Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Right Target For The U.S. In Syria: Hezbollah

By Daniel Serwer

Image result for hezbollah
Hezbollah is the right target of U.S. in Syria

The military situation in Syria has turned against the U.S.-supported opposition over the past year, due mainly to Russian intervention. Now, the failed coup in Turkey and subsequent crackdown there stand to reduce the capabilities of a key U.S. ally. Without some rebalancing now in favor of the opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the prospects for a satisfactory negotiated political transition are dim.

In a dissenting internal memo last month, 51 State Department diplomats advocated attacks on Syrian government forces to end their aggression against the country’s civilian population, alter the military balance and bring about a negotiated political solution. President Obama has focused instead on fighting terrorism in Syria, but U.S. targets are limited to Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates.

There is also a Shiite terrorist organization in Syria: Lebanon-based Hezbollah. It should not be immune.

Hezbollah was founded to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s and takes credit for the eventual Israeli withdrawal from that country. Tightly allied with and supported by Iran, it has become the dominant political force among Shiites in Lebanon, where it not only participates in national politics but also runs its own security forces and provides social services to Shiite populations.

Covertly since 2012, and overtly since 2013, Hezbollah has deployed forces inside Syria, where its thousands of fighters are aligned with Assad’s army and mainly Shiite and Alawite militias against mainly Sunni forces that Assad regards as terrorists. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps pays Hezbollah’s bills and provides its command-and-control operations. Hezbollah forces have been particularly effective along the border with Lebanon, which provides it with strategic depth and supply lines.

Hezbollah is a major factor in the military balance in Syria. Along with the Russian air intervention begun last September and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah’s fighters have enabled Assad to make progress against his opponents, especially those associated with the Free Syrian Army fighters backed by the United States. That progress has hardened Assad’s negotiating stance and blocked the U.N. search for a political solution. Assad is winning, and he sees no reason to accept a transition away from his rule.

A shift in the military balance is essential to ending the war, which is what Washington says it wants. But Obama has steadfastly refused to go to war against the Syrian, Iranian or Russian government. Even if he wants to, it is doubtful he has authorization from Congress to do so.

But Hezbollah is a non-state actor. It is also a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has murdered Americans, among many others. Most Republicans and Democrats would applaud an attack on Hezbollah, even if some in both parties would bemoan a move that suggested widening commitments overseas.

Washington could inform Tehran, Moscow and Beirut that Hezbollah should withdraw from Syria by a certain date or the United States would target any of its troops attacking non-extremist opposition forces in and around Aleppo and elsewhere. If Hezbollah failed to withdraw, the United States would then need to be ready to attack as soon as the ultimatum expired.

Hezbollah’s withdrawal or U.S. targeting of Hezbollah would send a strong but still limited message to the Syrian opposition and its allies in Turkey and the Persian Gulf: We are prepared to attack Shiite as well as Sunni terrorists, but it’s up to you to take advantage of the opportunity and come to the negotiating table ready to reach a serious political settlement. It would also send a strong but likewise limited message to Iran and Russia: We will not continue to tolerate your intervention in Syria without responding. The time for a political settlement is now.

How would the players in Syria react? Hezbollah would likely try to strike at accessible U.S. assets or citizens in neighboring countries, most likely in Lebanon or Iraq. It might also launch rockets into Israel. The Islamic State, which uses Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria as a recruiting tool, would be undermined. Russia and Iran could in theory up the ante, escalating their involvement in Syria, but in practice they both appear to be close to the limit of lives and treasure they are willing or able to expend there. Assad would be outraged and promise revenge, but the Syrian government is even more clearly at the limit of its capabilities.

Meanwhile, the non-extremist Syrian opposition would applaud and press hard against the territory where Hezbollah is deployed. Gulf states would likewise welcome the U.S. action and redouble their efforts to support the opposition. Israel knows all too well how to react to Hezbollah attacks in order to re-establish deterrence. Turkey might complain that the United States was not also acting against the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters whom Ankara regards as terrorists, but the Turks would still benefit from any consequent military progress against Assad by non-Kurdish forces.

In short, U.S. targeting of Hezbollah would mostly please and embolden Washington’s friends and discomfit its antagonists. It would also reassert U.S. commitment to fighting terrorism of all sorts, renew Washington’s commitment to holding Hezbollah accountable, hasten an end to the Syrian civil war and make a political settlement more likely. That is not a bad balance of risks and benefits.

* The writer is a professor and director of the conflict management program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, as well as a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
* This opinion was published first by Washington Post on 27/07/2016

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Obama's Exit Calculus On The Peace Process


U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as leaders gathered to deliver a joint statement on Middle East Peace talks in the East Room of the White House in Washington September 1, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed
US President Obama with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

As the Republican and Democratic parties convene in Cleveland and Philadelphia, we expect to see numerous signs of the deepening polarization that has dominated this campaign season. One issue that has traditionally shared bipartisan support is how the United States should approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, this year both parties have shifted their positions farther from the center and from past Democratic and Republican platforms. This swing impacts whether the Obama administration, which has devoted significant time and resources to the negotiations, will issue a parting statement on the conflict.
In Cleveland last week the Republican party adopted a platform entirely dropping the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move that puts the party further to the right than either AIPAC or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The platform states, “We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier and specifically recognize that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is anti-Semitic in nature and seeks to destroy Israel.” This language, combined with Republican nominee Donald Trump’s apparent disinterest in the conflict, makes it unlikely a Trump administration would prioritize Israeli-Palestinian issues or make any serious attempt at negotiations.
Conversely, this year’s Democratic Party platform reaffirmed the United States government’s long-standing commitment to seeking a two-state solution in the region. But the party took a notably progressive turn, highlighting both the importance of Israel’s Jewish and democratic future and Palestinian freedom “to govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.” The contentious fight over the Democratic Party language, combined with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s (and her potential First Gentleman’s) passion for this issue reveals an intent by a future Clinton administration to reinvigorate negotiations.
As President Obama and Secretary Kerry consider their final months in office, one item on the agenda is whether to push a last-ditch effort on the issue—either by releasing some sort of Obama or Kerry Parameters based on the outcome of the failed 2013-14 negotiations or by supporting one of the international initiatives such as the French Initiative, the Quartet Report, or the regional Arab Peace Initiative, now spearheaded by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Likely to drive the administration’s calculus are the Democratic and Republican nominees and their political motives on the U.S. led peace process. The time to watch for a potential move, therefore, is between November and January. Given the administration’s support for its own party’s nominee, it is in Obama’s interest to keep the peace process on life support—but without resuscitating it—through January. Publicly, but somewhat unenthusiastically, supporting the various international initiatives and allowing other states and international organizations to sit in the driver’s seat sets a future Democratic administration up with the best chance of success.
Lessons from getting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the table over the years include the wisdom to refrain from yelling about past progress in negotiations. Publicly revealing how far Netanyahu and Abbas were willing to go in 2014 would only harm the next administration’s efforts at resuming negotiations. Keeping the “Kerry Framework” in the administration’s pocket allows a Clinton administration to take ownership of the peace process should she be elected.
Alternatively, if Trump is elected, the Obama administration would have nothing to lose in revealing the fruits of its efforts in 2013-14. The administration would have little concern for derailing a possible Trump attempt (which is not likely to take place in any event) and could determine that releasing some sort of Obama or Kerry Parameters would shed a positive light on the administration’s legacy. Furthermore, should the Republican Party win the White House, neither Obama nor Kerry is likely to care about the damage that releasing such a document might do to either Netanyahu or Abbas.
The party conventions have solidified the deep divides—both between and within the parties—regarding the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this campaign season. This divide, combined with a renewed international focus on the conflict, virtually guarantees that the administration will keep the conflict on the back burner before November. The election, therefore, will not only determine our next president but also the fate of the “Obama/Kerry Parameters”.
·       *   Note: Ariella Plachta, an intern with the Center for Middle East Policy, contributed to this post.
·       * Sarah Yerkes is a visiting fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellow. She is a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, where she focused on North Africa. Previously, she was a foreign affairs officer in the State’s Department’s Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs.

·         * This post originally appeared on the Israel Policy Forum’s blog, Matzav on| 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Misconceptions of Israeli-Gulf Cooperation

Prince Turki al-Faisal with Yaakov Amidror

Much has been made, particularly by Israelis, of the expanding horizons for collaboration between the Jewish state and Arab Gulf states. Israeli ministers and business people lose no opportunity to tout Israel’s interest in expanding ties of all sorts in a region viewed as a valuable market for Israeli industry and an intelligence gold mine.
Meetings that once were held in the dark are now on public display. Relations that were once conducted solely by intelligence officials now feature diplomats and the formal establishment of relations with countries such as the U.A.E. 
In a notable development, Saudi Arabia won key recognition from Israel—and Egypt and the United States—as a strategic partner in regional security in the Straits of Tiran. Such achievements expose not only the alluring prospects of such a dialogue, but also its enduring, critical limitations.
The nascent coalition linking Israel with the Gulf was born as a coalition of countries that are united by their common failure to dissuade Washington from its path of rapprochement with Iran.
Washington and Tehran just celebrated the one-year anniversary of the J.C.P.O.A., which remains the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. Saudis and Israelis looking to roll it back must contend with the fact that, in an era when the Middle East is shaking under their feet, the Iran deal represents a relative rock of stability and policy achievement unmatched elsewhere in U.S. efforts in the region. Washington’s relations with Tehran may not blossom, but they will be difficult to reverse—a fact that critically weakens the foundations of underlying Israeli-Gulf cooperation and limits the effectiveness of an ‘alliance’ based upon undermining the principal diplomatic and strategic achievement of your indispensable, superpower ally.
It is also true that one need only scratch the surface to reveal vital differences in Israeli and Saudi views on Iran itself. Israeli bluster aside, considered Israeli opinion and policy is far more sanguine about Iran than is the case in Riyadh.
Even at the height of concerns about an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Israel’s security establishment successfully tamed the wilder, undisciplined instincts of many in Israel’s political class. The generals have long understood the vitality of Israel’s strategic superiority and are prepared to accommodate an American-led deal with Tehran in a fashion that contradicts visceral Saudi opposition to the mullahs.
Such differences are apparent in other arenas as well. This is certainly the case concerning Syria, where the prevailing Israeli view is sympathetic to the Assad regime.  As a consequence of its understandings with Russia, agreed-upon limits have been set to Iranian and Hezbollah deployments—a display of realpolitik toward the Damascus regime that Riyadh is loathe to adopt.  
For Israel, its problems with Iran are of relatively recent vintage. In contrast, it retains a historic and strategic interest in limiting Arab power—an interest that stands in opposition to declared Arab objectives. Israel’s newfound Arab friends must be ready to address the unexpected, destabilizing pressures that will result from an Israel freed from any concern about constraining Arab power—in Palestine and Lebanon in particular.
In Lebanon, Israel and Gulf states have a shared antipathy toward Hezbollah, but there is no interest in Arab support for an Israeli military campaign in Lebanon or more improbably Syria.
Similar considerations illustrate the limits of Arab understanding of an aggressive Israeli policy toward Gaza.
Israel’s response to the Arab Peace Initiative is also an instructive case in point.
Long ignored by Israeli leaders—Ehud Olmert did not even bother to read it—Israel’s strategy is to pocket the historic promise of peace with the Arab and Islamic worlds as simply a basis for further discussion.
More broadly, Israel has turned the historic formula at the heart of A.P.I.—peace with Palestine is a gateway to rapprochement with the Arab world—on its head. “The Arab Peace Initiative,” explained Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal in a public discussion with former National Security director Yaakov Amidror, “is the formula that can bring us together. But the general [Amidror] sees otherwise. He wants us to start cooperating with Israel, and do whatever is done in that journey, and forget about the occupation of Palestine and various other issues that deal with the daily occurrences that are taking place on the ground in Palestine, whether it is expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, whether it is the roadblocks — all the issues that you are all aware of.”
Jordan is another useful example of both the advantages and built-in shortcomings of such an Arab strategy. Egypt and Jordan enjoy relations with Israel based upon signed peace treaties. Yet even this achievement has not been sufficient to shield either country from dramatic challenges posed by Israel.
There has been an indirect Israeli security umbrella over Jordan since Black September 1970. This protection, however, has failed to pay dividends for Jordan on the Palestine front. Indeed, in terms of national security threats, the prospect of a Palestinian retreat to Jordan—pushed by Israeli policy unfettered by Arab or international pressure—is a constant source of concern to Jordanian officials. And among Israelis, there is a long and widely held view that considers a Palestinian takeover of Jordan and the demise of the Hashemites to be an Israeli interest, and only a matter of time.
With Egypt, there are many indications that relations with Israel have never been closer. This honeymoon is fueled, however, by unprecedented national security challenges  suffered by Egypt in Sinai. Israel’s unilateral retreat from Gaza in 2005, its serial wars there since, and the attendant effort to force Egypt to assume the burden of Gaza’s welfare, illustrate the limits of their cooperation.
A long, long road has been travelled since the famous ‘three no’s of Khartoum’—no recognition, no negotiations, no peace—in the aftermath of the June 1967 war. The iron wall separating Israel from its Arab neighbors is indeed showing cracks, but the prospects for a turn from confrontation to cooperation is still hampered by real differences of interests and priorities.

* Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues. He has advised the World Bank on Israel’s disengagement and has worked for the European Union Coordinating Office for the Palestinian Police Support mission to the West Bank and Gaza. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi: A Syrian Hezbollah Formation

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi*

Fighters posing with the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi. 

The Syrian civil war has seen the rise of a number of formations that promote the idea of building a native Syrian Muqawama Islamiya ('Islamic Resistance') and Hezbollah. Examples include Quwat al-Ridha (recruiting mainly from Shi'a in the Homs area), the National Ideological Resistance (based in Tartous/Masyaf area), the Ja'afari Force (recruiting mainly from Damascene Shi'a) and al-Ghalibun.

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (the Imam Mahdi Brigade), referring to the twelfth Shi'i Imam, is another group along these lines. For comparison, the National Ideological Resistance also has the label Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Mahdi Army).

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi appears to have at least two sub-components: the Imam Ali Battalion and the Special Operations al-Hadi Battalion. The al-Hadi Battalion claims at least two squadrons: the first led by "al-Saffah" and the second led by "Abu Ali Karar."

The information available on Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi through social media is patchy at best, but I was able to speak to the commander of the Imam Ali Battalion, who goes by the name of al-Hajj Waleed and is from Ba'albek in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.

According to al-Hajj Waleed (who is a member of Hezbollah), Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi was set up two years ago by Hezbollah and has recruits from all of Syria.

Of course, this latter assertion is a fairly standard rhetorical line. Private Facebook accounts run by those associated with Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi largely point to origins in western Syria.

The commander added that the group has participated in a number of battles, including Deraa, Quneitra, Ghouta, Aleppo and the Ithiriya-Raqqa route. Some of these operations (e.g. fighting in south Aleppo countryside and positions on the Ithiriya hills) have been mentioned on social media.

In total, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi's contribution to the fighting in Syria seems similar in scale to that of the Ja'afari Force and the National Ideological Resistance. Al-Hajj Waleed gave his toll of killed ('martyrs') and wounded at 25 and 55 respectively.

Thus, the military capabilities of these groups should not be exaggerated, but it is apparent how Hezbollah is trying to project influence into Syria through the creation of multiple formations and brands in order to recruit Syrians.

* Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.