by Jerry Gordon (June 2013)
Rockets slammed into a Hezbollah stronghold in South Beirut on Sunday, May 26, 2013. They were allegedly fired by Lebanese Sunni opposition and Syrian rebels. It was the first such attack in over two years. It followed a declaration by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah on Saturday, May 25th that “called Syria a new front in the Shiite party's war against Israel and the West.” He went further and noted: “Syria is the backbone of the resistance. The resistance cannot sit idly by, arms crossed, as its back is exposed or its support broken.” The Assad regime newspaper Tishreen emblazoned Nasrallah’s message across its front page.
Hezbollah Fighters, Source: AP
This was the first formal recognition of the Shia alliance of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran seeking to become the dominant Islamic hegemon in the region. Meanwhile in Tripoli, Lebanon’s, local Sunni, who support the rebel cause in Syria attacked local Alawites killing 30 and wounding over 200. Across the frontier a battle has been going on with Syrian, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah fighters seeking to wrest control from rebels in “the town of Qusayr, about 6 miles, from the border with Lebanon.” The Times of Israel reported that 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are in Syria with another 5,000 on the way. The combined Shia force is endeavoring to protect lines of communications for the filtering of weapons and supplies to Hezbollah delivered by sea and air to Syria from Iran. Further, the combined forces’ objective is to create an Alawite bastion on Syria’s North West Mediterranean coast so that Russian weapons and Venezuelan diesel fuel can be delivered via the ports of Tartous and Latakia.
Against this combined Shia force are rebel forces comprising the Free Syrian Army with elements of Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist and the al Qaida linked al Nusrah Front militias. There is an estimate that upwards of 1,500 Iraqi al Nusrah fighters are in Syria. They are backed by a Sunni coalition of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Salman Saikh, head of the Doha Center of the Brookings Institution commented at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Jordan that the Obama Administration “doesn’t want to get involved in the complexity of the Syrian crisis.” The Obama Administration has been circumspect about armed support for rebel militias in Syria. Perhaps because the leading elements among Syrian rebels are the al Qaida linked al-Nusrah terrorist militia. President Obama is caught on the horns of a dilemma.
Professor Bernard Heykal of Princeton University commented about the history of the Shia-Sunni divide and how Assad’s Syria enlarged on it:
Sunni-Shia tensions tend to rise sharply during geopolitical power struggles, such as in Iraq in 2006-2008. Prior to that, the last great Sunni-Shia battle in the Middle East involved near-constant war between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and Iran’s Shia Safavid Empire during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Ottomans won by a small margin, ultimately securing control over Iraq. But the protracted conflict contributed to the decline of both empires and devastated Iraq, leaving behind a deep sectarian cleavage.
This does not bode well for Syria. Since the 1970’s, the Assads have failed to foster Arab nationalism in order to unite the religiously divided population, resorting instead to divisive sectarian politics to control Syria’s population. While ensuring that their Alawite allies filled key positions in the military and intelligence services helped the Assads to retain their grip on the country, it was a strategy that widened and reinforced the Sunni-Shia rift among the population.
The two year war in Syria that began as an alleged rebellion seeking the toppling of the regime of Bashar al Assad has devolved into a bloody sectarian war with over 80,000 dead, hundreds of thousands wounded and more than 1.5 million refugees displaced to neighboring countries, Turkey and Jordan. That figure could well double if the sectarian war in Syria continues creating an enormous humanitarian crisis.
Assad has threatened to aim missiles at major cities in Israel. These warnings followed air raids in April and early May by Israel’s air force that allegedly destroyed advanced anti-air missiles and non-conventional weapons development facilities that were in the process of being transferred to Hezbollah. Syrian forces engaged in fighting al Nusrah rebels in the demilitarized zone on the Golan frontier with Israel have fired on IDF contingents. Israel has reinforced armored units on the Golan and conducted special operations, perhaps seeking to perhaps form paramilitary units from Druze villages in the zone.
IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Benny Gantz said in response to Assad’s threats, “there will be consequences.” Israeli Air Force commander, Gen. Amir Eshel, advised fellow Israelis that if a conflict occurs, they had best prepare for a protracted one in the North. He noted at a Tel Aviv conference: “Syria is collapsing before our eyes. If it collapses tomorrow we could find its vast arsenal dispersed and pointing at us.” As Syria has a vast inventory of rockets, missiles, chemical and biological weapons, home defense for Israel’s population would be crucial. Carolyn Glick in a recent Jewish World Review column noted:
Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan has been warning repeatedly that it is certain that Israeli population centers will be hit by Syrian ballistic missiles and that we have to be prepared for the worst-case scenarios, including Scud missile-launched chemical weapons attacks on Israel's metropolitan centers.
Hezbollah's capabilities cannot be discounted, given its arsenal of an estimated 100,000 rockets and missiles. On Sunday, May 26th Hezbollah may have fired a rocket from Marjayoun in Southern Lebanon that exploded in the vicinity of Metullah in Northern Israel, a distance of six miles. Moreover, Hezbollah may have been supplied by Iran with the means of delivering chemical and biological weapons. In late April, an Israeli F-16 shot down a Hezbollah, Iranian supplied Ababil (Swallow) UAV, the second one in six months. Hezbollah has a dozen of such drones capable of delivering non-conventional WMD. The mobile Ababil UAVS can be launched from Southern Lebanon and can reach central Israel.
An international conference in Geneva has been called by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for early June to try and grapple with resolving the sectarian war in Syria. This followed a meeting by US Secretary of State Kerry with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. Both the Russians and Chinese have suggested that Iran be invited, despite the upcoming June 14th Iranian Presidential election to choose a successor to President Ahmadinejad. Among the eight Iranian presidential candidates vetted and approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei are two officials, Mohsen Rezai and Ali Akbar Velayati suspected of being involved in planning and executing the 1994 AMIA Jewish Center bombing in Buenos Aires that killed more than 85 and injured over 300 hundred.
Iran’s nuclear program and support for its Shia allies in Syria and proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon has not been lost on the US Congress. In late May, the House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up new sanction legislation that may further reduce Iran’s oil exports and revenues, as well as close the loophole in illegal gold trading that Turkey has used to purchase Iranian oil. Those drastic economic measures may not be powerful enough to stop Iran’s nuclear program from achieving weapon grade uranium for assembly of devices as early as 2014.
While Turkey is a NATO ally, its objectives are not the same as the Obama Administration in the Middle East region. Prime Minister Erdogan announced during a White House Rose Garden press conference with President Obama that he would be visiting Gaza, despite US warnings. There is evidence that Turkey may have supplied Hamas with upwards of a half billion dollars of assistance via the Gulf Emirates. Moreover, Erdogan’s AKP party is seeking to re-establish the Ottoman Caliphate that ended with the establishment of a secular Turkish Republic founded by Kemal Ataturk.
Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose country is overwhelmed by the latest wave of refugees from Syria, is facing dissension from both Bedouins and majority Palestinians. The latter has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front. Given comments in a recent Atlantic interview is King Abdullah, “an ex-king walking” and is the Israeli Jordanian Peace treaty in jeopardy?
Secretary of State Kerry in the midst of the Syrian imbroglio met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem and PA President Abbas in Ramallah endeavoring to bring both parties together to discuss peace. He went on to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum in Jordan where he unveiled a $4 billion private initiative to bolster the Palestinian economy. However, Kerry noted “The political approach is central and it is our top priority. The absence of peace is in fact perpetual war, even if it’s low intensity. Are we ready, do we want to live with a permanent intifada?”
Problem is neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are listening to him. Before his arrival, US backed moderate Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad resigned. It is felt that Abbas by assuming that post may become a de facto autocrat. The sentiments of Israelis about resolving the Palestinian problem were captured in a comment conveyed by a former senior aide to PM Netanyahu, “Debating the peace process to most Israelis is the equivalent of debating the color of the shirt you will wear when landing on Mars.”
Egypt’s government headed by former Muslim Brotherhood political leader, Mohammed Morsi is mired in a host of economic and sectarian problems of its own making. A combined secular and Salafist opposition has been protesting and clamoring for a new parliamentary election. Moreover, there have been investigative reports that a Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy at the start of the Arab Spring in 2011 may have led to the toppling of Mubarak and the freeing of Morsi who became President in June 2012. There is some concern that if the current quandary in Egypt is not resolved it might lead to a possible military overthrow of the Morsi regime.
Against this background, we convened another in a series of our periodic Middle East Round Table discussions.
Bates: Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn. There is a lot in the news with domestic policy. The tornado in Oklahoma, the Barack Obama Administration dealing with their plateful of scandals and there is always news happening in the Middle East and that is why we do these occasional Middle East Roundtables. We are doing one this hour with Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog, “the Iconoclast.” He is in the studio with us. Welcome Jerry.
Gordon: Good to be back.
Bates: And joining us by telephone is Jonathan Schanzer, V.P. of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Jonathan welcome.
Schanzer: Thank you very much.
Bates: Also joining us by telephone is Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center. Shoshana , welcome.
Bryen: Nice to be here.
Bates: Shoshana, I'm going to throw the first question to you. The war in Syria appears to be a stalemate. The Syrian military in alliance with Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force may have succeeded in retaking strategic lines of communications which are obviously essential. Does this mean that the Sunni alliance of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia backing the Free Syrian Army has failed?
Bryen: Possibly. German intelligence thinks that not only has the Syrian regime reestablished its communication lines but also its fuel lines. Fuel lines – for planes, for tanks, for armored personnel carriers – are enormously important to keeping the war going. In terms of the alliance to keep the Free Syrian Army together, it was never really an alliance. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all have their own particular interests. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been funding the Al Nusrah front and other Jihadist organizations. There is a question of how much of this is Free Syrian Army-related and how much of this is the broader Sunni/Shia expansionist war. It is not as if the three countries, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia came together and said they would support a Free Syrian Army and put their money and their muscle behind it. They did not. They have been supporting all kinds of malicious groups, some of which are at odds with others of them.
Bates: Jonathan, what do you think on that same question?
Schanzer: Let me put it this way: the United States never got behind this initiative in my opinion. Never fully anyway. We have provided some support from afar, but we have subcontracted out the problem of Syria to primarily Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. I do not believe that anybody really had a full handle on this initiative. There was not a single country leading it. It was never done in a concerted, corporate fashion where everything was funneled through one place. This has been a slip-shod approach to an incredibly important strategic war. As this has dragged on over the last two years, we have found that it has gotten harder and harder to understand who is winning, who should be winning and who we should be backing. I think Syria is now officially broken and we have no good options left.
Bates: Shoshana, the American press has done a horrible job defining the players in this conflict. Who exactly are the Syrian rebels?
Bryen: That is a very good question. I think as Jonathan just alluded, we don't really know who all of the players are. It is not only a press problem; it is a U.S. Government problem. The Free Syrian Army certainly has a large number of secular moderate people who want to get rid of Bashar Assad for good reasons. However, the Free Syrian Army has an Islamist wing that has from the beginning contained the bulk of the fighters. David Ignatius, of the Washington Post, who probably is closer to this than most people, has been writing extensively about it. There are no groups that are entirely one thing. The Free Syrian Army in particular is a hybrid of different kinds of people fighting toward essentially the same end. On top of that you have Al Qaida, and on top of that you have the Al Nusrah front which may also be Al Qaida. In addition you have all kinds of other groups fighting for their own bits, including the Kurds and Christians.
Bates: Who should the West be backing, Shoshana? We have the Syrian government, Bashar al-Assad who is horrible. We have Hezbollah in alliance with Iran also horrible. However, if the Syrian rebels themselves are Islamist fundamentalists are we jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire as we did in Egypt and Libya?
Bryen: Do you want a heart attack or do you want cancer? The large divide here is between Sunni expansionist radicals and Shiite expansionist radicals. They are fighting each other and for the United States there is no obvious ally. This is not World War II where we looked at the Germans and we looked at the British and we said, “We know who our friends are.” These are two groups of people in the largest sense. On one side sponsors of this war are a group of Sunni expansionist radicals including Al Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood – which is surely not good for us. On the other side Shiite expansionist radicals lead by Iran – which is surely not good for us. So take your pick.
Bates: Jonathan, do you have a similar take on that?
Schanzer: Absolutely, I do. I would take a look at the beginning of this conflict to provide the proper context. In the early goings of this conflict, the United States did have a line out to some of these groups. And remember that this uprising against the Syrian regime was originally non-violent, decidedly peaceful, with the goal of potentially trying to turn Syria into a democracy. Whether you think that that could happen or not is obviously a subject for debate. The United States, however, made its policy to not know the opposition. In other words, we continued to say that we had issues with all of the different players, and that we didn't want to commit to one or the other. And as a result we weren't able to manipulate the outcome. Now what we have is a conflict that has dragged in more and more elements. Now we've got Hezbollah, we have the Al Nusrah front, we have elements of the Free Syrian Army who may or may not be Salafist, and we have the Muslim Brotherhood. Then there are these potentially secular fighters as well and it becomes this absolute mess of a matrix. It is impossible to pick a side because as we just heard from Shoshana, the choices do look horrible. If Assad loses, well then the most powerful faction from among the rebels is the Al-Nusrah Front, which is Al Qaida. We cannot go after both of them at the same time. That would create a policy of chaos. The longer we've waited, the longer we've stayed on the sidelines, the longer that we have not exhibited any leadership on the Syria issue, the messier it has become. We have no good choices. That is why Syria will almost certainly be broken up whenever this civil war ends.
Bates: If we have no good choice, is the best choice to simply stay on the sidelines and let these two enemies kill each other and hopefully not kill people beyond their borders?
Schanzer: You know, I've heard that. I hear it quite a bit from liberal realists; I hear it from conservative isolationists. I hear it now – from both sides of the aisle. I would say that, in theory, you are probably right. It is probably an “Alien vs. Predator” type thing, where you want both of them to kill each other, and that's the happy ending. But, in the meantime, what we are watching right now is at least 80,000 people killed in this conflict. More than a million have been displaced and have become refugees. When we talk in this country about “never again,” not allowing holocaust to take place, not allowing ethnic cleansing to take place, we have been asleep at the switch. We have not shown any leadership. And at the end of the day, I believe that it is an American value to insure that the killing stops. Now, how we do that at this point, I think, has become much more complicated. I believe that months ago, or even more than a year ago, we had an opportunity to go in and establish safe havens and no fly zones and other tactics and strategies that would have prevented American boots from being on the ground but that also prevented lives from being taken. That's my main concern right now more than anything.
Gordon: Jon, a combination of Syrian, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah fighters are seizing a corridor from Lebanon all the way up the Northwest coast of Syria. That looks to be their strategy at the current time. Does that also say that Iran has reached a point of desperation in terms of trying to save its ally? What is your comment about that and specifically about the role of Hezbollah?
Schanzer: We have long known that this “Axis of Resistance” has been a formal one. When we talk about this axis, we are talking about Iran and its client state Syria and its proxy army Hezbollah. We know that Iran has been fostering these two proxies over the course of decades. There was, I think, a thin veneer at one point where Iran could claim that these were not tools of its foreign policy. I think those days are long gone. The Iranians have undoubtedly doubled down. They see Assad as a critical ally who needs to be able to survive in order for the Iranians to pursue their aggressive foreign policy throughout the rest of the region. Without a doubt, Syria has been a lifeline providing cash and weapons to Hezbollah. Now Iran has ordered Hezbollah to go in and fight on behalf of the Assad regime. In addition you have the Quds Force, which is part of the IRGC, the Praetorian Guard, and the elite fighting group of Iran that also happens to own some 40% of the Iranian economy. They also have a role to play in Syria. And so this has become a regional conflict, especially with Israel bombing certain targets in Syria where weapons were potentially destined for Hezbollah. The main fear that I have right now is that, as Hezbollah and Iran enter into the battle space, we get the sense that even if Assad does survive this war it will be an empty vessel in Syria. You will have a leader who has no ability to lead. He will be completely beholden to the Iranians, and perhaps even to Hezbollah, and his foreign policy will be that of Iran. It used to be that he had semi-autonomy. Now he will have none. That is my main concern should Assad survive.
Gordon: Shoshana, you have written a piece about Russia's involvement. Russia has announced sending advanced anti-air defense systems and shore to ship missiles to Syria. Why is Russia seizing this role in Syria and why do you think they are playing a losing hand?
Bryen: I think the Russians have done what we have chosen not to do. They have made a choice in the “bigger war.” Where we can't find a natural ally with either the Sunnis or the Shiites, the Russians have chosen Shiites. The prospect of Iran with nuclear weapons is less devastating to the Russians than the idea that the Sunni expansionists could obtain shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles and take them to Chechnya and Dagestan. This could reignite the Sunni war against the Russians inside Russia, so from their point of view the Russians have no choice here. They have picked the Shiites; they are sticking with the Shiites. They are going to arm Syria to the extent that they can and hope for the best. This is why the United States should not look upon Syria as “A plague on both your houses,” or “Why don't you just kill everybody in Syria?” There is a humanitarian interest here. There is a Never Again interest here. But there is also a very practical interest, and that is that the war will not stay confined to Syria. This is why I wrote that to some extent, the Russians have miscalculated. They have participated in the destruction of the governing capability of Syria but if they think the Sunni war will stay there, they are mistaken. Even if Assad and the Shiites win, the Sunni expansionists will go elsewhere and they will ultimately turn up in Russia as well.
Bates: There have been reports of cross-border exchanges of gunfire between Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights and there is also the threat made by Syria that they will launch missile attacks into Tel Aviv and Central Israel. Is there the possibility of the war expanding?
Schanzer: Well, it's a very tense situation. The Israelis have identified some ordinance that they are very concerned about, and that Syria has apparently prepared to deliver to Hezbollah. It looks like Iran is being able to dictate some moves on the part of the Syrian regime or to perhaps even have some of these weapons delivered directly to Hezbollah without even necessarily alerting the Syrians. The Israelis have taken matters into their own hands. They have targeted several different installations in Syria on different occasions dating back to January. There have been incursions into Syrian airspace where the Israeli Air Force has destroyed certain weapon systems and we continue to see this take place. There was even a bombing recently of an airport inside Syria and the Israelis are basically dominating the battlefield from the air. As a result, the Syrians have stepped up the rhetoric. They have apparently deployed certain missiles that can threaten Tel Aviv. And so a war of words has begun. My sense, however, is that Assad would be, quite frankly, an idiot to engage in all out conflict with the Israelis. He is having a difficult time maintaining the upper hand against a rag tag rebel force in his own country. The idea that he would want to escalate into a full conflict with the Israelis, to me, would seem to be suicidal. I think what we are hearing a lot of rhetoric, but it is still very dangerous rhetoric. You never know with a guy like Assad, who is very desperate and beholden to his Iranian masters. We have no idea what could take place. This is the Middle East after all.
Bates: Shoshana, in terms of Israeli defense, which poses a greater risk to the civilian population of Israel, missile attacks from Syria or terrorist attacks from Hezbollah directed by Syria?
Bryen: Again, you have a choice here between cancer and a heart attack. Missile attacks from Syria clearly have grave potential for damage inside Israel. The Israelis are very good at civil defense. They are very good even if it is a chemical or a biological attack. There is no question that the Israeli Defense Force is a defense force designed to defend the civilian population and the Israeli population knows what to do. Terrorism depends on what you mean. There is a great concern for the drones that have been coming close to Israel’s border and Israel has shot down a number of them. If those are weaponized, if they carry chemical or biological weapons, you may not have the same kind of civil defense warning. I would say probably the Israeli public — this may sound strange — would rather go for a missile attack from Syria, understanding that the Israel Defense Force will defend them and take the war back to the Syrians.
Bates: What about terrorist attacks like bus and cafe bombings?
Bryen: Unlike the United States, the Israelis have figured out that those are not existential threats. Those are things that happen. Someone said to me once that it was like automobile accidents. You are very sorry when they happen, you try really hard not to have them happen to you, but they will not destroy the country. I don't think there is any chance that terrorism of this sort that was organized and executed by the Palestinians is going to be a major factor for the Israelis.
Gordon: Shoshana, are the Israelis currently engaged in prepping for a real war, with Syria if Assad oversteps his lines? I refer to reinforcement of IDF brigades on the Golan Heights making it into a zone in which no tourists or other civilians are allowed. There have been special ops on the Golan inside the demilitarized zone. Further, there has been discussion about possibly turning the Druze in the demilitarized zone into a paramilitary force. What does this mean for Israel and the U.S.?
Bryen: The first thing that it means is that one should not ever think that for Israel the red lines are not deep dark red. The Israelis are absolutely preparing for serious warfare in the North. Israeli Air Force commander Amir Eshel gave an interview in which he said this will not be like Operation Pillar of Fire in November 2012 when they bombed Gaza and everything was over quickly. This will be a serious war with serious implications. So the home front is being prepared. The IDF is being prepared for this and no one should believe they are not ready to fight the war that they have to fight. There is another point here. The Syrians and Hezbollah may be making threats they don’t really mean to carry out or, in fact, aren’t able to carry out. But the Israelis may not wait for them to decide whether or not to do it. The risk in this sort of situation is that Israel will decide that it can't wait and it will actually launch the war itself as a pre-emptive measure.
Bates: Shoshana, you mentioned red lines. Barack Obama announced a red line, Syrian use of chemical weapons. There have been reports that Syria used chemical weapons and if so then they crossed the red line that Barack Obama established. Yet, he says we’re not really sure who is doing what. Are we sure who's doing what?
Bryen: I wish I had bit my tongue when I said the words “red lines” because people misunderstand what red lines are in fact. A red line is not something that you believe no one will ever cross; people cross red lines all the time. The only reason they are important is that something will have to happen after they are crossed, and this sets the stage for the next series of events. The red line says, “After you do this, I will punish you.” When you deliver the punishment, it changes the calculus for the next time or the next guy – that is the definition of “deterrence.” You hope it won’t fail, you hope the line won’t be crossed, but you have to assume it will and you will have to be ready to react. We have chosen not to exercise the deterrent capability that we have. This makes life much more dangerous because if they don't believe you the first time, they surely won't believe you the second time. I think we've squandered an opportunity here.
Bates: Jon we've talked about the Russian involvement already but I want to ask kind of a follow-up. The Russian interests and the American interests seem to be diametrically opposed so as long as there is a great chasm between the two interests. Is there any hope of an international consensus on what can be done with Syria?
Schanzer: You've hit on one of the core issues of this conflict. Russia is completely committed to safeguarding the interests of the Assad regime. They want to ensure that the Assad regime continues to survive. This is diametrically opposed to the interests of the United States. The President repeatedly called for Assad to step aside. And so what you have right now is a standoff. We continue to say that we are not going to do anything about this unless the Russians buy in to whatever solution is put on the table. The Russians continue to say we can talk about it, but at the end of the day, they want to support their client. What I mean by their client is that the Russians have a naval base in Syria. It is on the Syrian Mediterranean Coast. It is located in the port of Tartous. The Russians have invested hundreds of millions of rubles into this port so that they continue to sell weapons in the Middle East. I don't see anything changing in this dynamic. The fact that the Russians have agreed to talk indicates in no way that they are willing to make compromises over this valuable client.
Bates: Shoshana, the United States and the Kingdom of Jordan earlier this week signed a Letter of Intent that promises $200,000,000 in American taxpayer money to the Kingdom to aid with the Syrian refugee situation. Apparently there is as many as a half a million Syrian refugees in Jordan. Is this money wisely spent and is there some danger of destabilization of Jordan arising out of all of this?
Bryen: I don't think the danger of destabilization arises out of the money. We have to do something about the refugees. Jordan was just beginning to recover from having absorbed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees from the Iraq war. They cannot absorb all of the Syrian refugees without outside money. We have to pay for this. People write off the Kingdom of Jordan every other weekend, though. This or that is going to destabilize the Kingdom. King Abdullah cannot survive without help in a place like Jordan where you have two large ethnic groups that really detest each other. The King, who is of neither group, serves as a kind of calm hand on the top of the volcano. If you remove the King, both the Palestinians and the Trans-Jordanians are aware of the fact that they'll probably devolve into a civil war. They can complain about him but they don't want him to leave particularly now that you see what is happening in Syria. If you take away his presence between the parties, you have a civil war. In the same way, we removed the United States from Iraq and you have a Sunni/Shia war emerging. The King performs a balancing function in Jordan. I don't think this money is going to destabilize the King. I would not write off King Abdullah.
Gordon: Jon, don't they have forces other than the split between the Trans-Jordanians and local Palestinians? I'm referring specifically to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist elements in Jordan.
Schanzer: The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is called the Islamic Action Front. They are a powerful force inside the Kingdom. In fact, they won an election in 1989 by a large margin, which prompted then – King Hussein to change the election laws so that the Brotherhood would never be able to get that kind of electoral victory again. The Brotherhood is unsatisfied with the status quo and they are in fact leading a great number of these peaceful protests that continue to pressure King Abdullah to enact real reform. Real reform would effectively mean a weakening of the monarchy, a weakening of the original Trans-Jordanians and ultimately lending power to Islamists, potentially some Salafists, and certainly the Palestinians. This is why the pressure in Jordan is so dangerous and why we are deeply concerned. One continues to get the sense, when you talk to the Israelis, and other governments around the region, that everybody keeps saying that Jordan may be next in terms of an Arab Spring type event. This would be catastrophic for Israeli interests and would also be catastrophic for American interests as well.
Gordon: Jon, turning to a matter of sanctions, was there a hole plugged in the battery of sanctions by the U.S. Congress this week?
Schanzer: There was. There was quite a win at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which marked up a new bill. The bill was basically designed to do a few things. First of all, it is going to take the remainder of Iran's gasoline exports off the market. This is crucial in terms of cutting off cash to the regime. At one point the Iranians were producing 2.2 million barrels per day and putting it on the oil market. Sanctions to this date have cut that down to about one million per day. Within a year, these sanctions will make it such that Iran will not be able to sell any oil on the open market. The reason we are able to do that is there is currently an oil glut. There is some elasticity on the market, and that is good news if we are trying to cut off Iran's primary source of revenue. We are also going after Iran’s external cash reserves. Congress enacted two things on this front. One is a targeting of the gold trade, in which Turkey has had a major role. It will make that kind of trade illegal internationally. There is also a measure that will go after something called Target2, which is the European Central Bank’s settling system that the Iranians have been using to settle international debts. With those three additional sanctions, the rial, the currency in Iran, could plummet. This should place additional pressure on the Iranian regime. However, the big question that we continue to ask is whether the pressure that we are placing on the Iranians via sanctions will ultimately work faster than the centrifuges that are spinning inside Iran. If it does not precipitate a full-on crisis inside Iran before they cross the nuclear threshold, we are wasting our time. This is something that Congress will have to grapple with in the months to come.
Bates: There are upcoming elections in Iran. Do you see that bringing any changes either with the sanctions or with the nuclear weapons program?
Schanzer: I do not. It is really interesting that two Iranian suspects who planned and executed the AMIA bombings in Buenos Aires in 1994, where eighty-five people were killed and 300 were injured, are running for President in Iran. I am referring to Mohsen Rezai and Ali Akbar Velayati. Both are front-runners in this election. When people ask whether there is going to be reform or moderation or perhaps a cessation in the nuclear program, all you need to do is to look at these two candidates. They represent one quarter of the eight candidates allowed to run by the Supreme Leader. That should give you a sense of what kind of a sham election will occur in Iran
Gordon: Shoshana, we had a press conference in the Rose Garden last week with Turkey's PM Erdogan and President Obama. Erdogan did something in that press conference other than being overshadowed by the IRS problems, what was it and how duplicitous was it on the part of Erdogan?
Bryen: One of the things that are beyond me about this Administration is how many duplicitous things the Turks get away with. We are sanctioning Syria and Iran for supporting terrorism — they support Hezbollah and Hamas. Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood, it supports the Al Nusrah front, and it supports Hamas. The Turkish PM told the President that he was going to visit Hamas in Gaza despite the President's very specific request that he not do so. It is unclear to me why the Administration appears to be not even slightly irritated with Turkey. It seems to me that we ought to be sanctioning Turkey and putting them on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It’s not likely because the President seems to have some affinity for Erdogan and I expect that to continue – but it is a question worth pursuing.
Schanzer: I would add that Turkey is involved in financing Hamas. I have seen indications that could be upwards of a half a billion dollars provided in cash from the Turks to the Hamas organization in Gaza. We also have this gas-for-gold scheme where the Turks have been allowing Iran to purchase gold, and to shuttle it in suitcases over to Dubai where it's then transferred into cash. From there the Iranians have added that to their foreign exchange reserves. This is critical for the survival of the Iranian regime and absolutely inimical to the spirit of the sanctions to convince the Iranians to back down from their nuclear program. Most people don't realize this, but Turkey was out of compliance with its terror finance laws for the last three years. They were almost placed on a blacklist alongside two other countries: Iran and North Korea. There is a real trail here of wrongdoing on the part of the Turks. Yet, we continue to reach out to them as if they are allies when, in fact, they could potentially qualify in the letter of the law as state sponsors of terror.
Bates: When Shoshana used that phrase state sponsor of terrorism as it pertains to Turkey I was somewhat taken aback by that. Shoshana, Turkey is a NATO country and it's shocking to think that a NATO nation would be a state sponsor of terrorism. There a concern that Turkey which historically has been this great bridge between the West and Islam has been undergoing this increased Islamification under the Prime Minister. They are not so much the secular Muslim nation anymore they are becoming a fundamentalist Muslim nation. How does that bode for the future of Turkey and the NATO relationship?
Bryen: They are on the Sunni expansionist side of the Great War. The Turks remember very well what it was like to be a superpower, to be the Caliphate, to be the Ottoman Empire; they'd like to have it back. It is not compatible in many ways with Western policy. I think however, that both NATO and the United States specifically have invested a lot in the idea that you can have a Muslim democracy, but Turkey was never a “Muslim democracy.” Turkey was a secular democracy, lived in by Muslim people, but the government of Turkey was constitutionally adamantly secular. The more the Turks move back toward that old Ottomanism and Islamism, the more we have to readjust our thinking about where Turkey lies in the broad scheme of things. We have not done it yet.
Bates: And they are moving pretty rapidly toward
Bryen: And they are moving pretty rapidly.
Bryen: Unquestionably moving rapidly.
Gordon: Secretary Kerry was back in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Is this a futile effort on the part of the United States to get these two parties together, Jon?
Schanzer: The short answer is yes. This is a futile effort and I see nothing coming out of it. This is not to say that the administration shouldn't be trying. We should always be trying to get the Palestinians and Israelis to come to the table. However, so far, Secretary Kerry has had a couple of colossal failures in his attempts to bring these two sides together. For one, there was the resignation of PM Salam Fayyad in April 2013, which came right on the heels of President Obama's visit to the region. Secretary Kerry apparently tried to do everything that he could to prevent Fayyad from resigning. Fayyad went ahead and did it anyway. This was an indication that the moderate camp inside the PA is basically dying if not fully defunct. Kerry was unable to keep things cobbled together and now he's trying to negotiate with a President of the Palestinian Authority who has consolidated power. In fact, Abbas may become the Prime Minister as well as the President of the PA. I should also note that Abu Mazen is now four years past the end of his legal term as President. He is an autocrat, no different to me than Hosni Mubarak or any of the others who have been toppled across the region. Yet, somehow, we continue to deal with him and expect him to move forward, despite the fact that he's already rejected several peace plans that had been put forward by the Israelis. He continues to refuse to come to the table. The only thing that the Palestinians have done to show good faith is they are not going to try to sue the Israelis for war crimes at the ICC – which is not exactly in my mind a show of good faith. It is just a post-poning tactic that Abbas wants to pursue. So, I don't see anything coming from this that would be potentially positive. With that said, it is important for the United States to continue to talk about peace with the Israelis and the Palestinians in the event that, one day, the stars align and perhaps a new Palestinian leader comes to power that is interested in working with the Israelis and in a future where there would not be conflict between these two peoples.
Gordon: Shoshana, there was an activity in the United States connected with the Palestinians. It was the arrest of a ring of 16 Palestinians, 14 of them living illegally in this country. This was achieved largely through the efforts of the New York Police Department and their connection with Israel. What can you say about that?
Bryen: The NYPD sees itself as the premier organization understanding what happens in the United States when people come here and want to do damage to us. They make their own rules and rule book. In 2007, NYPD did a study on what kind of people committed terrorism in the United States or tried to. They looked at eleven cases of actual or planned Islamic terrorism and drew a series of conclusions about the way people are radicalized and who radicalizes them. When the NYPD did this study they were denounced by most of the Federal Government and Muslim advocacy groups as racist and Islamaphobic. What we've learned between 2007 and 2013 is that they were right. NYPD has spent a lot of time and a lot of money working with the Israelis to understand how these things happen and who does them; they have an office in Tel Aviv and they share information and tactics. This proved itself worthwhile last week when they arrested these 16 Palestinians involved in the illegal cigarette trade. People tend to forget how much money is involved in cigarettes. They are VERY heavily taxed. If you have black market cigarettes and you skip the taxes you can funnel off millions of dollars to terrorist organizations. That is what these Palestinians were doing. The NYPD stands as the beacon of people who take terrorism in the United States very seriously. They should be applauded.
Bates: Jonathan, I want to take this conversation back to the Middle East and a country that we used to hear a lot about but don't hear much about anymore, Egypt. There was a recent article in the Jerusalem Post. It was a fascinating expose about Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and a conspiracy at the start of the Arab Spring in 2011 that may have lead to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and the freeing of Mohamed Morsi who became president of Egypt in June of 2012. Things have not been all that peaceful since that election. There are continuing conflicts between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian government and the secularist opponents. Are we seeing a destabilization once again of the Egyptian government?
Schanzer: We are. And quite frankly, I think this is good news. Not because I want to see further destabilization in the region, but because I think right now there is a sense that the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has failed catastrophically. Politically, they are unable to keep the country together. Economically, they are just flat-lining and they are reaching out for bridge loans from Qatar and from other countries around the region. They do not have any skill in navigating this ship, and there is a sense according to some Egyptian reformers that the Muslim Brotherhood is too big to succeed. They are actively looking to ensure the failure of this government. All the while, the liberal forces that we thought might come to power back after Mubarak was toppled are beginning to coalesce. They are beginning to organize in a way where they may be able to challenge the Brotherhood. What is really important to see is that the Brotherhood is failing horribly. This is now an example that other Muslim countries are looking at and saying “we don't want the Brotherhood to come to power here because look what happens. We don't want to become another Egypt.”
Bates: Thank you Jonathan and Shoshana for joining this Middle East Round Table discussion with Jerry and me.
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