September 8, 2014 - Islamic State; Status of Israel-Gaza Ceasefire



Q. The Obama administration appears to be engaging in limited military cooperation with Iran against the Islamic State. How does this sit with Israel?

A. This development leaves the Israeli security establishment very uneasy.

President Obama has declared that the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daish) is a greater danger than Iran. In parallel, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has apparently approved Iranian cooperation with the US against IS. Obama promises to present a comprehensive American strategy for dealing with IS this Wednesday--one that invokes widespread international cooperation and thereby avoids putting US "boots on the ground" in Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, the US has recruited nine additional non-Middle East countries to work with it in bombing IS targets and strengthening allies on the ground, meaning the Iraqi army and "moderate" Syrian opposition groups. But in terms of immediate assets, Iranian military and intelligence capacities are apparently much more available. And Iran shares the objective of putting a collapsed Iraq back together as a means of braking IS's militant Sunni Islamist drive into the heart of the Arab Middle East. Both Iran and the US have been arming and advising Kurdish Peshmerga forces who currently (in the absence of a functioning Iraqi army) lead the fighting against IS on the ground.

Apparently to ease the way toward cooperation in the field with the US, Iran may have replaced Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani on the Iraqi battlefront with General Ali Shamkhani. Suleimani remains active primarily in Syria, where he is responsible for Iran's role in massive atrocities against the civilian population; Shamkhani, in contrast, served as defense minister under President Mohammad Khatami, an earlier reformer who was popular with the West. But this may simply be Iranian sleight-of-hand: Suleimani was photographed last week at an Iraqi combat site.

Precisely how the US and Iran will collaborate--or are already collaborating--in Iraq has not been made entirely clear. About 10 days ago they seemingly worked together--the US from the air, Iranian advisers on the ground--in assisting a force reportedly made up of Kurds, Iraqi Shiite militias and Iraqi army units to lift the siege on the Shiite Iraqi town of Amerli. And American and Iranian military personnel may have met in Kurdistan.

Israeli security sources are watching these developments with concern for two reasons. One is the notion that if the US and Iran can cooperate against militant Sunni Islam, this may render it easier for them to achieve a nuclear deal by November 24--one that involves international concessions to Iran that Israel might find threatening. The other is that, as matters stand, a victory over IS in Iraq by any coalition, with or without Iran, tends to stabilize that country as a Shiite-ruled ally of Iran. And this in turn facilitates geostrategic access and support by Tehran to Syria's brutal Assad regime and to its Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah ally, which sits on Israel's northern border and threatens it with as many as 100,000 rockets.

Q. So, does Israel prefer that IS take over large parts of Iraq and Syria and threaten Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon? Or can it acquiesce in US collaboration with Iran against IS?

A. Here it is important to note that, in Israeli eyes, the direct threat posed by Iran's militant Shiite Islam is as great as that posed by IS. In this sense, most Israelis would take issue with Obama's downgrading of the Iranian threat noted above. Even if a nuclear agreement with Iran is reached--one that Israel will almost certainly have to acquiesce in, however serious its concerns and however loud its protests--Iran will still remain a very proximate threat to Israel by virtue of its constant calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and its active support for Syria and particularly Hezbollah. The Hezbollah rocket and tunnel threat is not on the negotiating table when the P5 + 1 sit down with Iran to discuss its nuclear program. But it is very much on Israel's mind following its experience in the recent war with Hamas.

Accordingly, from the Israeli standpoint, however ominous the threat posed by IS, there are strategic benefits to be gained vis-a-vis Iran if IS cripples Iraq, because this materially hampers Iran's access to the Levant. That is why in early July PM Netanyahu declared his support for an independent Kurdistan in what is today northern Iraq. Not only does Israel empathize with another embattled Middle East minority breaking free of Arab control; an independent Kurdistan means a dismembered Iraq, and that weakens Iran.

Washington, in contrast, seeks a reunited Iraq under a (democratically elected) Shiite majority. The US has invested huge blood and treasure in this enterprise. Last month, it was the plight of ancient Iraqi minorities threatened by IS that alerted the American public. Now, following the gruesome beheadings of Americans by IS that were broadcast worldwide, Washington has a score to settle with IS. Further, the US and particularly Europe (basically, the nine countries including Canada and Australia that pledged to support the US effort) fear the export of Islamist terrorism to their soil by IS--as if Iran and its proxy Hezbollah had not been exporting terrorism against Jewish targets as distant as Argentina for decades.

At the same time, the Obama administration faces huge problems as it seeks to navigate the mess in Iraq and Syria. American air power alone will almost certainly not turn the tide of fighting in either country and American "boots on the ground" are hardly an option, especially as mid-term elections approach. Other than the Kurds, there are no obvious moderate allies in either country with the capability of exploiting US aid and training in order to make a difference. Yet the moment Obama commits to stopping IS, he cannot afford to contemplate a very public failure. Hence his need for Iran. And hence references by American officials to a campaign that will continue into the term of the next US president.

Of course, Israel for its part also has much to fear from IS along with only slightly less fanatic Islamist groups like al-Nusra, now firmly implanted along Israel's Golan border. There now appears to be an IS branch in Egyptian Sinai as well, along Israel's southwest border; last week it beheaded four Egyptians. And an IS affiliate beheaded two Lebanese soldiers on the Syria-Lebanon border as well. The concern over IS's advances is shared by neighboring Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Arab countries that border on Syria and/or Iraq and are genuinely alarmed over territorial advances by Sunni extremists (though a variety of wealthy Saudis have in the past helped finance those same extremists, and Saudi Arabia beheads far more people than has IS). Hence it's difficult for all concerned to protest when Washington appears to be embracing, however tentatively, the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" mantra in Iraq and possibly even Syria.

Here, two very unlikely solutions or developments would prove ideal for Israel and its moderate neighbors. One is a genuine US-Iran rapprochement, anchored in a nuclear deal but expanding to regional issues, that effectively neutralizes the Iran/Hezbollah threat to Israel. A second is for militant Sunnis to fight it out with militant Shiites in the relatively empty desert of northwest Iraq-northeast Syria until both sides are exhausted--echoing PM Menachem Begin, who wished "success to both sides" in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s (IS forces have reportedly even staged raids inside Iran.) Barring such unlikely developments, Israel has cause for concern. The Netanyahu-Obama relationship, which was never good and has recently been hurt by the failed peace process, the war in Gaza and the Etzion Bloc land "annexation" (see last week's Q & A), is now liable to deteriorate further over even a "gesture" of US-Iranian cooperation on the battlefields of Iraq.

Q. Apropos the Gaza war, has any progress been registered toward stabilizing the Israel-Gaza ceasefire?

A. Virtually none. At present, all concerned parties appear to be working at cross purposes.

Thus, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned on Sunday in Cairo that Hamas-Fateh reconciliation was endangered because Hamas was not honoring its commitment to "one rule, one law and one gun". Fateh will cease dialoguing with Hamas unless the latter agrees that "arming will be the responsibility of the Palestinian state", Abbas added. Elsewhere, it was reported that Abbas blamed Hamas for planning a new intifada in the West Bank with the aim of deposing him, and that the PA was arresting Hamas activists in the West Bank. Hamas claims the main divisive issue is the PA's failure, or inability due to US-led banking sanctions, to pay the salaries of Hamas civil servants in Gaza, as originally agreed.

If Palestinian unity is going nowhere, neither are the talks scheduled to begin shortly in Cairo to discuss heavy issues like Hamas's demand for air and sea ports and Israel's appeal to "demilitarize" the Gaza Strip. The demilitarization demand was dismissed on Sunday by none other than FM Avigdor Lieberman, whose Foreign Ministry launched a call for a United Nations force to monitor Gaza rebuilding and prevent Hamas from rearming. In parallel, a "senior diplomatic source" (probably Lieberman) asserted on Sunday that Hamas is already rebuilding attack tunnels and producing rockets--a claim not backed by the Israeli security community.

A UN presence in the Gaza Strip would require a new Security Council resolution, which was on the agenda toward the end of the recent Gaza war but has dropped out of sight for lack of Israeli backing. One reason is Netanyahu's fear that such a resolution would establish the 1967 lines as the point of departure for a new peace process--a provision the prime minister still objects to, though he reportedly hinted otherwise to Secretary of State Kerry before the collapse of the US-sponsored peace process. So Lieberman's UN initiative is as much about his political rivalry with Netanyahu as about the stabilization of Gaza.

Returning to Abbas, he not only claims to have made no progress with the reconciliation agreement that lies at the heart of efforts to develop and amplify the Gaza ceasefire. His plan to "solve" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in three years with UN backing was apparently rejected last week by Kerry as unacceptably unilateral.

To sum up, "working at cross purposes" may turn out to be an understatement. At this rate, we are heading for renewed fighting between Israel and Gaza, possibly sooner than expected.