Commentary Magazine


Topic: Hezbollah

The “Facts” According to Journalists

As Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday, facts are irrelevant to the diehard anti-Israel crowd; nothing will change their views. But since they remain a minority (at least in America), I’m far more worried about the many well-meaning people who do care about the facts, but never hear them, because the journalists they rely on for information can’t be bothered to get their facts straight.

Take, for instance, a New York Times report earlier this month about Islamic Jihad’s barrage of more than 60 rockets at southern Israel and Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes. The online version says, unexceptionably, that “the only reported injury was to an Israeli woman who fell while running for cover.” But the print version of the Times’s international edition–which reaches some 242,000 people–added a shocking comment: The lack of casualties, it asserted, is “a sign that each side wanted to make a forceful showing without risking further escalation.”

Anyone reading that would never know Islamic Jihad shoots rockets indiscriminately at Israeli towns (a bona fide war crime); they’d think Gazan terrorists, just like Israelis, carefully aim their fire to avoid civilian casualties. They’d also never know that this indiscriminate rocket fire causes so few casualties only because, as a new study shows, massive civil defense measures–even playground equipment in the border town of Sderot is designed to double as bomb shelters–have reduced Israeli fatalities by a whopping 86 percent. And because people don’t know all this, they are easily persuaded that Israel’s responses to the rocket fire, from airstrikes to the naval blockade of Gaza, are “excessive.”

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As Jonathan Tobin noted yesterday, facts are irrelevant to the diehard anti-Israel crowd; nothing will change their views. But since they remain a minority (at least in America), I’m far more worried about the many well-meaning people who do care about the facts, but never hear them, because the journalists they rely on for information can’t be bothered to get their facts straight.

Take, for instance, a New York Times report earlier this month about Islamic Jihad’s barrage of more than 60 rockets at southern Israel and Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes. The online version says, unexceptionably, that “the only reported injury was to an Israeli woman who fell while running for cover.” But the print version of the Times’s international edition–which reaches some 242,000 people–added a shocking comment: The lack of casualties, it asserted, is “a sign that each side wanted to make a forceful showing without risking further escalation.”

Anyone reading that would never know Islamic Jihad shoots rockets indiscriminately at Israeli towns (a bona fide war crime); they’d think Gazan terrorists, just like Israelis, carefully aim their fire to avoid civilian casualties. They’d also never know that this indiscriminate rocket fire causes so few casualties only because, as a new study shows, massive civil defense measures–even playground equipment in the border town of Sderot is designed to double as bomb shelters–have reduced Israeli fatalities by a whopping 86 percent. And because people don’t know all this, they are easily persuaded that Israel’s responses to the rocket fire, from airstrikes to the naval blockade of Gaza, are “excessive.”

Or take a Reuters report on Lebanon this month, which asserted as fact that “Israeli forces still hold at least three pockets of occupied territory which are claimed by Lebanon.” This isn’t a quote from a Lebanese official; it’s the Reuters reporter.

Anyone reading that would never know Israel withdrew from every inch of Lebanon in 2000; that this withdrawal was unanimously certified as complete by the UN Security Council; and that only afterward did Hezbollah, backed by its Lebanese puppet government, suddenly lay claim to additional territory to justify its continued war on Israel. They’d think Israel indeed continues to “occupy” Lebanese territory. And anyone who believes this is easily persuaded that Hezbollah is a legitimate political player that seeks only to regain “occupied Lebanese territory,” rather than a viciously anti-Semitic terrorist organization whose goal is Israel’s eradication, and which any civilized country ought to shun.

This steady drip of media falsehoods even permeates stories that ostensibly have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict–like a New York Times review of Reza Aslan’s biography of Jesus, which casually refers to events in “first-century Palestine.” As the reviewer, a Yale professor of religious studies, certainly ought to know, there was no “Palestine” in Jesus’s day. The Roman province Jesus inhabited was called “Judaea,” a word whose linguistic similarity to “Judaism” is no accident; Judaea was a Jewish commonwealth. Only after the Bar-Kochba revolt more than a century later did the Romans rename it “Palestine,” after the Philistines, in a deliberate effort to obscure Jewish ties to the land.

But anyone reading this review would easily conclude that just like the Palestinians always claim, they–not the Jews–are the Holy Land’s indigenous people: Look, there never was a Jewish state there; “Palestine” existed even back in the first century! And if so, then Israel is indeed a thief who stole the Palestinians’ land.   

All this means that many well-meaning people don’t know even the most basic facts, like the Jews’ historic ties to Israel or the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza. And unless pro-Israel activists tell them, they never will–because the media certainly won’t.

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In America’s Absence, Israel Acts in Syria

Amid the Obama administration’s increasingly apparent dereliction of duty to America’s role on the world stage, it seems that, in the Middle East at least, Israel is taking on an increased level of responsibility in the effort to halt the proliferation of both weapons of mass destruction and terror groups. This has been particularly apparent when it comes to the ongoing crisis and instability in Syria and the reports today that Israel’s air force carried out strikes against Hezbollah strongholds on the Syrian border so as to disrupt efforts to transfer weapons from Syria into Lebanon.

Given the refusal of the administration to take decisive action in Syria, the ongoing indication that Obama is seeking further withdrawals of U.S. troops–most significantly in Afghanistan–and now the cuts to the defense budget, it is clear that Western allies in the region are going to find themselves increasingly isolated. If this policy is to continue, Israel faces the prospect of being ever more alone in a region descending into worsening turmoil. The concern in places like Syria is not simply restricted to the fear of rogue regimes using stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons against their own people. Rather, with the growing strength of al-Qaeda-linked groups in these conflict zones, there is a real risk of the most devastating weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants prepared to use them indiscriminately.   

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Amid the Obama administration’s increasingly apparent dereliction of duty to America’s role on the world stage, it seems that, in the Middle East at least, Israel is taking on an increased level of responsibility in the effort to halt the proliferation of both weapons of mass destruction and terror groups. This has been particularly apparent when it comes to the ongoing crisis and instability in Syria and the reports today that Israel’s air force carried out strikes against Hezbollah strongholds on the Syrian border so as to disrupt efforts to transfer weapons from Syria into Lebanon.

Given the refusal of the administration to take decisive action in Syria, the ongoing indication that Obama is seeking further withdrawals of U.S. troops–most significantly in Afghanistan–and now the cuts to the defense budget, it is clear that Western allies in the region are going to find themselves increasingly isolated. If this policy is to continue, Israel faces the prospect of being ever more alone in a region descending into worsening turmoil. The concern in places like Syria is not simply restricted to the fear of rogue regimes using stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons against their own people. Rather, with the growing strength of al-Qaeda-linked groups in these conflict zones, there is a real risk of the most devastating weapons falling into the hands of Islamist militants prepared to use them indiscriminately.   

It is essentially only on account of Israel that the world does not currently face the unimaginable possibility of a Syria armed with nuclear weapons. Israel is widely understood to have been behind the 2007 strike on the North Korean-abetted nuclear program in Syria. Just as it was Israel that spared us all from the grim reality of life with a nuclear Iraq–no doubt with Saddam still in power to this day–when the Israelis took out Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. As such, it does not seem unreasonable to speculate that, had it not been for the Obama administration purposefully tying Israel’s hands, the Iranian nuclear threat and the risk of a nuclear domino effect across the region might already have been lifted by now.

This, then, is a reminder of how Israel acts as somewhat of a restraining force in the Middle East. It also reaffirms the wrongheadedness of the commonly heard assertion that Israel and its dispute with the Palestinians is a regional destabilizer, that without the “Israel problem” the region would calm down and the Islamic world would forget its enmity for America. The latest strike by the IAF against Hezbollah forces attempting to transfer Syrian weapons to its Iranian proxy army in Lebanon is yet another example of how in the absence of decisive American action, Israel instead is acting to prevent the further deterioration of security in the region.

It is also worth considering these facts in light of Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to reach a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As part of efforts to reach an agreement it appears that the State Department has been pushing for an Israeli withdrawal from the strategically vital Jordan Valley, with the suggestion that American troops might take the place of the Israeli ones currently based there. This proposal seems all the more ludicrous given the Obama administration’s moves to cut back on both the defense budget and the U.S. military presence in the area as a whole. Israel cannot allow itself to be turned into a strategic basket case; it must maintain the means as well as the territory by which it is possible for it to go on defending itself.

But as we have been reminded of in recent days, Israel does not simply defend itself, it also acts to restrain dangerous extremist and rogue forces in the wider region. 

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John Kerry and Israel’s Security Priorities

In recent days a series of disturbing reports have emerged regarding the acquisition by Hezbollah of powerful long-range and radar-guided missiles via Syria. Given that the source of these reports, first revealed by the Wall Street Journal January 2, come from U.S. military intelligence officials it would seem prudent to take them seriously. If accurate, this brings Hezbollah’s military capabilities into a new league with the potential to significantly shift the calculus of risk for Israel and its population. That these events come amidst a delay in the deployment of Iron Dome air defense systems along Israel’s northern border, on account of budgetary difficulties, only adds to any assessment of just how troubling Israel’s security situation is regarding the Iranian proxies in Lebanon.

Yet, with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians now in full swing, it seems that many of Israel’s far more critical security concerns risk being crowded out. The great irony here being that Kerry is expending huge amounts of energy, and indeed Israel’s time, on a peace process that cannot possibly hope to bring Israel peace or security in the places where it arguably needs them most.

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In recent days a series of disturbing reports have emerged regarding the acquisition by Hezbollah of powerful long-range and radar-guided missiles via Syria. Given that the source of these reports, first revealed by the Wall Street Journal January 2, come from U.S. military intelligence officials it would seem prudent to take them seriously. If accurate, this brings Hezbollah’s military capabilities into a new league with the potential to significantly shift the calculus of risk for Israel and its population. That these events come amidst a delay in the deployment of Iron Dome air defense systems along Israel’s northern border, on account of budgetary difficulties, only adds to any assessment of just how troubling Israel’s security situation is regarding the Iranian proxies in Lebanon.

Yet, with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians now in full swing, it seems that many of Israel’s far more critical security concerns risk being crowded out. The great irony here being that Kerry is expending huge amounts of energy, and indeed Israel’s time, on a peace process that cannot possibly hope to bring Israel peace or security in the places where it arguably needs them most.

Speaking from Jerusalem about the progress of negotiations last week, Kerry told reporters: “These are complicated issues that involve the survival and the future of peoples. And this is a conflict that has gone on for too long.” Few could disagree with that, least of all Israelis, who have long lived with the disorienting awareness of just how precarious the survival of their nation really is. Yet Kerry went on to say more. Of the focus of the negotiations he added, “Now is not the time to get trapped in the sort of up and down of the day-to-day challenges … We don’t have the luxury of dwelling on the obstacles that we all know could distract us from our goal. What we need to do is lift our sights and look ahead and keep in mind the vision of what can come, and if we can move forward.”

Touching as visions of the future may well be and true as it is that both sides should seek to avoid becoming bogged down in a petty exchange of accusations, we must also wonder about precisely what it is that Israel should and shouldn’t allow itself to be “distracted” by right now. For if Kerry is as committed to the survival of peoples and the ending of conflicts as his above statements would suggest, then there are serious questions that Israelis need to be asking about where the Obama administration has been trying to direct their attention in recent years. What really counts as a luxury and a distraction?

Given that Kerry has undertaken no less than ten visits to Israel since assuming his office less than a year ago, it can hardly be in doubt just how much of a priority overseeing a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is for him. The only trouble is that getting an agreement signed between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas and bringing about peace almost certainly isn’t the same thing. Israel cannot truly make a deal based on land for peace with Abbas, because even if Abbas genuinely wished to do so, neither peace nor security are things that he is able to give Israelis. This is not simply the case because Mahmoud Abbas is almost nine years into his four-year-long presidential term and represents few of the people he claims to speak for or have authority over. Rather, negotiations with Abbas can’t possibly hope to bring Israel peace and security because the Palestinians in the West Bank are not remotely close to being Israel’s primary security concern.

The greatest threat to Israel’s security and continued survival is not even the other group of Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, who almost certainly would not hold by any agreement Kerry might be able to somehow conjure up. The single greatest threat to Israel comes from the Islamic regime in Iran and its proxies. Most ominously of all it comes from the Iranian nuclear program. Something which the Obama administration has so far completely failed to bring under control, perhaps unsurprising given how preoccupied Secretary Kerry has been with the matter of trying to get Mahmoud Abbas to agree to accept a state from Israel in exchange for little more than his simple recognition of the Jewish state in return.  

From what has been leaked from the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority so far, it would seem that there has been a great deal of focus on whether or not Israel would maintain a security force in the Jordan Valley. This security matter is clearly of great importance, but right now it pales in comparison to the mounting threat from Iran’s primary proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. And if Abbas can do next to nothing to assure Israel’s security from Hamas rockets in Gaza, how much less can he do about the critical danger to Israel coming from north of its border?

In addition to having stockpiles of an estimated 100,000 rockets and a growing ground force of Iranian-trained troops, it now appears that Hezbollah is acquiring new devastating weaponry via Syria. In recent days there have been statements from U.S. intelligence officials expressing their belief that Russian-made Yakhon anti-ship cruise missiles are now being brought into Lebanon. Despite attempts by the Israeli Air Force to strike weapons stores in Syria in an effort to prevent their transfer to Hezbollah, U.S. officials believe components of advanced radar-guided missiles have already entered southern Lebanon. Although primarily designed for use against ships, these missiles have a range that reach almost the full length of Israel’s territory and are equipped with armor-piecing highly explosive warheads. Additionally, some of the weaponry Hezbollah has been acquiring from Syria would give it the capabilities to attack Israeli planes and stave off the kind of air strikes used to stop the stream of rockets fired into Israeli civilian areas during Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel. 

Concurrent with this has come news that Israel’s military will have to delay the deployment of its defensive Iron Dome batteries in the north of the country due to budget cuts. The air defense batteries which were supposed to be positioned to protect Israel’s north reportedly cannot be placed for the moment due to a shortage of manpower related to recent budgetary cuts from Israel’s Ministry of Defense, something which representatives of the military have warned will have serious consequences. As it is, these air defense systems place a huge financial strain on Israel’s ability to defend itself, with each Tamir interception rocket fired costing Israel $50,000. In a war of attrition by Iranian proxies this means of defense could quickly become unsustainable. As one senior military representative stated, “In recent years the enemy has understood that the cheapest and most effective way to harm Israel is by missiles, and therefore the defense establishment is forced to equip itself with the appropriate defense systems, which have a monumental cost.”

These matters are then Israel’s real and primary concern, or at least they should be. Yet, at the moment Israel risks being distracted by the relentless circus of Kerry’s sideshow diplomacy. When it comes to ending conflicts, securing peace and securing the survival of peoples, the most pressing matters do not center on the Palestinians but Iran and its proxy armies. Yet, the Obama administration’s softly-softly approach on Iran, currently materializing in the form of its efforts to ease sanctions on the mullahs, mean that the really serious threats to Israel are now becoming critical. Kerry is quite right when he counsels from Jerusalem on Israel not being able to afford the luxury of dwelling on distractions. Right now, however, Kerry’s shoot-for-the-stars negotiations with Abbas are serving as the most dangerous distraction of all. 

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The Growing Acceptance of the Assad Regime’s Survival

On the last day of last year, the Wall Street Journal ran a powerful indictment of President Obama’s Syria policy. No, it wasn’t an editorial or op-ed (although the Journal has run plenty of those too). Rather, this was a news article by Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, and the indictment was delivered not by the president’s political adversaries but by his own officials, particularly in the intelligence community.

The article explains that the intelligence agencies have retracted their previous assessments that it was only a matter of time before Bashar Assad fell–a staple of the president’s own rhetoric from the start of the full-blown uprising in 2011 until early 2013. No longer. In 2013 Iran and Hezbollah increased their commitment to Assad while the U.S. and its allies made no comparable commitment to the rebels, preferring instead to strike a deal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons–while he goes right on pulverizing the opposition and any civilians unlucky enough to be caught in his indiscriminate attacks. The result:

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On the last day of last year, the Wall Street Journal ran a powerful indictment of President Obama’s Syria policy. No, it wasn’t an editorial or op-ed (although the Journal has run plenty of those too). Rather, this was a news article by Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, and the indictment was delivered not by the president’s political adversaries but by his own officials, particularly in the intelligence community.

The article explains that the intelligence agencies have retracted their previous assessments that it was only a matter of time before Bashar Assad fell–a staple of the president’s own rhetoric from the start of the full-blown uprising in 2011 until early 2013. No longer. In 2013 Iran and Hezbollah increased their commitment to Assad while the U.S. and its allies made no comparable commitment to the rebels, preferring instead to strike a deal for Assad to give up his chemical weapons–while he goes right on pulverizing the opposition and any civilians unlucky enough to be caught in his indiscriminate attacks. The result:

The intelligence assessments that once showed Mr. Assad on the verge of defeat now say he could remain in power for the foreseeable future in key parts of the country bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. doesn’t think he will be able to retake the whole country again, U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Areas outside his control are fracturing into warring enclaves along ethnic and sectarian lines, abutting a new al Qaeda-affiliated haven that sweeps from Syria into Iraq.

There was nothing inevitable about this division of Syria between Shiite and Sunni extremists, as I have been arguing for some time. It came about because the Iranians went all-in and the U.S. didn’t. As the Journal notes: “Through it all, U.S. intelligence and military officers watched the evolution with alarm from the sidelines, at least one step behind developments on the ground.” Thanks to this American hesitancy and confusion, the article notes, quoting “a longtime American diplomat in the region,” it now looks “like Messrs. Assad, Nasrallah and Soleimani have ‘won’.”

The flip side of a victory for Assad and his patrons in Hezbollah and Tehran is that the U.S. has lost. Obama’s defeat in Syria hasn’t been nearly as costly, at least so far, in American blood or treasure as President Bush’s temporary defeat in Iraq, from 2003 to 2007–but it is likely to prove more enduring and more damaging to American interests in the region because there is no “surge” on the horizon to save the day. In Syria the situation is likely to go from grim to grimmer, and drag down fragile neighboring states, notably Iraq and Lebanon, along with it into the vortex of sectarian bloodletting.

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Who Cares if Assad Gave the Order?

The Obama administration appears convinced that the Syrian regime rather than the opposition conducted the chemical-weapons strike on East Ghouta. The basis for the administration’s conclusion appears to be intercepted communication, method of delivery, and the behavior of the Syrian government after the fact.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, denies the attack, and German intelligence suggests the president himself did not order the attacks. If that is true does it exculpate Assad and should it immunize him from retaliation?

The answer to that is: absolutely not. Too often, rogue regimes seek to maintain plausible deniability. They seek to strike their targets, and then throw up enough smoke in order to avoid accountability.

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The Obama administration appears convinced that the Syrian regime rather than the opposition conducted the chemical-weapons strike on East Ghouta. The basis for the administration’s conclusion appears to be intercepted communication, method of delivery, and the behavior of the Syrian government after the fact.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, denies the attack, and German intelligence suggests the president himself did not order the attacks. If that is true does it exculpate Assad and should it immunize him from retaliation?

The answer to that is: absolutely not. Too often, rogue regimes seek to maintain plausible deniability. They seek to strike their targets, and then throw up enough smoke in order to avoid accountability.

Take Iran, for example. In 1982, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini moved the Office of Liberation Movements—the predecessor to the Qods Force—from Tehran and into the home of Grand Ayatollah Husayn Ali Montazeri. If the group operated from a private house, then the Iranian government could shrug its collective shoulders every time it sponsored a terrorist attack and claim that the government itself had no responsibility.

In 1989, the West debated Iranian culpability for the murders in downtown Vienna of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, a dissident Iranian Kurd, and his entire delegation. The Austrian police let the hit squad go, and the perpetrators later received promotions in Tehran and within the Qods Force for a job well done.

Senior Iranian officials also plotted the 1992 Mykonos Café assassinations in Berlin and the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires the same year. Two years later, it was the AMIA bombing, and two years later Khobar Towers. In each case, the Iranians sought to maintain plausible deniability. The same holds true for whether or not the Iranian leadership gave Hezbollah a direct order in 2006 to launch its war with Israel. Never mind that Hezbollah terrorists are trained by–and in some cases in–Iran, utilize Iranian weaponry, and—as I saw at the Hezbollah museum in Mlitta, Lebanon—have photographs of Ayatollahs Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei in their bunkers.

For too long, American policymakers have looked for reasons to exculpate dictators rather than hold them to account. It is behavior Iran and its allies know well, and from which they seek full advantage. How ironic it is that the same U.S. government which would hold parents responsible for unsecured guns or for providing alcohol to a minor who subsequently gets into an accident would bend over backwards to avoid punishing a dictator who acquires chemical weapons which have only a single purpose. When a regime uses chemical weapons, there should be no mitigating factors. Let’s put the carefully constructed myth of Assad as a Western educated eye doctor or reformer to bed. He is one thing only: a murderer. It is time to hold Assad personally accountable.

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The Consequences of Syrian Chaos

The firing of four rockets from Lebanon into Northern Israel today immediately set off speculation that Hezbollah might be looking to distract its supporters from the debacle in Syria that many are calling the terrorist group’s “Vietnam.” However, that thesis was soon to be discredited. Rather than the signal for another round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, it appears the attack was something else entirely. According to the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, the incident was a “one-time event” rather than the latest chapter in the long history of conflict with Hezbollah. But that news shouldn’t provide much comfort for Israelis or Westerners concerned about the instability in the Middle East.  While some experts are dismissing this as an example of how a small jihadist group fires off a few missiles “to show that they exist,” there is another more sinister interpretation.

If the rockets were the work of a Salafist Sunni terror organization operating out of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, this may be a sign that Hezbollah’s iron grip on the region may be slipping. While anything that weakens a group that is a vital ally of Iran and a perennial adversary of Israel may be thought of as a good thing, the ability of such a group to act with impunity in this manner may be a sign that the war in Syria isn’t just weakening Hezbollah; the chaos there is spreading with unknown consequences but which is likely to lead to more violence against Israel and more blood spilled on both sides of the border.

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The firing of four rockets from Lebanon into Northern Israel today immediately set off speculation that Hezbollah might be looking to distract its supporters from the debacle in Syria that many are calling the terrorist group’s “Vietnam.” However, that thesis was soon to be discredited. Rather than the signal for another round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, it appears the attack was something else entirely. According to the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, the incident was a “one-time event” rather than the latest chapter in the long history of conflict with Hezbollah. But that news shouldn’t provide much comfort for Israelis or Westerners concerned about the instability in the Middle East.  While some experts are dismissing this as an example of how a small jihadist group fires off a few missiles “to show that they exist,” there is another more sinister interpretation.

If the rockets were the work of a Salafist Sunni terror organization operating out of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, this may be a sign that Hezbollah’s iron grip on the region may be slipping. While anything that weakens a group that is a vital ally of Iran and a perennial adversary of Israel may be thought of as a good thing, the ability of such a group to act with impunity in this manner may be a sign that the war in Syria isn’t just weakening Hezbollah; the chaos there is spreading with unknown consequences but which is likely to lead to more violence against Israel and more blood spilled on both sides of the border.

The rules that once seemed to govern the combatants in the region may be breaking down. As vicious as Hezbollah may be toward both Lebanese opponents and Israelis, it chose to observe the cease-fire that has existed along the border with the Jewish state since 2006. The reason for that is that an organization that was more intent on consolidating its influence in Beirut and aiding Iran’s effort to bolster the Assad regime in Syria understood those interests would be damaged by daring the Israelis to retaliate for attacks on its people. Though Israelis look back at the 2006 Lebanon War as a disaster because of the inept leadership of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF as well as for the devastating impact of Hezbollah rocket barrages on northern Israel, the Lebanese wanted no rerun of the ferocious Israeli efforts to take out the terrorist group’s infrastructure. Similarly, the government of Syria kept the cease-fire lines with Israel quiet since 1973 lest it be humiliated by the spectacle of yet another defeat at the hands of the IDF.

Though with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war against Syrian rebels, the virtual collapse of that country is breaking down any semblance of stability. As the Times of Israel speculates today, the regime’s use of barbarous tactics against opponents such as the reports of chemical weapons being used outside Damascus could influence Syrian Sunnis and their allies in Lebanon to strike out in any direction in a vain attempt to gain revenge for the atrocity. And that means that “when all else fails, target Israel.”

Due to anti-missile batteries like the Iron Dome system, Israel’s ability to deal with such attacks is greater than it was in the past. One of the four rockets fired by the jihadists was reportedly shot down by Israel fire. But the kind of chaos that may have produced this incident will also test Jerusalem’s intelligence capabilities and make it harder to know where to deploy the few such batteries. Moreover, the goal of the jihadists is not just to strike blindly at the Jews. They hope to start an exchange of fire that will prompt Hezbollah to escalate the fighting and start another war.

This is just one more consequence of the Western decision not to deal with the Syrian problem two years ago when it could have been resolved cheaply and without ceding half the country to the control of groups that may have links to al-Qaeda. The costs of America choosing to lead from behind may be just starting to add up.

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Hezbollah Feels Unappreciated

Last month, I wrote about one misguided response to the European Union’s decision to blacklist the “military wing” of Hezbollah: the concern by a Mideast analyst that Hezbollah would cease being a “stabilizing” force in Lebanon in a fit of pique. I objected that, first, Hezbollah was not actually a stabilizing force in Lebanon because the article concerned spillover into Lebanon from the war in Syria, a conflagration Hezbollah was actively feeding by fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s forces and thus Lebanon was absorbing retribution, not provocation.

Second, I criticized the flawed logic that held that appeasing Hezbollah could keep the group from carrying out attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere when that is exactly what Hezbollah has already been doing for decades, because that is the group’s raison d’être. But apparently, though not entirely unsurprisingly, the belief in the power of appeasement is present among media covering the international force tasked with trying to keep the peace (and Hezbollah in check) in southern Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The Financial Times reports that the decision has left “some observers even fearing for the peacekeepers’ safety.” Those “observers” are mostly absent from the report, and UNIFIL commanders deny there’s an issue. So do Hezbollah representatives, but the Financial Times isn’t so sure:

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Last month, I wrote about one misguided response to the European Union’s decision to blacklist the “military wing” of Hezbollah: the concern by a Mideast analyst that Hezbollah would cease being a “stabilizing” force in Lebanon in a fit of pique. I objected that, first, Hezbollah was not actually a stabilizing force in Lebanon because the article concerned spillover into Lebanon from the war in Syria, a conflagration Hezbollah was actively feeding by fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s forces and thus Lebanon was absorbing retribution, not provocation.

Second, I criticized the flawed logic that held that appeasing Hezbollah could keep the group from carrying out attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere when that is exactly what Hezbollah has already been doing for decades, because that is the group’s raison d’être. But apparently, though not entirely unsurprisingly, the belief in the power of appeasement is present among media covering the international force tasked with trying to keep the peace (and Hezbollah in check) in southern Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. The Financial Times reports that the decision has left “some observers even fearing for the peacekeepers’ safety.” Those “observers” are mostly absent from the report, and UNIFIL commanders deny there’s an issue. So do Hezbollah representatives, but the Financial Times isn’t so sure:

However, even if Hizbollah as an organisation has decided not to turn up the heat on European peacekeepers, villagers angered by the decision might confront a Unifil convoy, Mr Goksel said. And extremist groups known to operate in the south might take advantage of the situation to launch an attack on Unifil, a Lebanese security official said.

The security environment in the south is murky, and two years ago, unknown assailants targeted French and Italian peacekeepers. More than a dozen were wounded by three roadside bombs.

Yes, the security situation there is “murky”–if only there were an international force on the ground to keep things in order! Perhaps there’s money in the UN budget for a peacekeeping force to protect the peacekeeping force from threats the Financial Times says lurk in shadows. Of course, UNIFIL has a history of watching Hezbollah rearm for another potential conflict with Israel, so it well knows who Hezbollah’s weapons are aimed at anyway.

Sitting on the sidelines, however, might be better than what UNIFIL tends to do in times of war. In 2006, UNIFIL posted Israeli troop movements on its website, a helpful guide for Hezbollah to follow if it wanted to know where Israeli reinforcements might turn up. (After the war in 2006, I called a UNIFIL official on the ground in south Lebanon to ask him what they were thinking. He claimed they were only copying what the IDF was doing, but a simple comparison of the two websites debunked the excuse.)

Those who claim that UNIFIL might as well formally take sides against Israel instead of feigning neutrality are usually dismissed as cranks. But actually, that’s how Hezbollah sees it. The Financial Times explains why Hezbollah’s supporters were so disappointed in the EU’s terror designation:

In Hizbollah’s eyes, the foreign troops in the country’s south that were bulked up after the 2006 war are under their protection. Though the peacekeepers are supposed to help the Lebanese army curb Hizbollah’s military activities in the south, their mandate to enforce this is limited. The force, meanwhile, and particularly the Europeans in it, provides Hizbollah with a buffer against future Israeli attacks.

The EU designation has tested Hizbollah’s relationship with Unifil. “We as locals in the south treated the Unifil like sacred guests – we protected them,” says Ali Ahmed Zawi, the pro-Hizbollah mayor of one south Lebanon village. “What do they do in return? Put us on the terrorist list.”

That is an actual quote, though the whole thing reads like a parody. Hezbollah thinks UNIFIL is like a litter of strays taken in by the magnanimous Hassan Nasrallah. In Nasrallah’s mind, the roles are inverted: Hezbollah is the humanitarian relief agency keeping the peace. And this is the thanks he gets!

It’s worth pointing out here that some observers saw all this coming a mile away. As Benny Avni wrote in the New York Sun in October 2006, it took only a couple months for the pessimists’ fears to be confirmed. Here is how he described the concerns of the naysayers who were soon vindicated:

Back then, pessimists said an international force would need to maintain close ties and avoid confrontation with Shiite supporters of Hezbollah if it were to succeed. Consequently, the beefed-up U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon would hinder Israel’s ability to carry pinpoint operations across the border. Hezbollah would gain an ally, while the Israeli army would face a new obstacle.

This was one of what Avni called “worst-case scenarios.” But notice how this went from worst-case scenario to reality to Hezbollah’s revisionist history of the intent and mission of the force. Hezbollah thinks they took UNIFIL under their wing and developed a rapport based on mutual cooperation and appreciation. The problem is not that the EU’s terror designation disrupted that fantasy, but that UNIFIL ever let that fantasy take root in the first place.

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No, Hezbollah Isn’t a “Stabilizing” Force

Although last year’s terrorist attack in Bulgaria against Jewish tourists served to renew the pressure on the European Union to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the civil war in Syria seemed all along to be a more significant catalyst for EU action. European countries had been pressing the U.S. for more assistance to the Syrian rebels while the U.S. had been pressing European officials to blacklist Hezbollah. Both efforts had some success: the EU blacklisted Hezbollah’s “military wing,” while the Obama administration has signaled it will increase help to the rebels.

Hezbollah has been fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad, and the West’s desire to see the fall of the house of Assad convinced both the EU and the U.S. to take steps toward that end. But in an essay at Foreign Policy’s website, RAND analyst Julie Taylor makes an unconventional–and, in the end, terribly unconvincing–argument: leave Hezbollah alone, because you won’t like them when they’re angry. Taylor’s case rests on the idea that Hezbollah is showing restraint and maintaining a precarious, mostly nonviolent, state of affairs within Lebanon. Push them too far, and they’ll be tempted to show their strength, Hezbollah-style:

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Although last year’s terrorist attack in Bulgaria against Jewish tourists served to renew the pressure on the European Union to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the civil war in Syria seemed all along to be a more significant catalyst for EU action. European countries had been pressing the U.S. for more assistance to the Syrian rebels while the U.S. had been pressing European officials to blacklist Hezbollah. Both efforts had some success: the EU blacklisted Hezbollah’s “military wing,” while the Obama administration has signaled it will increase help to the rebels.

Hezbollah has been fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad, and the West’s desire to see the fall of the house of Assad convinced both the EU and the U.S. to take steps toward that end. But in an essay at Foreign Policy’s website, RAND analyst Julie Taylor makes an unconventional–and, in the end, terribly unconvincing–argument: leave Hezbollah alone, because you won’t like them when they’re angry. Taylor’s case rests on the idea that Hezbollah is showing restraint and maintaining a precarious, mostly nonviolent, state of affairs within Lebanon. Push them too far, and they’ll be tempted to show their strength, Hezbollah-style:

Between the continued bloodshed in Syria and the military takeover in Egypt, it might be easy to overlook recent events in Lebanon. But Middle East watchers need to keep a sharp eye on the current turmoil in Lebanon because spillover from Syria could cause the security situation to flame up quickly into a full-scale sectarian civil war. Several stabilizing factors have kept the situation in Lebanon from escalating out of control, one of these being Hezbollah’s resistance to being drawn into conflict with other Lebanese. However, recent attacks on Hezbollah interests, coupled with the EU’s decision this week to blacklist the organization, are backing Hezbollah into a corner. Feeling its position in Lebanon to be under threat, the organization may change course, and decide to take up the fight against its domestic rivals. 

It should be clear why Taylor’s argument is at a disadvantage right off the bat. Taylor’s line of reasoning is based on speculation of what Hezbollah might do, while the U.S. and EU have based their actions against Hezbollah on what the terror group has already done. It doesn’t make much sense to fret that Hezbollah might get violent when this entire scenario is plausible because of the violence Hezbollah has recently been engaged in.

It’s not like Hezbollah is the victim of a witch hunt in Europe. The group has been implicated in terrorist attacks on the continent, and the EU is simply attempting to take modest steps to defend its soil. Of course, Taylor is specifically concerned with Hezbollah lashing out in Lebanon if pushed out of Europe. But the Europeans can hardly be expected to defenselessly accept and absorb Hezbollah’s murderous pursuits in the hopes that the terror group gets it out of their system by killing Europeans and feels no need to kill (more) Lebanese.

And Hezbollah, as Taylor concedes in the article, is not exactly a bystander to violence in the region right now. Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Assad’s forces is widely credited with helping Assad’s forces turn the tide and gain back the momentum by winning crucial battles. Hezbollah is therefore doing its part to keep the war in Syria going and to help Assad believe he doesn’t need to surrender or accept a negotiated exit. It is that violence that is spilling over the border into Lebanon, and it is violence that is fueled by Hezbollah itself.

As Taylor writes:

Lebanese territory is increasingly becoming an extension of the Syrian battle zone: the Syrian army is firing on villages along the border and the FSA is firing rockets into Shiite areas, including Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut. There are inter-communal kidnappings both for profit and revenge for actions occurring in Syria. Assassinations, especially of Hezbollah members and Assad supporters, have become commonplace.

Need it even be said that the EU’s watered-down blacklisting is not to blame for this? Elsewhere, Taylor says that the war could provoke renewed fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. But Israel has already blacklisted Hezbollah, and that certainly didn’t stop the terror group from touching off the Second Lebanon War against Israel in 2006. The plain fact is, Hezbollah commits terrorism because it is a terrorist group. It will always attempt to justify its actions, and Western countries should not fall into the easy trap of pretending Hezbollah won’t find a casus belli if it decides it needs one.

Finally, there is another benefit of the EU’s decision to restrict Hezbollah’s operations in Europe. As Herb Keinon reports in the Jerusalem Post, in order to enforce its blacklisting of Hezbollah, European countries are now receiving the necessary intelligence briefings from Israel. That means countries such as Germany, France, and Spain are now improving their antiterrorism capabilities. Though Britain already worked with Israel in that capacity, any weak link in the EU would threaten the rest of the continent. They are now better prepared to protect their citizens thanks to “backing Hezbollah into a corner,” where they belong.

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Keeping Friends Close, Frenemies Closer?

It can be confusing enough to make policy according to the creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the enemy of your enemy is also the enemy of your friend? Or when an entity starts out as your enemy but then becomes the enemy of your enemy? Is there such a thing as a frenemy in international relations? (It does have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, after all.)

Those are, thanks to the Levant’s general descent into violent chaos, not hypothetical questions. As Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote earlier today, the European Union has finally designated as a terrorist organization Hezbollah’s “military wing.” Though this was a modest–and, quite possibly, ineffectual–step, it was the culmination of years of prodding from countries that already ban Hezbollah, such as the United States. The U.S. considers Hezbollah our enemy. But last week, the lines blurred a bit, as McClatchy reported:

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It can be confusing enough to make policy according to the creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the enemy of your enemy is also the enemy of your friend? Or when an entity starts out as your enemy but then becomes the enemy of your enemy? Is there such a thing as a frenemy in international relations? (It does have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, after all.)

Those are, thanks to the Levant’s general descent into violent chaos, not hypothetical questions. As Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote earlier today, the European Union has finally designated as a terrorist organization Hezbollah’s “military wing.” Though this was a modest–and, quite possibly, ineffectual–step, it was the culmination of years of prodding from countries that already ban Hezbollah, such as the United States. The U.S. considers Hezbollah our enemy. But last week, the lines blurred a bit, as McClatchy reported:

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.

The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said. …

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment or to allow the CIA station chief for Lebanon to be interviewed. A CIA official in the United States said the agency would have no comment. Conveying such a warning to the Lebanese government when civilian lives might be at risk would be a normal procedure, people familiar with CIA procedures said.

Hezbollah is our enemy–but so are al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But al-Qaeda and its affiliates are also friends of our friends, and enemies of our enemies, inside Syria. Al-Qaeda has also been known to cooperate with Hezbollah, which would make them the friend of our enemy. Context is everything, I suppose.

The argument that can and has been made is that the U.S. is nervous about the spillover from Syria and the spread of sectarian violence into Lebanon. Fair enough. But the McClatchy report (if correct) notes that the CIA not only sent warnings to Hezbollah but also “other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria.” Wouldn’t that include, quite prominently, the Syrian regime and forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad? Isn’t that Hezbollah’s most notable ally in Syria?

Additionally, when the president initially chose to aid the rebels in Syria, the administration did so through Qatari and Saudi intermediaries, who then empowered the more radical Islamist elements. What does it say about the attempt to help the anti-Assad forces that it ended up empowering figures we now consider to be worse than Hezbollah? Entrusting Qatar turned out to have been something of a bad bet. At this point, it very well might be too late to help the moderates take control of rebel forces. But according to Sunday’s New York Times, intelligence officials aren’t so sure:

The comments by David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, were one of the strongest public warnings about how the civil war in Syria has deteriorated, and he seemed to imply that the response from the United States and its allies had so far been lacking.

Mr. Shedd suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition — which the Obama administration has promised to arm with weapons and ammunition — the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. But he did not say how that could be accomplished.

He did not say how it could be accomplished most likely because no one has any idea how it could be accomplished. “Directly confront more radical Islamist elements” is euphemistic language. What it means is: defeat the more radical Islamist elements. A sustained effort to do so inside Syria would probably have us simultaneously supporting the “good” rebels while fighting the “bad” rebels who are fighting against our other enemy, the Assad regime, and a third enemy, Hezbollah.

We would then be protecting Hezbollah from the “bad” rebels while trying to protect other groups, especially in Lebanon, from Hezbollah, all the while working in Europe to blacklist Hezbollah, whom we’re protecting from the friends of our friends in Syria. I admire the optimism, if not the good sense, of anyone who thinks this sounds like something the Obama foreign policy triumvirate of John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chuck Hagel can pull off.

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EU’s Moral Confusion on Terrorism

Today, the European Union decided to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terror list. This is a welcome, if belated, step, given that it took the EU a whole year after Hezbollah conducted a murderous operation on European soil to take action.

It is also a sign of the moral confusion reigning over EU Middle East foreign policy.

You will be shocked to know that a Google search for “red brigades” and “armed wing” will not yield much. Same for “IRA” and “armed wing.” Or Baader-Mainhof group and the same. Can you imagine, for example, a 1979 headline from an Italian daily announcing that the European Economic Community (the precursor to the European Union) had finally deliberated, a year after the Italian Red Brigades had kidnapped and murdered a former prime minister, that only their armed wing deserved to be called a terrorist group?

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Today, the European Union decided to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terror list. This is a welcome, if belated, step, given that it took the EU a whole year after Hezbollah conducted a murderous operation on European soil to take action.

It is also a sign of the moral confusion reigning over EU Middle East foreign policy.

You will be shocked to know that a Google search for “red brigades” and “armed wing” will not yield much. Same for “IRA” and “armed wing.” Or Baader-Mainhof group and the same. Can you imagine, for example, a 1979 headline from an Italian daily announcing that the European Economic Community (the precursor to the European Union) had finally deliberated, a year after the Italian Red Brigades had kidnapped and murdered a former prime minister, that only their armed wing deserved to be called a terrorist group?

Granted, the EEC powers were more limited back then. But Europeans never found it as difficult to look at terror organizations and call them by their name. They did not waste time in intellectual contortionism and rhetorical hair splitting about what these organizations were–or what their members engaged in. The IRA, ETA, the Red Brigades, and the entire array of murderous groups from the extreme left and the extreme right of the European political spectrum became terrorists the minute they impugned a weapon and sought to achieve their political goals by murdering their adversaries and occasionally killing civilians indiscriminately. That those who gave the orders may have sat in an elected body, worked as members of a respectable profession, or served as the heads of a charitable foundation mattered little.

It took no great wisdom to see that the hand that held the gun and the mind that guided it were one and the same thing–that there was an inseparable, organic link between the ideologues who provided moral, intellectual, and political justification for violence, which in turn guided the violent executioners’ actions.

Similarly, there is no trace in newspaper clips or court proceedings for an “armed wing” of the mob or an “armed wing” of the drug cartels, which are somehow distinct, in terms of “command responsibility” from the rest of the organization. Mob hit man Giovanni Brusca, one of the Corleone clan’s most ruthless killers, did not somehow belong to the “armed wing” of the mafia, where he killed people unbeknownst to the otherwise charitable dons. The Mexican Zetas certainly have a military wing–more like an army of gruesome murderers–and it is certainly integral to the entire organization and its aims. Whether the Zetas or the mob provide a pension to their family members or send them to good doctors is immaterial to the way we understand these groups, their aims, and their methods. Nor are their business interests somehow classified into “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” Whether it’s drug trafficking or money laundering through art and real estate, we call it criminal, because … well, it is criminal.

But the EU sticks to its own imagined distinction when it comes to radical Islamic groups engaged in terrorist activities. Though you will be hard pressed to find reference to an armed wing of Hezbollah within Hezbollah, such references abound in the Western press. It is a convenient way to avoid having to tackle the problem of Hezbollah–a proxy of the Iranian regime whose ideology justifies the use of violence for political ends and whose entire structure thus serves the purpose of carrying out such violence.

All this, of course, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good–better sanctions against a legal fiction than no sanctions at all, if the former have more real consequences than the latter.

But longer term, the EU will prove itself yet again ineffectual in the Middle East unless it is prepared to exercise moral clarity and recognize that the “armed wing” of Hezbollah is not a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand does–more like a case of a division of labor within an organization where the military wing executes the vision of its political leadership.

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EU Effort to Blacklist Hezbollah Fails

Here’s an interesting headline’s role reversal:

“The EU lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–plausible but false.

“The Gulf Security Council designates Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–implausible but true.

Europe’s failure to list Hezbollah as a terror organization is a byproduct of its inability to change its world view on the Middle East even after the harsh reality check of the last two years.

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Here’s an interesting headline’s role reversal:

“The EU lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–plausible but false.

“The Gulf Security Council designates Hezbollah as a terrorist organization”–implausible but true.

Europe’s failure to list Hezbollah as a terror organization is a byproduct of its inability to change its world view on the Middle East even after the harsh reality check of the last two years.

As if to embarrass the EU more, there’s also Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, who after breaking diplomatic relations with Syria last week stated that “Hezbollah must leave Syria; there is no place for Hezbollah in Syria.”

The Arab world’s more decisive action may not have been determined by either moral clarity or a principled stance–not, at least, in the way we would understand those terms to be. Still, the Sunni powers can tell friend from foe; know the price of losing; and are prepare to put their money where their mouth is.

Europe can’t even do that.

Is it any wonder that, foreign aid aside, the EU matters little in the Middle East?

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Yes, Assad Can Be Defeated

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.

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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.

We’ve seen these debates before, and there is no reason to think they will have a different outcome than in the past. Now, instead of assuming that there is nothing we need do to bring Assad down, many in the administration will no doubt assume there is nothing that we can do. Odds are we will continue to drift along in a fog of indecision even as Iran and Hezbollah continue their massive, and so far successful, intervention on Assad’s side.

Personally, I never believed that Assad’s downfall was assured in the past and I don’t believe his continuation in power is assured now. If the U.S. and our allies–Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France, Jordan, and others–were to step up aid to the rebels, providing everything from air cover to arms, the balance of power would tip against Assad again.

The argument against doing this–besides a general war-weariness and non-interventionism which has taken root in this administration–is that we would be aiding the kinds of extremists who execute a teenager for a casual mention of the Prophet. But of course a big part of the reason why extremists have taken a leading role in the rebellion is that the U.S. has done so little to help the more moderate factions. I still believe it is not too late to tip the balance of power not only between Assad and the rebels but also between rebel factions, empowering the more mainstream groups and draining power from the Al Nusrah Front and its ilk.

The intervention of Hezbollah into the conflict has only added more compelling reasons for action. As Lee Smith has noted in the Weekly Standard, the U.S. has a lot of scores to settle with Hezbollah stretching all the way back to its murderous bombings of our embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon in the 1980s. This is a perfect opportunity to settle accounts and in the process weaken this Iranian proxy movement. Syrian rebels are fighting hard against Hezbollah and inflicted serious losses on Hezbollah fighters in Quasayr. They will inflict more losses in the future if only we would provide them the means to do so.

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Hezbollah’s European Appeasers

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.

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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.

It should be noted that the Bulgarian switch is not the result of the emergence of new evidence about the attack or even a change of heart by Hezbollah, whose terrorist cadres are now fighting in Syria to try and save the faltering Bashar Assad regime, another Iranian ally. There is no more doubt today that Burgas was the work of Hezbollah than there was in the days after the attack when the identities of the terrorists were revealed. It is simply the result of a political party coming to power that is hostile to the United States and friendlier to Russia and therefore determined to undermine any effort to forge a united European response to Middle East-based Islamist terror.

It is to be hoped that Britain, aided by the diplomatic efforts of France and Germany, will ultimately prevail in the European Commission and Hezbollah will be listed as a terror group by the EU. But the Bulgarian announcement is a discouraging reminder of the fact that international unity on terrorism is illusory. The willingness of some Europeans, whether acting out of sympathy for the Islamists or antipathy for Israel and the Untied States, to treat Hezbollah terrorists as somehow belonging to a different, less awful category of criminal than those who might primarily target other Westerners is a victory for the Islamists as well as a crucial defeat for the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

After years of trying to appease Russia, the administration has discovered that all of the talk of rebooting relations from both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry achieved nothing. Moscow is actively seeking to thwart the West on the question of the survival of the Assad regime and also willing to have its friends elsewhere in Europe stick up for Hezbollah.

The effort to appease Hezbollah is not only a sign of Russian influence but also a signal to Iran that many in Europe are untroubled by its terrorist campaign against Israel. That alone is worrisome. But, as history teaches us, the costs of appeasement are far-reaching. Those who are untroubled by Hezbollah’s murders of Jews in Bulgaria or Cyprus may soon find that the vipers they seek to ignore will one day bite them too.

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Iran Has No Territorial Ambitions? Tell It to Lebanon and Syria

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.

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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.

The takeover of Lebanon was completed in 2008, when Iran’s wholly-owned Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah, staged an armed occupation of Beirut to reverse two government decisions (the government had planned to dismantle Hezbollah’s independent telecommunications network and dismiss an airport security official who facilitated Iranian arms shipments to the organization). Hezbollah removed its troops only after the government signed a power-sharing deal that effectively gave the organization a veto over all government decisions.

Now, Iran is trying to annex Syria. As Lee Smith noted in the Weekly Standard, not only is it arming and training President Bashar Assad’s forces, both regular and irregular, but it has also sent Hezbollah, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias and units of its own Revolutionary Guards Corps to join his fight against the Sunni rebels. Add in the billions of dollars it has given Assad to prop up his regime, and it’s clear that if he survives, Syria will be another wholly-owned Iranian subsidiary.

Nor does Iran hide that this is its goal. As one senior Iranian cleric helpfully explained in February, “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [in western Iran], the priority for us is to keep Syria….If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

Yet Rand’s analyst simply ignored all these developments, blithely asserting that Iran “does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations” even as it has already effected an armed conquest of Lebanon and is pouring in troops in an effort to do the same in Syria.

The Rand paper is a particularly egregious example of an all-too-common phenomenon. Media reports, for instance, still frequently assert that Hezbollah’s main mission is fighting Israel, making its role in the Syrian civil war a surprising departure. Fifteen years ago, that was a reasonable theory. Yet by now, it should be obvious that Hezbollah’s main mission is furthering its Iranian master’s interests–which often means fighting Israel, but currently means fighting Syrian Sunnis. Seen from that perspective, Hezbollah’s role in Syria isn’t the least surprising.

Scholars and journalists are supposed to help leaders understand world events. But by clinging to outdated paradigms, they often end up obfuscating events instead. 

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France’s Outrageous Double Standard on Hezbollah and Terrorism

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.

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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.

Indeed, until now, France has consistently billed Hezbollah as a legitimate political force that contributes to stability in the Levant. That was always nonsensical: Starting a war with your southern neighbor that devastates large swathes of your own country, as Hezbollah did in 2006, is not exactly stabilizing behavior. But apparently, in France’s view, fighting Israel does contribute to Middle East stability: It’s only because Hezbollah is now fighting Syrians instead that Paris suddenly sees the organization as a destabilizing force.

If other European countries think the same thing, they had the decency not to say it aloud. Germany, for instance, said it has reversed its longstanding opposition to blacklisting Hezbollah due to evidence that the organization was behind last summer’s terror attack in Bulgaria, which killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian, and had been collecting information in Cyprus in preparation for additional terror attacks against Israelis and Jews on European soil. I’m no fan of the German approach, which essentially says terrorism is fine as long as you keep it out of Europe, but there’s nothing anti-Semitic about it; it’s perfectly normal for Europeans to care more about attacks on European soil than they do about attacks in the Middle East.

France, in contrast, has just said it cares deeply about attacks in the Middle East–but only if they’re directed against (non-Israeli) Muslims. You want to kill Jews in the Middle East? Go right ahead, says France: We’ll even help you do it, by keeping you off the EU’s list of terrorist organizations and thereby ensuring that you can fund-raise freely on our territory. Just don’t make the mistake of turning your arms on Muslims instead.

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A Terror Blacklist in Name Only?

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:

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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:

“In the light of discussions we have had with our partners following the terrorist attack in Burgas, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle supports listing at least the military wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in the EU,” the officials said.

“The German position is based on an increasingly clearer picture of the facts and on the progress achieved by Cypriot authorities in analyzing terrorist activities,” they continued. “Minister Westerwelle hopes that the necessary consultations within the EU can be concluded rapidly.”

That report focuses the change of heart on the terrorist attack carried out last summer in Bulgaria on a bus of Israeli tourists. Initial signs pointed to Iran and Hezbollah, which are partners in global terror, and that was confirmed by the subsequent investigation which determined Hezbollah’s culpability.

The mention of Cypriot authorities is a reference to the recent revelations of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus that showed the pervasive presence of the terror group in Europe. But even after the Bulgaria attack and the Cyprus case, there seemed to be hesitation to take any steps against Hezbollah. I noted in February a sickening quote from a German magazine editor who said officials were afraid that if they took action against Hezbollah the group might target non-Jews.

Additionally, the Journal article notes the concern of some EU officials that since Hezbollah is a powerful political presence in Lebanon, blacklisting them “could undermine a fragile peace in Lebanon.” That’s unlikely, but it at least gets closer geographically to the answer, which the EU Observer points to:

Its support for the Syrian regime has further blackened its name.

Up to 6,000 Hezbollah fighters are said to be in Damascus, where they guard the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque, and in the Syrian towns of Homs and Qusayr near the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Hezbollah is currently serving as a ruthless standing army for Bashar al-Assad in his murderous quest to hang on to power in Syria. As I noted earlier Monday, that in itself will destabilize Lebanon–or, more accurately, stabilize Lebanon more firmly under Hezbollah/Syrian/Iranian control. Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war has thus removed one EU excuse not to blacklist the group and added a very good reason to outlaw them.

The Journal reports that the next step will be an EU-wide closed-door meeting in early June. Britain is pairing this move with one intended to make it easier to aid the Syrian rebels. Blacklisting Hezbollah’s military wing would be a step in the right direction, though as the New York Times reports, it would almost surely be a vastly weaker step–and more difficult to enforce–than an outright ban:

Still, many experts question the strategy of simply taking aim at Hezbollah’s military wing, arguing that it is impossible to separate the part of the organization that engages in politics and social services from the group’s large armed militia. Moreover, if only the so-called military wing is blacklisted, the group might still be able raise money in Europe under the banner of politics.

The Times then quotes a foreign affairs expert casting doubt on the efficacy of just listing the military wing. The separation between the military and political wings exists on paper, but it’s unclear if it goes much farther. If it doesn’t, then the blacklist would also only exist on paper. And the consequences of not effectively confronting Hezbollah’s activities have unfortunately been made all too clear in Europe, the Middle East, and around the world.

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U.S. Must Exploit Hezbollah’s Vulnerability

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.

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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.

Hezbollah is thus suffering a loss of credibility and prestige, especially among the Sunni majority in the Arab world which sympathizes with the largely Sunni Syrian insurgency battling against a minority Alawite regime. Hezbollah is seen not as a pan-Arab army but as a sectarian, pro-Shiite force. That is a vulnerability that the U.S. and its allies should exploit to try to loosen Hezbollah’s death grip on Lebanese politics.

In this regard it would help enormously if Hezbollah were not successful in its efforts to keep the Assad regime in power. A failed intervention in Syria would do tremendous damage to its standing in Lebanon, while a successful intervention would allow it to maintain its grip on power by safeguarding the arms pipeline flowing from Tehran via Damascus.

That makes it all the more imperative that the U.S. do more to ensure that Hezbollah loses in Syria–not only by providing arms to vetted rebel factions but also by employing our airpower to ground Assad’s air force and thus removing a crucial regime advantage. Time is slipping away as Assad recovers on the battlefield. If we don’t act now, the Tehran-Damascus-Bekaa axis (the Bekaa Valley is the birthplace of Hezbollah) could emerge stronger than ever.

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Assad’s Fall Is Far from Inevitable

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.

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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.

“Meanwhile,” Sly writes, “the regime can still call on its conventional superiority to project its power into areas where the rebels hold sway on the ground, including air strikes, ballistic missiles and artillery. And unlike the rebel force, which has received only sporadic supplies of relatively low-caliber weaponry from its reluctant Western and Arab allies, Assad’s military can count on steady supplies of arms and ammunition from Iran and Russia.” Those arms supplies soon could include the provision of sophisticated air-defense systems from Russia.

One might add, based on the evidence of recent weeks, that the Assad regime can also employ its chemical stockpile without fear of retribution from the West. For all these reasons, Assad’s fighters have put the rebels on the defensive and are starting to push them back.

It is time to think the unthinkable: What would happen if Assad were to succeed in suppressing the rebellion? While a rebel victory would be problematic from America’s standpoint, because of the increasing role of jihadist radicals in the rebel ranks, a victory for the regime would be catastrophic. It would leave in place a government that was even more beholden to Hezbollah and Iran than was the case previously. It would, in short, solidify Iran’s beachhead in the middle of the Levant and it would deal a serious blow to the interests of the United States, Israel, and moderate Arab regimes, which have been supporting the rebels.

It is not too late to avert this dire outcome, but that will require Obama to rethink his policy of inaction.

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Is It Too Late to Save Syria?

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.

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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.

At the outset of this conflict, there was a vacuum. That vacuum presented the United States with an opportunity to shape who would step into the breach, and how. The Obama administration made the mistake of standing aside and letting countries like Qatar distribute money and weapons to the rebels. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in the emergence of Islamist groups like the al-Nusra Front leading the way. That was followed by the head of Israel’s military intelligence claiming that Iran has set up a local army–modeled, presumably, after Hezbollah–in Syria of 50,000 men with plans to expand it to 100,000. Iran’s proxy control, if established, would essentially enable it to control forces on yet another of Israel’s borders and would give it hegemony stretching straight through to the Mediterranean. As Walter Russell Mead noted, this would also embolden Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons by convincing the mullahs that Obama doesn’t mean what he says and isn’t willing to back up his threats with force. After that came the news that al-Nusra and other Islamist rebel groups have established a “Sharia Authority” to enforce Sharia law in rebel-held areas, beating sinners with lead pipes.

Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and John McCain co-authored an open letter to President Obama today urging him to consider establishing a no-fly zone and a safe haven inside Syria, as well as increase help to the rebels. Mead made his own recommendation:

The President needs to act. None of the choices are particularly good at this point, and his political adversaries should cut him some slack here. Any US effort will not be a surgically effective operation that helps only the good people. There will be consequences to intervention in Syria and we won’t like all of them. Sending in US troops would be an enormous mistake; arming selected rebel groups is a much better choice.

Mead acknowledges that feeding American weapons to the rebels will very likely result in some of those weapons being used to commit atrocities. But, he adds, “defeating Iran’s bid for continued influence and control in a strategically vital country is a prize big enough at this point in Middle Eastern history to justify running some risks and accepting some costs.”

But the Iranian force being set up, according to Israeli intelligence, isn’t part of the Syrian army–it’s a parallel army. That means it’s there not to prevent Assad’s fall—though Iran would surely like to do that—but to presume Assad’s fall and plan accordingly. It would be, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, a powerful independent actor. Will arming less troublesome, and noticeably weaker, rebel factions shift the balance of power? The case of Lebanon, in which there was an existing army and experienced political class that were both aided by the U.S. and still proved unable to resist Syrian/Iranian hegemony and Hezbollah’s empowerment, does not provide cause for optimism.

There will be no American invasion of Syria. And there certainly will be no NATO-led occupation force to do in Syria what the allies did in Iraq. It’s possible that those who want to step up arms and assistance to the rebels are right, and that it will tip the scales. But it’s at least as possible that it will lead to the further strengthening of bad actors. It’s clear that there have been consequences to the wait-and-see approach. It’s less clear if they can be reversed.

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The European Union’s Misplaced Priorities

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:

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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:

In a new report sent to Brussels and foreign ministries in 27 member states, the consuls general representing the EU in the Palestinian territories call on the EU to “prevent, discourage and raise awareness about problematic implications of financial transactions including foreign direct investments, from within the EU in support of settlement activities, infrastructure and services,” Haaretz reported Wednesday.

The EU’s office in Israel declined to directly comment on the leaked document, but diplomats representing EU member states told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that while the report’s language seemed strong, suggesting a call for active EU divestment from the settlements, it signified no actual change in the union’s policy. The 2012 Heads of Mission report, which will be discussed by policymakers in Brussels but is nonbinding, merely calls for stricter implementation of already existing EU legislation, according to a European diplomat.

Contrast the vigilance EU diplomats recommend be employed against Israeli companies with the EU’s continued, exasperating, and fundamentally indefensible reluctance to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The issue was brought to light again this month as Hezbollah was connected by authorities to last year’s terrorist attack in Bulgaria. Hezbollah has long been among the world’s most resilient and dangerous terrorist organizations, and declaring it as such–as the U.S. and Israel have–would greatly advance security efforts on the continent and would enable increased diligence in tracking and preventing Hezbollah’s funding and communications.

As Joby Warrick writes in the Post, the case of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus has enabled officials and the public to widen the scope of the terrorist group’s surveillance operations in Europe. And officials are well aware of the implications:

Now, seven months after that attack, new details emerging in Yaakoub’s case are providing chilling insights into what investigators describe as a far broader effort by the Lebanon-based militant group to lay the groundwork for killing Israeli citizens and perhaps others in multiple countries.

Some details have come from Yaakoub himself, who made his first public appearance last week during his trial in Cyprus. But a much fuller account comes from legal documents summarizing the Swedish man’s statements to police during weeks of questioning last summer and obtained by The Washington Post.

The evidence echoes discoveries by investigators in Bulgaria and prosecutors in Thailand, India, Azerbaijan, Kenya and other countries hit by a wave of attempted assassinations and bombings linked to Hezbollah or its chief sponsor, Iran. U.S. officials characterize the plots as part of a shadow war directed by Iran in part to retaliate for Western efforts to derail Iran’s nuclear program. Evidence uncovered by investigators portrays a professional, well-funded effort by Hezbollah to recruit, train and position European-based operatives for what U.S. analysts describe as preparations for future terrorist operations.

It’s important to put the revelations about Hezbollah–which, we can imagine, are not revelations to EU law enforcement and intelligence officials–in the larger context of Hezbollah’s patron, Iran. As Warrick notes, American officials are getting impatient with their European counterparts’ unwillingness to take necessary action against Hezbollah because time is of the essence. The U.S. is working to prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear capability, and one element of that has been the stepped-up shadow war between Iran and the West.

In the world of asymmetric warfare, eliminating terrorist safe havens is crucial–as we attempted to do in Afghanistan. But it’s even more important to do so in Europe, both because it’s easier to target Americans and Jews–Iran’s favorite victims–in Europe, where both are far more numerous than in, say, Central Asia or North Africa, and because giving them a safe haven in the West makes it easier to target other Western states. Thus, the EU’s incredibly dangerous actions don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s time for European leaders to stop pretending otherwise.

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