is to provide effective missiles to the Lebanese and Iranian-Syrian forces to hit the positions in Northern Israel.
And later possibly shift from the control of the Bekaa-Golan axis directly into the Jewish State.
In this phase, however, Iran wants to avoid a conventional confrontation with Israel and its US allies.
Currently, also in the areas it currently holds in Syria, Iran is interested only in its traditional asymmetric war, which enables it to have a low-cost clash with the minimum use of its forces.
This, however, does not enable us to think about an Iranian war against Israel that is only at low intensity: we should recall, in fact, the operations of the Iranian UAVs in the Israeli airspace of February 2018 or the many missile test launches in June 2018.
Also the Jewish State, however, does not want an open clash. In fact, since 2013 Israel has carried out over 230 operations in Syria, especially against the trafficking of arms for Hezbollah, in addition to many operations – in the “war between wars ” – against the Iranian bases in Syria at least since 2017.
In the statements made by Hassan Nasrallah in February 2019, however, Hezbollah maintained that if there were a clash between the Shiite “Party of God” and Israel, it would not be necessarily confined to the Syrian-Lebanese or to the Lebanese-Israeli system, but it would immediately involve all the “voluntary” forces of the Arab world.
All the organizations that, in various capacities, are part of the Iranian system between the Lebanon and the Sunni area south of Israel will certainly be used by the “Iranian Revolutionary Guards” to operate against the Jewish State in an integrated way.
The “corridor” line between Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Lebanon -which is the Iranian target in the Syrian war – is the axis along which all future operations against the Jewish State will take place. It is a broad and very difficult front to hold for both sides, namely Israel and Iran.
Hence, in principle, the future scenarios could be the following: a) a conventional war in Northern Lebanon, with the participation of Hezbollah, Iran, the Hamas network already present on the Litani river and some Syrian groups.
Or b) a clash on the Bekaa-Golan border initially focused on the Syrian territory, thus leaving Southern Lebanon free for a possible secondary attack on Israel, at a later stage of operations.
This war against Israel would clearly be waged by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, by the Iranian Pasdaran, Hezbollah, the Shite groups on the Syrian border, as well as Hamas and the Southern Sunni Islamic jihad and, in all likelihood, also by the pro-Syrian groups present along the border of the Palestinian National Authority with the Jewish State.
Finally, there could be c) a “dual war” in the Lebanon and Syria at the same time, with the further and subsequent support of Hamas and Islamic jihad attacks on Israel from the South.
It should also be recalled that the Houthi guerrillas in Yemen are already capable of blocking the Israeli maritime interests in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and across the Red Sea. Not to mention the always possible attacks of Iranian missile positions in Iraq towards the Jewish State, thus probably resulting in further attacks on the remaining US units between Syria, Iraq and Jordan.
In this case, only two considerations can be made: Israel’s future war in the Lebanon would certainly be less limited than the operations already carried out from 1978 to 1982 until 2000 (the stabilization of Hezbollah) and the actions of 2006.
We can also add that currently the Iranian, Sunni and Syrian forces will shift – as quickly as possible – from an attack against the Israeli critical infrastructure to a real counterforce occupation on the ground.
However, will the Hezbollah and Iranian centres of gravity, as well as those of the Sunni forces in the Lebanon, be quickly identified by Israel in an upcoming attack?
However, in the future is it not ever more probable to have a wide area of action from the North, which will imply – from the very beginning – Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian positions all along the Syrian border with Israel?
Moreover, what will the Russian Federation do?
Will it want to be hegemonic throughout the Middle East and hence will it reach a sort of agreement with Israel, or will it choose the old strategic posture of acting as defender of the Arab world against the Jewish State?
Where would Russia go with such an old and weak geopolitical perspective?
Whatever happens, the Russian Federation will be the keystone of every operation between Israel, the Lebanon and the Syrian-Iranian axis.
Therefore Russia has only two options: either it steps aside in the future Syrian-Lebanese-Israeli conflict – and hence runs the risk of losing all its power also in Syria – or it chooses to take part in the clashes, possibly indirectly, to favor one party or the other, but only at the right time.
In the future, however, Russia will never do anything to trigger the Syrian fuses again.
Every war operation across Syria runs the risks of undermining above all Russia’s new strategic assets.
In a short time, however, the United States could support the Israeli missile defences. Later Russia could support Iran and Syria only to be consistent and fulfill a commitment made, thus preventing them from using the Russian advanced weapons on Assad’s territory. Furthermore the United States could support Israel, but also an international diplomatic effort that would turn the clash into a short and conventional war, without Israel’s “access to the extremes”, in the customary style in place since 1973.
At that juncture, Israel could choose to systematically weaken the enemy forces, or to divide the opponents, according to the strategy of the Horatii and the Curiatii or of the “distant friend”. Or, as it has already proven it can do, Israel can destabilize Syria and possibly even Iraq on the border of Iraq with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The extent to which Israel can still trust the United States in this operational and strategic choice is largely uncertain, if not unlikely.
If possible, in the future Israel can organize only a cold peace with Russia, thus increasing – however -its possibility to put pressure on the Russian Federation, also at military one.
The first rule for the Jewish State will always be to avoid splitting and fragmenting its forces. Hence it will always primarily need to immediately identify the enemy’s centre of gravity, although complex and resulting from alliances between different strategic aims.
Hence what can Hezbollah alone do in this phase?
The “Party of God” could avoid bringing the clash with Israel to Southern Lebanon, so as to avoid turning its primary assets into relatively easy targets for Israel.
A movement like the Shiite “Party of God”, but without a Lebanese hinterland or a cover area between the Litani river and Beirut, does not stand a chance and is defeated at the outset.
How much would Syria participate in the operations against Israel?
Probably, as much as to be able to decide the political effects of the war on its border with the Lebanon, but never so much as to use up its forces, in view of a destabilization on the Golan region.
Furthermore, how and to what extent would Iran arm the Houthi with a view to stopping the Israeli supplies in the Red Sea?
Is it possible that the Houthi’s primary goal for Iran is precisely to keep Saudi Arabia away from the new war in the Lebanon?
Would Iran better use them solely for putting pressure on Saudi Arabia, especially pending a Shite uprising from Bahrain, so as to later reach the Saudi provinces – with a Shiite majority – of Baharna, al-Qatif and Al- Ahsa, with the powerful and hidden Twelver Shia community of the Nakhawila, who have always lived in Medina?
You cannot do everything at the same time.
Or Iran and Hezbollah could opt for a low-medium intensity “long war” on the Israeli borders.
As far as we can currently know, however, Hezbollah has not yet clear ideas in mind.
This Shite movement is ever more the result of the many tensions within the complex and now fragmented Iranian regime.
According to the most reliable sources, however, the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God” has at least 110,000 missiles and rockets on the border with Israel.
Iran has at least 3,800 of them between the Litani border and the Bekaa-Golan axis.
Nevertheless 80% of these Iranian missiles cannot yet reach the Israeli territory while ensuring operational safety and security.
Apart from those left by Russia – and closely monitored by it – Syria still has few own missiles, all controlled directly from the Moscow’s Centre for the Aerospace Forces.
Obviously, the only potential that Hezbollah can use is currently its missile and military system in Southern Lebanon.
Also Iran closely monitors Southern Lebanon and, as far as we know, it has a dual command chain for the most relevant missiles.
Hence, time is short for a “war between wars” of the Lebanese, Iranian and Syrian Shiites against Israel.
Nevertheless, while the Party of God’s centre of gravity is so evident and small – and Lebanese only – Israel can always attack massively and in a very short time, thus blocking Hezbollah’s response and implicitly threatening any Lebanese Shiite allies.
Hence, for the “Party of God” the problem is also to be ready for an effective war against Israel, but without ever involving the Lebanese territory, which could become a necessary safe haven after the first Israeli salvos.
Therefore, a concrete possibility is that Hezbollah, Iran and a part of Syria create their guerrilla groups along the Bekaa-Golan and Iraq-Lebanon “corridor”, with a view to distributing the efforts against Israel and avoiding the immediate elimination of their centre of gravity by Israel.
There are currently around 20,000 Shiite foreign fighters in Syria, although Iran has always claimed to have called and trained at least 180,000.
Hence an inevitably slow mobilization – an easy goal of interdiction by the Israeli air forces.
However, Hezbollah’s missiles alone are enough to saturate Israeli defenses.
However, despite the recent Iranian support, the salvo quality and accuracy still leaves something to be desired.
Currently the only possibility for Iran and the Shiite Lebanon against Israel is to launch a limited attack and then use diplomacy and the international business and influence networks to contain and curb the strength of Israeli response.
Hence a good possibility for the Jewish State is to exploit or support Iran’s tendency to trigger a non-conventional conflict, but with the obvious possibility that, from the very beginning, the Syrian or Lebanese conflict may expand directly also onto the Iranian territory.
Hence, we could think of a further effort by Israel to “keep the Americans in”, but even the “Russians in” – just to paraphrase what Lord Ismay said about NATO -as well as to move Hezbollah away from the borderline of the Litani river and the Bekaa-Golan axis, well over the 80 kilometers already requested by Israel.
If Russia remains in Syria, as is now certain, it will have no interest in a long war in Syria or in the Lebanon.
Hence, it could slowly separate its forces from the Shiite and Syrian ones, or ban some areas to the Shiite guerrillas that Iran has already called in Syria.
The Israeli military services, however, have already signaled the presence of Iranian forces from the border with Israel to Northern and Eastern Syria, with a strong Syrian-Lebanese and Iranian military pressure that will almost certainly take place around the upcoming Israeli elections of April 9.
Shortly afterwards, Israel shall assess President Trump’s proposal for a definitive peace between Israel and the Palestinian world.
A peace that will change the whole strategic formula of the Greater Middle East.
Hence, it is not hard to foresee that the Gaza Strip will become an area of overt and full-blown war, put in place by Palestinians and their Iranian supporters.
Over the last few days, major incidents have already occurred at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Therefore the electoral tension in Israel will be a further trigger of very strong and future political-military actions in the North and in the South.
At the Northern border, between Bekaa and Golan, there will be further tensions that will lead to actions by Shiite guerrilla organizations on the Israeli territory.
Both Hezbollah and the Al Qods Brigades of the “Iranian Revolutionary Guards” will choose the right time to hit the Jewish State with their missiles, obviously when the tension towards the Gaza Strip reaches its peak.
Or – but it is not an alternative option – along the border between the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and Israel.
There is nothing to prevent the Shiite organizations from using Russian positions as shields, which will obviously never participate in the operations of their Syrian-Iranian or Lebanese allies against Israel.
During the Israeli electoral period, the Palestinian jihadist organizations will operate especially between Judea and Samaria. They will possibly be even supported by the Russian Federation, which still plays the card of Palestinian unity both to compete with Iran and to organize the support for Russia by the Sunni world.
Nevertheless, nothing prevents us from thinking that Russia also has some political “champion” within the Israeli electoral campaign.
Not surprisingly, the first Conference for Palestinian Unity began in Warsaw on February 13, with as many as 60 countries invited and the initial proposal for mediation by the United States.
Nevertheless, precisely on February 11-13, a new inter-Palestinian Conference was organized in Moscow, with the participation of Hamas and other groups of the Sunni jihad.
What does Russia want to obtain from these operations?
Firstly, Russia wants to avoid a new Iranian hegemony in this region that Russia has always nurtured.
For obvious purposes, which have little changed since the end of the Cold War.
Secondly, the Russian Federation wants to win the geopolitical support of this unified Palestinian region, with a view to becoming the real broker of a new Middle East peace, thus ousting both the United States and the much sillier “mediators” of the unaware and now comical Union European.
Hence, the Russian Federation’s bet is a minimax, as we would say in mathematical terms: to reach the primary goal, that is the Russian hegemony over the whole Middle East, with the minimum effort, i.e. the systematic negotiation with all actors.
In all likelihood, Russia will ask the Jewish State to reduce the military pressure eastwards and southwards, but only to replace it with its own future “deterrence force” at the edges of the various borders.
Obviously, by using all Russia’s allies.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will discuss these issues in his upcoming meetings with President Putin in Moscow on February 21.
However, Syria and Iran will certainly not be the only topics of the bilateral talks with President Putin.
Hence, as already said, the Iranian and the Lebanese Shiite forces, the proxies of the Shiite guerrillas that Iran has called in Syria, the Iranian special forces and those of Bashar al-Assad are moving away from the border with Israel to gather in Northern and Eastern Syria, up to the border with Iraq.
This is really bad news for the Israeli decision-makers.
Currently Iran – with its “revolutionary” groups called from Afghanistan, Iraq and even Pakistan – but also the Hezbollah and the Pasdaran special units, are quickly moving away from the Golan region and -hence – become hard to be attacked by the Israeli forces.
This obviously happens because of the USA leaving its positions – a withdrawal that Iran wants to capitalize quickly and fully, thus removing forces from Syria and, hence, reaching full strategic depth in Iraq, a country from which Iranian missiles can still reach the Israeli territory.
Iran’s plan is therefore to leave the various militias, its Shiite proxies and a part of Hezbollah on the Syrian-Israeli border, as if they were various buffer areas, so as to later protect itself permanently from the Israeli attacks and anyway make it hard for the Israeli forces to control Northern Israel militarily.
Said forces could not control remote operations, if not when it is too late.
Hence, Israel is currently the primary target of the missiles owned by the Palestinian jihad, both in the South and in the East, as well as of the Iranian and Shiite forces in Iraq, of Hezbollah in the north and of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Not to mention the Iraqi networks of Iran and part of its Shiite proxies.
It will be a war on several fronts and with centers of gravity other than the usual ones.
Who Will Rebuild Syria: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
After raging for eight years, the violent phase of the Syrian civil war seems to be reaching its final stages, with Idlib as the last holdout. Recently, leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey held talks in Sochi to discuss securing peace in Syria and preventing a large-scale military assault on Idlib, Syria’s last rebel enclave. World leaders have also discussed the the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged European Union countries to help rebuild Syria, arguing that it would lead to a faster return of refugees from Europe to their country. His efforts have so far been unsuccessful as EU countries refuse to participate in a rebuilding process that involves Bashar Al-Assad. Arab states are considering readmitting Syria into the Arab League and have shown interest in investing in the country’s reconstruction. However, the United States is pressuring the Gulf states to hold back on restoring relations with Syria and investing in its reconstruction. As such, it seems that in addition to Russia, China, Iran, and India are best poised to invest in and benefit from the country’s rebuilding. Former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura estimates the cost of Syria’s reconstruction to be 250 billion USD, while the Syrian government estimates the number to be 400 billion USD. Either way, the cost is too high for the Syrian government to finance on its own without the help of its leading businessmen and international partners and allies.
How the Civil War Changed Syria’s Economic Environment
However, during the eight years of ongoing civil war, some prominent faces in Syria’s economic arena have disappeared, giving way to new actors who have positioned themselves and their businesses to benefit from the vacuum created by the civil war and, therefore, became highly influential, obtaining access to Al-Assad’s ‘inner circle’. Some of Bashar Al-Assad’s inner circle members were forced to flee the country, defect to the opposition, or remain neutral—thus losing their favourable position in this inner circle. This applies not only to the decision-making process, but also to the country’s internal economic process. The International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling argues that the war “forced large families to exile or to shut their businesses down and allowed a new generation of wheeler-dealers to emerge.” However, most of these actors and their assets have been sanctioned by the West due to their relationship with, and involvement in projects linked to the Syrian government. This creates a hurdle on the way to Syria’s reconstruction as many businessmen find their own funds—as well as international funds, companies and suppliers—inaccessible.
Economic Sanctions as an Obstacle
Economic sanctions have been successful in limiting the activity of Syria’s economic actors. It didn’t put them out of business as they have developed methods to bypass sanctions. Among those is establishing a close relationship with the Syrian government based on a system of ‘favors’, in which businessmen provide the government with some financial services in return for access to lucrative projects across the country. This poses several obstacles in the face of the country’s reconstruction. How independent are these businessmen from the government as economic actors best poised in terms of access and financial resources to rebuild the country? Given their proximate relationship to the Assad government, it is unlikely that they will gain access to foreign funds needed for the country’s rebuilding. Moreover, do their interests lay in rebuilding infrastructure and improving citizens’ living standards? Or will they rather pursue lucrative projects that are not entirely related to infrastructure, and therefore, will not bring significant benefit to the majority of the population? Furthermore, given the nature of the political and economic process in Syria, foreign companies will need to partner with local Syrian actors who have close ties to the government to be able to effectively invest and participate in the rebuilding process. However, these partnerships are restricted due to economic sanctions. As such, it is important to identify these local actors, their relation to the Syrian government and what initiatives towards rebuilding the country they have taken thus far. The most prominent and currently active businessmen in Syria can be divided into two groups: the ‘old guard’ who have been able to withstand local and external pressures and remain operable, and the ‘new guard’, who saw in the civil war the opportunities to gain access to financially beneficial economic sectors and projects.
Syria’s Most Prominent ‘Old Guards’
Rami Makhlouf is at the top of the ‘old guard’ list. Even under Western sanctions, he is still successfully operating in the country. This is in great part due to his relation to Al-Assad: he is a cousin from mother’s side. Following the outbreak of the war, Makhlouf stated that he would turn to charity and no longer pursue projects that can generate personal gain. However, Makhlouf still has close ties with leading businessmen in the country and is active in several economic sectors, including telecommunications (he owns mobile network company Syriatel), import/export, natural resources, and finance. Moreover, the Makhlouf empire has branches in some European countries, and a team of lawyers creating shell companies and bank accounts to bypass economic sanctions. Therefore, even if at times he is not the face of projects, it is highly likely that Makhlouf is somehow still benefiting from his relations with other businessmen and his numerous shell companies.
Mohammad Hamsho is another infamous old guard who currently serves as Secretary of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce and member of the People’s Assembly for Damascus. In 2018, Hamsho visited Tehran and met with Secretary General of Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Bahman Eshghi. During the meeting, both sides affirmed their determination to work on improving their economic relation, and signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two countries in various economic, trade, investment and production sectors. However, given that both countries are under sanctions, the magnitude of their economic cooperation is still hard to predict. Hamsho has been subject to US sanctions since 2011, but has been successful in having European sanctions lifted in 2014 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence of his involvement with the regime. Two prominent Syrian businessmen who landed on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned individuals, published on January 21, 2019, are Nader Qalei and Khaled Al-Zubaidi. The two are leading actors operating in Syria with investments in the construction industry. One of their most significant investments is in the construction of Grand Town, a luxury tourist project. The Syrian government has granted Qalei and Al-Zubaidi a 45-year agreement for this project in exchange for approximately 20% return on revenue. According to the Council of the EU, Qalei and Al-Zubaidi benefit from and/or support the regime through their business activities, in particular through their stake in the Grand Town development. One of the most prominent actors in the country’s media sector is Majd Sleiman, otherwise known as the ‘intelligence boy’, son of Hafez Al-Assad’s cousin. Sleiman is currently the chief executive director of Alwaseet Group, one of the largest media groups in the Middle East and North Africa region. At the age of 25, he was already running several businesses and had established regional and international connections in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, Europe and the United States. Even though Sleiman is active in the media and publishing sector, which is considered unprofitable, his companies received significant amounts of money from British accounts. This could be indicative of potential money laundering for the Syrian regime through British banks, via Sleiman.
Syria’s Most Prominent ‘New Guards’
With some families falling out of Al-Assad’s favors, and others exiled or unable to operate due to economic sanctions, a few savvy businessmen found an opportunity to fill the newly created vacuum and establish ties with the Al-Assad government by providing it with much needed services. Most prominent among these ‘new guards’ is Samer Foz, a leading Syrian businessman, known for his ruthlessness in conducting business. In fact, in 2013, Foz served a six month jail sentence for killing a Ukrainian/Egyptian businessman in Istanbul, Turkey. Foz is involved in multiple sectors of Syria’s economy, including brokering grain deals, and a stake in a regime-backed joint venture involved in the development of Marota City—a luxury residential and commercial development project. After several of Al-Assad’s former business allies found themselves unable to continue their business activities, Al-Assad welcomed Foz to his inner circle. Moreover, after being heavily affected by the war, Syria’s agricultural industry suffered, and Foz positioned himself as one of the few businessmen with the ability to broker grain deals. As a result, he received access to commercial opportunities through the wheat trade. Through his investments in the food industry and some reconstruction projects, Foz made his way into the inner circle by providing financial and other support to the regime, including funding the Military Security Shield Forces. Notably, Foz maintains very close ties with Iran, as well as Russia and other Western and Arab countries such as Italy, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Lebanon.
Another relatively new name to the arena of businessmen in Syria is Mazen Al Tarazi. Al Tarazi resides in Kuwait and has launched several campaigns in an attempt to get into Al-Assad’s inner circle. One of his campaigns was named “Returning to Syria” in which he pledged to bear the cost of Syrians wanting to return to their country. Moreover, in 2014, he assigned a plane at his own expense to transfer Syrians from Kuwait to Damascus, and back to Kuwait so they can cast their votes in the Presidential election. In 2017, his attempts proved successful and he was granted an investment license for a private airline in Syria, as well as other projects including a deal with Damascus Cham Holdings for a 320 USD million investment in the construction of Marota City. The Syrian Palestinian businessman benefited from his public support of the Assad government. In fact, according to Syrian media, Al Tarazi’s investment in Marota City is the first investment in Syria in which the investor’s share is greater than that of the public sector (51% of the project was owned by Al Tarazi and 49% by the Damascus Holding Company of the Damascus governorate). This investment, as well as his outspoken support for Al-Assad landed him on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned persons. The final businessman on the ‘new guards’ list is Samir Hassan, owner and agent of several companies in Syria, including Nokia and Nikon. After bad harvests due to war, he invested in imports of food supplies, in particular wheat, rice, sugar, and tea, and developed a close relationship with the Al-Assad family. During the civil war and against the background of improved relations with Russia, Hassan was named the Chairman of the Syrian-Russian Business Council, quite a prestigious position given the special relationship between Russia and Syria. Hassan’s investments in the food industry will also be vital during the reconstruction of Syria where he will be able to provide materials and products needed for reviving the agricultural sector, one of the greatest contributors to Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Trends in investments of Syria’s Businessmen
In general, businessmen involved in the Marota City and Grand Town projects have found themselves under Western economic sanctions. Most of Syria’s prominent businessmen have invested in these projects thanks to their connections with the government. In addition to some of the figures mentioned above, Anas Talas, Nazir Ahmad Jamal Eddine, Khaldoun Al-Zoubi, Hayan Mohammad, Nazem Qaddour, Maen Rizk Allah Haykal and Bashar Mohammad Assi have been recently sanctioned primarily due to their participation in the construction of Marota City. The Marota City and Grand Town projects are not essential for the country’s reconstruction, as they represent luxury residential and commercial projects and do not contribute to rebuilding the damaged infrastructure. However, several of the mentioned businessmen have been investing in infrastructure-related industries, such as the metal and steel industry, as well as the electrical and food industries. Recently, Hamsho bought “Al Sewedy Cables” factory, previously owned by Egyptian businessman Ahmad Al Sewedy, which produces electrical cables, towers, columns, transformers and circuit breakers, as well as a foundry (metal melting) factory that produces material for construction. Hamsho was able to acquire Al Sewedy’s company after it defaulted on loans given to it by the Islamic Bank of Syria and was sold in an auction. Foz has also been investing in former businessmen’s assets as he secured the ‘empires’ of two Syrian millionaires previously in Al-Assad’s inner circle. Emad Hamisho, previously known as the “economic shark” of Syria, and his family were sanctioned by the Syrian Ministry of Finance in 2013 after defaulting on a loan of 3.8 million Syrian Pounds he had borrowed from the real estate bank. In 2014, the sanctions were lifted without any clarifications on whether Hamisho had settled his account with the ministry or not. In 2018, the Ministry of Finance issued a new decision to sanction the assets of “Hamisho Minerals.” Foz saw an opportunity in it and swooped in. He entered into a partnership with Hamisho and created a new company where he heads the board of directors. Moreover, after a series of tightening measures initiated against him by the Syrian government in the early phases of the civil war, Imad Ghreiwaty decided to gradually transfer his investments abroad and resign from his position as the head of the Union of Chambers of Industry. His assets included a cables company, “Syria Modern Cables”, which Foz bought in 2017. Notwithstanding the manner of purchase, these initiatives are important for the country’s rebuilding, and are profitable for the investors, as they will provide construction material necessary for the reconstruction phase.
Financing Syria’s reconstruction
It is evident that rebuilding Syria will be largely controlled by Al-Assad’s inner circle of businessmen who have preferential access to investments and are best positioned to receive projects and tenders in the upcoming period. However, a few businessmen will not be able to rebuild the country on their own, and even the country’s most prominent and richest businessmen will find themselves limited in their activities due to imposed economic sanctions. While Syria’s allies are willing to help, and have already begun cultivating and consolidating relationships with local actors to gain access to the Syrian market, they are also facing certain limitations. Iran and Russia are constrained by economic sanctions of their own, whereas India and China are reluctant to invest unless they receive security guarantees to insure and protect their investments in Syria. Therefore, while both local and external actors are willing and seek to invest in the lucrative industry of Syria’s rebuilding, they are faced with many obstacles, including economic sanctions. The irony of the matter is that actors who have access and finances to invest in rebuilding Syria cannot do so since their access depends on their relationship with Al-Assad—a relationship that has provided them with opportunities and finances, and landed them on international economic sanctions lists that now restrict their ability to operate at their full capacity. With the United States and European Union unwilling to foot the bill, it remains to see whether the Gulf States will overcome Western pressures, restore ties with Al-Assad and invest in rebuilding Syria.
First published in our partner RIAC
Hamas in Egypt
The issue of Sinai and its jihad is increasingly important, also considering Hezbollah’s new strategy in Southern Lebanon, as well as the current deployment of Iranian, Syrian, Russian and various Sunni and jihadist forces between the Golan Heights and the Bekaa Valley, on the border between Syria and Israel.
The “sword jihad” in the Sinai peninsula, however, dates back to many years ago.
In 2011, precisely at the peak of tension both in the West and within some of the so-called “moderate” Islamic forces operating in the Maghreb region, during the various national “Arab springs”, the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis group (ABM) was created in the Sinai peninsula.
As was easy to foresee, unlike what CIA believed at the time, the destabilization of the old regimes had strengthened and not weakened the jihadist organizations.
ABM was the new network of exchange, training, intelligence and fundraising of the local jihad that, for the first time, played its own autonomous role.
For all the organizations of the Egyptian-Palestinian “holy war”, the opportunity of Mubarak’s fall was too fortunate to be missed.
In the void of power (and of welfare for the Sinai populations), the newly-established ABM easily succeeded in winning the local populations’ support.
It should also be noted that, albeit always careful in its approach – except in the strategic void occurred with Morsi’s government linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which lasted from June 30, 2012 to July 3, 2013, when the coup of the Head of the military intelligence services, Al Sisi, ousted him from power – Egypt was interested only in the security of Sinai’s oil networks, not in the support of local populations.
Even currently, with the emergence of Sinai’s jihad, Egypt bears the brunt of its strategic oversight and the poor social and political analysis of the peninsular system around its canals.
Nevertheless Al Sisi-led Egypt has very little money- hence some simplicity in its analyses is quite understandable.
The activity to make the Sinai networks safe had already started as early as Mubarak’s time and has continued until the current government of Al Sisi, who knows all too well that – after the “cure” of the Muslim Brotherhood -he cannot completely trust his own police forces or his intelligence services, and hence is thinking of somehow “delegating security” for the Sinai peninsula also to third parties.
At that juncture, however, the news was spread that the Israeli forces were using precisely Palestinian elements to collect primary intelligence on the Sinai’s Isis, one of ABM current developments.
ABM was one of the first groups outside the Syrian-Iraqi system to swear allegiance to the “Caliph” Al Baghdadi.
Israel used those intelligence networks only to support Egypt in its specific local war on terror, considering that Daesh-Isis still had at least 2,000 active elements in the peninsula that, for the time being, were not specifically targeted to the Jewish State.
On January 11, 2019, for example, the Egyptian Armed Forces successfully hit and hence killed 11 terrorists, who were already making operations against the city of Bir-el-Abad in Northern Sinai.
It was even said that the Israeli intelligence had infiltrated the local Daesh-Isis. This was also confirmed by Egyptian President Al-Sisi himself who, in an interview with the American TV channel CBS on January 3, 2019, reaffirmed the existence of close cooperation between the Israeli intelligence services and the Egyptian forces in all the anti-jihadist operations in Sinai.
Clearly, the goal of ABM – which had meanwhile quickly converged into Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate” –was the stable deterioration of relations between Egypt and Israel.
It should also be noted that the continued terrorist action against the oil and gas networks in Sinai forced Jordan to look for and buy oil and gas elsewhere.
Obviously the permanent insecurity of networks in Sinai slowed down and often blocked the prospects for expansion of the Israeli gas and oil in their connection both with Egypt and with the long Arab Pipeline network reaching Damascus and, through Turkey, the European market.
Hence, since 2013, with the successful coup staged by Al Sisi, the ABM – which was already part of the pseudo-Caliphate system – has been focusing on one goal: the fight against the Egyptian armed forces and power.
Hence Sinai’s new jihadist network is composed of Wilayat al Sinai, i.e. the pseudo-Caliphate network; some groups linked to Al Qaeda, such as Jund al Islam, a structure operating above all in Sinai’s Western desert, as well as Ansar al Islam and other groups, always active in Sinai’s Northern peninsula.
There are also militant groups that are explicitly linked to the Islamic Brotherhood, such as Hassm (the acronym of the “Army of Egypt’s Forearms”) and Liwa al Thawra, also known as “the Banner of the Revolution” which, however, operates above all in Egypt, between Alexandria, Cairo and Suez.
It should also be noted that last February both the Islamic “State” of Daesh-Isis and Al Qaeda itself uploaded a video in which Ayman Al Zawahiri harshly criticized the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and above all in Sinai.
Hence in 2014 Al Sisi militarized Sinai.
Although not much is known about it, it is a low-intensity war that has already exacted a toll of several thousand victims.
The ABM, renamed Wilayat al Sinai after its affiliation with Daesh-Isis, was still supported by much of Sinai’s population, while the economic crisis of the region worsened with the embargo imposed by Egypt, with a view to stopping oil smuggling and the widespread arms trafficking.
At that juncture, Al Sisi launched its great Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018, a military action which began on February 9, 2018, and was organized between the Nile Delta and Northern and Central Sinai.
In fact, everything began after the attack on the Al-Rawda mosque of November 24, 2017. It should be noted that Al-Rawda is a mosque linked to the Jayiria Sufi sect, a mystic “order” widespread particularly in Sinai, especially in the Bir el-Abed area.
Thanks to the effective results of that great operation, Egypt also closed the Gaza border and the Rafah border that, however, has been recently reopened.
It is worth noting that the “great operation” had been launched shortly before the Egyptian political and presidential elections of March 2018.
Hence these are the terms of the equation: strong anti-Egyptian jihadist threat in Sinai; limited forces available to the Egyptian army and intelligence services and above all the issue of the International Monetary Fund’s loan to Egypt, which has strategic and military importance also in Sinai.
Therefore Al Sisi’s military credibility is one of the essential factors of his financial salvation.
In fact, in November 2016, the IMF granted to Egypt an Extended Fund Facility worth 12 billion US dollars.
All the applicative reviews, including the last one of February 4, 2019, have already been approved by the Fund’s board.
So far, however, the reforms implemented by Al Sisi’s regime have always been evaluated positively by the aforementioned board.
And also by many private investment banks, which could also take over from the IMF at the end of the Extended Fund Facility.
Hence macroeconomic stabilization but, first and foremost, resumption of the GDP growth.
Tourism, the primary sector of the Egyptian economy, has again started to perform very well. The same holds true for migrants’ remittances and for the product of the non-oil and manufacturing sector, which the IMF has identified as the key to Egypt’s future – a sector which is recovering and, anyway, is also growing steadily.
The social protection put in place by the Egyptian government, essential for “keeping the crowds under control” (and, often, also local jihadist terrorism) provides food for children, basic commodities and medicines, with a recent and significant increase of the liquidity available in the many smart cards already distributed to the poor people.
The takafol and karama programs, designed to support the poor families’ standard of living, already apply to over 2.2 million households, i.e. 9 million Egyptians.
Too many poor people and hence many candidates to swell the jihad ranks, with a very effective network now available, including para-Caliphates, Al Qaeda and all the rest, but especially the network of Muslim Brotherhood’s “young people”, who are refocusing on a “slow-paced”, but equally cruel, brutal and effective jihad.
Hence, without making it explicitly known to Israel, Egypt has already placed Hamas in the frontline of its low-intensity war in Sinai.
In late November 2018, the former ABM group in Sinai had also already seized a shipment of Iranian weapons, especially kornet missiles, that went from Iran to Hamas through the Gaza Strip.
For some years, however, the relations between the Palestinian Islamic jihad and Egypt have weakened, thanks to the well-known support that the Palestinian group of Gaza, also linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has provided to the Sinai jihad. Hence currently the real strategic link lies in the structural clash between Daesh-Isis and Hamas in the Sinai peninsula.
Obviously, the primary goal of the Israeli secret services is always to get good intelligence on the Al-Baghdadi system in the peninsula, but Hamas does not certainly remain silent.
In fact, in early January 2019, the Interior Minister of the Gaza Strip – obviously a Hamas leader – arrested as many as 54 aides of the Israeli forces who, according to Hamas, were operative of Shabak, the Israel Security Agency.
In Sinai, however, Isis still has a very close relationship with Hamas and is still the main carrier of arms smuggling in the Gaza Strip.
Currently, however, the real news is that the “Caliphate” has harshly broken with the Muslim Brotherhood’s group that rules in the Gaza Strip.
As a result, as previously said, Egypt has enlisted precisely Hamas in its fight against the so-called “Caliphate”.
Therefore also Qatar’s portentous funding granted only to Al Sisi’s regime is not useless here. This is an essential factor to understand the new strategic equation of both Qatar and present-day Egypt.
It was exactly in early January 2018, however, that the “Caliphate” openly declared war on Hamas.
Later, in March 2019, there have also been severe attacks on Israeli civilian positions, starting from the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli intelligence services have also ascertained that the specifically military wing of Hamas, namely the “Izz-ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades”, have already agreed with the Egyptian Armed Forces to fight the “Caliphate”, especially in the areas on the border with the Gaza Strip.
The Egyptian intelligence services have also notified Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia of the fact that they know the military-financial transactions of the Egyptian regime with Qatar very well. They have also informed Russia that the agreement between Hamas and the Egyptian forces is designed to permanently “recovering” Gaza’s Palestinian group, while in October 2018 Egypt had also arranged a short agreement between Hamas and Israel to reduce tension between the two areas.
In essence, pending the forthcoming end of military activities in Syria, a new tripartite order is being created, in the Middle East, between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates. All these three actors really want Israel to participate in the whole stabilization of the region.
This obviously implies the stable solution of the Palestinian issue, possibly with a new joint leadership –also different from the current one – and hence a new division of the areas of influence also within the Palestinian world.
Egypt wants to directly control the Gaza Strip, i.e. Hamas and the smaller local networks of Fatah and the Palestinian Jihad again in the Gaza Strip, but without forgetting the military and financial ties of these three organizations with Iran.
In the design of the new Arab tripartite agreement, Iran shall leave quickly.
Egypt is here imagining a sort of unification between the various groups of the old Palestinian resistance movement, with new organizations of political representation within the Gaza Strip and possibly also in the PNA’s Territories.
Nevertheless many problems will obviously emerge: the Palestinian National Authority, de facto expelled from the Gaza Strip, has had no news or ideas about the state of security in the Gaza Strip for at least ten years.
Egypt, however, does not want to put only in Hamas’ hands the whole issue of Sinai stability, as well as its sensitive, but fundamental relations with Israel.
Al Sisi is mainly observing – with extreme care – the role played by the number 2 leader of the PNA, Mohammed Dahlan, who has good relations with Hamas, but is still accused by Fatah of being “the one who lost the Gaza Strip in 2007”.
In any case, currently Egypt and Israel have excellent relations (Al Sisi and Netanyahu have regular phone conversations every week), while it should be recalled that it was exactly the emergence of the Sinai jihad that enabled Egypt to militarize the areas in which that had been forbidden exactly by the Peace Treaty with the Jewish State.
Another central issue is the cooperation between Israel and Egypt on energy issues.
Recently an agreement has been signed to enable Egypt to import Israeli natural gas to liquefy it.
Egypt absolutely needs the Israeli support, considering that – in this context – the struggle against Turkey was and still is an all-out struggle.
Nevertheless this new collocation of the military agreement between Egypt and Hamas has also put Israel in difficulty, which was not consulted, before this alliance, about the Gaza Strip.
The pact between the group of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip and Egypt became known to Israel only when Hamas pointed out to Egypt that there had been breaks in the “truce”, which the Israeli army still did not know in all its strategic value and relevance.
In any case, Israel has tripled the sale of electricity to the Gaza Strip, while as many as 11,000 trucks were sent from the Jewish State to support the population of the Gaza Strip.
Qatar alone provided over 15 million US dollars of aid to the political and humanitarian organizations of the Gaza Strip.
Indeed, Hamas wanted above all a refund or monetary support from Israel, but much greater than expected, at least for the funds that the PNA’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, had decided autonomously to remove from the autonomous administration of the Gaza Strip.
As usual, the response was obviously a terrorist one, with bombs thrown at the IDF troops and the Jewish population outside the border.
Despite of the above mentioned stabilization projects, Hamas wants to make the most of the climate prevailing for the Israeli upcoming elections scheduled for next April.
Certainly the next target of the Palestinian groups will be the joint Israeli-US exercise scheduled for March 4 next.
It will be a very important military exercise: a United States European Command (USEUCOM) battery composed of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles will be made operational, right on the border between the Gaza Strip and the Jewish State.
The THAAD system will soon be added to the Israeli defense systems, along with the Iron Dome, mainly operating against short-range missiles; the Arrow system, intercepting long-range missiles in their exo-atmospheric phase and David’s Sling to hit tactical ballistic missiles.
Both the THAAD and the Arrow systems are already included in the USEUCOM’s early warning network, using a series of radars located on a US base in the Negev desert.
A base that, however, already monitors any missile launch from Iran.
Obviously the THAAD network is a US implicit suggestion not to give in to the flatteries and blandishments of the Sunni treaty on the new areas of influence between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – a treaty which is still written in the Sinai sand.
The United States in Iraq and the new offensives in the region
Over the last few days, particularly on March 6, new US troops arrived in Iraq. They in fact arrived in the Iraqi area of Al Anbar, leaving from bases located in both Israel and Jordan, particularly from the Mowaffaq Salti and H-4 air bases.
Nevertheless the US troops – quickly attacked by the Iraqi Shiites – probably arrived also from other bases outside Iraq.
Those US forces had the primary goal of quickly crushing an operation of Shiite brigades connected to Iran, but coordinated by the People’s Mobilization Forces that, albeit linked to Iran, are the political and military axis of the major groups elected to Parliament.
Moreover, last year, it was exactly the Iraqi legislative Assembly that adopted legislation making the Shiite militias an essential and official asset of the Iraqi political system.
The Hashd al-Shabi forces – in their new “civilian” group, Fatah, which is their new political alliance – have also become the second group in terms of seats in the election held last May.
The Hashd al-Shabi forces consist of at least 120,000 well-armed men, who were the first to declare victory on the Iraqi forces of Daesh-Isis – although we do not know yet to what extent this victory can be considered final.
It should also be recalled that, precisely with the recent election held in Iraq on May 12, 2018, almost all the traditional ethnic-religious fragmentation and tension among Iraqi voters have slackened.
The real cleavage among Iraqi political groups is now more focused on the defence of territorial interests and on the Welfare share to be transferred from the centre to the periphery than on the traditional “rift” between religious and ethnic groups.
Currently the real fragmentations are the internal and economic ones within the various political groups.
The precarious Iraqi government, however, is led by the Shiite leader, Adil Abdil Mahdi, a member of the party known as the “Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq” (ISCI), linked and derived directly from the old Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Shiite and Khomeinist organization founded in 2007 upon Imam Baqir al-Hakim’s initiative.
Also the Sunnis, however, gathered and supported their traditional electorate, especially within the rebalancing of financial transfers between their regions and the central State.
Moreover, the Kurds are increasingly present in the administration and in the central political system but – as can be easily imagined – to favour their autonomous welfare and international and Iraqi investments in Erbil and in their great province between Kirkuk and the non-Iraqi Kurdish areas.
Later, however, the Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister met with resistance even in his traditional Shiite bloc, among the “Sadrists” of the Sairoon Party and even in some Kurdish sectors.
Furthermore, with their Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Kurds already have 45 seats out of 100 and traditionally obtain many votes from the Christian and Turkmen minorities.
Certainly the economic and political relations with Turkey – which constantly acquires many of the Iraqi waters – are essential for both oil extraction and agriculture.
Another variable between Shiites, Kurds and the United States, as well as in the local relations among Russians.
Daesh-Isis, however, is coming back onto the scene, particularly in North-Western Iraq.
In all likelihood, however, the “Caliphate” does not intend to conquer the cities – which are currently difficult to hold for a long time – but, from now on, it wants to operate as a mobile guerrilla group, possibly with further artillery actions and proposing itself again as the main political-military actor of the Al-Anbar region.
It will be exactly the “Caliphate” to keep Iraq fragmented and weak. This is its primary strategic aim.
Even this particular Iraqi internal political set-up leads Iran to consider Iraq the most important strategic pawn of its future foreign policy, especially in the framework of its nuclear issue.
Certainly the nuclear reactors in Iran’s hands, but present on Iraq’s territory, would be the ideal solution for Iran.
It should also be recalled that Iran sets great store by Iraq, considering that this country is at the origin of the new “corridor” that -upon the de facto end of the clashes in Syria -will go from the internal areas of the Shiite Iraq to Syria up to Beirut and the Lebanese areas controlled by Hezbollah.
The statement made in July 2018 in relation to the United States by General Soleimani, the leader of the Al Qods militias of the Iranian Pasdaran, “We are near you, where you cannot even imagine…”is probably the key to understanding the current situation.
The visit paid by the Iranian President, Hassan Rohani, on March 6, 2019 is a further factor to understand the Iraqi situation and the region that US analysts define as Syraq.
The “reformist” President – according to the simplistic Western thinking – is sending a clear signal, above all to the United States, that the Shiite Iran values Iraq very much, mainly its de facto hegemony on it, but also the possibility that Iran immediately and directly clashes with the United States, right on the Iraqi ground, but only and solely where Iran wants.
The Iranian President has also said that Iraq is the primary solution “to bypass America’s unjust sanctions imposed on Iran”.
In this regard, we should also recall the “International Conference for Reconstruction of Iraq”, held in Kuwait in March 2018.
Its main document, drawn up directly by the World Bank, envisages as many as 157 primary projects for a total value of 88.7 billion US dollars, 23 of which are short-term and the remaining ones are medium-long term projects.
Ii is worth recalling that Iraq is OPEC second largest oil producer and ranks fifth in terms of proven oil and gas reserves.
Hence the Saudi specific interest in the Kuwait International Conference, although Saudi Arabia has not yet credible points of reference in the Iraqi ruling class.
Iraq is the real stake between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the strategic key is the separation of military continuity between the Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia, however, has already provided over one billion US dollars for aid and 500 million US dollars for export support. Also the Emirate of Qatar granted another billion dollars and Kuwait followed suit, while the United States itself promised as many as 3 billion dollars.
As can be easily imagined, everyone is interested in differentiating their support for Iraq and above all avoiding Iraq falling entirely into Iran’s hands.
It should be noted, however, that the 39 million inhabitants of present-day Iraq are increasing at a very quick pace (one million per year), which is certainly the fastest growth rate in the Middle East. It should also be recalled that the whole Iraqi social and economic system is characterized by the highest number of poor and unemployed people across the Middle East.
It is therefore obvious that Iran wants to acquire the Iraqi oil market in its entirety and use it – as a political and economic weapon – against the whole Sunni axis and particularly against the United States and its allies within OPEC.
In fact, after the Shiite forces’ attacks on some US military targets in Iraq – coincidentally carried out during Iranian President Rouhani’s visit – the United States immediately called back their forces in Israel and Jordan, as well as those in the Gulf, and – as always happens in these cases -it also alerted its military in Romania and Bulgaria.
The two groups that attacked the US forces on March 6 and later are directly linked to Iran.
It is a first militia called Kata’ib Hezbollah, while the other Shiite organization is known as Hasaib Ahl al-Ahq, i.e. the Khazali network.
Both organizations stem directly from the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The Kataib Hezbollah was founded by the Iranian Pasdaran and the military organization known as Al Quds Force, which is linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Hezbollah in the Lebanon was born from the will of Imam Khomeini, who considered the Shiite group “the light of his life”.
It should be recalled that Kataib is also one of the six groups that established the “People’s Mobilization Forces”, from which the current majority political bloc in Iraq stemmed.
The Khazali network is also a party in the Iraqi Parliament, with 15 representatives, who are said to be the result of electoral fraud. It was also officially established by the Al Quds Force and, during the war in Iraq, it organized over 6,000 attacks on US and Western targets.
Nevertheless the very recent operations against the US military – in clear connection with Rouhani’s visit and his declarations on the now unique Iranian hegemony on Iraq – were carried out exactly one day after the United States had imposed further sanctions, but against a third Iranian Shiite military network, namely Al-Nujaba.
More precisely, it is the Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, an organization created in 2013, which has four brigades between Iraq and some cells hidden in the Gulf (hence the apparently obscure reference in the above quoted statement by General Soleimani), including the military group that is explicitly devoted to the anti-Israeli operations on the Golan Heights.
There is also an Al-Nujaba brigade carrying out special operations in Syria for Bashar al-Assad’s forces – a brigade equipped with several Russian T-72 tanks and, above all, Iranian missiles.
Furthermore, a very strong signal for the US armed forces came from the statements made by Iraqi parliamentarian Nessar al Rabee, linked to the Sadrist movement and, hence, having direct relations also with the quasi-majority currently in power in Iraq, who asked that “all foreign forces should leave the Iraqi territory” .
The Shiite Sadrist parliamentarian also added that this request would rescue Iraq from the “terrorist forces” that want to enter the country “under new labels”.
Hence clear language and terminology.
Moreover Prime Minister Al Mahdi stated he had spoken directly on the phone with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He also said that the United States can no longer legally establish their new bases on the Iraqi territory and added that the current US military presence is confined only to combating Isis-Daesh and training the Iraqi armed forces.
The United States, however, is repositioning itself on the border between Iraq and Syria and, particularly, in the Western area of the Al-Anbar province and among the Kurds of Kirkuk.
Nevertheless it is strange that, also for the Sadrists, this new composition of Iraqi Shiite forces comes after a long struggle of the Iraqi military and political Shiism against Iran’s increasingly heavier hegemony.
Initially quasi-enemies and certainly Iraqi “nationalists”, probably enemies of the Khomeinist doctrine of Velayat-e-Faqih, but currently increasingly linked to Iran’s ideologies and, above all, interests.
Hence the greater Iran’s economic and strategic reaction against the US denunciation of the nuclear agreement, the greater the Iranian strongly adverse presence against the United States in Iraq, an inevitable axis for opposing the US troops, who are withdrawing from Syria and repositioning themselves right on the border with Iraq and, above all, at the starting point of the Shiite “corridor” that already reaches the Lebanon through the Syrian-Israeli border.
Another essential factor of the Iranian strategy has recently been the organization of a fundamental meeting between Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – a meeting that took place in Tehran on February 27 last.
Bashar al-Assad is the only Middle East leader who “kissed the hand” of Iran’s Supreme Leader.
The primary signal of the meeting–again sent directly to the United States – is that Bashar al-Assad will never abandon Iran.
Are we sure, however, that this new collocation of relations between Iran and Syria is really ideal for the Russian Federation?
We will see at a later stage.
In his meeting with Rohuani, Bashar al-Assad also explicitly said that Syria will still be part of Iran’s “Resistance Axis” and currently also of all the guerrilla, terrorist and paramilitary entities that Iranians have so far organized between the Shiite areas and the covert structures operating in the Gulf Sunni world.
The issue of the Syrian-Iranian relationship also concerns the whole connection between Syria, Iran and Iraq, considering that – during Bashar al-Assad visit to Tehran – General Suleimani said – very clearly, as usual – “Our safest border is the one between our two countries and Iraq”.
Here is, in fact, the real problem at the core of Khamenei’s and Assad’s fears, as well as of the current Iraqi leaders’. Both Syria and Iran think they must absolutely avoid the United States being their stable pocket, a strong buffer zone in Syria, always connected to Israeli strong air operations in Syria and, in the future, between the Bekaa Valley and the Golan Heights towards the Iraqi areas and, possibly, even on the Iranian border.
For this reason, in both Assad’s and Khamenei’ statements and recent actions, there are strong signs that make us foresee a new great offensive inside Syria, a massive action that could hit both some remaining Sunni-Caliphate pockets, between Idlib and Deir-Ezzor, and above all the US areas (the El Tanf base) and, more precisely, some Israeli targets.
In fact, addressing to Israel, in mid-January 2019, General Soleimani said that the Jewish State must “greatly fear Iranian high-precision missiles” and that “in any case, Iran will keep all the military advisers and armed forces it deems appropriate”.
Hence a new area of contrast is emerging between the Jewish State and the Shiite world, while the true solution to the equation could be a de facto agreement between the United States and the Russian Federation to contain Iran and make Israel safe, also on the border between Israel and the Lebanon.
In fact, two days after the meeting between Assad and Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Head of the Israeli Armed Forces, Tamir Hayman.
The Russian leader explicitly ensured to give a free hand – also in relation to the Russian presence in Syria and in other regions – to a possible Israeli attack against the Iranian positions in Syria.
Putin also asked Netanyahu to formally accept the Russian primary role in the Syrian “peace-building process”. Hence he implicitly asked Israel to avoid future attacks on Iranian targets in Syria being targeted to areas shared between Iran and Russia and, above all, to implicitly favour the Russian presence on the ground.
Obviously, the Iranian leaders are well aware of this and have therefore asked Bashar al-Assad to declare that any Israeli attack on Iranian targets in Syria will be considered a direct attack on Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
In their designs, this could force Russia to have a milder approach vis-à-vis Iran.
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