Archive for the ‘Trump and Middle East’ category

New US military moves in the Mid-East & Israel’s Syria air raid were coordinated

December 3, 2017

New US military moves in the Mid-East & Israel’s Syria air raid were coordinated, DEBKAfile, December 3, 2017

(Please see also, Trump’s strategic vision. — DM)

By mid-week, the Trump administration should have reached a decision that indicates whether or not it has caved in under Palestinian threats. The next few days will also show whether the new US Middle East momentum is a flash in the pan or a fresh start to be continued.

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The US hands-off to Iran’s top general in Iraq, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s changeover of sides in the Yemen war and Trump’s’ thinking on Jerusalem – all signal a new, proactive US strategy for the region.

Central Intelligence Agency chief Mike Pompeo was uncharacteristically frank when he addressed high-ranking US military and security officials on Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Reagan Presidential Foundation. He revealed that he had sent a note to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Al Qods chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and explained: “I sent it because he had indicated that forces under his control might in fact threaten US interests n Iraq.”

Soleimani replied that he had refused to open the letter, commenting: “It didn’t break my heart to be honest with you.” Pompeo went on to elaborate: “What we were communicating to him in that letter was that we will hold him and Iran accountable… and we wanted to make sure that he and the leadership of Iran understood that in a way that was crystal clear.”

Since words clearly don’t mean much without deeds, the United States, after being frozen in place for months in the Middle East, suddenly sprang into action in the past 48 hours, along with its senior Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, on four fronts: Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Palestinians.

IRAQ:  Large-scale US forces arrived at the Kaywan base-K1 west of the oil city of Kirkuk and then split into two contingents: several hundred troops stayed on base while the second contingent headed east on Friday, Dec. 1 towards Tuz Khumatu in eastern Iraq (See attached map)  and took control of the Siddiq military airport 35km to the west. Tuz Khumatu lies 100km west of the Iraqi-Iranian border and 163km north of Baghdad. DEBKAfile’s military sources report that American troops have never been deployed so close to the Iranian border since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. This movement was meant to strongly advise Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to stop playing ball with Iran to the extent that he did in mid-October, when he allowed pro-Iranian forces to grab Kirkurk and its oilfields from the Kurds. Washington was chiefly drawing a large X on Soleimani’s plan for bringing  Northern Iraq’s oil under Iranian control.

SYRIA: Early Saturday, Dec. 2, Israeli warplanes dropped missiles on a secret meeting of pro-Iranian Shiite militia chiefs taking place at the Syrian army’s 91st Brigade HQ, outside al-Kiswah – 14km southwest of Damascus and 50km from the Golan. These militias, which have been fighting for Bashar Assad under Gen. Soleimani’s command, were being briefed by Iranian and Hizballah officers on their next offensive. This was Israel’s first attack on any of his forces.

YEMEN: On Saturday, Ali Abdullah Saleh, former president of Yemen, the mainstay of the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency, announced he was “turning the page.” He was ready to ditch the Houthis and their backer, Iran – provided that the coalition (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) lifted the blockade they had imposed on Yemen to cut off incoming Iranian weapons and halted its attacks. Saleh’s announcement sparked violent clashes between his followers and the Houthis.

DEBKAfile’s military sources recall that Yemen’s ex-president had long maintained ties with the CIA. His change of sides was timed to coincide with a fresh US-Saudi intelligence push to restore Saleh to the pro-Western Arab camp and topple pro-Iranian positions in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.

ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS: The Trump administration is fed up with dodgy Palestinian tactics on peace negotiations. Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin-Salman are likewise ready to wash their hands of the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). US officials tried threatening to shut down the PLO office in Washington unless the Palestinians finally came to the table for peace talks and are now holding over Palestinian heads a possible decision – either to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or recognize the city as Israel’s capital.

To ward off these actions, all Abu Mazen needs to do is to pick up the phone to the White House, the royal palace in Riyadh and the presidential residence in Cairo and declare his willingness to cooperate with their initiatives to restart the peace process. But so far, Abbas is holding out, resorting instead to his outdated tactics: threatening that the entire Middle East will go up in flames and Palestinian terrorism will again raise its head if the Trump administration goes through with new decisions on Jerusalem.

By mid-week, the Trump administration should have reached a decision that indicates whether or not it has caved in under Palestinian threats. The next few days will also show whether the new US Middle East momentum is a flash in the pan or a fresh start to be continued.

Trump’s strategic vision

December 3, 2017

Trump’s strategic vision, Israel National News, Ted Belman, December 2, 2017

Former Minister of Defense for Israel, Moshe Yaalon, just wrote a major opinion piece titled United States Policy in the Middle East: The Need for a Grand Strategy, which was published by the Institute for National Security Studies. In it, he claimed:

“The first year of the Trump administration has been characterized by the lack of clear policy guidelines vis-à-vis the Middle East. The great hopes that many countries in the region hung on the change of administration and a new proactive president in the White House have slowly been eclipsed by a sense of confusion, given United States behavior that shows little consistency and no clear strategic objectives.”

Yaalon, who has been out of office now for two years doesn’t know what is going on. On the contrary, the Trump administration does have a grand strategy, grander than imagined.

Many countries in the region, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have never been more hopeful about what they understand to be his strategic objectives and his plans for achieving them.

Remember Trump has consistently refused to telegraph his foreign policy moves while at the same time has consistently repeated that he intends to push back against Iran expansionism.

Saudi Arabia

When President Trump was campaigning, he kept saying that he wanted to defeat ISIS and its ideology. He was ridiculed for thinking he could eradicate the ideology.  It didn’t take him long to make good on his word.

His administration got to work immediately with the Sunni states, but principally with Mohamed ben Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia.  Al Sisi of Egypt was already on board as evidenced by a speech he made two years ago in which he said:

“I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics. We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world. It is inconceivable that this ideology… I am referring not to ‘religion,’ but to ‘ideology’– the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.

“It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]  [..]. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionize our religion.”

Four months after his inauguration, Pres Trump made his historic trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in which he addressed 50 Arab and Muslim leaders:
“Later today, we will make history again with the opening of a new Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology – located right here, in this central part of the Islamic world. This groundbreaking new center represents a clear declaration that Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combatting radicalization”

“But above all we must be united in pursuing the one goal that transcends every other consideration. That goal is to meet history’s great test — to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism.

“Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred.”

His message was clear and had already been agreed upon.

“Yesterday, we signed historic agreements with the Kingdom that will invest almost $400 billion in our two countries and create many thousands of jobs in America and Saudi Arabia.“This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase – and we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies. This agreement will help the Saudi military to take a greater role in security operations.”

The last sentence suggests that the fighting will be done by the Sunnis with American backing rather than the other way around.

“But this (prosperous) future can only be achieved through defeating terrorism and the ideology that drives it.”

The Arab world understands this and is all for it. With the price of oil being what it is and likely to stay low, the Saudis will be bankrupt in a 5 years as they are eating into their surplus of $750 billion at an alarming rate. By jointly agreeing to spend $400 billion to achieve prosperity, they are putting their money where their mouth is. They are committed and so is the US.

As further evidence of their commitment, MBS announced the Vision 2030.

Essentially this is an economic vision that requires Saudi Arabia to open up to the world to create an environment conducive to foreign investment. Thus, it must westernize.

“Our Vision is a strong, thriving, and stable Saudi Arabia that provides opportunity for all. Our Vision is a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method. We will welcome qualified individuals from all over the world and will respect those who have come to join our journey and our success.”

They also can’t take on Iran without Israel.

Egypt is in a worse position. She needs Israel’s help in building her economy and in defeating the terrorists in Sinai and Libya.

Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017. The severing of relations included withdrawing ambassadors, and imposing trade and travel bans.

The crisis is an escalation of the Qatar–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict. The Saudi-led coalition cited Qatar’s support for terrorism and open alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as the main reasons for their actions. Saudi Arabia and other countries have criticized Al Jazeeraand Qatar’s relations with Iran.
Qatar is a big supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Hamas, whereas Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the others have banned the MB as a terrorist organization and are coming down hard on Hamas.

In October 2017, Saudi Arabia announced plans to build a $500 Billion city to be called Neom in the north west corner of Saudi Arabia. It will reach into Jordan and Egypt.

Bloomberg reported:

“It would be a microcosm of Saudi Arabia 2.0 while its new 32-year-old leader reconfigures the rest of the economy to make it fit for the modern world in a way that past rulers have failed to do. Other massive cities in the desert have been announced with much fanfare, then have floundered short of expectations, like the $10 billion office park on the outskirts of Riyadh sitting largely unoccupied and unfinished.

“The city “constitutes an attempt to create an economic zone that is more efficient and streamlined than the overall economy that will take time to reform,” said James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “The question is whether one can isolate a megacity from the inefficiencies of the country’s economy.””

As you can see, it is a huge gamble, born no doubt out of the huge need to to transform Saudi Arabia.

Jordan

Jordan too is a supporter of the MB, who have their headquarters in the country. While King Abdullah has enjoyed a good reputation among Congressmen and Members of Knesset, his reputation has been greatly tarnished in the last two years, so much so that the White House and the Netanyahu government are ready to ditch him.

What may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for them is the fact that Jordan’s king very own security agencies, which he controls with an iron-fist, have been caught red-handed stealing US and British weapons and selling them to ISIS.

Here are some recent articles which tell the tale.

Another Jordanian-made knife in the back of Israel.

Israel-Jordan peace agreement: The emperor has no clothes 

They see King Abdullah as an obstacle to peace rather than a guarantor of peace. They also believe that civil war is coming to Jordan unless they make a move to prevent it. While they may not say so publicly, some Israeli journalists do.

The US made their first move this week by announcing:

“Now, according to Stars and Stripes, Congress has added $143 million to the Pentagon budget, to upgrade the strategic Muwaffaq Salti Air Base, close to Jordan’s border with Syria and Iraq. The base has played a key role in the US military in its war with ISIS, and requires urgent upgrades, according to the Air Force, being overwhelmed as it is by the increased numbers and scope of operations.”

This is just the first step in moving the base in Qatar with its 11,000 US airmen to the base in Jordan.

General Charles Wald, USAIR, told Fox News US doesn’t need Qatar air base if Qatar won’t support our fight against terrorism .

This has been done to forestall a civil war in Jordan. The King has lost control of Jordan and the US is calling the shots. Watch for the drama to unfold.

The Arab/Israeli Conflict.

The right in Israel are very unhappy that Trump won’t move the Embassy to Jerusalem, won’t let Israel build though out Judea and Samaria, won’t let her expand the boundaries of Jerusalem and won’t let her demolish illegally build Arab structures. They are also unhappy that Trump keeps working on a plan, a process, for achieving “peace”.

But as the Economist pointed out in a recent article, Whatever the administration produces, Saudi Arabia is likely to support it.

“For Prince Muhammad, it seems, Palestinian aspirations to statehood are less important than countering Iran.”

“Prince Muhammad may calculate that a viable peace process would give him political cover to make the alliance more overt.”

And one might conclude that that is what the purpose of the process is.

Lebanon

Prime Minister Saad Harari resigned his post in Lebanon and then travelled to Saudi Arabia where he made a speech denouncing Hezbollah. On returning to Lebanon, he withdrew his resignation. But all is not lost.

BESA reports, “Hariri is believed to be demanding that Hezbollah halt its support to Houthi rebels in Yemen and withdraw from Syria, where its fighters supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “ and argues that this goal may yet be achieved.

Iraq Kurdistan

The US reprimanded them for holding the referendum against its wishes and allowed Iraq to take back Kirkuk. Do not fear for the independence of Kurdistan. Their day will come. America has a strategic plan which mandates dealing with Jordan first.

The US wants to cement the alliance of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt before pushing back on Iran.

Syria Kurdistan

According to the Washington Post, no friend of Pres Trump, The U.S. must prepare for Iran’s next move in Syria

“A task force of senior former U.S. diplomatic and military officials has come up with suggestions for how Trump could prevent Iran from taking over what’s left of liberated Syria and fulfill his own promise to contain Iranian influence in the region”.

“First, the United States needs to declare a clear Syria policy that removes suspicions that the United States is going to pull up stakes now that the Islamic State caliphate has fallen. The policy should make clear that a U.S. military presence will remain on the ground and in the air, to ensure that the Islamic State doesn’t reemerge and Assad doesn’t retake the entire country, and to provide security for reconstruction.

“Second, the Trump administration must increase its assistance to Sunni communities lucky enough to live outside Assad’s rule and help U.S.-supported local groups hold valuable territory in Syria’s southeast. This territory can provide local communities economic benefits now and political leverage down the line.

“Third, the United States should work with regional allies to stop Iran from moving weapons and troops into Syria. That would require interdicting shipments by sea and ensuring that U.S.-supported forces control key border towns in Syria and Iraq. Such moves could check Iranian aggression without triggering armed conflict with Tehran.”

“Accordingly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pledged last week that U.S. forces would remain to prevent the emergence of “ISIS 2.0” and until the political process gets off the ground, but he stopped short of saying America would keep Iran’s aggression at bay.”

As Caroline Glick rightly points out, in Portents of Quagmires in Syria, recently published:

“If Trump keeps US forces in Syrian Kurdistan, and if he refuses to help pay for Syrian reconstruction so long as Assad remains in power and Iranian and Hezbollah forces remain on the ground and if the US ends its civilian and military assistance to Lebanon, the US and its allies will be strengthened, and Russia and its allies will be weakened.

“If the Americans do not interfere as Syrian “freedom fighters” defend against Iranian or Russian “aggression,” it won’t matter what terms the Iranians give Putin for gas, or oil or nuclear deals. He will seek a way out of Syria.“

And she concludes:

“If the Americans do not save them, the situation on the ground augers quagmire, not triumph, for their axis and for their separate regimes.”

So rather than United States behavior showing “little consistency and no clear strategic objectives” as Yaalon writes, I would argue that Trump, does indeed, have a strategic vision. That vision involves the US fostering an open alliance of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel so that they can do the heavy lifting in pushing back Iran and its allies and ultimately to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.

Trump’s Unsung Success in the Middle East

November 15, 2017

Trump’s Unsung Success in the Middle East, PJ MediaDavid P. Goldman, November 14, 2017

Israel Trump

But overall, Trump’s Middle East policy has been a success, in striking contrast to his predecessors. The supposed Middle East mavens among the preening NeverTrumpers (Max Boot, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Bill Kristol et. al) made a mess of things, and Trump has gone a long way to cleaning it up. That’s not bad for one year in office.

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President Trump’s Middle East policy is simple: Back our friends and scare the hell out of our enemies, and negotiate where possible with our competitors like Russia and China. By and large it’s working, unlike the catastrophically failed polices of the previous two administrations. Trump did what he said he would do and succeeded. You wouldn’t know that from the #fakenews media.

Start with Israel: The Muslim strategy to destroy Israel hasn’t envisioned war–not at least since 1973–because Israel in all cases would win. Instead, the objective is to ring Israel with missiles and force Israel to retaliate against missile attacks in such a way that the “international community” would respond by imposing a “settlement” on Israel that would leave Israel vulnerable to further missiles attacks, and so forth. This is stated explicitly by Palestinian strategists cited by Haviv Rettig Gur in The Times of Israel.

George W. Bush and Obama gave aid and comfort to the encircle-and-strangle strategy by tying Israel’s hands. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wouldn’t let Olmert attack Hezbollah with full force in 2006. Rice thinks the Palestinian movement is a branch of the U.S. civil rights movement (if you don’t believe that characterization, read her book “Democracy,” which I will review for Claremont Review of Books).

Obama sandbagged Israel during the 2014 Gaza rocket attacks, suspending delivery of Hellfire missiles to the Jewish State. Israel is the only country in the world that embeds human rights lawyers in every infantry company to make sure that its soldiers keep collateral damage to a minimum.

Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese militia, has 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel, and many of them can hit any target in the country. In the case of a major rocket attack from Hezbollah against Israel, military logic dictates the preemptive neutralization of rocket launchers embedded in civilian populations–what an Israeli strategist close to the PM described to me as “Dresden.” There would be tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Trump will not tie Israel’s hands in the case of attack, and will not interfere with Israel’s ability to defend herself. That makes Israel’s deterrent against Iran credible.

Hillary Clinton insisted that the “technology of war,” in particular the rockets ringing Israel, would force Israel to accept a phony peace agreement whose main effect would be to bring the rocket launchers closer to Israel. The photograph below shows the runways and main terminal building of Israel’s international airport from an Arab village in Judea: Hand this over to the Palestinians and primitive short-range missiles can shut down the Israel economy. There’s an easy way to stop the rockets, which is to kill the people who shoot them. That might mean killing the human shields whom the cowardly terrorists put in front of the rockets, but under international law, a country acting in self-defense has every right to kill civilians.

For that reason alone, anyone who claims to be a friend of Israel must support Trump against the alternative. One can criticize Trump all day with justification, but the existential issue of Israel’s survival requires Jews to support him. Jewish never-Trumpers are infected with what our rabbis of antiquity called “baseless hatred.”

The second big issue is Saudi Arabia, which competed with Iran for decades as the biggest funder of terrorists and religious extremists. After Trump’s March 2017 trip to Saudi Arabia, where he read the riot act to assembled Arab leaders, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has centralized control of the government and seized hundreds of billions of dollars of royal family assets. The $800 billion of royal family wealth targeted is larger than the national reserves of the kingdom. As I wrote in Asia Times last week, Saudi Arabia has gotten its first real government, as opposed to the family regime that allowed every crazy cousin to write checks to terrorists. Of course, the kingdom well might get its second, third and fourth real government in short order if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fails. But the de facto coup is a huge blow to Sunni jihadism and a victory for American policy.

Prince Mohammed and his father King Salman had visited Moscow in late September, and the Russian and Chinese press express guarded optimism about the regime change (see the cited Asia Times article). Russia and China have a great deal to fear from Sunni jihadists (virtually all their Muslim citizens are Sunni) and a Saudi ruler willing to close the tap is good for them. As I wrote, its win-win-win-win for the U.S., Russia, China and Israel.

That ought to scare the Persians plenty. The Saudis get very bad press for chopping up the Houthi-led tribes in Yemen, Iran’s allies. They are making a horrible example of the Houthi for the edification of Iran. That is disgusting, to be sure, but that’s the way things are done in that part of the world. The Assad government in Syria did much worse, deliberately bombing civilians to drive out the Sunni majority in order to replace it with Shi’ite colonists.

The Saudis don’t have much of an army, and their air force depends on Pakistani mercenaries, but they do have nearly 300 fourth-generation aircraft (F-15’s, Eurofighters, and Tornadoes) as well as a huge stock of Chinese-made medium range missiles. They can hire Pakistanis or Egyptians to fly them if necessary. Iran has tough soldiers but no air force to speak of. If it comes to war (which it shouldn’t) between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran will suffer badly. A dozen power plants provide more than half the country’s electricity, for example, and could not be defended in case of war.

There isn’t much to do about Iran now that its economic ties point eastwards to China, except to terrify the Tehran mullahs. That’s old-fashioned balance of terror–not my favorite way of doing things, but a policy that worked reasonably well during the Cold War. It’s easy to talk about tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement–but now there are two rail lines linking Iran to China, and the West’s influence in the region has vastly diminished. Unfortunately, grand gestures may not bring grand results, and the U.S. has to play tought and sometimes dirty.

Ultimately any regional issue depends on the strategic position of the United States with respect to China and Russia. We continue to lose ground, and Trump hasn’t yet offered an initiative to reverse it (I would begin by a crash program for missile defense, including space-based systems).

There are any number of things to criticize in the administration’s handling of the Middle East. I would have preferred a tougher approach to Iran’s presence in Syria in our negotiations with Russia over a cease-fire, and a more supportive stance towards the Iraqi Kurds’ aspirations for independence (although as Daniel Pipes observes, the fact that the independence referendum backfired was the Kurds’ own fault). And I would like the president to keep his campaign promise to move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

But overall, Trump’s Middle East policy has been a success, in striking contrast to his predecessors. The supposed Middle East mavens among the preening NeverTrumpers (Max Boot, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Bill Kristol et. al) made a mess of things, and Trump has gone a long way to cleaning it up. That’s not bad for one year in office.

Israel Takes on the SHIA Crescent

October 2, 2017

Israel Takes on the SHIA Crescent, Front Page MagazineJoseph Klein, October 2, 2017

At least, Israel has a more sympathetic ear in the Trump administration than it did in the Obama administration for raising its concerns about Iran’s growing threat, not only to Israel but to U.S. interests in the region and beyond. President Trump’s sharp denunciation of the Iranian regime during his address to the UN General Assembly represented a welcome departure from the Obama administration’s milquetoast approach to Iran. 

As the U.S.-led coalition continues to drive ISIS from its bases of operation in Syria, the Trump administration has proclaimed its intention not to allow Iran to turn Syria into its own satellite, as Iran has essentially done in Iraq. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said that the “so called liberation of areas by Assad’s forces and Iranian proxies could actually accelerate the cycle of violence and perpetuate conflict rather than get us to a sustainable outcome.” He claimed that the Trump administration’s “objectives are to weaken Iranian influence across the region broadly,” without discussing the means to accomplish those objectives.

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Despite Israel’s repeated warnings, Barack Obama’s reckless appeasement of the Iranian regime has enabled its rise as a hegemonic threat in the Middle East region as well as a threat to international peace and security. In 2009, Obama turned his back on millions of dissidents in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, who were peacefully protesting the rigged election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. In 2011, Obama precipitously removed the remaining U.S. combat troops from Iraq, giving rise to ISIS’s re-emergence in Iraq from its bases in Syria. The radical Shiite Iranian regime purported to come to the “rescue” of both countries from the Sunni terrorists, turning Iraq into a virtual vassal state of the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the process. Obama’s disastrous nuclear deal with Iran legitimized Iran’s path to eventually becoming a nuclear-armed state, while immediately filling its coffers with billions of dollars to fund its aggression. 

Meanwhile, Syria has become ground zero for Iran’s execution of its regional ambitions, which is to establish its Shiite Crescent connecting with its allies, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This plan has included the establishment of a land route that Iranian-backed militias secured in June, beginning on Iran’s border with Iraq and running across Iraq and Syria all the way to Syria’s Mediterranean coast. This road makes Iran’s job easier in supplying arms by land, as well as by air and sea, to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and to equip Iran’s own forces fighting inside of Syria in support of Assad. This helps explain why Iran has placed so much importance on helping the Syrian regime establish control over the Deir ez-Zor area in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border.

“Everything depends now on the Americans’ willingness to stop this,” said an Iraqi Kurdish official who was quoted in a New Yorker article. However, U.S.-led coalition forces apparently have done next to nothing to stop this major advance in Iran’s Shiite Crescent expansion. “Obama ran down our options in Syria so thoroughly, by the time this administration took over,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Iranian influence is spreading because they are so heavily involved in regime activities,” Tabler added. “It’s a new monster.”

Furthermore, Iran has funded and armed its terrorist proxy Hezbollah, which has sent its militia from its home base of Lebanon to fight alongside Assad’s forces.  And Iran has used Syria as a transit point for shipment of sophisticated rockets to Hezbollah in Lebanon for future use against Israeli population centers. Despite the fact that Hezbollah has American blood on its hands, the U.S.-led coalition has chosen not to do anything about Hezbollah’s presence in Syria, bought and paid for by Iran.

While Israel chose not to take sides in Syria’s civil war with military intervention of its own, it has bombed weapons storage facilities and convoys inside Syria for its own protection. Just recently, on September 7th, Israeli jets struck a Syrian weapons facility near Masyaf, which was reported to have been used for the production of chemical weapons and the storage of missiles. Israel will also do what is necessary to repel Iranian-backed forces if they edge too close to areas near the Golan Heights, shrinking the buffer between Israel and Iranian controlled territories.

However, such tactical measures may not be enough to thwart Iran’s larger ambitions. In light of intelligence reports that Assad may be ready to invite Iran to set up military bases in Syria, Israeli leaders have concluded that they cannot wait until the Trump administration decides to deal more forcefully with Iran’s growing use of Syria as a staging area for carrying out its expansionist Shiite Crescent strategy.  “Their overriding concern in Syria is the free reign that all the major players there seem willing to afford Iran and its various proxies in the country,” wrote Jonathan Spyer in an article for Foreign Policy. As long as nobody else is addressing the concern Iran’s growing control raises in a satisfactory manner, “Israel is determined to continue addressing it on its own.”

At least, Israel has a more sympathetic ear in the Trump administration than it did in the Obama administration for raising its concerns about Iran’s growing threat, not only to Israel but to U.S. interests in the region and beyond. President Trump’s sharp denunciation of the Iranian regime during his address to the UN General Assembly represented a welcome departure from the Obama administration’s milquetoast approach to Iran.

As the U.S.-led coalition continues to drive ISIS from its bases of operation in Syria, the Trump administration has proclaimed its intention not to allow Iran to turn Syria into its own satellite, as Iran has essentially done in Iraq. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said that the “so called liberation of areas by Assad’s forces and Iranian proxies could actually accelerate the cycle of violence and perpetuate conflict rather than get us to a sustainable outcome.” He claimed that the Trump administration’s “objectives are to weaken Iranian influence across the region broadly,” without discussing the means to accomplish those objectives.

Whether the Trump administration follows through remains to be seen. In the meantime, Israel will have to deal with the fallout of Iran’s ambitions in Syria itself.

U.S.: Strategic Objectives in the Middle East

June 22, 2017

U.S.: Strategic Objectives in the Middle East, Gatestone InstitutePeter Huessy, June 22, 2017

On relations with the Palestinian Authority, the administration has moved to improve matters but has not moved to advocate a two-state solution — for which there is no contemplated security framework sufficient to protect Israel.

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The new “test” of our alliance will be whether the assembled nations will join in removing the hateful parts of such a doctrine from their communities.

What still has to be considered is the U.S. approach to stopping Iran from filling the vacuum created by ridding the region of the Islamic State (ISIS), as well as Iran’s push for extending its path straight through to the Mediterranean.

The tectonic plates in the Middle East have shifted markedly with President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and his announced new regional policy.

The trip represented the beginning of a major but necessary shift in US security policy.

For much of the last nearly half-century, American Middle East policy has been centered on the “peace process” and how to bring Israel and the Palestinians to agreement on a “two-state” solution for two peoples — a phrase that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to say.

First was shuttle diplomacy during 1973-74 in the Nixon administration; then second, in 1978, the Camp David agreement and the recognition of Israel by Egypt, made palatable by $7 billion in new annual US assistance to the two nations; third, the anti-Hizballah doctrine, recently accurately described by National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster, as Iran, since 1983, started spreading its terror to Lebanon and elsewhere in the region. This last effort was often excused by many American and European analysts as a result somehow, of supposed American bad faith. Fourth, came the birth, in 1992, of the “Oslo Accords” where some Israelis and Palestinians imagined that a two-state solution was just another round of negotiations away.

Ironically, during the decade after Oslo, little peace was achieved; instead, terror expanded dramatically. The Palestinians launched three wars, “Intifadas,” against Israel; Al Qaeda launched its terror attacks on U.S. Embassies in Africa; and Iran, Hizballah, and Al Qaeda together carried out the forerunner attacks against America of 9/11/2001.

Since 9/11, despite wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism has not only failed to recede; on the contrary, it has expanded. Iran has become the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, and the Islamic State (ISIS) has tried to establish a transnational “Islamic caliphate.” Literally tens of thousands of terror attacks have been carried out since 9/11 by those claiming an Islamic duty to do so. These assaults on Western civilization have taken place on bridges, cafes, night clubs, offices, military recruitment centers, theaters, markets, and sporting events — not only across the West but also in countries where Muslims have often been the primary victims.

Particularly condemnable have been the improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, perpetrated to a great extent by Iran, according to U.S. military testimony before Congress.

All the while, we in the West keep trying to convince ourselves that, as a former American president thought, if there were a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, most of the terrorist attacks we see in Europe and the United States “would disappear.”

No matter how hard we may rhetorically push the “peace process”, there is no arc of history that bends naturally in that direction. Rather, nations such as the United States together with its allies must create those alliances best able to meet the challenges to peace and especially defeat the totalitarian elements at the core of Islamist ideology.

If anything, the so-called Middle East “peace process” has undercut chances of achieving a sound U.S. security policy. While the search for a solution to the Israel-Palestinian “problem” dominated American thinking about Middle East peace for so many decades, other far more serious threats materialized but were often ignored, not the least of which was the rise of Iran as the world’s most aggressive terrorist.

The United States has now moved in a markedly more promising and thoughtful direction.

The new American administration has put together an emerging coalition of nations led by the United States that seeks five objectives:

(1) the defeat of Islamic State;

(2) the formation of a coalition of the major Arab nations, especially Egypt and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to clean up in their own back yards financing terrorism and providing terrorists with sanctuary. As Elliott Abrams, an adviser to former U.S. President George W. Bush, cautions us, however, this will not be an easy effort: “Partnerships with repressive regimes may in some cases exacerbate rather than solve the problem for us” but, Abrams says, “gradual reform is exactly the right approach…”;

3) “driving out” sharia-inspired violence and human rights abuses from the region’s mosques and madrassas;

(4) a joint partnership with Israel as part of an emerging anti-Iran coalition — without letting relations with the Palestinian authority derail United States and Israeli security interests; and

(5) the adoption of a strategy directly to challenge Iran’s quest for regional and Islamic hegemony, while ending its role in terrorism.

Defeating Islamic State

Defeating ISIS began with an accelerated military campaign and a new American-led strategy to destroy the organization rather than to seek its containment. According to the new U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, “Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia. We’re going to stop them there and take apart the caliphate.”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis. (Dept. of Defense/Brigitte N. Brantley)

So far, the United States coalition has driven ISIS from 55,000 square kilometers of territory in Iraq and Syria.

A New Coalition

Apart from a strategy to counter ISIS, the Trump administration also called on our allies in the Middle East to put together a new joint multi-state effort to stop financing terrorism. Leading the multi-state effort will be the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States, which together will supposedly open a new center dedicated to the elimination of terrorist financing. Positive results are not guaranteed, but it is a step in the right direction.

According to Abdul Hadi Habtoor, the center will exchange information about financing networks, adopt means to cut off funding from terrorist groups, and hopefully blacklist Iran’s jihadist army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These measures in turn will help eliminate the sanctuaries from which terrorists plot and plan.

This move also places emphasis on the responsibility of states to eliminate terrorism. As President Trump said, each country — where it is sovereign — has to “carry the weight of their own self-defense“, be “pro-active” and responsible for “eradicating terrorism”, and “to deny all territory to the foot soldiers of evil”.

This determination was underscored by many Arab countries breaking diplomatic relations with Qatar for its support of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS. Most of Qatar’s Arab neighbors, including the Saudis, Egypt, and the UAE did so, while the US, although denouncing Qatar’s support of terrorism, continues to maintain access to, and use of, its critical military base there.

In short, the U.S. is playing good-cop, bad-cop in the region, while U.S. allies are putting together what Josh Rogin of the Washington Post described as “a regional security architecture encompassing countries on the periphery of Iran.”

Such an approach is not without risk: Turkey, allied with Iran and Qatar, has already has pledged to help Qatar defy the Gulf States’ trade cut-off. If Turkey, for example, seeks to move its promised aid shipments to Qatar through the Suez Canal, the ships could possibly be blocked by Egypt or attacked on the high seas. Does the U.S. then come to the assistance of a NATO member — Turkey — against an ally in the strategic coalition?

Drive Hateful Ideology Out

A companion challenge by the new American President underscored this new security effort. President Trump said to the assembled nations of the Islamic conference that they have to expel the ugly Islamist ideology from the mosques and madrassas that recruit terrorists and justify their actions.

Trump said: “Drive them out of your places of worship”. Such words had never been spoken so clearly by an American president, especially to the collection of nearly all the Islamic-majority countries (minus the Shi’ite bloc) gathered together.

The president’s audience doubtless understood that he was speaking of the doctrine of sharia (Islamic law). The new “test” of our alliance will be whether the assembled nations will join in removing the hateful parts of the doctrine from their communities. It was a sharp but critical departure from the previous American administration’s message in Cairo in 2009, and placed the Islamic doctrine that seeks to establish the sharia throughout the world in a contained context.

New Israeli Partnership

With Israel, the administration has cemented the next part of its strategy. Here the Trump administration successfully improved our political and military relations with Israel. Markedly so. One part of that effort was enhanced missile-defense cooperation called for in the FY18 United States defense budget, specifically to deal with Iranian and Iranian-allied missile threats.

On relations with the Palestinian Authority, the administration has moved to improve matters but has not moved to advocate a two-state solution — for which there is no contemplated security framework sufficient to protect Israel.

Challenge and Roll Back Iran

The final part of the administration’s strategy starts with a thorough review of our Iran strategy and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or “nuclear deal”, with Iran. As Max Singer recently wrote, even if we discount what secretive nuclear capability Iran may now have, the Iranian regime will at the very least be much closer to producing nuclear weapons down the road than when the JCPOA was agreed to.

As Ambassador John Bolton has warned the nuclear deal with Iran did nothing to restrain Iranian harmful behavior: “Defiant missile launches… support for the genocidal Assad regime… backing of then Houthi insurgency in Yemen… worldwide support for terrorism… and commitment to the annihilation of Israel” continue.

In addition, uranium enrichment, heavy water production, the concealed military dimensions of warhead development and joint missile and nuclear work with North Korea all lend a critical urgency to countering Iran’s lethal efforts. The United States did not make these counter-efforts any easier by providing to Tehran $100 billion in escrowed Iranian funds, equivalent to nearly one quarter of the Islamic Republic’s annual GDP.

The United States’ and Europe’s easing of sanctions on Iran has helped reintegrate Iran into global markets via mechanisms such as the electronic payment system run by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT). That, in turn, has helped Iran expand dramatically its military modernization budget by 33%, including deals worth tens of billions of dollars in military hardware with China and Russia.

Added to that is Iranian financial- and weapons-support for foreign fighters in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Iran’s significant support to the Houthi rebels in Yemen includes weaponry, financing and logistical support, including advanced offensive missiles. The Houthis regularly attempt to carry out missile attacks against Saudi oil facilities.

Such Iran activity is described by the Commander of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Votel, as “the most significant threat to the Central Region and to our national interests and the interest of our partners and allies”.

As such, it can only be challenged through exactly the kind of military, political, and economic coalition the Trump administration is seeking to band together, which would include the Gulf Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia, as well as Egypt, Jordan, and Israel.

The administration’s five-step strategy has a chance to work. It creates a policy to destroy ISIS; oppose Islamic terrorism and specifically the imposition of sharia; adopt measures to go after the financing of such terrorism; implement improvements in Gulf allies’ military capabilities — including missile defenses — parallel with pushing NATO members to meet their military spending obligations; put back into place a sound and cooperative relationship with Israel; and specifically contain and roll back Iranian hegemonic ambitions and its terror-master ways.

What still has to be considered, however, is the U.S. approach to stopping Iran from filling the vacuum created by ridding the region of ISIS, as well as Iran’s push for extending its path straight through to the Mediterranean.

If successful, some modicum of peace may be brought to the Middle East. And the arc of history will have finally been shaped toward America’s interests and those of its allies, rather than — however inadvertently — toward its mortal enemies.

Dr. Peter Huessy is President of GeoStrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981, and was the senior defense consultant at the National Defense University Foundation for more than 20 years.

Will Trump make a peace breakthrough in 2018?

June 15, 2017

Will Trump make a peace breakthrough in 2018? DEBKAfile, June 15, 2017

(Lots of speculation about future events, but an interesting piece nevertheless. — DM)

US President Donald Trump’s goal of generating a rapid improvement of Israel’s ties with the Arab world, including the Palestinians in 2018, is not just up to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but depends largely on how the Trump administration handles the continuing conflict between Qatar and its powerful Arab opponents, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Up until the end of this week, Trump had turned down the efforts of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resolve the Gulf conflict by diplomacy. Instead of heeding them, the president took the advice of the Saudi defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, who visited Washington this week. Tillerson and Mattis tried to arrange a conference between Saudi Arabia and Qatar so as to gradually ease the tensions, but Trump torpedoed the initiative by adopting Riyadh’s tough line.

A complex situation has arisen in the last few days regarding the US diplomacy for bringing Israel and the Palestinians aboard a peace process. The signs of movement on this score fluctuate between crises and some progress:

1. The Gaza electricity row falls under the first heading. Some circles contend that the crisis is artificial, since the Palestinian enclave is receiving as much power now as before. What is different is the new, intensified pressure by Egypt on the one hand and the Palestinian Authority on the other in the hope of toppling Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip or squeezing its leaders into toeing their lines. Neither Egyptian President Abel Fatteh El-Sisi nor the Palestinian Authority chairman has made headway. Hamas stubbornly refuses Cairo’s demand to sever ties with Qatar, while launching a counteroffensive to draw Israel into the dispute by making an empty threat of an “explosion.”

Israel responded with a counter-threat on Thursday, June 15: a proposal to transfer one hour’s worth of power from West Bank Palestinian towns to boost the supply to Gaza.

This maneuver kept the entire electricity issue in the court from it was tossed, Ramallah.

2. A shower of Israeli concessions is landing on the Palestinians judging by almost daily reports. Some are true and others false. But in sum, they are designed to impress President Trump with the Netanyahu government’s good will towards his peace initiative and readiness to take steps in its support. In fact, the prime minister is preparing the ground for the forthcoming arrival of Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy on the Israel-Palestinian issue.

3. US Secretary of State Tillerson this week informed the Senate that the Palestinian Authority had agreed to  halt its payments to the families of Palestinian terrorists who were killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis. Palestinian officials no doubt let this be understood to demonstrate their willingness to go along with Trump’s peace initiative, without, however, have any real intention of following through.

4. Media reports and the findings of Arab research institutes add up to the following predictions on the fate of the negotiations generated by the Trump administration between Israel and the Arab world:

A. Some time during 2018, a showcase summit will be staged for Trump, Netanyahu and leading Arab rulers like Saudi King Salman, Egyptian President El-Sisi and the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

They will publish a joint declaration signaling the phased normalization of relations with Israel by such preliminary steps as the exchange of economic and business delegations, the opening of trade offices and of Arab skies to Israeli commecial flights. None of these researchers is clear about the Palestinian role in this event.

B. Meanwhile, Israel will make concessions towards improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians, such as removing checkpoints, issuing building permits for Palestinian towns and more jobs in Israel.

C. Israel and the Palestinian Authority will expand their security cooperation. The Palestinians will be persuaded to cease their incitement against the Jewish State and stop payouts to the families of convicted Palestinian terrorists and other security offenders.

D. Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will ensue, without preconditions on either side, and expand. with Arab governments sitting in.

E. At the end of a period of some years, this process will mature into a discussion of the core issues of the dispute, Palestinian statehood, future borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees.

In other words, the year 2018 will see the building of normal relations between Israel and Arab countries to be followed at a later date by the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. President Trump has clearly seized on relations with Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi as a lever for pushing Israel and the Palestinians into peace talks.

The idea is simple. Israel’s improved ties with the Arab world will resonate positively on Israeli-Palestinian relations. That appears to be Trump’s formula for peace. But there is a catch. It depends heavily on the US President maintaining good relations with the Arab world in the long term.

White House: Middle East Crisis Sparked By Trump’s Demand to End Support for Extremists Groups

June 13, 2017

White House: Middle East Crisis Sparked By Trump’s Demand to End Support for Extremists Groups, Washington Free Beacon, , June 13, 2017

(Please see also, Military crisis in Qatar may spark Gaza outbreak — DM)

US President Donald Trump (R) and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

A percolating crisis in the Middle East over a top U.S. military ally’s support for extremist terror groups was ignited by President Donald Trump’s demand that U.S. allies in the Arab world end their support for Islamic extremism, according to senior U.S. officials familiar with the situation.

Trump is seeking a more active role in mediating a growing dispute between leading Arab nations and Qatar, a U.S. counterterrorism ally that has long provided financial support to the very terror groups it has vowed to fight.

Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East—where he publicly and privately urged top Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia to crackdown on Islamic extremism—is said to have sparked a regional dispute with Qatar, thrusting the country’s issues with terrorism financing into the spotlight, sources told the Washington Free Beacon.

U.S. officials, both inside and outside the White House, have long avoided the thorny issue of Qatar’s support for terrorism in an effort to preserve military relations with the country, which hosts a major U.S. air base that is a central front in the war against terror.

Trump’s focus on Qatar is said to be part of a larger regional strategy that focuses on strangling financial support for terror organizations that long benefited from Arab governments turning a blind eye to the issue.

Trump’s push to crackdown on this type of behavior—not just in Qatar—is said to have fueled the diplomatic break with Qatar earlier this month, which saw several leading Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia ceasing all diplomatic ties with the energy-rich nation.

U.S. officials and administration insiders who spoke with the Free Beacon about the situation said that Trump is seeking to play an active role in helping to mediate the crisis and shutdown Qatar’s financing of terror groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.

“Look, last month President Trump visited Riyadh and gave a historic speech challenging America’s Arab friends and partners to do more to combat the violent radicalization that is growing within Islam,” one senior administration official told the Free Beacon.

“And the fact of the matter is that even though Qatar has been an important partner in some areas, they’ve also been a significant source of terrorist financing,” said the official, who would only speak on background when discussing the sensitive diplomatic issue. “What you’re seeing now is a regional response to the president’s challenge, and Qatar is going to have to respond as well.”

Trump’s stance against Islamic extremism and willingness to call out state backers of the movement has forced U.S. officials, particularly those in the Department of Defense, to address an issue that has been downplayed in pursuit of preserving diplomatic relations with Qatar and other Arab nations, sources said.

The hope is this will result in concrete change, which has been elusive in recent years as nations such as Qatar play both sides of the terror issue.

“American policy in the Gulf has been a bipartisan failure for over a decade. For different reasons, both parties found reasons to ignore terror financing coming out of the Gulf,” said one veteran foreign policy official who has been briefed by White House officials on Trump’s Gulf region strategy.

“Even when Obama officials did talk about terror financing, they used it as an excuse to pressure the Saudis and others to cut off legitimate anti-Assad forces,” the source said. “President Trump has been clear to our allies and adversaries that the incoherence has to end. He called on the Arab world to clean house, and what you’re seeing is the beginning of that.”

Trump discussed the issue in Monday remarks at a White House cabinet meeting, where he emphasized that terror-financing issues have became a central focus for the United States.

“One of the big things we did, and your seeing it now with Qatar and all of the things that are actually going on in a very positive fashion, we are stopping the funding of terrorism,” Trump said. “They’re going to stop the funding of terrorism. And it’s not an easy fight, but it’s a fight we’re going to win. You have to starve the beast, and we’re going to starve the beast.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has walked a more diplomatic line of the issue, in a move sources characterized as a “good-cop-bad-cop” ploy.

State Department officials would not comment on Trump’s latest remarks about Qatar, referring a reporter to Tillerson’s public remarks last week.

“Qatar has a history of supporting groups that have spanned the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence,” Tillerson said. “The emir of Qatar has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country, but he must do more and he must do it more quickly.”

Trump’s Middle East Trip Was a Big, Surprising Success—and the Iranian Regime is Nervous

May 24, 2017

Trump’s Middle East Trip Was a Big, Surprising Success—and the Iranian Regime is Nervous, Tablet MagazineLee Smith, May 23, 2017

The Obama administration moved quietly behind the scenes to reorient American policy toward Iran, while it pulled the rug out from under traditional American allies. Among other things, the Obama White House leaked Israeli strikes against Hezbollah convoys, it coordinated operations with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, and it stood aside as Bashar al-Assad waged a genocidal campaign in Syria so as not to affect the prospects of the nuclear deal with Iran.

The Iranians know how much they owe the Obama administration—whether it was air support for Qassem Soleimani in Tikrit, legitimization of Iranian interests in Yemen, deterring Israel from striking their nuclear facilities, turning a blind eye as they built a highway from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut.

Now the Americans are dancing with the Arabs and praying with the Jews, and Iran is on its own again.

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“I want to tell you,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to President Donald Trump during a joint press conference Monday, “how much we appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East.”

So how is Trump’s first foreign trip as president playing out? Suddenly, the scandal-mired President seems like a plausible world leader. He is certainly a more welcome guest in the capitols of America’s traditional allies than his predecessor, President Barack Obama. In addition to enjoying the show, viewers at home—the ones who voted for Trump last fall—likely appreciate the $110 billion arms deal Trump struck with Saudi Arabia. With another $350 billion to come over the next decade, those contracts will certainly help put assembly-line Americans back to work.

Trump’s speech before a worldwide audience about terrorism and Islam was a useful initiative that will also put some of the dozens of Muslim leaders who attended the speech on notice. Acknowledging that Jerusalem is in Israel is a break with strict Obama policy. Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall.

But having spent nearly a decade living in Cairo and Beirut, and traveling throughout the Middle East, I can easily imagine the spin that the region’s intellectuals are putting on the trip as they sit in their coffee houses and smoke Gitanes:

Habibi, the Saudis just paid the Americans nearly half a trillion dollars to keep them safe from Iran, right? But Iran was nothing before Obama built them up with $150 billion. It’s only because Obama kept paying Iran—first to stay in negotiations over the nuclear program and then as a reward for signing the deal—that Iran was empowered. Obama and his pallets of cash helped Iran extend its reach from the Persian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean.

Iran thought that it got the better of the Americans, but the Americans played them for suckers! The CIA had something up their sleeves the whole time! They just wanted the Arabs to pay even more to defend them from Iran. So the Americans created this Iranian bogeyman and then they sent the Arabs a bill to make the Iran problem go away. They drove up the price!

It’s a protection racket, don’t you see? And the Americans cleared nearly $300 billion. Oh man, you can be sure Trump and Netanyahu are laughing it up in Jerusalem. Very clever, those Americans!

No, of course it wasn’t really a CIA shakedown orchestrated over two presidencies. And yet Trump’s maiden foreign presidential venture, or at least the first two stops, is indeed all about the new Administration’s determined recalibration of American Middle East policy after eight years of Obama’s adventurism—especially regarding Iran.

Trump made his intentions toward Iran pretty clear in his Riyadh speech. “For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror,” said Trump. “It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.”

The visuals from Riyadh and Jerusalem were even more important than the speeches. After all, you can reassure your allies on the phone—to scare your shared adversaries, you create a photo album and broadcast it on Facebook and Twitter.

Here’s the president of the United States being celebrated in Saudi Arabia with a sword dance. And clearly, this is not the secretary of state’s first ardha. As a famous oil man who is always welcome to visit the global swing producer of oil, Rex Tillerson knows all the steps already. See him dancing with Wilbur Ross? The Americans and Saudis are like family.

And look—the president of the United States actually has Jews in his family. Here is a picture of his daughter praying at the Western Wall. Here is a picture of the president also at the Western wall wearing a kippah. And oh, look—Trump has made it his status picture on Twitter.

The Iranian regime isn’t very happy. Trump’s photo ops stole the entire foreign policy news cycle from an Iranian regime that wanted a few days of good press after its rigged presidential elections last Friday. The message that Tehran received from the presidential pomp and circumstance in Riyadh is that things are different now.

The Obama administration moved quietly behind the scenes to reorient American policy toward Iran, while it pulled the rug out from under traditional American allies. Among other things, the Obama White House leaked Israeli strikes against Hezbollah convoys, it coordinated operations with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, and it stood aside as Bashar al-Assad waged a genocidal campaign in Syria so as not to affect the prospects of the nuclear deal with Iran.

The Iranians know how much they owe the Obama administration—whether it was air support for Qassem Soleimani in Tikrit, legitimization of Iranian interests in Yemen, deterring Israel from striking their nuclear facilities, turning a blind eye as they built a highway from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut.

Now the Americans are dancing with the Arabs and praying with the Jews, and Iran is on its own again.

 

A Dose of Reality in Riyadh

May 22, 2017

A Dose of Reality in Riyadh, Front Page MagazineBruce Bawer, May 22, 2017

Early on in his speech, Trump addressed his audience as friends and partners; within a few minutes, without pointing a finger, and without abandoning the collegial tone or the complimentary language, made it clear he was lecturing them. He was the boss, the capo di tutti capi, and he was laying down terms. This wasn’t Obama, who naively thought he could change the world with groveling apologies for the West, praise for Islam built on sheer fantasy, and yet another retelling of his own supposedly inspiring personal story – all the while oozing beta-male deference and docility. No; this was a man of power who – never once talking about himself – made expert use of that power, wielding an iron fist in a velvet glove. His message was unmistakable: either set aside this stupid religion (or at least rein it in, and now), join the modern world, and set your people free to dream, hope, create, grow, and prosper. Or else face the consequences. When, at the end, he summed up the assets of the Islamic world, he didn’t even mention Islam: he cited, among other things, its “spirit of enterprise” and ambitious young people. Where Obama had falsely attributed all kinds of past wonders to Islam, Trump imagined an implicitly Islam-free future in which the region could finally enjoy “glorious wonders of science, art, medicine, and commerce to inspire mankind.” 

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On June 4, 2009, Barack Obama went to Cairo and delivered a speech, addressed to the Muslim world, that was full of praise for Islam and apologies on behalf of the West. In the address, entitled “A New Beginning” (“I’ve come here to Cairo,” he explained, “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”), he called the university at which he was speaking (which, if it were anywhere in the West, would probably not be able to gain accreditation) “a beacon of Islamic learning”; he blamed tensions between the West and Islam largely on Western “colonialism”; he said “Salaam aleikum” and kept referring to “the Holy Koran”; he asserted, in a ridiculous example of hyperbole, that “Islam has always been part of America’s story”; he served up a big wallop of revised history, giving Islam unmerited praise for centuries-old accomplishments in science, architecture, music, art, and medicine and even holding it up as “a model of tolerance and equality” (at one point, he seemed to imply that in some ways women’s rights are more advanced in the Muslim world than in the U.S.); and, with utter predictability, he quoted the the “Holy Koran” out of context, plucking out that favorite verse of all Western apologists that supposedly teaches “that if one kills an innocent, it is as if it he has killed all of mankind.”

And of course, as always, he talked about himself: a descendant of “generations of Muslims” in Kenya; a man who, in his Indonesian boyhood, daily heard the beautiful Islamic call to prayer; a president who had “known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.” As someone with such intimate ties to the Religion of Peace, asserted Obama, he saw it as part of his job to “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam.” Yes, he spoke about the need to fight terror, but he was quick to maintain that “Islam is not part of the problem” but rather “an important part of promoting peace.” He defended U.S. ties to Israel and recognized the “reality of the Holocaust,” but quickly pivoted to the “suffering” of Palestinians, the “pain of dislocation” they experienced, and the “daily humiliations” of the “occupation” – preaching, in short, to Israel from a Cairo pulpit. He quoted from the Talmud, but was careful not to call it holy. He implied that the histories of the Jews and Palestinians were equally tragic. And he preached to America too, suggesting that when Americans criticize the “choice” of women – and girls (!) – to wear hijab they were disguising their “hostility” to Islam “behind the pretense of liberalism.” Similarly, instead of thundering against the evil of 9/11, Obama apologized for the supposed excesses of some Americans’ responses to that atrocity, saying with nauseating chagrin that “in some cases it led us to acts contrary to our principles and our ideals.” Oh, and he vowed to close Guantánamo “by early next year.”

This Sunday, almost exactly as far into his presidency as Obama was when he gave his Cairo speech, Donald Trump spoke in Riyadh. For some of us, the very prospect of this appearance had been, to put it mildly, dismaying. Trump won the election, after all, largely because of his tough and bracingly realistic talk about Islam. Now, on his first trip abroad as president, he was going to Saudi Arabia. It was bad enough that this was a trip to a Muslim country. But Saudi Arabia isn’t just any Muslim country. It’s the mother of all Muslim countries. It’s the single most backward of them all. It’s a state sponsor of terrorism. It, and members of its royal family, have bankrolled mosques and madrassas and university departments of Middle Eastern Studies throughout the Western world – places that are nothing more than centers of Islamic propaganda. Most of the 9/11 hijackers, as the whole world knows, were Saudis. And the whole point of Trump’s visit to Riyadh was to celebrate a gigantic sale of U.S. arms to the Saudis on the premise that they represent a major bulwark against an even more dire threat, namely Iran. Nor was Trump just addressing the Saudis: also in attendance were the leaders of most of the other Muslim countries on the planet – in other words, a whole boatload of really nasty customers. It was hard not to conclude that Trump, like Obama, was going to try to brown-nose his way into a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims.”

The opening minutes of Trump’s speech certainly did nothing to dispel this expectation. It was gag-inducing to hear him praise the “magnificent kingdom” of Saudi Arabia, “the splendor of your country,” “the grandeur of this remarkable place,” and so on. It was absurd to hear him talk about working together with the ultra-extremist Saudis to eliminate “extremism.”

But then something happened. Even as he continued to serve up the usual glowing rhetoric about Islam being “one of the world’s great faiths,” and to refer to this and that as being “holy,” he made a couple of exceedingly elegant transitions. First, he began mixing the ethereal praise with realistic businessman-type talk about the value of international partnership. “We are not here to lecture, to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” he said. “Instead, we are here to offer partnership” between the West and the Muslim world – a partnership that would bring prosperity to future Muslim generations. But he underscored the fact that in order for such a partnership to work, something would have to change. And it would have to change a lot. The Islamic world, he insisted, had to turn into a place where young Muslims could grow up “innocent of hatred.” And then he spelled out the results of that hatred, presenting first a roll call of some of the “barbaric attacks” on America – 9/11, Boston, San Bernardino, Orlando – and then a list of other places (“Europe, Africa, South America, India, Russia, China, and Australia”) where that hatred has manifested itself.

However delicately he worked his way around to it, it was nothing less than an accusation.

No, he didn’t explicitly charge Muslim leaders with funding terrorism – but he told them, in no uncertain terms, that they needed to cut off funds to terrorists. Nor did he explicitly blame Islam for terror or explicitly call it evil (as much as some of us would have loved to hear him do so) – but he came tantalizingly close to doing so, speaking bluntly about the “vile creed,” the “wicked ideology,” the “craven ideology”, that underlies terror. He did use the word “evil.” And, yes, he spoke of “Islamic” (not “Islamist” or “radical Islamic”) terror. And he made it clear he wasn’t just talking about terrorism – he was talking about Islam itself. He condemned “the oppression of women, the persecution of Jews, and the slaughter of Christians.” He warned: “barbarism will deliver you no glory. Piety to evil will bring you no dignity.”  Yes, “piety to evil.” Even as he continued to make flattering references to Islam, they felt increasingly pro forma, and it became increasingly manifest that he was identifying that religion as the root not just of terror but of all that is primitive and barbaric about that portion of the world in which it is most commonly practiced. In one remarkable passage, he listed a number of wonders of the Arab region of which his listeners should be proud. What was remarkable was that they were all wonders that dated to pre-Islamic times. In short, he was reminding these people that they had a proud history, a proud identity, that predated their prophet and that could, if they wished, help form the foundation of a new, free, forward-looking culture.

Of course, even to express such thoughts, in some Islamic countries, is considered heretical, illegal; but Trump did it in such a masterly way that you could imagine some of these Muslim big shots sitting there trying to figure out whether they should be offended or not.

In fact, it was all quite masterfully done. Early on in his speech, Trump addressed his audience as friends and partners; within a few minutes, without pointing a finger, and without abandoning the collegial tone or the complimentary language, made it clear he was lecturing them. He was the boss, the capo di tutti capi, and he was laying down terms. This wasn’t Obama, who naively thought he could change the world with groveling apologies for the West, praise for Islam built on sheer fantasy, and yet another retelling of his own supposedly inspiring personal story – all the while oozing beta-male deference and docility. No; this was a man of power who – never once talking about himself – made expert use of that power, wielding an iron fist in a velvet glove. His message was unmistakable: either set aside this stupid religion (or at least rein it in, and now), join the modern world, and set your people free to dream, hope, create, grow, and prosper. Or else face the consequences. When, at the end, he summed up the assets of the Islamic world, he didn’t even mention Islam: he cited, among other things, its “spirit of enterprise” and ambitious young people. Where Obama had falsely attributed all kinds of past wonders to Islam, Trump imagined an implicitly Islam-free future in which the region could finally enjoy “glorious wonders of science, art, medicine, and commerce to inspire mankind.”

Yes, it would have been terrific to hear an American president spell out the truth about Islam in a less nuanced, less diplomatic fashion. And it was frankly bizarre to hear Trump, in his closing moments, singling Iran out as uniquely malevolent after having heaped praise on other equally nefarious regimes whose leaders were right there in the room with him. But we critics of Islam have our jobs and Trump has his. Given the occasion and the purpose, this was, even at its worst, an immense improvement over Obama’s Cairo oration, and, at its best, a convincing assertion of authority, a strongly pitched demand for radical transformation, and a perfectly calibrated use of the carrot-and-stick approach.

No, international Islam is almost certainly beyond meaningful reform. But history has shown that it can at least be contained and controlled in ways that give citizens of Muslim-majority countries a certain degree of freedom and that keep to a minimum the scale of violence in the West originating in those countries. (The rampant Islamization of the West, and the concomitant increase in home-grown Islamic terror, are separate questions.) And no, a single speech can’t accomplish much of anything. But Trump’s tough presentation in Riyadh, if followed up by equally tough interactions with our “friends” in that audience, may well get a few things, here and there, moving in welcome directions.

Syria & allies push back at US-held border post

May 20, 2017

Syria & allies push back at US-held border post, DEBKAfile, May 20, 2017

The US bombardment of that force Thursday underlined for Saudi Arabia and the dozens of Arab and Muslim rulers, gathered in Riyadh to meet the US president, his administration’s determination to prevent Iran and its Lebanese surrogate, Hizballah, from gaining control of Syria. American troops were accordingly engaged proactively in securing the border crossings between Syria and Iraq.

This clash of arms is likely to expand into an outright US showdown with the US and Syria, Iran and Hizballah in the next 24-48 hours ahead of President Trump’s visit to Israel, the second stop of his four-national trip.

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The Syrian-pro-Iranian-Hizballah force in southern Syria renewed its advance on the Iraqi border on Saturday, May 20, two days after sustaining heavy casualties from a US air strike on its convoys and in spite of US Defense Secretary James’ Mattis warning, “We will defend our troops.”

Syrian military sources reported the capture Saturday of the Suweida region and another 60 square kilometers. This offensive brought the Syrian army and its allies closer to the strategic Al-Tanf crossing at the Syrian border intersection with Iraq and Jordan, which is held by US and other special operations units.

The US-led coalition force is also made up of elite units from Britain, Holland, Germany and the Czech Republic, as well as Jordan and a large contingent of the rebel Free Syria Army trained and armed by American instructors in Jordan.

The latest arrival to boost this force, DEBKAfile’s military sources report, was a unit of Norwegian special forces, which entered Syria from Iraq through the Al-Waleed border crossing in western Anbar. They arrived along with American reinforcements and linked up with the US and British forces deployed at Al Tanf.

However, the Syrian force and its allies to the US air strike moved fast enough Saturday to threaten the FSA troops fighting there with being trapped by a siege. They have pushed their offensive forward against the US-led force, despite their losses from an American air raid, as a show of defiance that was timed for President Donald Trump’s arrival in Saudi Arabia.

Another US air strike appears to be unavoidable for pushing them back. The danger is also rising of a major clash on the ground between US-led coalition special forces troops and the combined Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah force.

The US bombardment of that force Thursday underlined for Saudi Arabia and the dozens of Arab and Muslim rulers, gathered in Riyadh to meet the US president, his administration’s determination to prevent Iran and its Lebanese surrogate, Hizballah, from gaining control of Syria. American troops were accordingly engaged proactively in securing the border crossings between Syria and Iraq.

However, Tehran, Damascus and Hizballah are evidently not about to shirk a direct confrontation with Washington and the Trump administration, apparently with the support of Moscow.

This clash of arms is likely to expand into an outright US showdown with the US and Syria, Iran and Hizballah in the next 24-48 hours ahead of President Trump’s visit to Israel, the second stop of his four-national trip