February 2, 2015 - Codes of violence: Hezbollah, Iran, American Sniper and Iraq, the Houthi coup, and more

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Codes of violence

This week, Alpher discusses whether there are new components to the Israeli-Hezbollah equation and if the attack of the IDF convoy is the end of this round of violence between them; how that relates to Iran; how Alpher understands the Washington Post’s revelation that the CIA and the Mossad collaborated in the 2009 assassination in Damascus of Hezbollah military chief Imad Moughniyeh; what his take on the film American Sniper and its controversial view of several aspects of US military involvement in Iraq; and why the recent Houthi coup in Yemen brings back interesting memories among a select group of Israeli security veterans.

Q. Last week Hezbollah claimed that by attacking an IDF convoy it had avenged Israel’s earlier targeted killing of several of its senior personnel and an Iranian general. Israel seemed to acquiesce. End of this round of violence? Are there new components to the Israeli-Hezbollah equation?

A. Yes on both counts. One prominent aspect of this round was the exchange of messages, quickly made public, between Israel and Hezbollah as to a shared desire to end the attacks, at least temporary, on a “tit-for-tat” basis: Hezbollah would retaliate no further for the deaths two weeks ago of six of its armed personnel, including two relatively senior officers along with an Iranian general; Israel would not retaliate for the ensuing cross-border ambush that killed an IDF officer and soldier and wounded several others.

On this basis, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah could then proceed to pile on threats of retaliation for future attacks--a transparent attempt to restore Hezbollah deterrence without fear of escalation. And Israel, in the midst of an election season, could ignore two additional threatening issues generated by this latest round--issues that will certainly, in the medium term, not go away.

One is Iran’s presumed ongoing desire to revenge the killing of its Quds Force general on the Golan. Nasrallah, in drawing a line on the incident, seemingly coordinated his remarks in advance with Iran. But he clearly was not addressing Iran’s “account” with Israel. Based on past experience, this could involve an attack on a Diaspora Jewish target.

Secondly, a number of prominent Israeli commentators pointed out last week that Israel’s apparent objection to an effort by Iran and Hezbollah to establish an armed presence on the northern Golan front near Kuneitra--the objection that sparked the presumed attack on the high-level Iran-Hezbollah convoy two weeks ago--does not necessarily reflect compelling and clear-cut strategic logic. Further south, along most of the Golan front, Israel has in effect “made its peace” with the presence of extremely violent Sunni rebel groups, Islamic State and al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), going so far as to coordinate humanitarian aid and perhaps more. At some point those groups could easily direct their hostility toward Israel.

 

Q. So is Hezbollah, which generally maintains a quiet Lebanese border with Israel and is up to its neck in the fighting in Syria, necessarily more venal?

A. The answer is probably yes, if only because Hezbollah is really the long proxy arm of Iran. Then too Israel, confronted with both Sunni and Shiite Islamists along its northern borders, is presumably interested in ensuring they continue to fight one another--an outcome achieved by preventing either from monopolizing too much territory.

The events of the past two weeks on the Golan appear to reflect what many have been warning about for several years now since the Syrian civil war began: Israel can easily be dragged into the intra-Islamist fighting and must do everything possible to keep out. On the other hand, Israel has to send clear deterrent signals as to the degree of Islamist penetration of its border areas it will tolerate.

We were also reminded last week of an intelligence lacuna Israel encountered in last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza: the difficulty of getting into the heads of non-state Islamist leaders and anticipating how they will respond to attacks or, in contrast, gestures of conciliation by Israel. This round with Hezbollah appeared to work out better than last summer.

 

Q. Against this backdrop, how do you understand the Washington Post’s revelation that the CIA and the Mossad collaborated in the 2009 assassination in Damascus of Hezbollah military chief Imad Moughniyeh?

A. Moughniyeh was the father of Jihad Moughniyeh, the young Hezbollah officer who was possibly the main intended objective in the targeted killing just across the Israel-Syria Golan border that produced Hezbollah’s revenge attack. In view of the criticism inside Israel and beyond of the rationale for the Jihad Moughniyeh strike, it’s hard to escape the impression that the timing of the Washington Post’s revelations was intended by someone to send a message that Israel is not alone in launching pre-emptive strikes against high-level terrorist targets linked to Iran and Hezbollah--actors that, lest we forget, have targeted both Israeli and American objectives.

 

Q. The film American Sniper offers a controversial view of several aspects of US military involvement in Iraq. As an Israeli, what’s your take?

A. I realize this is an extremely controversial film in the US, as much for what it says as for what it doesn’t say: about America’s gun culture; about the flawed rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq; and about the absence of a strategy for winning in Iraq. Yet what struck me as most relevant to Israel is the film’s portrayal of what are described by some in the international community as war crimes when it comes to Israel’s wars with Gaza-based Hamas--but are generally rationalized by Israelis as the inevitable civilian casualties of asymmetric urban warfare against Islamist enemies.

In American Sniper we witness the siege of Falujah with its wholesale destruction of homes, schools and mosques on a scale that dwarfs anything ever even attributed to Israel. We hear the Arab Islamist enemy described in terms that, when heard in the language of Israeli commanders, lead to the filing of complaints by Israeli human rights groups. We watch an Iraqi father compelled to serve as a “human shield” by Navy Seals who prefer to stay out of the line of fire in an act that, employed in Hebron, would prompt an immediate investigation by the IDF judge advocate general. In American Sniper, these are not even issues.

Thus one of this movie’s messages is that everything is relative--including the size and international stature of Israel compared to the United States.

 

Q. Finally, why does the recent Houthi coup in Yemen bring back interesting memories among a select group of Israeli security veterans?

A. The Houthis are a leading clan among the Zaidis of northern Yemen, who constitute a branch of Shia Islam. The main international interest in the coup derives from revelations concerning an uncertain degree of Zaidi reliance on Iran and the fact that, elsewhere in Yemen, Sunni al-Qaeda is dominant. So we have the Sunni-Shiite clash dominating not only the Levant but now Yemen as well. There, a government that worked with the US and Saudi Arabia against al-Qaeda has been deposed by pro-Iranians.

That was not always the alignment of forces. Until 1962, northern Yemen had been ruled for hundreds of years by the Zaidi Imam al-Badr. Southern Yemen, known by its capital Aden, was under British rule, but the British, under pressure to “decolonize”, were preparing to pull out. When al-Badr was deposed by a “republican” army coup supported by Egypt’s Nasser and the Soviets, neighboring Saudi Arabia viewed this as a direct challenge to its hegemony on the Arabian Peninsula and Britain as a challenge to its interests “east of Suez”. Riyadh, working with British SAS agents (whose mission was to remain unofficial, hence deniable, so as not to fuel cold war tensions), came to the Yemeni imam’s aid; back then, Sunnis aiding Shiites did not seem outlandish when radical pro-Soviet Arab nationalism had to be countered. Nasser responded by landing an expeditionary force of as many as 60,000 Egyptian troops, with Soviet-backed air support, in Yemen.

Enter Israel. Despite Saudi and British aid, the Zaidi royalists were losing the Yemen civil war. The SAS contacted the Mossad and solicited Israeli aid to the Zaidis. Israel’s interest was in pinning down and wearing down Egyptian forces in distant Yemen, far from the Negev front that had witnessed Israeli-Egyptian wars in 1948 and 1956. In the years prior to 1967, Israel Air Force transport planes flew a total of 14 sorties, each lasting 14 hours, from Eilat down the Red Sea and over Yemen’s 12,000-foot high valleys where they parachuted munitions to the royalists before flying home. (Back at headquarters, yours truly, a young first lieutenant in IDF Intelligence, at one point supervised precautions to erase any and all trace of Israeli origins from the munitions as they were packed.)

Few Zaidis and few if any Saudis knew that the manna falling from heaven to their troops came from Israel. No matter. By the time the June 1967 Six-Day War broke out, Nasser’s forces in Yemen had been worn down and demoralized by what emerged as a draw in the civil war. This was clearly reflected in their poor performance on the Sinai front.

The Yemen operation, code-named “Rotev” (Gravy) was a huge success from Israel’s standpoint: very low cost, no Israeli losses, a setback for Israel’s mortal enemy of the day on a front far from home, and a contribution to the 1967 victory. (It’s related in my just-published book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies.)

Yemen may be a distant front of the current Islamist wars, but because it sits on the Bab al-Mandeb Straits and borders on Saudi Arabia, it is once again important to watch.

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