Tag Archives: analysis

Intelligence Analysis: Who will fight for Iran’s nuclear program?

Last week Iran sent a high-level envoy, Saeed Jalili, on a particularly controversial public-relations tour to Lebanon and Syria, the most explosive corner of the region. After ruffling feathers during a Beirut stopover, Mr. Jalili traveled to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al- Assad, where he declared the ties between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah to be an “axis of resistance.”

Israeli pilots prepare for flight. Iran has since warned of massive retaliation in response to an Israeli attack on it’s nuclear facilities

Jalili is an iconic figure, whose position as the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council also affords him the role of chief negotiator for Iran’s contentious nuclear program. Amidst a deadlock in negotiations and a rehashing of threatening rhetoric, Jalili’s visit was meant to remind the Israelis that Iran’s proxies on Israel’s northern doorstep remain ready and willing to plunge the region into chaos if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities.

It appears however, that Iran’s allies in the eastern Mediterranean may not be as keen about going to war for the ayatollahs as Tehran would like – and the Israelis know it.

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Strategic Analysis: Curbing the rise of Kurdistan

On July 27, thousands of Iraqi troops, tanks, and artillery set out to seize the FishKhabur border crossing with Syria in Iraq’s northern Zumar district. But the days when Iraq could impose its will over the scrappy and restive Kurdish north are over. Blocking them were some 3,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, along with artillery – intent on proving that Baghdad’s supremacy is no more.  A tense standoff between the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga ensued, only to alleviate with American pressure and a fragile agreement between the two sides. The standoff reflected the situation at large: Iraqi Kurdistan is determined to rid itself of Baghdad, establish itself as a regional player, and use its burgeoning clout to serve as the protector of Kurds throughout the region. Most importantly, attempts by rival states to thwart Kurdish ambitions threaten to ignite a new round of Kurdish wars in a region already in flames.

Peshmerga fighters train in Iraqi Kurdistan

This border area is disputed by the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). FishKhabur has been under Kurdish military control for years, which Iraq claims is illegal and violates the country’s constitution. The KRG disputes this and is determined not to forfeit their only border crossing with Syria, nor to allow Baghdad to reestablish its influence in an area already “Arabized” and largely depopulated of ethnic Kurds.  Despite Baghdad’s official protestations, the reality is much more strategic. Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Curbing the rise of Kurdistan

Intelligence Analysis: Syria’s Threatened Christians

Earlier this month, reports came from the Syrian city of Qusayr of an ominous warning to the town’s Christians: Either join the Sunni-led opposition against Bashar al-Assad or leave. Soon after, thousands of Christians fled the town.

Rebel fighters in Syria have been accused of ethnic cleansing of minority groups.

After decades of protection by a secular-leaning dictatorship, the Qusayr ultimatum warned of a dark future for Syria’s Christian community. As the 15-month conflict rages with no end in sight, Syria’s many minorities have come face to face with the emerging threat posed by radical Sunni Islamists. These elements have established themselves as a key factor in Syria’s future, backed by immense political and economic support from the Arab world and indifference from the West.

Throughout the years, Christians, like many other minorities in the region, have lent their support to those regimes that have guaranteed their security and religious freedom. In Iraq, Christians rose to the highest levels of society under Saddam Hussein’s regime, while in Egypt, Coptic Christians were protected from ultraconservative Salafists under Hosni Mubarak. As secular leaders from the secretive Alawite sect, the Assad dynasty largely preserved Christian life, protecting Syria’s minorities from what was perceived as a collective threat from the country’s Sunni majority.

 

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Intelligence Analysis: Jordan’s Covert War Against an Islamist Spillover

A protester holds a sword during a demonstration against arrests of Salafists in the town of Zarqa, east of Amman (AP)

The Jordanian regime has been growing increasingly concerned about the possible spillover effects of violence in Syria, especially since Jordan’s Jihadist-Salafist Sheikh Abu Muhammad Tahawi recently released a fatwa calling for jihad in Syria. In his fatwa, Tahawi stressed that Alawites and Shiites are currently the biggest threat to Sunnis, even more than the Israelis.

Fatwas of this sort, usually play on the sentiments harbored deep within historical sectarian feuds between the Sunni and the Shiite faiths. They also serve the purpose of mobilizing Sunni extremists in a bloody ‘Jihad’ against the other factions of Islam, which radical Salafists classify as “outsiders”.

According to media reports, Jordanian Jihadist-Salafists seem to have responded to Sheikh Tahawi’s call as a group of over 30 Jihadists tried to enter Syria a few weeks ago. All but seven, including Abu Anas Sahabi, an explosives specialist, were caught by Jordanian intelligence services. On April 15 a Jihadi-Salafi demonstration resulted in violent clashes with police, leaving dozens of wounded officers and numerous civilian casualties. In response, authorities cracked down on Salafists during a raid in al-Zarqa and other towns located near the Syrian border. Approximately 147 individuals were arrested by Jordanian authorities and charged with terrorist activities.

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Intelligence Analysis: The Syrian Spillover into Lebanon

A Sunni gunman fires his machine gun during clashes in northern Tripoli (AP)

Nine Lebanese were killed after days of clashes in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between long-time bitter foes, the Sunni dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods. Clashes and tensions in Tripoli are not new and represent persistent volatility in Lebanon, as well as in the region, both in terms of politics and security.

The Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh, a hotbed of Salafism, denounce the ‘heretic’ Alawite regime of Assad and decry his killing of their fellow Sunni-Muslims in Syria. The tiny, yet well- armed, Alawite community of Jabal Mohsen however, remains a steadfast supporter of the Syrian president. With just a single street, ironically named the Syria Street, separating them, the current escalation highlights not only a localized  spillover of the Syrian war into Lebanon, but the overarching problem with Lebanon itself – the continued presence of sectarian militias.

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Clashing for the Future of Egypt

Supporters of banned Salafi presidential candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail demonstrate in Cairo (Getty Images)

The latest bloodshed in Cairo underscores worrying trends and emerging realities regarding Egypt’s internal security and political future. The recent clashes in the vicinity of Cairo’s Abbasseya Square illustrate the readiness of prominent political groups to forcefully impose their views, demands, and ideologies as they battle for the country’s new identity. Sadly for Egypt, this process has just begun and is not likely to end anytime soon; indeed, the bloody volatility in Egypt has not subsided since the events of January 2011.

Under these circumstances – from a security point of view – what is most important to note here is how the volatile political situation directly translates into an erosion of the security condition on the ground. Violence in downtown Cairo is often centered on political disputes, involving opposing factions, who are more prone to resolve their differences by force, as they believe this the most optimum course of action to achieve their goals.

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Al Qaeda’s Syrian Front

The recent wave of suicide bombings in Syria, along with Lebanon’s seizure of a weapons-laden cargo ship intended for Syrian rebels, underscores the infiltration of not only Sunni-jihadist ideology into Syria, but also weapons, tactics, and fighters from throughout the Middle East. Those forces, along with radical Syrian Islamists, are likely set to intensify their attacks on both civilian and government targets in an attempt to turn Syria, although unlikely, into the new Iraq.

Unlike Egypt, the Syrian government proved to be far too entrenched to be removed by civilian protests and international pressure alone. This realization and an increasingly brutal government crackdown spawned an inevitable militarization of the conflict, additionally fueled and intensified by Sunni elements throughout the Middle East, mainly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Libya. Although Sunni militants are no longer able to defeat Syria’s well-armed, motivated, and efficient fighting force in battle, they are leaning towards a strategy where bombings and other asymmetrical attacks on government and civilian targets alike are likely to become the norm for the near future in Syria.

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Iran’s religious gateway into Iraq

Iran has long sought to spread its Islamic revolution into neighboring Iraq. With Saddam and the US out and Shiites in control, Iraq’s leaders are now intent on rebuilding their country as a regional Shiite power. But first, they must pacify radical Sunni elements and unite its various Shiite sects who remain divided over various issues. Those divides, however, have opened the door for Iran’s long-awaited ascendancy in Iraq. In doing so, Iranian revolutionary Shi’ite Islam – arguably above anything else –  has become the Islamic Republic’s foremost strategy of attaining influence in Iraq.

As is the case with most religious groups, Shiites are not monolithic and there are notable ideological and political differences among them. For centuries, Iraq has historically been the premier source for Shiite ideology, much of it stemming from the southern city of Najaf. However, Saddam’s secular dictatorship systematically targeted leading Shiite clergymen, thereby forcing many into exile in neighboring Iran. That said, the return of thousands of Iraqi Shiites and clergymen – many now learned in Iranian dogma – have become a major catalyst for spreading Tehran’s religious message throughout Iraq. With their return, Iran has sought to supplant or push aside the traditional Shiite leaders from the “quietist” religious school in Najaf with revolutionary Islamic teachers who have trained and studied revolutionary Islam in Qom, Iran.

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Assad’s Military Gains and the Western-Sunni Setback in Syria

 

The Alawite regime in Syria has by and large won a series of impressive tactical victories. Fighting is not yet over, however mere mop-up operations and rebel raids remain. The war has been costly, as bloodshed has already claimed more than 10,000 lives in Syria. To that point, the existing sectarian tensions and the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, mean that Syria is likely to endure a prolonged low-level insurgency for some time. With Assad no longer clinging to power, his military successes’ highlight the regime’s overall mastery of sectarian divisions, and the premier factor for his sect’s ability to rule Syria for over four decades. Needless to say, without mastering those divisions – mainly the ethnic and religious minorities against the Sunni Arab majority – Syrian military gains and continued Alawite rule would have been impossible.

Furthermore, Assad agreed to a recent UN-brokered ceasefire after he and his advisers likely calculated that they could officially declare an end to the fighting with the upper hand, which could theoretically offer him greater leverage in post-conflict negotiations. However, those negotiations are unlikely to happen any time soon, as militants within Syria and their supporters abroad are unlikely to recognize any peace deals with Damascus in the near future. Simply, their intransigence towards negotiating will serve to show that the Assad regime is an illegitimate ruler of Syria.

Even so, immediately after the fragile agreement was being announced, Assad’s forces stormed the population centers of al-Mazareb, Khirbet Ghazale, Homs, Latame, and Saraqeb, showing once again that it is on the offensive and reaffirmed that it has the upper hand. Although the ceasefire is by and large holding, it remains unlikely that it will last in the near term, given that there still exists fighting on both sides throughout Syria and the opposition’s reluctance to re-accept Alawite rule. 

On the diplomatic front, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently warned Sunni Arab and Western states against continuing to arm Syrian rebels by saying, even if they were “armed to the teeth”, they will still lose. Russia’s warning shows that Moscow is indeed confident that Assad’s regime will stay put. But most importantly for the Kremlin, Russia has been successful, along with other powers, in deterring its Western rivals from taking more aggressive action in Syria.

At present, Assad and his army have by and large defeated the potency of Sunni militants in Syria. The current low-level insurgency does not pose an existential threat to the regime in Damascus for the near future and desperate calls for intervention are unlikely to bear fruit any time soon. In addition, after regaining greater stability within Syria, Assad’s regime will likely seek retaliation against those entities that increased their meddling in the country. Chiefly, Assad could use his sectarian allies, such as the Kurdish PKK – a new ally, the Alevis in Turkey, Hezbollah, and minority Shiites across the Middle East to punish those actors who acted against him, mainly Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Assad’s victories have shown that the era of dictatorial rule is indeed not over and the forces which promoted the ousting of Qaddafi in Libya and Mubarak in Egypt, are losing the current battle in Syria. Moreover, those who predicted Assad’s demise soon after protests broke out over a year ago- spoke to soon. For his continued rule highlights that despite claims that the new era of the “Arab Spring” would bring sweeping democracy throughout the Middle East, sectarianism prevails.

For up to date analysis on the Syrian conflict, click here.

Sanaa Airport Attack: Saleh show of force?

Tensions are running high in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa following an April 7 attack on its international airport  by forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the same day, Saleh’s fighters are alleged to have sabotaged power lines into the capital, causing blackouts throughout the city. The move on the airfield came after current President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued a set of decrees the previous day in which he ordered the replacement of 25 civilian and military officials left over from the Saleh regime. Of those slated to be removed from their position was Air Force Commander General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, the half brother of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the leader considered to be behind the assault on the airport. For his part, al-Ahmar has refused to step down from his post and is actively challenging the Hadi administration.

Reforms in the Yemen’s military and civilian structures have been deemed essential for the success of the reconciliation process in the wake of the uprising against the previous regime. However, the attempt to restructure the military comes at a point of great tension for the southern republic. Hadi has been under immense pressure since he took the role of interim-President, the lion’s share of which is directly related  to the rooting out of Saleh’s allies and relatives from the influential military system known for its corruption and strong hold on the levers of power in the state. The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), Yemen’s central opposition bloc, have placed the reforms as a condition of their participation in the government. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators continue to come to the streets demanding the removal of Saleh loyalists from the military.

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