The big downside of the Iran nuclear deal is what the Iranians get: somewhere between $50 and $100 billion in unfrozen assets once sanctions are lifted. While I support the deal because it delays any Iranian attempt to get nuclear weapons by at least 10-15 years (and maybe forever), I also recognize that some portion of the unfrozen assets and the increased revenue from future oil and eventually gas sales will be used for activities that destabilize the Middle East and potentially areas beyond. The notion that it will all go to improving the lot of ordinary Iranians is bozotic.
The Obama Administration has hesitated during the negotiations to push back hard against Iranian support for Hizbollah in Syria and Lebanon, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen and arming of Shia militants in Bahrain. Iran views these efforts, which are under the control of the Supreme Leader (SL) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as protecting its homeland from Sunni extremists and possible Israeli attack. The Administration’s logic seems to be that pushing back harder might have weakened Rouhani’s standing within the Islamic Republic and made conclusion of a deal on the nuclear program, which is also under SL/IRGC control, impossible.
So what about now? There is still an argument to be made: push back against Iran’s regional troublemaking could stiffen the Iranian reaction and make implementation of the deal more difficult. But that argument is inconsistent with the Administration’s own claim that the deal concerns the nuclear file, as Middle Easterners call it, and nothing else. We are paying for this deal with lifting sanctions. We shouldn’t have to pay for it by tolerating Iranian subversion using money derived from lifting sanctions.
Rob Satloff last week offered a handy checklist of options to pushback against Iranian subversion in the region:
Ramp up U.S. and allied efforts to counter Iran’s negative actions in the Middle East, including interdicting weapons supplies to Hezbollah, Assad, and the Houthis in Yemen; designating as terrorists more leaders of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq that are committing atrocities; expanding the training and arming of not only the Iraqi security forces but also the Kurdish peshmerga in the north and vetted Sunni forces in western Iraq; and working with Turkey to create a real safe haven in northern Syria where refugees can obtain humanitarian aid and vetted, non-extremist opposition fighters can be trained and equipped to fight against both ISIS and the Iran-backed Assad regime.
All of these seem to me meritorious, but I imagine the Administration might argue that most are already in train. Certainly there have been efforts to interdict weapons going to the Houthis and Assad; I imagine also to Hizbollah, whose missile supplies the Israelis have repeatedly attacked. Training of the Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq started some time ago. Both clandestine and public programs have been training and equipping non-extremist opposition fighters in Syria, though the numbers and outcomes so far have been ridiculously low. Certainly more and better can and should be done.
The only really new idea here–new in the sense that the Administration hasn’t yet signed on to it, but it has been around for years–is the “safe” haven in northern Syria. I certainly don’t understand what the Turks and Americans might have agreed to already and plan to talk with colleagues in the Pentagon next week about that. But let’s imagine that they have agreed on the basic idea, which would deprive the regime of any pretense of sovereignty in a border area of the country and begin to offer an opposition alternative. What is required to make it viable?
There are five basic requirements to be considered:
- Rule of law
- Economic activity
- Social services, including humanitarian aid
Without any one of these, Syrians won’t go to a safe haven and the effort will fail, like many others before it. The conditions created don’t have to be perfect, but they need to be better than what people can find in Syria outside the safe haven. That might appear a low bar, but really is isn’t: there are regime-controlled areas in Syria that have suffered relatively little, in which even its opponents seek haven. And the refugees camps in Turkey are not the worst on earth.
In a future post, I’ll consider how to meet these requirements, which are far from trivial, especially under the conditions prevailing at the moment in northern Syria.
Unlike many colleagues around Washington, I have decided to talk with and answer questions from Iranian media willing to publish them. I think it important for Americans to try to be understood in Iran. Certainly Tehran is making big efforts to be understood in the US. While I find some of what the Iranian media broadcast objectionable and even odious, most of the questions they ask me are straight up, like these from Hamid Bayati, published this morning in the Tehran Times:
Q: As you know Iran and Russia begin new initiative to bring peace to Syria, so how do you evaluate these efforts?
A: There really is nothing to evaluate yet. The Iranian four-point proposal, which has been public for some time, requires a good deal more detail before it can be evaluated. The key question is how the transition will be handled. No political solution will work that keeps Bashar al Assad in power, because the Syrian opposition will continue fighting.
Q: Some experts believe that after nuclear deal reach between Iran and world powers, Western countries especially the US begin to cooperate with Iran in regional issues such as Syria, and a new era begins in Middle East. Do you agree with this view?
A: Not really, even if I would like to see it happen. Iran with the nuclear agreement will have substantial resources. The question is how it will use those resources. Hardliners in Tehran will presumably argue for more support to Iran’s allies in the region: Bashar al Assad and Hizbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, Houthi forces in Yemen and Hamas. The US and Europe will not welcome moves of that sort. There will be enormous pressure on the US administration to push back, especially against Hizbollah.
Q: Turkey launches airstrikes against ISIL and PKK positions in Syria and Iraq, are these acts helpful to peace process in Middle East or not?
A: The Americans think more Turkish help against ISIL is vital. The US and Turkey have different opinions about the Kurds in Syria, though at this point PKK attacks inside Turkey are making that irrelevant.
Q: How do you evaluate the US-led Coalition against ISIS after one year of its creation? Does this Coalition reach its goals?
A: The Coalition has not reached its goals, but it has blocked ISIS advances and has rolled them back in some areas (Tikrit, Kobane, Tal Abayd). Without a better formula for who will govern in ISIL-controlled territory, I don’t see how the Coalition can “win.”
Q: As you know US congress is reviewing the Iran nuclear deal and it is possible US lawmakers will kill this deal. If this event happen what will we have after that?
A: It is possible but not likely that US lawmakers would kill the deal, but in order to do so they would need a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress. That will be difficult to get. If they do kill the deal, Iran and the P4+1 will have some important decisions to make. Do they abandon the deal completely, or do they implement it without the US? If the deal is abandoned, what will Iran do?
Q: In an interview aired Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Obama said the United States’ role in global politics could be affected by the deal, how do you explain this sentence?
A: Defeat of the deal would separate the US from its allies and undermine confidence in American leadership in many countries. It would be like the Senate’s rejection of the League of Nations almost 100 years ago, a move that isolated and weakened the US.
Q: If US congress kills the deal, is it possible United States and EU continue a different strategy toward Iran? I mean is it possible they have different relations with Iran and EU that don’t follow US policy?
A: It is possible, though the US might try to apply “secondary” sanctions by barring European companies from doing business with the US if they do business with Iran. That would create big problems with America’s closest allies.
Q: It seems European countries have been more eager than US to revive their relations with Iran, how do you explain this view?
A: Europe needs Iranian oil and gas much more than the US does. Our companies are far less interested in doing business with Iran than some European countries. Geography is destiny I’m afraid.
As I failed to respond adequately to his question about the PKK, Hamid sent more, which were not published with the rest of the interview:
A: What do you think about Turkey military attacks on PKK positions? Some experts said these attacks are because the AK party lost in elections. Some experts said Turkey attacks the PKK because Turks don’t want Kurds to be strong, what do you think about it?
Q: The PKK made the mistake of ending the ceasefire with the Turkish government, which reacted forcefully. Some think this was the result of a split among the Kurds between those who did well in recent elections and the military component, which feared irrelevance.
It might have been better for the Turks to escalate more slowly; some think Erdogan may be seeking to regain some of the popular support he has lost recently by vigorously responding to every Kurdish provocation. But the PKK is a terrorist organization that attacks the Turkish state and can’t expect safe haven in Iraq or Syria. Iranian support for the PKK is a big concern for Turkey.
The complication of course is that the most effective Syrian fighters against ISIL include Kurds affiliated with the PKK. The Americans prioritize the fight against ISIL, which is an international threat. The Turks prioritize the fight against the PKK, which is a domestic threat. Iran does likewise when it faces a domestic threat of the PKK variety. The US and Turkey will work out their differences in dealing with the Kurds. I’m less sure that Iran and the US, or Iran and Turkey, will do likewise, though it would be desirable.
Rob Satloff, abandoning previous suggestions for renegotiation of the nuclear agreement with Iran, now puts forward proposals for the US to undertake without any need for Iranian agreement. He ties these to defeat of the agreement in Congress (whether by a veto-proof majority or not I can’t tell), but that is not logically necessary for their consideration. So let’s consider them, one by one:
Consequences: Rob wants punishments other than full sanctions “snapback” defined for non-capital violations, as he rightly anticipates it will be difficult to to use “the nuclear option,” if I may call it that, unless the violation is major. Specifically, he proposes
to reach understandings now with America’s European partners, the core elements of which should be made public, on the appropriate penalties to be imposed for a broad spectrum of Iranian violations.
I see no reason not to talk about this and even agree the penalties with the Europeans now, but is making the consequences public likely to increase compliance?
I wonder. Penalties defined now are likely to be less severe than what we can actually get once a violation occurs. It might be far better to wait for a incident of noncompliance and respond vigorously. I see no justification for Rob’s assumption that penalties defined later have “no value.” The first violation and reaction are the key to imposing credible consequences.
Deterrence: Rob wants penalties agreed and defined for transfer of funds from sanctions relief to Iran’s regional trouble-making. He suggests:
…these new multilateral sanctions should impose disproportionate penalties on Iran for every marginal dollar sent to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, etc.
Assuming that Rob is correct that our intelligence agencies can in fact determine unequivocally what amount represents increased assistance (which would surprise me), I again see no problem in discussing this with our friends. As he notes, levying sanctions of this sort is not ruled out because they are unrelated to the nuclear issue. We should be traying to block these transfers regardless of what happens on the nuclear deal.
Pushback: This is a related idea:
“Ramp up U.S. and allied efforts to counter Iran’s negative actions in the Middle East, including interdicting weapons supplies to Hezbollah, Assad, and the Houthis in Yemen; designating as terrorists more leaders of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq that are committing atrocities; expanding the training and arming of not only the Iraqi security forces but also the Kurdish peshmerga in the north and vetted Sunni forces in western Iraq; and working with Turkey to create a real safe haven in northern Syria where refugees can obtain humanitarian aid and vetted, non-extremist opposition fighters can be trained and equipped to fight against both ISIS and the Iran-backed Assad regime.”
Each of these propositions deserves its own consideration, but in general it seems to me vital that we push back in some of these or other ways against Iranian misbehavior in the region, lest Tehran get the idea that the nuclear agreement blesses their ambition of achieving regional hegemony.
Declaratory policy: Rob wants a Congressionally endorsed statement that the US will use military force to prevent Iran from embarking, after the 15-year restrictions in the agreement, on enrichment that could “only” lead to a nuclear weapon. For reasons I fail to fathom, he thinks to be effective this has to be done now by the president who did the deal.
Even leaving aside that problematic “only” lead to a nuclear weapon (which betrays a lack of understanding of the many ways in which uranium enriched to high levels can in theory be used), Rob is self-contradictory. First Rob says President Obama’s threat that “all options are on the table” has lost credibility. Then he says it has to be this president to say more or less the same thing, this time with Congressional backing, in order to be credible.
More importantly, Rob fails to consider the international repurcussions of having the Administration do this right now. The hardliners in Iran love reiteration of the “all options” statement, as it demonstrates their thesis that American attitudes are unchanged and Washington seeks an opportunity to strike Iran.
If Congress wants to go on record, I don’t see who could stop it. Nor do I think anyone in Tehran doubts where Congressional sentiment lies. But the Administration has a stake in seeing maximum implementation of this agreement, which is threatened on the Iranian end by hardliners who didn’t want to see it done in the first place. Strengthening opponents of the deal in Tehran is not in the US interest.
Israeli deterrence: Rob wants to transfer the Massive Ordnance Penetrator and the means to deliver it to Israel.
Here more discussion is needed. Is this without end-use controls, or with them? What means are needed to deliver it, and how many of the bombs and delivery means are we talking about? How realistic is it to imagine that Israel will have the capabilities needed to evade Iranian air defenses and deliver these 30,000-pound monsters? Who is going to pay for this stuff?
So yes, there are certainly some things we should be doing to block Iranian misbehavior in the region but I’ve got more questions than answers about some of Rob’s other propositions.
1. The Defense Economy and American Prosperity | Monday, August 17th | 11:30 | Brookings | REGISTER TO ATTEND | At just over 3 percent of gross domestic product, U.S. military spending totals more than $600 billion annually. A number of recent developments and long-term trends, however-including sequestration and contractor consolidation-threaten the health of the U.S. national security industrial base. The American defense industry is being squeezed on multiple fronts, but just how important is the defense sector to the overall strength of the American economy? Do specific cities or regions have more to worry about than others should defense spending continue to decline? What impact does defense spending have on regional and national job creation and technology innovation? On August 17, the Foreign Policy and Economic Studies programs at Brookings will host a discussion of the American economy and the role that defense industry could play in the nation’s continued recovery and economic health. Panelists include Ben S. Bernanke, Brookings distinguished fellow in residence, and Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program. Michael O’Hanlon, co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, will also participate and moderate the session. Following discussion, the panelists will take audience questions.
2. Assessing Japan-Republic of Korea Relations after Prime Minister Abe’s Anniversary Statement | Tuesday, August 18th | 10:00-11:30 | The Heritage Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II has the potential to either repair or further impair Tokyo’s current strained bilateral relations with Seoul. In recent months, both countries have endeavored to repair the relationship by addressing and compartmentalizing historic issues. But real progress on the nascent rapprochement initiative remains dependent on Abe’s anniversary statement and President Park Geun-hye’s response. Strained relations between two critically important allies is of grave concern to Washington since it hinders U.S. security interests in Asia and constrains effective integrated responses to the North Korean military threat. Questions remain over what role the U.S. can play in helping Japan and the Republic of Korea achieve reconciliation. Speakers include: Michael J. Green, Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair, CSIS, and Associate Professor, Georgetown, Evans J.R. Revere, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings and Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, CFR. Host: Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia, Heritage.
3. Examining Arctic Opportunities and Capabilities: Does the U.S. Have the Infrastructure, Ships and Equipment Required? | Tuesday, August 18th | 1:30-3:30 | The Heritage Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | On April 24, 2015 the United States began a two-year term as Chairman of the Arctic Council. The Council is composed of eight Member States: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S. Clearly, the capabilities of these eight countries to operate in the Arctic differ quite significantly. As Arctic opportunities arise, so, too, has the interest of an increasing number of non-Arctic countries. Twelve countries have been deemed Arctic Council “Observers:” the People’s Republic of
China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Spain. Several of these “Observers” are also actively developing and advancing their potential Arctic operations capability. The United States, under its Chairmanship over the next 20 months, will have numerous policy questions worthy of examination and assessment. Can any Arctic policy be sustained without enduring U.S. capabilities? Does change in the Arctic region encourage other countries to become more actively operational in the area? While the U.S. has the capability to operate around much of the globe, does
it really have a robust ability to be a presence in the Arctic? How might the U.S. better operate side-by-side with Arctic allies? Are Arctic Council “Observer” nations already more capable of Arctic operations than the U.S.? Join us for a most timely and important discussion. Keynote speaker: Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., USCG (Ret.), Special Representative for the Arctic, U.S. Department of State. Host: James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow, The Heritage Foundation. Other speakers include: H.E. Geir
Haarde, Ambassador of Iceland to the United States and former Prime Minister, Isaac Edwards, Senior Counsel for Chairman Murkowski, U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Luke Coffey, Margaret Thatcher Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, The Heritage Foundation. Moderator: James E. Dean, Manager, International and Diplomatic Programs, The Heritage Foundation.
4. China’s Missiles and the Implications for the United States |Wednesday, August 19th | 10:00 – 11:30 | Hudson Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | While China’s ongoing island-building in the South China Sea has garnered headlines, Beijing has quietly continued a ballistic missile modernization program that increasingly threatens U.S. and allied naval vessels—and challenges existing U.S. and allied ballistic missile defense capabilities. The United States is particularly concerned about the development of the DF-21 “carrier killer” that is designed to target U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the Western Pacific. Additionally, the commander of the U.S. Northern Command, Admiral Gortney, confirmed in April that China has deployed three ballistic missile submarines capable of striking the U.S. homeland. On August 19th, Hudson Institute will host five noted experts for a discussion of China’s expanding missile arsenal and the role of that arsenal in Beijing’s broader strategic objectives. Trey Obering, Dean Cheng, Mark Schneider, and Bryan Clark will join Hudson Adjunct Fellow Rebeccah Heinrichs to analyze China’s military capabilities, national strategy, and possible U.S. responses. Speaker: Henry A. “Trey” Obering III, Executive Vice President, Booz Allen Hamilton. Panelists include: Dean Cheng, Research Fellow, Heritage Foundation, Mark Schneider, Senior Analyst, National Institute for Public Policy, and Bryan Clark, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Moderator: Rebeccah Heinrichs, Adjunct Fellow, Hudson Institute.
5. Seeking Security: Georgia Between Russia and ISIS | Wednesday, August 19th | 3:00 – 4:00 | USIP | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As world headlines focus elsewhere, international security remains at risk in Georgia: Russian troops last month continued a creeping seizure of new Georgian territory, including part of a strategic pipeline. ISIS is recruiting fighters throughout the Caucasus for its war in Syria. Georgian Defense Minister Tinatin Khidasheli, in Washington to meet with top U.S. officials, will make her remarks at USIP August 19. She will discuss how her country is navigating regional security threats that have deepened in the 18 months since Russia attacked Ukraine.
6. US-Israeli Relations After the Iran Deal | Wednesday, August 19th | 6:30-8:30 | Located at Thomson Reuters but sponsored by PS21 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | After July’s historic nuclear deal between the P5+1 great powers and Iran, what is next for relations between the United States and Israel? Moderator: Warren Stroble, Reuters DC diplomatic editor. Panelists: Alexandria Paolozzi, Senate Legislative
Director and Issue Specialist on Israel for Concerned Women for America (CWA). She visited Israel in September 2014 on a Millennial Leaders tour. She has organized Capitol Hill panels on religious freedom in the Middle East, rallies and demonstrations in support of Israel, and has lobbied on pro-Israel policies in the United States Senate. Dr. Guy Ziv is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service (SIS), where he teaches courses on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, and international negotiations. He is the author of the Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel. He is founder and director of the Israel National Security Project (INSP), a repository of statements by Israeli security experts concerning the strategic imperative of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ari Ratner is a former State Department official and current PS21 board member.
7. Cyber Risk Wednesday: Hacks, Attacks, and What America Can Do about It | Wednesday, August 19th | 4:00-5:30 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Two months ago, the OPM discovered the biggest breach of US government data in history, described by many as the long-feared “Cyber 9/11”, exposing sensitive information on millions of Americans. While the Obama administration has refrained from publicly attributing the attack, many officials have privately pointed the finger at China. In July, hackers penetrated the Joint Chiefs of Staff email network in what has been described as the “most sophisticated” cyber breach in the history of the US military. Although the investigation is still underway, suspicion has quickly fallen on Russia. And just days ago, news broke about Chinese cyber spies having had access to the private emails of top US officials since at least 2010. In light of the unprecedented scale and scope of these recent data breaches, the Obama administration faces difficult questions: Does political cyber espionage warrant retaliation? Would retaliating effectively deter US cyber adversaries? Or would it further escalate the conflict, especially as the United States itself has been caught spying on other nation states? To answer these questions and suggest a way forward for the US government, this moderated panel discussion brings together recognized cybersecurity and espionage experts Siobhan Gorman, Director at Brunswick’s Washington, DC office; Jason Healey, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative and Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; and Robert Knake, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow for Cyber Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
8. Taiwan’s China Tangle | Thursday, August 20th | 2:30 pm – 4:00 pm | Stimson | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Taiwan was a symbol of “Free China” during the Cold War era. Democratization and the rise of local identity after the 1990s transformed the nature of the society into an indigenous regime. Under the double pressure of globalization and the rise of China, Taiwan is searching for a new route to cope with increasing domestic and international challenges. This presentation by Stimson’s Visiting Fellow Dr. Tse-Kang Leng will discuss the impact of the “China factor” on Taiwan public opinion toward cross-Strait relations, Taiwan’s economic links with the Mainland, and Taiwan’s strategic positon in a globalizing world. Speaker: Dr. Tse-Kang Leng, Visiting Fellow, East Asia Program, Stimson Center, Research Fellow, Institute of Political Science of Academia Sinica (IPSAS), and Professor of Political Science, National Chengchi University. Moderator: Alan D. Romberg, Distinguished Fellow and Director of the East Asia Program, Stimson.
9. A New Kind of Conflict: Cyber-Security on the Korean Peninsula | Thursday, August 20th | 3:00-5:30 | SAIS- The Bernstein-Offit Building, Room 500 | REGISTER TO ATTEND | ‘A New Kind of Conflict’ is a simulation exploring a cyber-security incident between North and South Korea, with the goal of highlighting the gaps between modern capabilities and international legal frameworks designed to combat cyber-crime. Networking reception with food and drink will follow. Event starts at 3pm, check-in begins at 2:45pm. Seating is limited.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia hosted a talk entitled The Threat from Within: Israel’s Extremist Dilemma by Barak Mendelsohn, FPRI senior fellow and associate professor of political science at Haverford College. Mendelsohn is an Israeli expert on radical Islam, who also served in the Israeli Defense Force for five years. Alan Luxenberg moderated. Audio of the conference can be found here.
Mendelsohn explained that most of his work focuses on jihadism, but his research on how actors interpret religion led him to probe similarities between jihadism and Jewish extremism. A few years ago, he was an isolated voice but sadly now finds himself vindicated, with the two recent attacks at the Pride Parade in Jerusalem and at Duma in the West Bank.
Religious Jewish terrorism is not new in Israel. There have been several attacks and attempted attacks since the 1980s. Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Arabs at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994 and Rabin’s assassination in 1995 are among them. Jewish terrorism cannot be separated from the settlement project of Israel’s messianic right-wing. It incubates Jewish extremism.
Every monotheistic religion can clash with the state because of the conflict between divine authority and temporal authority. But many religious people have found ways to reconcile God and the state. Religious Zionism saw the emergence of Israel as part of God’s redemptive process. Religious Zionists tolerated state action that conflicted with their preferences because the will of God was represented in the state’s authority.
Many Religious Zionists looked at the victory of 1967 as God’s plan for Israel. They were excited to return to lost Jewish lands, especially Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). The costly 1973 war led to gloom. Religious Jews began to sanctify land over other Jewish values, including the sanctity of life. If the state went against this value, the state was to be opposed.
All Israeli governments since have pandered to Jewish extremists, not just Likud governments. The messianic right built settlements without state authorization. State institutions provided aid to unauthorized settlements. Many were retroactively recognized, even when built on private Palestinian land. The IDF role in the West Bank was was to protect settlers from Palestinians, not protecting Palestinians. When members of the messianic right took illegal actions, few were prosecuted. The courts handed down mild sentences to those who were. Politicians granted amnesty.
In the 1990s, the view that a two-state solution was necessary became dominant among Israel’s political establishment. But the state was unable to act according to its strategic interests and dissociate itself from the messianic right. The state found itself tied to interests that clashed with its own. The messianic movement’s settlements built close to Palestinian cities prevented their expansion and led to increased friction and hostility. This created a self-fulfilling prophecy that made finding a solution to the conflict more difficult.
Bassam Barabandi, former Syrian diplomat, writes about developments in Zabadani, a key town on the Lebanese border:
What is happening at Zabadani is the beginning of a long process. Emboldened by the nuclear deal, Iran is trying to consolidate its power and position itself as an indispensable broker for peace. Tehran is even beginning to test the waters for a post-Assad Syria.
Assad (and by extension, Iran) has been failing militarily. Given the amount of treasure Iran has invested in Assad, that failure has more of an impact on Iranian leadership at this point than it does on Assad.
The original “train and equip” program started in Zabadani in the 1980s with Iranian training and equipping of Hizbollah. They have been a force and a player politically in Zabadani ever since.
Once the revolution began, Zabadani was hotly contested by rebels and the regime. Rebels took control of it early. For the most part, they have held the town ever since.
In 2012, Davutoğlu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, scoffed at Assad’s threats that he would attack Turkey, when he could not even break through in Zabadani. The next day Zabadani was beleaguered by airstrikes and has been under siege ever since. Humanitarian assistance is badly needed and the Assad regime has refused to allow it through.
Hizbollah attacked Zabadani this year precisely because it has been under siege and seemed an easy target that might help the regime gain some ground in an otherwise bad fighting year. This was not the case. Fighters, mostly allied with Ahrar as-Sham, account for roughly 30% of the population of Zabadani.
Plagued by defeats throughout southern Syria, Hizbollah was also unable to deliver clear, decisive defeats to the rebels at Zabadani. These difficulties have provided lessons to the Iranian leadership, which began to transition to a new strategy. Tehran has recognized that it will not be able to achieve all of its goals through military means only.
Last week Iran began dealing directly and solely with rebels from Ahrar as-Sham, successfully negotiating a cease-fire without the Assad regime. Their objective is to negotiate outcomes that they could not secure through force.
The Assad regime is trusting Iran as its primary interlocutor in these matters. ISIS is knocking at Ahrar as-Sham’s door. Assad is all but telling the rebels that ISIS cannot get through while the regime still stands, positioning himself as an indirect protector of these areas of Syria. This has the potential to open up cross-border humanitarian assistance through UN resolution 2165.
For Iran, there are two possible outcomes:
- If the cease-fire with Ahrar as-Sham holds, Assad can be seen as opposing ISIS incursions in Zabadani as well as allowing cross-border humanitarian assistance from Lebanon on the basis of UN resolution 2165;
- If the cease-fire fails, the Iranians will be able to blame it on Assad or the rebels, whichever proves to be more advantageous.
Iran’s ultimate aim is to change the demography of Zabadani from Sunni to Shia. Their hope is that through these negotiations they can get the combatants, who they say are foreigners, out of Zabadani, thereby opening up space for new residents to come in.
The Iranians are trying a similar maneuver in Fou’ah, in northern Syria. There they are negotiating a cease-fire, attempting to get foreigners to leave. In Fou’ah there are perhaps 1000 fighters from Hizbollah, Iraq and Afghanistan. But in Zabadani, the fighters are Syrians from Zabadani. The Iranian maneuver there is destined to fail.
The fact that Iran is attempting this negotiation without Assad is a major development and a possible harbinger of Tehran’s new strategy in Syria. It is testing the waters for a post-Assad Syria, in which it envisions itself as the only way to bring peace to the country. Iran would then be in full control. The Iranian leadership feels that in the wake of the nuclear agreement they have more clout and legitimacy to take on a more prolonged, intensive political role in Syria.
Zabadani looks to be the first stages of long process whereby Iran is moving Assad aside and positioning itself as the sole power in Syria, using its Quds forces and Hizbollah as the primary military and training apparatus for Syrian forces.
PS August 15: Bassam Barabandi updates yesterday’s post on Zabadani:
Yesterday Iranian negotiators and representatives from the armed opposition force known as Ahrar Al-Sham agreed on ceasefire in the Zabadani area adjacent to the Lebanese border and four Shia villages located in northern Syria.
What’s unfortunate about the the results of this ceasefire is that the deal will entail the swapping of populations. The Sunni Arabs of Zabadani can leave to Idlib and the Shia Arabs of the four villages can go to the area under the Assad regime’s control.
Ahrar Al-Sham used the authorization from the people of Zabadani to do such a deal under the rubric “humanitarian reasons and to save life.”
It’s more complicated than simply this one issue.
It’s clear that the deal is between Iran and Turkey to share influence over Syrian territory. The regime authorized Iran to negotiate. Foreign Minister Zarif was in Damascus for this reason.
The people of Zabadani will issue a statement soon rejecting this deal. Should it be implemented, it will be the first time since the beginning of the revolution that a population swap based on sectarian lines is conducted in Syria.