Experts: China Is Already Capable of Challenging U.S. Air Force in Battle

China identified more than a decade ago that transforming its air force’s capability in the area of air-to-air missiles was an important part of its military modernization. Efforts since then appear to have paid off, with experts forming a consensus that China’s air power is already capable of challenging that of the US in certain scenarios, in part thanks to indigenious missiles.

Chief airpower specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Douglas Barrie, noted recently that some of the new weapons being introduced on Chinese aircraft are equal to Western equivalents. In the case of one missile, it has surpassed any other country’s capabilities.

The new weapons, including a long-range air-to-air missile, Barrie wrote earlier this year, have completely transformed the balance of power in the skies.

“For the notional Western combat aircraft pilot, there is no obvious respite to be found in attempting to avoid within visual range threat of the PL-10 by keeping to beyond visual range. In this environment also the PLAAF will be able to mount an increasingly credible challenge, and at engagement ranges against some targets that would previously have been considered safe. As one former U.S. Air Force tanker pilot drily noted to this author when discussing China’s yet-to-be-named, and yet-to-enter service, very long-range AAM, ‘That’s aimed right at me.’”

China’s advancements made in air power, which have been made alongside those of Russia, have not just caught the attention of the US, as Bloomberg reported this week.

“This shift isn’t just important for the US. India has watched with trepidation as Russia supplies Beijing – and Beijing supplies Pakistan – with more sophisticated weaponry…

According to Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Russia’s potential approval for China to resell its jet engines to Pakistan was the most frequent topic of discussion at weekly meetings of the National Security Council when she was assistant secretary to the NSC Secretariat from 2003-2007. If Pakistan’s jets were equipped with the new radar and China’s PL-10 missiles, now available for export, India’s aging Russian MiGs would struggle to compete, she said.”

Some missiles China developed with Russia’s help may now be even better than original Russian versions, but Moscow is not particularly worried, according to some.

“They are certainly a growing power,” Vasily Kashin, a Moscow-based military aviation specialist was quoted as saying in the Bloomberg report. “But they are not omnipotent, and they are Russia’s partner.”

That is in line with recent analysis pushing back on skepticism of a Russia-China military alliance.

“As long as Russia sees the US as its chief rival and is focused primarily on Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and China looks towards the Asia-Pacific, it is quite likely that Beijing and Moscow will be able to manage their contradictions and maintain a fairly robust military partnership,” Yevgen Sautin wrote for the Party Watch Initiative, which publishes research drawing from Chinese-language publications. “Even without an explicit alliance, this makes both states more formidable competitors.”

This first appeared in AsiaTimes  

مصر… حراك سلمي لا يتوقف

عمرو حمزاوي

إزاء إلغاء الفضاء العام والحصار الممنهج المفروض على المجتمع المدني ومحدودية فاعلية الأحزاب السياسية إن المهادنة للحكم أو المعارضة له والتراجع البين في القدرات التنظيمية والجماهيرية لليمين الديني، بدت أوضاع مصر بين 2013 و2018 وكأن السلطوية الجديدة قد صارت في إخضاعها للمواطن والمجتمع وسيطرتها على مؤسسات الدولة دون منازع، وكأن فرص مقاومتها والضغط السلمي من أجل انتزاع شيء من حقوق وحريات الناس قد أضحت إلى الخيال أقرب.

وظفت السلطوية الجديدة أدواتها الإعلامية للترويج لقراءة الأوضاع المصرية على هذا النحو، ولسان حالها باتجاه المواطنين هو «لا جدوى للمواجهة، لا بديل عن الامتثال»! وأضافت أيضا تفسيرها التآمري البائس لثورة يناير 2011، ومرادفتها التحول الديمقراطي بهدم الدولة ونشر الفوضى وإلحاق البلاد بمصائر سوريا والعراق وليبيا. تدريجيا، وبفعل استمرار الانتهاكات والقمع والتعقب دون توقف، تملك الشعور بالإحباط وفقدان الأمل من المطالبين بالديمقراطية ومن المدافعين عن الحقوق والحريات واتجهت نظرتهم إلى الأوضاع المصرية أيضا إلى الدفع بغياب فرص المواجهة السلمية للسلطوية الجديدة وانتفاء القدرة على التغيير الإيجابي. حدث ذلك في سياقات إقليمية وعالمية أرادت بها القوى الفاعلة إغلاق ملف الانتفاضات الديمقراطية 2011، ونعتها بالفشل، وإعادة ترتيب أولويات بلاد العرب والشرق الأوسط لتأتي في الواجهة الحرب على الإرهاب وإدارة الصراع السني ـ الشيعي المتوهم والبحث عن مناطق نفوذ في دول وطنية منهارة (سوريا واليمن وليبيا) ودعم صعود وبقاء حكام أقوياء يعدون بالأمن والاستقرار ولا تعنيهم الديمقراطية من قريب أو بعيد. في مثل هذه السياقات الإقليمية والعالمية اكتسبت السلطوية الجديدة في مصر شرعيتها خارج الحدود، تلك الشرعية التي حققت منها قسطا داخليا باستعادة شيء من الأمن وبعض السياسات الاقتصادية والاجتماعية الناجعة.

غير أن الاستسلام لقراءة «لا جدوى للمواجهة، لا بديل عن الامتثال» فيما خص الأوضاع المصرية يتجاهل واقع الحراك المجتمعي ضد الممارسات القمعية للسلطوية الجديدة بين 2013 و2018. فقد تطورت مبادرات احتجاجية لتوثيق وكشف انتهاكات الحقوق والحريات المتراكمة، وضمت بين صفوفها طلاب وشباب ونشطاء وحقوقيين. غابت عن مبادرات مثل «الحرية للجدعان» الأطر التنظيمية المحددة، والتزمت كل منها بقضية واحدة فقط مثل جرائم الاختفاء القسري أو سلب حرية مواطنين بسبب القوانين القمعية كقانون التظاهر أو جرائم التعذيب داخل السجون وأماكن الاحتجاز، واستطاعت بنجاح مواجهة الإنكار الحكومي لحدوث انتهاكات للحقوق والحريات والتأسيس وإن بين قطاعات محدودة من المواطنين لوعي شعبي جديد بشأن ضرورة رفض القمع وإفلات المتورطين في الانتهاكات من المساءلة القانونية

egypt-security-forces

كذلك نشطت بين 2013 و2018 نقابات مهنية اشتبكت مع السلطوية الجديدة بشأن قضايا تتعلق بالدفاع عن استقلالها التنظيمي، وغل يد الأجهزة الأمنية عن العبث بداخلها، والانتصار لحقوق وحريات الأعضاء ومن بينها حرية اختيار ممثليهم والحماية من التعرض للتعقب والعقاب والتعبير العلني عن الرأي إن فيما خص القضايا النقابية أو القضايا العامة. وبرزت هنا نقابة الأطباء ونقابة الصحافيين اللتان اضطلعتا بأدوار حاسمة في مواجهة السلطوية، وفي المجمل مثل حراك النقابات المهنية استعادة لحيوية تلك المساحة الهامة الواقعة بين الحكم وبين المواطنين والتي كانت في ثمانينيات وتسعينيات القرن العشرين في صدارة الدفاع عن حرية التعبير عن الرأي وحرية التنظيم في مواجهة سلطوية ما قبل كانون الثاني/يناير 2011.

وفيما خص الحراك الطلابي، لم تتمكن السلطوية الجديدة من الضبط الأمني للجامعات الحكومية والخاصة والقضاء التام على الحراك. استخدمت السلطوية كل ما في جعبتها من أدوات للقمع والتعقب ومن أدوات للحصار باسم القوانين واللوائح والإجراءات، بل واستعانت بشركات أمن خاصة للتواجد داخل حرم الجامعات ودفعت الإدارات الجامعية لإنزال عقوبات قاسية بالطلاب غير الممتثلين وسلبت حرية بعضهم وأحالتهم إلى المحاكم. على الرغم من ذلك، استمرت الجامعة حاضرة كمساحة رئيسية للمواجهة، بين 2013 و2015 تظاهرا واعتصاما وبين 2015 و2018 مشاركة كثيفة في انتخابات الاتحادات الطلابية لإنجاح مرشحين غير مرشحي الأجهزة الأمنية والاستخباراتية. هنا أيضا شكل الحراك الطلابي استعادة للمساحة الجامعية كمساحة لمنازعة السلطوية والتعبير المنظم عن معارضة سياساتها وممارساتها، وجدد في الوعي الشعبي للمصريين دور الجامعة والطلاب في الدعوة للتغيير الديمقراطي.

أخفقت السلطوية الجديدة أيضا في القضاء على الحراك العمالي الذي واصل تصدر المشهد الاحتجاجي بين 2013 و2018. لم يفلح المزج بين القمع والتعقب وبين إجراءات الترهيب المتراوحة بين الفصل التعسفي من مكان العمل وبين إحالة بعض العمال المحتجين إلى القضاء العسكري في إنهاء الاحتجاجات العمالية، وتواصلت الاحتجاجات باستخدام أدوات التظاهر والاعتصام والإضراب للمطالبة بحقوق اقتصادية واجتماعية معرفة جيدا، وامتدت خريطة الاحتجاجات العمالية لتشمل القطاعين العام والخاص ولتجمع بين العمال وبين موظفي الخدمة المدنية (موظفو بيروقراطية الدولة والأجهزة الحكومية).

كما تكرر خروج بعض المواطنات والمواطنين إلى المساحات العامة للاحتجاج على قرارات وإجراءات وممارسات حكومية بعينها كتورط عناصر أمنية في تعذيب وقتل مصريين داخل أماكن الاحتجاز الشرطي أو للاعتراض العلني على سياسات حكومية. بالقطع، حاولت السلطوية الجديدة أن تدير أمنيا المبادرات الاحتجاجية والحراك النقابي والطلابي والعمالي مستخدمة تارة لأدوات القمع المباشر وتارة أخرى لأدواتها القانونية المصاغة لتهجير المواطن ولإغلاق الفضاء العام. بين 2013 و2018، استعادت السلطوية ماضي الحصار الأمني للنقابات المهنية وللحركات الطلابية والعمالية وأضافت لقوائم المسلوبة مواطنين خرجوا عفويا وسلميا إلى الشارع لمعارضة قرارات وممارسات حكومية. تكررت أيضا مشاهد ما قبل كانون الثاني/يناير 2011 مثل «التفخيخ الأمني» للنقابات المهنية التي عارضت مجالس إدارتها المنتخبة السياسات الرسمية، و«الاصطناع الأمني» للصراعات بين المجالس المنتخبة وبين أعضاء في النقابات عرف عنهم التبعية للحكم وللأجهزة الأمنية، و«الأطواق الشرطية» المحيطة بمقار النقابات وبالمصانع التي تحدث بها تظاهرات أو اعتصامات أو إضرابات، والإحالة السريعة للنشطاء العماليين والمواطنين المشاركين في الاحتجاجات إلى عمليات تقاضي (إن أمام القضاء المدني ـ الطبيعي أو أمام القضاء العسكري). على الرغم من كل هذا القمع الممنهج، وجدت السلطوية الجديدة صعوبات حقيقية في السيطرة الكاملة على الحراك المجتمعي وبدت من ثم في مأزق سياسي يتناقض من جهة مع سيطرتها المطلقة على المساحات الإعلامية التقليدية وإغلاقها للفضاء العام وحصارها للمجتمع المدني وتسفيهها للمساحات الرسمية لممارسة السياسة وللأحزاب السياسية ومرشح من جهة أخرى للاستمرار في الفترة القادمة.

تم نشر هذا المقال في جريدة القدس العربي

ماذا ستكون الاستراتيجية الأمريكية الجديدة إذا انسحب ترامب من الاتفاق النووي مع إيران؟

روبرت ساتلوف

خلال زيارة الرئيس الفرنسي إلى واشنطن في الأسبوع الماضي، أرسل الرئيس ترامب إشاراتٍ متضاربة حول مستقبل الاتفاق النووي مع إيران. فقد وصف الاتفاق بـ “الجنوني” و”التافه”، ولكنه قال إن واشنطن قد تتوصل إلى تفاهم جديد مع باريس والعواصم الأوروبية الأخرى “بسرعة كبيرة”، وأنه ملتزماً بـ “المرونة”.

وإذا أُخِذت هذه التصرفات سوية، فإنها تعكس [الشخصية] الكلاسيكية لترامب. فهو الذي يتفاخر بإثارة حيرة الحلفاء والخصوم على السواء حول خطوته التالية. وعندما سيأتي 12 أيار/مايو، وهو الموعد المحدد في القانون لتمديد الاعفاءات من العقوبات، سيبقى من غير المعلوم ما إذا كان سيلغي اتفاقاً سَخَر منه منذ فترة طويلة ووصفه بأنه أسوأ صفقة تم التفاوض بشأنها على الإطلاق – غير أنّ ما كشفته إسرائيل مؤخراً عن أرشيف إيران النووي السري سيعزز بالتأكيد الحجج الداعية إلى “إلغاء الاتفاق”.

ولكن إذا [قرر] الرئيس الأمريكي سحب الولايات المتحدة من الاتفاق واكتفى بسرد ما يشوبه من عيوب، فلن يحظى حتى بتهليل منتقدي الاتفاق (بمن فيهم كاتب هذه السطور). إذ لا يوفّر الانسحاب وحده نهجاً بديلاً لمنع إيران من امتلاك قدرات [لإنتاج] أسلحة نووية. كما أن الانسحاب وحده لا يفسّر كيف ستردّ الولايات المتحدة على ردود فعل الأصدقاء والخصوم، بمن فيهم إيران. بالإضافة إلى ذلك، لا يوفّر الانسحاب وحده دليلاً على الأهداف العامة للإدارة الأمريكية تجاه إيران والسياسات اللازمة لتحقيقها.

بعبارةٍ أخرى، يشكل الانسحاب من الاتفاق خطوة وليس استراتيجية. ونحن بحاجة إلى استراتيجية للتعامل مع إيران.

وإذا قرر الرئيس الأمريكي الانسحاب من الصفقة النووية، ستتبلور أربعة خيارات رئيسية حول الاستراتيجية تجاه إيران:

التفاوض على اتفاق أفضل يقوم بتصحيح عيوب الاتفاق الأصلي من خلال تضمين قيود دائمة على التخصيب، وفرض حظر على تطوير الصواريخ الباليستية واعتماد نظام تفتيش أكثر تقحماً. وقد يتطلب ذلك ورقة ضغط تُجبر إيران على العودة إلى طاولة المفاوضات، ويشمل ذلك إعادة فرض العقوبات التي وضعتها الأمم المتحدة والولايات المتحدة، وربما فرض غرامات ثانوية على الدول التي لا تقلّص مشترياتها من النفط الإيراني إلى مستويات منخفضة بما فيه الكفاية.

وعلى خلاف مناورة الرئيس أوباما التي سعت إلى عرض الاتفاق الإيراني على أنه “اتفاق تنفيذي”، يتعين على الرئيس ترامب أن يَعِد بتقديم أي اتفاق إلى مجلس الشيوخ على أنه معاهدة، الأمر الذي سيعزز الضغط على الشركاء الأوروبيين للولايات المتحدة كي يساعدوا على التوصل إلى اتفاق يستأهل عدد الأصوات المطلوبة بموجب الدستور، أي 67 صوتاً.

التفاوض على اتفاق أكثر أهمية لا يقوم فقط بإصلاح العيوب في الاتفاق القديم، بل يتناول الأنشطة الإقليمية الإيرانية الخبيثة أيضاً. وفي هذا الصدد، أدّى دعم طهران للإرهاب والتخريب والميليشيات الشيعية في سوريا والعراق إلى تغيير الوضع الأمني في المنطقة، مما أثار قلق العرب والإسرائيليين على حد سواء. إن التوصل إلى اتفاق أكثر طموحاً سيكون أكثر تعقيداً، إلاّ أنّ النجاح سيشكّل تأكيداً مثيراً للقيادة الأمريكية – ولبراعة الرئيس ترامب في إبرام الصفقات.

إطلاق سياسة تسعى إلى تغيير النظام. قد يأتي هذا النهج الجريء نتيجة تقييمٍ يبرز فيه فساد النظام في طهران، بحيث لن ينفع معه أي اتفاق. ويمكن للرئيس الأمريكي أن يجادل بأن سعي إيران للسيادة الإقليمية يشكل خطراً واضحاً وشاملاً على المصالح الأمريكية. وبطبيعة الحال، قد تأخذ الجهود الرامية إلى إحداث تغيير في النظام أشكالاً عديدة، مع استبعاد احتمال قيام مواجهة عسكرية. ولكن من شأن تحديد الهدف فقط أن يرسم مساراً جديداً للانخراط الأمريكي في الشرق الأوسط.

تنفيذ استراتيجية الانكماش في الشرق الأوسط تقلّص بموجبها الولايات المتحدة تعرّضها للمشاكل الخطيرة والمستعصية في المنطقة. وربما كان أوباما قد صمّم الاتفاق النووي كأداة لانتشال أمريكا من مستنقع الشرق الأوسط، لكن قد يجادل ترامب بأن الولايات المتحدة ما زالت عالقة هناك كما كان الحال دائماً. ويمكن أن يتصوّر المرء قيام الرئيس الأمريكي بإعطاء تصريح يقول فيه، “دعونا لا نكون ملزمين مثل جليفر باتفاق مرهِق يبقينا مقيّدين بإيران لسنوات قادمة”، مضيفاً “دعونا نتمتع بِحرية اختيار المكان والزمان المناسبين للتصرف”.

وفي هذا السيناريو، ستواصل الولايات المتحدة تقديم (أو، حتى أفضل من ذلك، بيع) الأسلحة إلى حلفائها المحليين لكي يتمكنوا من مواجهة إيران ووكلائها. ويمكن للرئيس الأمريكي أن يربط الانسحاب من الاتفاق النووي بعقيدة الردع الجديدة التي تنص على ما يلي: أي دليل على قيام إيران بتخصيب المواد الانشطارية إلى درجة تتخطى مستوى معيّن من شأنه أن يؤدي إلى قيام الولايات المتحدة بعملية عسكرية ضخمة تهدف إلى إنهاء النظام.

وعلى الرغم من أن هذه الخيارات تطال طيف السياسات، إلّا أنه ليس من الصعب تصوّر تأييد ترامب لأي منها. وهذا خير دليل على غياب التماسك الاستراتيجي في الإدارة الأمريكية فيما يتعلق بإيران والشرق الأوسط على نطاق أوسع.

وإذا اختار الرئيس الأمريكي الانسحاب من الاتفاق، فستتمثل الخطوة الصحيحة في شمل هذا القرار في استراتيجية جديدة [تهدف إلى] التوصل إلى اتفاق أفضل. وستؤدي هذه المقاربة إلى تقليل المتاعب بين أصدقاء الولايات المتحدة في أوروبا، حيث يشارك بعضهم قلق واشنطن بشأن عيوب الاتفاق الحالي، كما أنها تتمتع بفرصة أفضل للنجاح.

إلا أنّ هذا ليس كافياً. يتعين على الرئيس الأمريكي أن يعزز سياسة تتمثل [بالتوصل إلى] “اتفاق أفضل” يضم العناصر الأساسية للخيارين الثاني والثالث، من دون تحمّل التكلفة السياسية لتبنّي تلك المسارات الأكثر تطرفاً بشكلٍ علني وكامل. يجب أن يتضمن ذلك اعتماد تدابير أكثر فعالية وأكثر حزماً لمواجهة سلوك إيران المزعزع للاستقرار في جميع أنحاء الشرق الأوسط، فضلاً عن اتخاذ مبادرات جديدة – في مجال حقوق الإنسان والحرية الدينية والوصول إلى شبكة الإنترنت، على سبيل المثال – التي تضع أمريكا بشكل مباشر إلى جانب الإيرانيين الذين يناضلون من أجل الحرية. وقد تشكّل هذه المقترحات مجتمعة سياسةً حقيقيةً تجاه إيران – هي الأولى منذ عقود – وليس مجرد سياسة نووية تجاه إيران.

وهناك خطوة خاطئة أيضاً، وهي رد الفعل البغيض المتمثل بالانسحاب من المنطقة خلف جدار من التهديد والتوعّد. ففي نهاية المطاف، لا يقوم الانخراط الأمريكي في الشرق الأوسط على الغيريّة. فإلى جانب دعم مصالح الولايات المتحدة وحلفائها التقليديين، يكمن الهدف الأناني لواشنطن في حل المشاكل هناك قبل أن يتم تصديرها إلى الولايات المتحدة.

لنأمل أن يستمدّ الرئيس الأمريكي قراره بشأن الاتفاق النووي من خيار استراتيجي سليم ومعقول تجاه إيران، وليس من حافز انعزالي مضلّل أو من عدائية متأصلة تجاه الإنجاز الذي حققه سلفه.

روبرت ساتلوف هو المدير التنفيذي لمعهد واشنطن.

UK drones firing organ-destroying ‘vacuum bombs’ on the rise in Syria – FOI request reveals

The UK is ‘indiscriminately’ using thermobaric missiles as part of its ongoing air war in Syria, a Freedom of Information (FoI) request has revealed.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) admitted, for the first time, using thermobaric weapons during strikes carried out by Royal Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones during missions in January and February, in response to the FoI request by anti-war campaign group Drone Wars UK.

Thermobaric weapons, known colloquially as “vacuum bombs,” differ from conventional munitions – which cause damage by spreading shrapnel – as they create a high-temperature explosion with an extremely powerful blast radius. The pressure created causes severe internal damage to the organs of people caught in the blast radius.

According to Drone Wars, the request saw “officials give a breakdown of the type of Hellfire missiles fired, stating that 19 AGM-114N4 and 44 AGM-114R2 had been used. The ‘N’ version of the missile uses a Metal Augmented Charge (MAC) warhead that contains a thermobaric explosive fill using aluminum with the explosive mixture. When the warhead detonates, the aluminum mixture is dispersed and rapidly burns.”

While use of vacuum bombs remain legal under international law, their use has been criticized by human rights organizations as they have the potential to create unnecessary human suffering.

“Anyone in the vicinity is likely to die from internal organ damage,” the group added.

Manufactured by US arms giant Lockheed Martin, the company boasts that over 21,000 units of the missile have been delivered to the US Air Force and over 13 of Washington’s international partners, including the UK.

Coming in three configurations, Hellfires have been integrated on a variety of air platforms including the Apache and Super Cobra attack helicopters. As well as Predator and Reaper drones. They have also been added to turboprop fixed-wing aircraft, offering operators a cheaper platform to carry out counter-insurgency missions.

Increased use by the RAF

The UK’s use of thermobaric missiles was first reported in 2008 when the British military used Apache helicopters equipped with Hellfires to tackle Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. News that troops were using such weapons caused a stir in Westminster with The Times reporting that “MoD weapons and legal experts spent 18 months debating whether British troops could use them without breaking international law.”

They settled on redefining the missiles as “enhanced blast weapons” in order to get around any potential legal wrangling.

Since then, and until the request granted by the FoI, the MoD has tried to avoid answering questions on their use of the thermobaric variant of the Hellfire.

READ MORE: RAF strike killed one civilian in Syria as it targeted ISIS, defence secretary admits

Admission of their use comes the same week as UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson admitted that a recent RAF airstrike resulted in a civilian casualty. In a ministerial statement, Williamson said that the casualty “crossed into the strike area at the last moment,” during a targeted strike in northeastern Syria on March 26, that killed three militants of the Islamic State (IS).

In recent months, the RAF has been upping its use of drone strikes in Syria in favor of its dedicated multi-role strike bomber, the Tornado. According to Drone Wars, between January and March of this year, “UK drones fired as many weapons in Syria (92) as they have over the previous 18 months,” and is seeking further information on whether their use is increasing in favor of manned aircraft.

source: RT

Did Israel Really Spoof US Warplanes To Strike Iranian Targets In Syria?

By BRAD HOWARD

As the U.S. gets more deeply embroiled in the Syrian Civil War and considers pulling out of its nuclear agreement with Iran, the Middle East is being roiled by news that the Israeli air force bombed Iranian-connected military sites in Syria… possibly by masking Israeli aircraft to identify as U.S. warplanes in contested airspace. All this is happening as Israel reportedly prepares for a larger military conflict with Iran.

Here’s what we know so far.

Syrian Munitions Explosion Israel
  • Syria and Iran accused Israel of executing the strike, which destroyed 200 missiles and killed at least a dozen Iranians.
  • Rumors began circulating that Israel masked their attack by flying through Jordan and Iraq and using U.S. “identification friend or foe” (IFF) codes to conceal their aircrafts’ identities.
  • Another unconfirmed rumor states that this was Israel’s first downrange use of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which could theoretically be able to penetrate Syrian airspace directly due to its stealth features.
Israel
  • For Israel to pull off a a strike using spoofed transponders, they would have to fool ground radars from Iraq and Jordan, as well as U.S. E-3C Sentry aircraft, who would likely have an established order of battle and tasking list to consult if several F-15s appeared from the direction of the Mediterranean.
  • Also the use of U.S. transponder codes, which are encrypted, would either mean that the Israeli air force has access to or was given U.S. IFF codes. This means it is very unlikely that the Israeli air force could have pulled off such an operation without U.S. support.
  • To date, Israel has lost one F-16I due to Syrian air defenses, despite conducting numerous strikes inside the country. It is likely that Israel utilized traditional airstrikes against the munitions facility with F-15Is or F-16Is. Iran has vowed to retaliate for the Israeli strikes.

Egypt’s Sham Election

By Andrew Miller and Amy Hawthorne

Egypt’s presidential election on March 26-28 effectively is a theatrical performance, staged by the regime to contrive a popular mandate for strongman President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s second term. Sisi, who as defense minister led the 2013 coup against the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, has forced out every credible electoral contender—including two prominent challengers from the military establishment, Ahmed Shafiq and Sami Anan—using threats and even imprisonment. Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who entered the race at the last moment to play Sisi’s token opponent, is an obscure politician and an avowed supporter of the president who is thought to have long-standing ties to the Egyptian security services.

What is more, the vote is being held against the backdrop of a vast crackdown under Sisi. Tens of thousands of people are in prison on politicized or fabricated charges. Civil society organizations are hounded by the police, and the regime has been buying up privately held media organizations and punishing those outlets that dare to diverge from the state’s Orwellian narrative. With the security services unleashed, the incidence of torture has increased dramatically and, in a frightening tactic new to Egypt, hundreds have “disappeared” from the streets or their homes. A state of emergency has further eroded Egyptians’ meager rights. Any balloting held under such brutally repressive circumstances reveals very little about Sisi’s standing with the Egyptian public.

THE MILITARY AS KINGMAKER

Nevertheless, the way in which Sisi has managed the election, ratcheting up repression and angrily and ruthlessly quashing military-linked candidates, demonstrates that his hold on power depends in large part on the military’s loyalty, or at least its acquiescence. The fact that challengers even emerged from the military establishment in the first place suggests that such support has declined, a trend that has rattled Sisi.

The armed forces remain Egypt’s most powerful institution, and Sisi became president in 2014 with their strong backing. But he must be acutely aware that the military could turn against him. After all, the military removed Sisi’s immediate predecessors, Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, once it came to see them as a liability to its own interests.

In some ways, Sisi may be even more dependent on the armed forces than Mubarak was, as he came to power through a military coup and has not built up alternative bases of support outside the institution. By contrast, while Mubarak also came from the military, as president, he spent years cultivating constituencies in the business community and the state bureaucracy, especially the security agencies. (There are signs that some within state institutions harbor misgivings about Sisi, who has strong-armed the security services, shown frustration with Egypt’s bloated but influential civil service, and curtailed the judiciary’s independence.) Mubarak took the additional step of mobilizing these interest groups and spreading patronage through the establishment of a loyal ruling party. Sisi, who disdains civilian politics, has declined to create such a party, and by increasing the role of the military in the economy, has crowded out opportunities for important private-sector players. Arguably, he has also alienated other potential constituencies through his unbridled repression.

Sisi’s political survival will depend primarily on whether he can keep the perceived costs of his removal higher than the costs of his remaining in power.

Although it is notoriously difficult to get a clear picture of politics inside the Egyptian military and regime, there have been episodic, if somewhat cryptic, signs from the military of discontent with Sisi, and even of potential dissent. Rumors of dismissals and purges within the officer corps have circulated periodically during Sisi’s rule. In 2015, 26 serving and retired military officers reportedly were convicted of conspiring to overthrow the regime. Sisi’s controversial 2016 decision to hand over two Egyptian Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, his regime’s main patron, was privately opposed by top military figures, including Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy, and was widely unpopular among Egypt’s political class.

More recently, in October 2017, Sisi abruptly fired Hegazy (whose daughter is married to one of Sisi’s sons), and put him under house arrest, reportedly because Hegazy had pushed back against some of Sisi’s policies. In the last several months, pro-Sisi figures have floated the idea of amending the constitution to remove presidential term limits. In addition, some reports have hinted that Sisi also may change the constitution to allow him to remove the defense minister, who is currently appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). This implies that Sisi does not fully trust Sobhy and that he cannot count on the SCAF to fire him.

That two high-profile challengers with military backgrounds tried to step forward for the 2018 presidential election, however, provides perhaps the clearest sign of disaffection in parts of the military. Former prime minister and air force commander Shafiq, who narrowly lost Egypt’s 2012 election and remains popular with some Egyptians, announced in November that he intended to challenge Sisi. In January, Anan, who was chief of staff from 2005-2012 (and Sisi’s army superior), declared that he planned to run.

It is highly unlikely that Shafiq and Anan would have taken the risk to step forward unless they were confident of at least some support in the military. Lest there be any doubt that their candidacies were aimed at repudiating Sisi’s leadership, both men criticized Sisi, directly or indirectly, for his dictatorial tendencies and economic failures. Anan even expressed cautious disapproval of Sisi’s handling of the Red Sea islands transfer and other sensitive national security issues.

Sisi has reacted to these developments with a combination of fury and panic. To force Shafiq to drop his bid, Sisi had him detained for weeks and put him and his family under intense pressure. Anan was placed in military detention immediately after refusing to end his campaign, and his running-mate was attacked by unidentified “thugs” and then imprisoned. In an unusual speech on January 31, Sisi lashed out against “anyone trying to undermine Egypt’s security” and, staring menacingly at the defense minister, declared that an uprising like in 2011 would never be repeated. Following Anan’s arrest, there have been unconfirmed reports of more military reshuffles and purges.

It is hard to know if these embryonic signs of dissent will grow into more significant military opposition to Sisi, much less support for his eventual removal. The Egyptian military is generally a risk-averse institution, and would be especially reluctant to act against one of its own. As we saw in 2011, the military did not remove Mubarak until it concluded, after 18 days of mass grassroots protests, that it had no other option. And so far, Sisi has been able to snuff out any burgeoning discontent within the military.

Yet, as the 2011 uprising also demonstrated, there are conditions under which the Egyptian military is prepared to force a change. The armed forces fear instability above all else, and the possibility of chaos, in the form of sustained large protests or general disorder, can cause it to act. The military’s posture towards Sisi likely will be driven by its assessment of what is riskier: keeping the president in power or removing him. Moving forward, this suggests that Sisi’s political survival will depend primarily on whether he can keep the perceived costs of his removal—such as the unavailability of acceptable alternative leaders and political uncertainty—higher than the costs of his remaining in power, such as the reputational damage that the military could suffer from continuing to support a president who has manifestly lost public support.

Egyptian Army soldiers are seen in the troubled northern part of the Sinai peninsula during a launch of a major assault against militants in Al Arish, Egypt.

SISI’S TWO MAIN CHALLENGES

Whether the military leadership will eventually move against Sisi may hinge on how it views his management of two main challenges: the economy and security. Should either issue threaten to strain military cohesion—the armed forces’ unity of purpose and respect for the authority of the leadership—senior leaders may be even more inclined to take the drastic step of forcing Sisi out. Sisi must prevent further deterioration in the public’s living standards, which, when combined with popular mobilization around other grievances, has the potential to trigger public unrest that could elicit a response from the military. Most of Egypt’s nearly 100 million people, many of whom have long struggled with poverty, are enduring even greater hardship under Sisi. Egypt’s security establishment has long feared a “revolution of the hungry” in which the economically dispossessed would spontaneously rise up against the political system.

Foreshadowing this possibility, economic grievances were central to the 2011 revolt against Mubarak and shortages in key commodities during the Morsi presidency were exploited by opponents of the Islamist president to build popular support for the July 2013 coup. Should declining living conditions yield full-blown protests or civil disturbances, the military could face incentives to remove Sisi, who would likely bear the brunt of the blame from the public. His ouster could ameliorate popular grievances and distance the military, as an institution, from his policies. Sisi, apparently aware of such risks, has implemented a series of difficult economic reforms, including cutting subsidies and devaluing the Egyptian pound, to improve Egypt’s vulnerable macroeconomic position. These measures have had the immediate effect of harming living conditions for the Egyptian people, most obviously in the form of runaway inflation that topped out last year at 34.2 percent, but many Egyptians seem to have accepted Sisi’s argument that short-term austerity measures are necessary for long-term prosperity.

Popular patience is unlikely to be infinite, however, especially if conditions worsen, and it remains to be seen whether Sisi can translate monetary and fiscal-stabilization steps into better living conditions for the Egyptian people. If past is prologue, the prospects may not be promising. While prior episodes of economic reform in Egypt did help to generate higher aggregate growth, most recently in the 2000s, the benefits of increased economic activity were not widely shared, as reflected in stubbornly high unemployment rates, expanding poverty, and higher wealth inequality. It should be a cautionary tale for Sisi that popular frustration with an earlier period of economic reform and vast corruption among the ruling class formed the background for the 2011 revolt.

Alongside the need for revitalizing the economy, Sisi must avert a substantial decline in security conditions in the Egyptian heartland. Providing security is central to the military’s image as the defender of the Egyptian nation, and an abject failure to fulfill this duty could provoke public disenchantment with the regime or even seed doubts in the military about Sisi’s ability to cope with the country’s top threats, such as violence from jihadist groups. Although a significant worsening of the security environment is less likely to provoke popular demonstrations than a continuing decline in living conditions, if the military leadership holds Sisi responsible for such a deterioration, they could feel compelled to act.

Concern about the counterterrorism performance of the Egyptian military is not merely theoretical. It appears that the armed forces are failing in the main combat theater of the Sinai Peninsula, though the regime’s control over media reporting has obscured the full extent of its struggles. The security situation in remote Sinai does not affect most Egyptians, however, and the military seems prepared to accept a steady stream of casualties amongst rank-and-file soldiers, who have been sent there to battle the Islamic State’s (ISIS’s) local affiliate.

By contrast, a scenario in which jihadist groups make major inroads in the population centers of the Nile Valley, resulting in the state’s loss of effective control over territory or the collapse of law and order, would present a serious challenge to Sisi’s standing, publicly and within the regime. Unlike in the Sinai, military and security agencies have been more successful in disrupting threats in and around the Nile Valley. And groups like ISIS will probably find it harder to embed in Egypt’s major population centers, where there is a stronger sense of nationalism. But, as a series of lethal, high-profile attacks in the past 16 months demonstrates, the intensification of terrorism in the heartland remains a distinct possibility.

Sisi’s growing authoritarianism, while on its own is unlikely to disquiet the autocratic military, could exacerbate these economic and security challenges. Egyptians will probably be less willing to tolerate the deprivation of their political and civil rights if their security and economic expectations are not met. To the extent that political repression, when coupled with insecurity and economic hardship, begins to provoke a popular backlash against the regime, the military may have cause for concern. And separate from how poorly his regime treats ordinary citizens, Sisi’s moves to consolidate power within the state could antagonize some in the military.

Only time will tell whether Sisi’s response to recent challenges is just another step towards regime consolidation or the beginning of the end.

COMING TESTS OF SISI’S POWER 

As other analysts have noted, after his reelection, Sisi is expected to seek to amend the constitution, and we agree that the military’s debate over such a move would provide a more meaningful indicator of support for Sisi than does the election itself. But even if Sisi is successful in expanding his powers, it will not mean that his position is then secure. The coming struggle over constitutional amendments is likely to be an important, though not final, obstacle to his consolidation of power.

This is partly because another test is in the offing—one even more consequential because it directly affects security and economic interests: responding to the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). It seems likely that Ethiopia will begin filling the dam as early as this summer, a process that could reduce Nile water flow and result in a cut to Egypt’s already scarce water supply by as much as 25 percent. This could have huge implications for the living conditions of millions of Egyptians, who already have one of the lowest per-capita water shares in the world, and for Egypt’s economy. Owing to Ethiopia’s apparent reluctance to address Egypt’s legitimate concerns, there are few options available to Sisi to mitigate the threat posed by the GERD. He could initiate covert or overt military action against the dam. But, due to the Egyptian military’s limited expeditionary capacity, the prospects of using force to stop or even delay the dam filling are slim, and a high-profile, failed military attack on Ethiopia would undermine Sisi’s security credentials and damage the military’s prestige.

The preceding analysis strongly suggests that Sisi’s hold on power is far from secure, but it does not necessarily indicate that the demise of his regime is imminent or even inevitable. All prior Egyptian presidents who hailed from the military—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar el-Sadat, and Mubarak—faced major challenges in consolidating their regimes, which required years to fully resolve. If, in hindsight, these iconic figures’ eventual domination of the Egyptian political scene now seems inexorable, their triumph appeared anything but assured to their contemporaries. For instance, that Mubarak, upon succeeding Sadat in 1981, was viewed in certain circles as a placeholder president is now a distant memory.

To be sure, Sisi enjoys certain advantages in his effort to eliminate threats to his rule: the power of incumbency, his support among some Egyptians (though apparently weaker than when he took power), and the military’s conservatism. Yet, his failure so far to cultivate and organize alternative bases of support outside the military, in contrast to his military predecessors, and his reliance on repression, like his predecessors, may not only leave him more dependent on continued military support, but may also exacerbate the very pressures that could lead the military to act. Ultimately, only time will tell whether Sisi’s response to recent challenges is just another step towards regime consolidation or the beginning of the end.

Source: Foreign Affairs

 

Hamas: Constrained or Nimble?

IMAD ALSOOS,  NATHAN J. BROWN

While other Palestinian institutions are in crisis, Hamas has maintained its integrity and survived political turmoil. But to capitalize on this, it will need to revise its strategy.

n 2017, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas made news by taking three major steps that did not involve firing a single shot: it issued a new charter; it elected a new leadership; and it allowed the administration in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to answer to the ministries of the Palestinian Authority (PA) based in the West Bank, a relationship that had been sundered a decade earlier.

These measures were interpreted by observers as having been brought about by external political constraints. There were good reasons for reaching such a conclusion, since Hamas was, and to an extent still is, hemmed in from all sides. However, focusing solely on external considerations misses a great deal and is hardly sufficient for explaining why and how Hamas behaves as it does. The movement’s ability to take observers by surprise was dramatically illustrated in April 2018 with a series of marches on the fence surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Rather, three additional factors must be taken into account. First, Hamas’s leadership does not passively respond to outside conditions, but actively evaluates them in order to optimally manage its responses. Second, international pressure does not so much directly affect Hamas’s calculations as it has an impact on domestic public opinion, which in turn shapes the group’s understanding of opportunities and constraints. And third, Hamas is distinctive on the Palestinian scene in that it has developed an institutionalized rather than a personalized organization, one with mechanisms linking its leadership with the rank and file.

Understanding Hamas’s internal dynamics helps to show how its actions reflect strategic choices, allowing for a better comprehension of the way the organization interacts with political realities, makes concessions, and capitalizes on these to maximize its gains. This, in turn, allows observers to grasp how Hamas achieves its goals, manages challenges, maintains its integrity, and survives, despite the formidable obstacles it has encountered in recent years. Such resilience has particular resonance at a time when Hamas’s main rival, Fatah, is showing signs of incoherence and decay, when many Palestinian political structures are in crisis, and when the Palestinian national movement is facing an uncertain predicament.

THE HEADACHE OF GOVERNING

Hamas was founded on the eve of the First Palestinian Intifada (1987–1993) as an “Islamic resistance movement.” While it has long sought to join the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), this has never happened. Fatah has dominated the PLO since 1969 and is unwilling to cede to Hamas any part of its power. Hamas rejected the Oslo Accords of 1993 and the negotiations with Israel that followed. When this process led to the election of a Palestinian president and parliament in 1996, as part of a supposedly temporary Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas refused to go along with it.

In 2000 the Second Intifada broke out, following the failure of the Oslo process to establish a Palestinian state. Hamas was active in the protests, solidifying its standing in Palestinian society. When new parliamentary elections were scheduled for January 2006, Hamas decided to participate, even though it continued to reject the Oslo process. The organization quickly showed a remarkable capacity for mobilizing in opposition to the PA, and this helped propel it to a stunning electoral triumph.

A picture and its story: Smoke clears and photographer captures momentÊof protest

That triumph, which led to Hamas’s entering government for the first time, was met with a harsh international response. The Middle East Quartet—an ad hoc body created to mediate in Middle East peace talks, made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations—sought to impose conditions on Hamas for negotiations to continue. These involved recognizing Israel, accepting past agreements with Israel, and renouncing violence. When Hamas demurred, Israel and the United States took steps aimed at generating popular discontent with the Hamas government in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel ceased transferring tax revenues to the new Hamas-led Palestinian government while Western backers stopped providing it with budgetary support. Even private banks, fearing sanctions, put an end to their dealings with the new government. Under such pressure, Hamas did agree in principle with Fatah to form a national-unity government in 2007, but the efforts to unseat it continued. These efforts, spearheaded by the Palestinian security forces loyal to Fatah, failed, showing Hamas’s significant ability to maneuver domestically.

Power struggles between Fatah and Hamas over control of PA institutions escalated during that period, until there was a major outbreak of violence in June 2007, when the two groups engaged in a military showdown in Gaza. The ensuing Hamas victory allowed the organization to take over PA institutions in the territory. This provoked a rift in Palestinian areas, with Hamas ruling over Gaza and Fatah over the West Bank, from where it retained control of the PLO. While Hamas’s refusal to comply with the Middle East Quartet’s conditions had led to a momentary increase in its popular support, this did not help Hamas to overcome growing public dissatisfaction with the tightened blockade on Gaza imposed as a result of its victory, which began eating away at its popularity.

Hamas’s leaders justified their military takeover in 2007 as a reaction to what they said was a planned coup by Fatah, but their actions placed them in a difficult position. The organization had crossed its own self-imposed redlines of never killing Palestinians or attacking other Palestinian groups. Hamas imposed a tight grip on power in Gaza, but it also lost its reputationas a more principled movement in the eyes of much of the population.

Even if the situation was corrosive to Hamas’s status, it was manageable. The PA deposed the Hamas-led cabinet after its takeover of Gaza, but this came with a decision to continue funding the salaries of PA employees in the territory, allowing it to retain a base of loyalists there. In response, Hamas set up a parallel administration, hiring thousands of people, whose salaries the PA refused to pay. To counter the stranglehold on Gaza by Israel and Egypt, Hamas encouraged the growth of a “tunnel economy,” whereby economic activity took place through hundreds of tunnels dug under Gaza’s border with Egypt. This provided Gaza’s inhabitants with work and cheap goods, generating renewed satisfaction.

As a result of the tunnels, Hamas’s revenues rose, so that by 2009 they totaled $150–$200 million annually, a figure that would rise to about $375 million in 2011, when the regime of Egypt’s then president Hosni Mubarak fell. During the same period, unemployment in Gaza dropped from 45 percent to 32 percent. This led to the increased stability of Hamas rule and a bigger regional role for the organization after the election of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s president in 2012. All this seemed to promise an end to Hamas’s isolation.

Periodically, the rival Palestinian leaderships would pledge to reconcile, and at times specific steps were taken to further this, such as extensive negotiations in 2011. Generally, it was the weakness of one side or the other at a particular time, and sometimes both, that led to efforts to appear to favor unity. However, neither side was willing to risk surrendering authority in its respective realm and international actors remained guarded, with some even hostile to such attempts.

Things changed for the worse for Hamas after July 2013, when Egypt’s military overthrew Morsi and the political system led by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s sister organization. The military-dominated regime in Cairo put an end to the tunnel economy, exacerbating the impact of the blockade on Gaza. The ensuing economic strains forced Hamas to accept the Shati Agreement of April 23, 2014, an unprecedented development in the Fatah-Hamas relationship that was aimed at allowing the Fatah-led PA to govern Gaza again. The accord collapsed following the war between Hamas and Israel in summer 2014, as both Palestinian groups focused on retrenchment rather than reconciliation. However, the brief opening revealed that Hamas was looking for a way out of the Gaza straitjacket in a manner that would strengthen its domestic popularity.

HAMAS CHOOSES RENEWAL

In early 2017, amid the continuing stalemate in Hamas-Fatah relations, Hamas once again faced a crisis. In an attempt to raise the heat on Hamas, the PA cut the salaries of some of its own employees in Gaza as well as other forms of support for the territory, because such revenues facilitated Hamas’s continued rule by reducing discontent. The organization concluded that, despite widespread dissatisfaction with the PA, “popular agitation would turn against [Hamas] rule,” as one activist put it.1 The collapse of the tunnel economy and the PA’s punitive measures had pushed Gazans to their limit, given the misery in which they lived. Hamas’s stark choice was either “reconciliation at any cost” and handing Gaza’s administration over to Fatah, or accepting an “inevitable catastrophe.”

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This new reality forced Hamas and its electorate to be pragmatic with regard to the internal and external challenges the organization was facing. Hamas elections in February and October 2017 brought in Saleh al-Arouri, as deputy head of the Hamas Political Bureau, and Yahya al-Sinwar, as the movement’s head in Gaza. While both were seen as hardliners, they moved forward on a reconciliation agreement with the PA. The difficulties all around seemed insurmountable, but the two new leaders’ status as former Israeli prisoners and the fact that they represented new faces gave them the latitude to take Hamas in a new direction. As Sinwar stated in a meeting with Gaza trade unions in October 2017, reconciliation was a collective decision by the movement at home and abroad.

Under the reconciliation agreement that ensued, ministers from the PA in Ramallah are supposed to take formal control of political structures in Gaza, with Hamas ending any governing role there. However, full implementation seems unlikely at present. A unified cabinet in Ramallah nominally governs Gaza, but its effective control of the bureaucracy there is shaky and untested. Several outstanding issues, such as Hamas’s insistence on retaining an armed wing, will likely remain unresolved. But even if parts of the agreement remain frozen, it has allowed Hamas to cede governing responsibility without losing influence over much of what goes on in Gaza. Even a bomb attack in Gaza in March 2018 targeting visiting PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, though it raised tensions, failed to bring about a collapse of the accommodation between Fatah and Hamas.

Why was Hamas willing to discontinue governing Gaza? And how did the election of seemingly uncompromising figures lead to its more relaxed grip on power and a more flexible ideology? External constraints, acting on public discontent in Gaza, had generated enormous pressure on Hamas, making its leaders realize that they could no longer govern, let alone wait out the blockade. However, Hamas also had choices, and in 2017 it showed that it could react not by accepting defeat passively but by turning crisis into opportunity.

Hamas was able to do this because its internal deliberations are conducted in such a way as to allow for the emergence of a broad consensus. The organization has always striven to have in place mechanisms allowing it to sustain itself, maintain links between the leadership and the base, and ensure that its members are united around party structures and a common strategy. That is why when Hamas faced external challenges, geographical isolation, a lack of allies, and rising popular discontent in 2017, it reacted by electing a new leadership. During this period it also altered its charter in a protracted, movement-wide process that suggested a willingness to compromise without formally repudiating past positions. These moves, aimed at giving new momentum to the organization, came as part of Hamas’s preparation to disengage from its governing role in Gaza.

While Hamas has decisionmaking institutions, it gains by being able to anchor its choices in interactions between these institutions and local activists on the one hand, and between the organization and the broader public on the other. Hamas activists emphasize that all members were involved in deciding on a number of strategic choices in recent years, through forums providing for intense discussions—including whether to participate in local or legislative elections, to approve of a truce with Israel, or to endorse reconciliation talks with Fatah.2

A mechanism that Hamas uses for internal dialogue is monthly gatherings that it calls lailat katiba (or “battalion night”), in which its leaders share the movement’s ideas with all members in each region.3 Hamas also depends upon local bodies to create informal networks based on kinship, friendship, and neighborhood ties. In addition, these local bodies build a profile of the population by conducting surveys and registering people in the organization’s database of inhabitants.4 This allows Hamas to get a sense of the public mood about issues, in particular its standing and general attitudes toward its behavior and political choices.

WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR HAMAS?

Were the measures Hamas adopted in 2017 anything more than a quick fix? Hamas’s ability to reestablish its position will depend on regaining the popular support it once enjoyed in Gaza, as well as on its success in rebuilding regional alliances to mitigate its political and geographical isolation. Achieving breakthroughs on these fronts depends on Hamas’s organizational potential and its strategic choices.

Hamas’s support dropped sharply as a result of its military takeover of Gaza and preservation of order through the heavy hand of its security forces. The organization realized it had to pursue conciliation as the violence had led to the death of dozens of people, leaving influential local families embittered. Hamas’s social and political interaction with the public had shifted its initial approach, from direct and largely unrestricted access toward more limited contact suiting an autocratic governing authority. Hamas sought to reverse course and once again position itself as the protector of the population, rather than as a force policing society and suppressing the political opposition.

Hamas does have a history of reviving itself. During the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005, after years of repression by the PA at a time when Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were ongoing, Hamas was able to persuade many of its compatriots that the arrest of its cadres and the torture of some of its top leaders had been necessary to defend popular interests.5

However, while the post-2007 period allowed the movement to organize freely at the local level throughout Gaza, its current quest to regain public support could prove more difficult. Hamas’s decision to abandon governance in the territory and work in favor of Palestinian reconciliation, particularly societal reconciliation in Gaza, might facilitate this task. However, the organization’s enemies will not make it easy for Hamas to regain its previous stature.

Regionally, Hamas is attempting to revive its past relationships in a highly contested environment. The Middle East is polarized between a Saudi-led coalition that includes Egypt, Jordan, and the PA, and an Iran-led alliance that includes Syria and Hezbollah. Hamas is caught between the two poles. To bridge the gap with the Saudi-led camp, Hamas accepted some ambiguity about a two-state solution in its amended charter. It also dropped any mention of its links with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt and Saudi Arabia consider a terrorist organization, a contrast with how Hamas had presented itself in the past. However, such efforts will be complicated by the fact that Sinwar and Arouri come from Hamas’s military wing, whose primary supporter has long been Iran.

It is unlikely that Hamas will be able to navigate the regional split for long. The divisions are too strong and bitter for the organization to succeed in retaining a foot in both camps. Today, Egypt and Iran are the main rivals for Hamas’s allegiance, each important with regard to the organization’s specific political priorities, which are themselves a reflection of its multifaceted identity.

Hamas’s relations with Egypt deteriorated after Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power. However, the organization cannot afford to be on bad terms with the largest Arab country and the neighbor that controls Gaza’s major lifeline, its twelve-kilometer southwestern border. Egypt is also the one actor that can persuade the PA to implement a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, and push Israel to go along with it. For its part, Egypt needs Hamas’s cooperation to combat the Islamic State, a common enemy that has been effectively contained in Gaza, but not on the Sinai Peninsula, where an insurgency continues.

At the same time, there are strong forces attracting Hamas to the Iranian camp, even if the relationship worsened in 2012. Khaled Mishal, then the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, publically supported the uprising against the Syrian regime, Iran’s major regional ally. Yet Hamas needs Iran’s financial support, which was suspended following that fissure, to pursue its social and political activities. Rebuilding the alliance would allow Hamas to resume providing services to the population and would help it regain regional standing as a major opponent of Israel. Iran, in turn, believes that renewed ties with Hamas would permit the Islamic Republic to recover its reputation as leader of the regional “resistance axis,” rather than just as the sponsor of a sectarian Shia coalition.

The regional context suggests that the Iranian pull may be stronger since it is based on a longer-term, strategic concurrence of views. Arouri has described the relationship as being built on “solid ground.” By contrast, the connection with the Saudi-led coalition seems to reflect détente more than any strong alignment. However, the lesson that Hamas learned from the failure of its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood after the Arab uprisings in 2011 is that it is better not to be tied to an ideological framework, but, instead, to pursue Hamas’s interests according to circumstances. A Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, has emphasized this, arguing, “We are not at a stage where we are comfortable with ideological alliances [as they involve us in] regional [political] games.”

But the cold pursuit of Hamas’s interests may prove tricky today. Regional polarization between the Saudi- and Iranian-led camps leaves little room for the organization to maneuver as it pleases. Hamas is also at its weakest internally and regionally since its establishment in 1987, which means that it is not in a position to play each side off against the other. Any attempt by Hamas to generate advantage from one camp will provoke problems with the rival camp.

FOLLOWING IN FATAH’S FOOTSTEPS?

Hamas has stood out among Palestinian groups for its ability to maintain its power and effectiveness over time, while remaining united and cohesive. But if the organization is strong, its strategy has been more problematic. Hamas’s control over Gaza highlighted the contradiction between the organization’s resistance role, intended to defend Palestinians, and its governance tasks, which frequently meant imposing strict, unpopular control over the population.

Against this backdrop, Hamas and its electorate reacted in 2017 by bringing in a new leadership, introducing hints of compromise into its charter, and showing a greater readiness to adjust to internal Palestinian and regional political realities. In a comparison that Hamas leaders would find distasteful, the organization had to manage the same tensions faced earlier by Fatah in the period after each Palestinian intifada, when it sought to prioritize a political strategy over armed resistance. Fatah’s unpersuasive performance led directly to its electoral defeats in local elections in 2004 and legislative elections in 2006.

As an organization, Hamas may fare better than Fatah, because it has a greater ability to deliberate, decide collectively, and even vote internally. But while the organization is likely to survive and renew itself, it faces a real problem down the road. The new leadership of Hamas has no clear solution to the strategic vacuum lying at the heart of the Palestinian national movement that it seeks to lead.

Source: Carnegie ME Center

تليين عقول الجنرالات المصريين أمر أساسي لإستمرار التعاون مع إسرائيل

هيثم حسنين

زداد التعاون بين مصر وإسرائيل في السنوات الأخيرة ليبلغ مستويات عالية، كما يتضح من التقارير التي صدرت مؤخراً حول التنسيق العسكري في سيناء، غير أن هذا التحالف السري نوعاً ما لم يكن من السهل تقبّله في أوساط بعض الجنرالات المصريين كونهم يميلون إلى زرع فكرة في أذهان المصريين بأن إسرائيل هي العدو رقم 1 من أجل كسب الشرعية والإمساك بزمام السلطة.

وينبع قلقهم من عجزهم عن تعريف العلاقة مع إسرائيل منذ توقيع الدولتين على معاهدة سلام في عام 1979، إذ أن كبار المسؤولين العسكريين يجدون أنفسهم يكافحون من أجل النظر إلى إسرائيل كدولة غير معادية وتغيير عقيدتهم العسكرية وفقاً لذلك.

ومن هنا، انبثقت ثلاث مدارس من الفكر داخل المؤسسة العسكرية خلال العقود الأربعة الماضية.

أوّلها وجهة النظر القائلة إن إسرائيل عدو أبدي. ووفقاً لهذا الرأي، يجب أن تكون مصر في حالة دائمة من العداء مع الدولة اليهودية. ويرفض أولئك الذين يتبنّون هذه النظرة الارتقاء بالعلاقات إلى ما أبعد من إطار معاهدة السلام، ولذلك يرفضون أي مستوى من التطبيع باستثناء التنسيق الأمني في سيناء وفقاً لما تقتضيه [معاهدة السلام]. ويهيمن هذا التصور العدائي في أوساط الضباط العسكريين الذين يتبنون وجهات النظر الناصرية من ستينيات القرن الماضي.

أما الفئة الثانية فلا تعتبر إسرائيل عدواً بحد ذاته، بل تهديداً مزمناً للأمن القومي على حدود مصر الشرقية. وبالنسبة لأصحاب هذا الفكر، ليست إسرائيل دولةً معادية كما أنها ليست صديقة. وينبع هذا النوع من الحذر إزاء الدولة اليهودية من ميّزتها النسبية من ناحية التقدم التكنولوجي والعلمي، إذ إن التفوق التقني الإسرائيلي مهّد الطريق أمام إسرائيل لكي تفرض تفوقها العسكري على العرب. ومن المرجح أن يشعر ضباط الجيش المصري المنضوين تحت هذه الفئة – والذين عادة ما يُعتبرون أشخاص واقعيين – بالتهديد من هذه الثغرة العسكرية.

بالإضافة إلى ذلك، لا يشعر القادة العسكريين المصريين بالإرتياح من العلاقة المميزة التي تربط بين إسرائيل والولايات المتحدة. فحين بادر الرئيس المصري الراحل أنور السادات بمساعٍ دبلوماسية مع الحكومة الأمريكية، والتي شملت اتفاقات كامب ديفيد، ساد أملٌ كبير بين كبار المسؤولين العسكريين ببناء علاقة وثيقة مع الولايات المتحدة. إلّا أن هذا الأمل تلاشى بمرور الوقت، وخاصة بسبب عجز مصر عن دفع ثمن العلاقة المميزة مع الولايات المتحدة. وخلافاً للدول الأخرى في المنطقة مثل الأردن ودول الخليج وإسرائيل، لم تكن مصر مطمئنّة قط لهيكل الأمن الإقليمي بقيادة الولايات المتحدة، بل لجأت إلى قبول نظريات المؤامرة حول اللوبي اليهودي في واشنطن.

وفي المقابل، تدعو الفئة الثالثة إلى معاملة إسرائيل كدولة أوروبية صديقة. ويؤمن أصحاب هذا الفكر في تطوير علاقة تبادلية وعمليّة قائمة على المصالح المتبادلة مع إسرائيل، ولا يميلون إلى رؤية إسرائيل من منظار قوالب الأفكار النمطية المشحونة بالعواطف. ومن هذا المنطلق، إذا احتاجت مصر إلى طائرات إسرائيلية في سيناء لقصف أهداف تنظيم «الدولة الإسلامية»، فهم يؤيدون ذلك.

وقد زاد من تفاقم هذا الوضع  الاعتقاد السائد بأن الإسلام السياسي الذي تجلى في جماعة «الإخوان المسلمين» وقطر وتركيا هو العدو الرئيسي لمصر. وقد تفاقمت هذه النظرة غير المواتية للإسلام السياسي بفعل أحداث “الربيع العربي” ووصول جماعة «الإخوان المسلمين» إلى السلطة، ودعم «حماس» لتنظيم «الدولة الإسلامية» في سيناء. ويمكن القول إن هذه هي الفئة التي ينحدر منها الرئيس المصري عبد الفتاح السيسي كضابط عسكري سابق تولّى السلطة بعد اندلاع احتجاجات جماهيرية مناهضة للحكومة في عام 2013.

وقد تبدو هذه المدارس الفكرية مختلفةً، ولكن هناك قواسم مشتركة بينها – وتقف هذه المعتقدات حجر عثرة أمام العلاقات المصرية-الإسرائيلية.

[ومن المعتاد] أن يختلط التاريخ بالدين. فمن الناحية التاريخية، خاضت مصر أربع حروب ضد إسرائيل على مدى 25 عاماً، ولا تزال هذه الحروب راسخةً في الذاكرة الجماعية للبلاد. بالإضافة إلى ذلك، حشد الخطاب الديني شريحةً كبيرةً من الشعب حول وجهات نظر معادية للسامية تجاه الإسرائيليين، وتفشت هذه الآراء لتطال المؤسسة العسكرية. ونتيجة لذلك، تُعبّر القيادة العسكرية عن آراء سلبية حول اليهود والإسرائيليين.

وهناك قلة فهم فيما يتعلق بإسرائيل، حيث يرى الضباط المصريون أن الإسرائيليين هم مهاجرون أوروبيون بسبب اعتقادهم المتأصل بأن معظم سكان الدولة اليهودية هم من اليهود الذين هاجروا على مر السنين.

وهناك أيضاً اعتقاد عام بأن الأقليات غير العربية وغير المسلمة – مثل الأقباط، أي ما يقدر بنحو 10 في المائة من سكان مصر – لا ينبغي أن يكون لهم الحق في تقرير مصيرهم. ويُعد السماح بتقرير المصير لجماعة أقلية فكرة خطيرة في الشرق الأوسط. وبالنسبة للقادة العسكريين المصريين، على سبيل المثال، فإن الأكراد والجماعات المتشابهة التفكير التي تسعى إلى إقامة دولة قومية لنفسها يتسببون باستمرار الحرب الأهلية. ومن المرجح أن يكون ضباط الجيش المصري أكثر ارتياحاً لفكرة قمع الأقلية تحت شعار الاستقرار وإرساء الأمن في المنطقة.

ومن غير المحتمل أن تتلاشى مشكلة الإرهاب في شبه جزيرة سيناء في المستقبل القريب، الأمر الذي سيُبقي المجال مفتوحاً أمام المزيد من التعاون الأمني والعسكري بين الجيشين المصري والإسرائيلي. ومع ذلك، يُعتبر الحفاظ على هذه العلاقة في شكلها السري نهجاً خاطئاً. ومن شأن تسليط الضوء على التعاون العسكري في سيناء أن يساعد على تحدي وجهات النظر المعيبة تجاه إسرائيل، وإلّا من المرجح أن تستمر الأفكار الخاطئة الجوهرية حول الدولة اليهودية في صفوف الجيش المصري.

هيثم حسنين هو زميل “غليزر” في معهد واشنطن، حيث يركز على العلاقات الاقتصادية بين إسرائيل والدول العربية.

Source: The Washington Institute 

Bracing for an Israel-Iran Confrontation in Syria

 By Ehud Yaari

Despite the recent escalation, the United States has options for preventing, or at least limiting the scope of, a regional showdown in Syria.

Israel and Iran are on course for a collision in the near future. Indeed, a military clash that could expand well beyond Syrian territory appears almost inevitable. In particular, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is determined to transform Syria into a platform for a future war against Israel, whereas leaders of the Jewish state have sworn to prevent what they often describe as the tightening of a noose around Israel’s neck.

The past five years have already seen a series of direct clashes between the two powers. These include more than 120 Israeli Air Force (IAF) strikes against weapons shipments to Hezbollah, Iranian attempts to instigate cross-border incidents along the Golan Heights, and Israeli targeting of arms-production facilities introduced by Iran. In early 2018, these exchanges have escalated to include Israeli airstrikes on Iranian UAV facilities established deep in the Syrian desert, at the T-4 Air Base, and a first Iranian attempt to stage an armed drone attack in Israel.

Iran has committed publicly to conducting a forceful retaliation for the Israeli strike in January that killed eight Iranian officers, including UAV unit commander Colonel Mehdi Dehghani. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has threatened vaguely that a confrontation in Syria could prompt Israel to target Iranian territory. He has also presented an ultimatum of sorts to Bashar al-Assad, suggesting that continued acquiescence by the Syrian President to the establishment of Iranian military bases across his country would compel an end to the Israeli policy of noninterference in the Syrian war. This switch would entail direct military hits on the regime, the preservation of which has been Tehran’s prime objective in the region. Such a shift in Israel’s policy would of course carry the risk of drawing Russian intervention to prevent Assad’s removal. Relatedly, Moscow has already hinted that it may supply Syria with the advanced S-300 air-defense system—probably manned with Russian personnel—which would complicate IAF sorties over the country. In recent weeks, neither Israel nor Iran has signaled an intention to reassess its position, and combative rhetoric from both sides has become an almost daily occurrence.

Outside powers, too, have yet to undertake serious efforts to stop the escalation. The United States is quietly backing Israeli preemptive operations against Iranian forces in Syria, while Russia has restricted itself to advising both parties to refrain from widening the scope of the clashes. President Vladimir Putin, although in close contact with both Netanyahu and President Hassan Rouhani, has never offered to mediate. Moreover, he has not directed his pilots, based mainly near Latakia, to interfere with Israeli strikes or to stop Iran from expanding its military infrastructure in Syria. Putin appears to believe he can still exploit the Israel-Iran rivalry to his own benefit.

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Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in March 2011, Israel and Iran have been on opposing sides of the conflict. Despite harboring deep suspicions about the plethora of Sunni rebel groups conducting the uprising against Assad, Israel nevertheless yearned to see Assad’s downfall. In this view, the removal of the Assad regime would deprive Iran of what Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has called “the golden ring in the chain of resistance” against Israel. The Iranian loss of Syria—following an investment of no less than $20 billion to prop up the regime—could reduce a mighty Hezbollah proxy force to an isolated actor in Lebanon, delinked from its Syria-based sources of support and equipment. Iran would thus be blocked from implementing its regional plan, based on surrounding Israel with Iranian allies and forging land corridors from its borders all the way west to the Mediterranean. Still, the Israeli leadership—with consistent backing from IDF generals—has opted not to act to speed the collapse of the Assad regime, often on the strength of an implied “devil we know” argument.

Netanyahu has nevertheless articulated a set of red lines: the transfer via Syria to Hezbollah of game-changing weapons, specifically precision-guided missiles; and any attempt to open a new front in terrorist operations along the Golan Line of Separation, where Israel intends to maintain calm. Outside these red lines, however, Israel has taken no actions to degrade Assad’s power or threaten regime assets separate from the Iran-Hezbollah deployment in Syria. Both the Israeli security cabinet and the IDF General Staff have repeatedly rejected suggestions to equip certain non-jihadist rebel factions with the weapons they desperately need to fight the remnants of the Syrian army and the Iran-sponsored militias, at some 40,000 strong. This is despite pleas by rebel commanders for anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, heavy mortars, and light artillery. In the minority, a handful of Israeli security officials felt early on that by extending modest military assistance to vetted rebel groups in the Quneitra and Deraa provinces, they could help these fighters overcome the depleted units of the Syrian army’s First Corps, stationed at the nexus of Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan, with Damascus to the north. The five Syrian army divisions traditionally posted in this area had suffered substantial casualties, defections, and a collapse in recruitment. For those Israeli officials who favored arming the rebels, the idea was to encourage their capture of this space and holding of the line along the southern approaches to the Syrian capital, areas that include the Assad strongholds of al-Kiswah, Qatana, and Kanaker. A strong rebel line in this territory would relieve pressure from rebel brigades active in other sectors surrounding Damascus and force Assad to split his much-weakened forces. Capture of southern Syria by the rebels, some suggested, would create a wide buffer zone between Israel and Iran-sponsored forces. Such a plan, however, never materialized owing to Netanyahu’s reluctance to get drawn into the Syrian quagmire and expose Israelis to retaliatory fire from across the border.

In retrospect, this hesitance by the Israeli security establishment can be traced all the way back to the first Lebanon war in 1982, when Israel failed to facilitate regime change in Beirut and later had to relinquish the security belt established along the border and abandon the local militia operating there—the South Lebanon Army (SLA). From that experience, most Israeli officials absorbed the lesson that adventures outside Israel’s borders must be averted, as well as a skepticism of the effectiveness of investing in proxy foreign militias.

Whatever their resistance to actually funding the Syrian rebels, Israeli officers maintained a continuous dialogue with various such groups and mostly assessed that they were too fragmented and, to varying degrees, also inclined toward jihadist ideology. The bottom line for Israel was that, even in cases where rebel groups from different towns joined together in coalitions such as the Southern Front, they did not warrant the investment.

Still, in an effort to keep the Golan front calm and avoid a flood of refugees, Israel has since 2013 gradually developed a humanitarian-aid program for rebel-held villages close to the border. The program has slowly been expanded so that today it reaches approximately 300,000 inhabitants of the Quneitra and, to a lesser extent, Deraa provinces. This program—clearly the most successful of all similar humanitarian efforts in Syria—consists of medical treatment of thousands in hospitals inside Israel and large cross-border deliveries of food, fuel, clothes, and other supplies. In June 2016, this program was consolidated under a special unit named “Good Neighborhood,” which itself is part of Territorial Division 420, in charge of the border. Both the entry of Syrians seeking medical care and the aid deliveries across the border occur at night and are coordinated by Israeli intelligence officials with an array of rebel commanders and community leaders on the other side.

This effort has helped maintain quiet on the Israeli side of the border, even during periods of intense fighting very close to the front lines. But lacking significant military assistance, the rebels have proven unable to win any important battles against the Syrian army over the past four years, and control of southern Syria hasn’t changed hands during that same period. The governorate capitals—Quneitra and Deraa—are in Assad’s hands, whereas the rural areas are split. The western parts adjacent to the Israeli Golan have become a de facto Israeli zone of influence where the Syrian army and its allied militias avoid embarking upon major offensives and the Russian air force does not fly its planes. The small enclave held by the Islamic State in the southernmost sector of the Golan border, along the western section of the Yarmouk River, remains largely isolated and does not yet constitute a real threat for Israel or the neighboring rebel factions.

The cautious policy pursued by Israel also resulted, to a certain degree, from the understanding in Jerusalem that former U.S. President Barack Obama was adamant in his refusal to adopt recommendations by some of his top advisors to intensify support of rebel groups and adopt a firm anti-Assad stance. The Israelis felt at the time that without U.S. leadership, the objective of toppling the Assad regime was untenable. The Israelis were also aware of Jordan’s halfhearted assistance to tribal rebels in the Hawran area, which has traditional ties to the Hashemite throne. On top of that, funding from the Gulf states to a string of rebel coalitions tended to prioritize those active in central and northern Syria, whereas the modest financing extended to rebel factions south of Damascus was badly coordinated and often had Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar backing rival factions.

Whatever the root causes, Israel has now suffered a major strategic failure with far-reaching implications. Instead of watching the demise of the Assad regime, Israel must cope with the presence of a formidable Russian air force contingent next door and a steady encroachment of Iran toward its border.

By mid-2012, the Iranian General Hossein Hamedani had managed to convince Assad, who was then contemplating going into exile, to stay in office and keep fighting. In the first phase, Iran helped Assad defend Damascus and some other parts of “useful Syria” by operating an air bridge that brought military equipment and munitions, by introducing Hezbollah units to the battlefield, and by deploying hastily recruited militias consisting both of local loyalists and foreign fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. At one point, IRGC Qods Force commander General Qasem Soleimani led 4,000 IRGC troops to the battle for eastern Aleppo, but he ultimately had to send them back to Iran at the insistence of Khamenei, who indicated a low tolerance for Iranian fatalities in Syria. Then, in 2015, came the masterstroke: Soleimani struck a deal with Putin, and the arrival of the Russian air force on the scene since September 2015 has slowly enabled Iran to secure Assad’s control over 60 percent of the country.

Not only has Iran managed to stabilize the Assad regime and pacify much of his territory, it has also obtained a great degree of influence over decision-making in Damascus, become a dominant actor in the war, and begun to solidify its military presence in Syria. It has achieved the latter two ends by acquiring bases and deploying advanced facilities, constructing myriad militias outside the framework of the Syrian Arab Army and its irregular auxiliary forces, and establishing plants for production of missiles, precision guidance systems, and ammunition.

Israel is faced not only with a preserved Assad regime—a vital ally to Iran and Hezbollah—but also with the emergence of Iranian military power next door. In short, Israeli caution has opened the door to future adventures, after all. Israeli inaction came face-to-face with Iranian proactivity, and Israel now finds itself counting its losses even as the Syrian war winds down. Particularly, the Golan Heights, kept calm for decades by father and son Assad, is now, in the view of the regime’s Iranian patrons, a new front for resistance forces. Furthermore, at least five Syrian air bases already accommodate Iranian units, along with their UAVs, missiles, and intelligence facilities. The number of militiamen—Shi’a and others—at Iran’s disposal in Syria is steadily growing, and their training and equipment are improving.

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The future scheme envisaged by Soleimani involves at least one land bridge, and likely two, through Iraqi territory, over which reinforcements and supply convoys could be moved. Several leaders of major Iraqi Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) militias have already announced their wish to join a battle against Israel on the Golan. Moreover, once the Iranians modernize their outdated army, they may consider deploying combat aircraft and navy units (for example, submarines) in Syria. This, of course, comes on top of Iran’s impressive arsenal of long-range missiles capable of hitting Israel and its massive—currently dormant—global terrorist network, which can be activated on very short notice.

Iran is in no hurry to have a confrontation. Soleimani, his boss Khamenei, and his lieutenants seem to have abandoned for the moment their earlier plans to deploy Hezbollah and other militias close to the Golan frontier. Prompting this reassessment was a series of pinpoint Israeli strikes against Iran-sponsored groups that had prepared the grounds for terrorist attacks from Syrian-army-controlled areas near Quneitra, including by planting explosive charges and firing Katyusha rockets. In 2015, the commanders entrusted with these missions, including the Lebanese Samir Kuntar and Jihad Mughniyah, as well as Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, the IRGC general in charge, were killed by the IDF. Later that same year, the IDF killed an additional three operatives who were on their way to the border fence, prompting Iran to suspend such attempts. Iran and its proxies still hold a half-dozen or so positions between the slopes of Mount Hermon and the Damascus-Deraa highway, but they have refrained from further provoking Israel.

Since August 2015, Iran has instead focused on its long-term campaign to deepen its offensive capabilities within Syrian territory. From their headquarters at Damascus Airport, known as the “Glasshouse,” Iranian forces, currently led by IRGC General Hussein Kaani, control, among other sites, the al-Kiswah camp, south of the capital, from which operations closer to the Israeli border are supervised. From this headquarters, the Iranians hope to direct, when the opportunity arises, an attack on the rebels in Deraa, with the goal of capturing the entire province and encircling the rebel factions in Quneitra province in a pocket adjacent to the Israeli border.

An Iran-directed offensive toward the south, however, would require Russian consent given Moscow’s 2017 declaration—joined by Washington and Amman—of a de-escalation zone in this region. An offensive would constitute a violation of this agreement, and would likewise probably require Russian air support in order to uproot the rebels from their strongholds. Putin has not in the past hesitated to flout his deconfliction arrangements, but so far he has approved only sporadic strikes by Russian planes around Deraa, where both sides have for months been preparing for an eventual showdown.

Israel will face a difficult dilemma once an Iran-led assault toward Deraa begins. Sending the air force and employing land-based missiles to stop the advance may well compel Assad and his Iranian patrons to retaliate, thus increasing the danger of a general flare-up. On the other hand, clinging to the current Israeli policy of nonintervention in Syria would enable the Iranians to consolidate their dominance over hilltops along the border, from which they could threaten the Israeli Golan with short-range rockets and mortars. Furthermore, the capture of Deraa province would position Iranian proxy forces on the border with Jordan. Israeli officials believe Soleimani may be planning an effort to subvert the Hashemite regime in Amman, in the expectation that one way or another Jordan will finally join the Axis of Resistance. It is important to remember that for many decades, Israeli governments have regarded foreign intervention with their neighbor to the east as a casus belli. Russian air force participation in such an attack on Deraa would, of course, further complicate Israel’s calculations. The hotline between the IAF and the Russian-operated Hmeimim Air Base in Syria has so far successfully prevented any clash between Russian and Israeli pilots, and the top-of-the-line Russian air defense systems in Syria have not locked their radars on Israeli planes, even while the latter attacked Iranian depots located near Russian military units. Israel would certainly be extremely prudent if faced with the risk of dogfights with the Russians. Putin, as implied thus far, has proven disinclined to get involved in skirmishes with Israel over Syria, although at times he has expressed annoyance at Israeli strikes.

In view of the currently rising tension between Israel and Iran, what measures could be taken to prevent a confrontation, or at least limit its scope?

Contacts between Israel and Iran through a variety of Track II channels, quietly organized in past years, have failed to produce any prospect for near-term tacit understandings. Messages exchanged via European diplomats have likewise resulted once again in deadlock. The Iranian representatives simply refuse to consider any restriction on their activities in Syria or toning down of their calls for the destruction of the “Zionist regime.”

The same goes for the few futile attempts by some Arab and European states to set up a communication channel between Israel and the Assad regime. Syria may be inclined at some future point to curtail Iran’s entrenchment on its soil, but at present the government in Damascus does not feel at liberty to stop the construction of Iranian military infrastructure. Netanyahu’s warning that Israel may be compelled to take direct action against Assad has not had the desired effect on Assad’s conduct.

A more promising option would be a dialogue with Putin, who has privately told Western interlocutors that he does not want Syria to become a “Persian colony” and that he has no interest in watching a war erupt between Iran and Israel. However, the Kremlin still requires the Iran-sponsored militias to complete the destruction of the remaining rebel bastions, especially in Idlib province and some other smaller enclaves. Therefore, it may take time before Putin is willing to rein in his Iranian allies.

The most sensible way to address Iran’s expansion into Syria would be to establish a comprehensive set of understandings between Moscow and Washington on how to shape Syria’s future. Unfortunately, under the existing circumstances, such an agreement does not seem possible for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the 2017 de-escalation agreement reached by the two parties in relation to southern Syria can be further elaborated to consolidate a stable ceasefire in the areas lying between Damascus and the borders with Israel and Jordan. In turn, an upgraded de-escalation deal could prevent an offensive against the rebels in Deraa and then Quneitra provinces. And a ceasefire could potentially allow the rebels to bolster their defensive capabilities. Since both the United States and Russia prefer to avert an Israel-Iran clash and its associated risks, expanded understandings over the south could contain a prohibition on entry to the area of non-Syrian forces, such as Hezbollah, thus diminishing the danger of an eruption along the border. Curtailing IRGC acquisition of a network of bases in Syria also requires that Assad and his mentors be thwarted from capturing the areas east of the Euphrates River—roughly a quarter of Syria’s territory—currently held by the U.S.-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), aided by the presence of 2,000 U.S. soldiers. Control of this region has prevented Iran from activating their two planned land corridors into Syria. One corridor would run through Anbar province in western Iraq and the other through the Kirkuk-Sinjar roads. The IRGC aspires to gain the ability to direct more militiamen and supplies to Syria through friendly areas along these routes in order to accelerate the military buildup inside the country. Experience has taught them that reliance on airlifts is quite vulnerable to Israeli strikes.

To keep districts east of the Euphrates outside the reach of Iran-sponsored forces, the United States must continue its role there so that the SDF, consisting mainly of fighters from the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), remains confident of continuous U.S. air cover, assistance, and training. Such an arrangement, however, does not necessarily preclude a reduction in the U.S. force count on the ground.

Other elements of a strategy to disrupt Iran’s attempted transformation of Syria into a military platform for a future campaign against Israel should include strengthening the Druze community—with its traditional ties to Jordan and Israel—to resist any Iranian attempt to penetrate Suwayda province, northeast of Deraa governorate. The complicated situation of the Druze during the civil war is beyond the scope of this article, but ambivalent Druze relations with the Assad regime do not in any way suggest an inclination to welcome an IRGC or other Shia presence in their midst. Depriving Iran of the temptation to deploy medium-range missile bases in Druze Mountain should be viewed as an indispensable component of a policy aimed at foiling the Iranian scheme.

Setting aside the United States and Israel, quite a few regional players have a stake in preventing Iran from effectively taking over Syria. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan share the same distaste for what has been termed the “Shia Crescent,” with Syria as its center of gravity. Each of these countries can be induced to contribute in different ways to a “stop-Iran” effort. Whether by extending funds, military assistance, or aid for reconstruction, these states can help deter Assad from total surrender to Iran’s wishes, and reinforce the rebels’ hold in southern Syria and the regions east of the Euphrates.

But, above all, to prevent an all-out Israel-Iran war, which could easily expand to Lebanon and Gaza, the United States must lend its support to a sustained Israeli campaign to destroy—when necessary and possible—Iranian facilities in Syria and continuously raise the cost of the IRGC effort, to the point that both Tehran and Damascus will have to reconsider the viability of Soleimani’s project.

Ehud Yaari is a Lafer Fellow with The Washington Institute and a commentator for Israel TV 12/13. This article was originally published on the American Interest website.

Unheard Voices: What Syrian Refugees Need to Return Home

MAHA YAHYA,  JEAN KASSIR,  KHALIL EL-HARIRI

 

As the Syrian regime regains territory, there have been growing calls in neighboring countries for refugees to go home. Yet refugees have conditions for a return—conditions that political efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict have largely ignored. To understand refugee attitudes toward return, the Carnegie Middle East Center listened to the concerns of Syrians—both male and female, young and old—struggling to build meaningful lives in Lebanon and Jordan. What is most striking is that despite the increasingly difficult challenges they face, a majority are unwilling to go back unless a political transition can assure their safety and security, access to justice, and right of return to areas of origin. Economic opportunity and adequate housing are important but not requirements. Above all, their attitudes make it clear that both a sustainable political settlement and a mass, voluntary return are contingent upon international peace processes that account for refugee voices.

LISTENING TO REFUGEES

  • Facing mounting social and economic difficulties, refugees feel trapped between host countries that do not want them and a Syria to which they cannot return.
  • Refugees are pessimistic about the prospects for a Syrian peace deal. They reject any proposals that could lead to Syria’s fragmentation, oppose the idea of deescalation zones, and have no confidence in safe zones.
  • The refugees’ primary conditions for return are safety and security. But they do not believe they are achievable without a political transition and have little faith that the Syria to which they aspire will soon be attainable.
  • They have no confidence in the political actors involved in Syria, and most anti-regime refugees do not believe the opposition truly represents them.
  • Women and young men are among those most fearful of returning to Syria. They are concerned about the lack of security and possible persecution under President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Many young men fear conscription.
  • As the war drags on and conditions in their host countries worsen, an increasing number of refugees are considering resettling outside the region, particularly in Europe. However, they fear that once they leave the region, they may not be able to return.
  • Essentially, the notion of a voluntary return of refugees is losing meaning. Restrictive policies in Lebanon and Jordan may force refugees to return to an unsafe environment in Syria; while the regime’s policies in Syria—on housing and property rights, military conscription, and vetting procedures—may make it difficult, if not undesirable, for them to return.

ESTABLISHING CONDUCIVE POLICY MEASURES

  • A safe and sustainable return of refugees requires a framework that acknowledges the political roots of the Syrian crisis rather than just its humanitarian dimension; concedes that peace is not possible without justice; and recognizes the right of refugees to return to their areas of origin.
  • Safety and security can only be guaranteed through a political process that creates inclusive governance mechanisms; ends criminal impunity; and facilitates reintegration, demilitarization, and access to justice.
  • While this process will take time given the many forces operating in Syria, efforts to prepare refugees for a return should begin now. These could include creating a cadre of Syrian lawyers and paralegals to inform refugees of their rights and help resolve the many anticipated local disputes. They could also include establishing a network of trusted community mediators.
  • Reconstruction funding should not inadvertently empower the Syrian regime. Starting on a small scale in regions that are not under regime control could provide a better alternative for local rebuilding efforts.
  • Any funding should also be conditional on the return of refugees to their homes and access to their property. A vetting process should be established to ensure that local entities receiving international funding have not been involved in war crimes and are not regime fronts.
  • Meanwhile, the refugees’ right to a voluntary return must be respected. To encourage host countries to adopt policies that secure the basic needs of refugees, international support must include both humanitarian aid and economic investments geared toward job creation for host country nationals and refugees.
  • For access to the full article, please write to ME Politics via the contact page.
Source: Carnegie ME Center