July 31, 2006

Israel-Hizballah: What's Next?

August 1, 2006

The self-declared 48-hour Israeli hiatus on airstrikes is half over. After a relatively quiet day in northern Israel, Hizballah resumed its rocket attacks on Metulla and Qiryat Shemona. Israeli ground forces are engaged in Taybah and Kafr Kila, west of those two Israeli towns.

These ground operations are being supported by limited Israeli airpower, but the strategic air campaign against Hizballah targets remains on hold. The only exceptions were strikes on supply routes from Syria and an attack on a suspected Hizballah leader traveling on the road near Tyre. Syrian resupply efforts have continued throughout the conflict, despite Israeli efforts to shut down the airports, seaports, bridges and roads connecting Lebanon to the outside world.

According to senior Israeli officials speaking privately, Israel believes they have dealt Hizballah a severe blow during the past three weeks. The official, who is in a position to know, claimed that Israeli air and artillery had destroyed 70 percent of Hizballah's launchers for the long-range (120-mile range ) Zelzal rockets, 70-80 percent of the launchers for the medium range (25-45 miles) Fajr 3, Fajr 5 and 302mm Syrian rockets, virtually all of the launchers for the Syrian 220 ball-bearing filled rockets (25-35 mile range) that were responsible for most of the casualties, particularly in Haifa, but only a small number of the ubiquitous 122mm short range (12-15 miles) Katyushas that continue to strike northern Israel. The official noted that they were willing to absorb the smaller rockets in order to concentrate on the launchers for the longer range rockets.

The ground incursions, primarily the effort in Marun Al-Ra's and Bint Jubayl were costly, but succeeded in destroying all Hizballah facilities in the towns. He further said that Israeli air strikes had hit every known Hizballah facility in Lebanon, destroying command and control centers in Beirut (the Muraba Al-Amn, "Security Square") and the Biqa' Valley, two of the six sectors along the border with Israel, estimating that in all 1000 buildings were destroyed.

Currently, the Israelis are clearing a zone about one mile inside the Lebanese border, destroying all Hizballah observation posts and fortifications, using three brigades and 70 bulldozers. Three divisions have been mobilized and are preparing to move into southern Lebanon and move as far north as the Litani River (approximately 20 miles).

Early on August 1, in a late evening session, the Israeli security cabinet voted to expand the ground war. It appears that the three divisions will be committed to the battle, even as early as when the hiatus on air operation expires late tonight.

Iran-Hizballah-Hamas Coordination

Two events triggered the current Middle East crisis:

  • On June 25, Hamas militants attacked an Israeli post in the Gaza Strip, killing two Israeli soldiers and taking one hostage.
  • On July 12, Hizballah fighters ambushed an Israeli patrol on the northern border - several Israeli soldiers were killed and two were captured.

Israel responded to each provocation with military operations. The question that has been in everyone's mind is the possible connection between the two events. Were they planned in advance? Did Hizballah simply take advantage of the Israeli focus on Gaza to mount an operation in the north?

According to a senior Israeli official in a position to know, there was a meeting shortly before July 12 in Damascus, Syria. Present at that meeting were:

  • Ali Larijani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran
  • Hasan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hizballah
  • Khalid Mash'al, political leader of Hamas (resident in Damascus)

According to the official, it was at this meeting that Iran gave the go-ahead for the Hizballah operation against the Israelis in the north to relieve pressure on Hamas in the south and force Israel into a two-front confrontation.

July 26, 2006

Israel-Hizballah: Moving towards a ceasefire?

As the “core group” met in Rome to discuss how to resolve the Israel-Hizballah conflict in Lebanon, the fighting continues. Rockets are still hitting cities in northern Israel, Hizballah leader Shaykh Sayid* Hasan Nasrallah threatens increased rockets attacks on cities further south than Haifa, and the Israeli army is taking heavier casualties than expected while only a few kilometers inside the Lebanese border.

Against this backdrop, the core group is debating the modality of a cease-fire. First, for a ceasefire to work, both sides have to agree to it. Both the Israelis and Hizballah have stated they will accept a ceasefire, but under very different conditions. Hizballah said they would stop firing rockets on northern Israel and that the interested parties could then discuss Hizballah’s “issues.” The Israelis demand that before there can be a ceasefire, Hizballah must release the two soldiers seized on July 12 and all rocket attacks must stop. They further demand that Hizballah disband its militia as required by United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559. Thus, both sides are far apart on agreeing to a ceasefire.

Assuming that there is a ceasefire and an international force is to be introduced into southern Lebanon, how will it be constituted and what will be its mandate? Will it be a United Nations force, or a United Nations-approved force? Will it have the mandate to merely observe and report like the ineffective United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that has been there in its “interim” status since 1978? Will it be set up as an armed buffer force with the authority to fire on violators of the ceasefire? Will it be tasked to enforce the provisions of UNSCR 1559, in effect, overseeing the disarming of Hizballah and the disbanding of its militia? Will this lead to another United Nations Special Commission cat and mouse game like we saw in Iraq?

The United Nations has an abysmal (well-deserved) reputation in this part of the Middle East. The Israelis believe UNIFIL has Israeli blood on its hands - a few years ago UNIFIL officers observed and videotaped Hizballah seizing three Israeli soldiers. Not only did the officers do nothing more than sending in a report to New York, they further refused to give the tape to the Israel Defense Force for a year.

Israel is also demanding the establishment of a two-kilometer (1.2 mile) buffer zone inside Lebanon. Many analysts have stated – correctly – that this will not stop Hizballah from firing rockets into northern Israel. After all, Hizballah has rockets in its inventory that can reach as far as 100 miles, although it has only demonstrated the ability to strike about 30 miles thus far. If Israel’s demands are met, Hizballah will not have any rockets to fire.

Given how far apart the two sides are and the inability of the core group to bridge that gap, it does not appear that a ceasefire is imminent.

* Sayid is a title in Shi’a Islam bestowed on males who are direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad. Sayids wear a black turban.

The Shaba' Farms - Hizballah's Fig Leaf

Hizballah was formed in 1982 to oppose the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon following the Peace for Galilee campaign - the military operation to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization from that area. That occupation lasted 18 years, until 2000, when Israel withdrew its forces after a long, bloody guerrilla campaign by Hizballah.

With the removal of Israeli forces, Hizballah had no reason to maintain its militia, a militia that is required to be disarmed according to the Ta'if Accords of 1989 and United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1559 of 2004.

Hizballah stated that they would maintain their militia as part of their resistance to Israeli occupation, citing the presence of Israeli forces in a disputed area called the Shaba' Farms. This piece of land is located a few miles southwest of Mount Hermon (Jabal Ash Shaykh), the highest point in the Anti-Lebanon range on the border between Syria and Lebanon. Israel seized the area in the Six-Day War of 1967 and has held it ever since. The mountain is used by the Israel Defense Force as an intelligence and surveillance site.

The dispute is whether the Shaba' Farms are Lebanese or Syrian. Most documents identify them as Syrian, including the United Nations maps that are part of the agreement that ended the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Syria maintains that they determined as early as 1964 that the land was actually Lebanese, but has consistently refused to officially delineate the border.

Israel insists that it is part of Syria and thus exempt from UNSCR 425 of 1978, which demands that Israel withdraw its forces from Lebanon. The map to the left is a Lebanese Army map of 1966 that shows the area in question to be part of Syria, however, the Lebanese government (influenced no doubt by Syria) now claims the territory as part of Lebanon.

This is the fig leaf that Hizballah uses to justify maintaining its militia - declaring that the Israeli 2000 withdrawal does not satisfy the requirements of UNSCR 425, so they are not obligated to comply with UNSCR 1559.

July 24, 2006

The Iran-Hamas Connection - Why?

I received a question from a viewer asking why would Iran, run by a Shi’a fundamentalist regime, provide money, weapons and training to Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement)? I had indicated in a comment that Iran had provided this support to Hamas.

Good question. Let’s go back to 1992. For a year, Israel had expelled hundreds of senior Hamas leaders to Lebanon. The government of Lebanon, then favorably disposed toward the West, refused to take in the Hamas leaders. Images of the leaders in a makeshift camp on snowy Lebanese hillsides were beamed around the world.

Who came to their aid? Initially, their fellow Muslims assisted them. The Muslims in this part of Lebanon are overwhelmingly Shi’a. It did not take long for them to be contacted by the local Shi’a militia, the Iranian-sponsored and Syrian-backed Party of God – Hizballah. It was through Hizballah that Iran’s Lebanon contingent of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Al-Quds (Jerusalem) force made contact with the Hamas leaders.

Israel allowed the Hamas leaders to return to the occupied territory – mostly in the Gaza Strip – a year later. The bond established between Hamas and the IRGC came with them. Almost immediately, Hamas adopted the Hizballah tactic of suicide bombers and began a program of improved guerrilla tactics, courtesy of Iran.

Bottom line: Why does Iran support a Sunni Palestinian group? Iran's and Hamas’s hatred of Israel outweighs their distrust of each other.

July 23, 2006

Quoted in the St Louis Post-Dispatch

This article appeared in the St Louis Post-Dispatch, and has been picked up by various papers around the country.

Israel’s battle with Hezbollah could have far-reaching consequences
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

----- AN ANALYSIS -----

WASHINGTON — In giving Israel the leeway for an extended assault on Hezbollah, the United States is betting on Israel’s ability to defeat the terrorist group, because any other outcome would embolden the group and its sponsors, Iran and Syria.

So the conflict raises two critical questions:

Can Israel eliminate or at least seriously damage Hezbollah’s military capability?
What will be the consequences if it does?

Even though American attention in the war on terrorism has focused on al-Qaida, many experts believe that Hezbollah is unparalleled among militant forces in terms of firepower and organizational strength. The Lebanese Islamic group was founded a quarter-century ago to fight the Israeli presence in Lebanon.

“They are the most effective, most disciplined, irregular army in the world,” said Rick Francona, who spent 28 years as an Air Force intelligence officer and Pentagon counter-terrorism intelligence official and conducted Middle East operations for the CIA and other agencies.

After more than a week of fighting, it appears Hezbollah will be tested even more severely on the ground by Israeli forces.

Given its military superiority, Israel can degrade Hezbollah’s armed forces, but it won’t wipe them out, says retired Brig. Gen. David Grange, who spent much of the 1980s commanding special operations missions against Hezbollah.

“Israel can’t eliminate them or destroy them, but it can break them pretty hard,” Grange said. “The Israelis can remove a lot of their capability, they can disperse them, and they can destroy some of their units. Can they destroy Hezbollah totally? The answer’s no.”

Complicating the situation is the fact that Hezbollah’s terrorist operatives aren’t concentrated in southern Lebanon and are unlikely to be hit as hard by the Israelis. That means the better Israel does in its military confrontation, the more likely it — and perhaps the United States — may suffer terrorist reprisals.

This is a battle pitting a highly modern military against insurgent forces that have less sophisticated weaponry but can disappear into caves and tunnels. Israel says it seeks to move Hezbollah back from the border, so its rockets cannot easily target Israeli cities.

Hezbollah is credited by many in the region for having been the only force able to successfully take on Israel, when it helped force the Israeli military to withdraw from Lebanon six years ago. It has used the time since to reinforce its position, Francona said.

“They have had six years of unhampered, unhindered time in southern Lebanon to build up all of their military infrastructure, tunnels, caves, hidden launch sites, weapons caches and command bunkers. Israel has excellent intelligence and surveillance capabilities, but you can’t see everything all the time,” he said.

Hezbollah is “too ingrained” in Lebanese society to be eliminated, but Israel has already exacted a toll, Francona said, destroying hundreds of rockets, and will do more damage to Hezbollah with a ground invasion.

He added that Hezbollah has “taken a pounding, yes, but they’re still able to launch rockets into Haifa. I’ve been surprised at how tenacious Hezbollah has been. Every time Israel has crossed the border, they’ve run into a solid wall of fire, been ambushed, lost troops. These guys are religious true believers. They’ll fight, they won’t run.”

A critical Israeli goal will be to prevent re-supplying of Hezbollah, Grange said. “What they’re going to do is isolate them,” Grange said. “The reason they bombed the airport, blockaded the ports, is not to screw up Lebanon. It’s to keep Hezbollah from being reinforced by Iran. The other way is through Syria, but the Israelis are going to block the roads from Damascus and blow stuff up.”

Not everyone agrees Israel will emerge victorious. Retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, who ran the National Security Agency, under President Reagan, says the situation could end up like Iraq, where superior U.S. military capability has been neutralized.

“Hezbollah will probably give the Israelis a licking, just like the Iraqis are giving us a licking,” Odom said, suggesting Hezbollah forces could benefit politically from large-scale casualties. “They’ll have more supporters than they did, and the Israelis will have fewer.”

Hezbollah has committed various terrorist acts in the past two decades: killing 241 Marines in Lebanon, hijacking planes, killing Americans at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, bombing a major Jewish center in Argentina and torturing and killing the CIA chief in Lebanon.

“They killed more Americans than anyone else until 9/11,” Grange said. “If you’re serious about the global war on terrorism, Hezbollah is a big part of it, so someone’s got to take them down. The only ones that are going to do it are the Israelis, so quietly a lot of people want them to do it.”

Tom Diaz, who has consulted for the Justice Department on terrorists’ use of high technology, co-authored a book last year on Hezbollah and the presence of its agents on American soil. He says Hezbollah’s terrorist wing “is in effect an extension of the Iranian apparatus, so that’s the real wild-card part of it.”

If Iranian leaders decide they want to “do something bad to the U.S. or U.S. interests, that’s when we have to worry about” Hezbollah activity, he said.

July 21, 2006

Israel-Hezbollah: Preparing the battlefield

This article originally appeared on MSNBC's Hardblogger

We are 10 days into the Israel Defense Force (IDF) operations against Hezbollah. All indications point to an imminent ground incursion into Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon.

Some points to consider as this operation unfolds:

The air campaign that has been ongoing since the first day has not been as successful as the Israelis had hoped. They have not been effective in preventing Hezbollah from repeated and sustained rocket attacks on Haifa and other cities in northern Israel. Despite repeated air and artillery attacks, Hezbollah has been able to strike an unprecedented 25 miles into Israeli territory, effectively putting approximately 1 million Israelis under threat of Hezbollah rockets.

I am surprised at how resilient Hezbollah has been. IDF gunners have fired a huge number of rounds into the area of southern Lebanon where the rockets missiles are thought to be located — from where they need to be launched to hit Haifa and Nazareth. Footage of these 155mm artillery batteries showed pallet after pallet, truckload after truckload of shells moved to firing positions. Still, the Hezbollah rockets continue.

Israel has mounted small-unit incursions — most likely reconnaissance and special operations missions — across the border into southern Lebanon, including many on an expected axis of attack, that being to the west of Qiryat Shimona. These incursions have met with stiff resistance by Hezbollah, despite the relentless Israeli artillery and air attacks.

Just today, we saw what are probably the final preparations of the battlefield. Additional reserve units have been called up, bringing the force levels on the border to about three divisions. In amazing footage broadcast live to the world, an Israeli combat engineering unit was seen marshaling on the border — amazing because the Israelis are usually so tight-lipped about their military operations. Leaflet drops warned residents to flee southern Lebanon in advance of the battle.

Finally, the IDF chief of staff made these remarks: “Tonight we bow our heads to the IDF soldiers who are fighting and prepare ourselves for the battles ahead. ... We left Gaza and left Lebanon in order never to go back — but now we have to fight the terror wherever it is.”

It is important to remember as the Israelis and Hezbollah close for battle that Israeli forces have not been in southern Lebanon since they left in 2000. Hezbollah perceived that pullout as a victory (you could make that argument). Since 2000, it has had free reign to survey the land, develop obstacles, set up planned ambush sites, etc. When the Israeli army pushes across the border, it will be met be a disciplined, committed — some would say fanatical — force. It will be a difficult fight.

The Israeli armed forces are among the finest in the world — they are well trained, well led and well equipped. They will ultimately prevail, but it will be at a steep price.

July 18, 2006

Hezbollah and Hamas - the Iranian connection

This appeared at MSNBC Hardblogger July 18, 2006

(This is an updated and edited version of my earlier post: Hamas, Israel, Syria and Iran - All Pieces of the Same Puzzle.)

Since late June, Israeli forces have been involved in military operations in Gaza, and since July 12 in Lebanon as well. On the surface, it appears that these are conflicts between the Israel and Palestinian Hamas (acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”), and between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah (the “Party of God”). It is that, but the conflicts highlight a series of complex Byzantine relationships, spanning the region from Gaza Strip, north to Lebanon, east to Syria, and finally to Iran.

Iran’s direct involvement in Lebanon goes back to 1982 when elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were dispatched to Lebanon to provide support for the newly-created Hezbollah. The IRGC contingent provided the ingredients necessary for any successful insurgent/guerrilla operations – money, weapons and training. Their operations soon expanded south to the various Palestinian groups – including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), several factions of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and of course, Hamas. By the early 1990’s, Iran was the primary sponsor of these groups.

How do money, weapons and training get from Iran to these groups? There are several routes, but the primary route is through Syria, a close ally of Iran. The Iranian-Syrian relationship goes back decades - Syria was the only Arab state to support Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. That relationship soon matured into a formal defense cooperation agreement between the two countries. The defense pact was renewed last month in Tehran.

Over the years, the Syrians have made no effort to hide Iranian access to Damascus International Airport as a key component of the Hezbollah supply line. From the airport it is a short drive (30 minutes) on the Beirut-Damascus highway to the Lebanese border and the Biqa’ Valley. For years, Iranian air force 747 cargo aircraft have routinely delivered arms and supplies to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups at the airport – and as of March 2006 still do. This activity is not hidden on the military side of the airport – this was done on the civilian side in plain view.

I served in Syria as the air attaché at the American embassy. Often while at the Damascus airport, I observed this activity. On one ocassion, I was there with an American Congressional delegation when this activity was taking place. The aircraft were clearly labeled as Iranian air force; the trucks bore the unmistakeable Hezbollah logo. When all is said and done, the money, weapons and training used to fuel operations of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon can be traced to Iran, but the line goes through Damascus. Without Syria’s cooperation with Iran to allow Iranian supplies to flow through Damascus, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah would be able to conduct effective operations.

July 17, 2006

Scarborough Country Special - July 16

SCARBOROUGH: Welcome back to our continuing breaking news coverage.

Now, let‘s bring in Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. He‘s an MSNBC military analyst.

You know, Rick, a lot of people are focusing on the nine deaths in Haifa, Israel earlier today, but it seems to me of greater import is the fact that we‘ve now found out that Hezbollah has rockets that go far deeper into Israel than we suspected before. In fact, a million people now within range of Hezbollah‘s rockets.

What is the military impact of that?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST: This is huge, Joe. This really complicates Israel‘s defense posture in the northern part of the country.

Whereas before they believed that Hezbollah had the Fajr-3 rocket, now they know Hezbollah has that rocket. In fact, they believe that they‘ve got the Fajr-5, which is even more capable than what we saw in Haifa.

These last two attacks, one in Nazareth and one in Afula, are a little bit outside the range of what we believe the Fajr-3 will go. So this puts a great percentage of the Israeli population under this threat.

So when the Israelis decide that they need to have a security buffer zone in southern Lebanon, it‘s not just going to be up to the Litani River. They‘re going to have to push the Hezbollah all the way up to the Zaharani, up to the Sidon area, and that‘s going to be a huge chunk of southern Lebanon that the Lebanese army is now going to have to own.

SCARBOROUGH: So if missile attacks continue, you‘re talking about the possibility of Israel having to deploy found forces north into the Bekaa Valley and pushing them up into Lebanon far enough away from their own people, so you don‘t have a million Israelis who could be killed at any time by these rockets.

FRANCONA: That‘s exactly right and that‘s what Israel wants to avoid.

Up until now, you‘ve seen the Israeli air force fully engaged, the Israeli navy is out doing the naval blockade. You‘ve got the Israeli army down on the border conducting these artillery raids.
But you‘re not seeing any ground incursion into southern Lebanon. That‘s something the Israelis would like to avoid.

That‘s why we saw this kind of feeler via the Italians today, is if you can get the Lebanese army into this buffer zone, move Hezbollah out of that area and give us back the two kidnapped soldiers, we might be interested in a cease-fire.

I think they‘re trying to avoid that ground incursion, which would be very bloody up in there.

Hezbollah, which is a low tech military organization, with some medium tech weapons - these are committed, hard, tough fighters and it will be a bloody, bloody battle up there.

SCARBOROUGH: Well, Colonel, for those that don‘t remember what happened back in 1981, 1982, talk about what happened the last time Israel went into Lebanon and what an absolutely terrible, terrible mess it was for that country.

FRANCONA: And I think they had an easier time then than they would have now.

In ‘82, they launched the “Peace for Galilee” campaign, which was to force the PLO out of that same area in southern Lebanon that was threatening the same towns. We‘re seeing a repeat of that same thing.

The Israelis are doing this a little bit differently. Whereas they launched a ground invasion and pushed them up that coastal road all the way to Beirut and then the international community stepped in and that‘s how we got involved in Lebanon in 1982, led to the introduction of the Marines and we saw how that played out.

This time, the Israelis are trying to do this without having to go in there on the ground, so they don‘t have to take that kind of bloody house-to-house fighting.

SCARBOROUGH: All right, thank you so much, Col. Francona. We greatly appreciate you being with us.

July 13, 2006

Israeli Attempts to Cut Off Route to Iran

Last night and today, and continuing tonight, Israeli military forces are attempting to prevent Hizballah from moving the two captured Israeli soldiers out of Lebanon, most likely to Iran. Israeli foreign ministry officials claim to have information that Hizballah is attempting to do just that.

Much of the Israeli military activity is aimed at closing the route to Iran. First, they used runway-busting munitions to close all three runways at Beirut's International Airport. All flights in and out of the country's only international airport have been cancelled or diverted to other locations.

Next, they struck the Beirut-Damascus highway in an attempt to close off the preferred and most-often used airport, Damascus International Airport, less than a few hours drive across the
border in Syria. If you look at the geography of the stretch of road from Beirut to Damascus, there are three main sections. The first section is the drive from Beirut up into the mountains, an area criss-crossed with alternate routes.

Then you come to the stretch over the mountains, an area know as the Mudayrij Ridge. There is only one main route through this area, and a large highway bridge at Mudayrij (built at a cost of $40 million). Destruction of this bridge in an area of few alternate routes could possibly disrupt Hizballah or Iranian agents' plans to move captured Israeli soldiers across the border into Syria.

After traversing the Mudayrij Ridge, you enter the infamous Biqa' Valley, also an area of many alternate routes. From there, it is an easy drive to Damascus airport and a short flight to Tehran. (See my earlier pieces, "And now Hizballah enters the fray...." and "HAMAS, Israel, Syria, Iran - All Pieces of the Same Puzzle."

The Israelis struck the one place that might render the road impassable. Although this first strike was unsuccessful, the Israelis certainly know the right spot to hit.

If they are unsuccessful in this mission, will they then move east to the runways at Damascus International Airport?

July 12, 2006

And now Hizballah enters the fray....

This is a follow-up to my earlier piece "HAMAS, Israel, Syria, Iran - Pieces of the Same Puzzle."

On July 12, a group of Lebanese Hizballah crossed into northern Israel from Lebanon and captured two Israeli soldiers, exacerbating the already tense situation in the region. Israel is conducting operations in the Gaza Strip in an effort to free another Israel soldier taken captive by Palestinian HAMAS on June 25.

In an interview, an Israeli diplomat said that he did not believe the two groups were working together because HAMAS is a Sunni fundamentalist organization and Hizballah is a Shi'a group. I am not sure this is true - both organizations receive money, weapons and training from Iran via Syria (see earlier article). HAMAS has an office in Damascus - a coordination meeting there is quite feasible. Would they cooperate? Possibly - their hatred of Israel transcends their distrust and dislike of each other.

The question in the minds of many Middle East analysts - is Iran pulling the strings here?

The two Israeli soldiers in Hizballah custody will likely find themselves in front of much more capable Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) interrogators, either in the Biqa' Valley, or possibly in Iran. There is precedent - in the 1980's, the IRGC kidnapped the CIA's Beirut station chief, Bill Buckley, and moved him to Iran. The most likely route for that would be via Damascus International Airport, bring Syria squarely into this round of tensions.

Israeli forces now will have to conduct two-front operations in hopes of recovering their captured soldiers. While they might be successful in Gaza, the chance of success in Lebanon is doubtful.

July 9, 2006

Yemen Acquits Al-Qa'idah Members - A Surprise?

YemenA Yemeni court has acquitted 19 suspected Al-Qa'idah members, some of whom had confessed to fighting American troops in Iraq.

According to the judge, going to Iraq and joining the Al-Qa'idah in Iraq organization (formed by the late Abu Mus'ab Az-Zarqawi) and killing Americans does not violate Yemeni law. He went on to state that "Islamic shari'a law permits jihad against occupiers."

Our allies.

Why does this not surprise me?

For years, successive U.S. administration have courted the government of first the Yemeni Arab Republic (also known as North Yemen) and later the unified Republic of Yemen as an ally in the Middle East. The American military, particularly the United States Central Command, made numerous (misguided, in my opinion) efforts to develop a close working relationship with the Yemeni military and government. They hoped that Yemen might allow CENTCOM to establish a headquarters in the country, or at the minimum provide staging for protection of the Bab Al-Mandab ("Gate of Tears") at the southern end of the Red Sea, a vital sea line of communications.

Yemen played them for fools. The government of 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih, arguably one of the most corrupt on the planet, took all CENTCOM had to offer with no intention of either providing bases or even real cooperation. Any cooperation that was rendered was in return for something Salih wanted. The Americans were really stung when Yemen sided with and supported Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Following supposed reconciliation after the war, CENTCOM continued its pursuit of Salih. Meanwhile, Yemen became almost a safehaven for Islamic fundamentalists. In 2000, of course, the USS Cole was attacked in a Yemeni port. (See my earlier piece, The USS Cole - A Victim of Bad Policy?)

Earlier this year, 23 Al-Qa'idah prisoners escaped from a Yemeni maximum security prison by tunneling from the prison to the women's room of a mosque located hundreds of feet outside the prison compound. Included in the 23 was the mastermind of the attack on the Cole. At that time, I questioned just how serious the Yemeni government was in being an ally of the United States in the war on terror. (See Yemen - Ally in the War on Terror?)

I still question it.