DEBKAfile Exclusive Report January 13, 2017, 9:48 AM (IDT)
There were two unclaimed explosions in Damascus overnight Thursday and early Friday (Jan.12-13) – one at an officers club in Damascus and the second at Mezzeh airport, which Syria alleged was the work of the new Israeli S-35 stealth aircraft firing across the border from a point over the Sea of Galilee.
There was no claim to either of the attacks.
The standard Israeli policy of striking any Iranian arms shipments for Hizballah in Lebanon when they cross through Syria would not longer be applicable to any such air strike, if indeed one was launched..
The Lebanese Shiite Hizballah deploys 9,000 elite fighters in Syria to fight for Bashar Assad. Its Iranian arms supplies no longer need to risk being trucked through Syria to Lebanon; they can be delivered directly to Hizballah bases in Syria without exposure to Israel air strikes.
Indeed, should the pro-Iranian Hizballah decide to go back to shooting missiles at Israel – or using Iranian-supplied unconventional weapon – it has new launching pads readily available in Syria from those very bases. They are located in the Qalamoun mountains in western Syria and at Zabadani, a Syrian ghost town near the Damascus-Beirut highway, which the Lebanese terror group has made its military center.
Both would be obvious targets for Israel to attack rather than Damascus’ Mezzeh airport.
Tehran, having grasped from bitter experience that Mezzeh is under close surveillance by Israeli intelligence, no longer uses its facilities. Instead Iran flies arms shipments for Hizballah to Beirut by commercial aircraft, which Israel prefers not to attack, or overland through Iraq to northwestern Syria, where the consignments are picked up and transferred to Lebanon by sea.
So if an Israeli F-35 air strike on the Damascus airport should be confirmed, its target would not have been Iranian and Hizballah military supplies. Mezzeh is the site of a sterile zone set aside for the exclusive use of President Bashar Assad, his family and his top military and intelligence chiefs. It also houses laboratories for developing and manufacturing unconventional weapons, as well serving as the main command center for the 4th Division, whose Republican Guard unit protects the president, his family and members of the ruling caste.
In the first attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up Thursday night at the officers’ club in the heavily policed Kafra Sousa district of Damascus. At least ten people were killed and dozens injured. Located there are the homes of many Assad loyalists in the security and military establishments, as well as top secret facilities.
The ability of a suicide bomber to penetrate one of the most heavily secured locations in Damascus and blow up at an exclusive regime watering hole raises questions about the inner workings of the Assad regime.
Some unknown hand struck into the heart of that regime in the space of a few hours – not once, but twice.The Assad regime used its standard scapegoat, Israel, for covering up embarrassing and inexplicable occurrences.
However, DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources disclose that the regime has reached an awkward crossroads. The Russians have taken charge of the Syrian war and no longer bother to consult with the Syrian president or Iran on its conduct. They are deeply immersed in preparing the Syrian peace conference they are sponsoring which is scheduled to open at Astana, Kazakhstan on Jan. 23.
If Moscow coordinates its Syrian strategy with anyone, it is Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, but even then only to a limited extent.
The Syrian ruler and Iran, after being sidelined by the Russians, are following their example. Both have taken to holding their cards close to their vests and operating under in close secrecy.
In an attempt to pierce the resulting aura of mistrust spreading over the staunch Iranian-Syrian alliance, Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and one of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s closest confidants, was sent to Damascus Sunday, Jan 8, to find out what is going on there
The mystery deepened further Friday morning, when Syrian state media ran photos of a big blaze – which may or may not be authentic – to illustrate the alleged Israeli attack on Mezzeh airport.
David Rosenberg, 07/11/16
Knesset committee heads to Russia to discuss Iranian threat, UNESCO fiasco.
Members of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee left for Russia on Sunday to mark the 25th anniversary of renewed direct relations between Israel and the Russian government.
The delegation, headed by committee chair Avi Dichter (Likud), included MKs Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), and Eyal Ben-Reuven (Zionist Camp).
The MKs will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Middle East envoy, Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov, and top Russian brass.
Dichter noted the warming relations between Israel and Russia, suggesting they offered a unique opportunity to gain support from Russia on issues ranging from the Iranian nuclear threat to anti-Israel incitement in the United Nations.
”A broader base for these relations will [make it easier] to present to the Russian leadership Israel`s position on anti-Israel stances in international institutions – such as UNESCO`s resolution regarding the Temple Mount, which to us is outrageous and unacceptable,” said Dichter.
”My goal during this visit will be to promote more balanced and sensible positions related to Israel`s interests. Such positions may cause countries which look up to Russia to follow suit.”
Specifically, Dichter said, he planned on ”presenting the true intentions of Iran, which, de facto, operates as the leading terror state in the world, against Israel and other countries in the region.”
The trip comes on the heels of a series of comments by senior Russian officials on Israel and the relationship between the two countries.
In October, Vladimir Putin gave a nod to Israeli anti-terror efforts during a speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club, suggesting the Jewish state was a good example of how Western nations ought to confront terrorism.
Last week, Russian Premier Dimtry Medvedev spoke with Israel’s Channel 2, boasting of “warm, very good relations with Israel.”
Medvedev is scheduled to visit Israel this Thursday.
The narrative provided to date by various Jordanian officials has also indicated the possibility of a spontaneous outbreak of tension between certain Jordanian and US military personnel over recent, heightened friction between the sides, with several Jordanians also hurt in the incident.
But assuming the incident was a terror attack, Carmon, who has also advised the Defense Ministry and participated in NATO workshops on terrorism, said the shooting still needed to be put into the greater picture of complex events impacting terror in Jordan, Israel and their neighbors.
He said that “US-Jordan cooperation is huge” and is a “key bridge to other states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Israel.”
Carmon explained that “the US has an interest in a stable regime, Jordan needs assistance, including military and economic and the backing of a superpower.”
For the US and Israel, Jordan is a firewall of stability against ISIS and other terror groups trying to spread their influence from Syria and Iraq.
He said ISIS, Hezbollah, Iran and other groups “are trying to get into Jordan and know it is important, but until now have had very limited success.”
There has been some ISIS success in infiltrating the Beduin community in Jordan, noted Carmon, but mostly Jordan has stopped them and has recently arrested some Hezbollah-Iran cells.
The big concerns are that the last year or two have caused internal divisions within Jordan where the Muslim Brotherhood and even the broader population is not ready to fight a war with ISIS.
These seeping divisions, along with the 1.5 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Jordan with no horizon for an improved situation, is a combustible situation for ISIS and others to inspire “lone wolf” attackers, said Carmon.
He explained that the same threats that these terror groups pose to Jordan can also apply to Israel either by undermining Jordan as a bulwark of stability and a quiet border for Israel or by building more of a foundation for terrorists to sneak into Israel from Jordan.
However, the biggest threat that he said the attack highlighted is the escalating terror threat to Israel, Jordan and US advisers in the region after ISIS’s expected fall in Mosul and other locations.
While these expected victories go a long way toward reducing ISIS’s regional power, large numbers of ISIS’s foreign fighters are expected to retreat, survive and pose a lower-grade but potent terror danger in the area in other ways, he said.
Israel could find itself tracking an influx of terrorists in Turkey and Jordan, but also closer to home in the Sinai, where ISIS can try to recruit Israeli-Arabs or Beduins from close range.
One interesting phenomenon he pointed out which may help Jordan push back against infiltration and terror by ISIS is the government’s cooperation with other Jihadist groups, who it then co-opts to stand against ISIS.
Carmon gave Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a central Salafist figure in Jordan and a former mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Abu Qatada, who was involved with terror groups including in England until being extradited to Jordan.
Both Jihadist leaders received some favorable treatment from Jordanian law enforcement in return for making “strong statements against ISIS,” said Carmon. Their standing with the Jordanian government in turn can insulate it from criticism for fighting ISIS.
Overall, Carmon called the incident very embarrassing for Jordanian and US intelligence and counter-terror cooperation. He added that both sides hope the attack was carried out by a lone-wolf or the result of a misunderstanding, and want to resolve the matter quickly so as to stabilize cooperation.
In November 2015, a Jordanian army officer said to be inspired by ISIS killed two US private security contractors and a South African at a US-funded police training facility.
Many Jordanians oppose the government’s close counter-terrorism cooperation with the US and Israel, including working with the US on airstrikes against ISIS, while receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in aid in return.
The Admiral Kuznetsov was deployed by Moscow to the Syrian coast on October 15, leading a naval task force that included the Pyotr Veliky battlecruiser along with the Severomorsk and Vice-Admiral Kulakov anti-submarine warfare destroyers.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that “the goal of the campaign is to ensure a naval presence in operationally important areas of the oceans.”
(Netanyahu says Russia has “variegated interests” to cooperate with Israel)
The growing Russian presence in the eastern Mediterranean sea, with an aircraft carrier capable of detecting many, if not all, Israeli military activities, coupled with the advanced S-300 and S-400 air-defense batteries it has already deployed to Syria, is a cause of concern to many.
A US Defense Official quoted by the Washington Post said Washington was “very concerned” about the deployment of the S-300s, adding that “we’re not sure if any of our aircraft can defeat the S-300.” And that is a concern shared by Jerusalem, as Russia has not only deployed the S-300 to Syria, but also to it’s foe, Iran.
As an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Moscow finds itself part of an alliance between Damascus and Tehran.
Ofer Fridman, visiting research fellow, at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London told The Jerusalem Post that “there are two different games on two different levels that the Kremlin plays in the region. The cooperation with Iran in support of Assad is strategic, while the military coordination with Israel is of a tactical nature.”
Former Israeli Air Force commander, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu told the Post that despite this alliance, Moscow would “do anything to stop a conflict with Israel” but warned, “we must keep in mind that conflict with Russia could happen,” and if it does, Israel would have no other choice but to destroy the S-300s.
Fridman agreed, saying that “Russian military presence in the Middle East is definitely a reason for concern, but not for panic” as “both sides are not interested in mistakes and therefore there is true coordination and cooperation that is based on mutual respect out of interest.”
With both Russia and Israel carrying out military operations in war-torn Syria, the two nations have implemented a system to coordinate their actions there in order to avoid accidental clashes.
Up until the Russian intervention in Syria, Israel enjoyed air superiority in the Middle East. But the mobile S-300 and S-400 batteries are capable of engaging multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles up to 380 km. away, putting significant parts of Israel in its crosshairs.
No jet can be launched without Russian radar locking on and tracking their flight routes, except for those taking off from IAF bases in the southern Negev, .
With the S-300 and S-400, Moscow has restricted Israel’s strongest deterrence, its Air Force.
Despite the restrictions, Israel allegedly struck targets in Syria after Russia deployed the S-400 to Khmeimim Air Base in the southeastern Syrian city of Latakia.
And while relations remain friendly, Israeli concerns were raised during a recent phone call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as during a meeting of senior Israeli and Russian officials at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on October 27.
According to Russia’s Izvestia newspaper, Israel also requested the Russian Defense Ministry to develop new coordination procedures following the deployment of the S-300s to Syria’s Tartus to avoid accidentally shooting down Israeli aircraft.
And as Fridman told the Post, “It is only a matter of time before a coordination mistake will happen.”
The deployment of the S-300 has been discussed for the past several years, giving Israel time to develop new methods to blind radar and anti-aircraft units, electronic warfare that Israel is well-known for.
According to foreign reports, Israel has already quietly tested ways to defeat the S-300, activating one of the anti-aircraft systems stationed on the island of Crete during joint drills between the Greek and Israeli air forces in May of last year. That exercise allowed Israeli warplanes to gather data on how the advanced system may be blinded or fooled.
The Russians are said to have breached Israeli airspace on several recent occasions, and even while Israel immediately shoots down any aircraft that penetrates its airspace, Israel has not shot down any Russian aircraft.
Likud MK Avi Dichter warns Tehran has not abandoned its nuclear aspirations and seeks to rebuild the Persian empire
Iran commands a force of up to 25,000 Shiite Muslim militants fighting in the Syrian civil war, a majority of them from Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, who now chairs the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
In a briefing with a delegation from the Swiss parliament, Dichter, a Likud MK, also echoed warnings issued previously by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials who have said that Iran has not abandoned its aspirations to develop nuclear weapons and was playing a long game with the West, despite the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal with western powers.
Iran, he added, “has not abandoned the idea [of pursuing] nuclear weapons. It only put it on hold so it can recover [from sanctions] and rehabilitate its international image.”
Tehran and six world powers signed the accord last summer aimed at reining in Iran’s controversial atomic program in exchange for lifting punishing international sanctions. A number of regional Sunni states opposed the agreement, as has Israel, warning that Iran was simply playing for time.
“Up until a year and a half ago, Iran was the reason for regional instability. It’s amazing and sad to see how among Western states, it is now perceived as a stabilizing force,” Dichter said.
Dichter also warned of Iran’s global aspirations as a Mideast power, explaining that the Islamic Republic’s “dream is to control Islam’s holiest sites — Mecca and Medina.”
“We have to ask ourselves, why are the Iranians developing missiles that can reach targets 2,000 km away, more than twice the distance [from Iran] to Israel? Egypt and Saudi Arabia are also in their cross-hairs. Some 2,000 years ago, Iran was an empire and it wants to become one again,” he said.
In Syria, Dichter said the “foreign legion” of 25,000 was sent to fight Sunni rebels opposed to Iranian ally President Bashar Assad, and not only against the Islamic State terror group.
Dichter said that fighters from Iranian proxy Hezbollah were dispatched to Syria because the Lebanese terror group’s militants were more suited to guerrilla warfare and to fighting against terrorist organizations, unlike soldiers from the Iranian military who are versed in fighting other armies.
But, he warned, more than five years of fighting in Syria has strengthened Hezbollah’s abilities and training, turning it into a “more established and military-like” fighting force, despite its losses — some 1,600 according to Dichter — in the war.
Amid a spate of terror attacks in Europe over the past two years, perpetrated by terror cells linked to the Islamic State or an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria and often consisting of Muslim men who left their European birth countries to fight in Syria, Dichter insisted Europe must act to prevent foreign fighters from returning to the continent.
“Those who go to Iraq or Syria, it’s not to attend a Bob Dylan performance, and European security services must operate accordingly,” he told the delegation.
Times Of Israel
During the inaugural address, the new Lebanese president gave some indication about his vision for the nation going forward
For the untrained ear, President Michel Aoun’ssounded like a mishmash of old chewed slogans about Lebanese “national unity”, harmony and patriotism. But between the lines, Aoun loaded his speech with code words that gave away the nation’s policy under his tenure.
First, according to Aoun, Lebanon will stay diplomatically neutral, thus giving Iran the advantage over Saudi Arabia. Second, Lebanon will sponsor “resistance” to “liberate” Israeli-occupied Lebanese territory. Third, Lebanon will “fight terrorism preemptively” inside Syria, and — in coordination with Assad — will deport Syrian refugees.
Even though Aoun called for the implementation of the Constitution, including its 1990 Taif Amendment, he contradicted Taif in his very same inaugural speech. After 1990, Lebanon’s president lost the prerogative to independently define the country’s policies. Instead, policies were to be agreed on — collectively — by a nationally representative cabinet. Aoun should have promised to protect the constitution, not violate it in his first speech.
In his “presidential foreign policy,” Aoun said Lebanon should “steer clear from foreign conflicts.” While such statement sounds good, it came in the same paragraph that talked about the Arab League. Aoun wants a policy independent of this league, read Riyadh and Doha. Aoun’s son-in-law Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil had already raised the ire of the Saudis when the league unanimously voted to denounce the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in January. Back then, even Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani denounced the attacks, and so did Iran’s closest Arab allies, like Iraq. Bassil’s vote stood out and caused Gulf countries to deport Lebanese expats. It seems Aoun thinks that vote was good and should become policy.
Right after giving Iran what it wanted, President Aoun delivered what Hezbollah wanted. “In the conflict with Israel, we will not spare any effort or resistance to liberate what remains of occupied Lebanese land,” Aoun said, thus trashing UNSC Resolution 1701, which calls for diplomatic resolution for disputed border territory between Lebanon and Israel.
The paragraph that followed saw Aoun take Assad’s side in the Syrian war, as he declared that Lebanon will combat terrorism “preemptively,” a word that Hezbollah leaders often use to explain that the party should fight terrorism on Syrian territory before terrorists find their way to Lebanese territory.
Interestingly, Aoun made an exclusive connection between terrorism and Syria. Terrorism is a worldwide epidemic that nations are standing up to and fighting. But in Aoun’s speech, the word terrorism preceded his talk about Syria. “We will deal with terrorism preemptively… until we eradicate it, and we also have to deal with the issue of Syrian refugees by securing their swift return,” Aoun said, adding that his policy for Syria will be implemented in coordination with “relevant states and authorities.” In other words, Aoun plans to reinforce bilateral cooperation with the Syrian government under Assad, a government that has been isolated by three fourths of the planet’s governments.
Before closing his speech, Aoun presented Hezbollah with another favor. “Security stability is dependent on coordination between security agencies and the judiciary… and it’s the duty of the state to liberate both from political patronage,” Lebanon’s new president said in a clear message that, on top of his priorities, will be to undermine the Internal Security Force (ISF), a police agency that has been on Hezbollah’s bad side for a long time, to the extent that some believe the party liquidated the agency’s top intelligence officer, Wissam al-Hassan, in October 2012.
So while Aoun’s inauguration speech sounded rosy and benign, it was in fact dedicated to paying back his backers, and promising to go after his detractors.
Needless to say, the Lebanese state is in such a dire situation that it does not matter who the president is or what he promises. The Lebanese state is weak, its president irrelevant, its agencies corrupt and its debt overwhelming. No matter what Aoun says in his inaugural speech, or any other speech, Hezbollah is the force that has the final word on every Lebanese issue, domestic or foreign. Aoun only gives Hezbollah’s de facto policies an official state blessing.
The presidency will be a nice retirement plan for the aging Aoun. He will use it to leverage his share in the state and promote his guys. But he will have little influence, whether in regional conflicts, the Syrian crisis or local issues.
Lebanon’s newly-elected president vowed to “liberate Lebanese territories occupied by Israel” in his first speech following his appointment.
Retired general Michel Aoun, 81, said no effort would be spared in Lebanon’s effort to “defend itself against an enemy who aspires to control our land, water and natural resources,” a reference to natural gas fields located in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel.
Lebanon has claimed the gas fields extend into its water territory.
Aoun secured the presidency earlier Monday after winning the backing of 83 of Lebanon’s 128 Members of Parliament, including the crucial backing of Hezbollah and the Shiite bloc, ending a two-and-a-half-year deadlock, including 45 failed attempts to elect a new president.
“The selection of General Aoun as a President of the Lebanese Republic may seem to please the country on the surface after two years of constitutional void, but it places an ally to Hezbollah in the highest office of the land,” Tom Harb, Secretary General of the World Council of the Cedars Revolution told The Foreign Desk.
The World Council of the Cedars Revolution is a Washington-based NGO comprised of Lebanese nationals living outside the country and dedicated to freedom and democracy in Lebanon.
“Aoun will have to appoint Hezbollah and allies to the cabinet and to the command of the Lebanese army,” Harb said.
The deadlock was broken earlier this month when former Prime Minister and leader of the Lebanon’s Sunni bloc Saad Hariri who heads the “Future Movement” agreed to end the political stalemate and back Aoun for president.
Hariri, who will reportedly be appointed prime minister, was the first choice of Saudi Arabia.
Lebanon’s constitution mandates the appointment of a Sunni prime minister, a Shiite speaker of parliament, and a Christian (Maronite) president. Maronites represent the largest Christian denomination in Lebanon and approximately 22 percent of Lebanon’s population.
The president is involved in selecting the country’s cabinet and has a large say on foreign policy.
Aoun has received substantial support from Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Iran-backed Lebanese terror group, Hezbollah. Nasrallah formally backed Aoun for president for more than two years and the two have met regularly to discuss domestic issues as well as the ongoing conflict in Syria.
“Aoun was appointed by Tehran not elected by the Lebanese people,” Joe Baini, president of the World Council of the Cedars Revolution said.
Baini points out the hypocrisy of many political factions who had previously marginalized Hezbollah and Aoun himself for his affiliations with the group and with Tehran and are now supporting his presidency.
“There will be a short period of stability before this system collapses again and badly,” Baini said.
A senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei welcomed Aoun’s victory as a “great triumph for the Islamic Resistance movement in Lebanon and for Iran’s allies and friends” according to Iranian State media.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also tweeted “Congratulations to all the Lebanese on election of President Aoun.
Aoun said he would pledge support for Syria’s President Bashar al Assad vis-à-vis Hezbollah who have maintained a substantial presence in Syria since 2012, dispatching many armed fighters from Lebanon.
State Department spokesman John Kirby called Aoun’s appointment “a moment of opportunity,” deflecting a question on Hezbollah’s backing of Aoun by saying “Let’s see what decisions he makes, what kind of leadership he exudes as president.”
Brig. Gen. (res.) Eli Ben-Meir, who retired from the IDF earlier this year after a three-decade army career that included stints as chief intelligence officer and head of the Military Intelligence Directorate’s Research and Analysis Division, said that the cyber attack that disrupted internet service on the US East Coast last week “was a reminder for those who needed one” about the dangers posed by hackers.
Ben-Meir, who currently works as a partner in a start-up company he co-founded that deals with cyber security at the state level, spoke by phone with The Algemeiner on Wednesday ahead of two US speaking tours he will be conducting in the coming months.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often says he wants Israel to become a global cyber power. In your view, has it reached that point yet?
“I don’t know if the word power is the best, but I think Israel is one of the leading countries in, first of all, understanding that this is an existing threat — it’s not something to worry about in the future, it’s already here. It’s a wave of warfare that we are now in the middle of. And Israel is in the top-tier of countries, in terms of — under the prime minister’s directive — establishing organizations, structures, procedures and processes to defend ourselves in this new era. Also, of course, there is a lot of technology that is coming from Israel — I think 20% of cyber technology in the world today is from Israel. The bottom line is a lot of people in Israel are getting up every morning and dealing only with cyber.”
How have new cyber capabilities affected the way the IDF operates?
“I won’t speak about specific capabilities, but the IDF is leading a lot of technology development efforts. Also, a lot of people who serve in the IDF leave it with much experience and knowledge of cutting-edge technology and go to private-sector companies where this knowledge is used to advance a lot of what’s going on. So this is an engine for the cyber industry in Israel.”
How do you foresee technology affecting the future of warfare? Do you think there will always be a need for soldiers on the ground?
“It’s a big debate. I don’t know if anybody knows. But I think it is interesting to look at the emergence of virtual cyber warfare. This is a relatively new phenomenon. The first known cyber attack carried out by a country was Russia against Georgia in 2008. We are now seeing countries more and more using cyber as a means of warfare. And even if a country is attacked by military means, the retaliation is sometimes a cyber one. When Turkey shot down a Russian Air Force plane last year, what did the Russians do? There were political sanctions and pressure, and also — almost immediately after the incident — the Russians hacked Turkish government sites.”
“I don’t think you can say that we don’t need armies anymore, because you need them to conquer territory, but for sure, warfare by cyber means can cause a lot of damage. Hackers can shut down facilities and national infrastructure. And countries are now losing between 0.5%-2% of their GDPs every year due to cyber attacks.”
How did technology change the way intelligence was gathered over the course of your military career?
“I think we can say the means of gathering intelligence have changed dramatically, not only in the IDF but also the world in general. Still, some of the good old ways — like HUMINT (human intelligence) — are still very relevant, but technology now enables you and provides advantages to the collection of information by other means, and cyber is one of the biggest ways to do so.”
What is the greatest strategic threat facing Israel right now?
“Today, I think one of the biggest problems facing, for sure Israel, but also many other countries, including the US, is not military-against-military battles, but rather small-scale clashes with terrorist groups. And the new phenomenon is terrorist groups that control territory — such as ISIS and Boko Haram, among others. Some already operate like countries — with ministers, offices and the like. But still the means they use are terror against civilians.”
“And this leads to something that is not as discussed as it should be, which is that boundaries don’t matter anymore. Borders between countries, certainly in the Middle East, don’t exist. Just look at Syria, Libya and Yemen. Old borders established a century or more ago — such as the ones set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement – are losing their importance.”
“In today’s virtual world with social media, ISIS can reach someone on Philadelphia. They don’t have to be there, they have a means of influencing them — the internet. And this means that a lot of what we used to do from an intelligence perspective, and also from an operational perspective, is not relevant anymore. There is a lot the Western world must do to deal with this new situation.”
Does ISIS pose a major threat to Israel?
“I don’t want to say it’s a major threat. A terrorist organization, however strong it is and ISIS has been suffering losses recently, cannot defeat Israel. Israel is a very strong nation with a powerful military force. But there are ISIS-affiliated groups on our borders in the southern part of the Golan Heights and in the Sinai Peninsula. So there is a threat these groups will conduct terrorist attacks and cause casualties among Israelis. And the other threat is posed by ISIS’ attempts to influence Muslims in Israel and get them to commit terrorist attacks. But this is not happening in big numbers. It is something that is dangerous and bothers us, but it is not a strategic threat to Israel.”
Does Israel face any existential threats at the moment?
“The Iranian nuclear threat is real, although I don’t want to go into whether the international agreement was good or bad. What is relevant now is Iran’s military buildup because of the money it has been getting. And Iran’s support of terrorism has only increased, it didn’t stop that. Also, Iran’s surface-to-surface missile capabilities have gotten stronger. Perhaps more importantly, Iran’s growing involvement in Syria and Lebanon is very problematic. Finally, while Iran may not be doing all it can now to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities, in ten years it will be allowed to. And this is something that Israel should already be concerned about now. We shouldn’t wait ten years.”
“Terrorism is another threat. While Hezbollah and Hamas — like ISIS — cannot beat Israel, they can cause a lot of casualties and economic damage.”
“Also, cyber warfare is a growing threat, although Israel is already doing a lot of things I would suggest other countries should also do. But we are particularly threatened because we are surrounded by different countries, entities and groups that have an interest in attacking us.”
How has the Syrian civil war impacted Israel’s security? And how do you see the situation in Syria playing out?
“An egg from which you make an omelet cannot be remade into an egg, it’s an omelet already. So I think Syria cannot re-become the Syria we knew five or six years ago, which had its problems but was a relatively stable state with a dominant leader and you knew what was going on. Even if Bashar Assad stays in power, it’s not going to be the same Syria it was, which will of course have implications. If ISIS or other terrorists ended up controlling all of Syria, this would be a big problem for Israel. But right now, it doesn’t look like things are going that way. With the involvement of Russia and Iran, it seems like we will continue seeing Syria broken down into cantons and small sectarian and tribal areas.”
“For Israel, the activities of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria are the most worrying thing. Iran is sending more and more personnel, fighting means and money. And Hezbollah is almost up to its head in Syria. And some Hezbollah members are on our border in the Golan Heights and that is a troubling threat to Israel that needs to be continuously monitored.”
“Also, the use of chemical warfare in Syria is becoming almost a day-to-day thing. And my personal fear is that the more chemical agents are used and the more nobody does anything about it, the more it’s going to become acceptable, which is very disturbing. Five years ago, nobody would have believed this could happen, but it’s happening.”
Do you think the time is ripe for Israel to bolster its relations with Sunni Arab states in the region?
“There are opportunities in the moderate Sunni world, because having common enemies makes us friends. So I think there is potential for cooperation. Also, although they can’t say it openly, everybody understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the biggest problem in the region. Maybe not everybody, because apparently UNESCO still thinks that, but everyone who understands something knows the truth. All moderate Arab leaders see that the biggest problems today are Salafi terrorism and Iranian influence.”
From a military standpoint, is the status quo in the West Bank sustainable?
“There is ongoing cooperation and a joint security interest with the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians don’t want terrorist attacks because of their potential impact and we, of course, don’t want attacks to occur. So the interest is still the same, but the most significant problem is that the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is not getting any younger, as all of us aren’t, and what will happen the day after he leaves the scene is a very, very big mystery. Will his successor be able to stabilize the area? Will he be able to deliver something? Will he carry on the joint security cooperation? These are big questions. And there are even scenarios in which Hamas could take over the West Bank.”
In Gaza, do you think the situation will ever change or is Israel fated to deal with Hamas for the foreseeable future with military flare-ups every few years?
“First of all, Hamas is continuing to build itself up militarily. So there is an intent on its part to develop its capabilities, because if not, it would put its money into something else. Hamas is continuing to try to procure arms, dig tunnels and manufacture rockets for offensive purposes. I do think Hamas is still deterred from the last operation two years ago [Israel’s Operation Protective Edge]. It’s a big stick above their head. So Hamas’ interest today is to not see another escalation in the near future. And the border with Egypt is also closed, which is hurting their force build-up effort. They are having a hard time smuggling in arms and people.”
“But I can’t say how long this Israeli deterrence will last. It has to do with a lot of factors, some related to Israel and Egypt and some not. When Hamas looks around, it sees that the Muslim Brotherhood has been put back in the box in the region in the last year and a half or so. So while a few years ago, Hamas may have seen a window of opportunity with the Muslim Brotherhood leading countries and growing stronger, today it understands this is no longer the case. So Hamas is not in the best position now.”
“While Hamas might not want a new war with Israel, the problem is when you play with matches, something can catch fire. And there are a lot of things happening on the Gaza border. Think of a scenario in which one of these small Salafi groups fires a rocket at Sderot and it doesn’t hit an open area, but instead causes casualties and we retaliate. The situation could escalate very fast, even if it is not in Hamas’ interest.”
The new friendship is raising alarm bells in Washington, but so far no one has managed to work out the price Israel will pay to Russia
This week witnessed one of the more bizarre and unexplained events in the recent annals of Israel’s foreign and security policy. Around the highly fortified underground nuclear enrichment plant at Fordow, Iran deployed its Russian made S-300 advanced air defence systems. The USA expressed its “concern,” but Israel remained silent. The local media reported it, but Israel’s leaders said nothing. That stands in sharp contrast to the vociferous, almost hysterical calls, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against any small move of a military nature by Iran.
In the past decade, Israel fought tooth and nail against the sale of these systems to Iran, using all its levers to prevent it. Israel sent its emissaries to Moscow, offered to reciprocate by selling technology to build drones, and used its AIPAC lobbyists and its influence to rally US support. It presented the deal as an “existential” threat to its security. But now nothing; just disturbing silence.
It seems that Israeli muteness has less to do with Iran, which is considered its number one enemy and remains high on its intelligence agenda, and more to do with Russia. In the past year, Israel and Russia, or to be more precise Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin, have been on a flirtatious course that has puzzled Israeli and Middle Eastern pundits and raised alarm bells in Washington.
Since August 2015, Netanyahu has travelled to Moscow four times for meetings with Putin, more than he has had with any other world leader. Just for comparison, during that period Netanyahu met with US President Barack Obama just once, in November 2015. And do not be mistaken – the US is still considered Israel’s best strategic ally and its guardian angel, with an annual average financial infusion of $3.5 billion.
In one of the meetings, Putin showed his gratitude in an unusual gesture. He went with the Israeli prime minister and his over-influential wife Sarah to a ballet performance at the Bolshoi Theatre.
Between meetings, Netanyahu has called Putin over the phone at least 10 times to brief, consult and exchange estimates. Probably there were more phone conversations than the Prime Minister Office has announced for the public record. The most recent phone conversation between the two was at the end of August.
It is hard to understand and explain this unusual, wonderful friendship.
Netanyahu’s first pilgrimage to Moscow had its logic. It was in September 2015, when Israel panicked after realising that Russia had deployed its warplanes in Syria and had begun bombing rebel positions in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Netanyahu tried to persuade Putin that Russian planes should not fly near the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights. In other words, the Israeli leader wanted to create a “no-fly zone” near the border and allow the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to continue enjoying its air monopoly and superiority in the Syrian arena.
Since the beginning of the civil war five-and-a-half years ago, Israeli warplanes have attacked at least 15 times weapon depots and convoys shipping land-to-air-missiles, long-range ground missiles, and land-to-sea missiles from Syria to Hezbollah. The weak Syrian air force and its air defences did not even try to challenge the mighty Israeli air force.
Putin rejected Netanyahu’s request, arguing that its pilots would bomb all anti-government rebels all over Syria, including near the Israeli border, where Nusra Front, Daesh (Islamic State) and moderate rebel groups have bases. But the Russian president agreed at the meeting that the two countries create a joint mechanism of “de-confliction” to prevent mistaken air and ground clashes between pilots and air defence systems of Israel and Russia.
But since the establishment of the coordination, which is still in place and operates well, there was no need for any further meetings between the leaders. The de-confliction arrangement is operated by senior officers from both armies. Yet Netanyahu kept flying to see Putin.
Aside from issuing laconic statements, the Israeli prime minister has never provided any elaborate and genuine report or explanation, not even to his cabinet ministers or to the Knesset (parliament), let alone to the public, about the nature and content of his intimate relations with Putin. It is not a secret in international relations that with Putin there are no free meals. Surely Netanyahu and Israel are paying in one way or another for Putin’s hospitality and public gesticulations that the Israeli prime minister is among his favourite world leaders.
But so far no one has managed to decipher the currency Israel pays back to Russia.
In the past, in order to please Russia, Israel provided licences for its advanced technologies. For example, after the end of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Russia expressed its anger that Israel sold weapons to Georgia. To compensate Russia, Israel licensed Russia to produce Israeli-made drones. Soon Russia began producing its own version of the drones based on Israeli technology.
Master of deception
As a former KGB officer, Putin is a shrewd, cunning leader and master of deception. These skills have to be remembered when the friendship between the two is seemingly flourishing.
Via the Russian channel, Israel inadvertently finds itself in bed with strange bedfellows – its sworn enemies – Iran and Hezbollah. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are operating a joint command room. It won’t surprise anyone if one day it will be found that some of the de-conflicting and other secrets which Israel has shared with Russia made their way to the joint command room.
Indeed, the US is noting the Israeli-Russian honeymoon with growing concern. The Obama administration is well aware that Russian strategic goals in Syria are not only to save the Assad regime and keep it in power – at least over some parts of the country – and to enhance its position in the Middle East, but also to create a wedge between the US and its traditional allies in the area, Israel included. In that sense, willingly or not, Israel is manipulated by Russia.
Furthermore, despite the de-conflicting mechanism and Putin’s promises to Netanyahu not to violate Israeli air space, Russian warplanes and drones have occasionally – at least 10 times in the past year – infiltrated Israel. Though the Russian military command explained to its Israel counterparts that all these incidents were just human mistakes, very few believe it.
Israeli defence experts believe that the Russian flights were espionage missions and efforts to test the Israeli air defence’s readiness and state of alert. Once again, it should not be ruled out that the information gleaned during these sorties was transferred and shared with Russian allies and Israel’s enemies.
In some cases Israel scrambled its warplanes but held its guns. Unlike Turkey, which a few months ago shot down a Russian warplane that encroached on its territory, Israel swallowed its pride and did not try to shoot down or intercept the Russian intruders.
Not only has Israel never complained about Russian hostile actions; one can only imagine based on past precedents what would have been the Israeli reaction if the US had done something even remotely similar to the Russian actions. No doubt Netanyahu and his ministers would have raised hell and reprimanded the US for its “treachery,” as they did in the past.
Most loud in this outcry would be the Soviet-born new Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has constantly advocated a more “balanced” policy and is considered a good friend of Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, the last dictator in Europe, who is also a good friend of Putin.
One of Netanyahu’s tirades against Obama concerned the nuclear deal signed between the 5+1 powers and Iran. Netanyahu time and again tried to sabotage the agreement and blamed the US for what he defined as “a bad deal”.
Iran deal double standards
The Israeli prime minister, however, has forgotten to mention that Putin’s Russia is among the world powers that has supported the deal and pressured world powers to sign it. Netanyahu also has complained that by the US signing the deal, lifting sanctions and releasing hundreds of billions of dollars, Iran is able to fund the purchase of weapons. But once again, he is omitting the fact that a major beneficiary of the Iranian military shopping spree is Russia, which sells its most advanced weapons, including warplanes and S-300 air defence systems.
One can conclude that while Netanyahu and his ministers have the chutzpa to criticise the US, still Israel’s best strategic ally, they stay away from any controversy with Russia, fearing the wrath of Putin.
Yet by heating up its relations with Russia to a high temperature, Israel is also cooling it with Washington. It is a dangerous game, increasing the suspicions in Washington that Netanyahu in particular, and his cabinet, is an ungrateful ally. Sooner or later it will backfire and affect the still-close cooperation between the military and intelligence communities of the two countries.
– Yossi Melman is an Israeli security and intelligence commentator and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on 7 June 2016 (AFP)
Middle East Eye
An all-out Turkish-Kurdish war has boiled over in northern Syria since the Turkish army crossed the border last Wednesday, Aug. 24 for the avowed aim of fighting the Islamic State and pushing the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia back. Instead of falling back, the Kurds went on the offensive and are taking a hammering. This raging confrontation has stalled the US-led coalition offensive against ISIS and put on indefinite hold any US plans for campaigns to drive the jihadists out of their Syrian and Iraqi capitals of Raqqa and Mosul.
The Kurdish militia ground troops, who were backed by the US and assigned the star role in these campaigns, are now fully engaged in fighting Turkey. And, in another radical turnaround, Iraqi Kurdish leaders (of the Kurdish Regional Republic) have responded by welcoming Iran to their capital, in retaliation for the US decision to join forces with Turkey at the expense of Kurdish aspirations.
The KRG’s Peshmerga are moreover pitching in to fight with their Syrian brothers. Together, they plan to expel American presence and influence from both northern Syria and northern Iraq in response to what they perceive as a US sellout of the Kurds.
DEBKAfile’s military analysts trace the evolving steps of this escalating complication of the Syrian war and its wider impact:
- Since cleansing Jarablus of ISIS, Turkey has thrown large, additional armored and air force into the battle against the 35.000-strong YPG Kurdish fighters. This is no longer just a sizeable military raid, as Ankara has claimed, but a full-fledged war operation. Turkish forces are continuing to advancing in three directions and by Sunday, Aug. 28 had struck 15-17km deep inside northern Syria across a 100km wide strip.
Their targets are clearly defined: the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria and the Kurdish enclave of Qamishli and Hassaka in the east, in order to block the merger of Kurdish enclaves into a contiguous Syrian Kurdish state.
Another goal was Al-Bab north of and within range of Aleppo for a role in a major theater of the Syrian conflict. To reach Al-Bab, the Turkish force would have to fight its way through Kurdish-controlled territory.
- The Turks are also using a proxy to fight the Syrian Kurds. Thousands of Syrian Democratic Army (SDF) rebels, whom they trained and supplied to fight Syria’s Bashar Assad army and the Islamic State, have been diverted to targeting the Kurds under the command of Turkish officers, to which Turkish elite forces are attached.
- A Turkish Engineering Corps combat unit is equipped for crossing the Euphrates River and heading east to push the Kurds further back. Contrary to reports, the Turkish have not yet crossed the river itself or pushed the Kurds back – only forded a small stream just east of Jarablus. The main Kurdish force is deployed to the south not the east of the former ISIS stronghold.
- Neither have Turkish-backed Syrian forces captured Manbij, the town 35km south of Jarablus which the Kurds with US support captured from ISIS earlier this month. Contrary to claims by Ankara’s spokesmen, those forces are still only 10-15km on the road to Mabij.
- Sunday, heavy fighting raged around a cluster of Kurdish villages, Beir Khoussa and Amarneh, where the Turks were forced repeatedly to retreat under Kurdish counter attacks. Some of the villages were razed to the ground by the Turkish air force and tanks. At least 35 villagers were reported killed.
- In four days of fierce battles, the Kurds suffered 150 dead and the Turkish side, 60.
- DEBKAfile military sources also report preparations Sunday to evacuate US Special Operations Forces and helicopter units from the Rmeilan air base near the Syrian-Kurdish town of Hassaka. If the fighting around the base intensifies, they will be relocated in northern Iraq.
- Fighters of the Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga were seen removing their uniforms and donning Syrian YPG gear before crossing the border Sunday and heading west to join their Syrian brothers in the battle against Turkey.
- The KRG President Masoud Barazani expects to travel to Tehran in the next few days with an SOS for Iranian help against the US and the Turks. On the table for a deal is permission from Irbil for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to win their first military bases in the Iraqi Kurdish republic, as well as transit for Iranian military forces to reach Syria through Kurdish territory..