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The military situation
in Syria has turned against the U.S.-supported opposition over the past year,
due mainly to Russian intervention. Now, the failed coup in Turkey and subsequent
crackdown there stand to reduce the capabilities of a key U.S. ally. Without
some rebalancing now in favor of the opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar
al-Assad, the prospects for a satisfactory negotiated political transition are
In a dissenting internal memo last month, 51 State
Department diplomats advocated attackson Syrian government forces to end
their aggression against the country’s civilian population, alter the military
balance and bring about a negotiated political solution. President Obama has
focused instead on fighting terrorism in Syria, but U.S. targets are limited to
Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates.
There is also a Shiite terrorist organization in
Syria: Lebanon-based Hezbollah. It should not be immune.
Hezbollah was founded to resist the Israeli
occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s and takes credit for the eventual
Israeli withdrawal from that country. Tightly allied with and supported by
Iran, it has become the dominant political force among Shiites in Lebanon,
where it not only participates in national politics but also runs its own
security forces and provides social services to Shiite populations.
Covertly since 2012, and overtly since 2013,
Hezbollah has deployed forces inside Syria, where its thousands of fighters are
aligned with Assad’s army and mainly Shiite and Alawite militias against mainly
Sunni forces that Assad regards as terrorists. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard
Corps pays Hezbollah’s bills and provides its command-and-control operations.
Hezbollah forces have been particularly effective along the border with
Lebanon, which provides it with strategic depth and supply lines.
Hezbollah is a major
factor in the military balance in Syria. Along with the Russian air interventionbegun last September and the Iranian
Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah’s fighters have enabled Assad to make progress
against his opponents, especially those associated with the Free Syrian Army
fighters backed by the United States. That progress has hardened Assad’s
negotiating stance and blocked the U.N. search for a political solution. Assad
is winning, and he sees no reason to accept a transition away from his rule.
A shift in the military balance is essential to
ending the war, which is what Washington says it wants. But Obama has
steadfastly refused to go to war against the Syrian, Iranian or Russian
government. Even if he wants to, it is doubtful he has authorization from
Congress to do so.
But Hezbollah is a
non-state actor. It is also a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has murdered
Americans, among many others. Most Republicans and Democrats would applaud an
attack on Hezbollah, even if some in both parties would bemoan a move that
suggested widening commitments overseas.
inform Tehran, Moscow and Beirut that Hezbollah should withdraw from Syria by a
certain date or the United States would target any of its troops attacking
non-extremist opposition forces in and around Aleppo and elsewhere. If
Hezbollah failed to withdraw, the United States would then need to be ready to
attack as soon as the ultimatum expired.
or U.S. targeting of Hezbollah would send a strong but still limited message to
the Syrian opposition and its allies in Turkey and the Persian Gulf: We are
prepared to attack Shiite as well as Sunni terrorists, but it’s up to you to
take advantage of the opportunity and come to the negotiating table ready to
reach a serious political settlement. It would also send a strong but likewise
limited message to Iran and Russia: We will not continue to tolerate your
intervention in Syria without responding. The time for a political settlement
How would the players
in Syria react? Hezbollah would likely try to strike at accessible U.S. assets
or citizens in neighboring countries, most likely in Lebanon or Iraq. It might
also launch rockets into Israel. The Islamic State, which uses Hezbollah’s
involvement in Syria as a recruiting tool, would be undermined. Russia and Iran
could in theory up the ante, escalating their involvement in Syria, but in
practice they both appear to be close to the limit of lives and treasure they
are willing or able to expend there. Assad would be outraged and promise
revenge, but the Syrian government is even more clearly at the limit of its
non-extremist Syrian opposition would applaud and press hard against the
territory where Hezbollah is deployed. Gulf states would likewise welcome the
U.S. action and redouble their efforts to support the opposition. Israel knows
all too well how to react to Hezbollah attacks in order to re-establish
deterrence. Turkey might complain that the United States was not also acting
against the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters whom Ankara regards as terrorists, but
the Turks would still benefit from any consequent military progress against
Assad by non-Kurdish forces.
In short, U.S.
targeting of Hezbollah would mostly please and embolden Washington’s friends
and discomfit its antagonists. It would also reassert U.S. commitment to
fighting terrorism of all sorts, renew Washington’s commitment to holding
Hezbollah accountable, hasten an end to the Syrian civil war and make a
political settlement more likely. That is not a bad balance of risks and
* The writer is a
professor and director of the conflict management program at the Johns Hopkins
School of Advanced International Studies, as well as a scholar at theMiddle East
* This opinion was published first by Washington Post on 27/07/2016
US President Obama with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister BenjaminNetanyahu
As the Republican and Democratic
parties convene in Cleveland and Philadelphia, we expect to see numerous signs
of the deepening polarization that has dominated this campaign season. One
issue that has traditionally shared bipartisan support is how the United States
should approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, this year both
parties have shifted their positions farther from the center and from pastDemocraticandRepublicanplatforms. This swing impacts whether
the Obama administration, which has devoted significant time and resources to
the negotiations, will issue a parting statement on the conflict.
In Cleveland last week the Republican partyadopted a platformentirely dropping the two-state
solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a move that puts the party
further to the right than eitherAIPACorIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu. The platform states, “We reject the false notion that
Israel is an occupier and specifically recognize that the Boycott, Divestment,
and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is anti-Semitic in nature and seeks to destroy
Israel.” This language, combined with Republican nominee Donald Trump’s
apparent disinterest in the conflict, makes it unlikely a Trump administration
would prioritize Israeli-Palestinian issues or make any serious attempt at
Conversely, this year’sDemocratic Party platformreaffirmed the United States
government’s long-standing commitment to seeking a two-state solution in the
region. But the party took a notably progressive turn, highlighting both the
importance of Israel’s Jewish and democratic future and Palestinian freedom “to
govern themselves in their own viable state, in peace and dignity.” Thecontentious fight over the
Democratic Party language, combined with Democratic nominee Hillary
Clinton’s (and her potential First Gentleman’s) passion for this issue reveals
an intent by a future Clinton administration to reinvigorate negotiations.
Likely to drive the administration’s calculus are the Democratic
and Republican nominees and their political motives on the U.S. led peace
process. The time to watch for a potential move, therefore, is between November
and January. Given the administration’s support for its own party’s nominee, it
is in Obama’s interest to keep the peace process on life support—but without
resuscitating it—through January. Publicly, but somewhat unenthusiastically,
supporting the various international initiatives and allowing other states and
international organizations to sit in the driver’s seat sets a future Democratic
administration up with the best chance of success.
Lessons from getting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the
table over the years include the wisdom to refrain from yelling about past
progress in negotiations. Publicly revealing how far Netanyahu and Abbas were
willing to go in 2014 would only harm the next administration’s efforts at
resuming negotiations. Keeping the “Kerry Framework” in the administration’s
pocket allows a Clinton administration to take ownership of the peace process
should she be elected.
Alternatively, if Trump is elected, the Obama administration
would have nothing to lose in revealing the fruits of its efforts in 2013-14.
The administration would have little concern for derailing a possible Trump
attempt (which is not likely to take place in any event) and could determine
that releasing some sort of Obama or Kerry Parameters would shed a positive
light on the administration’s legacy. Furthermore, should the Republican Party
win the White House, neither Obama nor Kerry is likely to care about the damage
that releasing such a document might do to either Netanyahu or Abbas.
The party conventions have solidified the deep divides—both
between and within the parties—regarding the U.S. approach to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict this campaign season. This divide, combined with a
renewed international focus on the conflict, virtually guarantees that the
administration will keep the conflict on the back burner before November. The
election, therefore, will not only determine our next president but also the
fate of the “Obama/Kerry Parameters”.
· * Note:
Ariella Plachta, an intern with the Center for Middle East Policy, contributed
to this post.
· * Sarah Yerkes is a visiting fellow in
theCenter for Middle East Policyand a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs
fellow. She is a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff,
where she focused on North Africa. Previously, she was a foreign affairs
officer in the State’s Department’s Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs.
Much has been made, particularly
by Israelis, of the expanding horizons for collaboration between the Jewish
state and Arab Gulf states. Israeli ministers and business people lose no
opportunity to tout Israel’s interest in expanding ties of all sorts in a
region viewed as a valuable market for Israeli industry and an intelligence
Meetings that once were held in the dark are now on public
display. Relations that were once conducted solely by intelligence officials
now feature diplomats and the formal establishmentof relations with countries such as
In a notable development, Saudi Arabia wonkey recognitionfrom Israel—and Egypt and the United
States—as a strategic partner in regional security in the Straits of Tiran.
Such achievements expose not only the alluring prospects of such a dialogue,
but also its enduring, critical limitations.
The nascent coalition linking Israel with the Gulf was born as a
coalition of countries that are united by their common failure to dissuade
Washington from its path of rapprochement with Iran.
Washington and Tehran just celebrated the one-year anniversary
of the J.C.P.O.A., which remains the signature foreign policy achievement of
the Obama administration. Saudis and Israelis looking to roll it back must
contend with the fact that, in an era when the Middle East is shaking under
their feet, the Iran deal represents a relative rock of stability and
policy achievement unmatched elsewhere in U.S. efforts in the region.
Washington’s relations with Tehran may not blossom, but they will be difficult
to reverse—a fact that critically weakens the foundations of underlying
Israeli-Gulf cooperation and limits the effectiveness of an ‘alliance’ based
upon undermining the principal diplomatic and strategic achievement of your
indispensable, superpower ally.
It is also true that one need only scratch the surface to reveal
vital differences in Israeli and Saudi views on Iran itself. Israeli bluster
aside, considered Israeli opinion and policy is far more sanguine about Iran
than is the case in Riyadh.
Even at the height of concerns about an Israeli military strike
against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Israel’s security establishment
successfully tamed the wilder, undisciplined instincts of many in Israel’s
political class. The generals have long understood the vitality of Israel’s
strategic superiority and are prepared toaccommodatean American-led deal with Tehran in a
fashion that contradicts visceral Saudi opposition to the mullahs.
Such differences are apparent in other arenas as well. This is
certainly the case concerning Syria, where the prevailing Israeli view is
sympathetic to the Assad regime. As a consequence of its understandings
with Russia, agreed-upon limits have been set to Iranian and Hezbollah
deployments—a display of realpolitik toward the Damascus regime that Riyadh is
loathe to adopt.
For Israel, its problems with Iran are of relatively recent
vintage. In contrast, it retains a historic and strategic interest in limiting
Arab power—an interest that stands in opposition to declared Arab objectives.
Israel’s newfound Arab friends must be ready to address the unexpected,
destabilizing pressures that will result from an Israel freed from any concern
about constraining Arab power—in Palestine and Lebanon in particular.
In Lebanon, Israel and Gulf states have a shared antipathy
toward Hezbollah, but there is no interest in Arab support for an Israeli
military campaign in Lebanon or more improbably Syria.
Similar considerations illustrate the limits of Arab
understanding of an aggressive Israeli policy toward Gaza.
Israel’s response to the Arab Peace Initiative is also an
instructive case in point.
Long ignored by Israeli leaders—Ehud Olmert did not even bother
to read it—Israel’s strategy is to pocket the historic promise of peace with
the Arab and Islamic worlds as simply a basis for further discussion.
More broadly, Israel has turned the historic formula at the
heart of A.P.I.—peace with Palestine is a gateway to rapprochement with the
Arab world—on its head. “The Arab Peace Initiative,”explainedSaudi prince Turki al-Faisal in a
public discussion with former National Security director Yaakov Amidror, “is
the formula that can bring us together. But the general [Amidror] sees
otherwise. He wants us to start cooperating with Israel, and do whatever is
done in that journey, and forget about the occupation of Palestine and various
other issues that deal with the daily occurrences that are taking place on the
ground in Palestine, whether it is expansion of Israeli settlements in the West
Bank, whether it is the roadblocks — all the issues that you are all aware of.”
Jordan is another useful example of both the advantages and
built-in shortcomings of such an Arab strategy. Egypt and Jordan enjoy
relations with Israel based upon signed peace treaties. Yet even this
achievement has not been sufficient to shield either country from dramatic
challenges posed by Israel.
There has been an indirect Israeli security umbrella over Jordan
since Black September 1970. This protection, however, has failed to pay
dividends for Jordan on the Palestine front. Indeed, in terms of national
security threats, the prospect of a Palestinian retreat to Jordan—pushed by
Israeli policy unfettered by Arab or international pressure—is a constant
source of concern to Jordanian officials. And among Israelis, there is a long
and widely held view that considers a Palestinian takeover of Jordan and the
demise of the Hashemites to be an Israeli interest, and only a matter of time.
With Egypt, there are many indications that relations with
Israel have never been closer. This honeymoon is fueled, however, by
unprecedented national security challenges suffered by Egypt in Sinai.
Israel’s unilateral retreat from Gaza in 2005, its serial wars there since, and
the attendant effort to force Egypt to assume the burden of Gaza’s welfare,
illustrate the limits of their cooperation.
A long, long road has been travelled since the famous ‘three
no’s of Khartoum’—no recognition, no negotiations, no peace—in the aftermath of
the June 1967 war. The iron wall separating Israel from its Arab neighbors is
indeed showing cracks, but the prospects for a turn from confrontation to
cooperation is still hampered by real differences of interests and priorities.
Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public
and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and
development issues. He has advised the World Bank on Israel’s disengagement and
has worked for the European Union Coordinating Office for the Palestinian
Police Support mission to the West Bank and Gaza.
Fighters posing with the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi.
The Syrian civil war has seen the
rise of a number of formations that promote the idea of building a native
Syrian Muqawama Islamiya('Islamic
Resistance') and Hezbollah. Examples includeQuwat al-Ridha(recruiting mainly from Shi'a in the
Homs area), theNational Ideological Resistance (based in
Tartous/Masyaf area), the Ja'afari Force(recruiting
mainly from Damascene Shi'a) andal-Ghalibun.
Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (the Imam Mahdi Brigade), referring to the
twelfth Shi'i Imam, is another group along these lines. For comparison, the
National Ideological Resistance also has the label Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi (The
Imam Mahdi Army).
Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi appears to have at least two sub-components:
the Imam Ali Battalion and the Special Operations al-Hadi Battalion. The
at least two squadrons: the first led by "al-Saffah" and
the second led by "Abu Ali Karar."
The information available on Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi through social
media is patchy at best, but I was able to speak to the commander of the Imam
Ali Battalion, who goes by the name of al-Hajj Waleed and is from Ba'albek in
the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.
According to al-Hajj Waleed (who is
a member of Hezbollah), Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi was set up two years ago by
Hezbollah and has recruits from all of Syria.
Of course, this latter assertion is a fairly standard rhetorical
line. Private Facebook accounts run by those associated with Liwa al-Imam
al-Mahdi largely point to origins in western Syria.
The commander added that the group has participated in a number of
battles, including Deraa, Quneitra, Ghouta, Aleppo and the Ithiriya-Raqqa
route. Some of these operations (e.g.fighting
in south Aleppo countrysideand
positions on theIthiriya
hills) have been mentioned on social media.
In total, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi's contribution to the fighting in
Syria seems similar in scale to that of theJa'afari Forceand
theNational Ideological Resistance. Al-Hajj
Waleed gave his toll of killed ('martyrs') and wounded at 25 and 55
Thus, the military capabilities of these groups should not be
exaggerated, but it is apparent how Hezbollah is trying to project influence
into Syria through the creation of multiple formations and brands in order to
* Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a
research fellow at Middle East Forum'sJihad Intel