This week, Alpher discusses what strategic significance the Paris Massacre might be to the Islamic State; whether it is a sign that ISIS is losing in the Levant; what other countries can we expect ISIS to target now; whether the constellation emerging after the Paris attacks affect Israel’s security; why the former Yemeni prime minister Abdul Karim al-Eryani, who died at age 81 in his Cairo exile, was significant, and what this tells us about the future of Yemen.
Q. Last week you wrote that the Islamic State’s sabotaging of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai was an act of strategic significance. And the Paris massacre?
A. The Paris massacre, the Russian plane sabotage of October 31 and the deadly suicide bombings targeting Shiites in Beirut on November 12 are all part and parcel of the same new strategy adopted by ISIS. All constitute a response to the same course of events in the Levant. As the diverse international camp fighting ISIS in the Middle East registers military achievements that ISIS is hard put to prevent or counter on the ground--the liberation of parts of Aleppo in northern Syria and of the Yazidi town of Sinjar in northern Iraq, and the growing Kurdish threat to ISIS’s capital Raqqa in Syria-- ISIS strikes back at the coalition members on their home turf by doing what it does best: killing civilians.
It is entirely rational from ISIS’s point of view to attack its enemies’ civilian rear echelon. Lebanese Shiites, Russians and French all represent countries or movements attacking ISIS and “interfering” in ISIS’s war against local enemies in Iraq and Syria. All represent external “invaders”. All represent actors that have recently scored military achievements against ISIS. Note, in this context, that France (castigated by the triumphant ISIS as home to “crusaders” and “capital of prostitution”) is the only Western European country bombing ISIS targets in Syria. Accordingly, it is no coincidence that Paris and not, say, Brussels (apparently the Paris terrorists’ European base) was singled out for carnage.
Q. So are you saying the Paris attacks are a sign that ISIS is losing in the Levant?
A. Obviously, ISIS prepared all three recent attacks on civilians identified with its Levant enemies over a long period of time: collecting intelligence, planning bombings, infiltrating perpetrators, laying the infrastructure for an extremely sophisticated cluster of attacks in Paris (attacks that may not be over; some of Friday night’s terrorists are apparently still at large). Yet the timing of the attacks points to the need for ISIS to open a new, international front designed to retaliate and deter. Considering that until November ISIS--unlike al-Qaeda which spawned it--perceived no need to attack outside of the Arab countries where it is active, the timing of this escalation appears to reflect a dilemma in the Levant generated by military setbacks.
Note, in this connection, President Obama’s claim just a day before the Paris attacks that ISIS is now “contained”. Of course Obama’s timing was bad. But in the context of the Levant theater of war, there was a ring of truth to what he said. That is precisely why ISIS is opening a new theater by targeting those fighting it in the Levant where they are most vulnerable. Logically, Washington will now argue that the best response to the Paris attacks is more bombing accompanied by local military efforts, but not a western ground campaign in Syria and Iraq. President Obama has already indicated that the US will not step up its own military efforts beyond “more of the same” bombing and will not put “boots on the ground” in the Levant in response to Paris’s call for NATO to join its response.
Q. So what other countries can we expect ISIS to target now?
A. According to this logic, the US, Iran, the UAE (the only Arab country still fairly active in fighting ISIS in the Levant), and the Kurds. Turkey, which provides the US with bases, could also be targeted. Russia and France could be targeted again. Israel, which avoids involvement in the Levant war and even, on occasion, targets ISIS’s arch-enemy the Assad regime (when it tries to transfer strategic weaponry to Hezbollah), will not be targeted by ISIS terrorism. Britain, having ceased its air attacks in Syria, may not be.
Then too, if France is now tempted to join the Levant war with its own ground forces, ISIS will presumably welcome this chance to draw European blood on its own turf, thereby further escalating the conflict.
Q. But does the constellation emerging after the Paris attacks affect Israel’s security?
A. Both Israel and the US already enjoy close security and intelligence cooperation with France. The latter is apparently escalating its military activities against ISIS and is clearly going to need better intelligence to facilitate this effort as well as to enhance protective and preventive measures at home. This points to even closer intelligence collaboration with Israel, even if the inevitable loud arguments of Israeli hawks to the effect that ISIS’s terrorism is no different than Palestinian terrorism encounter understandable European and American skepticism.
There is a down-side as well. Iran is repeatedly mentioned by France and the US as a potential partner in a stepped-up military effort that focuses on ISIS. It seems likely that the current course of events will favor a more tolerant American approach to the Assad regime in Syria, too, in favor of targeting “ISIS first”. Both the Iranian and Syrian regimes were quick to condemn the Paris attacks and to express solidarity--as if they themselves were not longstanding state sponsors of terrorism. This, in any case, is the direction all the western anti-ISIS forces have been moving since the Iran nuclear deal.
Note, in this regard, that a second meeting of the 19-strong International Syria Support Group just agreed in Vienna on a target date of January 1 for the start of negotiations between the Syrian government and undefined secular and Saudi-Qatari-supported “moderate” Islamist opposition groups about a political transition, including elections and a new constitution within 18 months. Here Russian President Putin’s reported “concessions” to US demands that Assad eventually leave power are not particularly convincing, especially in view of Iran’s ongoing insistence that the Alawites--their ticket to Levant dominance and a force multiplier for their capacity to threaten Israel--remain in power in Damascus.
Both Israel and the Sunni Arab states are not comfortable with an approach to Iran that seemingly ignores Tehran’s own record of terrorism, its drive for Shiite hegemony in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and its consistent call for Israel’s destruction--all for the sake of defeating ISIS. Israel, correctly from its standpoint, points to equally venal twin threats in the Levant: Shiite Islamist extremism (Iran, Hezbollah) and Sunni Islamist extremism (ISIS, Qaeda, etc.). The West and Russia increasingly point only to ISIS and conveniently ignore Iran’s threats and designs. This is potentially problematic for Israel.
(Incidentally, on Saturday Syrian rebel sources claimed to have killed four Iranian Quds force generals, including Qassem Soleimani, the most senior and most talented strategist of Iranian force projection in the Middle East and even globally, with a Tow missile strike near Aleppo. If the report proves true, it would represent at least a symbolic and perhaps a significant setback for Iran’s campaign to become a permanent factor on the ground in Syria.)
On the other hand--and it is a problematic hand--the Paris attacks will almost certainly augment the popularity of far-right anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant political parties in western Europe, beginning with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France. In recent years, these parties have “learned” to abandon anti-Semitism and stick with Muslims as the great threat to Europe. As such, they are certain to advocate stronger European support for Israel at the expense of European pressures regarding the Palestinian issue. With friends like these. . .
Meanwhile, the European refugee/migration scene could change, too. Even European politicians far more moderate than Le Pen might now advocate measures to block the flow of yet more Muslims--apparently including a few terrorists--from the Middle East via Turkey. In the US, Republican presidential candidates are competing over who can be toughest about accepting Muslim immigrants. All this means an even bigger Syrian refugee problem for Turkey and two of Israel’s immediate neighbors, Lebanon and Jordan. On the other hand, French and other European Jewish immigration to Israel can only rise; already this year, 5,000 French Jews have reportedly made aliyah.
Q. Still in the Middle East and still with Iran and ISIS, former Yemeni prime minister Abdul Karim al-Eryani died at age 81 in his Cairo exile. Why was he significant and what does this tell us about the future of Yemen?
A. I met Eryani at his home in Sanaa in 1999 and was extremely impressed by the wisdom of this US-educated bio-geneticist-turned-statesman and politician. At the time, he was prime minister of a united and relatively peaceful Yemen (relatively, because tribal elements still periodically kidnapped foreigners for ransom, which was why I couldn’t visit the few remaining Jews further north in Saada). I brought Eryani regards from a senior Israeli security figure who knew him and he reciprocated the gesture. In some ways, the Middle East is a small world.
Eryani helped unite north and south Yemen into a single country in 1990. As late as 2011-2012, he was still active mediating compromise deals that kept Yemen unified.
But it no longer is. Now, Sanaa and Saada are occupied by the Iran-backed Houthis, southwest Yemen is shakily ruled by a Saudi-supported government and parts of southeastern Yemen constitute a Qaeda mini-state, with ISIS infiltrating everything. Huge civilian casualties are reported everywhere. For numerous reasons--overpopulation, climate change that has engendered acute water shortages, chronic Arab state dis-functionality, heavy external interference--Yemenites once again cannot get along and Yemen is a key locus on a map of Arab world chaos that merely begins with Syria and Iraq. There are no Eryanis around anymore, in Yemen or elsewhere in the Arab world.