1 December 2017

Middle East Security Status Report

Israel: Desert Raiders Send A Message

In Egypt ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is making spectacular attacks to remind the world that ISIL still exists and can still punish those it considers heretics and enemies of Islam. The heretics includes anyone who does not practice the extremely conservative form of Sunni Islam ISIL has adopted. The main heretic targets tend to be Shia (which Iran represents and defends) and Sufi (a notably non-militant form of Islam that will only get violent if attacked.) For that reason ISIL has learned that it is not beneficial to kill civilians that cannot be identified as heretics or enemies of Islam. 

In Egypt that means Sufis are available as targets as are Coptic Christians. Although Israel is next door to Egypt the Israelis have been very successful to keeping ISIL out. That is one reason many Arabs (and Moslems in general) accept the convenient myth that ISIL was somehow invented by Israel. In Libya ISIL has learned that it is best not to carry out attacks that kill any Moslem civilians. In fact ISIL appears to have decided that using as little violence inside Libya is the best way to survive and thrive there. ISIL needs a base are and at the moment Libya is one of the most likely areas to operate in. 

This is essential because a Libya base provides access to the rest of Africa as well as the Middle East via Egypt. There are still restrictions. Getting across the Egyptian border is difficult as long as Libyan general Hiftar and his LNA (Libyan National Army) operate throughout eastern Libya. The LNA has more problems with the Egyptian border since the collapse of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Many of the surviving ISIL men are seeking to reach Libya via Egypt. Some of these ISIL personnel decide to join ISIL factions already established in Sinai (near the Israeli border) or western Egypt (near the Libyan border). This is the main reason why Hiftar still has a lot of support from Egypt and other Arab nations. Hiftar is genuinely hostile to Islamic terrorism but to the West he is seen as a potential new Libyan dictator. That is important to Libyans, but not as important as personal safety and enough national unity to get the economy going again.

The Israeli-Arab Alliance

The recent ISIL attacks in Egypt against Sufi Moslems will generate more enthusiasm in the Egyptian security forces for greater cooperation with Israel in the war against ISIL and Islamic terrorism in general. Israel was more successful governing Sinai (from 1967-82) than Egypt but that has been something Egypt was rarely willing to talk about. The Israelis always treated the Bedouin and Islamic outcasts like the Druze with more fairness than anyone else in the region. Although most Arabs in Arabia are Bedouin (or identify as such) outside of Arabia (especially in Egypt, Iraq and Syria) being seen as Bedouin was rarely a good thing. The Israeli Bedouin, like the Druze, are subject to conscription in Israel and many make a career of it. Some of the Israeli Bedouin from the Negev (the desert area of southern Israel adjacent to Sinai) keep in touch with kin in Sinai just as Israeli Druze kept in touch with kin in Syria. These family links across borders is an ancient tradition in this part of the world because it can be a lifesaver in wartime. ISIL tried to force Sinai Bedouin

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have gone public in support of an Arab-Israeli alliance to oppose Iran. Many (Arabs, Israelis and Iranians) believe that such an alliance won’t last long but that is not crucial. The alliance only has to last long enough to halt the spread of Iranian power and influence. Israel has been through this before. The peace deals with Jordan and Israel have largely held even though there are ups and downs. The Israelis know that the anti-Semitic attitudes in the Arab world go back to before the emergence of Islam in the 7th century and have waxed and waned ever since.

Currently the Arabs of Arabia, or at least key leaders, have decided that decades of denouncing the one nation in the region with a functioning democracy, the most advanced and successful economy and the most powerful armed forces, ought to be seen as a potential ally, not a battlefield opponent. As a result Arab journalists and leaders are speaking openly, and more frequently, about such an alliance. Some countries, like the UAE, can now speak openly of the discreet (and often not so secret) commercial, military and diplomatic links they developed with Israel over the years. To a lesser extent Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian connections are now admitted. The motivation here is survival against an increasingly aggressive Iran. Hang together or hang separately. Israel already has powerful allies for dealing with Iran and welcomes an Arab alliance, even if it won’t last, or at least will be under constant attack going forward, as was the case with the Jordanian and Egyptian peace deals.

The young Saudi crown prince (and soon to be the king as his elderly father announced his abdication) pointed out that Iran is officially obsessed with destroying Israel while a growing number of Arabs see Israel as a potential ally. Everyone knows that before the current religious dictatorship took control of Iran in the 1980s Israel and Iran had many diplomatic and economic links, far more that Israel had with the Arab world. But Iranian religious leaders decided that Israel was at the top of the list of things that had to change. Next on the list was who should control the Islamic shrines in Saudi Arabia and so on. Iran has always been scary to its neighbors but was usually ruled by some aristocrat. Now that the Iranian Shia clergy (who were long known to be aggressive) are in charge it is time for neighbors to reconsider traditional alliances.

Meanwhile Israeli and Arab military officials are working out a joint strategy and procedures for how it will work. This includes many Arab nations quietly urging Hamas and Fatah to make a serious and public effort to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. The implication is that if the Palestinians refuse (which seems likely) or simply fail again more Arab leaders will go public with their opinions on the hopelessness of the Palestinian leadership. That will lead to Palestinians becoming more isolated and dependent on charity from the West, Iran and Israel and that source of support is running out of patience as well. .

Here is an example of how that will turn out. Hamas made a lot of bad decisions since 2007 and the Iran link is seen as one of the worst. In response to the Iran link Arab states who cut aid were quietly informed by Palestinian leaders that if they did not increase aid there would be violent Palestinian protests (in Gaza, West Bank and Jerusalem) against the reluctant Arab donors as well as Israel. That threat made the situation worse. These Arab donors (mainly Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait) lost patience with the Palestinians and not only cut donor aid (which was being stolen or misused by corrupt Palestinian leaders) but also openly allied themselves with Israel against Iran. The Arab world still technically backs the Palestinians and the effort to destroy Israel but have lost confidence in the Palestinians to do anything in their own best interest. Iran is making the most of this situation and few Palestinians will do much to stop it.

PA Sort Of Returns To Gaza

In October Hamas and Fatah officials agreed to merge, ending a ten year old split that crippled the PA (Palestinian Authority) that was supposed to represent all Palestinians. The October 12th agreement signed in Egypt specified that the PA would take control of all the Gaza crossings on October 31st and that Egypt would allow free movement to and from Egypt. But that only happens if there is agreement on military matters. That is still not settled and even if it is such agreements have a tendency to aspirations not promises to be kept. Egypt, Israel and most of the Middle East is waiting to see how this actually works out. No one is particularly optimistic. This is especially the case when Hamas and Fatah officials give different answers to the same question. For example, Fatah is more popular because it does not impose strict lifestyle rules. Thus in the West Bank you can buy alcoholic beverages and visit night clubs that often feature traditional dancing (belly dancing and such). Both of these are forbidden in Gaza and Hamas officials admit that they have no intention of changing that.

Since 2007 there have been two Palestinian governments; Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. The unification effort is, for Egypt (and Fatah) more about disarming Hamas and making Gaza less hospitable to Islamic terrorists who threaten Egypt. Hamas sees it differently and wants more freedom to operate in the West Bank and eventually replace Fatah there. Egypt insists on unification of the two Palestinian government and disarmament of Hamas before it will end its blockade of Gaza. It will take a few weeks for Egypt to determine if there is indeed a real merger.

Hamas is in a difficult position here and is trying to talk its way out of the mess it created. Hamas has selected a new leader and made changes that Egypt has long demanded but not the most important ones. Hamas declared its civil government in Gaza dissolved on September 17th, but that was mainly for show. Hamas has about 25,000 armed (and many are trained) men on the payroll and wants to keep them on the job. Egypt wants a through crackdown on Islamic terror groups in Gaza and Hamas seems unable to deliver on that one either although Hamas is making a real effort this time. Meanwhile Iran has once more established a presence in Gaza which Egypt, Israel and Fatah all agree is a bad thing.

Hamas and Fatah have until the end of November to work out all these differences between themselves and bring a final and agreed-upon agreement to Egypt for signing and endorsement by Egypt and most other Arab states. Yet many of those Arab states, especially the ones that used to be major supporters (financial and otherwise) of the Palestinians have declared the Palestinian cause hopeless and see nothing but more broken promises coming out of the Hamas-Fatah unification talks.

Who Controls Syria

For Israel anyone but Iran is tolerable. When it comes to opposing Iran Israel has some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this puts Russia at odds with their two other allies (Turkey and Iran) in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally that the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey. Russia has long tried to play peacemaker even though to make any progress it must offend its new allies Turkey and Iran. Russia is recognizing the key role the Syrian Kurds played in defeating ISIL in Syria and driving ISIL out of Raqqa. In contrast Turkey and Iran want to attack the Syrian Kurds and force them to submit to Assad rule.

The Israelis keep pointing out that Iran and their dependency Syria have, since the 1980s, openly called for the destruction of Israel. Many Westerners saw this as absurd while Russia sees it as an opportunity and the Israelis point out that they have nukes, the most effective military (and economy) in the region and no tolerance for more Iranian forces moving into Syria or agreeing that the Assads are a legitimate government. For Russia this is a challenge since as outsiders they realize that Israel is right and long-term a more dependable and desirable ally. But the current Russian government is getting by on uncertainty, deception and hope that this approach will work. There are reasons why Russian roulette is accepted as a typically Russian form of whatever.

November 26, 2017: Egypt carried out several airstrikes in Sinai against ISIL camps. Locals angry at the Rawda mosque attack provided the information, which the Egyptians could double check via pro-government tribal leaders and the high-tech targeting pods carried by their F-16s which enable pilots to get close up video of the target (and record it) before releasing the smart bombs.

November 25, 2017: One side effect of the Rawda mosque attack was more Sinai tribes (most of them Bedouin) declaring support for the government and willingness to do what it takes to avenge the dead from yesterday’s mosque attack. This sort of support makes it more difficult for young men in some tribes to join ISIL or keep ISIL support or membership secret from family or tribe.

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