Lowy Institute

The shocking attack by three terrorists on Kemal Ataturk airport has justifiably horrified us all.  And on the assumption that it has been carried out by Islamic State (the target selection of a tourism hub & lack of claim are similar to other such attacks) it reinforces the view that IS is seeking to pressure Ankara into providing a more permissive environment for its fighters to transit into Syria after a crackdown over the last 18 months or so.  

But our focus on Istanbul shouldn't blind us to the fact that IS has also been responsible for other attacks outside Syria over the past few days.  In Yemen, four suicide bombers killed more than 40 people (mostly soldiers) in the southern city of Mukalla, while in northeastern Lebanon up to eight suicide bombers struck in two waves in Qa'a, a largely Christian village — the indications  are that the village wasn't the real target for the bombers.

If we add to these the knife attack in France and possibly the 49 people killed in Orlando, we can see how seriously IS has taken its spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani's call for people to conduct attacks during Ramadan.  Of more concern though, is the fact that the variety of attacks illustrates the multi-faceted nature of IS as a terrorist group. Its operatives or supporters have been able to conduct attacks in three continents that have been operationally supported (as in Qa'a), operationally directed (as in Yemen), or operationally inspired (as in France).  This alone should highlight the fact that IS aims to be relevant after its loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, a fact highlighted by Adnani during his audio message for Ramadan.

Photo by Gokhan Tan/Getty Images

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The controversy surrounding the the release of a draft cable critical of US government policy written by 51 State Department employees has garnered headlines, not so much for the fact that people within the bureaucracy are critical of the President's Syria strategy (given the complexity of the problem, Obama was always going to be criticised regardless of what he did) but that 51 people signed it. In reality, the cable will have no lasting effect on the way that the current US government looks at Syria, and nor should it.

Although it is a draft cable written by people who genuinely despair at civilian deaths in Syria, there are a few issues whose omission points to the practical limitations of the policy proposed by the dissenters.

Firstly, the cable tries to reduce the conflict to a choice between 'moderate' groups (who are never named) and the Assad regime. There is no mention of the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra or the much stronger and very Islamist Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (the former proscribed, the latter not), whose vision for a future Syria is the antithesis of that held by the secular liberal State Department dissenters. Is there a unified coalition opposing these radical groups? Would a protected and empowered 'moderate' opposition take on such groups to fight for secular liberal values?

More practically, the cable fails to enunciate the potential pitfalls of 'selected' air strikes. The Syrian Government knows (and the cable itself acknowledges) that punitive strikes can't do anything to tilt the balance towards the armed opposition. So what if the Syrian army loses a couple of artillery pieces or rocket launchers; they can be replaced by the Russians or Iranians within a week or two. And the regime and its supporters can hurt US interests more than the other way around because they have more skin in the game. A US air strike targets a Syrian artillery battery. Watch the Russians launch sorties against Free Syrian Army positions with the excuse that intelligence showed them operating with Jabhat al-Nusra elements. Take out a Syrian Army rocket launcher? See the regime's supporting militias start focusing on ground assaults against US-supported 'moderate opposition groups', restricting UN humanitarian convoys further. What will Washington do then?

One of Russia's (and Iran's) major strategic aims in deploying to Syria is to demonstrate US weakness. Launching a few strikes against Syrian regime targets but with no intent of doubling down for fear of tilting the balance in Syria will just damage US credibility further. Tellingly, while the dissent memo notes that 'military steps...may yield a number of second-order effects', it never says what those second-order effects may be or how they might be ameliorated. A bit of 'red-teaming' with some uniformed colleagues from the Pentagon during the drafting may have have helped in this regard.

As an aside, I must admit that I never knew about 2 FAM 70, the US document that outlines the way US State Department or USAID personnel can express alternate views to US government policy. It beggars belief that an Australian government of either hue would ever allow such freedom of expression within a key government agency.

Photo courtesy of www.whitehouse.gov

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After the worst mass shooting in modern US history, theories and accusations abound. This was a hate crime against the LGBT community, not a terrorist incident; the perpetrator was religious/not religious; he was mentally ill/not mentally ill; may or may not have pledged allegiance to ISIS prior to or during the shooting; there was no apparent direct contact with ISIS.

While more will be known as the investigation proceeds, it is fair to say that this appears to be another example of the type of ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks that ISIS spokesman Muhammad al-Adnani has called for, and which are virtually impossible to prevent. It may well be that direct links between ISIS and the shooter will not be found because they may well not exist. Under enormous pressure on the battlefield, ISIS is hardly in a position to provide operational support to attack planning in the West. That is particularly the case in the US.

But this matters little, because rather than practical support, ISIS seeks to provide inspiration. In late May the ISIS spokesman released an audio message in which he said 'Ramadan, the month of conquest and jihad. Get prepared, be ready...to make it a month of calamity everywhere for the non-believers...especially for the fighters and supporters of the caliphate in Europe and America'. Mateen's decision to purchase an AR-15 assault rifle and a 9mm pistol during the first week of Ramadan may mean that he followed Adnani's exhortation.

In this modern version of Islamist terrorism, the direct link between ISIS and the jihadi may be no more than the al-Adnani missive. Buy yourself a military-grade semi-automatic weapon, select a soft target, transport yourself there then begin shooting. The whole operation is made all the easier because God loves jihadis, so there is no need to plan an escape. Terrorism has never been more straightforward.

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The investigation may reveal a history of viewing or downloading online ISIS or other Islamist material, or of suspicious travel or contact with radicals, or it may not. But the publicity that Adnani's calls for attacks in the West has received may even render a history of viewing material online irrelevant.

This is identity terrorism, where ISIS appeals to people based on their version of Islamic identity that is simple, and guidance that is broad: kill people in your own countries; make something of your life by supporting the aims of one's Islamic brothers fighting oppression in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen.

Occasionally, ISIS plans and executes an attack, as was the case with the 2015 Ramadan suicide bomb attack on a Shi'a mosque in Kuwait that killed 26 people. And in the case of the Paris and Brussels attacks, some experienced ISIS personnel were involved. But the signature left behind by more complex planning and attacks can lead to compromised operations, so ISIS-inspired rather than ISIS-planned terrorist attacks have become the norm in the West.

Targeting and operational planning is left up to the individual. With this loose guidance, it is possible for jihadists to combine personal hatreds with direct action. The San Bernardino shooting in December last year targeted Syed Farook's colleagues, while in the Orlando case the target was a gay nightclub more than 150km from where the shooter lived, perhaps reflecting the shooter's alleged homophobia. As far as ISIS is concerned the target matters little, as long as it causes a significant number of casualties and can be claimed by the organisation.

So, rather than deciding whether such attacks are conducted by homophobes, or angry men with invisible lives, or by the mentally ill, we should try to understand the ability of ISIS to motivate small numbers of Muslims to kill their fellow citizens by appealing to a distorted sense of religious identity, and to channel the anger that real or perceived injustices have fomented. And in this regard we are still some way from understanding the triggers that enable some Muslims to equate their religious identity with an obligation to kill innocents from all walks of life and from all faiths and ethnic groups. Until we do, expect more of these types of attacks, even after ISIS suffers a terminal defeat on the battlefield.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Victoria Pickering

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The reported death of another Australian fighting for the Kurdish YPG is sad news. But he was engaged in illegal activity, a point made clear by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Some argue that, given the circumstances surrounding the battle against IS, we should treat such volunteers differently to other foreign fighters. At first glance this looks like an appealing argument. But the conflict in Syria is much more complex than people who hold this view acknowledge. Before others come out in support of the actions of such people, there are a couple of questions worth asking, and some answers worth mulling over:

1. We're all fighting Islamic State so what's the problem? The problem is that tactical and strategic aims aren't the same thing. Just because YPG are fighting IS doesn't mean YPG does not have broader strategic aims, such as autonomy or independence, that are definitely not shared by the Australian — or any other Western — government. Western governments can modify the political and military support they provide to the Kurds to give weight to shared tactical aims; individuals don't have that luxury.

2. The US is supporting YPG forces, so why can't Australian citizens? The first assertion is perfectly true, but given it is a state actor with control over the deployed assets, the US can ensure that its assets (both ground and air) are used against targets that are exclusively part of the anti-IS campaign. If the targets aren't tied to that aim then the support can be denied or withdrawn. The same can't be said for individual 'volunteers' in YPG. Once you're a foreign fighter you lose control over your destiny; when you cross the border you can be used by YPG against anyone YPG is fighting. Rebel groups have accused the YPG of being little better than proxies for Assad's forces, while YPG forces have also clashed with pro-Assad forces recently in Qamishli.

3. What does Turkey think of all this? The Turkish sensitivity to the provision of support for Kurdish groups was amply demonstrated when pictures of US Special Forces wearing YPG colour patches became public. This decision by local commanders to establish a degree of solidarity with their supported forces was understandable at the tactical level but strategically not smart, and it was countermanded once it became known by the Turkish government and a higher coalition headquarters. Think then how the Turkish government feels about Australians fighting for YPG who Ankara sees (with quite some justification) as a sub-branch of the PKK (a listed terrorist group). At present (and even more so in the post-IS phase) the Australian government needs the support of the Turkish government to assist it in identifying, detaining and repatriating Australian Islamists fighting for IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Ankara is hardly going to bend over backwards to cooperate with Canberra if it feels that Australia is keen to prosecute Islamist foreign fighters but not so keen to prosecute YPG/PKK fighters.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kurdishstruggle

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For such a nondescript city in Iraq, Fallujah has name recognition beyond its importance. In Western military circles at least the name is synonymous with the 2004 battle that turned into the bloodiest urban assault undertaken by the US military since Vietnam.

Iraqi soldiers at Garma, part of the Fallujah operation (Photo: Ali Muhammed/Getty Images)

This time around, though the circumstances are different, it is once again a fight against Sunni insurgents who have had the benefit of long periods to establish defensive positions above and below ground. Regardless of the number of fighters inside the city, the urban environment offers the defenders many advantages, and diminishes the effectiveness of some of the attackers' advantages, particularly air power.

Much is riding on the outcome for the Iraqi government. The under-siege prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who announced the beginning of the assault on national television, seeks to shore up his position with a decisive victory. Of course the inevitable civilian casualties will be prime material for his enemies to use against him even if the assault goes to plan, and none other than Grand Ayatollah has called for restraint to be used during the battle. Videos of Iraqi forces assisting some civilians to flee have already begun to emerge and more of these should be expected as part of the political PR campaign.

Part of the difficulty for the Iraqi government is the confusing command and control arrangements between the various parties involved; the Iraqi army assaulting the city; the Iraqi police units providing support; the various Shi'a militias grouped under the Popular Mobilisation Units (some very loosely, if at all) who are supposed to conduct supporting attacks; and the Iraqi and coalition forces (including from the Australian Defence Force) who supply the air support and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC). With the number of differing (and some potentially competing) agendas among those groups, it will take an impressive commander (and/or advisory staff) to effectively coordinate everyone's efforts.

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The Shi'a militias have so far satisfied themselves with conducting operations on the perimeter as part of the outer cordon. They have promised to leave the main assault to Iraqi government forces, but this has not stopped them from capitalising on their participation through selected photos circulated to the media including one allegedly featuring the scarlet pimpernel of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qassem Suleimani 'coordinating actions' in Fallujah.

It will be interesting to see the degree to which Islamic State is willing or able to commit resources to the battle. US–supported forces operating under the Syrian Democratic Forces banner (largely the Kurdish YPG) have commenced an advance south towards the outskirts of Raqqa. IS leadership in Raqqa will therefore have to deal with its more proximate threat while simultaneously addressing the assault on Fallujah. Defeat in Fallujah should be inevitable, and if the cordon built up over the past few weeks and months has been even partially effective it should have made IS's ability to move fighters in or out difficult but not impossible. IS has already attempted to position itself ideologically for the fall of Fallujah in its most recent audio recording in which spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani claims that the loss of cities does not mean they are defeated as long as they retain the will to fight. 

IS may well see strategic utility in suffering a defeat while imposing an enormous cost in civilian lives and damaged infrastructure. This could breed ongoing ill-well among the Sunni Iraqi population, laying the groundwork for a sympathetic Sunni environment into which some of its Iraqi members could continue to operate after IS loses its territory. In this scenario, it would make sense to retain a relatively significant force in Fallujah. But if IS has deemed the defence of Mosul and Raqqa to be its main effort, it may well have withdrawn fighters and perhaps left local IS members to die in place. Until the battle proper is joined we won't be any the wiser as to how IS views the defence of Fallujah.

What is certain is that the re-taking of Fallujah may lead to nought strategically if it is not re-built and administered effectively and efficiently. Only then can the Iraqi government have any hope of extending its writ into the Sunni heartland of western Iraq. But that is for the future. For the moment, re-taking Fallujah will maintain the momentum of the Iraqi Security Forces and allow them to switch the main effort to the main prize perhaps before year's end — Mosul. 

Ali Muhammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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Most people will perhaps by now have an inkling that the war against Islamic terrorism will go on much longer than the wars in Syria or Iraq. The narrative is too compelling for some to give up, governance too poor to stop people being attracted to that narrative, and identities too complex to provide a counter-narrative that addresses everyone’s perceived injustices. Understanding the deep-seated nature of the problem, Washington has had to tread a fine line. It seeks to avoid becoming decisively engaged, so as not to exacerbate the situation and become the problem rather than part of the solution, while deploying sufficient military and diplomatic support to try to contain the situation and steer it in a desired direction. None of it is, or will be, neat.

Part of the problem has been finding partners that have a strategic aim that coincides sufficiently with that of the Obama Administration, and who share enough values with the US so that it can stomach working with them. It is often easier to find the the first than the second, given interests tend to be temporary while values somewhat more permanent. The difficult balancing act that Washington finds itself in the region is reflected in its piecemeal allocation of troops, all there for valid reasons, but all with their own unique operating environments and challenges.

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In Libya, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently signalled an increase to the US military presence, over and above the two small teams already in Misrata and Benghazi who have been scoping possible ground partners since late last year.

In Yemen, the US reluctantly provided limited support to the Saudi-led air campaign from its inception, but largely as a means of inserting some form of adult supervision on an organisation that had never undertaken such a campaign before. More recently though, the US has also provided a small detachment of ground troops to assist the Saudi and Emirati forces dislodge AQAP (Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula) from the coastal city of Mukalla.

And the recent visit by the new commander of Central Command, Joseph Votel into northern Syria to visit the small US military detachment there —  working with the umbrella Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) —  highlighted its role in the most intractable of the multiple conflicts in the region. There are some indications that Votel's visit has drawn criticism from some within the opposition Free Syrian Army because of the dominance of the Kurdish YPG in the SDF, further highlighting how complex the opposition picture is in Syria. And in neighbouring Iraq, Votel visited some of the several thousand US military personnel working to support Iraqi forces against Islamic State.

The term 'boots on the ground' means many things to many people, including news media. The military (and most politicians) would consider the term to mean combat manoeuvre forces, implying one is decisively committed to the fight. The presence of advisers and enabling (or supporting) forces falls short of that measure, even though there are military personnel physically present in operational areas. The media struggle to understand the difference.

What we see in the Middle East currently is a US not becoming decisively committed to the ground fighting, but deploying small groups to assist local groups that Washington can work with to engage in the contact battles. Sounds complex ? You bet. But if it wasn't it wouldn't be the Middle East.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

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The death last week of Mustapha Badredinne, Hizbullah's chief of military operations in Syria, was certainly big news. His death highlights once again the cost in senior personnel that the civil war is exacting on the Lebanese Shi'a group. In December last year, Samir Kuntar was killed in an Israeli airstrike as was Jihad Mughniyya (the son of Imad) in January. There were even some reports that the real target of the attack that killed Jihad was Badreddine, who was supposed to have been in the same convoy.

These deaths show how costly the war in Syria is becoming in personnel terms for Hizbullah. With well over 1000 combat deaths the war has taken a toll, albeit a manageable one, on the organisation. On the flip side the years of fighting has also blooded a new generation of fighters, tactical commanders and operational planners. 

But Hizbullah has also been fighting on another, less bloody, but still painful front and one in which there are no martyrs to eulogise. Washington has been waging an active campaign against Hizbullah's financial operations, likely seeing the low oil prices and expensive Iranian military operations in Syria and Iraq as a sign of a drop in financial support from Tehran.

This has been done in the past using existing powers under Executive Order 13324: in 2015, Hizbullah support networks were sanctioned in West Africa, a Lebanese-owned company in China, individuals including Badreddine in July and other individuals and companies in October last year for their role in supporting Hizbullah financially.

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A new bill designed to target Hizbullah even more specifically, the Hizbullah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015, was signed into law in December last year and action since then has been swift. In January 2016 the first individuals were sanctioned under the Act. Most importantly the Act allows the Secretary of the Treasury to prohibit foreign banks from accessing the US financial system that engage in certain specified transactions in support of Hizbullah. This has naturally caused more than a little disquiet in Lebanese banking circles.  

As well as legislative lines of operation, law enforcement have also targted Hizbullah's income streams. In February this year a multinational law enforcement operation busted a drug operation that saw Hizbullah operatives, including a senior Hizbullah money launderer, working with South American drug cartels to raise profits for repatriation back to Lebanon for Hizbullah's use.

There is nothing to suggest that either the Syrian war, or the US tightening of financial sanctions, are causing irreparable damage to the organisation, but every new sanction and every new arrest chips away at the ability of the group to fundraise freely. Even deeply ideological groups need to pay its supporters, and any long-term diminution of its ability to bestow financial largesse is something that Hizbullah will want to avoid.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user yeowatzup.

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Most people understand what is involved in a ceasefire.  Fewer would be familiar with the term 'cessation of hostilities', and there would not be many at all who would know what a  'regime of calm' means. This melange of terms reflects the challenges involved in brokering any kind of reduction in fighting in the confused and confusing environment that is Syria.

Syrian kids protest against Assad Regime forces air attacks targeting Aleppo

The confusing terminology largely reflects the fact that military action was allowed to continue against the two proscribed terrorist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.  On the face of it, this sounded like an imperfect — but feasible — diplomatic outcome.  Syrian forces used the opportunity to shift their weight of effort to attack Islamic State targets and retake the symbolically important, and operationally useful city of Palmyra/Tadmur.  Coalition aircraft, both alone and in concert with Kurdish ground forces, have kept up the pressure against Islamic State in the northeast.

And while the 'cessation of hostilities' has more or less held and led to a reduction in deaths, a golden thread has started to unravel the cessation; Aleppo.  This is not only because Aleppo has been a strategic focus of the regime since the introduction of Russian airpower allowed Syrian and allied forces to resume offensive operations, but also due to the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra operates within it.

And therein lies the rub.  Unlike Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra has been a much more Syrian-focused group, and much more collaborative with on-the-ground partners.  It is far more respected by locals than is Islamic State, so groups regularly form local alliances and fight with it.  More respected doesn't mean wholly respected, as indicated by protests in Idlib, and concerns about the group's renewed interest in Aleppo reported by Lebanese media.   The more cooperative environment on the battlefield though means it can be difficult to separate Jabhat al-Nusra from other, non-proscribed groups.  The Russians and Syrians don't really care, and view anyone working with Jabhat al-Nusra as fair game.  The US and its allies think the Russians and Syrians overstate the areas within which Jabhat al-Nusra operates so they can take over more territory in Aleppo.  Hence the difficulty in reconciling areas that are fair game for targeting and those that aren't.  This dilemma has resulted in a rather extraordinary proposal; a joint Russian/US violation monitoring centre,  extraordinary in its concept and extraordinary if it works.    

With the Geneva peace talks currently moribund (Germany and France are trying to perform CPR), and the cessation of hostilities hanging on by its fingernails, Aleppo has become the last hope for the reduction of fighting to stay.  But, with a regime that sees Aleppo as 'winnable', Washington which has warned Damascus against thinking this, and an opposition who continues to cooperate with a proscribed terrorist group on parts of the battlefield, the prospects for anything other than a temporary respite to the fighting appears bleak.

Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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I was in Lebanon on a research trip the week before last and nearly coughed up my foul at breakfast when I opened up the Beirut newspaper and read about the 60 Minutes crew being arrested over a bungled snatch and grab operation of two children. Much has been written about this, including the inevitable discussion about the morality of the deed, its potential effect on wider bilateral relations, and myriad other issues that fill up the entertainment, news and editorial spaces of our media. But, as a former military planner and student of the region, I was aghast at one aspect and realistic about another.

The reason I nearly coughed up my foul that morning was disgust at the jaw-dropping amateurishness of the execution and, more particularly, at the near complete lack of risk management exhibited by the decision-makers at the television network concerned.

I'm not a media professional but I do have years of operational planning experience so I assume that someone had to develop the idea and pitch it to a person in authority who then had to approve it and allocate resources. There is a saying in the military that sometimes a poor plan well executed is better than a good plan poorly executed. This fiasco had all the hallmarks of a bad plan badly executed.

When the television network dispatched a four-person TV crew to Beirut, the network accepted the risk on the crew's behalf. Planners try to control what they can control, and risk mitigate what they cannot. Neither appears to have been at play here. To start with, why did the crew have to be in Beirut at all ? Why weren't they in Cyprus, the logical destination for the getaway yacht moored at the Movenpick. If the operation was compromised (which it appears to have been from the start), then at least the TV crew would have been out of harm's way. Is the risk associated with getting a live interview a few hours earlier in Beirut than from the yacht in Cyprus worth it? I'm not in TV but I do know something about operational risk and return and there was no way the risk of having the crew in the same country, let alone the same city, in any way justified the minimal return expected.

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There didn't appear to be any operational urgency to organising this infotainment abduction, which raises even more questions as to why it was so appallingly amateurish. Nobody was going anywhere any time soon, so there was plenty of time to construct a well thought-out plan, have the legal department look at the legal framework in Lebanon to understand the legal risk the crew was being asked to accept, understand the country the crew was flying into, and do due diligence checks on the 'child recovery' agency. That agency should have been required to brief the network on the plan for the sake of co-ordination, and so the network could be assured the abduction plan was sound, operational security was tight, and it was legally covered. Sometimes plans in the military are rushed because there is a time sensitivity, but when they aren't rushed you have the luxury of time. The Nine Network appeared to have had luxury of time to plan and either ignored it or squandered the opportunity. Or that's just not the way it's done in current affairs television.

In regards to the bilateral relationship, the incident, although bad for the crew concerned and their families, is unlikely to have any real impact.

Firstly, this is not the first time media have acted badly so it's not without precedent. Secondly, despite the rather large hoo-ha being generated in Australia (particularly given it's a high-profile media crew incarcerated in a Beirut jail), Lebanon has got other, rather more newsworthy issues to deal with at the moment. To name just a few: a quarter of its population consists of Syrian refugees; there is a deadly five-year long civil war on its border that occasionally spills over; it has been without a president since May 2014; it is recovering from a nation-wide 'garbage crisis'; the Saudis have recently withdrawn $4 billion in military and security aid; and the French president is currently touring. Amongst all this, a ham-fisted child abduction abetted by a foreign TV crew is titillating but hardly ranks as a first order issue.

Opinions voiced in The Australian that this could be solved with the intervention of Iran are well wide of the mark and assume that Tehran is even vaguely interested in this overblown domestic dispute gone wrong. The fact that this is a second or third-order issue in Lebanon is a good thing in the long run. It means there is a better chance that it will be dealt with for what it is — a domestic dispute into which parties who have no right to do so have inserted themselves in a seriously amateurish fashion. Apart from the families of those incarcerated, who are paying the price for the television network's inability to understand the operational environment, planning or risk mitigation processes, we should also spare a thought for our mission in Beirut, some of whom have undoubtedly had to shift efforts from their normal job of understanding a complex country in a complex region to looking after the personnel of a media company behaving badly.

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The Gulf states are fixated on Iran, and their belief in a zero-sum regional game has seen them try to block whatever real or perceived advances are made by Tehran. This strategic rationale has seen them back any number of actors in the Syrian morass so long as they sought to topple the pro-Tehran Assad regime, and it has also led them to intervene in Yemen, leading a coalition of other Arab states in a campaign without a well considered strategic aim in mind. So this approach has been, to put it mildly, less than successful.

Yet recently the Gulf states have begun a quieter, more asymmetric line of operation: the squeezing of Iran's invaluable Lebanese ally, Hizbullah. Last month the Gulf Cooperation Council declared Hizbullah a terrorist organisation. The Gulf states have been quick to give weight to the declaration. In recent weeks the UAE has jailed three people accused of setting up a pro-Hizbullah group, Kuwait gave 60 Lebanese between two days and two weeks to leave the country because of alleged ties to Hizbulllah, having expelled 11 the week prior. Bahrain has also expelled some alleged Lebanese Hizbullah supporters and their families. And Saudi Arabia blacklisted several companies and firms it claimed were linked to Hizbullah.

The Gulf states have also focused attention on the Lebanese state, both in an attempt to build ill will among Lebanese for Hizbullah, and to punish an earlier refusal by the Lebanese foreign minister to join in a statement by Arab states condemning the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. He has claimed his refusal was based on his disagreement with the text of the letter, which he said included accusations of Hizbullah interference in Bahrain. In response, several Gulf states advised their citizens not to travel to Lebanon, while the Saudis and Bahrainis told their citizens to leave the country. Riyadh added further punitive measures by cancelling $4 billion of military and security aid to Beirut.

The Lebanese state is, of course, in no position to restrict Hizbullah's actions in the way the GCC would like. So, while the targeting of Hizbullah members and entities within their midst (if indeed all the people targeted fit this definition) can be justified on security grounds, the net effect of the travel bans and cancellation of the arms agreement is to further weaken Lebanon in the midst of a refugee crisis of unparalleled severity and an ongoing security threat posed by the spillover from the conflict in Syria. Short-term punitive measures by Gulf states do nothing to promote the stability Lebanon needs.

Photo by Flickr user openDemocracy.

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News that a Syrian military coalition has re-taken the ancient city of Tadmur (Palmyra) is further evidence of the pressure ISIS is under, as well as the ability of the Syrian military to better its opponents when it operates as a combined-arms force. In this case, the Syrian military was once again supported by Iranian advisers and Hizbullah, and Russian air power that delivered nearly 150 airstrikes in the space of three days leading up to Palmyra's fall and 40 in a 24 hour period leading to its recapture. This is a significant rate of effort and points to the intensity of the battle, as does the death of a Russian forward air controller whose position was compromised during the fighting.

The significance of Palmyra's recapture is more political than strategic at this stage. The loss of such an historic centre was a major embarrassment for the Assad regime, and its recapture (along with the breaking of the siege of Kweiris airbase late last year) adds to the narrative of a Syrian regime which feels it is still strong and capable of reasserting sovereignty throughout the country. It also dislocates the ISIS logistical effort along the main roads in the country's barren east. The reality, however, is that the Assad regime can't reassert sovereignty throughout the country, as it relies on its allies to provide much of its enabling support.

As the political negotiations continue to limp along and a reduction of violence has been achieved in many areas in Syria, any signs of Syrian government military success on other fronts against internationally-acknowledged terrorist groups can only strengthen its hand. This is particularly the case as the apparent unity of effort of the Syrian government coalition contrasts (as always) with the disunity of the various militias in the north and south of the country

On the face of it, the capture of the city could allow the regime to consolidate and strike out towards Deir az-Zour, where it has some troops holding on against ISIS forces, and/or the Iraqi border, where it could reassert control over border crossings and further restrict ISIS's freedom of ground movement. Or it could decide to strike northwards straight into the ISIS heartland of Raqqa. There are media reports suggesting the Syrian General Command has indicated that these are live options. To do this, however, the Assad regime has to be able to generate sufficient combat power to re-take these centres and then to defend and administer any ground it re-takes. More importantly, it has to convince its allies that continued offensive manoeuvre against heavily defended objectives are worth their blood and treasure. There is no doubt that the further Hizbullah gets away from the Lebanese border, the less comfortable it is spilling its blood. Moscow too would have a weather eye on its interests in determining how much air support it will want to commit to the regime, and how achievable the regime's military aims are.

But the one unadulterated good regarding the recapture of the ancient site is that the city will be saved from the grip of an intolerant and medieval terrorist group. The UN Secretary-General welcomed its recapture. But the reaction to date of Western leaders has been muted, if not mute. At time of writing, there has been no official comment from Washington, London or Canberra. The defeat of ISIS and recapture of a UNESCO world heritage site is to be welcomed, but that it has been done by the forces of President Assad, supported by Hizbullah, makes it difficult to craft a sensible reaction to the news. Certainly this US State Department spokesperson tied himself in knots (see the accompanying Youtube clip) trying to avoid saying whether the Syrian Government's re-taking of Palmyra was a good thing or not.

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He came, he saw, he spoke well and left. The Iranian foreign minister's visit to Australia, the first in 22 years, made surprisingly few headlines. Sure, he came without a trade delegation in tow and during the middle of a sitting week but even so, for a massive underdeveloped market of over 80 million people with a significant entrepreneurial middle class and a strong education system, the media focus was pretty parochial.

The trade dimension was really the aim of the foreign minister's visit but the media paid precious little attention to it. An announcement regarding the re-opening of an Austrade office in the embassy in Tehran went largely unnoticed in favour of more locally 'important' news such as whether Iran would accept forcible removal of failed asylum seekers. I couldn't find any photos of the foreign minister and Prime Minister Turnbull in the Australian press, but one did pop up in the Qatari press.

The visit to Australia was the last leg of a six-nation Asian and Australasian trip. It is not unreasonable to believe that Australia and New Zealand were included in recognition of the fact that, among the 'Five Eyes' community, they are the only two which have maintained unbroken diplomatic representation in the Islamic Republic. No mean feat given the diplomatic travails and likely something that has been noted in Tehran.

I attended the speech Zarif gave in Sydney. He is the archetypal foreign minister — a polished professional who was able to play a very straight bat to pretty well every question asked of him. One thing that came through in his comments, which reinforces a theme that the Islamic Republic has been pushing, is that of brand differentiation between Iran and the Saudis. Both are vying for influence in the region, and Zarif was at pains to picture Saudi Arabia as the threat to stability, just as he had with his NY Times editorial earlier this year. Zarif's use of the term 'so-called allies' in reference to America's friends in the Gulf was also notable – the subtext was that these countries are not true allies, and perhaps that Iran could be. Zarif also contrasted Iran's democratic traditions (conveniently avoiding the fact that it exists within a massively constrained system of candidate selection) and the lack of such traditions elsewhere in the region.

Foreign ministers are part politician, part salesperson. On the evidence of Zarif's short visit, Iran has a skilled practitioner at the helm who is adept at both. The tussle for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be the defining theme of the next decade in the region and Iran's front-man in that competition will be hard to best.

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Results from Iranian parliamentary and assembly elections held over the weekend have not yet been finalised, however what we know so far is encouraging.

First of all, turnout is an important indicator of popular legitimacy.  Presidential elections normally see a much greater turnout than parliamentary ones in Iran, but this election also featured the Assembly of Experts.  So a turnout of around 62% of voters nationwide (50% in Tehran) for this type of election can be considered a strong one.

Second, the results reinforced the wider phenomenon of commercial and political capitals, such as Tehran, not being representative of the country as a whole.  There was without doubt a very strong showing for moderates in Tehran, with all 30 parliamentary seats going to  allies of President Hassan Rouhani. Some 15 of the 16 Assembly seats allocated to Tehran also went to moderates.  But in Iran, like nearly all countries, there is a political divide  between urban and rural areas. Those who study Iran understand that Tehran can be something of a mini political ecosystem, separate from the rest of the country.

Third, this is not so much an affirmation of reformists as a rejection of conservatives.  The widespread culling of most reformists and many conservatives by the Council of Guardians prior to the election meant that there was a limited ideological range of candidates from which to choose.  Despite this, conservatives suffered significant losses at the ballot box.  This is a vote of confidence by the public in the policies of President Rouhani, whose negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran deal) last July saw him deliver on the main electoral promise made in his presidential campaign.  The expectation is that he will have greater freedom of action to pass legislation to address the chronic unemployment and inflation from which Iran suffers. However, while there are more moderates than conservatives confirmed in parliament, there are also many independents, though we won't know the final numbers for some time. In more than 20% of seats, no candidate achieved the minimum 25% of the vote necessary to win so runoff elections will be held. This means that the true character of the parliament may not be known until May.

Even theocratic systems of government require popular legitimacy to survive and the mood of the electorate will certainly have been noted by the Supreme Leader and the conservative factions in Iran.  How both of them react to the electoral result, as well as how parliament forms, will determine how much progress moderates can make in shifting the tone and policies of the Iranian government.  It could be the change in the composition of the Assembly of Experts may, in retrospect, come to be viewed as more significant in the long term than the change in parliament. 

Photo courtesy of United Nations

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It is easy to be cynical about Syria. Last week's Munich meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and all interested parties (less the Syrian government and opposition groups) arrived at an agreement that sought to provide a qualified lull in the fighting and to provide limited humanitarian relief. This followed on from the failed intra-Syrian talks the week before and a renewed military offensive that has seen the Assad regime wrest the battlefield initiative from the armed opposition.

While some in the media trumpeted this deal as a Syrian ceasefire agreement, it is certainly not that. But whether you call this a cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire, or nothing much in particular, the recent agreement is possibly the first time external parties who have their fingers in the Syria pie have been able to agree on anything. That in itself is noteworthy. Perhaps excluding the combatants and focusing on their external supporters is the most appropriate way of establishing the confidence needed as a precursor to dealing with the mess in Syria.

Let's break this deal down into negative and the positive aspects. To finish on a high, let's look at the negative first.

1. Pro-Assad groups are not giving up much, militarily

Little happens immediately, with the implementation date a week (or so) away. This has been cited as necessary to work out the modalities, which would indicate that there hasn't been much work done on the implementation phase of the agreement.

Regardless, the Syrian government and its allies would never have agreed to such a deal if they felt it disadvantaged them militarily. They have had significant success in Latakia and Aleppo province recently, including the squeezing of the rebels' main supply routes into Aleppo, while the Kurds have gained territory in the east. Respites normally help rebel groups to reconstitute, but if their logistic resupply routes have been compromised and they are still under attack (see below), then an operational pause may assist pro-Assad forces more than the opposition.

2. There will still be a lot of fighting regardless of how well the agreement is implemented

Under the agreement, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra remain fair game, and operations against them will continue.

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ISIS's operating premise has largely been one of 'my way or the highway' and as a consequence its alliances with other groups have been relatively brief and limited in scope. That means it is far easier to target ISIS in isolation. Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand, has been much more careful in constructing military alliances in Syria, cutting its cloth to suit local circumstances. As a consequence, its fighters are intermingled with a range of other groups in a range of locations.

The ISSG has undertaken to delineate the territory held by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups designated as terrorist organisations by the UN Security Council. But when groups are as intermingled as they are in Syria, and when the tactical situation is so fluid, the ability to delineate ground 'held' by any one group will be nigh on impossible. Which means Russian aircraft and pro-Syrian ground forces could still target areas not declared free of Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS.

The only way rebel groups could avoid continued targeting would be to show that they had severed ties with terrorist organisations and physically moved away from them. In other words, the onus will be on opposition groups to split with Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. This will either weaken the opposition by splitting it militarily, or simply allow the bombing to continue. Either way, it's a win for the regime.

There is however a glimmer of positive news:

3. The humanitarian dimension

There has been a recent focus on the humanitarian situation in villages under siege by both regime and opposition forces. As always, there is a lack of objective information based on regular visits. This agreement should at least provide regular information and practical relief to besieged populations. The humanitarian aspect of this agreement has been designed to be even-handed. It will give the UN road access to previously besieged areas (and in the case of Deir az-Zour, air access using Russian aircraft) and establishes an oversight committee to regulate access. It's not much, but for the optimists among us, it's a start.

Of course, the utility of this agreement will become pretty apparent in the next one or two weeks. We will soon be able to make an informed judgment about whether it is of any practical benefit or whether it is simply another insubstantial announcement, with the real solution ultimately coming via the barrel of a gun.

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Unless they have been hiding under a rock, most people will realise that there’s an election coming up in the US at the end of this year. And whoever wins will have to face the usual thorny challenges thrown up by the Middle East. Fewer people however, are likely to be aware that in the Middle East upcoming elections have the potential to influence events in the longer term in that region. On 26 February Iranians will go to the polls to elect members to the Consultative Assembly (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts.


Ayatollah Khamenei at Iran Army Day on 19 April, 2014 (Photo Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This year, the election is being held in the shadows of a successful negotiated outcome to the nuclear issue and a consequent relief to sanctions. President Rouhani has been quick to take advantage of the newfound economic optimism, signing multi-billion euro economic deals with Italy, following on from a visit to Tehran by President Xi of China, where more than a dozen accords were signed

In the normal course of events, one would expect Rouhani’s moderate allies (along with some reformists) to extract electoral advantage from delivering what he was elected to do in 2013; negotiate an end to the sanctions. But Iranian elections are never conducted on a level playing field because the dynamic tension between conservative and moderate/reformist forces is ever present. In this case the hurdle that all candidates must pass is vetting by the Council of Guardians. The Council is dominated by conservatives given that its 12 members consist of six appointed by the Supreme Leader and six recommended by the Head of the Judiciary (but formally appointed by parliament), although the Judiciary Head is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader.

The parliamentary elections list has already seen the conservative forces limit the potential electoral spin-off that could accrue to Rouhani’s allies as a result of the beginning of the end of Iran’s economic isolation. More than 7,300 of the 12,000 candidates have been disqualified. These are overwhelmingly the reformist candidates; however, with a review process allowed some of them will likely be reinstated.

Perhaps the most interesting sub-drama though, has been the tussle over candidate selection for the Assembly of Experts who, among other duties, are charged with selecting the new Supreme Leader.

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There are rumours of Ayatollah Khamenei’s (the 76-year-old Supreme Leader's) ill-health, so the composition of the Assembly of Experts is taking on even more importance. The 88 clerical members of the Assembly are directly elected and serve an eight-year term, so they will, in all likelihood, meet to appoint a new Supreme Leader during their term in office. The true power lies with the Supreme Leader, so the moderates and reformists see the election as a way of advancing their own interests at some point in the future.

The only sticking point is the fact that the Council of Guardians has also sought to block Rouhani’s aspirations for a change to the Assembly’s make-up. They have allowed only 166 of the 801 candidates for the Assembly election.  Among those who were reportedly disqualified was Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader and leader of the Islamic revolution. Hassan is generally considered to be from the reformist camp and, along with the candidatures of past and present moderate presidents Rouhani and Rafsanjani (both of whom will be allowed to contest the election), could have formed the nucleus of a powerful anti-conservative bloc in a key Iranian institution. 

For all the ‘spectator at a slow-motion car crash’ interest in the Trump candidacy in the United States, elections in the Islamic Republic in February may provide a more interesting political battle between conservative and moderate forces.

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