The Sword of Damocles

As the Syrian civil war enters its second decade in 2021, what started as a peaceful uprising against the political administration in Syria has developed into a power struggle amongst a myriad of foreign powers in the geopolitical bedrock of the Middle East.  Syrians protested in the wake of the Arab Spring a few months after it took hold in late 2010 across the Arab states.  The protests were met with force, violence escalated, and the country descended into civil war.  Ten years on, eleven million Syrians are displaced, both internally and as refugees mainly across Europe and neighbouring countries, whilst Bashar Al-Assad remains Syria’s President.  However, his power holds sway under a sword of Damocles.  The President has his allies but their allegiance is conditional, and that, like the horse’s hair from which the sword of Damocles hangs, creates an unpredictable situation.

President Assad’s orders to his military to forcibly stop protests before they engulfed the nation in April 2011, came not long after pledges of government and social reforms.  However, Syrians had lost hope in the transformation of the nation from a socialist to a market economy through the government’s tenth five year plan, which started well and should have come to realization in 2010 but had begun to falter.   The demonstrations spiralled into armed confrontation and civil war. 

Syria was provided military support by its longstanding financial ally Iran. Substantive support began with the sending in of a contingent of 4,000 troops in 2013.  There are many reasons for Tehran’s support for Syria, a nation at the cutting edge of the Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East. The demographic makeup of Syria is multi faceted and a point of contention. Pre war population statistics are obviously no longer valid and indeed there has in any case not been a credible census in Syria since 1963. However the NCF estimates the pre war population of Syria as being:

Sunni Arab 51% (average of all best estimates 56.5%)
Kurdish 14% (average of all best estimates 12.5%)
Christian 8.5% (average of all best estimates 12% which seems high)
Alawite 14% (average of all best estimates 14%)
Druze 3% (average of all best estimates 3%)
Others e.g. Yazidis, Jews, Turkmans, Shiite 6% (average of all best estimates 2% which seems low)

Certainly if the Kurds are numbered with the Arab Sunnis there is a Sunni majority, whilst President Bashar Al-Assad is from the Alawite minority, regarded (on a very tenuous and scarcely credible basis) by Iran’s leadership as being a sect of Shia-Islam.  Arguably the relationship began as a tactical and strategic partnership, initiated in the 1980s by both governments’ shared contempt for President Saddam Hussein during the Iraq – Iran conflict.  This alliance has been sustained for strategic reasons and perhaps reinforced by a mutual distrust of Israel. Furthermore, geographically Syria is situated on a thoroughfare between Iran and its Lebanese Shi’a militia ally Hizb’Allah. 

Iranian support for Syria has of course also been financial, and has gone beyond mere remittances. Iran has provided the Central Bank of Syria with a $4 billion line of credit.

In the early days of the war, Arab nations including Saudi-Arabia and Qatar provided financial assistance to Syrian rebel fighters.  Israel also provided assistance to Free Syrian Army rebels in 2017 and carried out air strikes, which continue today, with one of the deadliest attacks allegedly killing 57 Syrian and Iranian soldiers last week.  These attacks have escalated in the last few months in the run up to the transition of power in the White House.

Iran’s strategic reasons for retaining President Assad as an ally go way beyond mere personal interest.  A change in strategy for Iran is none the less improbable despite talk of a new “Syrian Karzai”.  Meanwhile for Iran the prospect of brokering peace with anti-Syrian government rebels, who have been in the line of Iranian fire since the infancy of this war is a taller order than supporting the current status quo. 

Despite strong Iranian support, President Bashar Al-Assad’s fight against the rebels took a new turn at the end of September 2015, when he called on Moscow to help in the fight with the rebels who were gaining strategic control of key towns in Syria.  Some say that this call for help came directly at the request of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, although the Institute for National Strategic Studies reports the Russia’s decision to intervene came prior to General Soleimani’s visit to Moscow.  Russia has been a long term ally of Syria. However, Putin’s willingness to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power may be more covetous.  The war in Syria and decisions by other states have provided Putin with an opportunity, one that he has taken advantage of and which has fundamentally shaped his strategy

Russia’s strategy has been described as functional. “It constantly seeks to improve its short-term economic, military, and political advantages while reducing the short-term advantages of prospective adversaries.”  Its long-term vision is to become a global power in the region.  To achieve political hegemony, enhancing military bases in the region is critical, and the Syrian War has provided this opportunity. 

Russia is keen to orientate the Middle East towards itself and away from the US, with countries such as Iran this provides a mutual understanding, however re-orientating other regional actors, such as Turkey and the Gulf States is a greater challenge.  The crevice that Moscow regularly exploits is the sovereignty of leaders over their state, both from “external intervention and internal insurrection” by directly attributing the cause of such violations to the West’s foreign policy, demonstrated by the toppling of both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Al-Gaddaffi.  Russia’s opportunity was further enhanced with Trump’s decision to pull its troops out of Syria in October 2019, which is illustrative of the US’s lack of interest in the region, making it easier for President Putin to induce the leaders of the Arab nations to regard him as a safe bet.

War is not a cheap venture through proxies or otherwise, and both Iran and Russia have accumulated a large tab in the course of their interventions.  Iran’s costs are between $600 and $700 million a month and that doesn’t account for the human loss with boots on the ground.  Despite avoiding heavy human casualties, as Moscow’s offensive interventions have predominately been airstrikes, the cost to Moscow comes in at $4 million a day for airstrikes, this doesn’t include the heavy investment in Syria’s Armed Forces in the form of arms and training.  Despite the advantages of the intervention, such as testing new military systems, combat experience and building up its bases, the long term gain for Russia in recouping the financial costs are high.  Both of Syria’s allies are taking a stake in the country’s infrastructure.  An agreement between Damascus and Moscow a few months after the departure of US troops permitted Russian energy companies to develop three blocks of oil and natural gas.  Reconstruction deals have also been struck by both countries, although there is contention between them as to how the spoils are shared out.

The longevity of the war in Syria is also taking its toll on those loyal to the President.  With high gains in the initial years of the war, their fortunes have turned.  The Caesar sanctions imposed by the US are crippling Damascus’ financial support network, as they specifically target third-country actors with cross-border business activities with Syria.  With the loss of revenue, President Al-Assad has turned on Syrian loyalists such as his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who was Syria’s richest national with investments in telecoms, real estate and hotels.  Makhlouf expressed his discontent in futile social media posts in May 2020, as the President confidently grappled for the countries assets and unpaid taxes to replenish his coffers

The exploitation of family division has been a feature of Bashar Al-Assad’s presidency. That said, in the eyes of some it exposes the pressure that Moscow can apply on Damascus, as Makhlouf was close to Iran and involved in contracts with Iran-affiliated Syrian businessman, a point of discord with Russia.  The family division in fact runs deep as President Bashar Al-Assad has a history of arresting and imprisoning cousins that displease him, though whether it reflects allegiances to Syria’s allies is questionable.  The Syrian military remains strong and confident in its own right. The lead command of the Fourth division is Maher Al-Assad, the President’s brother who remains intensely loyal and whose commanders are advised by Tehran.  Whilst the air intelligence affiliated militia fighting for the Syrian army, The Tiger forces, led by the charismatic Suhayl Al-Hassan, have attained elite fighter status and benefit from Russian support.

The impact of not only the Ceasar sanctions, but also sanctions applied to neighbouring Lebanon and Iran by the US are also damaging President Bashar Al-Assad’s cash flow.  This along with the ongoing cost of the war is filtering down to ordinary Syrians loyal to the Syrian government.  The war has caused the Syrian pound to lose 80% of its value, Syria’s agriculture and tourism industries have been destroyed, and the flow of currency coming in from oil exports lost. Eight out of ten people live below the poverty line.  In June 2020, fresh protests by Syrians living under Damascus’ control echoed the protests of 2011.  These Syrians add to the list of those the President is struggling to please, and as a token gesture he fired his Prime Minister Hamid Khamis.

The elections for the Presidency are scheduled for June 2021, and despite the outcome being predictable, a final victory in the war in the President’s eyes would solidify his support from those around him.   Syria’s civil war that enters its tenth anniversary in March, has been dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, and drawn in many regional actors.  Now President Assad wishes to gain control of the final rebel strong-hold. 

Idlib a province in the North East of the country remains under Turkish backed-rebel control.  This is the area in which many civilians and rebels have escaped to after their towns came under siege from Syrian’s armed forces, including Eastern Alleppo, Homs, Darraa and East Ghouta.  Despite Syrian government supporters believing they can take military control over the area, there are many factors that make this unfavourable.  Firstly, the area has strong Turkish military support.  Turkey borders northern Syria and hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and their repatriation will be less likely if President Assad takes control of Idlib.

To avoid an escalation, Russia met with Turkey at the Astana framework talks in April 2020 between Russia, Iran and Turkey. 

Another reason why an outright Syrian Army assault on Idlib will not be favoured by Russia, is doing so could arguably contravene UN resolution 2254 that was unanimously agreed upon by all member states including Russia, in December 2015, three months after Russia intervened in the war.  This calls for a ceasefire, constitutional revision, and new free and fair elections. 

Although this UN resolution was described by the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, as “Syrian-led, Syrian owned, credible, balanced and inclusive”, President Assad has a large swathe of influence over the committee formed to revise the constitution, as half the members are nominated by the Syrian government providing him with a de facto veto power, and those representing the Western approved factions of the opposition present seem to have little interest in progressing matters.  The ceasefires agreed to date have all collapsed and the most recent agreed through the Astana framework by Turkey, Iran and Russia in March 2020 remains perilous with incidences of violence.  The failure of these ceasefires is because these ceasefires are often used as strategic military tactics to pause the war on one front and to re-align troops to another front that is on the verge of being secured.  However more importantly, these ceasefire agreements do not initiate peace agreement talks that are inclusive of Syrians. 

Arguably further military intervention in Idlib by the Syrian government’s coalition forces would exacerbate the existing humanitarian catastrophe.  There have been grave breaches of humanitarian law throughout this war and they continue, including the targeting of civilians and torture of prisoners by all sides as reported by the UN Human Rights Council.  An assault on Idlib, that homes nearly three million people, over three times its population before the war, would be difficult for the international community to swallow, especially as there are no other humanitarian corridors that could provide protection to the Syrian refugees trapped there.  Conditions in Idlib are dire for the tens of thousands in makeshift camps, with freezing temperatures and flooding, the situation exacerbated by the spread of Covid-19.  Furthermore only one of the two remaining border crossings for humanitarian aid remains open, after the UN resolution 2533 to keep the other, Bab-Al-Salaam open was vetoed by Russia in July 2020.  Although open military assault is not currently being pursued in Idlib, humanitarian assistance is being restricted to maintain a stranglehold over the province. 

To avoid a humanitarian disaster in the region and with the agreed ceasefire in Idlib, the UN needs to use this space to secure a peace deal that sees a political settlement providing Syrians with a voice in their country’s future, and for this security is paramount in Idlib.  Setting up an administration made up of Syrians in Idlib to start negotiating a peace agreement, that includes the repatriation of Syrians could be a next step.  This could only be possible if the UN mandated a protectorate force to provide the necessary security in the region, a force that would be tolerated by the rebel forces.  

However this may not be acceptable to President Al-Assad. The end strategy will need to be carefully negotiated with Iran and Russia, who both share interests, but may reassess their allegiances as President Biden enters the Oval office in the White House. 

Edited by William Morris

Iran’s Detention of Foreigners is doing them No Favours

On Monday 4th January, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the MT Hankuk Chemi in the Straits of Hormuz and detained its crewmembers for allegedly violating international pollution rules. The tanker’s parent company, DM Shipping, has rejected these claims and South Korea’s Foreign Ministry states that no technical evidence has been presented which suggests the vessel was in breach of any pollution law. This development comes after months of tension between Iran and South Korea, arising from the freezing of an estimated $7 billion worth of Iranian funds by South Korean banks since September 2019. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei has dismissed any suggestions that this seizure is a form of hostage-taking, but Iran’s recent track record contradicts this denial.

Just two months ago, British-Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released from prison after being arrested in September 2018 on espionage charges. She denied these charges and no evidence was presented by Iran to support them, leading to the Australian government labelling the charges as “baseless and politically motivated”. Indeed, Moore-Gilbert’s release was only achieved through a prisoner swap for three Iranian prisoners held in Thailand, of whom two were convicted in connection with the 2012 Bangkok bombings. Politics, then, does seem to have been the motivation behind the detention of Moore-Gilbert.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s detention is not the only case of Iran detaining a foreigner with the apparent aim of exchanging them for another prisoner. US citizens Michael White and Wang Xiyue were both separately detained on allegedly spurious evidence and were subsequently exchanged in prisoner swaps for Iranian scientists Sirous Asgari and Massoud Soleimani (themselves detained in America on seemingly spurious evidence). Moreover, even before the seizure of the MT Hankuk Chemi, it seems Iran had a record of detaining foreign nationals with financial goals in mind. Though claims that Iranian-British dual-national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ongoing detention is linked with an unpaid £400 million debt that Britain has owed Iran since the 1970s are presumably false.

The wealth of evidence suggests, then, that Iran has been systematically detaining dual-nationals and foreigners as leverage, either for prisoner swaps or financial disputes. This practice has continued for years and it seems the reason Iran persists with it is because, on the surface, it appears to work. Iran almost always gets what it wants in exchange for the release of a prisoner, and when its stock of foreign detainees runs low it can simply arrest more on charges of espionage, thus repeating the cycle. The fact that Western countries are presumed to be acting in similar arbitrary fashion (i.e. the Sirous Asgari and Massoud Soleimani detentions by the USA, neither of whom were ever convicted of any crime) is really no excuse. Iran must be aware that it stands to lose more than it stands to gain from these actions.

Belgium has already refused to cooperate with Iran in an instance of what they describe as blackmail. Last November the Iranian judiciary told Swedish-Iranian Ahmadreza Djalali that his death sentence for espionage would be carried out imminently. He alledges he was tortured to extract a confession. The Iranian-born Swede worked in Brussels and this announcement was probably an effort to force a prisoner swap with Belgium for diplomat Assadollah Assadi. Brussels, however, continued with its prosecution of Assadi and warned that Djalali’s death would result in an immediate severance of relations between Belgium and Iran. At the time of writing, Djalali is thought to still be alive and in prison.

While Iran continues to be under enormous pressure from US sanctions, it is becoming clear that Iran cannot afford to sever the relations it still has with the West, and therefore their threats no longer come from the perceived position of strength that they used to. These arrests, then, will be less likely to succeed in the future, while continuing to deter tourists from visiting Iran. Crucially, if this practise continues it will serve to further alienate Iran from the international community. If Iran wants to be taken seriously and make real progress in its relations with the wider global community, it needs to rethink its anti-diplomatic policies, starting with its detention of foreign nationals for leverage.

Fakhrizadeh’s Assassination and the nuclear deal

Just at the beginning of 2020 the headlines were dominated by the assassination of a prominent Iranian figure and the resultant escalating tensions, it seems that the year will draw to a close in a similar fashion. While Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was not quite the talisman that Qasem Soleimani was, he was a senior officer in the IRGC and undoubtedly a key part of Iran’s nuclear program, and it is therefore no surprise that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed a retaliation against those responsible for Fakhrizadeh’s martyrdom. Although Israel has not publicly taken responsibility for the assassination, Mossad are the most likely culprits. And if Israel is to blame, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would almost certainly have had to get clearance from President Trump. With this in mind, then, it is worth examining the possible outcomes of this escalating situation, particularly with regard to how it affects US-Iran relations and the likelihood of a nuclear deal.

Iran’s response

Naturally, attention is focussed on what Iran will do in response to the assassination. While it is probably beyond their current capability to respond directly in kind by assassinating an Israeli of similar stature, there are other measures that Iran could take. For instance, Iran is known to have allies across the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah who could act on their behalf. It seems more likely, however, that for the time being Iran will instead respond by further accelerating its nuclear program.

The Iranian government has just passed a law, approved by the Guardian Council, to enrich its uranium up to 20% and stop allowing inspections of its nuclear plants. The IAEA reported last month that Iran was already stockpiling up to 12 times more uranium than it was permitted under the JCPOA, as well as enriching it up to 4.5% purity, significantly above the 3.67% agreed upon. This decision to step-up the nuclear operation could act as both an attempt to play hardball in anticipation of what will likely be lengthy negotiations next year with the new US administration over re-entering a nuclear deal and a message to the international community that the sanctions imposed on Iran are not limiting the nuclear program.

 It should be stated that the final decision on whether or not Iran does accelerate its nuclear program remains with Ayatollah Khamenei, who has not publicly clarified his intentions: indeed, President Rouhani has openly opposed taking these steps.

What this means for the incoming US administration

The fact that President Trump almost certainly gave the green light for the assassination is not a huge shock. It seems Mr Trump is going to make it his mission in his last few weeks in office to continue exerting maximum pressure on Iran through any means possible short of starting a war. He has continued to impose new sanctions on the Iranian oil and financial sectors, as well as even allegedly discussing options to attack an Iranian nuclear site with senior security aides shortly after the presidential election.

It seems that within the current administration there are several different reasons for wanting to keep this pressure on Iran. One public line given by Elliott Abrams, Special US Envoy for Iran, is that it is an attempt to come into future negotiations from a position of strength, such that Iran will have little choice but to agree to a nuclear deal on US terms. Mike Pompeo, however, sees these sanctions as an ongoing preventative measure to limit the funds that the Iranian government can use for malign activities. The fact of the matter is that President Trump’s decision to continue applying pressure on Iran is having negative effects on the civilian population, regardless of how effective it is at containing Iran’s nuclear program.

This is part of the reason the Democrats tend to believe diplomacy is the preferable tool for dealing with Iran. A return to some sort of cooperative agreement in which sanctions were lifted would be far less harsh on normal Iranian people, and even though there is evidence that the Iranian nuclear program was continuing before the US pulled out of the JCPOA, it can’t be denied that the reimposition of sanctions only seems to have accelerated the program. This assassination could act as a stumbling block for the incoming administration, though, because it only increases the possibility that next year’s Iranian presidential election will result in a hardliner winning the presidency, and this will make negotiations even more difficult. Further, depending on how Iran reacts to this assassination, the US may be forced to abandon plans for diplomacy and use more extreme measures.

Israel’s role

A final perspective to consider is that of Israel. Israel has known about Mohsen Fakhrizadeh for years and Prime Minister Netanyahu identified him specifically as the leader of the allegedly ongoing AMAD nuclear project in 2018. The decision to assassinate him now, then, is probably more to do with politics than the state of the Iranian nuclear project. Firstly, Netanyahu’s personal political situation is under some threat, with his approval ratings slumping and corruption charges threatening his situation, and the decision to assassinate what will be seen as a national security threat may help to remedy his standing. Crucially, though, this assassination comes at a time where the prospect of diplomacy between Iran and the US seems very likely in the near future, whereas the prospect of Iran producing a nuclear weapon does not.

Should Joe Biden’s government lift many or all of the sanctions on Iran next year, the influence that Iran could have in the Middle East will surely increase. Ayatollah Khamenei has made his opposition to the state of Israel quite clear, and it seems that Israel is understandably more concerned right now with denying Iran a path to Washington than it is with denying Iran a nuclear program. As the situation develops it will become clear whether this assassination was successful in fulfilling this purpose.

Healing the Nations – Book Now!

The Next Century Foundation’s 
Healing the Nations
Summer Conference

 

The Next Century Foundation is holding a ten-day online conference over the end of July and the first week of August.

Events will be taking place covering all of the Foundation’s key nations and areas.

 
CLICK HERE FOR FULL DETAILS

To book, contact ncfmepp@aol.com with details of which sessions you are planning to attend.
 
Sessions will run in the mode of the NCF’s successful weekly meetings, mixing input from knowledgeable speakers and key players with both breakout room and round table discussions.

This conference provides a unique opportunity to take stock of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and beyond, and gain on-the-ground insights simply unavailable in mainstream reporting.

We would be honoured if you would join us in confronting the key issues in these countries and working towards peace and positive change through constructive discussions – just have as we have for the last three decades.
 

Conference Sessions
(London BST)
   

Thursday 30 July 
11.20 am US/UK 
3 pm Lebanon

Friday 31 July
3 pm Palestine 

Saturday 1 August
3 pm Libya

Sunday 2 August
3 pm China

Monday 3 August
11.30 am Afghanistan 
3 pm Iran 

Tuesday 4 August
11.30 am Iraq
3 pm Syria 

Wednesday 5 August
11.30 am Kashmir 
3 pm Yemen

Thursday 6 August
11.30 am Israel 
3 pm Sudan

Friday 7 August
3 pm Bahrain

Saturday 8 August
3 pm Conclusions
 
 

Image: Sunrise in San’a, Yemen taken by yeowatzup / CC BY

So What’s the Story on Iran?

Issues of the Week

Iran has many decisions to make about the way forward in view of this year’s Presidential election in the USA. One of which is who are likely to be the mainstream candidates for Iran’s own Presidential elections next year. Some names are being touted. And there is not an extremist among them – but then nor is there a liberal. They are all pragmatists belonging to what Iran calls the “Principalist” party. For William’s podcast on this and other matters regarding Iran click here.

 

Iran Changes Tack

The Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General, William Morris, expresses concern that international sanctions are preventing Iranian access to medical supplies in a post coronavirus world. And points out a major strategic change in Iran’s defense policy. To listen to the podcast click on this link.

 

So who Created ISIS?

William Morris, the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General, addressed lecturers at Takrit University in Northern Iraq as a precursor to discussions the subject of which was, at Takrit University’s behest, the role of Iran and America respectively in Iraq. This podcast was made in the aftermath of that meeting and reflects salient points from that discussion. Podcast from NCF Secretary General William Morris on this link

The following observation and associated note for clarification is relevant and comes from our senior member in Iraq, Stafford Clarry:

Following the drone assassination of two top military commanders – one Iranian and the other Iraqi, an Iranian military strike against US military forces in Iraq, and the Iraqi Parliament passing a non-binding resolution for withdrawal of US forces, the US-led coalition and Iraqi military have since resumed joint operations against ISIS. In addition, the US is negotiating to install defensive Patriot missiles in Iraq. Further, the US is urging a review of the SFA.

To clarify:

In 2008, the US and Iraq entered into two binding agreements.

  • One, the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), covered the overall political, economic, and security relationship.
  • The other, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), required all US combat forces to withdraw from major populated areas by end-June 2009 and for all US forces to withdraw from Iraq by end-December 2011.

These binding agreements were decided and signed during the White House administration of President George W. Bush. They were publicly endorsed by both Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani and US President George W. Bush in December 2008 in Baghdad.

Thus, contrary to misinformation, President Obana DID NOT decide to withdraw US forces from Iraq. In 2014, in reaction to the ISIS onslaught, however, upon the invitation of the Iraqi government, President Obama DID decide to send US combat forces back into Iraq.

President Obama used the 2001 Authority for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda and other associate militant groups that was passed by the US Congress on 14 September 2001 and signed into law by President George W. Bush on 18 September 2001.

 

Former US presidential envoy speaks candidly about Iraq and Iran

Brett McGurk, a senior national security adviser to three presidents, left the Trump Administration after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Our Senior NCF member in Iraq, Stafford Clarry, shared this fascinating insight from Andrew Dyer of the San Diego Union Tribune datelined Jan. 23. It is of particular interest because the NCF is partnering with Takrit University’s Department of Peace Studies and for our first guest lecture, this Thursday, they have asked us to talk to students on the involvement of the USA and Iran in Iraq. For the original text see this link:
https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/military/story/2020-01-23/former-presidential-envoy-to-defeat-isis-coalition-talks-about-iraq-iran-conflict-at-sdsu

SAN DIEGO — A former national security advisor under three presidents, including President Donald Trump, described the administration’s current Middle East policy as “aimless” and flawed during a recent talk at San Diego State University.

Brett McGurk, who resigned in December 2018 as special presidential envoy to the coalition to defeat ISIS, described his experiences in the region, from when he first arrived as an adviser to the early Iraq provisional government, set up under then-President George W. Bush, until he left shortly after Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned and Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria.

McGurk said during his talk that Trump’s decisions in the Middle East over the last three years — such as pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, pulling U.S. forces out of Syria and assassinating Iran’s top general — were indicative of a poorly thought-out strategy.

“I just don’t think the Trump Administration has thought this through,” he said.
McGurk said that withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal has resulted in a series of consequences that effectively leaves the U.S. in a “strategic trap” with Iran.

“(The Iran deal) was an arms control deal — it wasn’t designed to change the Middle East,” McGurk said. “It was designed to put this horrible problem at least on the back burner (so) we can deal with other things in other ways, and that makes strategic sense.”

Trump criticized the international deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for certain limits on the country’s nuclear program, during his 2016 campaign. In May 2018, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the deal and reimposed sanctions on the country.

In 2019 Iran-backed militias in Iraq, which had been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS, began targeting U.S. facilities in the country. In December, the U.S. struck back at some of those militias in Iraq and Syria with airstrikes.

In retaliation, militia supporters broke into and set fire to part of the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad, leading to Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a January drone strike.
Days later, Iran launched missiles at two Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops and, during the strikes, also shot down a Ukrainian airliner after it took off in Iran, killing all 176 people aboard.

Trump then announced new sanctions on Iran. Sanctions aren’t the solution, McGurk said.

“(The Trump Administration) thinks sanctions will fundamentally change Iran’s behavior, but there’s no evidence of that at all,” McGurk said.
“It makes their behavior worse. Everything is going the wrong way.”

Another consequence of the Soleimani strike — which occurred at the Baghdad airport — was a vote in Iraq’s parliament to kick the U.S. out of the country.

While McGurk said he felt a sense of justice in Soleimani’s death, “elementary errors” by the Pentagon in the immediate aftermath — such as the drafting of a letter announcing the U.S. would comply with the country’s parliament and withdraw entirely from Iraq — did not paint the U.S. in the best light in the region and among our allies, he said.

“It makes people think we don’t know what we’re doing,” McGurk said.

The talk at SDSU, which was hosted by the nonpartisan nonprofit San Diego Diplomacy Council and the university’s Fowler School of Business, attracted more than 120 people. McGurk took questions from attendees about a broad array of U.S. policies in the Middle East — especially on the fight against ISIS.

McGurk addressed the controversial decision by Obama not to order air strikes in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was credibly accused of using chemical weapons in 2013. Obama was on record as saying the use of such weapons was a “red line” Assad could not cross.

McGurk said he didn’t think U.S. airstrikes would have been effective in that instance. He cited strikes ordered by Trump in response to more chemical weapons use by Syria in 2018.

“I am skeptical of the view that had Obama enforced the red line, that that would have been the end of Assad,” McGurk said. “Trump has done two series of air strikes against the Assad regime after the use of chemical weapons, and it made no strategic difference in the conflict at all.”

After his talk, McGurk spoke with the Union-Tribune about why it’s important for the U.S. to maintain a presence in Iraq and Syria, because of potential Russian involvement there.

“We built a force of 60,000 Syrians, and it gave us some leverage against Russia, and President Trump gave it up overnight,” he said.
“I thought that was a big disaster. But if we can’t stay in Iraq, then we also can’t stay in that chunk of Syria we’re still in…. The vacuum will be filled by ISIS and by Iranian-backed militias. And the great power that will come in to fill our space is Russia. So we need to stay. “

McGurk currently serves as the Frank E. and Arthur W. Payne Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford University.

 

Stumbling toward war: Why?

The following sequence of events was recorded by Stafford Clarry, one of our senior members in Iraq. He covers most everything in his list, except the key rocket strike on the Saudi oil field on September 14th, which, though never publicly admitted, was, we are led to believe, launched from Iraq by an Iran backed militia group.

Recent militaristic events in Iraq and Iran clearly demonstrate how situations can rapidly go out of control to a point verging on another war with devastating consequences on all sides and beyond.

In Iraq, most everyone has suffered through a lifetime of conflict – battles and bombings during the 1960s and 1970s; chemical weapon attacks, disappearances, community destruction, political detention, torture, and forced dislocation during the 1980s; effects of the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War and the 1961 Gulf war; 13 years of severe economic sanctions (1990-2003); the 2003 war followed by vicious sectarian conflict; the 2014-2018 ISIS war with its savagery; and even more violence in between.

At the country level, those who are more inclined to wage war (the hawks) tend to treat the land and its leadership as essentially separate from the countless families who want what families everywhere want: the opportunity to live peaceful and prosperous lives.

Keeping in mind there are no winners in war, and notably keeping in mind the purposes/intentions of the Vietnam and 2003 Iraq wars, let’s help ourselves get a better grip on what’s been recently happening in Iraq and Iran, its consequences and impact. We are where we are, but it could be much worse.

Discussions continue about the how, why, short-term consequences, and long-term impact of recent incidents. It begins with the JCPOA (nuclear agreement). Very briefly, here’s the sequence of relevant main events:

14 Jul 2015

  • JCPOA agreed, negotiated by six leading countries (P5+1/EU3+3) against one country (Iran) to halt Iran’s movement toward developing nuclear weapons. UN and EU sanctions were terminated/suspended. US sanctions for human rights abuses, missiles, and support for terrorism remain in operation.

8 May 2018

  • Unilateral US withdrawal from JCPOA.

4 Nov 2018

  • Unilateral re-imposition of severe pre-JCPOA sanctions.

27 Dec 2019

  • Rocket attack on K-1 Iraqi military base near Kirkuk (Iraq) where US military personnel were located, with casualties, one fatal. This followed earlier attacks on various locations that occurred without casualties.

29 Dec 2019

  • Airstrikes on five Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) sites in Iraq and Syria. PMF are independently formed and operated (private) militia groups that are included as official security forces of the Iraqi government, which funds and provides weaponry, including equipment received from the US-led international coalition against ISIS. Some PMF units are also backed and perhaps supervised/directed by Iran.

31 Dec 2019

  • US Embassy in Baghdad attacked by PMF supporters/sympathizers. No casualties.

3 Jan 2020

  • Suleimani (Iranian) and Muhandis (Iraqi), both senior government officials, assassinated.

8 Jan 2020

 

Conservative parliamentarians call for comprehensive new Iran deal

The Conservative Friends of Israel sent us the following note on the call from Tory MPs for a new deal with Iran. The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it undermines the JCPOA which took the best part of ten years to negotiate. The JCPOA was and is flawed but it is the best we have got and reinventing the wheel never helped anyone. The video link above may be of interest to those of you that speak Arabic. It is of Catherine Shakdam, the Head of our Yemen Unit, talking on Iran on BBC Arabic.

In both the House of Commons and House of Lords this week, Conservative parliamentarians called for a new, more comprehensive deal with Iran, in light of the UK’s triggering of the dispute resolution mechanism of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. CFI Honorary President Lord Polak CBE called for a “complete redrafting” of the Iran deal, with “provisions to curtail Iran’s international aggression and financing of terror that were omitted from the original agreement”. He underlined: “One of the major criticisms of the JCPOA at the beginning was that it allowed Iran to continue its destabilisation of the region”. In a House of Commons debate following a statement on the JCPOA by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Rt. Hon. Mark Harper MP welcomed the Government’s decision to trigger the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism and argued that the agreement should be widened “to encompass all of the other activities of Iran”. Philip Hollobone MP asked: “Isn’t it time for a truly comprehensive agreement covering both nuclear weapon technology, missile technology and Iran’s export of terror?” The new MP for Bury South, Christian Wakeford MP, raised concerns about Israel’s safety as a result of Iran’s deception over its nuclear programme. In response, Foreign Secretary Raab underlined: “We share Israel’s concern, not just about the nuclear ambitions that Iran has but also about the wider activities in the region”.

Is everything about Netanyahu?

The assassination of General Qassim Soleimani may or may not have been a risky strategy on the part of the US President intended to boost his chances in forthcoming US elections; however, it certainly distracted Iraqis from the anger they were feeling against Tehran’s perceived culpability for encouraging the shooting of young Shiite demonstrators in Iraq. And it also helps Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu strengthen his position in Israel. 

Regardless of Trump’s eloquent claim that Iran “was looking to blow up our [US] embassy”, there is no evidence to prove that was the case. Nor was the killing of Soleimani motivated by the need to retaliate for events directly preceding the strike – the demonstrations at the US embassy in Baghdad and the death of Iraq born American contractor Nawres Hamid in a rocket attack on 27 December 2019. Information shared with the Next Century Foundation makes it clear that the assassination was actually planned prior to 24th December.

Whether or not the US had any long-term interest in killing Soleimani, the Quds Force leader was certainly previously targeted for assassination by Israel’s forces at least once, in 2015. Prior to that Soleimani barely escaped an Israeli air-strike while in Lebanon in 2006. In any case Netanyahu considered him responsible for many of the actions of Iranian proxies taken against Israel in recent years. As leader of the Quds Force (the Iranian military presence outside Iran) Soleimani was said to be in charge of the missile strikes on Israel fired from Iranian positions in Syria in 2018. Even more importantly, Soleimani had enormous influence over Hezbollah (whose salaries are subsidised by Tehran) and was a powerful figure in Beirut. He is now publicly mourned by many Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon.

Netanyahu was one of a small number of Mid East political leaders informed in advance by the US about the plan for Soleimani’s assassination. Claims that Israel provided intelligence necessary to carry out the strike are less credible, and if they did so they have much to answer for since the US had such flawed intelligence that it knew nothing of the presence of key Iraq Militia Leader Mohandis in the kill zone. In any case, Israel had one of its arch-enemies effortlessly eliminated. Had Soleimani been assassinated by Israeli forces, it would have been dangerous for Israel, with direct retaliation from Hezbollah likely to take place. While Israel, as an American ally, might theoretically be targeted by Iran in revenge, the risk involved is now much lower. 

Even though, Iran has “concluded” its retaliation, the airstrikes on American bases in Iraq hardly seem to be an adequate response. Regardless of which, it is still possible that elements in Iraq have not finished their retaliation for the killing of Mohandis. But any such retaliation will be directed against the USA and will not target Israel.

There are those in Hezbollah who  – given the current economic and political crisis in Lebanon – would like the distraction of being engaged in a conflict with Israel or even a full-scale war. After all, in 2008 after the punishingly harsh (for both countries) 2006 Israel / Lebanon war, Hezbollah had just 2,000 rockets left – whereas currently Hezbollah has amassed a stockpile of some 40,000 missiles. However the humiliation Iran suffered in the international arena after mistakenly downing a Ukrainian civilian airplane, means that de-escalation is more likely to follow. 

All the recent developments shift the focus in Israel away from the indictments filed against Netanyahu. The assassination of Soleimani seems to be a confirmation that the PM was effective in forming an even more robust alliance with the US. A growing military threat at the hands of Tehran only strengthens the position of Netanyahu before the upcoming election. 

Trump’s assassination of Soleimani did not make the Middle East a safer place, but at least it allowed Bibi to change the topic of the public debate from an unfortunate one – his corruption charges – to what the PM deals with best: a potential war.