December 30, 2008

A four day truce in Gaza? Just say no...

AP Photo - A rocket fired by Palestinians militants in the Gaza Strip flies towards an Israeli target as seen from the Israel-Gaza broder in southern Israel, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008.

Israeli leaders will meet tomorrow to consider a four-day truce with Hamas, in essence halting its air campaign in return for a cessation of Hamas rocket launches into southern Israel. This is exactly what Hamas wants and what it has counted on since it provoked the Israelis into the military option over the last few weeks. Hamas knew full well the world reaction of far beyond the Arab and Muslim countries.

Calls for restraint and a cease-fire from the European Union and the United Nations seem to be having an effect in Tel Aviv. Israel may be on the verge of the same mistake it made in 2006 in the conflict with Hizballah - caving in to international pressure before its objectives were met.

Public opinion will never be on the side of the Israelis, as evidenced by the almost universal lack of condemnation of Hamas's near continuous rocket attacks on civilian populations in southern Israel. Israelis should realize that no matter how justified they believe themselves to be, most of the world is not going to support them. Accept that and act in Israel's best interests. Right now, Israel's best interests are the degradation of Hamas's capability to indiscriminately target 10 percent of Israeli citizens.

What harm could there be in showing good faith and pausing air operations for four days, a mere 96 hours?

Plenty. A four-day halt to the pressure Israel has been able to exert on Hamas will benefit only Hamas. Israel does not need a halt - they are steadily degrading Hamas's offensive capabilities and demonstrating to the Gazans that finally Israel is serious about stopping the rocket attacks. Hamas, on the other hand, needs the break in the bombing attacks to regroup and try to reconstitute itself. The break will give it the opportunity to try to smuggle more arms into the Strip via Egypt, the opportunity to reposition hidden rocket stocks to launch positions, and the opportunity to move assets and personnel to locations unknown to the Israelis.

Hamas has continuously refused to recognize Israel's right to exist and reiterated calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. That does not appear to have changed. It welcomes a four-day breather to allow itself to keep on fighting in the future.

Hamas has this figured out. It will agree to a four-day breather. At the end of that period, the Israelis will be in the position of having to sit and wait until Hamas violates the cease-fire. As long as the Israeli air force is poised to resume operations and there are thousands of Israeli troops just waiting for the word to invade, Hamas will not strike.

Hamas will not strike immediately, but it will be in the driver's seat - knowing full well Israel cannot afford a long period of inactive mobilization. It will simply wait until the Israelis stand down, and resume the attacks on Hamas's timetable.

My advice to the Israeli leadership: Don't do it. Stop only when you have achieved the elimination of either Hamas's capability or desire to fire rockets into Israel.

December 28, 2008

The Israeli Attacks on Gaza

As I predicted(although it did not require much prescience), the Israelis have launched their initial attacks on Hamas targets in Gaza. As I also predicted, there has been condemnation from virtually every Arab and Muslim country, and the Europeans have called for Israel to stop its use of "disproportionate force." The demonstrations in the Arab and Muslim countries, as well as some in Europe and South America, were to be expected, but one should ask the demonstrators where they were when rockets were landing in Israel every day.

The European Union tried to strike a more moderate tone, but didn't quite succeed. The EU's Javier Solano claimed the EU has condemned Hamas's rocket attacks against Israel, but that the current Israeli operation is "inflicting an unacceptable toll on Palestinian civilians..." I would like Mr Solano to define what is the acceptable toll on Palestinian civilians so the Israelis have an idea of how many they can kill. Insane? Absolutely. At least French President Nicolas Sarkozy did mention that the Israeli attacks were provoked by Hamas in his call for Israel to stop its operations in Gaza.

The operation in Gaza is a long time coming. Israelis have had enough - 6000 rockets into their southern border cities since they withdrew from Gaza in 2005 have galvanized public opinion in support of the operation. This will not be a small, punitive raid - it will be a concerted military offensive designed to eliminate Hamas's ability to launch attacks on Israel. It also will be an effort to eliminate as many Hamas militants as possible, and that might include some of the Hamas political leadership as well.

Much of this might be accomplished with precision air strikes based on excellent intelligence. Israel has the capability for both. The initial air strikes seemed to surprise even Hamas leaders as Israeli warplanes, both fixed and rotary wing), hit virtually every significant Hamas security installation in the Gaza Strip. Follow-on attacks were aimed at destroying the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. This serves two purposes - it staunches the flow of arms into the area and prevents the escape of Hamas militants into Egypt.

In case the Israelis cannot degrade Hamas sufficiently from the air, they are prepared to launch a ground offensive as well. The planning has been going on for some time now. Israeli armor and infantry units with supporting artillery and logistics are already in place near Gaza with more on the move. The Knesset authorized the callup of 6,500 reservists to provide the manpower that will be required to successfully mount an incursion into the Gaza Strip.

Some analysts have suggested that the mobilization is meant to intimidate Hamas. Hamas does not intimidate easily - rockets are still falling on Israeli cities, including the port city of Ashdod. In my opinion, the Israelis fully intend to address the issue of Hamas once and for all. If that requires what amounts to an invasion, the Israelis will do just that.

Israel has limited time to accomplish its objectives before international opinion and more ineffective United Nations resolutions call for an end to the operation. This is one of the problems they misjudged in the 2006 war with Hizballah. They put off the ground invasion of Lebanon, assuming that the United Nations would call a cease-fire and end the rocket attacks on northern Israel. That effort dragged on and on while thousands of Israeli troops waited on the border. By the time the order came to move, they did so in the face of international condemnation.

History should have taught the Israelis that they need to move quickly and accomplish their objectives as fast as possible, ahead of the United Nations decision cycle. Launching the attacks on a Saturday was good start.

Hamas knew this was coming and took no action to stop the rocket launches into southern Israel, in fact, the attacks intensified over the last few weeks. If they meant to provoke Israel into a military confrontation for whatever reason - to stop talks between Syria and Israel, perhaps? - they succeeded.

Barring a decision in Tel Aviv to call off the operation, I think Hamas is in for a tough week.

December 25, 2008

Obama and Syria - the Asad Test

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad (right) with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad

There have been subtle messages emanating from Damascus that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad would like to improve Syria's poor relationship with the United States and that the election of Barack Obama might provide an opportunity to do just that.

In a recent rather softball Washington Post interview with veteran Middle East reporter David Ignatius, Asad reiterated the same Syrian positions, but appeared to be willing to work with the incoming Obama administration, and continued to ignore some realities that will have to be addressed if any progress is to be made on either the Syrian, Lebanese or Palestinian tracks of the Middle East peace process.

For example, Syria is willing to have direct talks with Israel, but Asad first wants the Israelis to guarantee that they will withdraw completely from the Golan Heights. The Israelis are prepared to withdraw from the plateau they have occupied since 1967 as part of a deal for peace with Syria. The question is not one of withdrawal, it is the determination of "complete" withdrawal. In other words, what is the line that both countries can agree on. Syria's preferred map shows the border on the shores of Lake Tiberias, while Israel believes that the entire shoreline is Israeli territory. It is only a difference of a few hundred meters, but it is an issue.

In return, Israel will demand changes in the relationship between Iran and Syria. This will be a key test of how badly Asad wants a deal with Israel, how badly he wants to regain the Golan Heights. Iran is the main supporter of Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. That support, in the form of money and weapons, flows through Damascus. Damascus and Tehran have a mutual defense pact, and cooperate on a variety of intelligence and security issues. There are lingering suspicions that Iran was the funding source for the now-destroyed North Korean reactor at al-Kibar.

Asad's response to the charges that Iran is funneling weapons and money to Hizballah and Hamas is typical. To him, Hizballah is a Lebanese issue that the Israelis should address with the Lebanese government, and Hamas is a Palestinian issue that should be addressed with the Palestinian Authority. I doubt that will be good enough for either the current Israeli government or the one that will be formed after the parliamentary elections in February 2009.

The Iran piece is critical. Hopefully the new American president will pressure Asad to move away from Iran. Otherwise, there will be no progress on the Syrian track. If that is the case, Obama should concentrate on the Palestinian issue and let the Golan remain in Israeli hands for now.

December 24, 2008

The Coming Battle for Gaza

Rocket attacks launched by Hamas into Israel have increased significantly since the Egyptian-brokered "calm" agreement between the fundamentalist group and Israel expired on December 19.

On December 24, for example, over 80 rockets and mortar rounds were fired into Israel. This included some longer range Katyusha rockets striking buildings in Ashkelon, 10 miles from the Gaza border.

A resident of Ashkelon summed up the current situation best, "We can't live this way."

That same sentiment is growing all over Israel as the government ponders the best way to deal with the worsening situation. Even the Egyptians, normally supporters of the Gazans, are coming to the conclusion that Israel will soon have no choice but to intervene militarily in Gaza.

Gaza has become a stronghold of Hamas - an acronym for the Arabic words meaning the (Palestinian) Islamic Resistance Movement - since its election victory over rival party Fatah in January 2006. Soon after its victory at the ballot box, it expelled virtually all of Fatah from the Strip, forcing them to the West Bank. This expulsion in essence created two Palestinian states: "Fatah-stan" in the West Bank and an almost Islamic "Hamas-stan" in Gaza. According to Arabic-language press reporting, Hamas has gone so far as to introduce flogging, amputation and execution as punishments in the Gaza penal code.

Hamas has never recognized Israel's right to exist and is in a self-declared state of war with the Jewish nation. Even after its assumed power, Hamas refused to acknowledge Israel and has vowed to continue its armed resistance against Israel. Even during the cease-fire, Qassam rockets routinely hit the border town of Sderot, one mile from the border with Gaza.

Drawing by Israeli child in Sderot depicting rocket attack

Since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005, over 6,000 of the Qassam rockets have been fired at Sderot, killing 13 people, wounding dozens, causing millions of dollars in damage, disrupting daily life, forcing about 25 percent of the people to leave, and crippling the economy.

The director of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, revealed that Hamas has received longer range rockets from Syria and Iran, smuggled in through Egypt. These rockets can not only reach Ashkelon as in today's attacks, but as far into Israel as Ashdod, 17 miles from the border. To put this into context, Ashdod is halfway to Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip, has a population of 200,000 people, and is Israel's largest port facility, accounting for over 60 percent of the nation's imports.

At some point, the Israelis will have no option but to intervene militarily. It's not a good option, but it may turn out to be the only option. Gaza is densely populated and no matter how carefully the Israelis mount an operation, there will be a great number of civilian casualties. This, of course, will bring world condemnation of the Israeli action.

When the Israelis move, there will be Hamas retaliation. In addition to continued rocket and mortar attacks, there will be roadside bombs with improvised explosive devices. Hamas no doubt has seen how effective these have been in Iraq and Lebanon. Also, Hamas will make good on its promise to dispatch suicide bombers into Israel proper - this is a demonstrated capability. There is also the question of what Fatah and its own collection of militants - especially the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - will do when Israel attacks fellow Palestinians.

All this takes place against the backdrop of the upcoming Israeli parliamentary elections, scheduled for February 10, 2009. In all likelihood, the next prime minister who will emerge from that vote will be either the Kadima party's Tzipi Livni (currently the foreign minister and acting prime minister) or Likud's Benyamin Netanyahu (a former prime minister). So, it will be "Hardliner A" or "Hardliner B" come early next year. Each has pledged to forcefully end the Gaza crisis.

Benyamin Netanyah and the author in Jerusalem (2006)

Hamas should take note. Neither of the two potential prime ministers have much use for Hamas or Gaza. When the Israelis intervene, they will not make the mistakes of Lebanon 2006. When they invade Gaza next, it will be decisive.

Hamas has a narrow window to prevent the coming bloodshed. They have pushed the Israelis about as far as they are going to be pushed. It's time to think about the people of Gaza for a change.

December 21, 2008

MiG-29 Fighters for Lebanon?

Click on image for larger view

MiG-29 of the Iraqi Air Force (1989)

During the recent visit to Moscow by the Lebanese Minister of Defense, his Russian counterpart offered to provide 10 MiG-29 (FULCRUM) fighters to the Lebanese Air Force. This came as a surprise to the Lebanese (as well as the Israelis and Americans). Of course, an offer is not delivery - I will be astonished if we see MiG-29 fighters over Lebanon wearing the roundel of the Lebanese Air Force anytime soon.

The MiG-29 entered service in the early 1980's to counter American-built F-15 and F-16 fighters. In the only combat match ups between the MiG-29 and the American-built fighters - in Iraq and the Balkans - no American-built fighters have been lost, while as many as 20 MiG-29's have been downed. A contributing factor in this disparity of performance between the MiG and F-15 and F-16 is of course the skill of the pilots.

Let's look at what might be behind this surprising announcement. Delivering advanced fighter aircraft does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in a vacuum - a lot of things are required to make such an effort possible. As they say, the devil is in the details.

First, Lebanon has traditionally purchased its weapons from the West, mostly from the United States. Its current Air Force inventory consists of four antiquated British-made Hawker Hunters, a few dozen American-made UH-1H Huey helicopters and a handful of French-made Aerospatiale SA-342 Gazelle attack helicopters. The Air Force is not capable of defending Lebanese airspace - Israeli fighter and reconnaissance aircraft overfly the country often and at will.

Since the end of the Hizballah-Israel conflict in 2006, the United States has pledged to upgrade the capabilities of the Lebanese armed forces, but to date not much more than training has materialized. There is a reluctance in Washington (not to mention Tel Aviv) to provide weapons to the Lebanese that might end up on the hands of Hizballah. Since 2006, Hizballah has emerged as one of the major power brokers in the country.

Should this be a serious offer by the Russians, there are other considerations as well. The Lebanese will need qualified pilots to fly the fighter jets. While we might not consider the MiG-29 a state of the art military aircraft, it is more advanced by several orders of magnitude than the Hawker Hunter. Will the Lebanese pilots train in Russia, or will we see a Russian military training mission in Lebanon? Neither is something the United States or Israel would welcome.

A squadron of advanced jet fighter aircraft will require a much more robust maintenance capability than that currently in the Lebanese Air Force. There will need to be fairly high-tech test equipment, spare parts, avionics maintenance, and support for whatever weapons package accompanies the aircraft. Again, will we see the establishment of a Russian military advisor presence in Lebanon similar to what we see in Syria?

What do the Russians hope to accomplish with this offer to the Lebanese? They may be trying to make inroads to what has traditionally been a Western-allied military. Lebanese officers are trained at facilities in the United States and Europe. This may be more of Russia reasserting its military capabilities around the world - much of it fueled by higher oil prices earlier in the year. There have been increased Russian strategic aviation flights near Alaska, recent ship visits to Venezuela and Cuba, as well as increased Russian naval activity in the Mediterranean, including port visits to Syria and Libya. There have been rumors of a permanent Russian naval presence at the Syrian port of Tartus.

My analysis

I doubt the Russians would have made such an offer to the Lebanese without Syrian acquiescence. Syria believes Lebanon to be in its sphere of influence. I am of the opinion that the Syrians will eventually engineer a crisis in Lebanon that will cause the Lebanese government - with the urging of Syrian-Iranian proxy Hizballah - to request the reintroduction of Syrian troops. Syrian troops provided the pax syriana in Lebanon from 1976 to 2005.

Provision of the Russian MiG-29's to Lebanon is a great ploy for the Syrians. Rather than the Russians establishing a large (and expensive) maintenance and training facility in Lebanon for only 10 aircraft, Syria can provide all the things required, easier and cheaper.

Syria operates three squadrons of MiG-29's from its air base at Sayqal (about 60 miles east northeast of Damascus). It has qualified pilots and an established maintenance base less than 15 minutes flying time from either of Lebanon's primary air bases. These bases - Riyaq in the Biqa' Valley or al-Qulayat near Tripoli, are both within six and five miles respectively of the Syrian border.

Syria will play a role in this delivery, if it in fact happens. I suspect that this whole episode was discussed between Damascus and Moscow before the Russian offer was made to the Lebanese.

December 17, 2008

Britain to Withdaw Troops from Iraq

Britain announced that it will withdraw all if its troops from Iraq by mid-2009. According to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the remaining 4,100 British forces in Iraq will cease operations on May 31, 2009 and begin a withdrawal that will take about two months. At one point, Britain had deployed as many as 45,000 troops to Iraq.

The timing of the announcement coincides with the introduction of a draft Iraqi law requiring all foreign forces other than those of the United States to leave Iraq by July 31, 2009. The remaining non-foreign troops in Iraq consist of the British and smaller numbers of Australians and Romanians, plus a handful from a few other countries. Departure of the non-American forces will not change the situation on the ground.

In the past year, British troops have mostly confined themselves to a garrison at an airfield near al-Basrah. Despite their well-earned reputation as excellent troops, the British have been reluctant to conduct aggressive operations in the southern area that has been their primary responsibility since the invasion in 2003. When Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki deployed Iraqi forces to al-Basrah earlier this year to take down Shi'a militias and criminal gangs threatening to take over the city, it was U.S. troops, not British, who supported the Iraqis with air and ground combat support. I suspect the British forces are responding to direction from London to maintain a low profile until they are withdrawn.

Unlike the United States, whose history with Iraq really only extends to the first Gulf War in 1991 when an American-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Britain and Iraq have had a rocky relationship that precedes the establishment of Iraq as a modern country. That history may directly impact British conduct in Iraq today.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One, Britain (along with France) was instrumental in the creation of a series of new states, much of it payback for Arab support against the Turks during the war. Our of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire came the new kingdoms of Syria, Iraq and Jordan (originally the Emirate of Transjordan).

The throne in Baghdad was originally intended for 'Abdullah, son of the Sharif of Mecca, the Arab leader whose support for the British was key to victory in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. When 'Abdullah's brother was expelled by the French from his throne in Damascus, the British moved him to Baghdad, creating Transjordan for 'Abdullah. The inhabitants of the area have not forgotten Britain's creation of artificial countries and importation of outside monarchs.

The Iraqis launched a bitter rebellion against the British in 1920, gaining their independence in 1932. However, during World War II, the British reintroduced forces into Iraq and restored the Hashemite monarchy. British occupation lasted until 1947, and the monarchy remained until a bloody revolution in 1958.

When Britain granted Kuwait its independence in 1962, Iraq threatened to invade and reclaim territory that they believe is rightfully part of Iraq. British forces redeployed to Kuwait and forced the Iraqis to back down. Britain was a key contributor to the coalition that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.

Most of the Iraqi population (with the likely exception of the Kurds) would like to see all foreign forces leave the country. Most are pragmatic enough to realize that right now it is only the presence of 150,000 American troops that guarantee their security. If they can limit foreign military presence to only one country, so much the better.

The Iraqis will not be saddened to see the British leave, again.

December 16, 2008

Michel Aoun: A Lebanese Politician Faces Reality

Click for larger imageLast week's visit by former Lebanese anti-Syrian military leader and current member of Parilament Michel Aoun (Mishal 'Awn) to Damascus for an audience with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad undescores the fundamantal changes in Lebanese politics since the Israel-Hizballah confrontation in 2006.

There is no longer any doubt that Hizballah has emerged as the major power broker in the country. When a respected Maronite Christian leader - almost an icon in the anti-Syrian ranks of Lebanese politicians - makes the two hour drive to Damascus to meet with the president of the country that symbolizes the very antithesis of his being, there has been a dramatic shift in the basic paradigm of the political landscape in Lebanon.

Aoun started a "war of liberation" against Syrian occupation forces in Lebanon in 1989. A year later, he was forced into exile in France as his forces could not gain the military advantage over the much better equipped Syrians. Aoun remained in exile until the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005.

Aoun shocked many of his Christian colleagues when he entered into a political alliance with the Iranian- and Syrian-supported radical Shi'a group Hizballah. Since the end of the Israel-Hizballah war in the summer of 2006, Hizballah's star has been on the rise. Since there was no clear Israeli victory over the well-trained and well-equipped Islamic militia, the group gained popular respect among Lebanese Muslims, and commanded increased wariness among rival Christian and Druze political factions.

In the aftermath of that conflict, Hizballah sought to increase its political power in the country, bullying and extorting the duly-elected Lebanese government to bestow on the group extraordinary powers, including veto power over proposed legislation. Surprisingly, the Lebanese government caved in to these demands, making Hizballah the undisputed arbiter of power in the country.

Aoun is a political creature - he understands power and how it is wielded. His agreement with Hizballah was only the first step in his quest to be be relevant again in Lebanese politics. His trip to Syria is another step in that process.

While in Syria, Aoun remarked, "We are turning a new page where there is no victor and no loser. This is a return to normal relations." In return, Syrian President al-Asad pledged that Syria has no desire to return to Lebanon.

I don't buy it.

Syria has always coveted Lebanon. For years, it was Lebanon's wealth (and accompanying Syrian corruption) that kept the Syrian economy from collapse. Syrian troops occupied the country for almost three decades.

I predict that sometime in the near future, there will be a Syrian-engineered security crisis in Lebanon. The sycophantic Lebanese government, with leaders like Michel Aoun and the Hizballah thugs, will "invite" Syrian troops to intervene as they did in 1976.

Despite the recent Lebanese-Syrian normalization of diplomatic relations, this is not over as far as Damascus is concerned.

December 15, 2008

President Bush and the Iraqi Shoe Thrower

As has been gleefully covered in the media, an Iraqi journalist threw two shoes at President Bush while the President was making remarks at a press conference during a surprise trip to Baghdad. The journalist missed hitting the President - barely - but did cause a bruise on the President's spokesperson.

Throwing shoes at someone is a traditional Arab insult. According to press reports of the incident, the journalist shouted in Arabic as he hurled his footwear at the President, "This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog...this is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."

The journalist, Muntazir al-Zaydi, has become a folk hero in much of the Arab world, including parts of Iraq - mostly the areas that are loyal to the former regime of Saddam Husayn and to the radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. This is to be expected from these people.

I have a few questions for al-Zaydi and the protesters demanding he be released, claiming he was only exercising his free speech, a right promised by the Americans. Shouting at the President is exercising free speech - throwing objects at him is assault.

1. I do not recall you shouting at President Saddam Husayn, or throwing shoes at him. Saddam was responsible for many more deaths by orders of magnitude than any American leader. Did I miss that press conference where you stood up to Saddam? You remember - all those opportunities the Iraqi media had to hold their "elected" leaders accountable to the public.

2. I don't recall scenes like this prior to 2003, when the Americans gave you the right to free speech, freedom to assemble, freedom to protest, etc. How many anti-Saddam rallies did you all attend? It's ironic that you do not recognize that the man who is responsible for your rights is the one you'd like to throw shoes at.

Cowards then, and it appears, cowards now.