By Ramzy Baroud
On 1 September, the Lebanese group Hizbullah, struck an Israeli military base near the border town of Avivim. The Lebanese attack came as an inevitable response to a series of Israeli strikes that targeted four different Arab countries in the matter of two days. The Lebanese response, accompanied by jubilation throughout that country, shows that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may have overplayed his cards. However, for Netanyahu it was a worthy gamble, as the Israeli leader is desperate for any political capital that could shield him against increasingly emboldened contenders in the country’s 17 September general elections.
A fundamental question that could influence any analysis of the decision to strike Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza is whether the strategy originated from the Israeli government or the limited personal calculations of Netanyahu himself. I contend that the latter is true.
Israel has already violated the sovereignty of all of these states and territories, bombing some of them hundreds of times in the past; but striking all at once is unprecedented. Since neither Israel nor its US allies offered any convincing military logic behind the campaign, there can be no other conclusion than that the objectives were entirely political. One obvious sign that the attacks were meant to benefit Netanyahu, and Netanyahu alone, is the fact that the Israeli prime minister violated an old Israeli protocol of staying mum following this type of cross-border assault. It is also uncommon for top Israeli officials to brag about their country’s intelligence outreach and military capabilities. Israel, for example, has bombed Syria hundreds of times in recent years, yet has rarely taken responsibility for any of these attacks.
Compare this with Netanyahu’s remarks following the two-day strikes of 24-25 August. Only minutes after the strikes, he hailed the army’s ‘major operational effort’, proudly declaring that ‘Iran has no immunity anywhere’. Regarding the attack in the southeast region of Aqraba in Syria, Netanyahu went into detail, describing the nature of the target and the identities of his enemy.
Two of the Hizbullah fighters killed in Syria were identified by the Israeli army, which distributed their photographs while allegedly travelling on the Iranian airline, Mahan, ‘which Israel and the United States have identified as a major transporter of weaponry and materiel to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon,’ according to the Times of Israel.
Why would Israel go to this extent, which could surely help the targeted countries to uncover some of Israel’s intelligence sources? The Economist revealed that ‘some…in Israel’s security and political establishments are uncomfortable’ with Netanyahu’s tireless extolling of ‘Israel’s intelligence-gathering and operational successes in surprising detail.’
The explanation lies in one single phrase: the 17 September elections.
In recent months, Netanyahu has finally managed to wrestle the title of israel’s longest-serving prime minister, a designation that the Israeli leader has earned, despite his chequered legacy dotted with abuse of power, self-serving agendas and several major corruption cases that implicate netanyahu directly, as well as his wife and closest aides.
Yet, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu can hang on for much longer. Following the 9 April elections, the embattled Israeli leader tried to form a government of like-minded right-wing politicians, but failed. It was this setback that resulted in the dissolution of the Israeli Knesset on 29 May and the call for a new election. While Israeli politics is typically turbulent, holding two general elections within such a short period of time is rare, and, among other things, demonstrates Netanyahu’s faltering grip on power.
Equally important is that, for the first time in years, Netanyahu and his Likud party are facing real competition. Their rivals, led by Benjamin Gantz of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party, are keen to deny Netanyahu every possible constituency, including his own pro-illegal settlements and pro-war supporters.
Despite Gantz’s attempt to project his party as centrist, his statements in recent months are hardly consistent with the presumed ideological discourse of the political centre anywhere. The former Chief of General Staff of the Israeli army is a strong supporter of illegal Jewish settlements and an avid promoter of war on Gaza. Last June, Gantz went as far as accusing Netanyahu of ‘diminishing Israel’s deterrence’ policy in Gaza, which, he said, ‘is being interpreted by Iran as a sign of weakness’. In fact, the terms ‘weak’ and ‘weakness’ have been ascribed repeatedly to Netanyahu by his political rivals, including top officials within his own right-wing camp. The man who has staked his reputation on tough personal or unhindered violence in the name of Israeli security is now struggling to protect his image.
This analysis does not in any way discount the regional and international objectives of Netanyahu’s calculations, leading among them being his desire to stifle any political dialogue between Tehran and Washington, an idea that began taking shape at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. But even that is insufficient to offer a rounded understanding of Netanyahu’s motives, especially because he is wholly focused on his own survival, as opposed to future regional scenarios.
However, the ‘Mr Security’ credentials that Netanyahu aimed to achieve by bombing multiple targets in four countries might not yield the desired dividends. Israeli media is conveying a sense of panic among Israelis, especially those living in the northern parts of the country and in illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Golan Heights. This is hardly the strong and mighty image that Netanyahu was hoping to convey through his military gamble. None of the thousands of Israelis who are currently being trained to survive Lebanese retaliations are particularity reassured regarding the power of their country.
Netanyahu is, of course, not the first Israeli leader to use the military to achieve domestic political ends. The late Israeli leader, Shimon Peres, did so in 1996 and failed miserably, but only after killing over 100 Lebanese and United Nations peacekeepers in the Southern Lebanese village of Qana.
The consequences of Netanyahu’s gamble might come at a worse price for him than simply losing the elections. Opening a multi-front war is a conflict that Israel cannot win; at least, not any more.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, and his forthcoming book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. Baroud has a PhD in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net
The fate of Jerusalem has long been one of the thorniest issues between Israel and the Palestinians. To talk more about this, we joined by, Matshidiso Motsoeneng a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre.
The United States Embassy officially relocated to Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The initiative was driven by President Donald Trump
July began with a major shake-up in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus. In an attempt to consolidate power after regaining territorial control over most of the country, Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, seems to be focusing his attention internally within his regime, while still battling to retake the last swathe of opposition-held territory in the northern Idlib province. Asad removed formerly powerful and influential figures in Syria’s intelligence agencies and promoted individuals with close ties with Russia. Iranian influence is a major casualty of the shake-up, with a close Iranian ally, Major-General Jamil al-Hassan, resigning days after he walked out of a secret meeting between Syrian, Israeli and Russian military officials in Quneitra, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. With the ousting of Iranian allies, officials with ties to Russia have been promoted into key positions, signalling Asad’s consolidation of military and intelligence structures, and distancing his regime from Iran. The sidelining of Iranians and their allies appears to have Israeli fingerprints, after a secret meeting between Russia, Israeli officials and Syrian military generals in southern Syria on 30 June. The shake-up also signals Russia’s efforts to reform the Syrian military and intelligence services to ensure its interests override Iran’s.
Biggest reshuffle in seven years
The 7 July reshuffle of Syria’s intelligence apparatus is the most significant shift in personnel since July 2012, when senior security service personnel were moved after a bombing of the national security headquarters in Damascus left four generals dead. Since then, many of the people that filled these powerful positions in the intelligence apparatus have been implicated in the Asad regime’s atrocities across the country, with some personally accused of committing crimes against humanity. Last month’s reshuffling began Hassan, who headed the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, handed in his resignation. Despite his ill health and inability to carry out his duties effectively, his resignation was unexpected as his contract had recently been renewed for another year. Adding to the mystery is the fact that his deteriorating health was not cited as the major reason behind his resignation, and there have been reports of his having been treated in a hospital in Syria run by the Lebanese Hizbullah.
Hassan was replaced by his deputy, Major-General Ghassan Ismail, a close Russian ally. Ismail has been a key partner of the Russians for front-line operations at the Russian Hmeimim airbase near the city of Latakia. All four Syrian intelligence agencies – Department of Military Intelligence, Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – experienced leadership changes. Another reshuffling of leadership positions occurred in the General Intelligence Directorate, now headed by Major-General Hussam Louqa. Louqa, who hails from Aleppo, was a key Russian intelligence intermediary in Homs, and worked closely with Syrian military commander Brigadier-General Suhail Hassan, who also has close relations with Moscow. Another intelligence veteran and senior Asad advisor, Ali Mamlouk, has been promoted to the position of Vice President for Security Affairs. The Syrian president appears to be grooming Mamlouk for the position of deputy president, returning to his father’s tradition of reserving the deputy president post for a Sunni candidate. Mamlouk’s former position has been filled by Mohammed Deeb Zeitoun, known for his role in strengthening Russia’s links with the State Security Directorate over the past two years.
A number of other figures appointed into new positions on 8 July are also believed to share close links with Russia, including General Nasser Deeb, recently appointed to the strategic post of head of the Criminal Security Directorate. His appointment is viewed as indicative of Asad’s strategy of deploying Russians and their allies within the security apparatus to deal with the growing insurgency in the south, notably in Dara'a, which has seen a number of political assassinations of key opposition figures and those linked to the regime over the past year, since the government retook control of the area. As director of criminal security, Deeb is also tasked with containing the spread of shabbiha gangs, led by members of Asad’s extended family who have carved out territories of personal control in Latakia. The Russians see this post as critical to root out corruption and patronage links between the military and outsiders, as they attempt to herald a political solution to the war-torn country.
Another significant 8 July appointment, without media fanfare, suggested that the shake-up is not limited to the military and intelligence apparatuses. Ali Turkmani, son of a commander killed in the July 2012 bombing of national security headquarters, was promoted to the position of presidential security advisor, while another key political figure, Bahjat Suleiman, a former intelligence chief and former ambassador to Jordan, was reappointed to a key position in the political intelligence bureau. These appointments bear the hallmarks of growing Russian influence in Syria, seemingly at the expense of the Iranians.
Russia and Iran vying for influence in Syria’s military
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, both Russia and Iran’s influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses have strengthened, and have been critical to the regime’s victories over various rebel groups across the country. Russia’s continuing reform process inside the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses began with its 2015 military intervention, an attempt to stamp its influence in the country, as shown by the creation of the Fourth Corps under joint Russian-Syrian command. The fractured and beleaguered Syrian military has been weakened over time, while coming under the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Iran wields considerable influence in the military and intelligence apparatus in both lower and higher level structures. Furthermore, the presence of an array of Iran-linked militia, supporting the regime, has created a familiarity between generals and commanders through training and combat operations.
On the other hand, Russia entered the fray when the Syrian military was experiencing significant desertions and fractures in the intensifying war against rebel formations, and at a time when the regime had lost a significant amount of territory to the variety of rebel groups, including the Islamic State group. After the creation of the Fourth Corps in 2015 and the Fifth Corps in 2016, Russia set its sights on creating a single unit of command to integrate paramilitaries loyal to the regime into the Republican Guard. To effect this integration, Moscow has tried to exert greater control over the inner workings of the military and intelligence agencies through training and shifting personnel in key leadership positions. The latest reshuffle is an outcome of this process that intensified in late-2018, after the Syrian regime regained control of major territories lost to rebels since 2011.
Russia’s disagreements with the Iranians is not new. Although Iran continues to exercise considerable influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses, it has cause for concern as Russia seeks to placate Israeli demands to oust Iranian-linked militia from Syria, especially from the south of the country. In July 2018, as the Syrian regime began an offensive to oust rebels from Dara'a in southern Syria, Russia called for ‘foreign’ forces to withdraw from the southern areas, echoing Israel’s demand for Iranian fighters to retreat from areas close to the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. In the Astana negotiations process, led by Russia, Iran reportedly condemned Russia for allowing Turkey to launch operations against Kurdish fighters in Afrin in northern Syria in early 2018. In Idlib, the Russians have been dissatisfied with what they see as Iran’s lack of enthusiasm to assist in the regime-led offensive against rebels.
The security reshuffle, just over a week after a tripartite meeting in Jerusalem between Russia, the USA and Israel, also indicates the increasing role of Israel in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. On 25 June, Israel hosted US and Russian officials for a security conference that focused heavily on the question of countering Iranian influence. In the meeting, Israel urged Russia to assist with ensuring Israel’s security, which involves diminishing Iranian influence in Syria.
Russia was also told by Israel and John Bolton, the national security advisor to US president Donald Trump, that Iran needed to be rooted out of Lebanon and Iraq as well. Seemingly in agreement, Russia soon facilitated a 30 June meeting between Israeli and Syrian military and intelligence officials in Quneitra. The meeting was attended by General Jamil Hassan, accompanied by members of Syria’s Fifth Corps, which is funded, trained and commanded by Russia. Other attendees included leaders of certain rebel groups based in southern Syria, including the Ababil Houran Army, Alaa Zakaria al-Halqi and the Shuhada Inkhal Brigade. The meeting was also attended by the commander of the former Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Ahmed Hamaidi al-Moussa, who had been released from a regime prison days earlier, as a result of Russian pressure.
The Quneitra meeting was arranged as part of Russia’s cooperation with Israel for military operations in southern Syria. Israel demanded at the meeting that Hassan integrate the Fifth Corps into regime military forces, remove Iranian militias from the south of Syria (Dara'a and Quneitra) and maintain a distance of least fifty-five kilometres from the Golan Heights. In exchange, Israel and Russia offered to fund operations to combat rebel militia in Syria’s southern provinces.
Hassan reportedly refused to marginalise the Iranians, hailing them as supporters of the Syrian people. Although presented by Israel, the demand to integrate the Fifth Corps into the Syrian military has been an objective of Russia’s ongoing reform process within Syria’s military and intelligence apparatuses. The sacking of Hassan and other senior leaders in the 8 July reshuffle is the most recent part of the Russian reform process, which began after the formation of the Fourth Corps ‘storming brigade’ in October 2015.
Despite (or, perhaps because of) increasingly close coordination between Israel and Russia, the Israeli military has continued its bombardment of areas in southern Syria, targeting particularly Iranian positions near the Golan Heights. The Israeli bombardment also included Iraq, where several Iranian targets were hit by airstrikes. The frequency of Israeli strikes in Syria has increased, and can be expected to continue in Iraq, as suggested by the Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister, who boasted on 21 July that Israel was the only country that was killing Iranians.
Preparing for a new political era
On 13 July, Asad approved the appointments to the UN-guided constitutional committee, composed of regime officials and opposition figures selected by the regime, opposition groups and the UN. The formation of the committee has dragged on for seventeen months, as the UN struggled to establish consensus on the membership of the committee as demanded by the various actors. Geir Pedersen, the UN envoy to Syria, had failed to reach an agreement with the Syrian government on the opposition figures proposed by the UN until a breakthrough on 13 July, after the 8 July reshuffle. Asad and Pedersen announced the agreement on the formation of the committee, and said that talks were expected to continue between the regime and the opposition.
However, there are still disagreements over the constitutional review process. The regime wants to amend the constitution; the opposition has called for a complete redrafting. The latter’s view is supported by the USA, which has believes that a new constitution could see an end to the bitter conflict. It remains unclear whether this position is shared by Russia, which has largely left this process to the UN. For now, the Russians are focused on security sector reform in Syria, while continuing to pursue the Astana political process with Turkey and Iran. With the regime regaining control over most of Syria’s territory, it is expected that the Syrian participation in the Astana process will grow; Asad sent his foreign minister and several high-level security officials to the Astana meeting on 1-2 August.
The ceasefire agreed between the Syrian regime and rebel groups in Idlib on 1 August demonstrates preparation for a new era as combat dwindles. To accelerate this process, Russia intervened and deployed ground troops to assist the regime in Idlib, and this ceasefire is seen as a direct Russian intervention. Russia is therefore on a path of crafting an outcome to the Syrian conflict that is directed and led from Moscow, with regional players – such as Iran and Turkey – playing a mere supporting role.
The security reshuffle in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses demonstrates Asad’s intention to consolidate power as he looks towards rebuilding the country while battling the final rebel bastion in Idlib. With his internal consolidation under way, the regime is simultaneously engaging with the UN and beginning talks with the opposition to review the constitution. To do this, the Syrian president has recognised Russia as his most important partner by strategically placing Russian-allied figures in senior positions and allowing Russian training of special forces in the Syrian military. Iran, which continues to enjoy considerable influence in the military and intelligence agencies, is, in the process of the cosying-up with Moscow, seemingly being sidelined. While Tehran and Moscow tussle for influence in Syria, other actors, such as Israel and the USA, continue to play significant roles. Israel’s co-ordination with Russia has been evident in its repeated airstrikes in Syria, with Russia either turning a blind eye or assisting. Israel’s demands to integrate the Fifth Corps, created by Moscow, into the Syrian army to curb Iranian influence in the intelligence apparatuses signals greater Israeli-Russia co-ordination in Syria. Many Russian-trained units, such as the Fourth and Fifth Corps, are being integrated into the Syrian army, while figures allied to Iran, such as Jamil Hassan, are being pushed out. In short, the reshuffle signals that Asad has given Moscow the green light to rebuild Syria’s fractured security apparatuses to secure his future power, even if it comes at the expense of its long-time ally Iran.
Peace Vigil co-founder Shirin recently interviewed Na’eem Jeenah, a well-known South African academic who has written widely on Palestine and Israel. He is the executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg. The new President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, has categorically stated that the South African government will end diplomatic relations with Israel over its actions in Palestine. This interview with Na’eem Jeenah is helpful to understand the situation.