Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lebanon

How Iran Outwits Obama in the Middle East

While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

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While Iran’s role as a leading sponsor of global terrorism is well known, far less coverage is given to Iranian leaders’ strategic acumen. Yet it’s clear that a theme has emerged in the Middle East: long engaged in a proxy war against America, Tehran is now, in the age of Obama, simply running circles around Washington.

There are three kinds of Mideast engagements with Iran. In all three, Iran is a step ahead of the Obama administration. The first category is direct military engagement. The United States military is involved in conflict in Iraq and Syria. In both countries, the U.S. has been treated to characterizations that America is more or less acting as Iran’s air force: in Iraq, that comparison is made directly; in Syria, it is by acting essentially as Bashar al-Assad’s air force–and Assad is an Iranian proxy hanging on to power in large part through Iran’s investment.

The second category includes conflicts in which America’s allies are up against Iranian proxies. Israel, for example, fought a summer war against Hamas, an Iranian client firing Syrian missiles delivered by Iran. Far from understanding what was taking place, the Obama administration played right into Iran’s hands by distancing itself from Sisi’s Egypt and not only pressuring Israel to give in to Hamas’s terror but even sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo with a ceasefire agreement reflecting the wishes of Hamas’s patrons. When Israel objected, President Obama took retribution against Jerusalem, withholding arms transfers while Israel was under fire.

This includes Lebanon as well, where Iranian proxies not only occasionally attack Israel but have a chokehold on a the government. The West has occasionally stepped up in Lebanon, such as when it galvanized outrage at Syria to help force Assad’s expulsion from its neighbor. But most of the time, the West has been unwilling or unable to protect Lebanon’s sovereignty. And as Jonathan wrote earlier in the week, concern about ISIS terrorism is raising the possibility of legitimizing and mainstreaming Hezbollah.

And then there is the direct American engagement with Iran on its nuclear program. On this, the Iranians saw early on that Obama and Kerry wanted a deal of some sort that would kick the can down the road while enabling the president to claim progress. It’s doubtful any such plan was more obviously bush league than begging the Iranians to disconnect some pipe rather than dismantle the program. But the limitless diplomacy, in which deadlines float past with nary a thought, has done its damage as well by giving the Iranians additional leverage–and a powerful bargaining chip–on other issues on which the U.S. would want Iranian cooperation.

Aside from these three, there is evidence of a fourth category in the Middle East: a state like Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Putinesque turn away from democracy, human rights, and the West more generally has been conducted publicly, but even here there appears to be malign Iranian influence. Former Naval War College professor John Schindler has a fascinating post discussing the Turkish government’s connections to Iranian intelligence. He writes:

The key player in this plot is a shadowy terrorist group termed Tawhid-Salam that goes back to the mid-1990s and has been blamed for several terrorist incidents, including the 2011 bombing of the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, which wounded several people, as well as a thwarted bombing of the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, in early 2012. Tawhid-Salam, which also goes by the revealing name “Jerusalem Army,” has long been believed to be a front for Iranian intelligence, particularly its most feared component, the elite Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), which handles covert action abroad, including terrorism in many countries. It also is believed to be behind the murders of several anti-Tehran activists in Turkey in the 1990’s, using Tawhid-Salam as a cut-out.

Yet nothing has been done to crack down on the group in Turkey. Schindler continues:

This may have something to do with the fact that Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkish intelligence, is apparently on the Pasdaran payroll too, and may have secret ties to Tehran going back almost twenty years. Rumors about Fidan, a member of Erdoğan’s inner circle, who has headed the country’s powerful National Intelligence Organization (MİT) since 2010, have swirled in counterintelligence services worldwide for years. Israeli intelligence in particular, which once had a close relationship with MİT, has long regarded Fidan as Tehran’s man, and has curtailed its intelligence cooperation with Turkey commensurately, believing that all information shared with Fidan was going to Iran.

Privately, U.S. intelligence officials too have worried about Fidan’s secret ties, not least because MİT includes Turkey’s powerful signals intelligence (SIGINT) service, which has partnered with NATO for decades, including the National Security Agency.

I recommend reading the whole thing, but the Turkish connection serves to fill out the picture of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. Tehran has continually played Washington, setting fires and then offering to help Obama put them out, for a price. It’s a predictable racket, but Obama keeps falling for it.

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War on Terror: What’s Old Is New Again

Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

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Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

Is the “old” war on terror over? Not by any reasonable metric. Al-Qaeda is not now, and was not even after bin Laden’s death, on the run. President Obama has somewhat taken the war on terror off the front burner for many Americans through his policy of killing instead of capturing potential terrorists–not to mention the fact that he’s a Democrat, so the antiwar movement, which was mostly an anti-Bush movement, has receded from view. (Though the fringe activists of Code Pink have continued yelling at senators.)

Complicating Obama’s desire to end the war on terror is that he has only presided over its expansion, for a simple reason. Obama can choose to end America’s participation in a traditional land war by retreating from that country. It’s ignominious but yes, a war can plausibly end if one side just leaves.

But the war on terror isn’t a traditional land war. The American retrenchment over which Obama has presided has had all sorts of wholly predictable and deadly results, but those results are, in Obama’s mind, for someone else to deal with. So for example we have Russia on the march, but as far as Obama’s concerned, it’s Ukraine’s war. Terrorism is different, because when terrorists fill a vacuum, they create a safe haven, and when they do that they threaten America.

Thus we have Thursday’s Wall Street Journal report on the terrorist group known as Khorasan, which many in the West hadn’t heard of until last week:

U.S. officials say Khorasan is a growing hazard, particularly to the U.S., because its members are focused on violence toward the West and have been eyeing attacks on American airliners.

On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as Islamic State “in terms of threat to the homeland.” It was the first time a U.S. official has acknowledged the group’s existence. …

Officials wouldn’t describe in any detail the nature, location or timing of the plots. Together, Nusra Front and Khorasan are suspected to have multiple plots in the works targeting countries in Europe as well as the U.S.

Other news organizations have since followed the Journal’s lead and reported on Khorasan. Syria has become an anarchic incubator of terrorist groups, itself an obvious source of possible trouble for U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security efforts. It also magnifies the threat to regional stability, which puts U.S. interests further at risk.

How such a threat multiplies in that environment is often misunderstood. The groups don’t necessarily “team up” on an attack against the West. But it helps to connect those who want to attack the West but don’t have the means or the knowhow with those who have the means and knowhow but not the desire to attack the West. And it has eerie echoes from past collaborations. As the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2006 backgrounder on the Hezbollah-al-Qaeda relationship:

As former National Security Council members Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon describe in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror, a small group of al-Qaeda members visited Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon in the mid-1990s. Shortly thereafter, according to testimony from Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian-born U.S. Army sergeant who later served as one of bin Laden’s lieutenants and pled guilty to participating in the 1998 embassy bombings in eastern Africa, Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugniyeh met in Sudan. The two men, who have both topped the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, agreed Hezbollah would provide the fledgling al-Qaeda organization with explosives and training in exchange for money and manpower. Though it is unclear whether all terms of that agreement were met or the degree to which the two groups have worked together since. Douglas Farah, a journalist and consultant with the NEFA Foundation, a New York-based counterterrorism organization, says Hezbollah helped al-Qaeda traffic its assets through Africa in the form of diamonds and gold shortly after the 9/11 attacks. U.S. and European intelligence reports from that time suggest the two groups were collaborating in such activities as money laundering, gun running, and training. It’s not clear whether these past collaborations were isolated incidents or indications of a broader relationship.

Khorasan’s leader, according to the New York Times, “was so close to Bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.” And the Journal adds that the group “is also pursuing a major recruitment effort focused on fighters with Western passports, officials said.” So it’s easy to understand why American counterterrorism and intelligence officials are taking the threat seriously.

A member of bin Laden’s inner circle is leading a group planning attacks on the U.S., was recently living in Iran, and is utilizing a terrorist haven teeming with weapons and possible recruits. This is not a “new” war on terror. In many cases it’s not even a new enemy. No matter how uninterested the American president is in the global war on terror, the war on terror is still interested in him.

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Beware of Qatar’s Mediation

If crises make or break statesmen, the fighting between Israel and Hamas has tried Secretary of State John Kerry and found him wanting. Throughout the crisis, Kerry acted as a simple arbiter rather than a diplomat who believed it was in his interest to defend democracy, freedom, and punish rather than reward terrorism.

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If crises make or break statesmen, the fighting between Israel and Hamas has tried Secretary of State John Kerry and found him wanting. Throughout the crisis, Kerry acted as a simple arbiter rather than a diplomat who believed it was in his interest to defend democracy, freedom, and punish rather than reward terrorism.

Kerry does not simply lead the State Department, but he also reflects its culture. It has been a generation or more since State Department leaders thought strategically rather than simply reacted to crises. Talking, diplomacy, and the desire to initiate and continue processes occur round the clock: Few diplomats understand that sometimes the best option is to stand by and do nothing, all the more so if an enemy’s strength declines as conflict continues.

America’s adversaries understand the mindset of U.S. diplomacy and play the United States like a fiddle. Qatar is a case in point: While Qatar styles itself as a Dubai alternative which punches above its weight on the world stage, the reality is that it encourages, funds, and embraces corrosive forms of radicalism responsible over the last decade for more deaths than the entire population of Qatar itself. This is reflected in Qatari mediation.

Take events in Lebanon in 2008: The United States has long considered Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization for good reason. In interviews with Ash-Sharq al-Awsat in 2008, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s first ambassadors to Lebanon acknowledged that Iran formed the group and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps trained it as its proxy. When I visited Lebanon a couple years back, I toured some Hezbollah bunkers in southern Lebanon in which posters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini adorned otherwise blank walls above bedrolls.

While Hezbollah clings to its rhetoric of anti-Israel resistance, Israel’s UN-certified withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 denied it its contrived raison d’être. So it made a new one, claiming Lebanese sovereignty over the Sheba’a Farms, Syrian highlands occupied by Israel when Israeli forces took the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six-Day War. In practice, however, on the Lebanese political scene, Hezbollah operates like a mafia. It moves in on profitable business, demands protection, and runs the black market. Putting ideology aside, it’s like 1930s Chicago or, perhaps, 2014 Chicago. In 2008, Hezbollah moved into central Beirut and turned its guns on the fellow Lebanese it claimed to protect because it feared central government control over Beirut’s international airport would mean it would be harder to use that facility for the drug and weapons smuggling in which it and its Iranian sponsors engaged.

At the same time, the rise of the March 14 movement in the wake of the Cedar Revolution, no matter how fractious that political coalition was, threatened Hezbollah and its vision of a Lebanon oriented toward the Iranian sphere. Violence erupted. Enter Qatar: It decided to mediate the dispute, a process which then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed. The result was the Doha Agreement of 2008. This ill-conceived compromise, blessed by Rice, the State Department, and its culture of short-term thinking, awarded Hezbollah a third of Lebanon’s cabinet posts, giving Hezbollah effective veto power. That was the end of Lebanon’s democratic spring, and a direct result of a U.S.-endorsed Qatari compromise that privileged the violent and the Islamist.

Now consider Hamas. The magnitude of Qatar’s support for the terrorist group should be enough to get Qatar prime listing on the state sponsor of terrorism list. And yet, Kerry has made Qatar a full partner in the diplomatic process to achieve a ceasefire. America’s goal might be to achieve calm, and Kerry’s goal might be to find some—indeed any—success during his tenure, but it’s essential to recognize that Qatar’s goal is simply to salvage Hamas and allow its rearmament.

It’s always a dangerous thing when militants and terrorists conclude that an American desire for peace means that promoting violence can lead to a deal which privileges the violent over those who follow the rules of diplomacy. Yet, that’s exactly what first Rice and then Kerry did when it has come to Qatar acting as the good cop to achieve the aims of the bad cops in the Middle East. Rather than treat Qatar as a partner, it’s long past time the State Department and Pentagon began crafting plans to disassociate the United States from Qatar, which increasingly should be considered a liability rather than an asset.

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While West Dithers, ISIS Creates Facts on the Ground

“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected.”

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“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected.”

So wrote my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Janine Davidson on July 24. And that was before this weekend’s reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had routed Kurdish fighters from the town of Sinjar near the Iraq-Syria border–one of the few border posts it did not already control–and that it may have taken control of the Mosul dam, which if blown up could flood much of northern Iraq with a 65-foot wave.

Other reports indicate that ISIS has taken control of a Syrian oil field near Homs. As the Washington Post notes in a very comprehensive round-up of depressing news: “Experts estimate the group is pocketing as much as $3 million per day in oil revenue by selling off resources on black markets in the greater Levant.” Oh and ISIS also just staged an attack in yet another country–Lebanon.

In short, the news is about as bad as it could be. The question that remains is: What is the U.S. doing about it? So far President Obama has dispatched 825 military personnel to Iraq to make a survey of the situation and to conduct some liaison work with the Iraqis in two headquarters. That’s about it, aside from some fiery rhetoric from Washington denouncing ISIS excesses. One wonders if the president is once again assuming that denouncing something is the same thing as doing something about it.

There are no air strikes, no Special Operations raids, no attempts to rally Sunni tribesmen to resist their new overlords. Granted, one should not rush willy-nilly into action before gaining an accurate assessment of the situation and deploying the resources necessary to be successful. That is why, for example, the Bush administration did not start bombing Afghanistan until weeks after the 9/11 attacks. But one fears that this time around the U.S. is not preparing a devastating response–or any meaningful response at all–to the alarming expansion of Islamist terrorist control in Iraq and Syria.

One fears that Washington is busy analyzing while ISIS is altering facts on the ground. And that eventually we will hear about Iraq the same thing we have been hearing about Syria: that the situation is so grim that there is nothing we can do about it. That, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy–the less we do, the worse the situation gets, and the less likely we are to intervene in any form.

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Is There an Antidote to Iran’s Regional Strategy?

Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

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Jordan is a sectarian state. Many here do not hesitate to cast aspersions toward Shi‘ites and, of course, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who coined the term “the Shi‘ite crescent,” implying that Shi‘ites across the Middle East from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Kuwait and Bahrain harbor dual loyalty and were actually Iranian fifth columnists. Some Shi‘ites may look toward Iran for guidance—the way that many Sunnis perhaps drink in Saudi or Qatari propaganda a bit too uncritically—but the broad majority dislike Iran. Sectarian solidarity is more a mirage than reality, especially when confronted with other bases for identity like ethnicity, nationality, or tribal identity, in the case of more rural Shi‘ite communities.

That said, the threat from Iran is real. The ideal of the export of revolution is written into both the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the founding statutes of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2008, Ayatollah Shahroudi, responding to the notion put forward by former President Muhammad Khatami that export of revolution was about soft power, made clear the supreme leader’s understanding that revolutionary export was military in nature. Those who say that Iran hasn’t invaded any other country in more than 200 years and suggest that the Islamic Republic is somehow pacific or simply acting defensively do not understand the notion that not all warfare is direct.

Indeed, a former member of the Iraqi intelligence service who spent years working on the Iran file put it best when he observed that the failure of Iran’s counterattack in the wake of Iraq’s 1980 invasion led it to recognize that it could not defeat regional states through traditional military tactics, and so it developed a concerted strategy to undermine states from within by co-opting politicians, sponsoring militias, and provoking internal conflicts. In Lebanon, Hezbollah creates political stalemate (thanks to its empowerment by the 2008 Doha Agreement) and then uses the paralyzed government to further its influence in society. In Syria, Hezbollah seeks not only to defend the Assad regime, but to actively target any person or group on either side of the conflict that presents a more moderate alternative to the extremists on both sides. For Iran, it is better to have chaos in Syria, see hundreds of thousands of Syrians die, and twenty times that number flee as refugees than it would be to have any stability not in a system not under Iran’s thumb.

Iraqi Shi‘ites often distrust Iran, but the voice of Iraqi Shi‘ites is ill-served by sectarian parties, some of which voluntarily subordinate themselves to Iranian aims, and others of which were forced into that situation by the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iranian efforts to co-opt Shi‘ite sectarian parties and, for that matter, Kurdish parties as well serves to promote stalemate and prevent compromise. This undercuts any chance for stability, creating a situation which Iran or its proxy militias can further exploit.

The question for U.S. policymakers is whether, if Iran’s strategy is simply to paralyze and undercut the stability of regional states from within, U.S. policymakers have any strategy to counteract it. If Iran’s way of warfare is duplicitous and if it seeks to undermine states from within rather than confronting them head-on, then it behooves American policymakers not only to recognize it, but learn how to play the reverse game in order to buttress internal stability and maintain relations solid enough to provide balance and prevent the Qods Force from having free rein.

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Hold Turkey and Saudi Arabia Accountable

The Obama administration is looking for some low-cost magic bullet to resolve the mess in Iraq, never mind that its search for a similar remedy in Syria hasn’t materialized. As Max Boot ably demonstrates, reaching out to Iran shouldn’t be the solution: Iran might go in—and, indeed, already has—but it won’t leave. Just look at Lebanon, where Hezbollah continues to wreak havoc 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal.

That said, while Iran has sponsored terrorism that has killed countless Iraqis and scores of Americans in Iraq, and continues to arm and fund hardcore sectarian militias which undercut reconciliation in Iraq, it is as important to recognize that Saudi Arabia and its promotion of radical Islam has historically been as poisonous as the Islamic Republic of Iran (if not more so). Saudi authorities have cracked down slightly after suffering their own blowback a decade ago, but many Saudi charities continue to fund extremism and hate.

Turkey, meanwhile, has become a state sponsor of terrorism in all but official U.S. designation. It has embraced Hamas, helped finance Iran through the sanctions regime, and become an underground railroad through which most foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda wannabes pass on their way into Syria. When pressed, all Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç could say was that Turkey had not supplied the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) with arms; evidence that it provided other logistical support and a safe-haven is overwhelming. Even though ISIS holds 49 Turks hostage in Mosul, the Turkish government refuses to condemn ISIS as a terrorist group. Demanding Turkey stop playing a double game on ISIS is doable, unlike putting boots on the ground in Iraq.

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The Obama administration is looking for some low-cost magic bullet to resolve the mess in Iraq, never mind that its search for a similar remedy in Syria hasn’t materialized. As Max Boot ably demonstrates, reaching out to Iran shouldn’t be the solution: Iran might go in—and, indeed, already has—but it won’t leave. Just look at Lebanon, where Hezbollah continues to wreak havoc 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal.

That said, while Iran has sponsored terrorism that has killed countless Iraqis and scores of Americans in Iraq, and continues to arm and fund hardcore sectarian militias which undercut reconciliation in Iraq, it is as important to recognize that Saudi Arabia and its promotion of radical Islam has historically been as poisonous as the Islamic Republic of Iran (if not more so). Saudi authorities have cracked down slightly after suffering their own blowback a decade ago, but many Saudi charities continue to fund extremism and hate.

Turkey, meanwhile, has become a state sponsor of terrorism in all but official U.S. designation. It has embraced Hamas, helped finance Iran through the sanctions regime, and become an underground railroad through which most foreign jihadis and al-Qaeda wannabes pass on their way into Syria. When pressed, all Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç could say was that Turkey had not supplied the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) with arms; evidence that it provided other logistical support and a safe-haven is overwhelming. Even though ISIS holds 49 Turks hostage in Mosul, the Turkish government refuses to condemn ISIS as a terrorist group. Demanding Turkey stop playing a double game on ISIS is doable, unlike putting boots on the ground in Iraq.

Since the current ISIS/Baathist uprising in Iraq started, Turkey’s behavior has been absolutely reprehensible. There have been photographs circulated in Turkey of an ISIS commander recovering at a Turkish hospital in Hatay. While Turkey claims medical treatment for ISIS terrorists wounded in Syria (or Iraq) is a humanitarian act, the same Turkish government prosecutes doctors who treat protestors wounded in demonstrations against the Turkish government’s authoritarianism in Istanbul.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu complained that the media was portraying ISIS unfairly. Turkey may finally have declared the Nusra Front a terrorist group—only after the group stopped obeying Turkish direction—but it has apparently yet to impose the same designation on ISIS, a group too radical even for al-Qaeda. Iraqi press reports suggest that Iraqi forces have arrested four Turkish officers helping train ISIS in Iraq; while the Turks have denied that accusation, it seems there’s some fire causing that smoke. If any Turkish officer took part in training a terrorist group that has reportedly summarily executed more than 2,000 soldiers, then it is hard to conclude that Turkey does not have blood on its hands.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is no angel, but to blame Iraq’s Shi’ites or a democratically elected government that includes Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites and Christians, men and women is unfair. The current strife in Iraq is not because of Shi’ite intolerance but rather because of intolerance of the Shi’ites. Those who say the uprising could have been averted if only Maliki had given more perks, positions, and goodies to Sunni Arabs misunderstand the fact that what Iraqis are fighting against is a noxious and hateful ideology, not simply grievance.

Never again will Iraq be dominated by a small Sunni minority. Nor should it. Shi’ites cannot be expected to sit idly by when Saudi- and Turkish-supported radical groups brag about their plans for genocide against the Shi’ites. It’s important to check Iranian ambitions and to reinforce that Iran does not represent all Shi’ites. If the United States truly wants to encourage peace in Iraq, however, it is time to acknowledge that Shi’ites too have legitimate grievances and face a deadly challenge, one embarrassingly that has a return address in Riyadh and Ankara.

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Remember Previous U.S.-Iran “Cooperation” in Iraq?

Prior to the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there was furious and sustained U.S. and British diplomacy with Iran. At the time, British foreign secretary Jack Straw elicited a promise from Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi that Iran would not interfere in Iraq. Separately, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the time Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and now Iran’s foreign minister, told Zalmay Khalilzad, the National Security Council official responsible for Iraq, the same thing.

Just weeks later, however, according to Iranian journalists like Ali Reza Nourizadeh, a writer close to former president Mohammad Khatami and aides like Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) infiltrated 2,000 fighters, militiamen, and Qods Force personnel into Iraq. The White House acknowledged concerns over the infiltration and took action. Within six months of the start of major combat in Iraq, coalition forces had detained more than a hundred Iranians in Iraq. Simply put, Iran looks at diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy to distract adversaries while they establish facts on the ground.

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Prior to the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there was furious and sustained U.S. and British diplomacy with Iran. At the time, British foreign secretary Jack Straw elicited a promise from Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi that Iran would not interfere in Iraq. Separately, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the time Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and now Iran’s foreign minister, told Zalmay Khalilzad, the National Security Council official responsible for Iraq, the same thing.

Just weeks later, however, according to Iranian journalists like Ali Reza Nourizadeh, a writer close to former president Mohammad Khatami and aides like Hassan Rouhani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) infiltrated 2,000 fighters, militiamen, and Qods Force personnel into Iraq. The White House acknowledged concerns over the infiltration and took action. Within six months of the start of major combat in Iraq, coalition forces had detained more than a hundred Iranians in Iraq. Simply put, Iran looks at diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy to distract adversaries while they establish facts on the ground.

A major theme of my recent book was that while the U.S. military constantly examines its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department does not engage in lessons-learned exercises. Secretary of State John Kerry is absolutely right that the United States and Iran have a shared interest in Iraq. Then again, firefighters and arsonists have a shared interest in fires.

Let us hope that President Obama understands that it is a lot easier to bless Iran’s entrance into Iraq than achieve its exit. If he has any doubts, he can just as the Lebanese, who have been struggling against an Iranian-created proxy group if not IRGC advisors for almost 32 years or, if charitable, for 14 years after Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

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Could Jordan Fall?

I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

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I spoke about the situation in Iraq Saturday morning on C-Span’s Washington Journal. Many callers expressed skepticism at any American involvement in Iraq, arguing simply that no American interests are at stake. I respectfully disagree with that assessment.

That the United States cannot afford to allow terrorists safe haven is a lesson that not only American policymakers but also the general public should have learned after allowing al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups to set up shop in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. It is a truism that other countries have learned, be they Pakistan after the ill-considered Malakand Accord, or Lebanon, which allowed Hezbollah to fill the vacuum in its south following the Israeli withdrawal, a decision that directly led to a destructive war just six years later.

If ISIS is able to consolidate control, and given its ideological antipathy to nation-state borders, then it will likely turn its sights on Jordan. After all, while ISIS considers Jews, Christians, and Shi’ite Muslims to be heretics deserving of a slow and painful death, its main victims have always been Sunnis.

Security officials acknowledge that ISIS already has cells in Jordan. King Abdullah II of Jordan does himself no favors. Like Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia or Ayad Allawi in Iraq, Abdullah is far more popular abroad than he is at home. Indeed, when he assumed the throne upon the death of his father, Abdullah was fluent in English but stumbled through Arabic. His wife Rania might charm Western audiences and might be imagined to attract Palestinian support because of her own heritage, but her profligate spending and tin ear to the plight of ordinary people has antagonized many Jordanians.

Many tensions Jordan faces are not Abdullah’s fault: While Jordan has, more than any other Arab state, worked to integrate the Palestinian refugee population, it has also been hit by waves of refugees, first from Iraq and then from Syria. Those working among the Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan report that they have not previously seen such a radicalized population. Jordan also does not have the natural resources of some of its neighbors: Saudi Arabia and Iraq are oil-rich and Israel now has gas.

The left-of-center Center for American Progress last week released an excellent new report looking at the pressures Jordan faces as well as the Islamist landscape in the Kingdom. Anything by the Washington Institute’s David Schenker is also worth reading.

An element of blowback also exists. Speaking on the Chris Matthews Show almost a decade ago, King Abdullah II warned of a “Shi’ite crescent,” a specter he subsequently explained in this Middle East Quarterly interview. For those who see an Iranian hidden hand behind every Shi’ite community, Abdullah’s warning had resonance. For Arab Shi’ites, however, it was unrestrained bigotry. Abdullah was not simply content to warn, however. He transformed Jordan into a safe haven for Iraqi Sunni insurgents and spared little effort to undermine Iraqi stability. He, like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was too clever for his own good: By supporting those who justified violence against Shi’ites on sectarian grounds and by working for his own sectarian reasons to undercut Iraqi stability, he set the stage for the blowback which is on the horizon.

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“Lebanonization” and Other Bogus Defenses of Obama’s Hamas Policy

The Obama administration’s strategy to deflect criticism of its support for Hamas’s role in the emerging Palestinian government is becoming clear. American officials will accuse Israel of hypocrisy, and rely on the media to parrot the accusation. There are two elements to the charge, and neither–as would be expected from an Obama-Kerry brainstorm–have merit. But they are revealing nonetheless.

Today’s New York Times story on the matter includes both charges. The first: “The Israeli government, [Kerry] noted, was continuing to send the Palestinian Authority tax remittances.” The implication is that Israel is in no place to protest American funding of a government including Hamas since they are doing so themselves. Yet to suggest that tax remittances are the same, or should be considered the same, as foreign aid is absurd on its face–and, frankly, rather embarrassing for Kerry who may not understand basic economics himself but can afford to hire someone who does.

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The Obama administration’s strategy to deflect criticism of its support for Hamas’s role in the emerging Palestinian government is becoming clear. American officials will accuse Israel of hypocrisy, and rely on the media to parrot the accusation. There are two elements to the charge, and neither–as would be expected from an Obama-Kerry brainstorm–have merit. But they are revealing nonetheless.

Today’s New York Times story on the matter includes both charges. The first: “The Israeli government, [Kerry] noted, was continuing to send the Palestinian Authority tax remittances.” The implication is that Israel is in no place to protest American funding of a government including Hamas since they are doing so themselves. Yet to suggest that tax remittances are the same, or should be considered the same, as foreign aid is absurd on its face–and, frankly, rather embarrassing for Kerry who may not understand basic economics himself but can afford to hire someone who does.

Additionally, the United States and Israel often have different approaches to the Palestinians because of the different roles the two play. Generally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed ending American aid to the Palestinian Authority, and has gone to bat for Obama by lobbying Congress to back off such proposals. The reason is the Palestinians have two primary choices for leadership: Fatah and Hamas. Until now Hamas has been excluded from the broader government, which means any money that flows to Mahmoud Abbas may have been misused in any number of ways, but it at least propped up the far superior alternative to Hamas.

Had Fatah been abandoned by the West, Hamas would have taken over the West Bank too. It can be argued that this process incentivizes Abbas’s misbehavior because it signals to him that he can get away with virtually anything. But actions have consequences, and the consequences of setting Abbas adrift would be disastrous.

The whole point of propping up Abbas was to fund the PA instead of Hamas, in an effort to weaken the latter. Funding a Palestinian government that includes Hamas is, strategically, the opposite of what the United States has been doing. It is not hypocritical of Israel to point this out. Indeed, it should not need pointing out. But if the geniuses running the White House and State Department insist on behaving as though they were born yesterday, they can expect the leaders of the nations that will bear the brunt of the consequences to treat them as such.

The other accusation of hypocrisy concerns the so-called “Lebanonization” of the Palestinian Authority. Here’s the Times:

Nothing illustrated the complexity of the situation for the United States better than Mr. Kerry’s backdrop: He was in Lebanon to underscore American support for the Lebanese government — which includes the Islamic militant group, Hezbollah.

This argument has gained some traction recently, but its popularity is truly puzzling. The implication here is that the United States supports the Lebanese government even though the terrorist group Hezbollah is an influential part of that government. Therefore, how can Israel oppose American support for a similar government in the Palestinian territories when it does not push back against American support for Lebanon?

Can anyone at the State Department guess the difference between the Palestinians and Lebanon? Show of hands? If you said, “The Israeli government is not involved in land-for-peace negotiations, including the possibility of ceding control of holy places and uprooting Israelis from ancient Jewish land, with the Lebanese,” then you get a gold star.

As the Times story notes, this is really a preliminary confrontation. There will supposedly be elections within the next six months or so, and Hamas will want to participate. Wouldn’t that be dangerous? Sure, but here’s an American official putting everyone at ease:

“Can a group that has a political party and a militia of 20,000 troops run in an election?” a senior administration official said. “These are issues that are going to have be dealt with down the road.”

We’ll find out together! It’ll be exciting. Of course, we already know the answer, since Hamas has already participated in elections in what was widely viewed as a mistake back in 2006. And Hamas currently governs its own province of the territories, the Gaza Strip. The Americans have already seen this movie, but they still can’t wait to see how it ends.

That, of course, could be the one silver lining. If Hamas enters the government and Israel refuses to negotiate with them, it’ll put the onus back where it belongs: on the Palestinian leadership to prove it can build a state that would coexist side by side with a Jewish state. It’ll be John Kerry’s chance to prove the Israelis wrong, though I don’t think they’ll be holding their breath.

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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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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 Middle East’s Disappearing Borders

“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

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“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

From around Aleppo in western Syria to small areas of Falluja in central Iraq, al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East, according to English and Arab language news accounts as well as accounts on jihadist websites.

Indeed, al Qaeda appears to control more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history.

The focus of al Qaeda’s leaders has always been regime change in the Arab world in order to install Taliban-style regimes. Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged as much in his 2001 autobiography, “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet,” when he explained that the most important strategic goal of al Qaeda was to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that, “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.”

Now al-Zawahiri is closer to his goal than he has ever been. On Friday al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq seized control of parts of the city of Falluja and parts of the city of Ramadi, both of which are located in Iraq’s restive Anbar Province.

Believe it or not, this is actually worse than it looks. Al-Qaeda may be close to claiming control of key parts of a state, and since that state is Iraq it’s bad enough. But pair the chaos in Iraq with the bloodshed elsewhere in the region, and what’s at stake is the very system of nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa.

That may sound alarmist, and we’re certainly not there yet. But consider the ongoing disaster in Syria, and the Wall Street Journal’s significant story on the reality of Bashar al-Assad’s survival:

In many ways, Syria as it was known before simply doesn’t exist any longer, U.S. officials say. Its place has been taken by a shattered state riven into sectarian enclaves, radicalized by war and positioned to send worrisome ripples out across the Middle East for years to come, say current and former officials.

In fact, U.S. officials think the chances of steering the outcome have shrunk dramatically. 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.

But of course it gets worse still. An al-Qaeda haven from Syria to Iraq doesn’t include Lebanon, but that state’s devolution began before the Syrian civil war and is only being exacerbated by it. Hezbollah already has its own state carved out in southern Lebanon (in addition to having a degree of control over the broader state’s politics), and Hezbollah seems to be upgrading its firepower, smuggling weapons in from Syria.

At the same time, Avi Issacharoff has noted that the violence spilling into Lebanon from Syria is also spilling into Hezbollah’s territory, threatening to engulf the state in a full-fledged civil war. With refugees, soldiers, and jihadists streaming across borders at will, the borders themselves have begun to fade. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly got the following, chilling quote from Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt:

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Sly went on to mention the upcoming centennial of World War I, after which many of these lines in the sand were drawn, as the backdrop to the Syria peace negotiations. But the days of redrawing maps at will are long gone. The more likely outcome is that these borders will mean less and less, as power devolves back to ethnic enclaves instead of centralized authority. The irony for al-Qaeda is that it is closest to its goal of controlling a state just when that goal is danger of becoming irrelevant.

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The Problem with Turkey’s “Zero-Problem” Foreign Policy

With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

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With the Iranian nuclear deal dominating news from the Middle East last week, another significant development got less attention than it deserved: the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador from Egypt. For a country that once boasted of “zero problems with its neighbors,” losing ambassadors in three Mideast countries–Israel, Syria, and Egypt–in roughly two years is no mean feat. To grasp how extraordinary this latest downgrade is, consider the fact that Cairo has never expelled Israel’s ambassador, even during high-tension periods like the second intifada.

This, of course, shows once again that Arab leaders care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their rhetoric might imply. But beyond that, it points to a serious problem with Turkey’s foreign policy that ought to prompt some rethinking in Washington–not only about its reliance on Turkey hitherto as its key Mideast partner, but also about its burgeoning romance with Iran.

Ostensibly, Turkey’s breaks with Israel, Syria, and Egypt are completely unrelated: They were prompted, respectively, by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza, the Syrian uprising, and Egypt’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government. In fact, however, all stem from a common cause: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist worldview and policies.

This worldview is what led him to actively support the flotilla, sponsored by a terror-affiliated Islamist organization, despite knowing violence might ensue; downgrade ties with Israel in a fit of pique after a UN investigation of the incident upheld the legality of Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza; and refuse to restore them even after President Obama personally brokered a reconciliation deal, since the deal didn’t include ending the blockade. Supporting his fellow Islamists in Hamas trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

This is also what led him to actively support the Sunni rebels–and particularly the most radical Islamists among them–against Syria’s Alawite regime, and why he’s never stopped denouncing the Egyptian coup, even as the rest of the world has long since accepted that it’s not only a fait accompli, but enjoys broad popular support. In these cases, too, loyalty to his fellow Islamists trumped realpolitik and his country’s interests.

Such a principled foreign policy might be admirable if it weren’t for one problem: The principle Erdogan is supporting–Islamism–happens to be a destabilizing one. Inter alia, the Islamist governments and movements he’s supported have produced nonstop rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, a brutal civil war in Syria, and governmental abuses and incompetence in Egypt on a scale that generated massive support for the coup. Hence Erdogan’s commitment to his Islamist foreign policy has only further destabilized an unstable region.

Iran, of course, is also committed to Islamism, albeit the Shi’ite rather than the Sunni variety. Indeed, its foreign policy has been even more aggressive and destabilizing than Turkey’s: Witness its support for the Assad regime’s brutality in Syria and for Hezbollah’s virtual takeover of Lebanon. And since Islamism is the Iranian regime’s raison d’etre, no deal with Washington is going to end its commitment to an Islamist foreign policy.   

The lesson for America ought to be that Islamists–even “moderate” ones, to quote the Washington elite’s favorite adjective for both Erdogan and new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani–don’t make good foreign-policy partners. Unless, that is, one thinks even more instability in a volatile region is a good idea.

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Veteran Intelligence Pros for Syria’s Assad

Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

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Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

Their statement continues to push the bizarre conspiracy theory that Israel had a part in the chemical attacks. Let’s put aside how poorly this theory reflects on the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community, who count these conspiracy-mongers among their distinguished alumni, and instead focus on the “our former co-workers are telling us” portion. There are two possibilities here: One, intelligence analysts are readily violating their oaths to protect and secure the information with which they work by gossiping with colleagues; or, two, the VIPS are simply lying about their access in order to look more relevant to the media.

Either way, VIPS’s actions are worth considering. A quick Lexis search shows that their most recent letter was picked up by the New York Times, the International Business Times-Germany, the Toronto Star, Iran’s Fars News Agency, and a number of blogs. If the intelligence veterans involved in VIPS are bluffing about their access, then that should be the first issue journalists address when reporting on the letter.

Let’s assume that the journalists did determine that men—many of whom have been out of the intelligence community for years—still gossip openly with colleagues on the inside, colleagues who must now be fairly senior in a bureaucracy that rewards seniority more than ability. Their chatter raises more problems. W. Patrick Lang, one of the signatories, once served as a registered foreign agent for a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician; in effect, he was a lobbyist for the Syrian regime. That members of the intelligence community would leak to such a figure should raise concerns. Lang also once confessed that his intelligence colleagues leaked information to influence the outcome of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” the American Prospect reported Pat Lang as saying in the November 2005 issue. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man.’”

VIPS are pushing policy and in a quite dishonest way. Rather than simply report on the VIPS statements, the New York Times would do better to consider the implications of the group’s actions. So, too, should the internal affairs and security wings of the various intelligence communities whose alumni now are members of VIPS. For VIPS condones and represents not only a problem with leaking among the intelligence community, but also a malicious and politically driven kind of leaking that, as the Fars News Agency demonstrates, already provides comfort and propaganda to the enemy.

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Recalling the Last U.S. Strike on Syrians

As the Obama administration continues its foreign-policy schizophrenia, it’s useful to remember that any Obama strike on Syria will not be the first time U.S. forces have engaged Syrians. Just a few months shy of 30 years ago, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon fired on American reconnaissance planes supporting the U.S. and international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. In response, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Syrian positions hit. From a December 5, 1983 New York Times report:

Syria’s Minister of Defense said today that the American airman captured by Syrian troops after they shot down his aircraft on Sunday would not be returned until “the war” was over and American troops left Lebanon. He confirmed a report that the other American flier in the Navy attack bomber had died, and said the body was to be turned over to the United States Embassy in Damascus today… The American marines remained on alert in their compound at Beirut International Airport, although there was no resumption of the shelling that killed eight of them and wounded two on Sunday. The shelling occurred hours after an American air strike on Syrian targets east of the Lebanese capital in which two United States planes were shot down. (The Soviet Union “resolutely condemned” the American air raids against Syrian positions in Lebanon, terming them “a serious threat to peace in the Middle East, and not only in that region….”)

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As the Obama administration continues its foreign-policy schizophrenia, it’s useful to remember that any Obama strike on Syria will not be the first time U.S. forces have engaged Syrians. Just a few months shy of 30 years ago, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries in Lebanon fired on American reconnaissance planes supporting the U.S. and international peacekeeping force in Lebanon. In response, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Syrian positions hit. From a December 5, 1983 New York Times report:

Syria’s Minister of Defense said today that the American airman captured by Syrian troops after they shot down his aircraft on Sunday would not be returned until “the war” was over and American troops left Lebanon. He confirmed a report that the other American flier in the Navy attack bomber had died, and said the body was to be turned over to the United States Embassy in Damascus today… The American marines remained on alert in their compound at Beirut International Airport, although there was no resumption of the shelling that killed eight of them and wounded two on Sunday. The shelling occurred hours after an American air strike on Syrian targets east of the Lebanese capital in which two United States planes were shot down. (The Soviet Union “resolutely condemned” the American air raids against Syrian positions in Lebanon, terming them “a serious threat to peace in the Middle East, and not only in that region….”)

While I am on record favoring a limited strike against chemical weapons targets on both sides of the conflict, the opposition really isn’t better than the regime at this point and has certainly not become more moderate. Still, as much as history informs, let us hope that amongst all his flip-flopping, President Obama both remembers the danger of complications manned aircraft could pose if downed for whatever reason over Syrian territory. While Syria might not be able to down a U.S. aircraft unassisted, Obama should not put anything past Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has had enough time over the past several weeks to insert “advisers” wherever he might need. Here too, history informs. Putin’s mentality remains firmly in his KGB past and the Soviet heyday. Moscow’s condemnation now really is no different than it was in 1983. The only difference is in the character of the American presidency.

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In Syria, Partition Is Not the Answer

The Six-Day War in 1967 may have brought Israel victory over its Arab neighbors and shaped the modern Middle East, but it did nothing to stem the Palestinian desire to carry out terrorism against the Jewish state. Factions led by Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian terrorists consolidated on the Jordanian side of the Israel-Jordan boundary and used the area as a launching pad for anti-Israel violence. But as the movements picked up steam, the Palestinian encampments began behaving as a state within a state, brought Israeli retribution, and eventually destabilized Jordan enough for the Jordanian monarchy to force Arafat’s expulsion.

Arafat and his crew went to southern Lebanon, where they played the encore, once again creating a state within a state, destabilizing their sovereign host, and sparking regional armed conflict. Eventually Arafat would lose his base in south Lebanon as well, but there a new terrorist movement would sprout in his place. Hezbollah, fierce and bloodthirsty and determined to kill Jews, followed the script. First, the group developed and consolidated an area of influence. Then it began destabilizing its host state and sparking regional war.

This history, and the very clear pattern that has been established by combining weak states with transnational terrorist movements, should weigh heavily on the debate over what to do about the Syrian civil war. It’s why one scenario–partition–would likely only produce a brief spell of quiet as a prelude to more violence and state collapse. And it’s what should make Tom Friedman’s latest proposal, in which he anticipates a fragmented Syria and calls on the Obama administration to secure whatever part of that postwar state it can, a nonstarter:

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The Six-Day War in 1967 may have brought Israel victory over its Arab neighbors and shaped the modern Middle East, but it did nothing to stem the Palestinian desire to carry out terrorism against the Jewish state. Factions led by Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian terrorists consolidated on the Jordanian side of the Israel-Jordan boundary and used the area as a launching pad for anti-Israel violence. But as the movements picked up steam, the Palestinian encampments began behaving as a state within a state, brought Israeli retribution, and eventually destabilized Jordan enough for the Jordanian monarchy to force Arafat’s expulsion.

Arafat and his crew went to southern Lebanon, where they played the encore, once again creating a state within a state, destabilizing their sovereign host, and sparking regional armed conflict. Eventually Arafat would lose his base in south Lebanon as well, but there a new terrorist movement would sprout in his place. Hezbollah, fierce and bloodthirsty and determined to kill Jews, followed the script. First, the group developed and consolidated an area of influence. Then it began destabilizing its host state and sparking regional war.

This history, and the very clear pattern that has been established by combining weak states with transnational terrorist movements, should weigh heavily on the debate over what to do about the Syrian civil war. It’s why one scenario–partition–would likely only produce a brief spell of quiet as a prelude to more violence and state collapse. And it’s what should make Tom Friedman’s latest proposal, in which he anticipates a fragmented Syria and calls on the Obama administration to secure whatever part of that postwar state it can, a nonstarter:

Thus, the most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest. But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-Al Qaeda jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.

That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.

Friedman’s suggested course of action is unworkable more than it is unlikely. As I wrote in May, Bashar al-Assad’s forces are on pace to lose only parts of the country. Assad has enlisted the help of Hezbollah, and as a result will gain more control over land in Lebanon and be better able to entrench his loyalist power base. If the war ends in a stalemate, I wrote, the divided country would probably be a menacing presence from day one:

Such a division would collapse whatever nominal independence Lebanon has because the Assad regime, buoyed by its military alliance with Hezbollah, would control areas that border on Lebanon. It would give Syria renewed control over Lebanese territory and expand Hezbollah’s reach as well. That might be a fair trade for Assad, but it wouldn’t be for Western interests. If Assad loses territory in Syria’s north or east, those areas may become Islamist operating bases near American allies–Iraq and to some extent Jordan to the east and southeast, Turkey to the north. The latter is a NATO ally with a predilection for funding some Islamic terror groups while fighting others.

Again, the watchword here is destabilization. Jordan thought it could host Palestinian militants while still ruling over them. It was wrong. The Palestinians even briefly declared themselves independent of the monarchy before their expulsion. Lebanon had the same experience with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah. If al-Qaeda prospers in some part of Syria, it will probably follow the same pattern, first by securing a state within a state and then expanding, destabilizing the entire country.

That’s why Friedman’s advice to accept partition would be a long-term mistake. Unless the U.S. installs a puppet regime it is willing to go to war for in the moderate rebel section of the postwar partitioned Syria, those moderate rebels won’t fare much better against the al-Qaeda affiliates just because the West fabricated a “border.” The impulse to want to bring an end to the bloodshed is understandable, but pretend sovereignty and pretend peace won’t make that happen.

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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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Time to Bring Justice to Hariri’s Assassin

Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese nationalist who served as that country’s prime minister between 1992 and 1998, and again between 2000 and 2004, was assassinated on February 14, 2005, after having stood up to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s demands that Lebanon extra-constitutionally extend the tenure of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud. Popular outrage in the wake of the assassination led to the Cedar Revolution, an uprising of the Lebanese people against Syrian domination. Alas, the fickleness of the March 14 coalition combined with the empowerment of Hezbollah that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blessed in the short-term pursuit of quiet ended hope that the Cedar Revolution would fundamentally transform Lebanese society. (Michael Young’s The Ghosts of Martyr’s Square, which I reviewed for COMMENTARY in May 2010, remains the best account of the period).

In subsequent years, Syria and its fellow-travelers at the United Nations managed to slow-roll the investigation and tribunal process meant to bring Hariri’s killers to justice. Now, the Beirut Observer has published photographs of the elusive main suspect, Mustafa Badr al-Din, Hezbollah’s second-in-command. The newspaper attributed the photographs to www.stop910.com, a website which purports to hound Hezbollah. Badr al-Din, like the late Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, has long sought to keep out of sight, and to keep any recent photographs from surfacing.

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Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese nationalist who served as that country’s prime minister between 1992 and 1998, and again between 2000 and 2004, was assassinated on February 14, 2005, after having stood up to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s demands that Lebanon extra-constitutionally extend the tenure of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud. Popular outrage in the wake of the assassination led to the Cedar Revolution, an uprising of the Lebanese people against Syrian domination. Alas, the fickleness of the March 14 coalition combined with the empowerment of Hezbollah that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blessed in the short-term pursuit of quiet ended hope that the Cedar Revolution would fundamentally transform Lebanese society. (Michael Young’s The Ghosts of Martyr’s Square, which I reviewed for COMMENTARY in May 2010, remains the best account of the period).

In subsequent years, Syria and its fellow-travelers at the United Nations managed to slow-roll the investigation and tribunal process meant to bring Hariri’s killers to justice. Now, the Beirut Observer has published photographs of the elusive main suspect, Mustafa Badr al-Din, Hezbollah’s second-in-command. The newspaper attributed the photographs to www.stop910.com, a website which purports to hound Hezbollah. Badr al-Din, like the late Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, has long sought to keep out of sight, and to keep any recent photographs from surfacing.

The new photographs should make it more difficult for the Lebanese government to shirk its responsibility to bring Badr al-Din to justice. The photos also suggest that Hezbollah is not as impermeable as the group pretends. Should Badr al-Din be active in neighboring Syria, let us hope that publication of his photograph will make every checkpoint and every passerby a mortal danger to a man who prefers to kill from afar.

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What Ehud Barak Taught the Middle East

Today’s announcement that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not compete in the country’s upcoming election in January can’t be considered much of a surprise. Barak, who broke away from the Labor Party in 2011, knows that the odds are against his small Independence Party gaining enough votes to send him back to the Knesset. Thus, his statement that he is stepping down from electoral politics is more of a concession to reality than anything else. But this doesn’t mean he won’t continue in his current job.

Since the law allows the prime minister to appoint individuals who are not members of the Knesset to cabinet posts, it is more than likely that Barak will still be giving the orders at the Kirya in Tel Aviv next year. Yet, as Aluf Benn notes in Haaretz, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does bring him back, his influence in the next government will be diminished since, unlike cabinet colleagues like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, he will have no political constituency at his back. This means that although the 70-year-old former prime minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces is probably not actually retiring from public life, it is an appropriate moment to ponder the significance of his career.

Barak is one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history and his legacy as chief of staff and then later as defense minister is one that has generated wide and deserved praise. But he has also been the author of some of the biggest blunders in the country’s history without which his political failures would not have been explicable. While Barak will hope to be remembered chiefly for his exploits as a commando and then for successful military operations like the recently completed Operation Pillar of Defense, his role in ordering the IDF’s precipitate retreat from Lebanon and the diplomatic fiasco at Camp David in 2000 that led to the second intifada continue to loom large in his biography. Those who lament the demise of the peace process need look no further than Barak’s experiences as prime minister to understand why the country has rejected the policies of the left.

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Today’s announcement that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not compete in the country’s upcoming election in January can’t be considered much of a surprise. Barak, who broke away from the Labor Party in 2011, knows that the odds are against his small Independence Party gaining enough votes to send him back to the Knesset. Thus, his statement that he is stepping down from electoral politics is more of a concession to reality than anything else. But this doesn’t mean he won’t continue in his current job.

Since the law allows the prime minister to appoint individuals who are not members of the Knesset to cabinet posts, it is more than likely that Barak will still be giving the orders at the Kirya in Tel Aviv next year. Yet, as Aluf Benn notes in Haaretz, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does bring him back, his influence in the next government will be diminished since, unlike cabinet colleagues like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, he will have no political constituency at his back. This means that although the 70-year-old former prime minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces is probably not actually retiring from public life, it is an appropriate moment to ponder the significance of his career.

Barak is one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history and his legacy as chief of staff and then later as defense minister is one that has generated wide and deserved praise. But he has also been the author of some of the biggest blunders in the country’s history without which his political failures would not have been explicable. While Barak will hope to be remembered chiefly for his exploits as a commando and then for successful military operations like the recently completed Operation Pillar of Defense, his role in ordering the IDF’s precipitate retreat from Lebanon and the diplomatic fiasco at Camp David in 2000 that led to the second intifada continue to loom large in his biography. Those who lament the demise of the peace process need look no further than Barak’s experiences as prime minister to understand why the country has rejected the policies of the left.

Barak is likely to be asked to stay on at the Defense Ministry next year for two reasons.

One is that his competence in military affairs stands head and shoulders above any of the politicians who would like to add the crucial post to their resumes. The example of Amir Peretz, a union hack whom Ehud Olmert appointed to the position in 2006, and whose incompetence materially contributed to the disasters of the second Lebanon War that year, means that no Israeli prime minister is likely to ever again treat the job as just a patronage plum.

The second is that Barak’s presence in the cabinet gives Netanyahu political cover. Barak makes the government, which is otherwise dominated by figures from Netanyahu’s Likud and other factions in the country’s national camp, appear more centrist. It also allows Netanyahu to fend off any initiatives from Lieberman or other right-wingers by letting Barak oppose them. Though Barak has at times been critical of the government’s stands on the Palestinians and has been notable for his friendly relationship with the Obama administration (especially when compared to the prime minister), he has been a good partner for Netanyahu and has generally acted in concert on the big issues. Without Barak, it is impossible to imagine that the prime minister would even contemplate a strike on Iran or other controversial military moves.

However, if we are to understand why Barak, who was once Netanyahu’s immediate commander in the army when they were both young men, wound up his subordinate in politics, we have to go back to his brief tenure as prime minister. In 1999, Barak routed Netanyahu in a direct election for prime minister. Netanyahu’s first term was not without its successes, but by the time he was defeated for re-election he had worn out his welcome. Barak was seen as a technocrat rather than a Labor Party ideologue and therefore better qualified to lead the country. But in just 20 short months (the shortest tenure of any prime minister in the country’s history), Barak conclusively proved that skeptics about the peace process were right.

Barak was applauded for bringing to an abrupt end Israel’s 18-year-old military presence in southern Lebanon in 2000. Israelis were as sick of the quagmire there as the Lebanese were. But by bugging out in a fashion that allowed Hezbollah to represent the move as a defeat for Israel and a victory for terrorism, Barak laid the foundation for future disasters such as the even more spectacularly disastrous pullout from Gaza that Ariel Sharon orchestrated in 2005.

However, Barak’s decision to try and end the conflict with the Palestinians in one stroke at the Camp David conference in July 2000 was even more problematic. Barak offered Yasir Arafat an independent state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, terms that most Israelis thought too generous. When Arafat rejected the offer, Barak sweetened it the following January in Taba only to get the same response. By then, Arafat had answered what he and the Palestinians thought was Barak’s weakness by launching a terrorist war of attrition known as the second intifada.

Though 12 years later many American Jews and most of the Washington foreign policy establishment still haven’t absorbed the lessons of this debacle, the overwhelming majority of Israelis drew conclusions about the Palestinians from these events that continue to shape Israel’s political future.

Barak taught the Palestinians to think that terrorism will cause Israel to back down and retreat, leading them to think that more violence and intransigence rather than moderation and negotiation will get them what they want. At the same time, he taught Israelis that retreats like his Lebanon bug-out and the Gaza withdrawal it inspired, as well as the concessions that he made at Camp David, only lead to more sorrow for the country. Almost single-handedly (though it must be conceded that he couldn’t have done it without Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas), Barak inculcated in the Israeli public the understanding that they have no partner for peace and that the intractable conflict can only be managed rather than solved.

Though Barak is rightly seen as being as much a failure as a politician as he was a success as a soldier, his mishaps in office have probably done more to influence the country’s politics than anything any other Israeli has done. While he may continue at the Defense Ministry for years to come, it is these lessons that he taught both Israelis and the Palestinians that may be his most lasting legacy.

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Can Israel Restore Deterrence?

With Israeli aircraft pounding selected targets in the Gaza Strip and Israeli troops preparing for a ground incursion, Operation Pillar of Defense, now three days old, is beginning to look a lot like Operation Cast Lead, the three-week war in the winter of 2008-2009 in which the Israel Defense Forces entered the Gaza Strip, demolished some Hamas infrastructure, and then left. That operation was a success in the limited but real sense that it brought some respite from rockets emanating from the Gaza Strip. But, as Daniel Byman notes at Foreign Affairs, “As the memory of Cast Lead faded, the number of attacks coming from Gaza began to rise once more. Israel claims that over 200 rockets struck the country in 2010. The number climbed to over 600 in 2011. And 2012 has seen even more — over 800 before the current operation began.”

Clearly that is an unsustainable state of affairs. No country could possibly tolerate its soil being attacked with rockets and not act militarily to defend its citizens. Those who criticize the Israeli action–already one hears the tired old accusations of “disproportionate response” (what would a proportionate response look like–lobbing random missiles into Gaza indiscriminately?)–have no better alternative to offer beyond sucking it up and living with terror raining down over the southern part of the country. But however justified and necessary, Operation Pillar of Defense is unlikely to achieve results much more lasting than those of Cast Lead. Hamas has shown it will not cease and desist from its attacks because of an occasional Israeli counteroffensive and it has shown that it can easily replace militant commanders such as Ahmed Jabari, killed in an Israeli air strike Wednesday.

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With Israeli aircraft pounding selected targets in the Gaza Strip and Israeli troops preparing for a ground incursion, Operation Pillar of Defense, now three days old, is beginning to look a lot like Operation Cast Lead, the three-week war in the winter of 2008-2009 in which the Israel Defense Forces entered the Gaza Strip, demolished some Hamas infrastructure, and then left. That operation was a success in the limited but real sense that it brought some respite from rockets emanating from the Gaza Strip. But, as Daniel Byman notes at Foreign Affairs, “As the memory of Cast Lead faded, the number of attacks coming from Gaza began to rise once more. Israel claims that over 200 rockets struck the country in 2010. The number climbed to over 600 in 2011. And 2012 has seen even more — over 800 before the current operation began.”

Clearly that is an unsustainable state of affairs. No country could possibly tolerate its soil being attacked with rockets and not act militarily to defend its citizens. Those who criticize the Israeli action–already one hears the tired old accusations of “disproportionate response” (what would a proportionate response look like–lobbing random missiles into Gaza indiscriminately?)–have no better alternative to offer beyond sucking it up and living with terror raining down over the southern part of the country. But however justified and necessary, Operation Pillar of Defense is unlikely to achieve results much more lasting than those of Cast Lead. Hamas has shown it will not cease and desist from its attacks because of an occasional Israeli counteroffensive and it has shown that it can easily replace militant commanders such as Ahmed Jabari, killed in an Israeli air strike Wednesday.

The only thing that could possibly stop Hamas from regenerating after this current round of fighting is if Israeli troops stay in Gaza and maintain some degree of security, as they have done in the West Bank since Operation Defensive Shield dealt a major blow to the Second Intifada in 2002. Israel has been helped too by the emergence in the West Bank after Yasir Arafat’s death of more moderate leadership, especially Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Unfortunately, neither a reoccupation nor the emergence of moderate leaders is likely in Gaza.

Ever since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it has had scant desire to return. No doubt Prime Minister Netanyahu is afraid of the international opprobrium–especially from the United States under the leadership of Barack Obama–that “reoccupation” of Gaza would bring. It could also bring major headaches by exposing Israeli troops to the kind of guerrilla attacks they faced in southern Lebanon before withdrawing in 2000. As for the possibility of a more “moderate” Hamas emerging–that seems even more farfetched. Hamas is and remains an organization dedicated to Israel’s eradication in a holy war.

The best that Israel can hope for is to reestablish a measure of deterrence and win a few years of relative quiet. The model, in many ways, is the Second Lebanon War in 2006, which was widely derided at the time as a fiasco but which convinced Hezbollah to refrain from attacking across Israel’s northern border. The years since have been remarkably quiet in the north. Although Hezbollah has rebuilt its strength and then some–it has seized effective control of the Lebanese government and stockpiled more than 50,000 missiles–it has shied away from fighting Israel. It is not, for example, taking advantage of Israel’s battle with Hamas to launch a second front in the north. The experience of 2006 suggests that even terrorist organizations animated by a martyrdom complex can be rational enough for deterrence to work. Israel must hope it can achieve similar results in the south.

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