Guest Post: Silver Linings to those Middle Eastern Clouds

This is another guest post by frequent contributor and reader Brian Goldfarb.


Hezbollah and Lebanese flags at a demonstration

There are these three articles, two from the Henry Jackson Society and the third from The Tablet, which together weave a fascinating picture of what’s happening in the Middle East. If (and it’s a big “if”) we can believe them, then they bode well for Israel – and we’re far more used to wringing our hands than clapping them about Israel, its neighbours and the region.

The first of these articles, from The Tablet, is Iran’s ramped-up cold war with Israel is a sign of Tehran’s weakness, not strength which, as stated in the headline, claims that Iran’s attempt to supply a cargo of missiles and other arms to Gaza is, in fact, a sign of its weakness, not strength. This seems hard to credit, when, with better luck, we assume that Hamas would have been reinforced with massively better and longer range missiles than ever before and much more besides. However, the author, Josh Nason, argues to the contrary, saying that while it is true that

“Tehran is months into negotiations over limiting the scope of its nuclear program in exchange for relaxing international sanctions”

which might appear to a good reason for laying off arming those that much of the rest of the world openly define as terrorists, it

“still decided to risk sending a shipment of advanced weaponry to terrorists in Israel’s backyard.”

I’ve already noted that seeing this as weakness is difficult: it might be easier to see it as Iran saying that we’re too powerful for you to do anything about this.

Nason, however, suggests that:

“the cargo wasn’t evidence of Tehran’s incorruptible commitment to destroying the Jewish state. Rather, it was a window into the dynamics of intra-Muslim politics—and a sign that Iran is actually a weakened power desperately trying to hold on to regional influence among its Muslim neighbors and allies.”

My immediate response was to wonder, briefly, what Nason was ‘on’, or why he was whistling in the wind so much, but then I read on. The arms were intended, he claimed, not for “Hamas, a fair-weather ally of Tehran and the undisputed power in Gaza, but rather to the much smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

This was news to me, as I had taken it for granted (like many others, I suspect) that, when the news broke of the Israeli capture of the Klos-C, the arms were for Hamas: who else? But, immediately before that last sentence, Nason had noted that:

It is telling that both the rockets on the ship, as well as the rockets fired into Israel over the past few days, are being tied not to Hamas, a fair-weather ally of Tehran and the undisputed power in Gaza, but rather to the much smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

So far, so confusing. How come this is a sign of a weakened Iranian regime? Well, the story doesn’t get any clearer, or, at least, not much. However, Nason offers the following:

“A look across the region today suggests that Iran’s primary friends are essentially the same small group of proxies and allies it had a quarter-century ago: Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime in Syria.”

Okay, that makes it a little clearer: Hezbollah is composed of Shia Moslems, as is the majority in Iran, and Assad’s Alawites are also, if not Shia, then certainly, for better or worse, tied to Iran, and we must presume that Islamic Jihad is similarly Shia. Hamas, as an offshoot of the Moslem Brotherhood, is, however, Sunni (just like Al-Qaeda and its related offshoots), and, given the enmities between the different strands of Islam, merely, as Nason notes, a fair-weather friend and ally of Iran’s.

Hezbollah and Syrian flags

Things, hopefully become a little clearer and much of it hinges around Syria. Assad is tied to and dependent on Iran, without whom (and the arms supplied from Russia via Iran) his regime would probably already have succumbed to the rebels. This brings us, at least temporarily, to the first of the Henry Jackson Society articles. The title of this item, by Rupert Sutton, is “Hezbollah’s Syrian Commitments Outweigh the Politics of ‘Resistance’“, and is built around the deceptively simple argument  that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria in support of the Assad regime is not only costing it the lives and/or disabling injuries to its most experienced fighters, it is also drawing it away from what its prime reason for being was: fighting and destroying Israel. Or, as my wife’s cousin commented when I noted that we had heard intermittent gunfire from the other side of the Golan Heights when on Tel Hatzor, “if they’re killing each other, they’re not trying to kill us”. Thus, Nasrallah (Hezbollah’s leader) may well threaten to retaliate against Israel as and when he chooses, but when Israel bombed one of Hezbollah’s bases, initially denied by the group itself, this

was soon reported by local media, which stated that four fighters had been killed. Forced to respond, Hezbollah downplayed the results of the attack; the first sign that there was little stomach amongst its military leadership for further confrontation with Israel.

Add to this the ability of Israeli intelligence to detect arms supplies heading to Hezbollah from Iran through Syria and the further ability of the IAF to take these supply convoys out, then we can begin to understand where these two writers are coming from.

Let me finish my references to the Tablet article with this quote from Nason’s article, which sums up the problems facing Iran:

“But since the start of the Syrian War, Iran has come to be almost exclusively viewed as a crutch for Assad—which means Tehran is implicated in the slaughter of the Sunnis fighting the Alawite regime. Nasrallah, who lent his support to Assad, is now reviled, as many question what fighting in Syria has to do with Hezbollah’s mission of resistance against Israel. With sectarianism now raging across Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, it is becoming nearly impossible for Iran and its proxies to be viewed…outside of this context. Sunni Salafists fighting in Syria now regularly refer to their Shiite opponents by all sorts of derogatory terms meant to dehumanize them—exactly the opposite of the image Tehran wants to project.”

From hero to zero in two bloody years. Good going from Israel’s point of view. To reuse an old cliché, the Syrian civil war is one which the Israelis profoundly hope both sides lose.

Meanwhile, to return to the second article, all is not well in the Hezbollah controlled areas of Lebanon. Rupert Sutton, author of the article, notes that

… in Lebanon the need to confront the threat from Sunni terrorists is taxing the organisation’s military planners. In September 2013 reports suggested that Hezbollah fighters leaving Beirut to prepare for retaliation against Israel had left inexperienced members defending Shia areas, and it is likely the same is true of reinforcements sent to Syria.

In plainer words, Hezbollah, unlike Israel, is in no shape (and, as a terrorist organisation – it is far from being the state power it would like to be – is never likely to be) to fight a three-front war: in Beirut, in Syria and against Israel, especially as it is bleeding to death from losing its most experienced fighters in Syria. As Sutton further notes,

“Given the clear threat posed by groups like the Al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, these reports suggest that any further conflict with Israel would risk leaving these areas vulnerable.

For them my heart bleeds.

My final quote from Sutton underlines these points:

“Accompanying these two concerns are fears over the fallout of any Israeli reprisals to a Hezbollah strike, particularly against Shia communities already angered by the cost of the campaign in Syria.”

Or, in other words, Nasrallah knows that the IDF would fight a much more sophisticated war this time; he only has to look to the IAF’s Pillar of Cloud operation against Hamas in 2011 to know that, when Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s ability to attack Israel was severely degraded without one Israeli boot stepping into Gaza.

So, what of the third article I mentioned? This one, “Do Palestinians really want a state of their own? Not right now they don’t“, has what on the face of it is a much less appealing title for those of us who support Israel and hope for a viable two-state solution. The article is by Oren Kessler and is a cross post from Foreign Affairs. And indeed, the content is hardly uplifting stuff. It’s what we’re reading across the net, if your reading includes The Gatestone Institute website, Petra Marquardt-Bigman’s site at The Warped Mirror, or many others: the Palestinians won’t reach an agreement because they expect the pressure to be put on Israel and they will come up smelling of roses. It will be all the Israeli’s fault – again. And this is the topic of one of Petra Marquardt-Bigman’s recent articles. Further, they still pump their people full of hope that, somehow, Israel will just go away. It doesn’t occur to them that should they ever get their wish, they will learn the true meaning of the phrase “be careful what you wish for”.

So what’s hopeful about this, beyond the Palestinians yet again “not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity”? Well, mid-term elections are coming up, and there is no sign that the Democrats are going to regain control of the House of Representatives and even some signs, very faint, that the Democrats might lose control of the Senate. Should that happen, Obama will be a lame duck President for two years and Congress won’t let him do anything damaging to Israel. It may even pass new sanctions against Iran, to come into effect should the 5+1 “talks” fail to reach a satisfactory conclusion. And Israel only has to grit its teeth and wait out the next two years.


Anne adds:

Thank you Brian for your insights into these very interesting articles which give us a slightly different angle from which to view current Middle East politics.

With regard to the last article and Israel being able to wait out this malign American Administration, Caroline Glick makes that exact point in her article Surviving Obama.

But it is important to remember that most Democrats also support Israel. They are simply unable politically to withstand the pressures that Obama has brought to bear to force them to stand with him against Israel.

In his speech to AIPAC, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee confessed that he was forced to stand down on Iran sanctions due to partisan pressure.

In his words, “When it comes to Iran, I have stood with you and have stood against so many in my own party.”

Menendez’s admission that he couldn’t withstand the pressures that Obama and Reid brought to bear against him indicates that among some Democrats, support for Israel remains strong, but that under Obama, Israel’s Democrat supporters are weak.

While deeply problematic, this is a problem with a limited shelf-life.

If Obama views the midterm elections as the final restraint on his ability to act against the will of the American public, his fellow Democrats likely view the elections as the last time Obama will serve as the head of their party during an election cycle. In the 2016 elections, the Democrat presidential nominee will set the tone for the party, not Obama.

I also mentioned similar points in my post on Bullying Bumbling Obama and Bibi’s AIPAC speech.

Let’s hope our optimism isn’t misplaced – or that events overtake us.

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13 Responses to Guest Post: Silver Linings to those Middle Eastern Clouds

  1. Brian Goldfarb says:

    There was I, thinking I was being somewhat optimistic, even being like Pollyanna (the girl who always saw the bright side and was always optimistic, whatever happened), when along comes this article from The Times of Israel of today’s date: http://www.timesofisrael.com/syrian-dissident-offer-golan-heights-if-israel-removes-assad/?utm_source=The+Times+of+Israel+Daily+Edition&utm_campaign=8a6aa736d5-2014_03_18&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_adb46cec92-8a6aa736d5-54417869.

    It is as the title says: one Kamal al-Labwani, founder of the Syrian Liberal Democratic Union (and as a result spent almost a decade in Assad’s prisons but survived) and founding member of the Syrian National Council, has said just that. He told “the London-based daily Al-Arab last week that Syria has effectively lost the Golan Heights to Israel, and now faces the choice of using its claim over the territory to topple the Assad regime or waiting 10 more years until all of Syria is lost to Assad.” I think he means that the Syrian opposition can do this.

    And all he wants is an Israeli-enforced no-fly zone over Southern Syria. Not much to ask, is it? Is it?

    • anneinpt says:

      Not after today’s border attack. Israel has enough on its plate keeping the various crazies at bay. In any case Israel is enforcing an informal no-fly zone, and at the same time the Golan is de facto Israeli territory now, even if not strictly de jure. And I think that will come too, without us having to get involved in the civil war on the side one bad lot or another.

  2. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Sorry to go on about it, but if you know where to look, all sorts of goodies just seem to appear, as if by magic. Thus The Algemeiner, also of today’s date, has this
    http://www.algemeiner.com/2014/03/18/83-us-senators-sign-letter-articulating-%E2%80%98core-principles%E2%80%99-for-final-iran-nuclear-deal/. In the letter, the 83 senators wrote that any agreement “must dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prevent it from ever having a uranium or plutonium path to a nuclear bomb.” Iran “has no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” and also has “no reason to have an enrichment facility like Fordow,” which is located underground, they wrote.

    Now, the current Senate has 53 democratic, 45 Republicans and 2 Independents (who caucus with the Democratic). If we assume that all 45 Republicans signed the letter, then simple arithmetic tells us that 38 of those Democrats and/or the two Independents also signed it: which is a whopping 69% of the pro-administration bloc in the Senate. And only 3 Democratic Senators look to be under realistic threat of losing their seats in November (and neither of the two Independents is up for re-election), so it’s not fear of the electorate that’s driving that letter signing.

    Hang in there, Bibi!

    • anneinpt says:

      That certainly is good news. The thing is (not trying to burst your bubble) that Capitol Hill, both the Senate and Congress have always been and still are strongly pro-Israel. The problem lies with the State Dept and the White House. And as long as Obama has the power to veto senate bills or to impose them (I’m not sure about American politics) then all the pro-Israeliness in the world won’t help us if Obama, who is not standing for re-election and so has nothing to lose, decides to act against Israeli interests.

      Our only hope is that the Democrats, who do want to get re-elected, try to restrain Obama and Kerry.

      But it’s nice to have it officially confirmed how many US politicians are on our side.

      • Brian Goldfarb says:

        BUT, while the President can veto bills, if Congress then comes back with a two-thirds majority, the bill becomes law. And every President dreads that: that Congress may feel strongly enough to summon up 2/3 of each House to force their view.

        Sometimes (but only sometimes) the Pres does actually have a better view of the situation. This time, however…

      • Brian Goldfarb says:

        Petra, of course they would, and of course the offer is a joke. I’m not sure that I was entirely serious about my latest post. I think it illustrates that the region is far from monolithic – just see the writers from Arab/Moslem backgrounds who post articles on, e.g. the, Gatestone Institute site.

        There is a further irony that while most of the political entities surrounding Israel are far from the most politically stable ones we could fine in the world, the most politically stable one we can find is probably also the most reactionary one: Saudi Arabia. A further irony is that this stable yet reactionary entity is probably, whatever the political rhetoric it generates, far less bothered by the existence of a politically stable Israel to its north west than by what it sees as a “mad dog” regime to its north in Iran. Thus the rumours that SA would permit (if not sanction) Israeli overflights towards Iran.

        Better a defanged Iran than a nuclear armed set of Gulf states.

        The politics and realpolitiks of the Middle East (outside Israel, a model of political clarity and sanity in this context) is almost beyond belief.

        • anneinpt says:

          Very true and well said.

          (Sorry about the comment appearing in the wrong place. I tried to move it to the right place but I can’t figure out how!)

  3. I think one can indeed say that overall, there are advantages for Israel in the fact that our neighbors will be very busy with themselves for quite some time — but there’s also a big but I’m afraid: an unstable neighborhood also means lots of freelance terrorist groups that every now and then might decide to launch a few rockets in our direction in order to polish their image, or change the dynamic, as e.g. happens from Sinai. And the Syrian “offer” is of course a joke — there’s no way that Israel would get involved there; and in the totally hypothetical scenario: if we did and helped the rebels to get rid of Assad, they would get rid of the guy who promised us the Golan Heights immediately afterwards…

    • Brian Goldfarb says:

      Petra, sorry, but the comment that appears above yours from me was supposed to be below it. The technology defeated me at this time of the morning!

    • anneinpt says:

      Exactly so. The whole mess could be summarized as Krazies R Us.

      Thank you for your comment and welcome to my blog. I’m honoured by your visit.

  4. Betty says:

    Well with all the instability and whirlwinds stirring up the reactionary forces around Israel and if according to your analysis it’s in Israel’s best interests to let the maniacs kill each other off , why can’t Netanyahu just wait it out fending off the missiles and tell the Kerry/Obama team to take a hike? Why is it that they can squeeze him to make these futile gestures?

    • anneinpt says:

      Well, to be fair, that’s what Netanyahu appears to be doing now. Finally. After he let himself (and us) be squeezed earlier. It’s finally dawned on him that we’re never going to get a quid pro quo from the Palestinians or the Americans. Meanwhile the Americans have proven to be lame ducks, with their red lines being erased as they retreat from Syria, Iran and now Ukraine, so it’s clear that Israel doesn’t have much to worry about if we defy them.

      • Brian Goldfarb says:

        And, as has been noted in many different places, the US defence forces still regard Israel as a staunch ally and continue to cooperate with the IDF on a daily basis, whatever the Administration may appear to think or do.

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