The Case for An Islamic State ‘No Drive Zone’ In Syria

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Introduction: To Pick A Poison?

As the US continues its limited campaign of surgical strikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Iraq, defense officials have concluded that meaningful progress in stemming the group’s surge cannot be achieved without striking at its sanctuaries in Syria. The latter is not only the address of IS’s capital, Raqqa; it’s also an accessible arrival terminal for new recruits from without (i.e. via Turkey) and home to a series of vanquished oil fields that underpin the group’s economic power.

The above reality, the backdrop for the group’s recent threats to “drown” Americans “in blood”, has some pundits enjoining the Obama administration to cut its losses with Syria’s ailing rebel-opposition and enter into an anti-IS alliance, if only discreetly, with the Assad regime and his Shiite/Russian patrons.

Of course, a pact with a murderer of tens of thousands of Syrian Sunnis would be unsavory; no less so for an Obama administration that spent the last several years calling for Assad’s ouster. Nevertheless, it is argued, the US will have to pick its poison if it is to roll back a group that is scourging the region and (eventually) beyond.

An Alternative Proposal

Fortunately, there is a more sensible and morally congruous track; one that can weaken both the Assad regime and IS while empowering those who are Syria’s only hope for long-term stability. 

Briefly, in addition to a beefing up provisions of sophisticated weaponry to the rebel opposition, the US should rim rebel-IS fronts with ‘No-Drive zones’ that, enforced by UAVs and/or fix-winged attack aircraft, could: a) revitalize a frayed rebel-opposition that is beleaguered and outgunned by enemies on multiple fronts; b) compel IS to turn its barrels on the Assad regime, thereby detracting resources from their campaigns against the rebels and allowing the forgoing the breathing room to organize into a more cohesive and capable fighting entity.

The Merits of a No-Drive-Zone

Ongoing US efforts of paralyzing and overturning IS advances in Iraq showcase the decisiveness of airpower for hobbling the mechanized movement of combatants and weapon-systems across open terrain. True, it has its limits; it is largely ineffective, if not counter-productive, in urban environments wherein distinguishing friend from foe becomes a parlous affair. And yet, if the object is merely to stymie IS’s outward expansion and harry it whenever it’s on the march then airpower can be “incredibly effective.”

IS, like any other army of conquest, is heavily reliant on vehicles for shuttling manpower and no less significant, the heavy artillery and large caliber machine guns at the foreground of its offensives. Such instruments–including Russian tanks, US-issued Humvees, armored personnel carriers, and GPS-fitted Howitzer artillery batteries pillaged from Syrian and Iraqi military bases–afford IS a nigh insuperable advantage over its comparatively lighter armed opponents.

On this count, a Kurdish official, whose vaunted Peshmerga military group is at the forefront of the battle against IS in Iraq, didn’t mince words: “Light weapons aren’t going to cut it. You can’t pierce armored Humvees with light ammunition.”

Nor do its Kurdish/Iraqi and Syrian-rebel adversaries have an answer for IS’s arsenal of long-range artillery, some of which, the 155mm Howitzer specifically, can pummel targets as far afield as twenty five miles.

But while IS’s mechanized mobility and high-trajectory firepower is the fulcrum of its tactical muscle, it can also double as its Achilles Heal. The use of these instruments creates ‘signatures’ that are “easy to spot from the air”; a reality that has enabled US warplanes to make quick work of IS convoys advancing across Iraq’s desert terrain.

These telltale markers would similarly manifest in Syria’s rural eastern Aleppo, where IS now operates “out in the open.”  Sadly, whereas Kurds and pro-government fighters in Iraq can call upon US air-support to stave off impending disaster, Syria’s rebels, whipsawed and struggling to stay afloat against encroachments by superiorly armed enemies (i.e. the Syrian Arab Army [SAA] and IS) on multiple fronts, are on their own.

Why the Revolution Mustn’t Fail

The survival of the Syrian opposition, or at least its footholds in strategically vital areas of the country, seemingly hangs in the balance. Ceding the revolution’s fabled birthplace, Homs, to the SAA in May certainly stung. But for the rebels to lose Aleppo and their critical supply lines along the Turkish border, a prospect they currently confront, would be a “crushing blow to the opposition as a viable fighting force and to its morale.” Their cause in tatters, “some rebels may give up and seek a compromise with the regime, or look to join the only viable fighting force left, which is becoming [IS].”

For some, the dissolution of the revolution is either ideal or the only pathway towards some sort of ‘end game’, however far off. With the rebels out of the picture, choosing sides becomes ostensibly easier; and external support for Assad’s ‘war on terror’, if only tacit or ‘under-the-table’, more forthcoming. Considering IS’s penchant

for embittering whoever it controls, it’s hard to imagine the group holding out forever against a coalition of traditional enemies/spoilers (i.e. Iran, Russia, US) working in lockstep to defeat it.

Beyond dealing IS a major setback, the triumph of the secular Assad, it is hoped, would herald a gradual return to ‘normalcy’. The rancor the Sunni majority harbors towards continued Allawite hegemony may linger for some time. But they, like Egyptians before them, will come to realize that the stability of authoritarianism is more worthwhile than the lability of freedom.

Whichever sanguine forecast one wishes to subscribe to, the political science for its fruition isn’t very encouraging. “Violent insurgencies”, writes MIT’s Roger Peterson, “often involve death, destruction, and desecration, all of which can create powerful emotions” that are unlikely to disappear under any post-war Assad regime; especially not one that is likely to act as authoritarian, if not more so, than ever.

Research has shown that when governments prevail in civil wars, their repression has historically increased “by one or two polity points over the following decades.” Tellingly, the recurrence of war is nearly three times more probable following regime victories than rebel victories.

In the end, even if Assad knocks the rebels out of commission, he’ll continue to run a “minority-based government faced with a large, angry Sunni majority
with tremendous potential for continued terrorism, just as is the case for the Sunni minority in Iraq.”

Those who postulate a sustainable outcome is one that sees thirteen percent of Syria’s population, augmented by cohorts of Christians and Druze (twelve percent), continuing to predominate are likely consigning the country to a bottomless pit of cyclical war.

This is not to argue that the aftermath of a rebel victory will be pretty; it probably won’t. Scores will be settled, and blood will be spilled for years. Still, at least the seeds for a more tenable endgame, one in which the majority voice receives commensurate political influence, will slowly (emphasis on slowly) germinate.

Addressing the Naysayers

Some have retorted that it’s too late; that the opposition is way too fragmented and abound with Islamic extremists for any Western-aided rebel victory to bear fruit. But, in what Wendy Pearlman describes as a “cruel irony”, it is Western inaction that “is a cause contributing to fragmentation in Syrian rebels’ ranks as much as it has been a reaction to that fragmentation.”

How rebels are expected to cohere while being subjected to incessant carpet-bombing and assaults from two superiorly equipped foes has never been properly articulated; neither has the argument that it is simply ‘too late’ to do anything.

To put things into perspective, the average duration of civil wars since 1945 is about ten years. Relatively speaking, the Syrian civil war, nearly three and a half years old, is still in its infancy. And as Laia Balcells insists, “major shifts in foreign assistance on either side may [still] help tip the balance and produce a decisive military outcome.”

Moreover, the consolidation of fissiparous rebel camps is not without a historical precedent. For instance, the succor provided to the “highly fragmented” Republican camp by the USSR in the Spanish civil war was pivotal for the former’s congealment.

America’s Salafi-phobia

Regrettably, the US remains hamstrung by its knee-jerk aversion to propping up ‘extremist’ elements championing the creation of a post-Assad Islamic state. The Qatari funded Islamic Front reputedly the most powerful rebel faction (which incidentally is at the forefront of the Aleppo showdown), falls under this rubric.

However, leaving aside the fact that the group is prominently composed of traditional/moderate Salafists, which in addition to advocating for the peaceful (i.e. through education, the ballot box) Islamization of society, have no pretentions of ever attacking the West; the specter of a Syrian theocracy is a distant and debatable eventuality that shouldn’t trump other, more foreboding implications: i.e. the melting of the opposition, whatever is left of it, into the IS umbrella

Making Assad Reap What He Has Sowed

Working to rehabilitate and empower the non-global-jihadist rebel camp (the Islamic Front included) is the only way forward. The delivery of advanced weaponry/supplies is a necessary step towards this end, but it must be coupled with a stratagem that magnifies its effects.

Parrying both the regime and IS has enervated the rebel opposition; a reality Assad willfully engineered by conferring the group carte blanch to insinuate itself in regions outside of his orbit. Now, he must be fed a taste of his own medicine.

Recent experience dictates that when IS is “thwarted on one axis of advance, it simply turns and attacks in another direction.” Therefore, as suggested, US aircraft should establish a ‘no IS-drive zone’ around rebel bastions that promptly liquidates vehicular trespassers and prevents the placement of artillery batteries within effective firing ranges.

IS has oodles, but certainly not an infinite number of vehicles. Thus, surgical strikes should be persistent enough to ‘teach’ the group that the only non-pyrrhic vector of advancing runs through regime-controlled territory.

True, a protracted campaign could be expensive; but Saudi Arabia would likely be willing to go dutch on the bill.

With pressure diminished on the rebel-IS front, and the regime having to direct more resources to engage the latter, the opposition will enjoy both greater latitude for deciding where best to prioritize its strength and attendant gains on the battlefield.

No longer staring at a looming IS usurpation, the rebels will have a new lease on life that can discourage desertions and inspire hope for their cause among both their ranks and constituencies. Especially if outfitted with the means for neutralizing the regime’s stifling aerial bombings, the opposition will finally have the leeway to organize itself more coherently and build structures of governance; an eventuality Assad has tenaciously worked to forestall.

Closing Remarks

Admittedly, this scheme is not without its risks. There are legal barriers as well as regime threats to treat any unilateral anti-IS strikes as an ‘act of aggression.’

The former will have to be left to the lawyers, which I’m sure can conjure up some sort of legal rationale.  But given that such strikes will spare SAA targets/civilian areas and hit only advancing IS cavalry/artillery, who in the international community is really going to squawk?

As for the latter: does a frail Syrian army really have the temerity to shoot down US aircraft solely targeting a group that itself, if only half-heartedly, is at war with?  I’m inclined to think such saber rattling is a token bluff. But if it wants to play it on the safe-side, the US can go heavy on the use of armed-UAVs and satellites or on-the-ground spotters (whether US special forces or trained rebels) to paint targets for standoff missiles.

However it goes about it, the US badly needs a revamped and emboldened opposition; one that while serving as America’s de-facto eyes and boots on the ground, can both accentuate the hopelessness of the regime’s war effort and counter IS’s regional foothold.

Inside Hamas’ 9/11 Plot: Tunneling Through the Hype

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Introduction: Mapping Out the Hysteria
The eerie discovery of Hamas’ expansive cross-border tunnel network sent shockwaves across Israel’s war-gripped social media. A tidal wave of apocryphal and outlandish assessments followed suggesting that the group intended to leverage such infrastructure to catch the IDF with its pants down and flood the country with “thousands” of fighters. The objective? To vanquish the Israeli heartland and herald the country’s “annihilation.”

To be sure, Israel was privy to Hamas’ tunnel enterprise for quite some time. It was last October that Haaretz reported on a “1,800-meter tunnel, stretching 300 meters into Israel” situated just 2km away from Kibbutz Ein Hashlosh” which the IDF deemed a “long range effort by Hamas to be used at the right time for the organization-for an attack or an abduction that would give Hamas the means to pressure Israel.”

Still, it wasn’t until the recent break out of hostilities that the full extent of these undertakings (no pun intended) came to light. Since then, the army has located and destroyed dozens of floridlyexcavated burrows; some of whose exits were just a minutes walk from nearby communities and contained IDF uniforms, motorcycles, sedatives, and handcuffs—all the ingredients for a large-scale kidnapping.

Chilling information was soon extracted from captured Hamas operatives and diggers, which spoke of an impending plot to effectuate the tunnels on the Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah (September 24)—when Israelis would presumably be consumed by holiday revelry—in a mega-attack “on the same scale as the 1973 Yom Kippur War”; when up to 2,800 Israelis lost their lives. The scheme, senior defense officials warned–which allegedly called for an initial swarm of 200 Hamas shock troops paving the way for a sally of “thousands” more “wearing IDF uniforms”–would have brought the country “to its knees.”

Leaving aside the dubious feasibility of such an operation—whose participants would have to slip under the radar of Israel’s robust intelligence apparatuses while proceeding mostly on foot across miles of unfamiliar terrain—it’s clear Hamas didn’t invest $90 million and thousands of tons of cement so its kids could have another playground.’ And yet, while the loss of hundreds of Israelis would be tragic, it would by no means pose an existential or even strategic threat to the Jewish State.

Regrettably, the sensationalism obfuscates the real nature of Hamas’ designs: securing an Iron Dome-impervious weapon of last resort that could secure its existence.

Tunneling Under the Iron Dome

An Iron Dome battery intercepts an incoming Hamas rocket (CC-BY-SA, Nehemiya Gershoni, Wikipedia)
An Iron Dome battery intercepts an incoming Hamas rocket
(CC-BY-SA, Nehemiya Gershoni, Wikipedia)

For Hamas, the Iron Dome’s stellar fare against its attempts at buffeting the Israeli home front with rockets during the November 2012 ‘Pillar of Defense’ (PoD) was foreboding. It seemingly imbued Israelis with a political complacency that compromised the group’s only trump card. Sure, the harrowing sirens that punctuated the Israeli routine afforded some leverage; but not of the sort needed to rescue the group from outright implosion.

For that, only major upheaval–the likes of which could kill Israelis and goad the IDF into an ugly urban war of attrition (thereby killings thousands of Palestinians)—would suffice.

No doubt, a total war would deliver Hamas an unprecedentedly painful blow. But when its options are either terminal bleeding (i.e. manifested through economic and thereby governmental collapse) or life-saving amputation, the choice is clear. As one Hamas leader putit:

“We will not wait until Israel slowly and calmly, under the radar, disarms us and destroys our capabilities. If they want to move to confrontation, let it be an open confrontation. At least then we can make use of what is being destroyed. Otherwise we will get to the point that we can’t confront them at all. This is death by a thousand cuts.”

Thus, its ploy now effete from the air, Hamas had to find a way to simulate its effects on the ground. And soon after the PoD ceasefire it got to work, investing roughly a tenth (though once source puts it at 40%) of its tight $894 million budget on the round-the-clock construction on a subterranean attack vector.

Digging Against the Clock of Doom

The overthrow of its Muslim-Brotherhood (MB) progenitor in Cairo, and the assent of an Islamist-loathing military dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, culminated in a series of vicissitudes that only stiffened Hamas’ resolve for completing its dastardly project. Charging it as co-conspiring with the MB and others to perpetrate acts of domestic terrorism, el-Sisi was venomous in his dealings with the group, seeking to spite it anyway he could.

Relishing Hamas’ meteoric plunge from Egypt’s ‘best friend’ to now worst enemy, Israel was whetted by the opportunity to whipsaw the group into further decay. As the Wall Street Journal recentlyreported, Egypt “secretly coordinated with senior Israeli officials led by Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Gilas, the direction of the political military affairs at Israel’s Defense Ministr…to advance their shared interests and increase pressure on Hamas.”

The consortium was effective; too effective in fact. By early this year, Egypt issued a ‘progress report’ celebrating to Israel its destruction of 95% of Hamas’ smuggling tunnels along the Sinai-Gaza border; the arteries fueling roughly two-thirds of Gaza’s economy.

Adding insult to injury, Egypt never offset the ensuing fallout by relaxing heightened strictures on goods and people flowing in/out of its border crossings.

On Israel’s side of the enclave, despite its obligations under the 2012 Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire agreement that ended PoD, whichcalled for, among other provisions, “opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of good,” the noose was tightened as well. Fewer exports—the principal source of revenue for Gaza’s private sector—and civilians were permitted to transit Israeli border crossings, while the IDF reinstated its security buffer zones both on land and sea. In effect, 35% of Gaza’s arable land was rendered ‘off-limits,’ as were 70% of its fishing waters.

By January 2014, Hamas was headed for entropy. Stripped of the revenue it earned from taxing imported/exported goods, it ignominiously passed a budget that covered only “a quarter of its obligations.” Worse, that ‘quarter’ couldn’t remunerate the 43,000 civil servants responsible for dispensing its governance.

Teetering on the brink of collapse, Hamas’ only way out was joininginto a unity government with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Qatar had agreed to foot the bill for its salary crisis, and under the agreement—so Hamas thought—the PA would deliver the funds.

It would never be. Israel not only raised diplomatic hell over the unity pact itself, it also—with the help of its American allies–invoked longstanding US/EU legislation sanctioning any financial entity (in this case, the Amman based Arab Bank) transacting with Hamas or any government thereof. Naturally, the Arab Bank conceded.

An alternative route was to transfer the money through the United Nations, which one UN envoy insisted would “exclude all parties from legal liability.” But US resistance, as well as Israeli threats to expel the official for “trying to funnel money to Hamas,” nipped this idea in the bud.

With the international banking system a no-go, the remaining medium for doling out the tranches—totaling some $60 million–washand-delivering cash-stuffed suitcases via Gaza’s official crossings. Unsurprisingly, neither the blessings of Egypt nor Israel were forthcoming.

Its non-violent recourse exhausted, Hamas was left with forsaking its raison de’tre of resistance, relinquishing its war machine and singing ‘Kumbaya’; or bringing to bear what it had long been saving for a dark rainy day: a tunnel blitzkrieg that would forcefully upend its moribund status quo.

Hamas’ Defcon 1

In wracking the country with its own ‘9/11’, Hamas hoped that Israel, like the Americans before it, would have had no choice but to take the bait and embark on an unbridled campaign of retaliation in which thousands of Gazans would perish and the patience of the world would be tested.

Certainly, Israel would enjoy the sympathy and support—if only tacit—of most of the Western world. But the clock would be ticking. By some estimates, it would take the IDF up to 2 years to uproot Hamas’ entire terror infrastructure in Gaza. And whereas America, with its unparalleled political and economic clout, can get away with prolonged ‘inadvertent’ slaughter of thousands of civilians—Israel cannot.

Assuming the plot was to transpire as per the account of intelligence sources, Hamas was clearly intent on provoking far more than just a Operation Cast Lead-esque (OCL) retaliation–i.e. whereby Israeli soldiers would be mainly confined to Gaza’s urban outskirts. And in the absence of an impartial ‘monitor’ in Cairo, it would require more than just a flimsy PoD-like cease-fire accord that Israel could violatewith impunity.

No, with its existence hanging in the balance, Hamas sought an all-out and decisive showdown; one that would enflame the Arab world and galvanize Western involvement in a muscular enforcement regime that would end Israel’s economic strangulation once and for all.

Fortunately, Hamas’ hand was (apparently) forced by the kidnapping/murder of three Israeli teenagers and the attendantmass-arrest of 566 of its West Bank cadres; including nearly all of its local senior leaders and dozens of those previously released in 2011 ‘Shalit’ deal.

What followed was an escalation, marked by a renewal of rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes, which devolved into the IDF ground-offensive that blew the lid off of Hamas’ underground labyrinth.

Unanswered Questions

Many questions still remain. Above all, if Hamas planned on carrying out its ‘9/11’, why did it allow for a situation in which its secret weapon—the tunnels—would no longer be so secret?

As most of the facts are still up in the air, we can only speculate a priori. Nonetheless, some educated assumptions can be made. For instance, although it’s still in dispute, it’s highly unlikely that Hamas leadership directly ordered the Israeli hitchhiker slayings above. Among other predications, was a bargaining chip of 3 dead bodies really going to extricate it from the abyss?

Whatever the case, Hamas initially appeared reluctant to entangle itself in a conflict that would conceivably divest precious resources from its autumn extravaganza. Indeed, it wasn’t until weeks (June 29, specifically) after Israel carted off hundreds of its henchmen to prison that Hamas finally joined unaffiliated militant groups in firing rockets. True, the latter couldn’t have been the forerunners without the connivance of the former’ (if only begrudgingly). But that Hamas eschewed direct participation indicates it had an interest in keeping tensions at a threshold short of war.

Once Hamas joined the fray things got a little hazy. While engaging in “intensive contacts” to broker a ceasefire, Hamas officials issued discordant conditions ranging from a cessation of airstrikes tofacilitating the salary transfers and lifting the blockade. Israel probably would have satisfied the first, but that’s about it.

As IDF ground troops deployed along the Gaza border fence in the days prior to the war, Hamas’ attack tunnels were still on the down-low; at least those abutting Israeli border communities. But if that’s the case, why didn’t Hamas accept the Egyptian brokered ceasefire and diffuse the situation? Why not bide its time until September when it presumably could have enjoyed laxer IDF vigilance level and thereby a better chance of infiltrating Israeli communities and obtaining a bigger payout?

Guesstimates

There are several possibilities, most of which aren’t mutually exclusive:

1) Hamas’ couldn’t hold out until the Fall; it needed economic relief pronto lest Gaza, with its 41% unemployment, 80% dependent on foreign aid, and 12 hours of electricity per day, succumb to anarchy.

Assessment: Unlikely The problem with this theory is that Hamas was in dire straits for quite some time and thus would have been conceivably able to calculate how long was left before the roof caved in. True, the interdiction of its salary payments was unexpected and could have put it over the edge. But if that’s the case, why was it so halting thereafter in committing to battle?

2) Managerial Disunity; some of the group’s chieftains wanted quiet—but those voicing more ambitious demands were stronger and refused to backpedal, fearing that doing so would convey weakness to their constituencies and empower both their more radicalcompetitors and also the party (i.e.Israel) who, in previous weeks, sabotaged the unity agreement and eviscerated Hamas’ West Bank subsidiary.

Assessment: Likely underpinning this hypothesis is the narrowed public approval gap that surfaced before OPE showing a redoubling of support for Islamic Jihad (IJ) at the expense of Hamas. Gaza’s deteriorating economy, coupled with a growing perception of Hamas failure to confront Israel’s chokehold was seen as largely responsible for this dynamic. Tellingly, surveys show that OCL and the 2012 POE “lifted [Hamas] popularity to unprecedented levels.”

As such, once IJ started firing rockets, its likely Hamas couldn’t allow itself to be upstaged. Capitulating to the Egyptian ceasefire—which would have conferred 0 concessions beyond a return to an abject status-quo ante—would have damaged whatever credibility it had left.

3) Hamas calculated that the IDF wouldn’t be able to find/eliminate all its tunnels in a limited campaign; that it’d be able to rebuild that which was destroyed; and that it could revitalize or better the post PoD ceasefire terms without recourse to its ‘Samson option.’

Assessment: Likely An ‘underground Iron Dome’ is at least yearsaway. And while one mustn’t readily valorize Hamas’ claim that “only a fraction” of its tunnels were located—though even a senior IDF engineer conceded they “wouldn’t find them all”–what’s to prevent Hamas from digging more?

Taken together, Hamas bet it could revamp the reality on the ground while keeping its doomsday apparatus—to be activated should its survival be imperiled again in the future–mostly intact.

4) There was no ‘Rosh Hashanah’ conspiracy; the Israeli government either fabricated or inflated all the details as a pretext for launching a wider operation to hurt Hamas. The latter may have intended to use the tunnels to kidnap or kill soldiers/civilians but not to the extent portrayed by the government.

Assessment: Sketchy I’m naturally skeptical towards anything ‘conspiracy’ and will therefor defer to the proponent himself. However, if true, it wouldn’t be the first time Israel has done such a thing.

Conclusion: Pleasant? ‘No’ Pragmatic? ‘Yes’

The hackneyed trope that ‘terrorism is a weapon of the weak’ is eminently relevant in the case of Hamas’ Rosh Hashanah plot. The group faced an existential crucible in which its options were limited to either going for broke to preserve itself or yielding to collapse. As the object of any organization—political or economic—is its survival, Hamas chose the former. This is not to justify the base selfishness of throwing its people under the bus by doing so. Rather, whatever pejorative one wishes (and rightfully so) to call it–the decision was pragmatic to a fault.

One can argue that Hamas has an alternative to collapse or doomsday operations: it can tear up its charter, abjure violence, and rule as the Gaza branch of ‘Peace Now.’

In reality though, just like many Israelis are convinced that Palestinians want to vanquish all of Israel—so too does Hamas and many other Palestinians suspect the same is true of Israelis. Theexplosion of Israeli settlements over the years, even amidst serious peace negotiations, does little to quell these concerns. As long the diplomatic track is perceived as forlorn and Israel is as flimflamming, how can Hamas be expected to annul its mantle of resistance?

The rub is that Hamas’ refusal to abnegate the platform above disposes Israel towards a policy, which as confirmed by Wikileaks, aims to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse.” Against this backdrop, Hamas can only improve its lot by lashing out at Israel and forcing it to loosen the noose. But with the heft of its rocket arsenal vitiated by the Iron Dome, Hamas—lest Israel think it can choke it with impunity–had to contrive something else: cross-border attack tunnels.

In the end, when the situation became grim and it had nothing else to lose (but itself) Hamas was compelled to play its Ace. The lesson? Terrorist organizations are predictably violent when they’re at their weakest.

Alas, instead of giving Hamas something to lose, Israel has spent nearly a decade trying to enfeeble and smother it out of existence. With Hamas interminably oscillating between ‘afloat’ and ‘sinking’, that Israel has to go to war every few years (when Hamas is sinking) is no surprise. The Iron Dome may help cushion this sorry reality but, as the tunnels exemplify, every billion-dollar counter-measure is inevitably going to inspire another counter-measure to the counter-measure. How long can Israel afford to run in circles?

Israeli Counter-Terrorism Policy: A Model of Failure

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By Zach Goldberg

Introduction
If any good comes out of Operation Effective Edge, it wont be the X months/years of superficial calm Israel likely will have purchased. Rather it will be that the macabre jolt of dead soldiers, thousands of more dead Palestinians, and habitual bomb-shelter ‘sprints’ finally enlightens Israel to what has long been a misbegotten and self-defeating security praxis.

To be sure, the infirmity of the forgoing didn’t just manifest in the 3,421 and counting Hamas rockets fired since the beginning of July; it’s been apparent for decades. Nonetheless, in some circles Israel has acquired a reputation of having ‘written the book on counter terrorism’.

Yet such appraisals are provincial. Counter-terrorism isn’t just about taking down the ‘bad guys’; it’s about undercutting the motivation that drives them. Israel is excellent at the former, but a miserable failure at the latter. Alas, no matter how many military operations it launches launches, how many terrorists it arrests or eliminates, Palestinian terrorism continues to breathe. Sure, it may simmer every now and then—but it unavoidably returns to a boil.

The Ingredients of Failure

The underlying defect of Israeli counter-terrorism policy is that it punishes bad behavior (i.e. terrorism) but neglects to reward cooperation. The result is a deterrence regime whose ability to ‘deter’ interminably hangs in the balance. Because when the incentive to behave is only the maintenance of wretched status quo and the absence of punishment, ‘quiet’ is invariably fleeting. And when ultimately broken, sanctions designed to restore it—i.e. targeted assassinations, mass arrests, curfews–have no lasting impact on the terrorist motivation to strike nor that of their constituency’s to support them.

To the contrary, if punishment isn’t discriminate enough, operational ‘victories’ incur local resentment and even reinvigorate public sympathy for subsequent acts of violence. As Martin Crenshawexplains, “the key component for [terrorist] group survival is recruiting and maintaining a strong membership.” By virtue of Israel’s often heavy-handed security maneuvers, Palestinian terrorists don’t have to look too hard for new volunteers.

Thus, as David Galula put it, “conventional operations by themselves have at best no more effect than a fly swatter. Some guerrillas are bound to be caught, but new recruits will replace them as fast as they are lost.”

By the Numbers

The empirical evidence behind this dynamic is telling. A 2008 RANDreport found that of the 268 terrorist groups in existence between 1968-2008, just 7% were extirpated by military force; the majority either adopted platforms of nonviolence and joining the political process (43%) or unraveled under the weight of local policing( 40%).

Israeli counter-terrorism efforts, for their part, have contributed zilch to the 7% figure above. In fact, one study found that among all the reprisal operations conducted between 1968-1989, only the very first “had any effect on the baseline rate of terrorism, and even this effect was temporary.”

What’s more, even the fabled ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ (ODS)—Israel’s crowning 2nd Intifada success story—had “no significant effect on the hazard of suicidal and non-suicidal incidents.” Quite the opposite; researchers found a “significant increase in suicidal incidents during ODS.” This was doubly true with respect to “incidental or preventive home demolitions”, both of which catalyzed surges in suicide terrorism.

The preponderant indiscriminateness (i.e. military curfews, mass administrative arrests, roadblocks) of Israeli security measures is evidently its own undoing. A survey of trends in violence across three regime periods—the First Intifada, Oslo accords, and Intifada 2—concluded that, “repressive actions, especially indiscrimatory ones, either increased terrorism or had no effect.” Not surprisingly, between 1987-2004, there was at least one –though on average, 14– “repressive indiscriminate action” in all but one month.

(Incidentally, the only measure that has demonstrably proven its worth was defensive: the West Bank security fence.)

The Pedagogy of Repression

Israel isn’t oblivious to the Sisyphean vein of its struggle. From the very beginning it’s operated on the assumption that total victory (i.e. the forceful imposition of its political will) over its enemies was unobtainable. Nonetheless, Israel hoped its military supremacy could deliver consistent and painful defeats on the battlefield that would gradually teach Palestinians the futility of ‘resistance’ and thus incline them towards a political settlement of its liking.

David Ben Gurion, the pioneer of Israel’s security doctrine, was an emphatic proponent of ‘socialization through force’, holding that the Palestinians “only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance. So it’s simple: we have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army.”

Suffices it to say that over a half century later, the Palestinians still haven’t forgotten; the occupation, blockades, settlement bonanzas, the thousands killed–if ‘only’ inadvertently, and the thousands more rotting away in prison, hundreds of them without charge, won’t allow them to.

A Curriculum of Hope

While Israel’s strategic doctrinaires erroneously thought a consistent curriculum of repression would ultimately pacify Palestinian society, quantitative research (2012) reveals that a different curriculum, one entailing “an ongoing and consistent campaign of conciliation” was actually effective at reducing violence, often “as early as the following month.” To their credit, the former at least had the ‘consistency’ part right.

In instances when Israel made “only a few” token concessions, terrorism would actually spike. One such occasion proceeded a period (the First Intifada) in which an Israeli decision maker—Yitzchak Rabin—allegedly ordered the army to “break the bones” of Palestinian demonstrators. Naturally, Israeli credibility was at an all time low and the initial gestures that ensued were presumably perceived as two-faced. However, as their numbers accumulated to an average of 8 or more over a period of a few months, the trend acutely reversed. Palestinians, observing the trend and hoping ‘this time would be different’, held their fire accordingly.

Likewise, terrorist activities came to complete standstills in the month that proceeded diplomatic watersheds, including inter alia, the Taba and Sharm-a-sheik summits, and during the Tenet and Peres-Abu Ala ceasefires. Hamas, for its part, took its finger off the trigger for seven entire months after the latter summit, while the contemporaneous 2005 Israeli-Gaza-North-West Bank disengagement saw Fatah-linked terror attacks all but disappear.

But it wasn’t just organizationally attributed attacks that stopped either; anonymous or unclaimed acts of terrorism also fell to 0,suggesting that, “when talks do take place, the major Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas, are capable of upholding that which is agreed upon and reciprocating de- escalation with de-escalation, at least over the short term.”

‘But what about the charter??’

Unfortunately, this hypothesis has yet to be put to the long-term test. Israel has seldom been willing to dangle the types of concessions (i.e. East Jerusalem, ending its Gaza blockade) that could facilitate such an ‘experiment.’ Not only does it fear capitulating to terrorism, but it also fears Palestinians would interpret such moves as a sign of weakness; one that will embolden them to pursue what many Israelissuspect is their ulterior objective: conquering or exterminating the state of Israel and its Jewish population.

Admittedly, Hamas’ targeting of civilians—to say nothing of its existentially menacing charter—does little to dispel this notion. Yet such a construal blatantly ignores the group’s metamorphosis into a pragmatic organization that, while forced to rhetorically pander to its hardcore constituency, has become much more sober towards in its ultimate objectives.

On the latter count, Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas’ founding father who Israel assassinated in 2003, was explicit: “Let’s be frank, we cannot destroy Israel. The practical solution is for us to have a state alongside Israel…When we build a Palestinian state, we will not need these militias; all the needs for attack will stop. Everything will change into civil life.”

At other times, Hamas leaders have privately acknowledged that “a period of peaceful coexistence is likely to socialize the next generation into acceptance of the status quo, allowing them to turn a permanent ceasefire into peace.”

Moreover, underscoring its sensitivity to public opinion, Hamas has itself promulgated that should Palestinians approve a peace referendum that entails a two-state solution, it would “respect the results regardless of whether it differs with its ideology and principles.”

Missed Opportunities

For Israel, the maintenance of a ‘powerful army’, as Ben Gurion exhorted, has allowed that army an outsized influence over political decision-making while concurrently shunting diplomacy to the sidelines. That a force-centric’ counter-terrorism model prevails is thus a matter of course. Perniciously, its one-dimensionality induces a cognitive tunnel vision that not only encourages military solutions to situations that don’t necessarily call for them; it also detracts from potential openings for de-escalation.

Unbeknownst to many, Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory culminated inattempts at rapprochement. In fact, the day after Israeli imposed its infamous blockade the group conveyed messages via “official representatives and tradesmen…that if Israel would open the border crossings, Hamas would stop all terrorist attacks on Israel.” It further indicated it had “no problem regarding (Israeli-Palestinian) contact and cooperation as a humanitarian step towards opening the crossings,” and even proposed establishing a “joint committee” with open lines of communication.

As always, Israel responded the way it knew best: with a policy of indiscriminate repression that sought to turn Gaza into a Kafkaesque hellhole. Goods as arbitrary and innocuous as musical instruments,school supplies and coriander, a luxury spice, were interdicted from entering. And in concert, Israel appointed itself as Gaza’s official dietician, counting the inflow of calories to ensure its residents wouldn’t be getting ‘seconds’ come dinner time.

Had Israel taken up Hamas on its offer and moreover, parlayed its Gaza disengagement to further rather than “prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state”, perhaps things today would be different. Perhaps Hamas would never have married Iran, Israel wouldn’t have to periodically ‘mow the lawn’ (and spill rivers of blood in the process) nor shell out a fifth of its budget to maintain its military fortress.

Sure, one could call the above a pipe dream. But Israel has long heeded a policy of cynicism and what has it achieved? A perpetual state of war; the severity of which is due to intensify as technologyprogresses, the boycott movement redoubles, and America’s predominantly old conservative pro-Israel demographic peters out.

Conclusion: Giving Palestinians Something to Lose

History has shown that appeal of political violence wanes most predominantly not through force, but when “credible alternative channels for addressing the grievances that underpin the conflict are created, as those who continue with political violence then risk coming to be seen as a threat to gains already achieved.”

Accordingly, if Israel is to undercut the resonance of radicalism and achieve a durable peace, it needs a new strategy that is predicated on giving the Palestinians something they won’t want to lose; i.e. a vibrant state of their own. The road ahead will be trying, but Israel must exit the highway to nowhere and take it.

It can start by ending its abject stranglehold over Gaza, resetting its relations with Hamas, freezing settlement construction, and announcing a renewal of peace negotiations based on the 1967 borders. As empirically demonstrated, the accumulation and consistency of such measures would signal Israel’s sincerity towards resolving Palestinian grievances and sow an atmosphere of hope the latter will be loath to disrupt.

Such a gambit would also place the ball in the Palestinian’s court and create a situation in which Israel can only gain. If the skeptics are right and the Palestinians—who themselves conceded they’d accept such a deal—hedge around a more than generous offer, the West would lose the right to twist Israel’s arm for not doing its utmost for peace. And yet if they’re wrong, a Palestinian state—one whose economic prosperity would be heavily dependent on cooperation with Israel—would not only discredit extremism and inspire local harmony, it would also usher in Israel’s long elusive regional integration and open its economy to new horizons.

Hamas: ‘Rocketing’ the Israeli Right to Victory and Killing the Left

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By Zach Goldberg

Introduction

The extant Hamas-Israel showdown is inflicting many casualties. But what could be the greatest of them all may manifest in renewed support for Israel’s right-wing political hawks and the concomitant death of the peace movement.

In the preceding months public opinion polls consistently, albeit to varying degrees, indicated a redoubling of electoral support for some of Israel’s most zealous nationalist and religious-nationalist parties; the settler lobbyist ‘Jewish Home’–chaired by the enfant terrible Naftali “there is no room in our small but wonderful God-given tract for another state” Bennet– is notable among them.

Plenty can change between now and the next (early) election, which many anticipate will occur in about a year. However, several bellwethers foreshadow the Right’s indefinite political stranglehold.

Going Right

For starters, Israel’s population is at once relatively young (median age of 29; by comparison the US sits at 36) and more ‘right-wing’ than ever before. From 1998-2010, among Israelis in the 15-24-age bracket, those who aligned politically with the right skyrocketed from 48% to 62% while contemporaneously, support for the ‘Left’ plunged from 32% to 12%.

Regrettably, this political shift has translated into increasing chauvinism—if not outright racism. For instance, 54% of Israelis under 35—including a foreboding 57.7% of the 18-24 bracket–either agreed ‘totally’ or ‘somewhat’ that the government should encourage Israeli-Arab citizens to leave Israel.

Such sentiment appears to equate with similar spikes in the general population. For instance, in the same forgoing 2013 survey: 52.4% of Israeli-Jews agreed that ‘harsh public criticism of the state should be prohibited’ (up from 41.8% in 2007); 48.9% believed that Jews should have ‘more rights’ than non-Jewish citizens (up from 35.9% in 2009); and 47.6% responded that it would bother them to have Arabs as neighbors (up from 44.8% in 2010)

It was thus surprising that centrist ‘Yeish Atid’ party chief Yair Lapid penned an article recently arguing that “the real Israeli discourse, which is shared by 99% of the state’s residents, is not filled with hatred towards one’s fellowman, does not silence people, and knows how to agree even when it’s okay not to agree.” He must be living in an alternate universe.

Going Right and Religious

Mediating the trend above is a crescendo in Jewish-Israeli religiosity; which one scholar suggests is transforming the country “into the world’s most religious country” (though I’m sure the Saudi Arabia would object).

A country whose founding fathers were Atheist is now home to a Jewish demographic only 43% are ‘secular’. What’s more, even the forgoing aren’t even that ‘secular; a sizeable minority (42.2%) ‘very strongly’ or ‘quite strongly’ adopt the biblical narrative that Jews are God’s chosen people juxtaposed with 64.3% of the general population. Tellingly, a robust and positive correlation was found between “the rightward tilt of respondents on political/security issues” and the their belief “in the uniqueness of the Jewish people.”

The prevalence of religious verities is part of a decade long trend. For example the Jewish belief in their ‘chosenness’ jumped 8% (to 70%) over a 10-year span (1999-2009), while belief in ‘the coming of the Messiah’ and the ‘Torah and precepts” as ‘God-given’ scriptures increased 10% (to 55%) and 6% (to 69%) respectively.

There are several ways of assaying this religious awakening. One is pretty intuitive; succinctly, the most devout segment of Israeli society—the Ultra-Orthodox or Haredim—has been popping out far more babies (7 vs. 2.3 per secular/moderately religious couples) than anyone else. So while Israeli youth as a whole have become more right wing and religious, Haredim–whose median age is 20—claim much of it (20% of those under 20.)

Yet if we broaden the scope of ‘religious’ to include those who canonize the Jewish biblical narrative —i.e. they ascribe validity to Jewish providence and holiness–Haredi fecundity alone cannot explain this groundswell of such convictions.

An alternative variable is needed to fill the gap: the psychological impact of the 2nd Intifada.

Terror Management Theory and the 2nd Intifada

Decades of research have demonstrated that the exposure to death—whether directly or vicariously—prompts us to disquietingly contemplate our own. Coping with the attendant existential-anxiety, humans seek sanctuary in moorings that “provide meaning, purpose, value, and hope of either literal symbolic mortality, through either an afterlife or a connection to something greater than oneself that transcends one’s mortal existence.”

Unsurprisingly, such recourse often culminates through an increased “investment in core religious symbols, self reported religiosity, and [the] belief in divine intervention.”

That said Israel’s pre-adolescents and young adults of today grew up in a period whereby a miasma of death pervaded the air. Between 2000-2005 Palestinian terrorist-groups launched a total of 141 suicide bombings that claimed the lives of 1,000 Israelis; a casualty count only exceeded by the 1948 and 73 wars. In March 2002 (aka ‘Black March’) the attacks crescendoed to an average of 1 every other day—among them the infamous ‘Passover massacre’.

By 2009, jibing with the other religiosity barometers above, 60% of Israelis believed in the afterlife–an uptick of 6% since 1999; the highest aggregate in roughly 2 decades—and 72% believed in the ‘power of prayer.’ While not apodictic, it’s reasonable to assume that the decade of macabre convulsions left many Israelis terrified of death and pining for existential solace that would inject order into the snafu of life.

A renewed embrace of biblical folklore and the exalting eschatological absolutes they bestow was just the antidote; a God who cherished the Jews—his children–above all else and would never abandon them. As is canonized and recited every year at the Jewish Passover table: “In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”

While such shibboleths are comforting, they’re also pernicious to the prospects of peace. A bevy of studies have established a negative correlation between religiosity and amenability towards political compromise vis-à-vis an ethnic ‘other’. This was confirmed yet again in a 2010 survey in which 55% of a combined group of traditional, religious, and Haredi adolescents (15-18) and young adults (21-24) preferred the political status-quo—i.e. the occupation—over a two-state solution; by contrast, such was the view of 33% of seculars.

Hamas Rockets: The Right’s Best Friend

The ultimate nail in the coffin to a peace-oriented government is a recent development: a Hamas rocket arsenal whose range covers almost the entire country. Indeed, a recent study exploring the variation in the range of rockets from 2001 (the year Hamas fired their first rocket) to 2009 showed that “voters who reside in the range are more likely to vote for right-wing parties.”

Interestingly, even when running as incumbents (i.e. presiding over a period in which the rocket range enlarged), right wing parties are not punished by the electorate. To the contrary, the Likud party—which chairs the current government—gains additional votes irrespective of incumbency.

Considering Hamas’ now habitual targeting of Israel’s geographical bastions of left wing voters—Tel Aviv in particular—these findings carry important implications. That at least a subset of erstwhile ‘centrist’ or left wing voters would “elect candidates who are less willing to make concessions” in the coming election is a certainly a plausible prognosis.

Conclusion

At a press conference held on day 4 of ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu candidly stated that “the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan (i.e. the West Bank).”

Accordingly, Israel’s rightward trajectory suggests that the ‘Israeli people’ will likely ‘understand’ and vote accordingly for nationalist security-minded parties in the next election.

Sadly, a nation that provides its government a mandate to perpetuate a military dominion over any future Palestinian state is one that is going to condemn itself to eons of more Gaza operations and intifadas. Because one thing is certain: failing to reshuffle the political status can only endanger Israeli security. True, territorial concessions and the attendant withdrawal of Israeli troops may very well yield the self-same outcome—if only in the short term. Yet in taking the risks for peace Israel allows itself two—instead of one—possible trajectories: things could get worse—but they also could very well get better better. Alas, with more and more Israelis aligning with the religious-right, more and more are becoming incapable of doing the math.

Missile Defense and the High Cost of Living in Israel’s Fortress

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By Zach Goldberg

Introduction

Many wax lyrical over the Iron Dome’s (ID) stellar performance. And while some experts impugn this success—insisting that most Tamir interceptor missiles fail to neutralize the warhead of the intercepted—the Iron Dome indubitably affords Israelis the equanimity to go about their business, conflict notwithstanding.

Yet amidst an indefinite absence of peace, Israel’s sub-state foes will ultimately upgrade their arsenals of ‘dumb’ rockets to include greater numbers of precision guided munitions (PGM). And when they do, the Israeli public may no enjoy the luxury of normalcy; at least not without footing an exorbitantly expensive missile defense (MD) bill.

The Engineers That Could

In the current round of hostilities, Hamas has fielded a rocket arsenal that—in terms of sheer numbers and range—is simply unprecedented. For all Israel’s efforts of strangulating the group—naval blockades, the persistent destruction of smuggling tunnels, fettering the inflow of dual-use materials, multiple aerial and ground campaigns etc.– Hamas’ rocket arsenal has mushroomed roughly 100% (11,000) since Operation ‘Pillar of Defense’ in 2012. Contemporaneously, its stock of long-range (80km+) rockets jumped from “the low two digits”—only a few of which remained after the forgoing operation–to hundreds; while its mid-range rockets have become “much more accurate.”

Prima facie, this progression is bemusing. Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, spent the past year punishing the local Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological scion (i.e. Hamas) in Gaza; both of whom he viewed as co-conspiring acts of domestic terrorism. In short order, the latter saw 95% of its contiguous smuggling tunnels, its military and economic lifeline, either shut down or destroyed. Ostensibly, the campaign was, a seismic—if not mortal—blow to Hamas’ offensive missile arm. With the maritime vector strictured by a nigh impregnable Israeli naval blockade, the tunnel network was the group’s only go-to conduit for the importation of new munitions.

To make matters worse, Iran—incensed over Hamas’ support anti-Assad rebels in Syria—substantially curtailed (though not completely) its provisions of military assistance to the group.

But wedged between a rock and a hard place, Hamas proved both resilient and resourceful; its engineers spent years learning the art of rocket assembly under the tutelage of Iranian missile and explosives experts. So while many of its tunnels were laid to waste, the know-how for establishing an indigenous missile production capability congealed.

Indeed, before the start of operation ‘Protective Edge’, Hamas’ factories were thought to be “producing some 30 medium-range missiles (capable of hitting Tel Aviv) a month using components smuggled in from Iran and Syria.” (Incidentally, its deftness in missile manufacturing was only matched—or eclipsed–by its talent for expeditious tunnel construction.) They also churned out the R160, a Syrian made M302 knock-off that recently struck Israel’s northern city of Haifa some 90 miles away; it was the furthest Hamas had ever reached.

Mowing the Lawn

Of course, Israel’s current campaign, like all its antecedents, will succeed in mowing the lawn. Thus far, it claims to have destroyed 3,000 rockets as well as 60% of their production sites. A protracted operation, especially that on the ground, will certainly add to this tally.

But the grass, as always, will grow back longer and greener. With Palestinian statehood nowhere on the horizon, Hamas has no choice but to run the gauntlet of reconstituting its missile arsenal; it is its crowning (and only) achievement. Without the means of lashing out at Israel, Hamas can no longer be the standard-bearer of resistance against the occupation. It’s thus silly to think (as some do) that it will forsake its mantle because of the drudgery of re-arming. Whether it takes months or years, it will find a way to do it. And due to the “commercial availability of key supporting capabilities, such as imagery and command and control,” as well as the “universal free access to precision navigation and timing data,” Hamas’ arsenal will inevitably graduate to precision-guided munitions (PGM).

Graduating from ‘Dumb’ to ‘Smart’

Long monopolized by only the most advanced of nation-states, the plunging cost of guided weapons and their often commercial underpinnings, “combined with their potential to terrorize local populations, make them a weapon of choice for non-state actors such as irregular terrorist groups.” In fact, one expert foresees guided mortars as “the next IED.”

More than a decade ago, with a meager $5,000 budget and “off-the-shelf” technology, a radio control airplane aficionado built what he claimed was a prototype of a ‘do-it-yourself’ cruise missile. Although he never got to test it–a disquieted New Zealand government crashed the party–the happening underscored both the widening grey area between military and commercial technologies, as well as their increasing accessibility.

The above case also begs an eerie, albeit important question: if such a feat was actionable (so he holds) by a single individual in 2003, what of an organization–particularly one abetted by a technologically advanced terror-supporting state–in 2020?

The forgoing trajectory, some say, is “not only worrisome, but unavoidable as relatively inexpensive guided weaponry proliferates worldwide.” And as they do, the know-how for making them will follow.

Iran is a case in point. Having purchased PGMs from others (namely China, Russia and North Korea), it anatomized and reverse engineered the hardware, thereby mastering the requisites for domestic production. Thus, Iranian armories are today able to churn out a wide array of copied ‘toys’ including guided artillery, mortars, and missiles.

Counter-Proliferation: A Sisyphean Ordeal

Ominously, the more states there are with PGM production capabilities, the harder it becomes to monitor and control where the finished products go. For instance, Iran, munificent as it is, often shares its technological wealth with others, notably its anti-Israel proxies; Hezbollah was alleged to have received the Iranian made Fateh 110; a 300km guided missile with a 1000lb.+ payload; while Hamas, in addition to the aforementioned do-it-yourself missile expertise, was given UAVs that can double as a poor man’s guided missile.

(Such support is argued to become even more forthcoming should Iran obtain nuclear weapons; which could occasion a more antagonistic foreign policy.)

It is the above that makes Iran’s interest in the Russian-made satellite-guided Club-K missile system–which some believe culminated in an actual procurement–so foreboding. Gunning it to 3 times the speed of sound prior to impact—an attribute that makes interception extremely difficult—the Club-K comes disguised as your standard shipping container, which could “just as well be carrying televisions.” Iran’s penchant for using commercial shipping companies to smuggle missiles to its terrorist beneficiaries makes the system all the riper for diversion.

One could argue that intelligence services assiduously keep tabs on the whereabouts of such armaments and would intervene, as Israel has consistently done throughout the years, to prevent their delivery to miscreant entities. Yet as one expert explains, “keeping track of every such device manufactured is impossible.”

The “clandestinisation” of munitions production and transport is currently an obstacle Western spy agencies don’t have an answer to. For instance, missiles are increasingly produced in dual-use factories—or those fashioned to resemble them—making it hard for overhead imagery to distinguish between civilian and military output. To compound the problem, Israel doesn’t have enough satellites “to monitor all the far-flung facilities where the most worrisome munitions are made.” Thus, human intelligence (i.e. eyes on the ground) is key. But while Israel’s has been good, it–as reflected in Hezbollah’s reputed acquisition of precision missiles–isn’t perfect.

Israel’s Expensive ‘Structural Disadvantage’

That Israel’s enemies will wield more and more PGMs in the coming years carries grave implications for the integrity of its MD. The ability to hit within 30 feet of an intended target puts the defender at a “structural disadvantage”; compelling him to defend an expansive repository of targets while potentially having to counter each inbound projectile with multiple (and expensive) interceptors.

The Iron Dome, for instance, occasionally fires tandems of missiles in case one fails to hit the mark. Considering PGMs would threaten Israel’s critical infrastructure—including, inter alia, power plants, oil platforms, nuclear facilities, etc.— the option of parsimony is removed altogether.

Likewise, guided PGMs would deny Israel’s MD batteries the luxury of “selective fire”—i.e. intercepting only those headed for populated areas. As they’re likely to be bundled in fusillades of ‘dumb’ rockets, targeting radars would struggle to differentiate between the two and, in effect, may need to target everything. Consequently, and owing to the expensive cost and finite supply of its interceptor missiles, Israel would have to prioritize “preserving the IDF’s offensive capability (air-force bases, command and control centers etc.)” over defending its civilians.

This is not to say that Israel’s MD triad (i.e. Iron Dome, Magic Wand, Arrow) wouldn’t prevail; it probably would. But even when factoring in the economic damage it stands to prevent, the cost of its prolonged activation (i.e. weeks not days)—to say nothing of other war-related expenditures—could be prohibitive.

To illustrate, I tabulated data that was published by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, which shows the expected MD outlays Israel is estimated to incur in any likely major war; one Israel’s defense establishment assesses would afflict the home front with barrages of 1000 missiles a day.

Notably, the chart only includes the cost of ‘pulling the trigger’; Israel would also have to invest billions to recoup its depleted stocks for the next ‘round’ of fighting, whenever that would be.

Missile Type Cost Per in $ Expected # of Incoming Missiles # Missiles required for successful interception

(2:1 ratio)

Cost of per day Cost of 40 Day inventory
Iron Dome 50-100 thousand 800 short-range (250 of which would estimably hit urban areas) 500 25-50 mil. 1-2 bil.
Magic Wand 1.25 million 100 medium-range 200 250 mil. 10 bil.
Arrow 2 or 3 3 million 100 long-range 200 600 mil. 24 bil.

Total 1000 850-900 mil. 35-36 bil.

Admittedly, the estimates are a bit far-fetched. For one, it’s uncertain whether enemy missile elements—presumably a triumvirate of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran—would be able to sustain a firing rate of 1000 missiles a day while on the receiving end of an Israeli Air Force that is sure to take off the gloves.

Second, a free-for-all in which this trio gangs up on Israel is highly unlikely to occur for the foreseeable future. Iran has enough on its plate tending to the Sunni insurgencies besetting its allies in Syria and Iraq. Ditto for Hezbollah which—its local popularity at an all-time low—doesn’t want the blame for having reduced Lebanon to rubble.

Still, in the Middle East—with all its vagaries and black swan events—the situation can (and often does) change overnight. The next major war is always a question of when, not if. Accordingly, Israel incessantly prepares for the coming battle; of which the maintenance of an ample interceptor missile supply is essential. But given the fiscal asymmetry of PGM vs. MD warfare, is this situation tenable over the long run?

Conclusion: To Pay the Rent or Leave The Fortress?

When the current smoke clears over Gaza, the Israeli public—one-fifth of whom live in poverty–must ask itself: is it okay with an interminable future of appropriating a chunk of its precious budget (currently $74.8 billion) towards the purchase of interceptor missiles?

Assuming the answer is ‘yes’, Israel should consider reviving its forlorn ‘Skyguard’ laser defense program, which while mired with wayward technical difficulties, is drastically cheaper ($3,000 per intercept) than its missile counterpart.

Unfortunately, yes also resigns Israel to the conflict’s insolubility, continued occupation, and thereby the necessity of living in a fortress state. In essence, such fatalism–more than exacting a high price in lives and money—confines Israel’s strategic situation to only one possible direction: downhill. Because no matter how hardy Israel builds its ramparts the Palestinians are never going to resign themselves to its dominion. The longer Israel drags its feet vis-à-vis the peace process—specifically the territorial concessions it’s reluctant to make—the more Palestinians will see Hamas’ resistance platform (i.e. its missile attacks) as the only game in town. Emboldened by this support, which has oscillated throughout the years, Hamas will rearm with a vengeance.

In the backdrop, the passage of time will see PG technology proliferate to the point of ubiquity. Naturally, Hamas’ missile program, as well as that of Israel’s other enemies, will become more sophisticated and dangerous than ever before. Alas, for Israelis, the days of lighthearted bomb shelter ‘selfies’ will be history.

Thus, if Israel is to avoid the run-away costs of its fortress it must believe it doesn’t have to live in one. Specifically, when the current operation is over, it mustn’t bask in the X years of quiet it’ll likely have secured. Rather, it must proceed directly to the negotiating table and give the Palestinians the state they deserve. Doing so would pull the rug out from under the ‘resistance’ and promise Palestinians a future they’ll disincentivized to upset. And once their living standards improve, Palestinians would have only the former to blame for any subsequent reversal.

The ‘Holy Land’ and the Pale Blue Dot

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By Zach Goldberg

Introduction: Israel’s Untenable Status Quo

Recent developments in Israel are troubling. From the tit-for-tat kidnapping/slaughter of Israeli and Palestinian youth which, some portend, has pushed the sides to the brink of a 3rd intifada; to the eventuating ‘take 3’ of a IDF-Hamas showdown in the Gaza Strip–—violent chauvinism is prevailing once again.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. The Palestinians, for their part, are apparently unwilling (at least according to the latest opinion polls) to reconcile themselves to a contiguous Jewish state. Consequently, Jews question the purpose of making political concessions that won’t beget a genuine end to the conflict; the status quo, therefore, is seen as preferable to a suspect peace agreement.

Unfortunately, as is now demonstrable, the relative calm Israel has enjoyed the past few years was all but a mirage. More than that, inclinging to a bargaining posture of ‘absolute security’ vis-à-vis the PA—thereby perpetuating the occupation and denying Palestinians their rightful state—the more insecure and costly the status quo for Israel becomes.

The Iron Dome’s impeccable performance tells us otherwise. But as years go by without inroads towards rectifying the Palestinian plight—radicalization  will ferment and fulminate; while the missile capabilities of Israel’s enemies will improve.

Today, Hamas and other Islamic militia groups feature missiles (the M302 notable among them) that are more accurate and travel further than anything they’ve showcased before. Hezbollah, Israel’s northern nemesis, has already acquired an alleged supply of ‘game-changing’ precision-guided munitions. And according to Israel’s former defense chief, Ehud Barak, Hamas is next in line.

The IDF’s ongoing ‘Protective Edge” campaign could cost as much as 2.5 billion dollars. In the future, having to contend with pinpoint accurate missiles, Israel’s escalatory outlays will balloon commensurately.  And yet, regardless of how successful its ‘deterrence restoration’ efforts are perceived, at the end of the day, “there’ll still be 1.7 million (and growing) pissed-off people jammed into Gaza.”

Israel has thus reached a point wherein the gamble for peace—i.e. the accession of a treaty based on the pre-67 borders with mutually agreed swaps—is comparably less risky than the continued state of affairs. And considering the revamped international support and economic windfall (one forecast foresees a $52.5 billion growth in GDP) it stands to enjoy in the wake of a signed-treaty, Israel can afford to roll the dice.

Alas, the Israeli public is loath to see this light; and it isn’t really out of concerns for security; at least not in its physical sense. Rather the inhibition is one of ontological security. Specifically, the foreboding prospect of compromising the religious narrative that constitutes the kernel of their esteem and identity: the belief that, as God’s ‘chosens’, the land of Israel—particularly its holy sites—is their birthright.

 Dangerous Truths: The ‘Chosen People’ and Their God-Given Land’

That the forgoing zeitgeist stymies the peace process writ large. As the fabled Right-Wing Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky once put it, “the tragedy (the Israel-Palestinian conflict) lies in the fact there are is a collision here between two truths…But our Justice is greater.”

Jabotinsky’s diagnosis of the problem remains valid to this day. The ontological dogma of the respective cultures (Jews and Palestinians) crimps their pliancy for concessions; a fact underscored in studiesshowing religious individuals as less likely to believe in political compromise with adherents of other faiths.

This is especially germane in the case of Israel’s ‘secular’ majority—a label that is grossly misleading. Although the lion share of Israeli-Jews support the notion of personal-freedom concerning one’s adherence to Halachik (Judaic) laws—towards which they’re largely cherry pickers themselves—an overwhelming majority subscribe to Judaic tenets of fideism. For instance, a whopping 70% of Israeli-Jews believe they’re God’s “chosen people”; while 65% believe that the Torah (i.e. the Old Testament) and its religious commandments are “God-given”.

Considering that the heavenly designation of Israel as the Jewish homeland features prominently in the Torah, the latter figure above is particularly significant. Because for many Jews the land’s most sacred pieces of real estate—i.e. Jerusalem, the abodes of the ‘Holy Temple’—aren’t inconsequential swathes of earth. Rather, stamped with the Lord’s imprimatur, they’re ‘sacred values’ “not subject to concession, negotiation, compromise, or exchange.”

This notion has repeatedly manifested in opinion polls throughout the years.  Most recently, in a survey of 588 Israelis by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs—a sample, which was 50% ‘secular’—70% of respondents were “against dividing Jerusalem and transferring the Temple-Mount to the Palestinians.” With a capital in Arab East Jerusalem a cardinal Palestinian demand, such a position effectively slams the door on any hopes of forging a peace agreement.

Cognitive Barriers: Spiritual Claims Under the Guise of Security

To be sure, some also play up it’s “strategic and military importance” to explain why “Palestinian demands to divide Jerusalem’s capital are unreasonable ”. Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center speaks of Jerusalem’s fulcrum role in securing the Eastern Israeli-Jordanian border by allowing control over “the only highway from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River Valley, along which military forces can move with little interference from Arab communities.”

Yet while forgoing may have been relevant in the past when Israel was threatened with invasion by a mechanized, conventional Jordanian army, the threat environment of today and the foreseeable future—composed mainly smaller of sub-state, terrorist entities–has rendered these strategic necessities obsolete.

As former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh writes, the IDF’s newfound ability to “locate targets at great distances and destroy them with great accuracy,” combined with advances in its early-warning intelligence apparatuses, means that easy access to the Jordan Valley by land is no longer operationally essential.

Security contentions are thus specious and serve to distract from the real bone of contention: Jerusalem’s “spiritual and national significance”.

Contrary to Inbar’s exhortation, the US and the international community don’t need to “recognize” the inviolability of a united Jerusalem. Rather, Israel’s ‘fideistic’ majority needs to recognize the cosmological evidence abundantly demonstrating that no faith or land–domiciled as they are on a speck of dust amongst an endless ocean of others–occupies the center of a caring universe. It’s only by humbling their ontological exceptionalism that Israelis will come to see peace and the chance for a prosperous future as more valuable than all things ‘sacred’.

Cosmology’s Humbling Revelations

It was relatively recent that astronomers and cosmologists discovered the Earth’s humble status as a “mote of dust” suspended in a “vast cosmic arena” of (at least) hundreds of billions of galaxies encapsulating an exponentially greater number of suns and planets; many not unlike our own.

Now, revolutionary advances in telescopic and other space exploration technologies are unveiling a universe that, more likely (by leaps and bounds) than not, is teaming with life.

The search has only just begun and already Astronomers haveunearthed (forgive the pun) 1,810 exoplanets—several of which are deemed ‘potentially habitable.’

And last November, we learned that there could be some “11 billion possible habitable, Earth-sized planets” in our Milky Way galaxy alone.

With more sophisticated probing innovations in the pipeline, man’s convergence with extra-terrestrial life is, for most scientists, a question of when—not if (in fact, many in the field are even convinced it’ll happen sometime this century).

Regrettably, despite the compelling improbability of our cosmic uniqueness, most Israeli Jews remain wedded to their notional cosmic holiness. A change of mindset is in order.

Re-educating Israeli Society: Peace through Science

While Israel supporters were up in arms following the political haranguing issued by White House Mideast Chief, Phillip Gordon, at the Israel Peace Conference—the speech was right on point; particularly the assertion that “neither side prepared their publics or proved ready to make the difficult decisions required for an agreement.”

Israeli government officials have echoed this call before, though only as it relates to reforming Palestinian society. Both Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Ayalon have urgedPalestinian political leaders to “re-educate a new generation in a culture of peace, coexistence, and reconciliation.

I would agree—but Israel must follow suit. It can start with an emphasis on scientific education–particularly astronomy and cosmology–in the Israeli school system. Broadly speaking, Israel’s youth must learn that in a cosmos where stars and their planets areforever exploding out of existence (eventually, our own included), sacrosanctity—of a land or people—is a destructive illusion.

That Israel only recently incorporated the theory of evolution into its primary curriculum—while, sadly, omitting its bearing on human incipience—is symptomatic of an insular ontological disposition. When only 515 of 90,000 of students are apprised every year of the haphazard 4.5 billion year long process through which they and our world were conceived, it’s easy to understand why many Israeli-Jews can believe that Jerusalem, in particular, was created by God as an eternal gift to the Jewish people.

Some have argued that, “the belief of both sides in the importance of their interests in their respective cultures is so entrenched that any attempt to reshape their consciousness in the foreseeable future would be doomed to fail.”

Admittedly, change won’t come over night—but neither will the conflict’s resolution. The cognitive dissonance pervading both sides will strongly resist—yet it is not impregnable. A rabid right-wing Zionist-hawk most of my life, I would know.

Conclusion

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in need of a seismic jolt; one that Israel can provide by rekindling a peace-process whose outcome is a Palestinian state along the ’67 borders’ with mutually agreed land swaps. Should such efforts fizzle, the onus of failure in the eyes of the international community would squarely be placed on the Palestinians.

On the other hand, success would invigorate a PA economy, embalm Palestinians with hope, and embolden Hamas’ more pragmatic wing to push for a similar deal (one they rhetorically ‘insist’ would amount to a ‘long-term truce’). Once Palestinians enjoy the benefits of peace—economically in particular—they’ll have a disincentive to upend it.

Still, for any of this to happen Israeli society must come to view territorial concessions as less painful than the deteriorating status quo. It must stop treating Jerusalem and the settlements as sacred or essential to the sustainability of Jews.  Rather, with its unparalleled military might and what it would gain following the signing of an agreement, those places are expendable.

The first step – on both sides – is to replace religious teachings of superiority with science-based sources of information on man’s true place in the cosmic pecking order and the precariousness of his existence.  Only then will they  see the pettiness of their differences, as well as the imperative of working together as ‘earthlings’ to ensure a mutually beneficent future.

Bringing Iran to Its Knees: An Opportunity Amidst the Iraq Chaos

Bring iran to knee

By Zach Goldberg

Introduction

ISIS adventurism and the attendant effeteness of the Iraqi army have many clamoring for the arrival of Captain America. What’s more, being that the al Qaeda scion is as–if not more–rabidly anti-Shiite as it is anti-American, some tout the situation as a golden opportunity for US-Iranian cooperation; one that could ultimately lead to a genuine and lasting détente. True, they say, America might have to give a little in the ongoing nuclear horse-trading. But the development of a working relationship is an icebreaker that could reverberate onward.

Such thinking is delusional, if not dangerous. It is Iran, through its indefatigable pursuit of ensuring the existence of its Islamic theocracy, that is largely to blame for this mess. Its officious hand in Iraq’s sectarianism, perverse obsession for keeping an ‘axis of resistance’, and most strikingly, the blind eye (and at times patronage) its afforded over the years to ISIS activities, have turned the region into a sectarian powder keg.

Right now, as unorthodox as it sounds, American interests are best served by sittings on its hands, and leaving Iran to pay for its mess. In fact, the US should make the cleanup bill as exorbitant as possible with the goal of overstretching Iran, suffocating its ailing economy, and moving the ball forward towards the long-term goal of regime change.

Understanding Iran’s Destabilizing Neurosis

Iran’s demeanor, particularly its truculence vis-à-vis the West, cannot be properly explicated in isolation from the collective trauma it experienced at the hands of Western-backed tyrants. The first of such was one of their own, the Shah, who the Iranians finally overthrew in 1979. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much time to celebrate before Saddam Hussein’s army—with Western encouragement—arrived to crash the party.

Numerous attempts at subverting ‘the will of the people’—the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup of the nationalist Mosaddegh prominent among them—imbued Iranians with a collective distaste for all things foreign. The eventual establishment of an Islamic polity was thus, for them, an act of defiance, an expression of their desire to unshackle themselves from external domineering.

However, that expression soon took on a life of its own, with copious wealth and power accumulating in the hands of those (and their armed protectors, the Revolutionary Guards) claiming a divine right to rule. However, sustaining their sovereign legitimacy depended on the continued relevance and validity of their governments inaugural mandate; to wit, enforcing and protecting the Shia faith from within, exporting its revolutionary tenets across the Muslim world, achieving economic independence from the West, and maintaining an anti-Western resistance front.

To be sure, both this mandate and the authority vested in those stewarding it have an official expiration date: the return the Shiite Messiah, the Mahdi; or more accurately, the 7th of never.

But until the Mahdi arrives to vindicate their mythopoeia, Iran’s theocrats remain in quite the bind. For not only must they interminably act to keep their raison detre alive and pertinent—they also must forever sustain its popular fidelity towards it. Failing in either would discredit its legitimacy and force the regime to “redefine itself (i.e. something other than a revolutionary Islamic state) or eventually lose power.”

Keeping the Fairy Tale Alive—At All Costs

Scarred by oppressive modernization efforts that were foisted upon them under the Shah, Iran’s pious populace have long long bought into the forgoing and played by its rules. Indeed, their religious convictions go hand in hand with this continued fealty. As underscored in a groundbreaking 2008 study, “subjective religiosity [among Iranians] is positively correlated with a religious-political worldview that favors clerical rule, supremacy of Shari’a, and state enforcement of Islamic norms.” It concludes: “support for Islamic rule seems to be anchored in their religious beliefs rather than being contingent on governmental performance.”

Yet, the regime can’t afford to take this status quo for granted. Globalization (which Iran views as Western cultural imperialism), with its diffusion of Western norms and ideas—i.e. rationalism, pluralism, and unmitigated skepticism—respects few boundaries. That Iranians will slowly succumb to iconoclastic modes of thought and come to scrutinize the credibility of their regime’s religious narrative scares the clerical Guardian Council like no other.

As such, the regime vigilantly suppresses the insinuation of any expression, however anodyne it may seem, that could potentially engender sedition.

Apostasy and religious derision is punishable by death, billions of dollars are earmarked for ‘cultural policing’ (i.e. jamming TV and radio transmissions, strictures on Internet content and access, and enforcing morality laws), and students are “subject to years of indoctrination that praises the Islamic nature of the political system.”

Incidentally, Iran ranks 152 out of 192 countries (below Honduras and Tanzania) in terms of Internet bandwidth. Download speeds are officially capped at 128kb/s and many users, still languish in the ‘dial-up modem’ era of the 90’s. With webpages, let alone videos, at times taking minutes to load, digital deviancy can be trying for even the most determined of surfers.

Such is the price that must be paid to preserve the Islamic revolution. As alluded to by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a 2003 speech: “More than Iran’s enemies need artillery, guns and so forth, they need to spread cultural values that lead to moral corruption,” so as to destroy the cultural “authenticity” of Muslims and deprive it of its “originality.”

The Survival of Resistance= Survival of Regime

In the absence of tangible threats, why is Iran now driven to combust the Middle East to keep what is seemingly an outdated alliance?

The answer is two fold. First, it enables the Islamic regime to uphold its raison d’etre as a vanguard of anti-Westernism and an exporter of revolutionary Islam. As Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati of the Guardian Council articulated it in a 2009 speech: “If we are to assure that the Islamic establishment, the revolution and Islam are to stay and the people are to live comfortably, the flag of the struggle against America should always stay hoisted.’’ Indeed, if the Islamic republic is no about repelling the forces of evil, then what exactly does it stand for?

Second, the axis serves as a buffer against foreign encroachment, military or cultural, and thereby affords Iran the freedom to pursue the mandate that is crucial for its long-term survival: achieving cultural/economic independence and divorcing from Western globalization. Towards this end, the establishment of a nuclear capability is vital. As Clifton Sherill writes, a nuclear program “would help silence those in Iran who claim the nation needs to interact more with the developed world to gain the fruits of modern technology. The Islamist clerics could point to the nuclear weapons program as evidence that globalization is not imperative for scientific progress.”

Iran: Its Own Worst Enemy

Long term, the solution can only be the emergence of an Iranian government guided by rationalism, rather than a superstitious ideology. No doubt, this project will take years to achieve. But in the meantime, the West must render Iranian adventurism as prohibitively expensive as possible. Specifically, by shanghaiing it into over-exerting itself in both Syria and Iraq, and precipitating self-inflicted economic damage, the US has a chance to at once “frustrate the Iranian political system” and spotlight “Tehran’s inability to meet the population’s civil and economic aspirations.” Maybe, just maybe, a chastened—if not reformed–Iran can eventuate. The following is how we can get the ball rolling.

Laying the Ground Work For Regime Change

According to one estimate, Tehran is spending “as much as $600 to $700 million per month” to help the Assad government stay afloat. For a country whose economy is racked by sanctions and remains “in a state of distress”, such outlays cannot be sustained indefinitely; not without further enflaming a population bellowing for economic relief.

However, the US has the power to drive up the price even further. For starters, it can drastically beef up military aid to Syrian rebels (as of this writing, it appears Obama has given the green light to just that), including, but not limited to, the contentious provision of surface-to-air missiles. Trammelled in the air and confronting a better-equipped foe on the ground, Assad will be forced to lean even harder on his Iranian patrons for material support.

Second, barring an about-face and a newfound willingness for compromise on the part of Maliki’s sectarian government, the US should eschew any sort of assistance and allow Iran shoulder the burden on its own. Given the shambolic state of its army, Iraq will have to rely heavily on Iranian assistance to prevent the collapse of its government and attacks on Shia holy sites. Because despite the outpouring of motivated volunteer militiamen, many of whom receive only a few days to a week of training, the government lacks a force that’s capable of holding, let alone recouping, important ground.

Though Iran has sought to prevent the descent into all-out civil war, which could “destabilize Iran itself or drag it into a regional war that could overstretch Iranian resources and political cohesiveness,” such appears to be the likely trajectory. With $3.7 billion in oil exports to Iraq on the line, and the ISIS now engaging in cross-border attacks on its territory, Iran has little choice but to commit to battle.

Thus far, Iran has reportedly dispatched 2,000 of its troops to defend Baghdad. In fact, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander General Qessem Sulemani is allegedly overseeing most of Iraq’s security portfolio—“a particular burdensome task given that he’s already been in charge of Bashar al-Assad’s for well over a year.”

The longer the civil war drags on, the more onerous this freight will become. The Syrian civil war alone has already seen “the highest number of deaths of Quds force operations since the end of the Iraq-Iran war.” Should a similar fate await them in Iraq, it would severely “dent Iran’s deterrence posture.”

Some have argued that the situation allows Iran to further entrench its influence over the country and is thus a big win for its interests. However, over time, its burgeoning presence will only exacerbate the Sunni-Shia divide. Convinced more than ever of Iran’s imperial designs, more will be driven into the ISIS Baathist fold and confessional violence will crescendo.

Under similar circumstances, at the height of sectarian strife in 2006, the US was forced to inject inordinate amounts of manpower and resources to get a handle on the situation. For Iran, such an investment could very well break the bank. As one analyst portends: “The potential for conflagration and growing bogged down on multiple fronts would be deadly for Tehran, which is at a delicate juncture in its nuclear negotiations and is suffering from international sanctions that have roiled its economy.”

Apropos of the nuclear negotiations, the ongoing maelstrom is a boon for Western leverage. With Iran’s economy headed for even direr straits, the West should stand its ground and force Tehran to truckle to its terms, particularly with respect to the number of permitted centrifuges. As it stands, the Iran remains adamant about keeping 19,000+, while the West insists they be cut down to several thousand at most. Should the former refuse to budge, on top of enduring wars of attrition on multiple fronts, Iran’s economy would face a redoubling of devastating sanctions.

Lastly, the US should give Iran’s digital censorship apparatus, one of the “most extensive in the world,” a run for its money. If the ruling clerics are determined to keep their people’s minds locked in a bell jar they should be forced to pay a steep price. Currently, the US spends upwards of $30 million helping Iranian Internet users skirt virtual roadblocks and tripwires. But as one Iranian net-activist writes: “The budget is very small, the target group is sensitive, and the progress is very slow. We need a way to connect the millions who are without access to the Internet—not just a small group.”

In light of these shortfalls, the US should adopt a two-track policy that ratchets up counter-censorship expenditures on one hand, while teaming up with private ventures to develop satellite wi-fi technologies on another. Promising among the latter is a company called Outernet, which seeks to harness “datacasting technology over a low-cast satellite constellation…to bypass censorship, ensure privacy, and offer a universally accessible information service at no cost to global citizens.” Though this innovation is far from a finished product, government stimulus can help expedite the process. Once operational, this technology would be a game-changer, allowing the West to pierce Iran’s digital wall and compromise its monopoly on information.

Conclusion

By facilitating its entanglement in Pyrrhic swashbuckling—suppressing rebellions in Syria, Iraq, and even the Internet—the West can heighten the perception among ordinary Iranians that “the Islamic Republic’s fundamental objectives may not be achievable or that the system is unsustainable.” And unlike international sanctions, which detract from institutional profligacy, the Iranian public, in this case, would have only the regime to blame. This, in turn, would be a serious blow to the regime’s legitimacy and “likely effect an eventual change in the nature of the state.” It’s time the Obama administration recognize this big opportunity.

Air-ISIS: The Mysterious Drone Fleet

isis-uav

By  Zach Goldberg

Lost in the hubbub over the ISIS’s prodigious Iraq surge is the group’s increasing reliance on consumer UAVs for producing propaganda videos and, quite possibly, aerial intelligence.

As included several weeks ago in an article highlighting the budding marriage of remote-controlled gadgetry with sub-state belligerents, the first ISIS drone sighting manifested at a parade in the ISIS-occupied city of Fallujah in March. In a video documenting the processions, a DJI Phantom FC40 can be seen hovering above the boisterous crowd. Armed with a 720p HD video camera, the drone was ostensibly the overhead photographer, capturing footage that would later be spliced into one of the group’s many agitprops. Despite it being one of the first, if not only, recorded instances of UAV use by Salafi-Jihadists–the spectacle flew under the media radar (no pun intended).

Subsequently, a second drone recently surfaced in an hour long film released by ISIS PR arm ‘al-Furqan Media’. In this case, an overhead view of Fallujah and its environs is featured at the video’s 0:36 mark. Whether the footage is simply the first-person angle from the selfsame drone spotted at the March parade is unclear; as is whether the drones, in general, are circumscribed to the contrivance of publicity stunts.

Nonetheless, the two videos may be indicative of the ISIS’s growing interest in the power of drones. Being the “sophisticated, organized, and professional force” it’s become  in recent years, the embrace of a technology enjoyed in spades by 21st century armies is a matter of course.

What ancillary role, if any, UAVs played in the ISIS’s audacious Mosul campaign is unknown. A priori, UAVs could serve as an early warning apparatus against incoming Iraqi troop movements or provide  vital intelligence on their formations and positions.

True, one could argue that such UAVs wouldn’t stay aloft for long before being easily downed by enemy gunfire. However, the entry level model sported in the footage above, to say nothing of the flying capacities of more advanced variants, can ascend to upwards of several thousand feet. Thus, short of deploying anti-air craft batteries, it’d take one hell of a lucky shot to down an infinitesimal object as that of a personal UAV.

Of course, until documented, the operational application of UAVs by the ISIS remains speculative. Still, one can’t help but consider the purchasing power of a group whose estimated worth is now in excess of $2 billion. No doubt, large portions of that war chest are earmarked towards paying salaries of its members and maintaining governance in its areas of control. But if drones are afforded the opportunity to prove themselves as more than just propaganda tools, the group will likely buy more–perhaps those with even greater capabilities (i.e. longer flight times, payload, altitude, etc.) It has both the funds, as well as the tactical need, for such an investment.

America’s wholesale use of drones in the ‘War on Terror’ showcased their operational potency to the world. Naturally, it wasn’t long before other countries joined the fray to avail themselves of the same advantages. Likewise, should the ISIS begin to wield drones frequently and effectively, the operational benefits may be hard for other Jihadi entities to ignore. A terrorist UAV shopping spree could be on the horizon. The evolution of the ISIS-UAV interface should thus be followed more closely.

The Iraq Crisis’ Unsung Winners: Syria’s Rebels

By Zach Goldberg

Only a week has passed since the ISIS’s jaw-dropping takeover of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and pundits are already drawing up the winners and losers. Among the former, the nominees are reputedly: 1) Iraqi Kurdistan; whose drive for full-on independence improved dramatically by virtue of its relative stability and newfound claim to fame as owners of the only fighting force (its 190,000 strong Peshmerga) capable of bucking ISIS advances; 2) Syria’s Assad regime; which can now champion itself to the world as an anti-terror lynchpin and see the spotlight relocated from its own barbarism to the chaos transpiring next door; 3) the ISIS; whose recent power play has made it the richest and most territorially consequential terrorist organization in the business.

Unfortunately, potentially the biggest winner of them all, the Syrian opposition, is not even party to the discussion. Indeed, Syria’s rebels, al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate Jabhat al Nusra (JN) included, have arguably the most to gain from their enemies’ nervous fixation on the fire raging across the border in Iraq.

Firstly, the events compromise the vital bulwark of Iraqi-Shiite volunteers (estimated to number anywhere from 8,00030,000 fighters) that was formed to aid the manpower-short Assad regime in its efforts to quell the insurgency. Significantly, the ISIS threat to march on Baghdad and Shiite holy cities has compelled Iraq’s foremost Shiite-religious authority, the notoriously demure octogenarian Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to issue a fatwa calling on all “able-bodied Iraqis” to take up arms in defense of the country. Many of those heretofore stationed in Syria are now responding. After all, why sacrifice blood in Syria when their communities are burning at home?

The true extent of the exodus of Iraqi-Shiite militiamen from Syria is still unknown. Nevertheless, the bloodletting in Iraq has yet to crescendo, with some predicting a descent into full-on sectarian. Thus, as more Shiites are killed in the ensuing months—if not years—the fight in Syria may become all but an afterthought.

For the Assad regime and its stalwart Lebanese ally Hezbollah, the timing couldn’t be worse. Even before the cataclysm in Iraq, analysts were anticipating “a resumption of rebel activity in the Qalamoun area,” a mountainous, strategically critical piece of real estate along the Syrian-Lebanese border, which the regime laboriously recaptured in 2013. Now, a loss or even reduction of Syria-bound Iraqi recruits risks further straining Hezbollah, which would have to deploy more its own ilk to fill the void. This, in turn, could fan the flames of a South-Lebanese constituency who already “question in large numbers how much longer their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons will be sent to the Syrian front.”

Concurrently, as it’s beholden not only to Iran for its steady provisions of material support, but also to Iraq for allowing such these essentials to transit its territory, the Syrian regime may be increasingly summoned to bludgeon the ISIS to return the favor.

Syrian air strikes on ISIS bases in Raqa and Hasakeh in “coordination with the Baghdad government” indicate that such an arrangement could already be afoot. If sustained, the succor–while would be an inconvenience for a regime that has benefited from leaving the group to its own devices; which for the past year has consisted of scourging rival rebel factions.

Moreover, it could also goad the ISIS into hitting back in kind; a tack that would engage precious manpower the regime could have otherwise expended elsewhere.

On the flipside, that the ISIS—a primary rebel antagonist—is seriously invested in yet another front augurs well for the battlefield fortunes of the opposition. As Iraq’s majority Shiites (not to mention the bevy of Iran-backed militias) mobilize for war, the ISIS’s territorial inroads will not stay uncontested. In fact, as one expert opines, the group has “picked a fight it cannot win.” Holding its ground may require the group to divert assets away from Syria to its territorial domain next door.

In the long run, such a fight will be costly, and risks taxing the group beyond its means. Whipsawed by the Assad regime’s renewed ‘counter-terror’ campaign on one end, and encroaching Shiite forces another, the ISIS may have to choose between downsizing in Syria or Iraq; with the former the likely bet.

Iraq has always been the ISIS’s real prize. And after the setbacks of recent years—in which the group was decimated by joint US-Sunni ‘Awakening’ counter-terrorism efforts—it isn’t about to concede its latest opening without a fight.

Importantly, with its priorities in Iraq, the ISIS will have less of an appetite for the internecine warfare that has precluded rebel factions from bringing the full might of its firepower to bear on its chief enemy; to wit, the Syrian regime.

While the rebels as a whole stand to benefit from ISIS swashbuckling in Iraq, al Qaeda ‘central’ (AQC) and its Syrian subsidiary (JN)–the ISIS’s premier Syrian-Jihadi competitor—will particularly bask in the schadenfreude. The brouhaha over the ISIS’s territorial dash, as well as its $500 million grab, has pundits already writing AQ’s obituary. However, these assessments are myopic. At the end of the day, the ISIS victory celebrations will give way to reality: a crucible of maintaining local support for its Spartan theocracy on one hand, while parrying “the concerted action of both Iraqi and Syrian forces with help from Iran and possibly the US” on another.

Analogically, the recent inflection point could go down as the ISIS’s ‘Operation Barbarossa’, in which the German’s shell-shocked the Soviets and gobbled up territory at lightning speed only to overextend and implode under the weight of tenacious counter-attack.

Thus, AQC and JN’s silence in recent days shouldn’t be interpreted as an admission of inferiority. They simply hew a precept that emphasizes patience and an eye for the long game. By focusing on Syria and allowing the ISIS to mire itself in Iraq, they may ultimately get the last laugh.

Taken together, Syria’s rebels—along with Iraqi Kurds—are conceivably the biggest winners of the ISIS’s recent advances. All of their battlefield foes—Iran, Hezbollah, Shiite militias, the Assad regime, and the ISIS—now have more on their plate, while the rebels need only to concern themselves with Syria.

‘Miracles’ in Mosul

isis

By Zach Goldberg

The ISIS’s stunning power play this week, in which it routed Iraq’s 2nd largest city Mosul, is rife with foreboding implications. From the potential Balkanization of the country and all-out confessional war (aka Syria meets Iraq), to the congealment of an Islamic caliphate stretching from the Mediterranean to Iran’s Zagros Mountains—there’s much to lose sleep over. And yet what is arguably of greatest consequence has received scant attention; to wit, that world’s Jihadi cheerleaders have construed the feat as a sign from God, one that galvanizes them to join the fray.

Islamic Jihadists wholeheartedly believe that “God decides the outcome of battles.” And Jihadi campaigns over the years have churned out their share of supposed miracles—angels rescuing the fallen, bombs that failed to detonate. But few are as glaring as what transpired in Mosul. That a force of 400-800 men could send 30,000 Iraqi troops–armed with US weaponry and backed by M1 Abrams tanks–running for the hills without even token resistance is about as demonstrably providential as such tales are going to get.

Thought exercises in inductive reasoning are likely forthcoming in the minds of radical Muslims. They probably go along the lines of: a) I always believed in God, but now I have incontrovertible proof of his existence, b) he’s thrown his lot in with Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s Mujihadeen (who, incidentally, really is the direct descendent of Muhammad he claimed to be) and c) I can and should be apart of this miracle.

That there’s no shortage of temporal explanations accounting for the Iraqi army’s pitiful disintegration is beside the point. Because for those actively seeking affirmation of their ontological narrative of the world, such rationalism doesn’t enter into the equation.

It is not difficult to ascribe victory to G-d, especially when you’re on the winning side. And the fact that throughout history societies have ascribed overcoming seemingly astounding odds to divine intervention should make us keenly aware of the impact the conquest of Mosul will have in inspiring more radical Muslims to join the cause of Jihad.

Indeed, I joined the Israel defense force because my belief in a similar and more compelling narrative. Growing up an observant Jew and rabid Zionist, I firmly believed in the providence of Israel’s historical battlefield prowess. There was no other way for me to comprehend it. Time and time again the cards were stacked against it, and yet the Israeli army continued to defy the odds. In 1948, barely a day old and hemmed in from all sides by invading Arab armies, mere farmers and holocaust survivors united in epic fashion; trouncing their enemies, enlarging their territorial hold by a third, and reprising thee victorious biblical days of yore. The Jews, God’s ‘chosen’, were back with a bang. And if anyone had lingering doubts of it, Israel’s forthcoming 6-day romp would resoundingly dispel them.

In June of 1967, its existence yet again between a rock and a hard place, Israel ‘miraculously’ persevered. In less than a week it’d obliterate three air forces, recoup its biblically earmarked homeland, and sink the Arab world into a malaise they’ve yet come out of. What transpired seemed nothing short of supernatural; God’s will had simply prevailed.

There were and are other explanations for Israel’s victories–including Arab ineptitude and squabbling, Israel’s qualitative military advantage and intelligence to name just a few –but that’s not the point. Rather, we too often ignore the power of a narrative — especially a divine one — wherein a miraculous military sustains and spreads purpose and wins hearts and minds.

No doubt, the ISIS’s short work of Mosul will be interpreted by Jihadi fan-bases as a 6 Day War-esque miracle; the watershed in which God revealed his hand.

For them, this ‘revelation’ hardens the perception that the ISIS’s meteoric resurrection, from moribundity to organizational hegemon, was no fluke.

The group was as good as “defeated” in 2011. And now, just 3 years later, it presides over an Islamic kingdom spanning two former countries (both home to capitals of the former Caliphate), hundreds of square miles, and several major and economically important cities. That, they’ll say, can only be understood as ethereal.

Many Jihadi groups have waxed rhetorical over the establishment of an Islamic sovereign; and yet none have gone the distance—until now. Clearly, God helps those that walk the walk, they’ll aver. And it’s this very proactiveness and devotion that’s earned the ISIS his grace. It’s indomitability in Mosul and now Tikrit, is exhibit A of this heavenly aegis.

Alas, for those not sold on the credibility of the Jihadi cause, are conflicted over whether to enlist or what group to join (i.e. Jabhat al Nusra or ISIS?), this latest piece of ‘evidence’ may be what solidifies their convictions and propels them towards signing ‘on the dotted line.’

Quite conceivably, the ISIS’s triumph in Mosul will embellish the credibility of its narrative and concomitantly flood its ranks with new recruits. Along with buying off the hearts and minds of locals, the $425 million in booty the group plundered from local banks will enable it to finance the likely accretion of manpower.

No less consequential, as some experts anticipate, other AQ affiliates who feel they’re being upstaged and overshadowed by the ISIS victory bash may be compelled to turn up the heat. Though Jabhat al Nusra, the ISIS’s AQ arch nemesis, is actually benefiting from Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s storm troopers, as well as pro-assad Shiite militias, shifting some of their attention elsewhere.

Ultimately, if the perception of ISIS apotheosis isn’t nipped in the bud, the group will continue to boom in size and menace. US military assistance, in and of itself, is unlikely to address this—and may even actually further the fairy tale; ‘additional proof’ that the US is conspiring with the Shiites to subjugate Sunnis. Of course the Devil will redouble its efforts when it sees Allah’s chosen triumphant!

Unfortunately, the only strategy capable of rolling back the ISIS once and for all is one Iraq’s Maliki led government has consistently been loath to entertain; specifically, abrogating the country’s invidious de-baathification laws and facilitating transparent, non-sectarian government oversight bodies.

Maliki must forge a new Iraq that caters impartially to all of its ethnic constituents. Currently, ISIS ‘residents’ see little reason to resist their new overlords for a future of discrimination. Thus, Maliki must offer an alternative that is more palatable than an Islamic theocracy. The US, for its part, must condition any military support it lends on the government’s issuance of seismic political concessions. Otherwise, the ISIS and its perceived ‘divine imprimatur’, isn’t going anywhere.