The Obama administration is stubbornly consistent on Syria: It is for inaction under any and all circumstances. Only the excuses for inaction change.
Until recently the official line from Washington was that Bashar Assad’s downfall was “only a matter of time,” and therefore the U.S. did not have to do much to nudge him out of power. Now, following Assad’s victory in Quasayr, and his expanding offensive to retake more territory from the rebels, many administration officials have concluded that “Assad is gaining momentum in the country’s civil war with aid from Hezbollah and is unlikely to fall in the foreseeable future.” This realization is triggering a debate in the administration about whether to send arms to the rebels or take other measures to influence the outcome on the ground.
Last summer, Hezbollah terrorists escalated their war on Israel by staging a terror attack in Europe. Along with a Bulgarian bus driver, five Israeli tourists were killed and 32 were injured when a bomb exploded on their bus in Burgas, a Black Sea resort. The conspirators were quickly revealed to be two Hezbollah members, and one unidentified person—almost certainly another Hezbollah operative or perhaps an accomplice—that apparently died while placing the explosive in the bus’s luggage rack. Europol, Bulgarian, Israeli and American intelligence all agreed that the Lebanon-based Islamist group that acts on Iran’s orders was not only responsible for the atrocity but also preparing to branch out across the globe instead of concentrating on terrorizing Lebanese or Israelis in the Middle East.
The event helped crystallize the shift by which European governments began to realize how dangerous their past neutrality toward Hezbollah had been. This led to a push led by Britain to add Hezbollah to the European Union’s list of terror groups, a measure that should have happened many years ago but which was put off by a desire by many EU countries not to be seen aligning themselves with Israel or opposing an Islamist group that fought the Jewish state. But that emerging consensus on Hezbollah is facing stiff resistance from those Europeans who are still uncomfortable about confronting the Iranian ally. That unfortunate trend will be strengthened today by the news that the new Bulgarian government, which is led by the country’s former Communist party, is now claiming they are no longer certain that Hezbollah was responsible for the Burgas attack.
As I noted yesterday, many world leaders seem to be stuck in a time warp, in which any new information that contradicts paradigms conceived decades ago is simply filtered out. But in their defense, the same is often true of two of the main sources they rely on for information: think tanks and the media.
A salient example is a study recently published the Rand Corporation, one of America’s most prestigious think tanks and a frequent consultant to U.S. governments. In it, author Alireza Nader concludes that containing a nuclear Iran is feasible, because Iran’s nukes wouldn’t threaten either America or its Middle Eastern allies; Tehran wants them mainly for defensive purposes. “Iran does not have territorial ambitions and does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations,” Nader asserted.
That might have been a tenable theory 25 years ago, when Iran was still licking its wounds from an eight-year war with Iraq that the latter started. Since then, however, Iran has effectively taken over Lebanon and is now seeking to do the same with Syria. And it isn’t using peaceful suasion, but force of arms.
For anyone who still thinks Europe’s widespread anti-Israel sentiment is purely a reaction to Israel’s policies, completely untainted by anti-Semitism, consider the unblushing announcement made by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius today: France, he said, is now ready to consider listing Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization, because “the fact that it has fought extremely hard against the Syrian population” has caused Paris to reverse its longstanding opposition to the move.
Naturally, I’m delighted that France has finally seen the light about Hezbollah. But France had no problem with the organization during all the years it was conducting cross-border attacks on the Israeli population. Lest anyone forget, these attacks continued even after Israel’s UN-certified withdrawal from every last inch of Lebanese territory in 2000; it was one such cross-border raid that sparked the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006. In other words, France has just declared that cross-border incursions to kill Jews in Israel are perfectly fine, but cross-border incursions to kill Muslims in Syria are beyond the pale. If that isn’t an anti-Semitic double standard, I don’t know what is.
On Monday I wrote about the argument over whether it is in the interests of the West, and specifically America, for the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union. The question really centers on the issue of integration; that is, whether Britain is more likely to successfully advocate for the Anglosphere from within the EU or whether it is more likely to be integrated into the EU’s value system, which is at odds with America’s.
Although recent stories suggested the latter, there are occasional indications of the former–one of which came yesterday from the Wall Street Journal. The paper reported that Britain is formally requesting that the EU add Hezbollah’s military wing to its terror blacklist. That effort received another boost today, as the Jerusalem Post reports that Germany is backing Britain’s request, making it all but certain that Hezbollah’s military wing will be blacklisted:
At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, many of Bashar Assad’s longtime allies were wary of openly supporting a discredited dictator who was slaughtering his own people. Hamas, which had long maintained a headquarters in Damascus, quietly sulked out of town. Hezbollah, which is tied by an umbilical cord of supplies to Damascus, kept its distance too. But with the Assad regime showing signs of hanging on after more than two years of combat, Hezbollah, and its patrons in Iran, have been more open in their support for the regime. Hundreds of Hezbollah fighters are now fighting alongside Syrian troops in the critical battle for the town of Qusayr near the major city of Homs. Dozens of “martyrs” are coming home to Lebanon in body bags.
By thus raising the stakes in Syria, Hezbollah is leaving itself open to serious blowback. Its credibility in Lebanon has always depended on its posture as an anti-Israel force; its prestige soared when it chased the IDF out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and when it stood up to Israeli attacks in 2006. But now in Syria, Hezbollah fighters are battling not the “accursed” Jews but fellow Muslims who are determined to rid their country of an unelected and unpopular leader.
The Obama administration’s stand-on-the-sidelines policy in Syria has been premised on the assumption that it was only a matter of time before Bashar Assad’s downfall–his “days are numbered,” administration officials have been saying for the past two years. Not so fast. This dispatch from Washington Post reporter Liz Sly in Beirut suggests that the battle is actually swinging in Assad’s direction, thanks in large part to the extensive aid he is receiving from Iran and Hezbollah.
Iranian Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters are actively engaged in hostilities–not only fighting themselves but also helping the Assad regime to organize and train a new militia force made up primarily of Alawites that is far more loyal to the regime than the Sunni-dominated ranks of the regular army. The National Defense Force, as this militia is known, is using guerrilla-style tactics against the rebels, fighting them block by block.
President Obama was confronted with the anxieties of the Middle East yesterday when the first question he received at his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu was about Syria. “Morally,” began the question ominously, “how is it possible that for the last two years, tens of thousands of innocent civilians are being massacred and no one, the world, the United States, you are doing anything to stop it immediately. On a practical level, you have said today and also in the past, that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line. It seems like this line was crossed yesterday. What specifically do you intend to do about it?”
Obama began his answer by noting that there is no proof or consensus on whether chemical weapons have, in fact, been used. Then he pushed back on the accusation he’s done nothing: “It is incorrect to say that we have done nothing. We have helped to mobilize the isolation of the Assad regime internationally. We have supported and recognized the opposition. We have had hundreds of millions of dollars in support for humanitarian aid.”
That wasn’t much of a response, because the question was what is being done to “stop it immediately,” and nothing the West is doing would seem to qualify. And in fact the reporter’s question was representative of the current mood here in the States as well, in which calls for Obama to intervene in Syria are growing as quickly as the wisdom of such intervention seems to be fading.
In December, I wrote that despite all the misunderstanding and misinformation in the press about Israel’s construction plans for the area around Jerusalem, specifically the E-1 corridor, there was one very illuminating aspect to the controversy. The reaction by Western European leaders and diplomats to the Israeli government’s restatement of the official policy of every Israeli government–right, left, and center–exposed a fault line in EU-Israel relations. The Israeli consensus crosses the EU’s “red line,” and therefore the two are unlikely to find common ground in the peace process.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise to read in the Times of Israel that a new EU report recommends the European Union more actively boycott and sanction Israeli products and companies on the other side of the Green Line. Europe’s growing hostility to Israel and its vast ignorance of Mideast geopolitics are frustrating all by themselves, but a thorough report in the Washington Post today on Hezbollah’s operations in Europe put the EU’s manifest lack of seriousness in stark relief. First, the Times of Israel reports:
Alana Goodman’s report that Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel suggested Israel controlled the State Department in a question and answer session following a speech at Rutgers University is now the subject of considerable attention.
Hagel’s host–Hooshang Amirahmadi–should not simply be a background personality in the story, however. Amirahmadi, the founder and president of the American Iranian Council, is a well-known figure in Iranian circles. Soon after Hagel’s talk, Amirahmadi told Asr-i Iran (with a translation provided by Ali Alfoneh), “The problem of terrorism is a true myth. Iran has not been involved with any terrorist organization. Neither Hezbollah, nor Hamas are terrorist organizations….”
The consensus in the last month among political observers is that while Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense faced serious challenges that would ultimately fall short of stopping him, there was never a chance that the president’s choice to run the CIA would be turned down by the Senate. With so much fire concentrated on Hagel, it was assumed that White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan would skate to an easy victory even if tough questions were posed at his confirmation hearing. The day of that hearing has finally arrived, and though it is doubtful that he will be rejected, it looks as though he will face an even rougher time than expected when on the Senate hot seat.
Much of that has to do with the recent revelations about the administration’s guidelines about conducting drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets. Liberal Democrats like Ron Wyden and a libertarian Republican like Rand Paul will rake him over the coals about this controversial, though justified policy. Other Republicans will take him to task for the disaster at Benghazi and try again to probe into the questions of who in the White House knew what and when did they know it about the incident, as well as who changed the talking points which led to administration figures like Susan Rice putting out false information about the murders having resulted from a film protest rather than a terror attack.
Those will be the headlines of today’s hearings, and though they are topics that deserve scrutiny there are other questions that need to be asked about Brennan’s views that may be of even greater importance in determining his fitness to lead the country’s intelligence operations. Brennan’s positions on engagement with Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood need to be given as much attention as that given to the drones and Benghazi.
During the early years of the post-9/11 war on terror, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made one of the most famous statements about Hezbollah in the terrorist group’s bloody history when he said: “Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe Al Qaeda is actually the B-team.” Al-Qaeda’s operatives learned much from Hezbollah; as Thomas Joscelyn pointed out in Iran’s Proxy War Against America:
It was during bin Laden’s time in Sudan that he first met Imad Mugniyah, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s master terrorist. Since the early 1980s, Mugniyah has been implicated in most, if not all, of Iran’s major anti-American terrorist operations. His “accomplishments” include the infamous 1983 U.S. embassy bombing in Beirut and a series of devastating follow-on attacks, which drove the U.S. out of Lebanon. During the early 1990s, bin Laden sought and received Mugniyah’s assistance in transforming al-Qaeda’s capabilities. With Mugniyah’s help, al-Qaeda acquired Hezbollah’s most lethal tactics, including the use of suicide bombers.
The attacks raised the profile and name recognition of Hezbollah once again because of the increased focus on international terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the group was overshadowed by the 9/11 culprits, most of all bin Laden. Since terrorist groups hate to be ignored (they rely on notoriety and information wars), Hezbollah reasserts itself from time to time. It appeared that that was exactly what happened when on July 18 a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria exploded, killing six plus the bomber. Now, after the investigation, we appear to have confirmation:
Many in the United States assume that the international sanctions being enforced against Iran and the threats from American leaders about Tehran’s nuclear program have isolated that Islamist regime. But the reality of Iran’s diplomatic situation gives the lie to the blithe confidence about the West’s ability to make the ayatollahs give up their nuclear ambition. The fact that the Non-Aligned Movement held its conference in Tehran last fall with 120 United Nations member states in attendance–including the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt–should have been enough proof that isolation is a figment of the State Department’s imagination. But the decision of Argentina to create a joint “Truth Commission” with Iran to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center building in Buenos Aires makes it official. Not only are Iran’s relations with most of the world thriving, but the Islamist Republic is also getting an official pass from another American ally for an act of international terror.
Iran was long believed to be behind the atrocity that took the lives of 85 people and injured 300, but in 2006 Argentine prosecutors formally charged both the Iranian government and Hezbollah for the crime. But the case was never pursued and now the government of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner has apparently gone beyond ignoring the past to taking an active step toward covering it up. This is not merely an insult to Jews and to Israel, whose Argentine embassy was also bombed by the same culprits a year before, but to the notion that Iran is without friends. Though some in Israel are hoping that the United States will relieve them of the need to take action on their own against the Iranian nuclear threat, this episode shows that the Obama administration’s belief that the solution to the problem lies in diplomacy may be hopelessly naïve.
President Obama’s choices of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan to lead respectively the State Department, Pentagon, and Central Intelligence Agency confirm that Obama wishes to position his legacy somewhat to the left even of Jimmy Carter. There has been a lot of attention to Chuck Hagel’s record over the last couple of weeks, but John Brennan has benefited from flying under the radar, if only because of the controversy surrounding Hagel.
It’s worth recalling, however, Brennan’s comments in 2010 upon returning from a visit to Lebanon. From a Reuters report at the time:
The Obama administration is looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla movement and to diminish the influence of hard-liners, a top White House official said on Tuesday. John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, met with Lebanese leaders during a recent visit. “Hezbollah is a very interesting organization,” Brennan told a Washington conference, citing its evolution from “purely a terrorist organization” to a militia to an organization that now has members within the parliament and the cabinet. “There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements,” Brennan said.
Over at the Atlantic, James Fallows publishes a statement signed by 9 former ambassadors saying they have worked with former Senator Chuck Hagel, and he “has been opposed to those who would undermine or threaten Israel’s security.” Frankly, Fallows and others pushing for Hagel seek to caricature all opposition to him as motivated by his positions on Israel. That may be the case for some but, as with Chas Freeman—who was equally atrocious on China—it has far more to do with his broader foreign policy vision and gut instincts. Let’s look at the ambassadors endorsing Hagel:
Edward Djerejian: Djerejian has spent his retirement promoting rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad, and an end to the Syrian dictator’s isolation in Syria. His insertions regarding unrelated Israel issues in the Iraq Study Group report were, at best, bizarre.
Thomas Pickering: Pickering is an adviser to the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a group that lobbies against sanctions on the Islamic Republic and seeks to bring American foreign policy into greater conformity with Iran’s positions on controversial issues. They recently lost a defamation case against a journalist which called them out on their lobbying activities. Pickering was the group’s adviser when they sought to subpoena a decade’s worth of emails from me, anything that mentioned “Iran.” The subpoena was successfully fought, but the fact that Pickering would seek to compel release of even classified emails written when I was a Pentagon employee (which I didn’t have copies of at any rate) to hand to a pro-regime lobby group has forever made me question his judgment.
As others have made clear, Chuck Hagel’s problems extend beyond his controversial comments about the “Jewish lobby.” Several of his stated positions–and not just his opposition to Iran sanctions–could have practical consequences for U.S. interests. A prime example is the European Union’s indication that it may finally designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, depending on the outcome of the Burgas bus bombing investigation. The U.S. has lobbied the reluctant EU on this for years, since the move would cut off much of the terror group’s funding:
European diplomats from Spain and France have told the Post that blacklisting Hezbollah is contingent on the outcome of the Bulgarian investigation into a July bombing in Burgas which killed five Israelis and their Bulgarian bus driver. American and Israeli intelligence officials believe a joint Hezbollah-Iran operation executed the suicide bombing. Europe has held the line on its ban of Hamas in 2003. Hezbollah’s terrorism is equally deadly and there are no shortage of compelling reasons to evict Hezbollah from European soil.
Word came yesterday evening that the House of Representatives has agreed with a Senate amendment and so Rep. Jeff Duncan’s (R-South Carolina) “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” will head to the White House for President Obama’s signature.
If the bill becomes a law—and presumably it will because the White House did not oppose it—then the secretary of state will have to report to Congress on a broad range of Iranian activity in the Western hemisphere. According to the Congressional Research Service’s summary, the report will include:
Hamas’s decision not to go along with their patron Iran’s determination to keep Bashar Assad in power in Syria broke up a profitable alliance that had worked well for both parties. But though the two may no longer be working in tandem, Hamas’s decision to launch a rocket offensive against Israel did a favor for the country that had supplied the terror group with cash and weapons for a decade: it diverted international attention away from the release of a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency about the Iranian nuclear program.
That’s fortuitous for Iran, since the IAEA’s latest findings about Tehran’s project more or less confirm the warnings that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued from the podium of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September. As Britain’s Guardian reports, all those pundits and kibitzers who mocked Netanyahu’s rhetoric and graphic display at the UN may need to rethink their position:
Experts and defense analysts agree that Iran would respond to any Israeli strike on its nuclear facilities by proxy, specifically by Hamas and Hezbollah rocketry launched at Israeli towns and cities. Indeed, this is one of the reasons beyond sheer ideological spite that the Iranian leadership has gone to such great lengths to arm both Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Iranian leadership may be coming very close to forcing Israel’s hand. If Hezbollah seeks to open a second front against Israel, then Israel could find itself in a two-front war with terrorist entities. Make no mistake, Israel would achieve its objective of destroying the majority of the longest-range and most lethal missiles supplied to Hamas and Hezbollah by Iran, Syria, and perhaps even North Korea.
I largely agree with Max Boot’s post from Friday evening. Hezbollah operative Ali Musa Daqduq’s release from an Iraqi prison and apparent return to Lebanon is a rebuff for President Barack Obama. Certainly, his release is a sign of Iranian pressure on both Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki personally and on Iraq in general. While it’s easy to blame Maliki, with American forces withdrawn and so little ability to counter Iranian pressure, his options were limited. Certainly, he might have extradited Daqduq, but having been thrown to the Iranian wolves, doing so might have engendered a response Maliki feared more than Joe Biden’s bluster. For what it’s worth, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement here explaining its decision.
Let me say that I hope there is a Predator with Daqduq’s name on it. If a targeted assassination happens to take out his known associates, all the better. Let’s hope that the intelligence community has the ability to track Daqduq, and that Obama has the wherewithal to order such a strike. The alternative would be waiting around until, with tongue firmly in cheek, Islamist mobs again become enraged at a YouTube video and spontaneously conduct a man-made disaster.