Sunday, November 18, 2012

Iran, Hamas, and Israel

If you’ve been following the news in the past several days, you know that Hamas has been launching missiles into Israel, that Israel has assassinated Hamas’s military commander Ahmad Jabari, has deployed its anti-missile shield (“Iron Dome”), and is preparing a military incursion into Gaza in order to disable the Hamas missile launch sites.

Here is the latest news, plus an analysis from Stratfor on what’s occurring on the ground:

The Middle East's emerging political forces mobilized in Cairo and in Gaza on Saturday to press for an end to the escalating conflict between Hamas and Israel.

In Gaza, hostilities continued, with Israeli airstrikes pounding the coastal strip for a fourth straight day and Palestinian militants firing dozens of rockets at Israel, including another two aimed at Tel Aviv. The toll reached 40 Palestinians dead and 345 wounded, and three Israelis dead.

There were hints that the pace of combat operations could be slowing, perhaps as a result of the Cairo-led efforts to mediate a cease-fire. In Gaza, the ferocity and number of airstrikes seemed to dip. Hamas said government institutions in Gaza would resume regular work hours on Sunday, a surprising decision given that Israel has targeted some government offices in the past 24 hours.

It was unclear whether the lull was a sign that hostilities could be winding down, or merely a periodic operational pause. Israeli ground forces, including 16,000 reservists called up in the past 48 hours, remained massed on Gaza's borders awaiting orders from Israel's political leadership.

"There are intense efforts underway through the contact channels with the Palestinian and Israeli sides, so far there are some indications that there's a possibility for a cease-fire," said Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi during a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who began a two-day official visit to Egypt on Saturday.

"Until now we do not have solid guarantees, but what I want to signal and affirm is that war and aggression in this manner and the blockade of Gaza, all of this cannot achieve peace and stability for the people of the region," Mr. Morsi added while warning Israel against proceeding with any ground offensive because it would inflame a region transformed by the regime changes ushered in by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere nearly two years ago.

"The people and the leaders of the region are different from before," Mr. Morsi said.

For his part, Mr. Erdogan said he spoke Friday by telephone with U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin to press for "an urgent cease-fire in Gaza."

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Stratfor puts out a free, weekly version of its “intelligence report”, and I’m a subscriber to these “free reports” [though I’ve not subscribed to the their full package]. I’ve mentioned these in the past, and especially in light of some recent news that Hamas is launching missiles against Israeli targets, they’ve been sending more regular updates [including some “Free Special Reports”] about what is actually going on behind the scenes over there.

I’d highly recommend that anyone interested take a look at Some of the information in this blog post comes from “Free Special Reports” that I receive via email, but which I cannot access on the web.

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The graphic above shows the range and extent of the Hamas Fajr-5 rockets being launched from Gaza. Israel has deployed its Iron Dome missile defense system and has authorized the military to call up as many as 75,000 reservists in anticipation of possible ground operations.

Whether or not you think that events in Israel portend some sort of imminent eschatological events are about to take place (I don’t), the history of the modern nation of Israel is something that we need to incorporate into our thinking about what’s right and wrong with the world today.

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Several weeks ago (on September 11, in fact), George Friedman put out an article entitled War and Bluff: Iran, Israel and the United States. He analyzed the various postures that these three were taking and gave this analysis:

For the past several months, the Israelis have been threatening to attack Iranian nuclear sites as the United States has pursued a complex policy of avoiding complete opposition to such strikes while making clear it doesn't feel such strikes are necessary.…

From the Iranian point of view, a nuclear program has been extremely valuable. Having one has brought Iran prestige in the Islamic world and has given it a level of useful global political credibility….

While a nuclear program has given Iran political leverage, actually acquiring nuclear weapons would increase the risk of military action against Iran….

Friedman’s point is that, in an Orwellian sense, it always makes sense for Iran to be “developing” a nuclear weapon, and it won’t make sense for them to have one. He says “Using nuclear weapons against Israel would be catastrophic to Iran. The principle of mutual assured destruction, which stabilized the U.S.-Soviet balance in the Cold War, would govern Iran’s use of nuclear weapons. If Iran struck Israel, the damage would be massive, forcing the Iranians to assume that the Israelis and their allies (specifically, the United States) would launch a massive counterattack on Iran, annihilating large parts of Iran’s population”.

This is the “heart of the issue”, he says.

While from a rational perspective the Iranians would be fools to launch such an attack, the Israeli position is that the Iranians are not rational actors and that their religious fanaticism makes any attempt to predict their actions pointless. Thus, the Iranians might well accept the annihilation of their country in order to destroy Israel in a sort of megasuicide bombing. The Israelis point to the Iranians' rhetoric as evidence of their fanaticism. Yet, as we know, political rhetoric is not always politically predictive. In addition, rhetoric aside, Iran has pursued a cautious foreign policy, pursuing its ends with covert rather than overt means. It has rarely taken reckless action, engaging instead in reckless rhetoric….

Herein lies the root of the great Israeli debate that pits the Netanyahu government, which appears to regard Iran as irrational, against significant segments of the Israeli military and intelligence communities, which regard Iran as rational.

Friedman sides with the “Israeli military and intelligence communities” in this, believing that Iran is both keeping alive the rhetoric that it is advancing a nuclear program, while working through rhetoric and surrogates to create unbalance in Israel and to increase its own sphere of influence in that part of the world. He says:

The Iranian strategy has been to maintain ambiguity on the status of its program, while making it appear that the program is capable of sudden success -- without ever achieving that success.

Here is Friedman’s “big picture” for how all of this has been developing in recent months:

When we step back and view the picture as a whole, we see Iran using its nuclear program for political reasons but being meticulous not to make itself appear unambiguously close to success. We see the Israelis talking as if they were threatened but acting as if they were in no rush to address the supposed threat. And we see the Americans acting as if they are restraining Israel, paradoxically appearing to be Iran's protector even though they are using the Israeli threat to increase Iranian insecurity. For their part, the Russians initially supported Iran in a bid to bog down the United States in another Middle East crisis. But given Iran's reversal in Syria, the Russians are clearly reconsidering their Middle East strategy and even whether they actually have a strategy in the first place. Meanwhile, the Chinese want to continue buying Iranian oil unnoticed.

All of this is merely context for what we’ve been seeing happening in Israel over the last several days.

Friedman is convinced that Iran is instigating this episode as a means of increasing its influence in this part of the Middle East. With the new “Muslim Brotherhood” government in Egypt thanks to the uprisings of the “Arab Spring”, there is no guarantee that this new government will honor the Israeli/Egyptian treaties signed under Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter:

The conflict in Gaza comes at an interesting time in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Cairo recently saw the Muslim Brotherhood candidate assume the Egyptian presidency, while in the past two years Israel has approved two Egyptian military increases "in the Sinai Peninsula above levels set in the Camp David Accords. The disposition of the forces in Sinai coupled with the presence of the U.N.-mandated Multinational Force and Observers mean at present, Egyptian forces do not pose a significant threat to Israel. How Egypt will respond to the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip remains to be seen, but should the Morsi government or Egypt's military decide to support Gaza, such support would likely consist of turning a blind eye toward militant activities and smuggling in the Sinai Peninsula.

Strategically, the 1978 “Camp David Peace Accords made the Sinai Peninusla a buffer between Israel and Egypt, permitting “only enough forces in Sinai to enforce security”. While that force had been “in the hundreds”, Friedman notes that the Egyptian force has been raised (“with Israeli cabinet approval”) to 2,500 troops, plus 80 vehicles and “at least two attack helicopters”. Even so, “the number of troops Egypt has in the Sinai Peninsula now does not pose a direct threat to Israel”.

The Egyptian force there may help to stabilize the region. Friedman says:

If Israel in fact viewed the Egyptian military presence as a threat, it would likely ask Egypt to draw down the expanded troop presence. In fact, the biggest threat the Egyptian military could pose to Israel would be by becoming less involved in Sinai.

But an incursion into Gaza with ground forces “may put Israeli and Egyptian troops closer than they have been for decades, heightening the risks for both sides”.

While until recently, it has been understood that Iran was supplying Hamas with the Fajr-5 rockets it has been launching, “new intelligence indicates forces in Gaza may be manufacturing long-range rockets locally. If this is the case, a significant ground force offers the Israelis the best chance of finding and neutralizing the factories making these weapons. Meanwhile, Israel continues its airstrikes on Gaza, and Gaza continues its long-range rocket attacks on major Israeli population centers, though Israel claims its Iron Dome defense system has intercepted most of the rockets”.

In the recent past, Israel has sent “a significant ground force” into Gaza, in an effort called “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-2009.

The goal of a repeated, similar effort would be “the severe degradation of Gaza militants' ability to launch rocket strikes, particularly the new Fajr-5 rockets that are purportedly capable of striking Tel Aviv”. Because Hamas is thought to be manufacturing these rockets locally, the activities of a new effort would have some different goals: destruction of manufacturing facilities rather than interdiction of smuggling efforts.

A ground operation now would likely look very similar to Cast Lead in design and tactics, since Cast Lead was considered an operational success and its mission was similar to the current one. However, there are two notable differences. First, in the southern theater during Cast Lead, Egyptian security forces worked to secure the Rafah crossing from their end and allowed Israeli forces to engage the Philadelphi route. Egypt now has a very different government, which brings into question its willingness to support a ground operation. Cairo has already announced that the Rafah Crossing will remain open. This creates an even more serious imperative for Israeli units to cut the supply lines in the south of the Gaza Strip to Gaza City. Israeli ground forces may need to physically occupy the Egypt-Gaza border because naval strikes and airstrikes may not accomplish the mission. This would be a slight expansion on the action taken in 2008-2009 and could bring Israeli forces into uncomfortably close contact with Egyptian forces.

Second, in the north, the potential range of the Fajr-5 missile expands the potential firing zone that needs to be cleared. As stated earlier, Cast Lead focused on Gaza City and its surrounding areas in clearing operations. In order to degrade militants' abilities to reach Tel Aviv with the Fajr-5's expanded range, the IDF will need to clear all potential firing areas to just south of Nusayrat. In theory, this would require the isolation of a larger area and the potential use of more forces or require more time to accomplish.

While Gaza operations focusing on Hamas would occur in the southwestern areas of Israel, to the north, Hezbollah, “Iran's most capable militant proxy”, “could open a second front against Israel”, but initially seems prepared to sit out. As Friedman writes in a special report email:

Hezbollah will likely be extremely cautious in deciding whether to participate in this war. The group's fate is linked to that of the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad; should Syria fracture along sectarian lines, Lebanon is likely to descend into civil war, and Hezbollah will have to conserve its strength and resources for a battle at home against its sectarian rivals…

With Hezbollah uncertain how the Israeli-Hamas battle will play out, the group appears to be taking a cautious approach. Stratfor has received indication that Hezbollah has prevented radical Palestinian groups in southern Lebanese refugee camps from firing rockets into northern Israel. In addition to an increase in the number of patrols by the Lebanese army and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Hezbollah has been deploying numerous operatives in plainclothes along the border to monitor the situation….

For now, Hezbollah appears intent on not allowing the battle in Gaza to spill into southern Lebanon. It remains to be seen whether that calculus would shift should Hamas succeed in wearing down Israeli ground forces.

Meanwhile, Iran sits back and watches.

On Nov. 14, [Hamas military commander Ahmad] Jabari was assassinated, and Hamas had to work under the assumption that Israel would do whatever it took to launch a comprehensive military campaign to eliminate the Fajr threat. It is at this point that Hamas likely resigned to a "use it or lose it" strategy and launched Fajr rockets toward Tel Aviv, knowing that they would be targeted anyway and potentially using the threat as leverage in an eventual attempt at another truce with Israel. A strong Hamas response would also boost Hamas' credibility among Palestinians. Hamas essentially tried to make the most out of an already difficult situation and will now likely work through Egypt to try to reach a truce to avoid an Israeli ground campaign in Gaza that could further undermine its authority in the territory.

In Tehran, Iranian officials are likely quite content with these developments. Iran needed a distraction from the conflict in Syria. It now has that, at least temporarily. Iran also needed to revise its relationship with Hamas and demonstrate that it retains leverage through militant groups in the Palestinian territories as part of its deterrence strategy against a potential strike on its nuclear program. Hamas decided in the past year that it was better off aligning itself with its ascendant parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, than remaining tethered to an ideological rival like Iran that was being put on the defensive in the region. Iran could still capture Hamas' attention through weapons sales, however, and may have even expected that Israel would detect the Fajr shipments.

The result is an Israeli military campaign in Gaza that places Hamas' credibility in question and could create more space for a group like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has close ties to Iran. The conflict will also likely create tension in Hamas' relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, since the Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt, is not prepared or willing to confront Israel beyond rhetoric and does not want to face the public backlash for not doing enough to defend the Palestinians from Israel Defense Forces. All in all, this may turn out to be a relatively low-cost, high payoff maneuver by Iran.

Keep in mind that Iran is both keeping alive the rhetoric that it is advancing a nuclear program, while working through rhetoric and surrogates to create unbalance in Israel and to increase its own sphere of influence in that part of the world.

The recent activities between Hamas (in Gaza) and Israel are not the main event. They are smaller events – “surrogates” – working to keep things unbalanced in Israel and to enable Iran to increase its own sphere of influence in that part of the world.

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