Tag Archives: Syria

Not Another Bloody War?

Here we go again. Even as you read this, the war drums are beating. And – surprise, surprise – it’s Iran that’s at the heart of this latest eruption of trouble in the Middle East.

The problem is that in a region forever simmering with war and rumours of war, this one looks more serious than most. In the great international strategic poker game, a lot of dangerous cards are being dealt on to the region’s bloodstained and dusty gaming table.

Intelligence officers monitor crises by looking at two principal indicators: capabilities and intentions. The key question confronting the major powers’ intelligence officers is now very straightforward: are the US and Iran preparing for war? If so when, were and how? As The Guardian put it recently, ‘Old grudges, new weapons – is the US on the brink of war with Iran?

The indicators are not reassuring. US-Iran enmity goes back a long way. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah, who was a bastion of Western support in the Middle East. Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards invaded the US embassy, grabbing every classified document they could lay their hands on and seizing 52 American diplomats to hold as hostages. An ambitious attempt to rescue the hostages turned into an American military disaster, when helicopters collided in the desert, killing eight men.

This fiasco has never been forgotten by the Pentagon. It stirred patriotic sentiment in Iran that allowed the Islamic government to consolidate its power, and drove the USA into supporting Saddam Hussein in an attempt to bring down the rule of the Ayatollahs.

The 1979 revolution created strong passions in both countries. In Iran it was a glow of triumphalism over ‘The Great Satan’; and in the USA a simmering resentment at what was seen as a national humiliation. Few episodes in living memory, other than the sight of Royal Marines surrendering to Argentine invaders in 1982, show how public emotion can drive political decisions.

Since then Iran’s growing regional power is now seen by the USA as a serious threat to regional peace and particularly to Israel. Leading Iranian political and military figures regularly threaten to ‘wipe the Jewish homeland off the map.’ Iran has taken advantage of the Syrian War to build military bases across Syria; and a low key cross-border war between Israel and Iran has already begun. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister and close ally of President Trump, remains convinced that the Mullahs are hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

This nuclear dimension is the key. Trump’s decision last year to withdraw the USA from Obama’s 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and strangle Tehran’s already enfeebled economy was the catalyst.  In retaliation, Iran has reneged on the nuclear deal, and threatens to develop weapons-grade uranium. America and its allies fear Tehran’s programme could allow it to one day build atomic bombs. So does a nervous Tel Aviv.

It is against this background that the alarming intelligence indicators of a potential armed clash are being weighed.

Satellites report Iran moving S-300 SAMs and massing armed fast gunboats in the Gulf. Their role would be to swarm out and attack American and Western shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil supplies pass.

Last week, the US State Department ordered all non-essential staffers to leave the embassy and consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. Exxon Mobil has evacuated all its foreign staff members from Iraq’s Western oilfield. A ‘Notice to Airmen’ warns of the risks to air travel in the region amid ‘heightened military activities and increased political tension.’ Lloyd’s Insurance of London is warning of increasing risks (and premiums, naturally) to maritime shipping in the Gulf.

US-allied Bahrain has warned its citizens against travel to Iraq and Iran, citing ‘unstable regional circumstances, dangerous developments and potential threats.’

In response to these rising tensions, Washington has upped the ante, flying B-52 bombers into the region and moving a nuclear equipped carrier task force with 80 aircraft, accompanied by a Marine Expeditionary Force, to the Gulf. The objective of the exercise, in the words of national security adviser, is to ‘send a message’ to Iran. Donald Trump’s tweet spells out the threat implicitly: ‘If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.’

Iran has responded defiantly, quadrupling production of low-grade uranium while its IRGC commanders warn, ‘Over the years, our forces have completely surrounded the Persian Gulf, so that the Americans need our permission to move in this area.’ Meanwhile, a sabotage operation targeting four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates was probably sponsored by Iran, and Iran-backed rebels in Yemen claim responsibility for a drone attack on a crucial Saudi oil pipeline and an airport.

The leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force has already told Iraqi militias in Baghdad to ‘prepare for proxy war’ as the relationship with the USA deteriorates. Iraq has no shortage of friends among the Shi’a militias owing allegiance to Tehran; all are capable of stirring up fighting across the region.

Tehran has significantly expanded its footprint over the past decade, making powerful allies across the Middle East as it forges its ‘Land Bridge’ west to the Mediterranean. The IRGC’s Quds Force controls up to 140,000 Shia fighters across Syria, many dug in on Israel’s border. Quds has close links to Hezbollah, Lebanon’s well-armed anti-Israel military organisation, part of Iran’s ‘axis of resistance’, armed groups with tens of thousands of Shi’ite Muslim fighters backing Tehran. In GazaIran supports Palestinian Islamic Jihad in its struggle against what Tehran calls the ‘Zionist enemy’. Further south in Yemen, the insurrectionary Houthi rebels are openly fighting Iran’s enemy, Saudi Arabia.

At the time of writing the uncomfortable fact is that all the capabilities on both sides are in place for a dangerous confrontation between Iran and the USA. The odds are that any war would be asymmetric; Iran can stir up major trouble across the region and make deniable attacks on US and Western interests, particularly by disrupting global oil supplies. In its turn Washington, egged on by Israel, has the capability of surgical strikes to decapitate the Iranian leadership and take out key Iranian nuclear facilities.

The key question is now, what are the leaderships’ real intentions? Despite the rhetoric, it looks like neither side really wants a dragged out fight. Both are discreetly signalling that they are looking to negotiate a solution. Oman’s Foreign Minister brings news that that ‘the Islamic Republic is open to talks with the USA – but not under pressure.’  Asked if the USA was going to war with Iran, President Trump replied, ‘I hope not‘, tweeting: ‘I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.’

This is classic, ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’ diplomacy – on both sides.

The indications from Tehran reflect this. In a letter to the UN Security Council, Iran is hinting that the Ayatollahs don’t want war: ‘Iran will never choose war as an option or strategy in pursuing its foreign policy. But if war is imposed on us, Iran will exercise its inherent right to self-defence in order to defend its nation and to secure its interests.’

Peace or war? The stakes are very high.

With the tangle of competing alliances and a region already riven by armed struggles, this could turn out to be the conflict that no-one wants. We’ve been here before.

Just like the disastrous events of summer 1914, it only needs one spark to set off the powder train of a wider war.

 

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The New Face of War?

Like many others, I was surprised by the announcement by Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff, that his Reaper drone crews will be eligible for the new Operational Service Medal for their contribution to the war in Syria and the defeat of ISIS (also known as Daesh). Traditionally, medals have always been awarded based on risk and rigour. It may seem a reasonable assumption that there is not much risk sitting in a nice warm office up at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire where they operate their Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs). More like playing computer games, perhaps? Where is the risk and rigour in that?

On digging deeper, however, I have changed my mind. There is no doubt that the RAF’s drone operators have made a major contribution to the defeat of ISIS and deserve official recognition.

An unnamed pilot said the drone operators’ job is very different to his Typhoon force operations. The RAF pilot, with 30 long and dangerous combat missions over Syria during his Akrotiri tour, made the point:

‘In some ways it is identical, in some way it is totally different … I think they have it a lot harder in some ways …

‘What people don’t realise is the emotional investment they end up having in it. They will watch a target for weeks on end and they will understand every part of that target’s life.

‘You can’t not become emotionally involved – we need to give those boys and girls a lot more credit that I think people are giving them.’

The pilot’s comments echo the words of the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, who has said: ‘The campaign against Daesh is one of which our Armed Forces can be extremely proud. I am pleased that today those who have bravely fought against such untold evil will get the recognition they deserve.’

During the campaign to destroy the extremists in Iraq and Syria, drones were used to carry out strikes, gather intelligence and conduct surveillance. While front-line operational aircrew do operations for maybe six months or a year at a time, drone operations staff face different challenges The Reaper force is on duty 24/7/365, monitoring an enemy that is elusive, dangerous and determined to attack the West in any way it can in pursuit of its twisted, fanatical world view. The personal strain and pressure watching the every move of these individuals is immense and unrelenting.

Drone crews have been doing that for every working day on Operation Shader (codename for the Syrian campaign) for four years. ACM Hillier pointed out that for the drone pilots, sensor operators and mission intelligence co-ordinators of the Reaper crews, ‘It is not some remote support operations – they are doing operations, engaged in active operations every minute of every day. This often involves weeks of monitoring individuals and then, once a strike has been executed, another vast amount of time is spent ensuring it was successful.’

Of course, in addition sometimes taking the decision to kill whole groups by remote control is made before going home to the family for supper and to help put the kids to bed. Drone pilots face questions like: ‘What did you do today, Daddy?’

As a result the pressure has taken its toll. ACM Hillier confirmed that drone crews are monitored ‘extremely closely for the risk of psychological harm … these people see some quite stressful things. So we have provided the opportunity for counselling, and an environment where we look after each other – a full support network exists. We need to make sure we don’t end up with them [the drone pilots] getting psychologically fatigued.’

This insight into the combat stress of the new warfare is a reflection of how in the last decade drones have become a new battlefield in the ‘vertical flank’. As long ago as 2004, the militant group Hezbollah began to use ‘adapted commercially available hobby systems for combat roles’. These modified toys can be bought easily, as the Gatwick debacle in December 2018 demonstrated, and – at prices ranges from US $200 to $700 – they are as cheap as chips to the military.

Also, adapted drones are lethal. For example, in August 2014 well-directed Russian-backed artillery fire was used to devastating effect in Ukraine, leaving three mechanised battalions a smoking ruin. This mission reached its goal because the units and their positions were identified by a mini-drone with a TV camera: the Ukrainian government lost 200 vehicles – and very-short-range air defences weren’t able to detect the deadly eye in the sky.

Armed services worldwide are taking this new threat very seriously indeed – as well as the new opportunities drones offer.  Whilst much attention has been focused on hypersonic weapons and long-range missiles, small UAVs pose new risks and are a serious challenge to air defences on land and sea.

In America, Dan Gettinger (Co-director: Center for the Study of the Drone) warns, ‘The US military – and any other military – have to prepare for an operating environment in which enemy drones are not just occasional, but omnipresent … Whether it’s a small, tactical UAV, mid-size or strategic, drones of any size will be commonplace on the battlefield of the future.’

He recognises the asymmetrical nature of the drone, armed or reconnaissance. Drones are cheap, hard to detect and don’t bring politically embarrassing body bags to the attention of the media or the folks back home. Drone technology has become a cat-and-mouse game, as militaries struggle to deal with the big threat of little drones.

For example, whilst US ‘supercarriers’ – with 80 warplanes and 5000 sailors – can dominate the narrow waters of the Persian Gulf, these 100,000-tonne behemoths are intensely vulnerable to hundreds of tiny Iranian attack drones – or a swarm of radio-controlled, fast-attack craft. The only remedy is lots of close-range defensive small calibre guns – and the chances are that some of the enemy will still get through. Half a dozen US $1000 missiles can easily disable a vessel costing US $50 billion. As the Americans say: ‘You do the math – go figure.’

Inevitably the market place has latched onto the commercial possibility of drones. Driven by a global increase in the use of mini-drones by terrorists and criminals, the anti-drone market is expected to grow to US $1.85 billion by 2024, according to the US business consulting firm, Grand View Research.

‘As drones become deadlier, stealthier, faster, smaller and cheaper, the nuisance and threat posed by them is expected to increase, ranging from national security to individual privacy,’ Grand View warns. ‘Keeping the above-mentioned threat in mind, there are significant efforts – both in terms of money and time – being invested in the development and manufacturing of anti-drone technologies.’ The Dutch have even trained eagles to attack drones.

Britain’s drone policy appears to be primarily defensive, as the RAF is well aware that the F-35 Lightning (at GBP £65 million a throw) is unlikely to be available in large numbers. Reaper drones and their UAV successors (at about GBP £14 million a copy) can offer a better bang for the taxpayers’ buck. In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute on 11 February 2019, UK Defence Secretary Williamson announced that the United Kingdom was ready to develop and deploy a swarm of drones before the year was out. ‘I have decided to develop swarm squadrons of network enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences,’ he said. ‘We expect to see these ready to be deployed by the end of this year [2019].’

This is interesting: it suggests a ‘weapons mix’, where drones accompany crewed fighters as robotic wing mates. It’s cheap – and the technology already exists in the US: for example, the manoeuvrable target drone developed by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions.

The danger, as ever in UK defence procurement, is that the dead hand of Ministry of Defence jobsworths will – once again – gold plate and change the specification, starve it of funds, double the cost and, finally, draft a rotten contract just in time for the next round of defence cuts.

But that’s another story …

The End of ISIS?

So ISIS – or Daesh (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) as the Arabs call it – is finally defeated. Like trapped rats, the last jihadi fanatics hide in their final boltholes to await their inevitable doom at the hands of the Kurds, Turk, and Syrian armies – helped by the US, Russian and UK’s Royal Air Force – all closing in for the kill. Thousands of men, women and children have fled ISIS’s surrounded final stronghold in the village of Baghuz, on the Iraqi border, surrendering to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Kurdish-led militias backed by the West. The women and children seen streaming into squalid desert refugee camps to be told what the future holds for the families of the broken terrorist army are the tangible evidence of defeat.

The war is over and everyone can come home … er, well, no … it isn’t, actually.

If you tread on a poisonous mushroom it explodes to scatter its thousands of spores throughout the woods. So it is with ISIS, because group was never just a ragtime army of Islamic hotheads living on captured land. ISIS is much more: it is an ideology that cannot be crushed and exterminated with bullets rockets and bombs. Ideas are spread like spores. Defeat on the battlefield has had the effect of scattering the survivors of the army of the faithful throughout the Middle East – and far beyond. The battle is won, but the war will go on.

This time it will be a war based on two separate but linked campaigns. First is the need to keep the flame of Islamic purity and the search for God’s kingdom of the Ummat al-Islām ( أمة الإسلام ), the collective community of Islam, alive to carry the Holy Gospel of the sacred Koran far afield. Second, the ISIS survivors now on the run are planning a bitter revenge on the West and all those infidels who have destroyed their dream of an ideologically pure Muslim Caliphate.

No one sees this more clearly than General Joseph Votel, who is in charge of US operations in the Middle East. In evidence to the US Congress’s House Armed Services Committee hearing on 7 March 2019, he shared evidence that although Daesh militants are losing the last of their territory in Syria, the militants who remain represent a ‘serious generational problem’. He told the hearing: ‘We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization. Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment – but the fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over and our mission remains the same.’ The general also warned of more trouble ahead: ‘The Isis population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised.’

General Votel is right. Those who have held out until now are still defiant. What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organisation, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and going to ground in remote areas to wait for the right time to re-emerge to carry on the fight elsewhere.

Many of the women have told reporters they are unrepentant in their support for ISIS and have pledged to continue the struggle. Women in camps for the displaced have even reported attempts to maintain ISIS discipline there, with unveiled women being attacked by other ‘ISIS brides’.

One 60-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, said that ISIS will continue because the ‘Caliphate’s Cubs’ under the terror group’s rule have been trained to fight from a young age.   She said: ‘The caliphate will not end, because it has been ingrained in the hearts and brains of the newborns and the little ones.’ Some of the civilians threw rocks at the cameras of those trying to film them, whilst one screamed at a photographer and called him a pig.

The captured fighters on the other hand have kept their heads down. Most have been taken to Kurdish and Syrian detention camps. Their fate remains unclear, especially the many hundreds of foreign fighters whose home countries are reluctant to take them back. They are an international hot potato for whom – understandably – no one wants to take responsibility.

The real danger now is that ISIS supporters are being urged to launch lone-wolf terror attacks on Western targets, according to their message traffic. The organisation still has the wherewithal to fight. A UN report published last month claimed ISIS has a secret war chest of up to $300 million (£230 million) that could be used to sustain its operations and fund new attacks on the West. Although the terror group is assessed to have ‘bulk stored’ some of the money in its stronghold area (leading to one spectacular USAF strike on a warehouse that literally blew millions of dollars up into the sky), much of the rest has been smuggled abroad or invested in legitimate businesses. So, not only does ISIS still have an army of sympathisers on which to call, it also has plenty of cash to fund any future operations.

Already there are ISIS propaganda posters encouraging new attacks, including one depicting a man walking through an airport dragging a suitcase depicting the terror group’s logo. We have seen similar Islamist terror posters in the past, often using images of major Western cities such as New York and London as part of their scare tactics. To further strengthen the case that ISIS is going to ground but still remaining active, monitoring agencies report that known ISIS sympathisers are sharing encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram to ‘inspire’ extremists to carry out terror attacks. This follows reports that desperate ISIS-linked media groups are calling for a new ‘online jihad’ now that the terrorists have been neutralised in Syria and Iraq.

The problem is that, like Communism, jihadism is a global phenomenon. History has shown us the dangers of underestimating the power of ideologies. In places like Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mali and Yemen, fundamental Islam is still prepared to fight and die for the cause, as al-Qaeda still demonstrates. One of the jihadi’s key mantras is ‘stay and expand’. This philosophy and a willingness to accept heavy casualties whilst planning for a long struggle are rooted in a firm belief that God favours their cause and sometimes tests the faithful so that only the purest at heart will survive to fight and win the ultimate battle. Such a mindset makes for a dangerous adversary, whatever its losses.

There is also growing evidence that the group’s surviving leadership have moved to disperse some of their fighters, arms and riches, preparing ISIS to resume terrorist and insurgent operations after the caliphate’s collapse. This campaign has already started in Iraq, where Islamic State is again conducting assassinations, bombings and other operations despite having lost control of vast territories. Given the way Syria is currently partitioned, the various political vacuums in the region are already giving fleeing ISIS State militants time and space to regroup and set up new operations.

The bitter truth is that Islamic State is just one branch of a global insurgency, a problem the world cannot solve by just killing and bombing one single nest of vipers. Combatting a global insurgency will require a coordinated global counterinsurgency effort. This means that efforts to defeat jihadist groups must persist well after the ‘clear’ phase to the ‘hold’ and ‘build’ phases of counterinsurgency. In addition, this must happen in every part of the world where the jihadist insurgency is manifesting itself, from Bali to Birmingham.

Of one thing we can be sure. The erasure of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria won’t ensure its final defeat. The war goes on ….

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.

ISIS: The Final Countdown?

Winston Churchill once famously said, ‘battles are the punctuation marks of history.’ Well, we have just avoided a potentially disastrous ‘exclamation mark’ in the bloody history of the Middle East. Whilst the post-colonial Versailles settlement of 1919 is being brutally readjusted to take account of the harsh realities of today’s Muslim world, a major crisis has just been avoided. At Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Turkey and Russia have agreed to form a joint, demilitarised buffer zone around Syria’s embattled north-western province bordering Turkey: Idlib.

This agreement defuses a growing crisis between Ankara and Moscow by preventing any major Russian-backed government offensive from exploding into ISIS’s final rebellious Syrian redoubt. However, significant obstacles remain; Idlib could still become a flash point.

The problem is that the Middle East is as much of an unexploded bomb today as Europe was in 1914. Sunni Saudi Arabia hates Iran, and Shi’a Iran loathes the Saudis. Shi’ite Assad’s remaining chunk of Syria is the close ally of Iran. Behind the Saudis stand the USA, Britain and France. Behind the Iranians stand the Russians, sometimes the Turks, ever keen to obliterate the Kurds, and perhaps China – and watching nervously from its ringside seat is Israel.

For the past ten years we have all been living with this savage struggle to the death. Muslim has been slaughtering Muslim, all in the name of the Prophet of the religion of Peace and Love – ‘May his name be blessed.’ Now this round is nearly over; or is it?

The Turkish-Russian Sochi deal has been welcomed by all sides as an opportunity to avert the suffering that any major offensive would inflict on the province’s 3 million civilians. UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the agreement, saying that the ‘creation of a buffer zone in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province should avert an all-out military assault and provide reprieve for millions of civilians.’

It would also avoid the heavy losses that would be incurred by government forces in launching the biggest battle yet of the Syrian war against the cornered rebels. Turkey, the UN and aid groups have warned that any major assault by Russian and government forces backing President Bashar al-Assad against the trapped rebel fighters would lead to a massacre. It could also send 800,000 new refugees fleeing across the border into an already overwhelmed Turkey.

Many of the civilians in Idlib are already refugees from other parts of Syria following the collapse of the opposition resistance in cities such as Aleppo. The consequences of an all-out offensive against Idlib with its hapless civilians and the risk of Turkish troops fighting Russians could have led to a bloodbath.

The agreement is specifically designed to halt this major Russian-Syrian-Iranian attack on Idlib, with its trapped civilians.  The agreement calls for a 9- to 12-mile demilitarised  zone around the borders of the region, safe from Syrian and Russian air-force attack and which must be in place by 15 October. Heavy weapons including tanks, mortars and artillery will be withdrawn and Russian and Turkish troops will police the neutral zone. The Syrian government said that it ‘welcomed any initiative that stops bloodshed and contributes to security and stability.’ President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added, ‘With this memorandum of understanding, I believe we have prevented a major humanitarian crisis in Idlib.’

However, the devil is in the detail. The deal’s success hinges on the withdrawal of an estimated 10,000 fanatical jihadi rebel fighters from the buffer zone, fighting under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida and listed as dangerous terrorists by Russia, the USA and the UN.

These are some of Syria’s fiercest rebels, battle-hardened over years of gruelling warfare. HTS will fight to the death rather than surrender and they have good reason to do so: talks with the government have gone nowhere. In recently recaptured parts of the country, Assad’s goons have promptly arrested former rebels and opposition officials despite assurances of amnesty. Many have disappeared into Assad’s torture dungeons. ‘It’s either die, or surrender – and then die,’ says one rebel leader.

Despite these problems, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (a staunch supporter of Assad) tweeted: ‘Diplomacy works.’ However, he added that his visits to Turkey and Russia in recent weeks had achieved ‘a firm commitment to fight extremist terror.’ Putin himself added, ‘Russia and Turkey reiterated their commitment to continue anti-terrorism efforts in Syria in any of its forms or manifestations.’

Quite how this agreement to quarantine Idlib helps to stamp Islamic terrorism remains unclear because the deal is very fragile. With jets from at least six countries – Israel, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Britain and America – roaming the skies over Syria, the risk of mistakes leading to further escalation of the fighting are just a pilot’s blink away. Also, where will the rebels go?

Nevertheless, the international consequences of Sochi are important. Russia has scored a major diplomatic victory by striking a deal with Turkey. Moscow has avoided damaging its growing strategic relationship with Ankara, whilst achieving its own aims in Syria without more bloodshed. The Syrian war may be ending.

However, some things have not changed. ‘Russia doesn’t like the rebels and they want to help Assad lock down his victory; but they also have strong incentives to continue courting the Turks,’ said Aron Lund, an expert on the region. ‘Syria is just a small part of what Putin cares about. If he can just make the Syrian conflict quiet and unthreatening with Assad still in power, then Russia has won the war ….’

Idlib’s locals have mixed emotions about the Sochi deal. Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a 32-year-old teacher living in Idlib remains wary. ‘After seven years, if we trusted anyone we would be fools. Whenever we trust anyone they trick us,’ said Mr Alhamdo, who lived through the siege of Aleppo before fleeing to Idlib.  He added that he was ‘so happy, and so sad’ about the deal, because it still leaves them in limbo.  ‘People might be able to live again. Children might know there is tomorrow without planes. But we are still in nowhere. Refugees forever.’

Others have spotted the loopholes in the agreement. Thanassis Cambanis of The Century Foundation warns: ‘The gaping hole is that “terrorists” are still fair game. Putin has endorsed a lot of truces, but then Russia proceeded to bomb groups it defines as terrorists, because it says they weren’t part of the wider deal.’

This truce might be different. Putin’s own credibility is at stake, having made such a high-profile deal with President Erdogan. Turkey and Russia are increasingly becoming trade and diplomatic partners. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor. The Kremlin also sees the strains between Turkey and western countries as a wonderful opportunity to divide and weaken the NATO alliance, to which Turkey provides the second largest number of troops. Putin has a personal stake in the Idlib agreement.

However, whilst for the Jihadis the battle may be lost, their long war is not over, because crushing ISIS in Syria will not eradicate the real problem. If the jihadis escape, the deadly spores of terrorism will merely disperse to spread their Islamist terrorism, which is already ‘global and growing.’ Islamist extremists caused 84,000 deaths in 2017 and intelligence agencies have identified 121 groups sharing a common ideology, now operating worldwide. They killed 84,000 people – nearly 22,000 of them civilians – in 66 countries in 2017, according to latest reports.

Even Whitehall admits that a convicted jihadi terrorist is being released onto the streets of Britain nearly every week. Home Office figures show that 46 prisoners held for terrorism offences were released in 2017 (The Telegraph, 13 September 2018)

ISIS and al Qa’ida are still very dangerous. Whatever happens in Idlib, we have not heard the last of them. The fallout from Syria will be with us for years.

Watch Out! There’s a War About

For once I find myself in total agreement with Vladimir Putin, who observed recently in a Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious that ‘the world is becoming a more chaotic place.’ Whilst Pres-for-life Vlad’s BGO doesn’t exactly qualify him as a great thinker, this time he is absolutely right. There’s a definite feeling abroad of an unravelling in world affairs; an uneasy sense that something nasty is lurking round the corner of history ….

As Nigel Molesworth put it so succinctly in Down with Skool: ‘History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse.’ Looking at our increasingly troubled world, maybe ‘the gorilla of 3B’ got it right.

But first, the good news. A few months ago we were all nervously observing a ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ US President threatening fire and fury at North Korea’s ‘Little Rocket Man’ over nuclear missiles. It was definitely steel helmet (and don’t forget your respirator) time. Now, thanks to Trump’s interesting blend of diplomacy, brutal economic sanctions and the threat of violence, Kim Wrong ’Un seems to have a sudden change of heart and is smiling for the cameras and shaking hands across the border. Sigh of relief all round?

However, let’s not get too excited. North Koreans have a consistent track record in talks with the South and the US: consistently lying and trousering the ‘Danegeld’ paid to them to behave themselves, whilst they ignore any agreements. We need to watch this ‘deal’ very carefully.

And let us not forget that Dictator Kim was threatening nuclear war whilst still presiding over appalling human-rights abuses as he ruthlessly executed friends and family alike to eliminate his rivals. Nonetheless, if President Trump really succeeds in negotiating an end to Kim’s nuclear provocations and the Korean War (‘Neutral ground or dramatic backdrop?‘, Telegraph, 23 April 2018), he will have defused a potentially apocalyptic global crisis.

Good luck with that.

Now for the bad news; and there is far too much, as Putin warns.  Intelligence analysts are warning that trouble is looming from at least three other directions: Syria and Iran; Israel; and a global economy deep in debt.

First, Syria, where the endless civil war to keep Assad and his Shi’a allies in power has morphed into something new – and much more worrying. UN Secretary General Guterres warns: ‘The Cold War is back with a vengeance – and a difference.’ The difference is that it is no longer cold. Something very dangerous is unfolding in the war-torn Middle East. A little-known Iranian-backed Shi’a group calling itself the ‘Baqir Brigade’ has declared jihad on US forces in Syria,  where Russian and American troops are only a rifle range apart.  The US, UK and France have already attacked Syrian military targets as a reprisal for the latest gas attack. The dangers are obvious. Any Russia and US fighting in Syria could detonate a hot war and set the entire Middle East on fire.

Further north, Turkey has invaded Syria to crush the Kurds – the warriors who really defeated ISIS on the ground. Meanwhile the Iranians and their Lebanese Shi’a proxy, Hezbollah, have set up a new battle front on Israel’s border. Iran effectively runs Syria now and is turning its malevolent eye against Israel.

This time the Mullahs are really playing with fire. Israel is not a normal country. Tel Aviv will fight like a cornered cat against an enemy that has sworn to ‘sweep the Jews into the sea.’ And Israel possesses nuclear weapons precisely to deter anyone stupid enough to threaten Israel’s very existence. Israel has warned that ‘it will retaliate with every means possible,’ if attacked by Iran and its friends.

Ironically, Iran’s nuclear ambitions may be unravelling at the very moment it tries to intimidate Israel. Tehran thought that it had pulled a stroke with nice Mr Obama with his 2016 no-nukes deal to get sanctions lifted, whilst continuing to build its Shi’a empire in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and now Yemen. Trump is having none of that. Despite Macron’s pleading for a cosy continuation of flogging French and EU goodies to oil-rich Iran, Trump pulled the plug on 12 May 2018 and re-imposed economic sanctions, blocking Iranian oil sales and wrecking Tehran’s not-so-secret nuclear plans.

This is bad news for the world economy, which is now just as vulnerable to a financial crisis as it was in 2008. Oil is the motor of commerce. Oil prices, which dropped to $30 a barrel in 2009 and 2016, are now rising as production cuts by OPEC and Russia have finally sold the world glut of oil; so supply dries up. Iranian sanctions alone will remove 500,000 barrels a day from the market.

Even America’s new oil-shale output cannot fill this gap between supply and demand. Now Brent crude has risen to $72 a barrel and will probably go higher now that Trump has re-imposed sanctions. This could be a global economic bombshell as various geostrategic crises explode. Saudi Arabia is already talking about $100 crude, setting off a speculators’ scramble;  ‘We are pretty confident that oil will be in triple digits by next year,’ opines Jean-Louis Le Mee from Westbeck Capital.

IMF reports warn of a chain-reaction for world finance. One is well-understood: debt. Global debt has been alarmingly high since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, nations have continued to borrow hand over fist, pushing worldwide debt to $200 trillion (a trillion is a million, million million.)  That is nearly three times the size of the entire global economy.

The second economic problem is that the Chinese and German economies are going into reverse. Germany’s economy in particular is stalling surprisingly quickly. The economic miracle by the EU’s motor of industry is over and now even Berlin faces economic problems, warns Düsseldorf’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute: ‘The danger of recession has increased markedly. It is a more critical picture than just a month ago.’

All this is happening as Korea teeters on a knife edge, Washington and Moscow go head to head, Syria faces multiple wars, Israel and Iran are shaping up for a catastrophic showdown, and the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran over Yemen gets out of control with missile attacks on Saudi targets by Iranian-backed Houthis. A full blown religious war between Sunni and Shi’a has started. One intelligence analyst warns: ‘All it will take is one Houthi missile sinking a 200,000-ton oil tanker in the Gulf and the consequences would be global.’

Even here, on our island in the sun, alarming events are going on all around us. Suddenly bankrupt Greece is preparing to lease two French multi-purpose frigates to bolster its defences in the Aegean Sea, amid rising tensions with Turkey. Fighters are again on the alert over contested islands. Turkey sails warships to Cyprus to protect hydrocarbon finds. Hostages are being held on both sides. President Erdogan suddenly announces a snap election to choose the country’s next president and parliament on 24  June 2018, to give himself greater executive powers.

All this at a time when the Turkish economy is overheating, raising the possibility of another financial crisis like 2001, when the AKP first came to power promising a strong economy. With Turkish national borrowing skyrocketing and Ankara having to lure foreign money with promises of 13% interest on government bonds, this doesn’t look much like economic competence. The truth is that we are ‘living through interesting times,’ as the old Chinese curse puts it.

Whilst most normal people are just trying to get on with their lives, get to work, earn enough to raise a family and enjoy themselves, all around us alarming events look like coming to the boil. Politically we are living through world-changing history.

It’s an increasingly unstable and dangerous world.  We need to watch out for what is really going on out there.

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