Da’esh – Its "caliphate" has imploded, its de facto capitals in Iraq and Syria have fallen, and hundreds of its fighters have either surrendered or fled. The Islamic State jihadist group may not be dead yet but its dream of statehood has already been buried, analysts said on the 18 Nov 17. No one in IS "will now think of imposing 'the territory of the caliphate'," said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi specialist on extremist movements.In 2014, self-proclaimed IS "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ruled over seven million people in a territory as large as Italy encompassing large parts of Syria and nearly a third of Iraq. This new "territory of Islam" - Dar al-Islam in Arabic - attracted thousands of jihadists from around the world, many accompanied by their wives and children. The city of Raqa became the de facto Syrian capital, while Baghdadi made his only public appearance in a mosque in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and once a major Middle East trading hub. In all of the cities the jihadist group controlled, the black banner of IS flew above the buildings of a new administration. Courts, hospitals and other official bodies even issued birth or marriage certificates or verdicts and other decrees on IS letterhead. But less than four years after its sweeping offensive stunned the world, IS has lost almost all of the territory it controlled along with the precious income from oilfields that funded its activities. "In the course of recent battles, especially Mosul, a huge number of jihadis have died," said Kirk Sowell, publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics. "Subsequent to that defeat, many others have surrendered or simply fled the country or are trying to melt into the population." According to the US-led coalition fighting IS, the jihadists have lost 95 percent of the cross-border caliphate they declared in 2014.
Hashemi said that after suffering such heavy losses, "even what might remain of IS would not think of returning" to the idea of military and administrative control of territory. And the routed group has been confined in Iraq to "four percent of the territory: wadis, oases and desert areas" without any population, along the porous border with Syria where it has also been cornered into an ever-tightening noose. In addition to the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the remaining jihadists face myriad forces backed by Russia, the United States or Iran, often at odds with each other over their differing regional interests. "The caliphate project ran up against geopolitical realities," according to Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs. As a result, "the international jihadi galaxy is likely to revert to its previous strategy of de-territorialisation and revert to strikes against the 'distant enemy' in the West or Russia to show it must still be reckoned with," he added. There is already a figurehead waiting in the wings. IS was born of the ashes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Al-Qaeda before it, and Hashemi said that despite the "caliphate" going down in flames, a new organisation is beginning to emerge. "Most veterans of IS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq are now regrouping in Syria" where jihadist groups still occupy many areas, he said. These fighters - "the most indoctrinated and most disciplined" - have since Sep 17 been forming the "Ansar al-Furqan group, led by Hamza bin Laden", the son and would-be heir of Osama bin Laden. The younger bin Laden has become active as an Al-Qaeda propagandist since his father's death at the hands of US Special Forces in 2011 in Pakistan. In January, the United States added Hamza bin Laden to its terrorist blacklist. His father may be dead, but the bin Laden name continues to attract recruits, Hashemi said.
Iran/Hezbollah/Hamas – While Egypt mediated a reconciliation deal between Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah, Iran appeared to be pushing for a thaw of ties between Hamas and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah and both were unwelcome developments for Israel it was reported on the 16 Nov 17. Hamas has moved to strengthen ties with Hezbollah after the two parties, which have been engaged in hostilities against Israel, took opposing sides in the Syrian war. Prior to the popular uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011, Hamas was an ally of the Damascus regime, Hezbollah and regional heavyweight Iran, in what was branded as “the axis of resistance” against Israel. While initially refraining from criticising Assad, Hamas later announced that it supported the aspirations of the Syrian people in its uprising against the regime. Its position on Syria led to the souring of relations with Iran, which reduced funding of the Palestinian movement. Iranian and pro-Hezbollah media outlets accused Hamas of actively supporting Syrian rebels, a charge the Palestinian group denied. As the war in Syria appears to be dying down, ties between Hamas and Hezbollah seem to be thawing, likely with encouragement from Iran. “The alliance between Hamas and Hezbollah is a direct result of the renewed relations between Iran and Hamas,” wrote Khaled Abu Toameh in the website of the Gatestone Institute. Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s deputy political chief, had a rare public meeting with Hezbollah Secretary- General Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut on October 31. The meeting occurred soon after Arouri visited Iran. Pro-Hezbollah al-Manar TV said Arouri and Nasrallah discussed “the Zionist aggression against Gaza and its ramifications” following an Israeli attack on a tunnel in the Gaza Strip that killed eight members of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad. Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh took part in a Hezbollah-sponsored conference on the Balfour Declaration on November 1 in Beirut, which kicked off with a message from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other senior participants included Hezbollah’s deputy chief Sheikh Naim Qassem. Observers said both sides were likely to benefit from rapprochement. “It is no secret that Hamas, despite having different positions regarding the Syrian crisis, needs Hezbollah when it comes to funding, training, securing supply lines for weapons and providing residence for Hamas cadres in Lebanon,” Adnan Abu Amer, wrote on the website Al-Monitor. “For its part, Hezbollah needs a Palestinian movement, such as Hamas, to restore its popularity among Arab public opinion, which it lost after being involved in the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen against Sunni Muslims. Hamas… may help dispel Hezbollah’s sectarian image,” Amer added. The meetings between Hamas leaders and Hezbollah officials have raised alarms in Israel. In Sep 17 the head of Israeli intelligence service Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, warned that Hamas and Hezbollah were gearing up for a new conflict against Israel. Argaman’s warning echoed a statement by Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman in Aug 17 in which he accused Arouri of attempting “to boost the relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah” with the help of Iran to plan attacks against Israel. Israel demanded Hamas cut relations with Iran but the Palestinian movement responded by saying that the visit by its delegation to Tehran is “a rejection of the Zionist entity’s conditions to cut ties with (Iran).” The Hamas-Hezbollah thaw is likely to also ire Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Iran and the Lebanese movement had hit an all-time low. “The Egyptians are trying to rein in Hamas from its past and current ties with Iran, which supports Hezbollah,” wrote Jack Khoury in Haaretz. Egypt has not publicly criticised Hamas for strengthening ties with Hezbollah and Iran, possibly because the Palestinian leaders have made a number of gestures to win Cairo’s favour. “To ensure Hamas’s survival, [Hamas leaders] are even willing to sever ties with their mother ship, the Muslim Brotherhood, to appease Egypt, its saviour and Brotherhood nemesis,” wrote Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. Despite rising tensions between Saudi Arabia, which is an ally of Egypt, and Hezbollah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Cairo was not mulling measures against the Lebanese movement. “The subject is not about taking on or not taking on [Hezbollah]; the subject is about the status of the fragile stability in the region in light of the unrest facing the region,” Sisi told CNBC. “The region cannot support more turmoil,” he added.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.
Iran/Hezbollah: Analysis: Decoding Iran and Hezbollah’s desire for Lebanon (by Tony Duheaume 18 Nov 17) – The importance of Hezbollah for Iran as an overseas fighting force, which operates alongside its own military, cannot be underestimated. Since its establishment in Lebanon in the early 1980s by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force, Hezbollah has fought wars and carried out deadly attacks against civilians in foreign lands that have proven its worth as a terror group. Terrorist attacks carried out by Hezbollah, which have targeted various nations over the years, can only be construed as attacks carried out by the Iranian administration through proxy. As by using its Quds Force, the regime itself can claim plausible deniability from its deeds, which it has done for many decades.
Iran’s imperialist designs
It seems that Iran’s hawkish leadership is currently working hard to revive its long-lost Persian Empire through stealthily applied hegemony. With Iraq always having been at the top of its list of potential conquests, Tehran is taking advantage of Iraqi government’s invite to aid it in the fight against ISIS, and had sent its wily Quds’ Force Commander Qassim Suleimani to take up the challenge. As the battle commenced, Suleimani integrated a large force of Iran-backed militias into the ranks of Iraqi armed forces, thereby effectively taking control. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US coalition forces, Iranians have been actively infiltrating the Iraqi government, gaining influence over a large number of MPs in a bid to turn Iraq into an Iranian satellite state. While in Syria, with the Iranian puppet President Bashar al-Assad on the back foot, Iran’s proxy forces and its military were sent in to shore up his regime, and with the dictator’s army virtually non-existent, Iran has setup a military headquarters there, in readiness to reinstall their puppet. But in case of Lebanon, it is Iran’s proxy Hezbollah that is doing the infiltrating in a bid to take control of the country through stealth. Through its support of Hezbollah, Iran has gained a powerful foothold in Lebanon. One big advantage for better relations came in the election of Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun as the country’s president on 31 October 2016, which left the door open for further Iranian influence. Then through the electoral system — through its 12 seats in parliament and with crucial allies such as President Aoun’s Maronite Christian Free Patriotic Movement that controls the Ministry of Defence portfolio, and by working closely with the Shiite party Amal that controls the Ministry of Finance — Hezbollah is now in virtual control of Lebanese politics.
Lebanese military vis-à-vis Hezbollah militia
But Hezbollah’s strength doesn’t end there. Its military wing is more powerful than the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and even in recent times the two have been known to work together. The officer in charge of the Lebanese army, who appears to be seeking better relations with the U.S. is Staff Brigadier General Joseph Aoun (no relation to President Michel Aoun). Joseph Aoun had previously commanded the Lebanese 9th Brigade, whose remit was to maintain security of an area skirting the Litani River in south Lebanon, where Hezbollah was required to disarm under Resolution 1701 — of the UN Security Council Resolution that ended the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese militia — which Hezbollah has never observed. On July 2009, a huge blast struck Lebanese village of Khirbet Selm, when an abandoned house — containing a stockpile of rockets, automatic weapons and ammunition that belonged to Hezbollah — exploded in a massive inferno. The incident exposed how the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), as well as the LAF supposedly patrolling the area with a directive to enforce Resolution 1701 to disarm any Hezbollah militia, had failed in their mission. With Israeli IDF having estimated 160 villages across southern Lebanon contained Hezbollah military supplies, whilst carrying out 400 vehicles and air patrols a day, it seems strange that none of the UNIFIL and LAF combined patrols came across any sign of Hezbollah’s arms caches. Although Gen. Aoun seems to be reaching out to the US, he has been known to have close links with Hezbollah, and after being reassigned to the Arsal-Hermel sector in north-eastern Lebanon in 2013, with his duties entailing strengthening of defensive line in an area straddling Syrian border to avert penetrations by Syrian militias, these links strengthened greatly. With this area having been a Hezbollah stronghold, it would have been inevitable that the LAF would have to cooperate with Hezbollah in some way to enable it to carry out its duties in the area, and with the nearby town of Qusayr and the Qalamoun region being Hezbollah military zones, essential to the paramilitaries deploying forces to fight in Syria, the aid of the LAF would have been vital in securing these logistical supply routes, leaving the LAF open to calls of collusion.
Iran’s aid to proxies
Then with Iran having billions of dollars in cash returned to it through signing the nuclear deal, the regime is said to have increased its funding of Hezbollah from $600m annually to $800m. With Hezbollah immersed in criminal activity, hundreds of millions of dollars are also funnelled to the terror group in Lebanon, from its illicit dealings in drug trade, the selling of pirated software, etc. Much of the cash made from these illicit activities, is then laundered through the sale of cars to Africa, through its second-hand car dealerships in the US, the proceeds of which find their way back to Hezbollah’s accounts in Lebanon. By means of this vast finance, with the aid of the Quds Force, Hezbollah has been able to construct a global terrorist network, spanning all continents. Through the use of Iranian embassies, plans have been hatched to hijack planes, detonate numerous vehicle bombs, kidnap dozens of innocent people, as well as assassinate dissidents living abroad, and those considered a threat to the Iranian regime. As far as Hezbollah’s unique position in Lebanon is concerned, Iran sees it as a great success in the export of its Islamic revolution, and to maintain the terror group’s military effectiveness, it supplies it with a vast amount of weaponry. As a result of this, Hezbollah can comfortably outgun Lebanese Armed Forces, and with somewhere in the region of 25,000 armed fighters in its ranks, makes it a powerful adversary — should time ever come for the Lebanese government to confront it. Iran is seeking a land-bridge to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria in order to supply its faithful proxy as well as to move troops and military equipment into the country unobstructed, ready for any future war with Israel, or attacks on targets in the Gulf States. But as things stand, although Hezbollah has made great inroads into the Lebanese Army, the two are still very suspicious of each other. But on 6 January 2017, Iran sent a high level parliamentary delegation to Beirut, offering to provide the LAF with a substantial package of military aid, at a time when relations with the country seemed to be favourable.
Silencing critics through assassinations
However, it is noteworthy that Hezbollah’s critics tend to end up being victims of car blasts, as was the fate of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated on February 14, 2005 after a fallout with Bashar al-Assad. Recently, there was the episode with Rafik’s son Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister who fled to Saudi Arabia after receiving intelligence that there was a plan to assassinate him. Taking into consideration this latest interference, it seems Iranians are stepping up their agenda to take over Lebanon. There are other signs also that show Iran is back to its old ways against those it views as its enemies. On 27 October 2017, one of its agents bombed a police bus in Bahrain, killing one police officer and injuring eight others. Following the arrest of a suspect, Bahraini authorities uncovered a cell linked to Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which was also said to have been involved in earlier terrorist attacks and a series of other plots to blow up oil pipelines and plans to assassinate public figures in the country. Whenever Iran has its back to the wall – as it is experiencing now under Trump’s crackdown – the regime responds by carrying out assassinations and terror attacks, and looking at its proxy’s history, such attacks will not be the last.
Iran/France – Iran said on the 17 Nov 17 that "biased" French policy was stoking crises in the Middle East after Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused it of "hegemonic" ambitions in the region. "Unfortunately it seems that France has a biased and partisan approach to the crises in the region and this approach, whether intentionally or not, is even contributing to turning potential crises into real ones," foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said. Le Drian made his comments in Iran's arch rival Saudi Arabia on the 15 Nov 17 during a visit aimed at resolving a crisis sparked by the shock resignation earlier this month of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a staunch critic of Iran. Hariri's resignation, which has not been accepted by President Michel Aoun, was widely seen as the latest salvo in an intensifying proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in regional conflicts in countries including Syria and Yemen. "The concerns you express fly in the face of regional realities and are addressed to the wrong side," Ghassemi said in response to Le Drian's comments. "Ignoring regional realities and echoing baseless concerns that have been pulled out of the air by deluded, warmongering Saudi officials and are aggressive towards Iran do not contribute towards settling the crises in the region in which Saudi Arabia clearly plays a destructive role." Ghassemi urged the international community to focus instead on "arms sales by some foreign powers to regional countries, which are used in particular in the devastating war in Yemen, and the support being given to Saudi Arabia and its allies, which only makes them more brazen." Saudi Arabia has led a military coalition in Yemen since 2015 in support of its beleaguered government. Riyadh accuses Tehran of backing rebels who control the capital Sanaa and much of the north of the country. The coalition has repeatedly rejected UN appeals to lift an aid blockade on rebel-held territory that it imposed on the 6 Nov 17 despite warnings from UN agencies that "untold thousands" of needy civilians risk death.
Iran – Iran’s takeover of Iraq’s strategic city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields in a show of force underlined how Tehran is steadily expanding its power from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean to create a modern-day version of its ancient empires it was reported in the Arab Weekly on the 19 Nov 17. At their height in 475BC, the Persians ruled over an estimated 44% of the world’s population, more than any other empire in history. The Iranians are turning Iraq, their long-time Arab foe delivered into their hands by US President George W. Bush’s invasion of March 2003, into an Iranian satrapy. This was a system of governance that was based on the loyalty and obedience of regional monarchs to the central power that was devised by Cyrus the Great, founder of the first great Persian Empire in 530BC, which was ruled by the Achaemenid dynasty. The Iranians’ armed intervention, using the US-trained and -armed Iraqi Army supported by powerful Iranian proxy militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), to crush Kurdish moves towards independence emphasised Tehran’s assiduous penetration of all levels of Iraqi society, particularly since 2003, as part of its ambitious strategy of dominating its Sunni Arab neighbours. Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the strategist behind the Iranian expansion, warned the Kurds not to have an independence referendum, which produced a clear majority in favour of a breakaway republic in northern Iraq. The Kurdish leadership defied Soleimani and he could not let such audacity go unanswered. In several hours of fighting on the 16 Oct 17 the forces he controls overwhelmed the Kurds in Kirkuk. “We appear to have witnessed a masterful exploitation” of long-time divisions within Iraq’s Kurdish population, “a sudden and decisive turning of the screw… with hardly a shot fired,” observed roving analyst Jonathan Spyer on the 18 Oct 17. “This deal was only feasible because of smart investments that Iran made in the politics of both Shia Arabs and Iraqi Kurds during previous decades, plus the judicious mixing of political and military force, an art in which the Iranians excel. “Indeed, Iran’s influence in Iraq, both political and military, goes beyond the PMU” and the schism between the pro-Western Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Iran-aligned Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Spyer wrote in the American Interest. “The fall of Kirkuk confirms the extent to which Iraq today is an Iran-controlled satrapy and it vividly demonstrates the currently unrivalled efficacy of the Iranian methods of revolutionary and political warfare, as practised by the IRGC throughout the Arab world,” Spyer declared. The Iranians’ swift acquisition of Kirkuk underlined the sharp increase in Iranian operations across the region since the Tehran regime signed the July 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and other global powers. There does not seem to be any reason to believe that will slow down. On the contrary, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels fighting a Saudi-led Arab alliance in Yemen have begun firing ballistic missiles, supposedly supplied by Iran with crews trained by the IRGC, deep into Saudi Arabia. That will escalate a messy war that began in March 2015 over the Arab world’s poorest country and that could ignite the smouldering confrontation between the two Gulf titans into a full-scale conflict that could eclipse the other wars ravaging the region. Iran’s success in Iraq was clearly a critical setback for the Americans, who face the Iranian takeover of the northern tier of the Middle East and the consolidation of Iran’s emerging land bridge between Tehran and the eastern Mediterranean. In war-ravaged Syria, the Iranians extended their control over that country’s energy resources by driving the Islamic State (ISIS) out of much of Deir ez-Zor province in the north-east, where most of Syria’s major oil and gas fields are located and which borders Iraq. This area is a key link in the land bridge that Tehran has been assiduously establishing across Iraq to Syria to create a Shia-controlled corridor from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean and Israel’s northern border. Iran stands to gain economically from its massive investment of troops and treasure in keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power and has amassed formidable investment in infrastructure that will keep Syria dependent for decades. These imperial-style machinations mean that Iranian influence extends to Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sana’a — approximately one-fifth of the Arab world. Iran’s efforts at extending its frontiers have invariably been helped by history, particularly when the Middle East is in turmoil — as it is today, arguably the worst turbulence since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the first world war — and it is able to manipulate internal divisions to its advantage. For now, much of the fighting involves heavily armed proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain. The swelling confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, leader of Islam’s dominant Sunni sect, is the most worrying flashpoint. Their military face-off in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour which dominates the strategic Bab el Mandeb Strait, is steadily escalating, with Houthi rebels firing ballistic missiles into the kingdom in a power struggle that has engulfed other countries in the region. Lebanon, a Saudi dependency and a sectarian minefield, was also gripped by alarm as the Iran-backed Hezbollah consolidated its military and political dominance and talk of war, possibly between Hezbollah and Israel, is on everyone’s lips. The island state of Bahrain in the Gulf, which has a Shia majority ruled by a heavy-handed Sunni monarchy, is another flashpoint. Much of the turmoil convulsing the region is the consequence of the United States’ ill-advised invasion of Iraq in March 2003 to get rid of Saddam Hussein and then, eight years later, withdrawing its troops, leaving the ancient land gripped by Iran-fuelled turmoil. The Americans’ bungled occupation and its bewildering failure to understand the Arab world sowed the seeds of Islamic jihadist power in its fumbled attempt to impose Western democracy on the Middle East. All this played into Tehran’s hands. By ousting Saddam, Iraq’s strongman since the 1970s and for decades the Arab bulwark against their ancient enemies, the Persians, the Americans allowed Iraq’s long-downtrodden Shia majority to seize power. That opened the way for Tehran to launch its long-held ambition to hold sway over the whole region, empowering Shia Islam after nearly 1,400 years of Sunni supremacy. Iran had been working towards that end since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in February 1979. The founding of Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980s was the first real step towards achieving a new Persian Empire and provided the model for future armed proxies. With the Arab world in decline after the revolutionary convulsions of the “Arab spring,” along with the perceived betrayal of the United States’ disengagement in the Middle East by Barack Obama’s pivot towards countering China, the Tehran regime saw its chance to strike. Analysts say the clerical regime in Tehran had been planning its expansionist strategy since Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, which he vowed to extend across the Muslim world. Omer Carmi, an Israeli analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted: “Iran has invested a great deal of money and effort into developing a complex network of allies, partners and surrogates worldwide in hopes that such a network would deter its enemies from attacking the Islamic Republic while simultaneously enabling it to project influence throughout the region and beyond.” Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.
Iran/Arab League/Saudi Arabia – The Arab League held an extraordinary meeting on the 19 Nov 17 at the request of Saudi Arabia to discuss “violations” committed by Iran in the region, according to a memorandum. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates supported the Saudi request, which was also approved by Djibouti, the current chair of the pan-Arab bloc. Tensions have been rising between Saudi Arabia and Iran, including over League members Qatar and Lebanon. According to the memo, the Saudi request was based on a missile the kingdom says its air defences intercepted near Riyadh after being fired from Yemen on the 4 Nov 17. In its request for the meeting of Arab foreign ministers, Saudi Arabia referred to those two incidents “in addition to the violations committed by Iran in the Arab region, which undermines security and peace, not only in the Arab region, but around the globe,” according to the memo.
Israel/Saudi Arabia – Israel's military chief of staff said in an interview on the 16 Nov 17 that his country was prepared to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to face Iran's plans "to control the Middle East." His comments were the latest sign that behind-the-scenes links between Israel and Gulf countries may be occurring due to Iran, their shared enemy, even though they do not have formal diplomatic ties. "We are ready to exchange experience with the moderate Arab countries and exchange intelligence information to face Iran," Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot was quoted as saying by Elaph, a news website run by a Saudi businessman. Asked whether any information had been shared recently with Saudi Arabia, he said "we are ready to share information if necessary. There are many common interests between us and them." Israel's army confirmed the contents of the rare interview with Arabic-language media. According to Israel's army, it was the first interview of its kind since 2005. Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia has long been at loggerheads with Shiite, non-Arab Iran but friction has spiralled recently. Earlier this month, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced from Saudi capital Riyadh that he was quitting, citing Iran's "grip" on his country. The leader of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group supported by Iran, has accused Saudi Arabia of pressing Israel to launch attacks against it. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made similar allegations this week. Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war in 2006. Eisenkot said in the interview that "we have no intention of initiating a conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon and reaching a war, but we cannot accept strategic threats to Israel there. "I am very happy with the calm on both sides of the border, which has lasted 11 years. On the other hand, we see Iranian attempts to escalate." Israel and Arab countries are also concerned with Iran's influence in Syria, where Tehran and Hezbollah are backing President Bashar al-Assad's regime in his country's civil war. Gulf Arab countries are also worried about the Islamic republic's support for Shiite Huthi rebels in Yemen. Eisenkot referred to US President Donald Trump's attempt to find a path to Israeli-Palestinian peace by drawing in regional countries. Trump's first trip abroad as president included stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel. His son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has reportedly formed a bond with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "With President Donald Trump, there is a chance for a new international alliance in the region and a major strategic plan to stop the Iranian threat," Eisenkot said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been promoting the idea that his country's ties with Arab nations are improving, and some experts have said there are signs that shared concerns over Iran are indeed nudging them closer. Formal ties do not seem likely due to Israel's continuing occupation of Palestinian territory and the lack of progress in peace efforts, but behind-the-scenes cooperation has opened up in various areas, a number of experts and officials have said. Netanyahu has described relations with the Arab world as the "best ever", though without providing any details. Leaders of Arab countries have not publicly made similar comments; however that does not necessarily mean they dispute Netanyahu's claim. They face sensitivities within their own countries, where the Jewish state is often viewed with intense hostility. Only two Arab countries -- Egypt and Jordan -- have peace treaties with Israel.
Saudi Arabia/Hezbollah/Lebanon – Saudi Arabia's foreign minister on the 17 Nov 17 accused Hezbollah, which Riyadh blames for the shock resignation of Lebanese premier Saad Hariri, of holding Lebanon hostage and using its banks to launder money. Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Madrid that the Shiite group was destabilising Lebanon by maintaining its arsenal and fighters in the Mediterranean nation. "You cannot have a militia with a military force that operates outside the scope of the government," he told reporters after talks with Spanish counterpart Alfonso Dastis. "We see Hezbollah hijacking the Lebanese banking system to launder money, we see Hezbollah hijacking Lebanese ports in order to smuggle drugs, we see Hezbollah engaging in terrorist activities and interfering in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen," he added. "Unless Hezbollah disarms and becomes a (solely) political party, Lebanon will be held hostage by Hezbollah and by extension Iran," he said. "This is not acceptable to us and is not acceptable to the Lebanese." Lebanon, long abused by regional powers seeking to exert influence, was plunged into uncertainty this month after Hariri's shock resignation, announced on television from Riyadh. Hariri said he was stepping down because of Hezbollah and Iran's "grip" over his country. The resignation, which caught even some of Hariri's closest advisers off guard, comes at a time of mounting tension between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are backing opposing sides in conflicts in Syria and Yemen. His subsequent failure to return home to officially resign in person fuelled claims that he was acting under orders from his Saudi patrons. But both Hariri and Riyadh have denied allegations he was being held against his will, with the Lebanese leader on the 17 Nov 17 dismissing all speculation about his situation as "rumours". "We are supportive of Prime Minister Saad Hariri but we are against Hezbollah's takeover of Lebanon," Jubeir said. Hariri was expected to leave Saudi Arabia for France later on the 17 Nov 17 a move aimed at defusing political turmoil sparked by his resignation.
Follow on Report (18 Nov 17): Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in France on the 18 Nov 17 from Saudi Arabia, where his shock resignation announcement two weeks ago sparked accusations that he was being held there against his will. Hariri is in Paris at the invitation of France's President Emmanuel Macron, who is attempting to help broker a solution to a political crisis that has raised fears over Lebanon's fragile democracy. Hariri and his wife Lara, who landed at Le Bourget airport outside the French capital at 0700 hrs (0600 hrs GMT) after flying in from Riyadh overnight, were due to meet Macron at noon. A source close to the premier told AFP that Hariri's two youngest children, Loulwa and Abdelaziz, born in 2001 and 2005 respectively, had stayed behind in Riyadh "for their school exams". His elder son Houssam, born in 1999, was due to arrive in Paris separately from London. "Hariri does not want to mix his children up in this affair," the source said. The couple were whisked to their Paris residence in a seven-car convoy under tight security. "To say that I am held up in Saudi Arabia and not allowed to leave the country is a lie," Hariri had tweeted just before his departure, adding to repeated denials of the rumours from Saudi officials. A source close to Hariri said the premier had held an "excellent, fruitful and constructive" meeting with powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman before he left. Hariri, a dual Saudi citizen who has previously enjoyed Riyadh's backing, announced his resignation on the 4 Nov 17. He said he feared for his life, accusing Iran and its powerful Lebanese ally Hezbollah of destabilising his country. But Hariri's failure to return from Saudi Arabia prompted claims he was essentially being held hostage there, including from Lebanese President Michel Aoun who refused to accept his resignation from abroad. Hariri's resignation was widely seen as an escalation of the battle for influence between regional arch-rivals Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, which back opposing sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. His attempt to step down also coincides with a purge of more than 200 Saudi princes, ministers and businessmen. Hariri met French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in Riyadh on the 16 Nov 17 as Paris, which held mandate power over Lebanon for the first half of the 20th century, seeks to ease the crisis. In another development, Riyadh on the 18 Nov 17 recalled its ambassador to Berlin in protest at comments by Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel which were interpreted as a suggestion that Hariri acted under Saudi orders. Without mentioning Saudi Arabia directly, Gabriel had on the 16 Nov 17 said he shared concerns about the threat of instability and bloodshed in Lebanon and warned against "adventurism". "Lebanon has earned the right to decide on its fate by itself and not become a pinball of Syria or Saudi Arabia or other national interests," he had said earlier in the week. Ahead of Hariri's departure, the Lebanese president, an ally of Hezbollah, welcomed the announcement of the trip to Paris, expressing hope that it was the "start of a solution". "If Mr. Hariri speaks from France, I would consider that he speaks freely," Aoun said in a statement. "But his resignation must be presented in Lebanon, and he will have to remain there until the formation of the new government." There is no indication of Hariri's plans after the visit, which Macron has said could last "a few days or weeks". But the French leader has insisted he would be free to return to Lebanon to either formally resign or rethink his decision. France's intervention was the latest in a string of European efforts to defuse tensions over Lebanon, where divisions between Sunni Hariri's bloc and Shiite Hezbollah have long been a focal point in a broader struggle between Riyadh and Tehran. Hariri, whose father, ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in a 2005 car bombing blamed on Hezbollah, took over last year as head of a shaky compromise government which includes the powerful Shiite movement. Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir insisted from Madrid that "unless Hezbollah disarms and becomes a political party, Lebanon will be held hostage by Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran". Hariri's resignation comes as the long-standing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran intensifies and as Riyadh undergoes a major shake-up under the ambitious crown prince. 361 COMMENT: Whilst the world is now aware of the threat to Hariri, Hezbollah, if it did have intentions on the Lebanese Prime Ministers life, would be fool hardy to attempt to assassinate him now. As for his resignation, if he continues with this it will leave the future in a precarious position for Lebanon. The new Prime Minister post could be filled by a pro-Hezbollah individual which will make matters worse in Lebanon and the Region. It may be better for Hariri to remain in post and attempt to constrain Hezbollah’s activities. It would be a tall order but would be better for the country and the Region. COMMENT ENDS
Syria/Da’esh – A car bombing blamed on the Islamic State group killed at least 26 displaced people in eastern Syria on the 17 Apr 17 the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said. The Britain-based Observatory said 12 children were among the victims of the attack on a gathering at a checkpoint run by US-backed fighters in Deir Ezzor province, where the jihadists are losing ground to two separate offensives aimed at ousting IS from Syria. "Dozens of people were wounded, and the death toll could rise because of the number of serious injuries," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman The displaced people had been on their way to neighbouring Hasakeh province, where camps have been set up to house them in Kurdish-controlled territory, Abdel Rahman said. IS controls roughly one quarter of oil-rich Deir Ezzor province but is battling for survival on two fronts. One offensive against IS is by Syrian regime forces backed by Russian air power, while the second is by a US-backed Kurdish and Arab coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces. IS fighters are now cornered in part of Deir Ezzor province around the border town of Albu Kamal on the frontier with Iraq, and many civilians have been trying to flee the affected areas.
Syria/Turkey/Russia/Iran – Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to host his Iranian and Turkish counterparts at his official residence in the coastal city of Sochi to discuss the Syrian conflict it was reported on the 19 Nov 17. The event on the 22 Nov 17 will be preceded by a meeting on the 26 Nov 17 in Turkey's resort city of Antalya between the three countries' foreign ministers. It comes days after Russia vetoed a US-initiated draft United Nations Security Council resolution on extending the mandate of the UN's mission for investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the Japan-initiated draft on a provisional extension of the mission's mandate. US Ambassador Nikki Haley accused Moscow of dealing a "deep blow" to international efforts to deter chemical attacks, saying it bodes ill for Russia's future role in Syrian peace efforts. "How, then, can we trust Russia's supposed support for peace in Syria? How can anyone take Russia's proposal of political talks in Sochi seriously?" she asked.
The choice of participants
According to Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, the summit will include only these three countries, because they are the "guarantors of the political settlement and stability and security that we see now in Syria". The trio brokered a ceasefire in Syria in December 2016 and held peace talks in Kazakhstan's capital of Astana in parallel to UN-backed negotiations in Geneva. The collaboration comes despite the fact that Turkey is still officially on an opposing side of the Syrian conflict to Russia and Iran, who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu credited the unlikely alliance for the improved situation in Syria over the past six months. "Since Aleppo, we have been cooperating with Russia, and we have made a lot of progress," he said. "Eventually, we also included Iran to the system and to the process. And here is the result: The situation on the ground is much better than it was six months ago."
Turkey's presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said that the three leaders would discuss progress in reducing the violence in Syria and ensuring humanitarian aid goes to those in need. Describing Iran, Russia and Turkey as the three "guarantor" countries, he said the talks would look at what they could do towards a lasting political solution in Syria. According to Russia's Tass news agency, the summit will pay special attention to the situation in Idlib, a de-escalation zone where the three states have been deploying observers. Cavusoglu said on the 17 Nov 17 that Putin and Turkish President Erdogan could also discuss Russia's veto of the latest UN resolution on Syria.
Syria/United States – Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, is taken and in ruins. U.S. troops and civilian aid workers are in the Syrian city, helping local officials restore basic services such as food, water and electricity. But the recapture of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria is only a partial win for U.S. policy. After seven years of civil war, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power. The other U.S. objectives — the end of the Assad regime, a new Syrian constitution and democratic elections — remain unfulfilled. Despite the defeat of ISIS, Defence Secretary James Mattis told reporters this week (17 Nov 17) that U.S. forces will remain in Syria. The intention, he said, is to prevent the appearance of "ISIS 2.0." There are hundreds of U.S. troops in Syria. Pentagon officials say the U.S. is on solid legal ground to be there because the U.N. Security Council endorsed the anti-ISIS mission. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says the U.S. presence is "illegitimate." "There are a lot of questions to ask about the United States' goals in Syria," Lavrov said, according to the Russian news agency TASS. "U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has told me many times that their only goal is to defeat IS." A change in regime "runs counter to the Geneva agreements and ... assurances that the U.S.'s only goal in Syria is to fight terrorism," Lavrov said. Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies are demanding the U.S. leave Syria. The next meeting of the Geneva peace talks is the 28 Nov 17. The U.S. is pressing for the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Kurds to be at the negotiating table. But it's unlikely that Assad and the Russians will agree to that. With Russian and Iranian military assistance, Assad has emerged as the dominant political and military force in Syria with no need to accommodate his opponents. Pentagon officials say the Russians and Syrians continue to move east toward rebel-held territory. The U.S. is attempting to work with Russia to establish "de-confliction zones," but it's not clear the effort will succeed. What's more, U.S. ally Israel is increasingly concerned about the presence of Iranian forces in Syria, not far from the Israeli border. Russia has rejected both U.S. and Israeli objections to the Iranian presence. Pentagon officials say the U.S. has one asset to advance its interests in Syria — money. The country needs to be rebuilt, and the belief is that Russia lacks the will or the resources to do it. The U.S. is spending money now in Raqqa on what it calls "stabilization" and will likely help elsewhere but hopes Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states will finance most of the rebuilding — in exchange for a political settlement of the Syrian conflict. Yet this would seem to run counter to the Trump administration's aversion to "nation building." A strategy acceptable to Damascus may not be accepted in the White House.