The Middle East in Turmoil
by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (December 2012)
November 2012 in the Middle East left the world wondering if the worst was yet to come. Casualties in the Syrian rebellion had reached over 40,000. Syrian opposition forces had taken over missile bases and were in battle with the beleaguered Assad regime's forces along the demilitarized zone with Israel on the Golan Heights. Exchanges of shelling occurred with IDF units stationed there and cries of “allahu akbar” could plainly be heard. There was a new opposition group largely composed of Sunni Supremacists that was formed in Doha with the backing of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia supported by the newly re-elected Obama Administration. The new group, the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, was formed to back the Free Syrian Army fighting the Assad Regime. Late word came that the opposition forces in Syria were equipped with SA-7 MANPADS and had successfully shot down a Syrian military helicopter. That report set off concerns as to where and how those weapons were obtained and whether they might have come from the Gaddafi armories looted by al Qaeda militias in Libya.
In Jordan on Israel’s eastern flank, a week of protests occurred during which cries of "Down with the Hashemites" could be heard. Meanwhile leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood Islamic Action Front were telling King Abdullah all they wanted were reforms in the upcoming January Parliamentary elections. The Bedouin backers of the Hashemites were increasingly nervous about possible armed resistance from the Palestinian Refugee camps.
Iran had sent aloft two aging SU-29 fighters to intercept an unarmed US spy drone caught monitoring oil shipments from Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf. The Revolutionary Guards viewed that as sending a message to US forces there that Iran would retaliate in any future incursion of its airspace, a reminder of what set off the 1987-1988 tanker war. It was disclosed that Iran had in fact accelerated its enrichment virtually crossing the "red line" that Israeli PM Netanyahu had graphically illustrated in his September UN General Assembly talk ramping up concerns about a possible attack in 2013. Sanctions, stringent as some may be, are porous, given reports that Turkey may have paid in gold for delivery of Iranian gas effectively evading them.
In early November, an Israeli simulation of a possible unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was held at the Tel Aviv University Institute for National Security Studies. The results indicated that the IAF might successfully complete the hypothetical three wave assault which would push back Iran’s nuclear weapons development by three years possibly at the cost of retaliation by Iran which could hypothetically launch hundreds of Shahab missiles at Israel raising questions about the adequacy of Israel’s missile defenses.
That question of Israel’s ability to withstand a missile onslaught was demonstrated during the eight day rocket war with Iran’s proxies in Gaza, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). That conflict was triggered by a salvo of rockets fired at Israel including a new game changer, Iranian supplied Fajr 5 rockets that threatened millions Israelis as far north as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. More than 1,100 rockets were fired by Hamas and the PIJ, with over 421 intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system. Israel’s Air Force struck at 1500 targets taking out a number of Iranian supplied Fajr-5’s and 30 top Hamas and PIJ leaders were killed. Palestinian casualties were 167, including 27 children. Israelis sustained six killed including two IDF soldiers, one a reserve officer. The rest were civilians. 40,000 IDF troops mobilized along the Gaza frontier were poised to enter, but stood down upon achievement of a cease fire brokered by Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi with assistance from the US in the person of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The other shock came the day following the cease fire announcement between Hamas and Israel on November 23rd in Cairo when Egypt’s President Morsi issued edicts effectively vanquishing the country’s high courts and prosecutors and thereby obtaining virtual dictatorial powers. That aroused the secular opposition in Egypt that accused Morsi of being the new Pharaoh. The Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and its Freedom and Justice party offices were torched in major Egyptian cities by angry mobs. Thousands gathered in protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, while concerns were voiced in Washington and in the West about this latest development by an Islamist regime in the region’s largest Arab country.
In Ramallah on the West Bank, the body of the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat was exhumed to extract material for a forensic examination to ascertain whether he was poisoned. As November waned, President Mahmoud Abbas was headed to a session of the UN General Assembly seeking a vote granting the Palestinian Authority observer status, thus angering the US and virtually dashing the hopes of a peace agreement under the failed 1993 Oslo Accords.
Against this background “Your Turn” hosts Mike Bates, of radio station 1330AMWEBY in Pensacola, Florida, Senior Editor Jerry Gordon of the New English Review, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Research for the Washington, DC- based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington held a radio round table discussion.
Mike Bates: Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn. We are having a special international roundtable discussion about the Middle East and I have with me in the studio Jerry Gordon, a Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog, "the Iconoclast." Jerry, welcome to Your Turn.
Jerry Gordon: Glad to be here.
Bates: Joining us by telephone is Jonathan Schanzer, V.P. of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington D.C. Jonathan, welcome to Your Turn.
Jonathan Schanzer: Thanks Mike.
Bates: And Shoshana Bryen, she is the Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington. Shoshana, welcome to Your Turn.
Shoshana Bryen: Thank you, Mike.
Bates: Let me throw the opening question to you Jonathan. Obviously it's related to Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense. Why the cease fire? It didn't appear to me that Israel had accomplished its objectives.
Schanzer: Mike, it's actually I think a mystery to a lot of people but not to the IDF. The IDF did accomplish its mission. I think the general public was under the assumption that this was a war between Israel and Hamas where Israel was hoping to wipe out Hamas or to knock out the rockets that they fire into Southern Israel completely. I don't believe that ever was the case. Based on what I have been able to glean by talking to Israeli intelligence sources, the problem was the long range rockets that Hamas had brought in via Sudan from Iran. These are what we call Fajr-5 rockets. These are long range 50 miles-plus rockets that enable Hamas to hit Tel Aviv and its environs, putting millions of Israelis at risk. The story actually begins in October when the Israelis took out an IRGC Iranian weapons factory in Sudan. When they destroyed that factory no one really reported on it. It was right before the US election. It didn't get a lot of coverage but what the Israelis took out was a full warehouse of these Fajr-5 rockets. It appears to me that about three weeks later the Israelis realized that some of those Fajr-5's, about a hundred of them, had made their way to the Gaza Strip. And so Operation Pillar of Defense was not about taking out Hamas or any of its leaders. It was about nailing those hundred or so Fajr-5 rockets. The Israelis did that in about two days. When all was said and done, that was when the Israelis were ready for a cease fire. It just took a few more days for the United States to help broker a cease fire with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. As far as the Israelis are concerned, after about two days of bombing Fajr-5 rocket sites in Gaza its mission was accomplished.
Bates: Jonathan, was a ground operation never really on the table?
Schanzer: I think it was on the table if only for the fact that Hamas kept firing. In other words, Hamas also understood what the Israelis were going after and they decided to make it as painful as possible by firing as many rockets as they could, about 1500 of them into Israeli airspace. As long as the rocket firing continued they were tempting the Israelis to make this a bloodier and more painful conflict. I think the Israelis did the right thing by holding back and being smart. What they are going to do now is to watch and wait to see whether Hamas tries to bring in more of those long range rockets. If and when they do, I fully expect the Israelis to launch another air assault. However, I don't think it makes sense at least for the moment for the Israelis to be going in on the ground.
Gordon: Jon, you've written extensively about the question of the Iran/Sudan pipeline that has brought the Fajr-5's and other weapons to Gaza and into the hands of Hamas for this latest episode. Just yesterday the Israelis reported that their satellite surveillance indicated that there is another ship sailing towards the Sudan. How can Israel maintain its watch and intercept these shipments?
Schanzer: The Israelis have done a terrific job of destroying those Iranian weapons convoys inside of Sudan. There have been as far as I can count, four or five interdictions or attacks on Sudanese airspace or on the ground near Port Sudan where a lot of these weapons are then smuggled up into Egypt. The Israelis have done a very good job, they are very watchful. The Sudanese appear to be trying to shift things around a bit. They are talking about creating factories outside of Khartoum, where it doesn't put as many people at risk. However, the bottom line is that the Israelis have their number. Sudan really is, the story that no one is talking about. No one talks about the role of Sudan in the Iranian weapons pipeline or in the Hamas weapons pipeline or even in the Arab Israeli Conflict. Sudan was never really a player until now. It is my understanding at this point that, in light of the fact that Syria has become severely weakened and Syria was a significant part of that what we called the Axis of Resistance under Iran, Sudan has taken on greater importance. The Israelis are going to be watching very carefully and I expect more explosions to take place in Sudan with no one taking credit.
Bates: Shoshana, I've got a question about the propaganda war that is always waged in these conflicts. It appears to me that Israel always comes out on the losing end of the propaganda war. Rockets have been fired on Israel out of Gaza with something like 12,000 over the last decade rarely reported in the world press. All of a sudden Israel decides to do something about it and suddenly Israel is the aggressor. Why is the propaganda war always tilted against Israeli policy?
Bryen: That is the question for the ages mostly because the media, which is in general liberal, likes an underdog. The great success of the Arabs in the Arab-Israel Conflict is to have changed it from the Arab-Israel Conflict, in which the Arab states are obviously Goliath and little Israel is David, to a Palestinian-Israeli Conflict in which the Israelis are the big bad aggressors and the Palestinians are smaller, poorer, and defenseless. Now you have even a smaller subset. Now you have Gaza and Gaza looks like a miserable place. Gaza must be the saddest place in the world and Israel, which is a happy place and a prosperous place and a modern place, has become the aggressor against these poor people. It is a huge propaganda victory in its broadest sense. It is not just about the war that just happened, but in the larger sense of letting the Arabs off the hook for their continuing war against Israel.
Bates: I hosted a program that began literally three hours after the beginning of the cease fire. All of the media was reporting top and bottom of the hour news about this great cease fire that was supposedly brokered by Hillary. Although that is another follow up question as to whether or not the cease fire was agreed to before she arrived. Everybody is reporting about the cease fire and I questioned whether it wasn't going to last. Right before going on the air I went to JPost.com, The Jerusalem Post website, and sure enough, about a dozen rockets were fired within an hour of the cease fire. Literally four minutes prior to going on the air the national media that we carry locally, was still reporting about this great cease fire effort and everything was fine. Despite rockets still being fired at Israel. Why the misreporting? I can understand the bias but what about the facts?
Bryen: Because rockets fired against Israel are not news. In The Washington Post on Sunday [November 25, 2012], the Ombudsman talked about the picture that the Post had run of a Palestinian man with a dead baby in a shroud on the front page of the paper as their commentary on the Gaza war. The Ombudsman said, “Look, it was a real story. The baby was dead. The guy was upset. It is a real story and anyway frankly people, although Hamas shouldn't be firing rockets at Israel, those rockets are really just an ant on the back side of a bear.” When you have that attitude, twelve rockets that didn't kill little babies, it is not Important to them.
Bates: I'm sure they wouldn't feel that way if they were just little rockets being fired into Manhattan.
Bryen: No, they wouldn't, but they are not being fired into Manhattan. They are being fired into Israel and since the media already decided Israel is the aggressor and nobody got killed by those twelve rockets anyway, what's the big deal? It's just twelve and they weren't even the Iranian Fajr-5's that Jon was concerned about. You have in the media this idea that rockets from Gaza, and this again is a propaganda victory, are little mortars, they are little shot puts. They are not important things.
Bates: Jonathan, let me ask about the cease fire itself. I've heard rumors that that deal was actually brokered prior to the arrival of Hillary Clinton but was delayed so that she could take some of the credit for it. Is there any truth to that?
Schanzer: I don't know if there is any truth to it. I certainly saw the rumors that this was already a done deal before Hillary got there and that she simply wanted to be on the ground and to be able to take credit for it. However, I actually think, Mike, that there is a more interesting story here when we talk about the timing, and the role of the United States. I found it very interesting that the United States, after all of the criticism that this Administration has heaped onto Israel for any number of things, was quiet during all of this. We barely heard a peep from the Obama Administration. Now this does not seem to me to fit at all the pattern that we have seen from the Obama Administration over the last four years. I have a theory. I obviously can't prove it but I have a theory as to what happened. I believe that the United States was aware of what the Israelis took out in Sudan in October and that was about a week and a half before elections took place. I will bet you dollars to donuts that the Obama Administration asked the Israelis not to take out those Fajr-5 rockets that were in Gaza that the Israelis had been become aware of. I believe that they waited until after the election and when things went quiet, all it took was one small provocation on the part of Hamas for the Israelis to go in and start taking out those targets. That is why I think we saw a quiet United States for three days. We heard nothing. They gave the Israelis their full support. They didn't ask for restraint. They weren't talking about disproportionate responses. It was a remarkable show. I think that the United States was not terribly eager to force a cease fire until Israel was done and then it was at that point that Hillary went over to hold the hand of Mohamed Morsi, who I think was having a hard time brokering this on his own. Again you have to remember this was the first time that Morsi had any major role on the world stage and I think he needed Hillary in order to seal the deal.
Bates: I could see Jonathan why the Obama Administration would want to wait until after the election for this to happen but why would Israel go along with that?
Schanzer: I mean, it's a funny thing that we continue to hear that Bibi was meddling in the US elections. I think, if anything, it was the other way around. I think Bibi was doing everything that he could not to meddle, and to be as careful as possible and to not step on any toes. Notwithstanding the media biases, I think a lot of people are going to have to reassess whether Bibi was meddling or not. I think the clear answer, at least to my mind, was that he did everything that he could and even potentially put Israeli lives in danger by not taking out these rockets for two or three weeks in order to make sure that the alliance with Israel and the United States was sound.
Gordon: Jon, you mentioned President Morsi in Egypt and virtually within less than 24 hours after Hillary and others left he announced preemptive powers over the judiciary that set off alarm bells in both Egypt and elsewhere. Why did Morsi assume this new dictatorial role?
Schanzer: First of all, let us not pretend that we thought that Mohamed Morsi was going to be a democrat. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a liberal organization. I don't think that we should have expected him to be taking Egypt in that direction. What basically happened is that there has been a standoff over the writing of the Constitution in Egypt. There have been challenges and all manner of disputes between various liberal parties and Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood bloc, which is supported by Salafis and other Islamists. In the wake of the cease fire, as Morsi was taking a victory lap and as the eyes of the West were looking elsewhere, Morsi took the opportunity to deliver a couple of edicts - edits that basically insured that he had full power to take the Egyptian revolution in whatever direction he chose. On top of that he basically declared that the Judiciary had no ability to keep a check on him and what he did was make himself immune from anyone who might challenge his rule in any way. He consolidated his power. He looks more and more like a dictator. The interesting thing is that the opposition, the liberal opposition or the secular opposition, has been very fractured over the last couple of years since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. They don't trust each other. They can't work together. Right now we're seeing that this move by Morsi has had the impact of bringing all of these different forces back together again and coalescing. They appear to be of one voice and one mind for at least right now. This could be a good thing moving forward. But bottom line: I don't expect what is happening in Egypt to be static. I believe that we are going to see one revolution after another. Egypt is going to be going through convulsions for quite some time. I think this is just one more move along the way. I think that the big concern here is that Morsi has become Mubarak with a beard and I think he's proven that to be true.
Gordon: Just prior to this series of events, the IMF approved a loan of about 4.8 billion for basically shoring up the Egyptian economy. There are billions more we gather coming from the EU and obviously the US. Is this enough essentially to forestall the problems that Morsi has?
Schanzer: In short, no. The Egyptian stock market plummeted by ten percent on news of Morsi’s announcement and the more that Morsi tries to consolidate power and the more it looks like a dictatorship the less confidence investors are going to have in Egypt. It is not a safe place to park your money if you don't know what is going to happen next and there isn't an independent judiciary. There are no checks and balances over the executive in Egypt. The parliament there is completely feckless and has no impact on policies. The more these things take place the less it matters how much money pours into Egypt. It will go right down the drain. I think the concern that we are seeing on the part of investors today is why the stock market in Egypt continues to drop.
Gordon: Shoshana, what is the sentiment in Washington about why the Obama Administration has been silent on these announcements by Morsi?
Bryen: The sentiment in Washington is that the Administration has committed itself 110% to the principle that you can do business with whoever emerges in the region. That would include a very bizarre comment by Mark Toner at the State Department about the Jordanian protests against King Abdullah who is a pro-Western friend of the United States and Israel. Toner said, “You have to listen to the aspirations of the Jordanian people. They want something different.” In other words, if the King falls, the King falls. There is a feeling here in Washington that the Administration is committed to whatever emerges. Morsi has emerged. Jon is right. Morsi is not a democrat, never will be a democrat. Yet the Administration talks about him as if he is an emerging democrat because he is simply there.
Bates: Jonathan, do you think Egypt benefits from the recent turmoil with Gaza? Does Iran benefit? I guess that's two questions. What about Egypt? What about Iran? Do those two countries benefit from what just happened?
Schanzer: A lot of people are saying that this was a big victory for Morsi and that he was able to flex his muscles on the world stage and demonstrate that he is a statesman. I have a very different view of things. In my view, the United States entrusted Morsi with being the patron to Hamas. And not just Egypt but also Turkey and Qatar. These are the so-called moderate Sunni states that were supposed to have taken Hamas and pried it away from the clutches of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and others inside Iran. In other words, we were supposed to be watching a divorce within that Axis of Resistance. Hamas had already broken away from Syria because of the civil war there and a lot of the funding had allegedly dried up because of sanctions against Iran. Iran really couldn't continue to supply Hamas and the notion here in Washington was that Hamas was going to become more moderate thanks to these pragmatic governments in Qatar, Egypt and Turkey. In my view what just happened with Hamas firing these long-range Iranian-made rockets shows that Egypt never had control over Hamas. Egypt never had a handle on this terrorist proxy that it was supposed to be helping to moderate. In my view this was egg in the face of Mohamed Morsi and it is really hard for me to understand why he appears to be taking a victory lap for what looks to be a failure.
Bates: Jonathan, do you think the Iranians benefited from knowing how efficient the Iron Dome system was?
Schanzer: I think that they are watching in awe because what they are beginning to realize is that Israel will be able to shoot down anything that is thrown their way whether it comes from Syria, Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas. This was an interesting test run for the Israelis to be able to demonstrate its strength to Iran. I think it is important to note here that Iran and Hamas are still strong. Iran still has its tentacles throughout the region and Iran will be able to wreak havoc as it chooses. This was I think just a test of what may come in the event that Israel needs to try to take out the Iranian nuclear program in 2013.
Bates: Did the Iron Dome not stop everything? It was very efficient but what was it, about 75% that they shut down?
Gordon: No. It was actually close to 90%.
Bates: Oh, was it all the way up to 90%? I thought it was only about 75%.
Bryen: It was closer to 90% if you remember that Iron Dome is not designed to bring down everything.
Bryen: It's designed to allow things to fall into open space.
Bates: Got it. O.K.
Bryen: Looking at everything, it was about 75%, if you look at what it went after it was closer to 90%.
Gordon: Jon, the Palestine Authority, is about to go to the UN to request a vote on observer status in the UN General Assembly. Given the tea leaves of responses from the non-align movement it looks like they are going to get that. What is the implication of that and why did Hillary fail in her last meeting in Ramallah to convince President Abbas to defer this?
Schanzer: I think it is a foregone conclusion here that the PLO is going to get what they need. They are going to need about two-thirds of the vote and they have about 135 out of 193 countries. If you subtract those members who are going to abstain, I think they are going to have that number handily. What is interesting is that the US was not able to talk the PLO down from this. This is Abu Mazen's [Mahmoud Abbas] big move. I think that he sees this as his legacy. He has been under a lot of pressure. He has been failing to deliver the kind of governance that Palestinians want. On top of that, people just fail to see his overall strategy of non-violence against Israel, and yet the West Bank hasn't really changed. Nothing has. Conditions don't improve. In terms of what happens next, I think they are going to get this. The idea here is that they are going to internationalize the conflict. They are going to pursue the Israelis at the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice. This is the plan. Whether it works is still unclear. I think Abu Mazen is gambling basically his entire career on this move and you just don't even know what is going to happen until it's done. I think it's probably going to land with a thud to begin with, but then where the PLO takes it from there is another story. In the meantime, what they have done is anger the United States. They have made things difficult for the Israelis to work with them. Abu Mazen looks completely feckless. He looks completely irrelevant after this most recent conflict in Gaza. Hamas has sucked all the oxygen out of the Palestinian question. It is all about Gaza right now. Everybody is looking at what Hamas is doing and nobody seems to care much about the PLO. What you are going to see this week at the UN is Abu Mazen saying, me too, me too, I'm a leader, I'm a leader. The question is whether it is going to resonate and the answer may be that I'm just not sure.
Bates: Jonathan, I've got three questions which I will roll into one because they are all interconnected. Operation Pillar of Defense. What was its popularity in Israel? What was the popularity of the cease fire deal that was reached and what effect will there be on the Israeli elections in January?
Schanzer: I think the operation itself was popular. I think the Israelis knew that it was time to stop, and I think most people were very happy with the fact that it was almost entirely an air offensive that didn't imperil the lives of Israeli soldiers. For that reason it was quite popular. Certainly the performance of Iron Dome knocking down many of those rockets was obviously something that pleased the Israelis to know that they were going to be a great deal safer now that that system is in place. The cease fire was less popular. There was a significant portion of Israelis who wanted to see the IDF continue to make a limited incursion inside Gaza primarily because of the exposure of Israel’s South. The Southern parts of Israel are still going to come under threat. In other words, even though the long range rockets have been taken out, the short range rockets continue to threaten Israel’s Southern population. There are many on the right and those who are living in the South who are very concerned about Hamas' ability to continue to fire rockets. That is where I think you see some discord between those who supported the operation and those who wanted to see it continue even after the cease fire. As for the election, right now, Benjamin Netanyahu still has it locked up. He did not commit any grievous errors during this operation. There was no major problem that anybody reported. You have to think back to the Hezbollah war of 2006 when people were really unhappy about the logistics, the supply lines, and the inability of the army to mobilize properly. That has not happened here. In fact, what we saw was the Israeli Air Force performing probably at its best, and with Iron Dome operating Bibi did not make any mistakes here. He may have lost a little bit of that right side of his coalition but I still see him, at least at the moment, walking away with a pretty clean victory.
Gordon: Shoshana, it is a remarkable contrast to see the people in Egypt, in Gaza and Iran basically touting what occurred during Operation Pillar of Defense as "a victory" portraying this in a way that indicates that somehow Israel lost when in fact Israel won it's significant objectives. Why is that the case and why doesn't Israel take any bragging rights?
Bryen: I think there are a couple of things going on. First of all, remember that a lot of the recipients of that propaganda are not people who are literate. They are not people that have multiple sources of information. They are not people who know the truth. When Morsi says this is a great victory for all 87 million Egyptians, 86 million of them do not have Internet connections. They believe him because he said it. The same is true of Hamas. The same is true of Iran to a large extent because they are playing to the people who don't know better.
Second, they have different goals in this game. Hamas' goal - as Hezbollah's was in 2006 - was not to win a victory, it was simply not to lose. It was not to get wiped out. It was to keep firing missiles until the end of the game. From that point of view they did win. Israel? I don't know why Israel doesn't take bragging rights. Maybe it can't imagine that anybody would believe this was a victory for Gaza. Look at the pictures of Gaza. There is no victory for Gaza. Maybe the Israelis just figured nobody will believe them. It doesn't matter. The Israelis are historically unable to capitalize on major good news. Its major good news was to have gotten rid of the Fajr-5 missiles. It was good news to have decimated the Hamas leadership. Thirty senior people were removed from power. It was good news. They just don't seem to know how to capitalize on it.
Bates: There is no question that eliminating the rockets was good news but even the most optimistic person if they have an ounce of realism has to know that the rain of rockets on Israeli territory from Gaza has not stopped. It will resume one day.
Bryen: It will resume and it probably will resume having learned something from what the Israelis have done. You asked that question of Jonathan before and rightly he said they learned things. They will learn a different mechanism. They will learn a different way not only has it not stopped, but that it will come back in a different and maybe more lethal form.
Bates: With rockets being provided largely from the Iranians?
Bryen: Rockets largely from the Iranians, yes.
Bates: Shoshana, how do they get there?
Bryen: They get there two ways. One is by sea and the other is over land. By sea, the Israelis have a very good track record of stopping and catching them. By the way, that is something with which the United States cooperates 100%. The United States Navy is sharing intelligence all the time with Israel on Iranian weapons shipments. It is a very close cooperation and a good one. The second means is through the Sinai. The Sinai has become, the Wild West, the lawless state. If you can get weapons into Sudan and up through Egypt to the Sinai, you are gold. It's very hard to catch them once they get to Sinai. The Israelis do try. The Israelis work very hard at it. Mubarak used to help them. Having lost Mubarak, they have lost the anchor in Egypt.
Bates: Shoshana, are the Egyptians aiding in the smuggling through the Sinai or are they turning a blind eye or do we give them credit and just say they are just not capable of stopping it even if they wanted to?
Bryen: All three. The Egyptian patrols the Sinai are mostly the Egyptian police, the Rafah border used to be entirely manned by police, not even Egyptian military. They are paid about twenty dollars a month. Number one, when Hamas comes with three times or four times the salary they are bribable. Number two, Sinai is a big open space and there is a capability problem. Number three, there are people who are actively aiding and abetting for ideological reasons.
Gordon: Shoshana, one of the mysteries in the cease fire is monitoring the smuggling that goes on in this vast space in the Sinai. Two things about that. One, back in 2009 there was a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) inked between the US and Israel about the US providing support to intercept that material. Two, whatever happened to that and is it likely that this is the hidden card to play in this current cease fire agreement that is rather skimpy?
Bryen: Yes, it appears that there is again going to be some kind of agreement where the US will help Israel. As I said, the US helps Israel enormously when it comes to intelligence at sea. They are less good at doing it on land. I don't know if that is a political problem or a logistical problem. It is not that they didn't implement the MOU, they did. The U.S. has been very helpful in some areas. Other areas not so much. There is some talk about changing the makeup of the Multinational Force in the Sinai which is currently only a monitoring force; it doesn't have weapons, it is not designed to do a job that requires stopping weapons infiltration. However, changing the Multinational Force and allowing it have a more military role in the region might help both Israel and Egypt. Let’s wait and see. It is a possibility.
Gordon: The Multilateral Force and Observers was an agreement between both Egypt and Israel who sponsored the group that has been there since the 1979 Camp David Accords.
Bryen: It has and its job is simply to make sure that neither side introduces troops into the Sinai beyond the agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Gordon: One of the other sources of weaponry that has advanced into Gaza has come from Libya. What is that connection all about?
Bryen: Gaddafi had enormous arsenals of weapons. Because the United States was determined not to have "boots on the ground," it did nothing about securing those weapons. Al Qaida and other organizations took everything from the storehouses including shoulder-fired missiles that you can use to bring down helicopters and airplanes. Those things went into Al Qaida arsenals. It appears that they were using Benghazi as a port to ship boatloads of weapons to Syrian rebels of various sorts. This gets into the whole question of what Ambassador Stevens was doing in Benghazi. As to the Hamas and the Gaza question, once the materiel left Gaddafi's arsenals and went into the hands of not only Al Qaida but a variety of other military organizations, there was leakage, slippage. It is possible then that some of it went from Benghazi to the Gaza Strip. Most of it however went from Benghazi to Syria. Some of it went from Benghazi to Mali. We don't even talk about the really ugly war in Northern Mali that was armed by Gaddafi's arsenals.
Gordon: What is the U.S. going to do in this environment in the post cease fire era?
Bryen: In the post cease fire era we are going to worry about things that break the rules for the region. Jonathan mentioned earlier that the Fajr-5 were the reason that Israel had to attack Gaza because Fajr-5’s have the range and the precision to hit large populations centers in Israel. Once they were threatened, the Israelis had to do something about it. The biggest problem you have in the rest of the region right now is shoulder fired SA-7 rocket have gotten into the Levant. These are the weapons [Stingers] that we sold to the Taliban when we wanted them to shoot down Soviet helicopters in the 1980's. They were very good at shooting down Soviet helicopters. The problem was they are portable and they ended up all over the world. The CIA spent millions and millions of dollars rounding them up. Now again we have a flood of shoulder fired missiles, but they are not in Afghanistan where they are away from everybody. They are in Syria. They are possibly in Lebanon. They are possibly in Northern Jordan. The Kurds among the Syrian Rebels may end up with shoulder fired rockets which means the Kurds in Turkey may end up with shoulder fired rockets. This is a huge escalation.
Bates: Do these shoulder fired rockets have decent shelf life?
Bryen: Yes. They have an almost permanent shelf life.
Bryen: You can keep them forever. These are what I believe was the biggest problem coming from Benghazi. If you look at Benghazi for a moment and think about what happened to Ambassador Stevens, the question that arises is why did Al Qaida want to kill him? The sub-question is why was Ambassador Stevens meeting with the Turkish Ambassador to Libya in Benghazi? Both of them lived in Tripoli. There is no consulate in Benghazi. They both are accredited to Tripoli. Why did they go hundreds of miles to have a meeting at the Benghazi CIA Station? The answer I believe has something to do with those shoulder fired rockets that are driving the Turks nuts. The Turks use helicopters in their war against the Kurds. SA-7's are the perfect counter helicopter weapon. I think the Turkish Ambassador was trying to explain why the United States had to stop the flow of those things to the Syrian rebels. If Amb. Stevens tried to shut off the flow of certain weapons from Libya to Syria, al Qaeda might have wanted to punish or kill him.
Bates: Shoshana, if these rockets can take down a military helicopter they can certainly take down a civilian airliner as well.
Bryen: Absolutely. Now you have fears in Israel that a civilian airliner on its way to Ben Gurion Airport will come down. You have US fears that civilian aircraft flying over the Middle East could be targeted. The Russians, by the way, were the ones who first said the shoulder-fired rockets were in Syria. The Russians are concerned because it took them years and hundreds of thousands of casualties to put down the revolution in Chechnya. They consider Chechnya to be pacified right now. However, a couple of SA-7s in the hands of the remaining Chechen rebels and you'll have a war again in Russia. The Russians were the most aggravated, the most angry. The highest priority of the Obama Administration is not Morsi and it's not Turkey and it's not Israel. The highest priority of the Obama Administration is the Russians.
Bates: Shoshana, we speak about the possibility of taking out a civilian airliner at Ben Gurion Airport. The Israelis are at least alert to that possibility at all times whereas JFK, LAX, O'Hare, for that matter, Pensacola, we don't really think of it stateside. Is there a great risk that those weapons could end up in the United States and be used against civilian airliners either coming in or flying out of a domestic airport?
Bryen: Do you want me to make you really nervous?
Bryen: Israeli planes first of all, have counter measures against SA-7's.
Bryen: We don't. Second, you have very close relations between Iran and Venezuela. I don't think by the way you could get them into the United States, but you certainly could get them on a boat and sail off our coastal waters.
Bates: We bring in tons. . .
Bryen: From Venezuela to Pensacola, I'm sorry to tell you that is not a problem.
Bates: We bring tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States and that's bigger than a rocket.
Bryen: It's bigger but we have different kinds of protections and different kinds of breaks. I believe that you will never stop the cocaine traffic. I think if you tried to smuggle in an SA-7 it would be problematic, but you don't need to bring it in. JFK is on the coast. So are both Miami and Fort Lauderdale. There is a lot of damage you could do without bringing it in.
Gordon: Shoshana, the Syrian situation has also troubled Israel in two regards. One, the opposition has increasingly become successful and taken over military bases. They are also getting close to the frontier of Israel as was demonstrated just prior to this short war in Gaza . They may seize enormous caches of rockets that are equipped with chemical warheads. The second issue is, might it be likely that in a desperate move Assad would launch those Scuds and M600's with chemical warheads against Israel not unlike what happened in the first Gulf War?
Bryen: It is possible because he has the capability; anything is possible if you own the weapon. It is unlikely if you believe that at some point Assad will look for asylum someplace. You are making a bet on Assad. Now Assad keeps saying, “I’m a Syrian and I'm going to die in Syria. I'm not leaving. I'm not quitting. I'm not abdicating.” If that is true and he fires rockets at Israel he's going to die in Syria. He will get his wish. You are really making a bet on the mental state of Assad. Yes he can. I believe that as long as he can get his wife, his children and his immediate advisers out of Syria, he won't do it.
Bates: Thank you Jonathan and Shoshana for joining this Middle East Round Table discussion with Jerry and me.
Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of interviews, The West Speaks.
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