Tag Archives: Sunni

The Road to World War III?

The Roman poet, Horace, once observed, ‘when your neighbour’s house is on fire, you should worry.’ It now looks as whole Middle East could catch fire, because the embers of the Syrian civil war have morphed into something much more dangerous, risking setting off a major new war between Israel and Iran.

The problem is America’s decision to pull its troops out of Syria. This withdrawal leaves the Syrian and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) fighters without protection and increases the likelihood of clashes between Syrian, Kurdish, Turkish, Iranian and Russian forces, as they attempt to fill the vacuum left by the USA.

Iran is particularly intent on exploiting the gap that America is leaving. Like nature, international politics abhors a vacuum. Washington only has itself to blame, because when Iran first moved into Syria, Obama’s Washington stood by and did nothing, except issue feeble threats and sanctions.

Iran responded in 2011 by giving Syria USD $23 million to build a new base near Latakia. Soon Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) officers were stationed on Syrian soil to coordinate arms shipments to the beleaguered Assad regime. Iran now had skin in the game.

This alliance between Damascus and Tehran has deep religious roots. Iran and the Syrian elite are Shi’a Muslims, engaged in an Islamic struggle with Sunni Muslims. Shi’ite notions of Jihad (or Holy War) are apocalyptic. Shi’a Muslims have a long list of perceived suffering and grievances, and pray for the return of their ‘Messiah,’ the Twelfth (missing) Imam, who Shi’ites believe will return at the ‘end of days’ and restore a Utopian Islamic world order. They believe that this Twelfth Imam can only be awakened by cataclysmic world events, which encourages the Ayatollahs to acquire nuclear weapons and hasten everyone’s Armageddon. With weird notions like this controlling Tehran’s foreign policy, it is clear that Iran is a dangerously destabilising force in the region.

The problem goes back to 1979 when Iran deposed the US-backed Shah, America’s closest ally in the Middle East. However, Iranians soon found that they had swapped one dictator for another, the Shi’ite religious fanatic Ayatollah Khomeini. His battle cry was ‘Death to Israel, Death to America.’ Since then, Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution has had far-reaching consequences for Iran and for the Middle East. Tehran is now wedded to violent anti-Western policies, international terrorism, crushing internal dissent and exporting their Shi’ite version of revolution.

Unsurprisingly, Sunni powers (like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab countries in the region) view Shi’a Iran with grave suspicion, worried that Khomeini’s fanatical heirs will infect their own Islamic militants. The result has been a polarisation of the Muslim world, to the extent that Iran and Saudi Arabia are now fighting proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

Despite this, Iran has managed to occupy a swathe of war-torn northern Syria and carve out a new land corridor to the Mediterranean in Lebanon. The result is that Lebanon has now become a puppet regime for Tehran.

Lebanon’s problem is Hezbollah, the Shi’ite terror group formed by Iran in 1982 to combat Israel and its allies. It has been Iran’s most successful proxy, serving as the Islamic Republic’s arm on Israel’s doorstep. Backed by Iran, with thousands of trained fighters and an armoury of sophisticated weapons, Hezbollah now dominates the political and military landscape of Lebanon.

Inside the country, Hezbollah has become a powerful state within a state, with its own private army, and has made significant political gains in the latest parliamentary elections. The group now holds three ministerial posts in the new government, controlling some of the country’s largest budgets. Its experienced fighters now issue orders to the Lebanese Armed Forces – and terrorist Hezbollah is controlled by the Ayatollahs in Tehran.

Emboldened by Iran’s protective umbrella, speaking at a rally marking the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah, Hezbollah’s leader (Hassan Nasrallah) warned that Lebanon would ‘defend Iran in the event of war,’ and ‘if America launches war on Iran, it will not be alone in the confrontation, because the fate of our region is tied to the Islamic Republic’.

Iran’s rhetoric has become more threatening, too. Tehran’s bellicose threats spell out the dangers openly. The commander of Iran’s air force, Brigadier Aziz Nasirzadeh, recently warned: ‘Our young people are impatient, fully ready to battle the Zionist regime and eliminate Israel from the Earth’ and ‘Our next generation is the promised one who will destroy Israel.’

Israel was expected to deal with this growing threat to the region when America withdrew. Now the threat is close to home. Iranian and Hezbollah units are on Israel’s northern border and Hezbollah’s Tehran-supplied rockets can threaten the whole of Israeli territory.

To make things worse, the spectre of nuclear weapons overshadows everything. Iran’s President Rouhani said recently that, ‘Iran is determined to expand its military power and ballistic missile programme despite mounting pressure from hostile countries to curb Iran’s defensive work. We have not asked and will not ask for permission to develop different types of … missiles and will continue our path and our military power.’ That’s code for going nuclear.

Rouhani also vowed Iran would defeat harsh US sanctions, re-imposed after President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers last year. Meanwhile Iran’s secret drive to acquire nuclear weapons continues apace.

A worried Israel has struck back hard. Any nuclear-armed Iran is a serious threat to peace.  Since 2013 Israel has launched dozens of attacks against Iranian and Hezbollah targets. This   undeclared war against Iranian forces and equipment in Syria, aimed at degrading Iran’s logistic supply routes and new bases in the Iranian corridor, has escalated as Iran and Hezbollah dig in inside Lebanon.

In May 2018 Iranian forces fired 50 rockets and mortars into the Golan Heights. This barrage did not inflict a single casualty and caused negligible damage. Israel’s prompt response was airstrikes hitting more than 70 targets. With those strikes, Israel demonstrated its ability to retaliate, warning Iran that attacking Israel would only invite an even more forceful reply. Iran backed down. Its limited capabilities in Syria makes Tehran nervous of any escalation – for now. Israel has a significant military advantage, enjoying overwhelming air superiority that can kill Iranian forces and destroy their equipment.

However, on 21 January 2019, in response to an Iranian surface-to-surface missile launched from Syria into the Golan Heights, Israel launched more strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, killing at least 12 Iranians (‘Israel, Syria: IDF targets Iranian Quds forces, Syrian air forces‘, Stratfor). Although the deputy head of Iran’s IRGC again threatened Israel, saying that Iran ‘could destroy it in three days,’ Iran is still wary of challenging Israel openly.

The conclusion is that in this undeclared war, any escalation between Israel and Iran is a low-probability but dangerously high-risk event. But when it does occur – and it will – it will have significant regional impacts. Iran’s missile arsenal in Syria can hit most of Israel, including major population centres like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and key economic and industrial targets (‘The missile arsenal at the heart of the Israeli-Iranian rivalry‘, Stratfor).

The danger is that any escalation from Iran could spark a major escalation of fighting, which in turn would be met almost certainly with an overwhelming Israeli response in Lebanon and Iraq. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spells out the consequences: ‘Whoever tries to hurt us, we will hurt them. Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility.’

Given the religious mania of Iran’s leadership, anything is possible. If a massive chemical weapons attack hits Israel, Iran will become a radioactive desert.

We have been warned because, one day, this is going to be a fight to the death. Horace’s ‘neighbours’ roofs’ are already burning. The simmering war in the Middle East requires cool heads and military restraint.

Unfortunately, both are in short supply.

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The New War

Well, that’s it. The war is over, ISIS is beaten and on the run. We can all relax and bring the boys home. Mission accomplished.

Wrong.

In May, President Trump stood before the assembled leaders of the Sunni Muslim world and called on them to ‘drive out the terrorists and extremists … from this earth.’ Well, they have succeeded. An extraordinary coalition of Syrian, Russian, American, British, Turkish, Kurdish and Iraqi military forces have crushed ISIS’s ‘caliphate’, killed most of its leadership and made the heroic ‘Fighters for God’ flee as fast as their strictly non-suicidal legs will carry them.

Unfortunately it’s not over. Islamic State survivors have dispersed into the global undergrowth to set up a network of IS franchises known as ‘wilaya’ (Arabic for ‘provinces’) stretching from the southern Philippines to Nigeria. ISIS is far from finished. Instead it has rebranded itself by merging with existing religious fanatics who hate the West and all it stands for, and who have pledged allegiance to IS’s aims. More ominously it has also absorbed – or taken over – the legacy of Osama bin Laden’s global network, al-Qaeda. Its new leader is thought to be none other than Osama’s son, Hamza bin Laden, who resurfaced in 2015 when al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri introduced him as the torchbearer of his father’s legacy. Hamza has sworn revenge on the United States in retaliation for Osama’s murder. He is considered by intelligence agencies to be the next charismatic leader of global jihadism.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that after ISIS’s defeat there is now a vacuum in the Middle East. However, ‘as any fule kno’, nature abhors a vacuum and nowadays Iran is only too happy to fill that vacant space. The truth is that Iran played a larger role in the battles for Mosul and Raqqa than the Coalition admits, and Tehran is determined to cash in on its victory. The war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, between Arabs and Persians, continues with an undeclared new war stretching from Iraq to Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

The problem is that Washington, firmly focused on the Korean nuclear crisis, has been forced to take its eye off the ball and concentrate on the problems of the Far East rather than the Middle East and the consequences of Obama’s feeble nuclear deal with Iran. The US is well aware of Tehran’s regional power grab; but Washington can only deal with one major foreign policy crisis at a time. Iran is shaping up to become a major problem, not just for US diplomats but for the whole region.

Colonel Richard Kemp, former head of international terrorism on the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee has warned that the Iranian Shi’a Ayatollahs’ destabilising actions are not just a threat to the Middle East but pose a grave threat to wider international security. In a recent interview, he said, ‘I see Iran as the greatest threat to world peace today. Not just to the Middle East, but elsewhere in the world.’

Kemp has a point. Iran is spoiling for a fight and has effectively declared war on Sunni Saudi Arabia. Intelligence reports are clear. Openly funding and arming the mainly Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran is now fighting a proxy war against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Earlier this month the rebels launched an Iranian-supplied Scud ballistic missile across the border at Riyadh International Airport. It was brought down by a Saudi surface-to-air missile. That looks like a war.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are now locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance. The ancient feud between Arab and Persian is made worse by deep religious differences. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and guardian of Islam’s holy places, sees itself as the leading Sunni state and leader of the Muslim world. However, the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, with its theocratic regime of rule by the Ayatollahs, is a permanent challenge to the Saudi monarchy. Shi’ite Iran openly declares itself to be a ‘Revolutionary Muslim’ state, anxious to export its revolution beyond its own borders.

Both nations seek to ally themselves with countries with Sunni or Shi’a majorities, and who instinctively look towards Saudi Arabia or Iran for support. The uprisings across the Arab world have also added to the political instability throughout the region. The 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, removed an intransigent Iranian adversary. Since then Iran has moved into Iraq – politically, militarily, economically and religiously – intent on establishing itself or its proxies across the region and determined to build a land corridor west to the Mediterranean. Intelligence photographs show the Iranians constructing a network of roads, electricity and communication lines extending from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In its turn, Saudi Arabia is working hard to thwart Tehran’s growing influence and regional ambitions. When Shi’a Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2014 and began pushing south to take over the country, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states intervened to support their neighbour’s government. The result is that Yemen has now become a major battleground between Riyadh and Tehran.

This intervention by the Saudis’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – now Saudi’s de facto ruler – has exposed wider regional tensions. However, in his efforts to stem Iranian influence, ‘MbS’ has found an unusual ally: Israel. Strange bedfellows indeed! For years Saudis have been taught that Israel is the ‘eternal enemy‘ and Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs.

The real reason for this curious alliance is that both are equally nervous about Tehran’s ambitions. Israel and Saudi Arabia were the two countries most adamantly opposed to Obama’s 2015 international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.

Both warned that the treaty did not go far enough to prevent Iran obtaining the bomb. The danger is that Israel’s alliance with Saudi inevitably brings any proxy conflict uncomfortably close to Lebanon and Cyprus.

Tel Aviv is well aware that Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese allies, lead a politically powerful bloc and, crucially, control a large, well-armed Shi’a militia. Hezbollah in Lebanon is spoiling to begin another civil war like Syria’s and poses a serious problem, because any conflict in Lebanon will almost certainly draw in Israel. This could lead to yet another devastating Israeli-Lebanese war. Israel is right to be worried by Iran’s growing threat. With Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Al-Quds brigades now parked on Israel’s borders, the risks to regional peace are obvious.

The other risk is a direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That Iran is preparing for trouble across the Persian Gulf is not in doubt. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has recently installed sophisticated radar, surveillance and communication equipment covering all the routes from Iran to Basra, Najaf and Karbala on Iraq’s southern coast. Intelligence sources warn, ‘The purpose of these devices, which can be used for eavesdropping and spying on mobile phones and wireless Internet services, is to cover the Iraqi-Saudi border and monitor all communications and aircraft movements.’

This build up risks a much broader conflict across the waters of the Gulf. For the US and other Western powers, freedom of navigation in the Gulf is essential. Any conflict that blocked that waterway – vital for international shipping and oil transportation – would swiftly draw in US naval and air forces.

There are other indications of serious trouble. The sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister because ‘he feared an assassination attempt by Hezbollah’ simply doesn’t pass muster. The truth is that the Saudis were furious at him for holding secret talks with Iranian and Hezbollah officials. The Middle East is breaking up; and Lebanon is directly in the firing line.

With Saudi Arabia now united with Israel against Iran, plus troubled Lebanon on the brink, a new desert storm is brewing in the Middle East.

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