Tuesday, April 21, 2015

‘Historic’ Changes in the Middle East

The Middle East has always been a volatile region but recent changes initially arising from the Arab Spring, which saw regime change in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, as well as ongoing civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya, have created some new realities that both the US and Israel are trying to come to terms with.

Recently, the US has begun implementing a more Machiavellian policy change vis-à-vis Iraq and Syria. With respect to Iraq, US forces are now fighting on the same side as Iran against ISIS and concomitantly, the US is trying to broker an imminent deal (as a member of the P5+1 countries) with Iran towards an historic agreement that would bring Iran back into the fold and end years of crippling sanctions. Furthermore, there seems to be at least some tacit agreement between the two that Iran will not attack US forces in Iraq and that US forces will leave Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) forces alone as they both battle their common enemy ISIS in Iraq.

With respect to Syria, a few years ago US President Barack Obama had called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and had even famously drew up ‘red lines’ that Assad has subsequently crossed without much fanfare or consequences. Has the situation in Syria improved much since then? Not at all. The Syrian President is still fighting to retain control of his deteriorating country and is still killing his people as the civil war rages unabated. However, what has changed is the US rhetoric and policy towards Syria.

I spoke recently with Prof. Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Middle Eastern and African Studies Centre at Tel Aviv University who explained that “what Bashar controls now is the main cities in Syria, what I call ‘Little Syria’ and of course there are parts of Syria being controlled by others (Alawites, Druse, Kurds, ISIS) but the main thing here is to listen carefully to what US Secretary of State John Kerry actually suggested in recent days saying that we would consider coming to terms with Bashar al-Assad. This is a big, big change and I can tell you that for me this is something historic. It is a sign of the first time that the West understood and realized ‘don’t be too pretentious about the Middle East, don’t use grand designs’. This is the guy who used chemical weapons against his own people, who crossed the red lines and did whatever was the wonderful pretext for the West to do something; they did nothing and he is still there thanks to the Russians and the Iranians. And the Americans while trying to make something of the chaotic situation in the former Syria and Iraq, when they understood that the ISIS inspiration can get beyond the Middle East, as we see happening now in Europe, they had to make sure that they have some partners here in order to at least curtail ISIS.”

With respect to Israel’s approach to the changing situation in Syria, Israel has been watching with apprehension as the turmoil in Syria has reached the Syrian-Israeli border, with the rebel Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda offshoot) battling Syrian government forces there. What has made matters worse has been the recent entry of Hezbollah and IRGC forces into the area to support Assad’s pro-government forces. This has sent alarm bells ringing in Jerusalem as a new front has opened up on what used to be a relatively quiet border. The presence of Iranian forces, whether directly through the IRGC or its proxy Hezbollah in Syria abutting Israeli positions in the Golan Heights is so worrying precisely because Iran can now drag Israel into a regional conflict from the relative safety of Syria since it would be unfettered by the powers that be in Lebanon.

While Hezbollah is a strong Lebanese political party with a significant military presence in Lebanon it is forced to share power with a large and more liberal Sunni faction and smaller Druze and Christian parties as well. A weak Assad regime with a strong Hezbollah and IRGC force controlling the Syrian border with Israel would be under no such constraints and Iran would be able to act more confidently against Israel then presently allowed under Lebanon.

So what does this mean for Israel? Prof. Rabi believes that “in the medium term there will be no other choice but for Israel to do something which is much more penetrating or simply take sides”. Regarding Iranian involvement in Syria Prof. Rabi states that “what Iran and Hezbollah are trying to do is two things regarding the Syrian part of the Golan Heights: the first of which is to make sure the rebels don’t get closer to Damascus, especially as they understood that the Druse there are in a predicament and they could just shift their alliances in order to ease the rebels way to Damascus and so basically Iran and Hezbollah would like a stronghold there in order to make sure that they could block Jabhat al-Nusra from getting further up north. The second thing is just to open up a new additional front besides Lebanon, which would expose Israel to threats coming from different directions. This is a kind of contingency plan, if Hezbollah has its back to the wall and it would like to have Israel dragged into the whole mess, it could easily do that.”

While Israel hasn’t taken sides yet in the Syrian civil war, with greater Iranian involvement in an unstable Syria, it is possible that Israel may adopt a more Machiavellian policy shift in Syria – like the US – yet in the opposite direction, veering further away from the emerging US position and aligning itself with those forces fighting against the IRGC and Assad’s government forces. Israel is already providing humanitarian aid in the form of emergency medical care to rebel forces fighting on the Syrian-side of the Golan Heights. Will Israeli involvement extend beyond that? No one knows for certain but as the emerging policy divergence between Washington and Jerusalem continues, it is quite possible that if the Iranian presence in Syria continues to grow, particularly along the Syrian-Israeli border, Israel will have no other option but to act.

The Robust Israeli Democracy

Israel is not your run-of-the-mill country and for better or worse its citizens are anything but a single coherent group. Israelis are a melting pot of various religions and cultures, and a cacophony of languages. There are Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Druse, Bedouins, Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Arabs, Christians and Jews. On any given day you can hear Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and French spoken on the streets of Israel, as well as Tagalog, Thai, Chinese, Farsi or Turkish.

As such, it wouldn’t surprise many to know that there are numerous social, political and cultural chasms that divide people here and the spectrum of our differences is immense. You need to go no further then view the political parties running in the upcoming elections that cater to economic, religious, cultural and nationalistic sensibilities. Among the dozen or so mainstream parties running in the upcoming elections, there is also an Ultra-Orthodox women’s party, a party to legalize cannabis and another to lower rent prices.

Some would view the multi-faceted nature of Israeli society with apprehension lest it weaken us in the face of those more homogenous neighboring countries seeking our demise. I would argue that these ardent differences of ours when expressed within a single yet pluralistic civil society is perhaps our greatest strength. Like the influx of European immigration to the US at the beginning of the 20th century and subsequent waves of immigration from Asia as well as Mexico and Central America, which has had a net positive effect on the US both culturally and economically, so too our differences in Israel strengthen our society and ironically make us more impervious to the vagaries of the shifting sands of the Middle East. While all of our neighbors have experienced considerable turmoil and tumult arising from the Arab Spring, Israel has been spared the more violent internal machinations that have plagued our neighbors precisely because as a democratic and pluralistic society we are better able to temper such sudden and drastic changes.

Our Knesset is a microcosm of Israeli society and debates there are usually heated and often involve shouting, sometimes even followed by the ejection of a Knesset Member. The beauty of Israeli democracy is that the Knesset and Israeli Supreme Court are independent bodies separate from the ruling government (as is the case with most true democracies) and in effect allow the “cool and deliberate sense of community to prevail” in times of crises. James Madison, the fourth president of the US and the father of the US Constitution believed that there needed to be a counterweight against any ill-advised decision by a leader who became swept up by the masses.

Madison wrote so beautifully in 1788 that “there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”

While Israel is far from perfect with a myriad of social and economic problems as well as the Herculean task of attaining a peaceful and mutually satisfactory agreement with the Palestinians yet before us, we must remember that our right to vote in the upcoming election is an opportunity to not just resolve these issues but also a good time to pat ourselves on the back for this robust democratic system in the ever-volatile Middle East, which is no small feat.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Case for Iran or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Like everything in the Middle East, the politics are more complicated here than in other parts of the world and the stakes are far graver. The recent political changes brought on predominantly by the Arab Spring are nothing short of dramatic. Over the past 5 years there have been overthrown governments in Egypt (twice), Yemen (twice) and Tunisia; and ongoing civil wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria resulting in many thousands of deaths. President Ben Ali of Tunisia escaped into exile to Saudi Arabia while President Qaddafi of Libya wasn’t as fortunate. This is an unforgiving environment and there is little to no room for egregious errors.

Israel is a minuscule country surrounded by the aforementioned turmoil and to make matters worse, almost every other country in the Middle East would be happy to see Israel go gentle into that good night and even offer considerable assistance in that regard. The fact is that Israel is still facing, as it has faced throughout its entire existence, an existential threat to its very survival. For that reason the Israeli psyche is permeated with a strong urgency of living in the here and now, and thus long term planning is not one of our strengths. We may be the Start-Up Nation but we have no Intels, Apples or Googles simply because they require a significant long-term view. By the same token, there is also no subway in Israel’s largest metropolitan area of Tel Aviv (although Cairo and Tehran do indeed have a modern subway system).

Despite the numerous accusations to the contrary, I believe that PM Netanyahu’s trip to the US Congress is not motivated by political in-fighting or jockeying for more votes in the close upcoming Israeli election. For better or worse, PM Netanyahu has made the issue of the Iranian nuclear bomb a central tenet of his candidacy and term as PM because he earnestly believes that an Iranian nuclear device poses an existential threat to the State of Israel. Considering the dangers that lurk in this neighborhood and the margin of error, it is clear that PM Netanyahu is merely channeling the environment of which he is a product, and one cannot fault him for doing so. However, does this make him right?

Well, I don’t think so. It is clear that the Iranians will in fact obtain nuclear weapons in the very foreseeable future and nothing can stop them at this stage. Yet at the same time we must remember that Iran’s internal politics are as fractious and Byzantine as Israel’s. In Iran power is not concentrated in the hands of a single individual and Iranian politics has its share of conservatives (and ultra-conservatives) like the former President Ahmadinejad and liberals like the current President Rouhani, with a Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sharing effective power.

The Ahmadinejad years in particular have caused considerable economic loss and isolated Iran even further and President Rouhani is now trying to improve Iran’s economic plight by lifting the onerous sanctions. As such, Iran desperately needs this P5+1 agreement to succeed in order to improve its economic standing and bring much needed relief to the average Iranian citizen who are still suffering greatly under the weight of years of economic hardships, government mismanagement, cronyism and corruption, and economic stagnation which is set to get worse with the recent drop in oil prices that is central to the Iranian economy.

Yet what PM Netanyahu is forgetting is that while Iranian foreign and military policies do pose a risk to Israel and the Sunni-dominated Middle East, it does not pose an existential threat to Israel’s very survival. Iran is not seeking to annihilate Israel, not now or in the future, and it is certainly not suicidal. Iran does not even share a common border with Israel. This is not a band of crazy fanatics bent on destruction but rather an extremely conservative Shiite Muslim country that seeks to project itself militarily and politically in order to protect and strengthen its co-religionists in other parts of the volatile and Sunni-dominated Middle East.

Are Iranians and Israelis all going to sit down and sing Kumbaya anytime soon? Probably not in my lifetime, but more importantly, we need to step back and assess the Iranian nuclear bomb in the context of the current volatile Middle East where Iran is not necessarily Israel’s most pressing issue.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Return of the S-300 Saga?

Back in 2010 Russia tried to sell Iran and Syria the very capable S-300 mobile surface-to-air missile but was forced in the end to scrap the deal due to immense Western and Israeli pressure, which included a visit by the Israeli PM to Moscow to dissuade President Putin from doing so. The reason for all the hype was the fact that the S-300 was rightfully viewed as a game-changer that could potentially alter the regional balance of power.

The Russians tried unsuccessfully to argue then that since the S-300 was essentially an advanced air-defense system, it was therefore by definition a defensive weapon and thus should be exempt from all the hoopla surrounding the sale of the S-300. What really worried the Americans and Israelis was the fact that the S-300 was so advanced that it essentially provided an invisible umbrella capable of protecting Iranian and Syrian nuclear sites from any aerial attack. And I do mean any aerial attack, including those originating from aircraft, cruise missiles, UAVs, air-to-surface missiles – the whole enchilada. The S-300 were that good.

So why am I mentioning the old S-300 story from 2010? Well, because Reuters and TASS are reporting that the Russian company that manufactures the S-300 (Almaz, which has merged with Antey) is now offering a newer version of the S-300, called the Antey-2500, to Iran. The Antey-2500 (also knows as the S-300VM) is even more capable than the old S-300, possessing improved guidance radar, an ability to engage faster targets and a greater number of targets.

The Israelis in particular are worried about the presence of either air-defense system for the simple reason that Israel prides itself on its ability to control the skies of its Middle Eastern neighbors. Israel has hegemony of the skies over Lebanon and Syria (as well as Jordan and Egypt, although it respects the territorial integrity of the latter two) and often violates their airspace when Israel deems it necessary – when striking targets deep in their territory like the 2007 strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in Operation Orchard or more recent strikes on Hezbollah arms depots in and around Damascus airport. Israel would like to preserve the current status quo and any change thereto worries Israel because it restricts their ability to surreptitiously deal with any potential threats to the State of Israel.

It is extremely difficult to send in a team of commandos to destroy a well-guarded site deep in enemy territory and there are many more factors that could go wrong (capture of soldiers, failure of the mission, etc.). Also, there is a greater degree of plausible deniability with an airstrike. In fact, the 2007 airstrike in Syria has never been officially attributed to Israel although it seems clear that Israel was responsible. However, this uncertainty was also important for the Assad regime since he could save some face.

Regarding the possible delivery of the new Antey-2500 to Iran, while the timing of the offer is quite odd coming on the cusp of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran (of which Russia is a member), I believe that news of the potential missile sale will not lead to another international brouhaha for the following reasons: back in 2010, the US administration was serious about the option of an Iranian strike being on the table, today that is no longer the case; current US-Israeli relations are at a nadir; and relations between the West and Russia have been seriously downgraded due to the Ukraine crisis and there is little that the West can pressure Putin with these days that it hasn’t already done.

It is also possible that once the imminent P5+1 deal is signed, the Iranian insurance plan against an Israeli strike comes in the form of the new Russian missiles. After all, it would be nearly impossible to carry out an aerial attack on Iranian nuclear sites with the new missiles in place.

So what does this mean for Israel in 2015? Well, it will probably depend on the outcome of the upcoming elections. If Isaac Herzog is elected Prime Minister, it is hard to imagine any attack on Iran would be forthcoming, regardless of whether new missiles are delivered or not, especially so early in his new term. The situation were Benjamin Netanyahu to be re-elected PM is more complicated. PM Netanyahu has made the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel such a central tenet of his candidacy and term as PM that it is hard to imagine him doing nothing on the issue.

The fact that PM Netanyahu could successfully carry out such a strike doesn’t necessarily mean that he should carry it out. Despite the now infamous Iranian comments about wiping Israel off the map, few Israeli military leaders actually believe Iran would ever seriously consider doing so. Why? Well, quite simply, Israel has a better insurance policy in place: it’s called a second-strike capability. It is no great secret that Israel’s Dolphin-class submarines possess that ability and that a few of them are always at sea. Let’s also not forget that Pakistan and India are both nuclear powers as well as bitter enemies who have fought numerous wars yet self-preservation and cool heads have managed to keep everything under control.

Will it be different between Iran and Israel should Iran finally join the nuclear club? Probably not. Will there be moments of political and military confrontation and brinkmanship? Sure thing, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that the moment that Iran attains nuclear weapons they would start bombing Tel Aviv or shipping them off to Hezbollah with arming instructions on the back of a cereal box. That will not happen. Will it lead to more tension in the Middle East? Certainly. Will it lead to a new arms race here? Probably, but hey, this ain’t Wisconsin.