Saudi talk of ‘regime change’ takes hostility to Iran to new level

Ian Black writes: Turki al-Faisal is a remarkably modest man for a senior Saudi prince, always insisting that he speaks for no-one but himself and certainly not the ruling family. But the kingdom’s former intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington has a habit of making waves when he appears in public.

Last weekend, he was one of several VIPs who attended a conference of the Iranian opposition movement, the National Council of Resistance Iran (NCRI), near Paris. Turki accused the Islamic Republic of destabilising the Middle East and “spreading chaos”. He even said that he hoped to see the fall of the regime – in the familiar phrase of the Arab spring uprisings.

On a positive note, Turki did point to the long friendship and cooperation between Arabs and Persians, praising cultural achievements and religious commonalities and arguing that current tensions were an exception. But he also attacked what he called the “Khomeini cancer” – strong words for such an exquisitely polite man to use about the architect of the 1979 revolution, who is still officially revered in Iran. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Iran’s military leaders turn to Instagram to promote domestic support for the war in Syria

The New York Times reports: The first news report, to a nation usually kept in the dark about military matters, was shocking: 13 Iranian soldiers, all with links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had been killed in an ambush near the Syrian city of Aleppo. What followed this spring may have been even more surprising. Details about the soldiers appeared extensively in the Iranian news media, which not only gave the names of the dead but lionized them with sweeping life stories. Poster-size portraits were plastered all over their hometowns.

For years, Iran covered up its military activities in Syria and Iraq, so the government could deny any official involvement on the ground. Coffins arrived with the bodies of soldiers who went unidentified, referred to only as “defenders of the shrines” of the Shiite saints. When the bodies began to come home in larger numbers, the state news media began calling them “volunteers.”

No longer. Now every Iranian killed in action is named, his picture published, his valor lauded in elaborate tributes in the hard-line news media and on Instagram accounts dedicated to the fighters. The reason for the change, analysts say, is not some newfound dedication to transparency but a rift between the Iranian establishment’s hard-liners, who control the military, and the moderates.

The hard-liners, they say, want to prevent any decline in Tehran’s absolute support for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and to undermine the moderates, who they fear might be open to a political settlement in which Mr. Assad would step down.

The Revolutionary Guards see publicizing the sacrifices of the fallen as a way to build domestic support for the current Syria policy and squelch any talk of compromise. The Instagram accounts have attracted tens of thousands of followers, most of them supporting the military effort. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

‘Iranians use Afghans as human shields’ in Syria

The Guardian reports: Iran is covertly recruiting hundreds of Afghan Shias in Afghanistan to fight for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, drawing them out of their own conflict-ridden country and into another war in which Afghanistan plays no official part.

The Afghan fighters are often impoverished, religiously devout or ostracised from society, looking for money, social acceptance and a sense of purpose that they are unable to find at home.

Iran’s recruitment of Afghan migrants and refugees within its own borders has been documented. But similar Iranian activities inside Afghanistan had previously gone unreported.

Iran denies using “any kind of allurement or coercion”, or to otherwise recruiting Afghans to fight in Syria, according to an embassy spokesman in Kabul. But a Guardian investigation can reveal both how Iran coaxes Afghan men into war, and the motives that prompt these men to travel thousands of miles to join a battle they might not return from.

Central in this recruitment are men such as Jawad. A police officer by day and self-declared “travel agent” when off-duty, Jawad said he acted for a year as middleman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) when in 2014 it formed an Afghan Shia militia, the Fatemiyoun Division, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

From his “travel agency” on the second floor of a non-descript office building, Jawad connected combat willing men with Iran’s embassy in Kabul. The embassy assisted with visas and travel, and paid Jawad a commission for his troubles.

In return for fighting, Afghans are offered a residence permit in Iran and about $500 monthly salary. “Most go to Syria for the money,” said Jawad, wearing stonewashed jeans and replica Ray-Bans. “Others go to defend the shrine.”

Syria is home to several holy Shia sites, above all the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Damascus, which honours the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, and which has been a rallying point for Shias who want to defend it from Sunni militants such as Islamic State.

The first time the Guardian met Jawad, he was preparing to travel to Syria himself. Isis had abducted 12 Afghan fighters in a suburb of Damascus. It was Jawad who had recruited them, and their families now demanded that he help secure their release, he said.

When he returned from Syria a month later, he was clearly shaken. Showing photos from Damascus, he said he had negotiated the hostages’ freedom, but also seen first hand how “the Iranians use Afghans as human shields”. He said he would stop working as go-between for the Iranians. “I’m ashamed because I sent these people,” he said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Divisions inside Iran over support for Assad

Muhammad Sahimi writes: Two important developments in Iran have finally brought into open a simmering issue that has divided the Iranian leadership since at least 2011. First, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif fired Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, his deputy for Arab and African Affairs. Amir-Abdollahian had led Iran’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria. Less than a day later, on Monday, June 20, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, issued an angry and blunt statement in which he threatened Bahrain’s rulers, declaring that they would pay a heavy price for their decision to revoke citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia majority.

The two seemingly unrelated developments are actually tightly linked. They represent another manifestation of the fierce power struggle in Iran between President Hassan Rouhani and his reformist and moderate supporters, and the hard-liners led by the high command of the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. More importantly, however, they also bring to light a deepening rift in the Islamic Republic’s leadership over Syria’s fate and, more specifically, that of President Bashar al-Assad.

The image presented in the West about Iran’s intervention in Syria and its support for Assad’s government is that, despite many fissures over domestic issues, the Iranian leadership is completely unified when it comes to Iran’s strategic interests in the region, in particular Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah. This is in fact far from reality. Similar to almost all other issues, there has always been a rift between the moderates and reformists on the one hand, and the hard-liners on the other. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Fallujah: The Iraq victory that could lose the war

The Daily Beast reports: The Iraqi government, which has been shaken by weekly protests that charge its senior leadership with corruption, needed to win a military victory to try to salvage its political reputation. Thus was begun the Third Battle of Fallujah.

The city that had been the symbolic capital of Sunni resistance to American occupation and Shia domination has collapsed into a network of bombed-out homes, criss-crossing sand berms, and half-finished cement structures. Thousands of bullet casings, water bottles, and other discarded items litter the landscape. The Iraqi Security Forces have turned what remains of Fallujah, the City of Mosques, into an ash heap.

Last week, although scattered resistance by fighters from the so-called Islamic State continues in parts of the city, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi felt confident enough to declare Fallujah liberated on June 17 after the elite U.S.-trained soldiers of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service (ICTS) recaptured a former government headquarters in the city center. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Washington’s war on ISIS is only making it stronger

Hassan Hassan writes: For the first time since U.S.-led coalition operations began two years ago, almost all of the group’s vital strongholds in Syria, Iraq, and Libya have come under serious pressure. In a recent statement, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the group’s spokesman, even alluded to the fact that followers should be prepared for losses, from Sirte to Mosul.

But while the group’s performance has hit an all-time low, its appeal does not seem to have diminished. CIA Director John Brennan recognizes this fact: “Despite all our progress against ISIL on the battlefield … our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 16, using another term for the Islamic State. “[A]s the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”

Brennan also confirmed that the CIA had found no “direct link” between Omar Mateen, the gunman in Orlando, and the Islamic State. This is no surprise, as Mateen does not seem to fit familiar patterns of dogmatic support for the group. In the space of three years, he had supported Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. His profile suggests that he belongs in the category of sympathizers who are only superficially influenced by the organization’s ideology, but who nonetheless can be inspired to carry out attacks in its name.

Such sympathizers are not driven by the Islamic State’s military successes, such as the takeover of Mosul in the summer of 2014. The group built its narrative around Sunni victimization, an idea that both predates its establishment of a caliphate and continues to exert a strong pull on many in the Middle East. The Islamic State has also tapped into the rampant political stagnation and popular grievances to gain popular support beyond the number of people who actually joined its ranks.

Consider, for example, the ongoing offensives against the Islamic State in Fallujah, Raqqa, and Manbij. While Washington insists the onslaughts include forces that represent the Sunni Arab communities that dominate the three cities, the prominence of Iranian-backed sectarian militias and Kurdish groups has triggered outrage in groups that are otherwise hostile to the Islamic State.

Two examples stand out. As the People’s Protection Units advanced on Raqqa, the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently warned that civilians in the city were drifting toward the Islamic State due to their hatred for the Kurdish group. Meanwhile, Arabic media like al-Arabiya and al-Hayat — which last year described the offensive on the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit as a “liberation” — called the war on Fallujah a sectarian conflict, led by Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani.

Many observers throughout the region see Washington turning its back on Sunni civilians in order to cozy up to Tehran and Moscow. Reports in Arabic media have accused the United States of deliberately backing a sectarian war against Sunnis. This narrative invokes old patterns that could again help the Islamic State convert territorial losses into legitimacy among certain segments of the Sunni world. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Iran steps up recruitment of Shiite mercenaries for Syrian war

Christian Science Monitor reports: With gelled hair spiked high and wearing a Dolce & Gabbana shirt, the young Afghan man looks more like a fashionista than a religious warrior ready to give his life for jihad in Syria.

The man wanted to leave Afghanistan for personal reasons, but the Afghans and Iranians who facilitated his trip to Iran, and hosted him in Tehran, saw a recruiting opportunity. For two and a half months, an Iranian recruiter visited nearly every day to convince him to fight on the Syrian frontline with an all-Afghan unit in exchange for promises of a better life.

As he felt the pressure grow, he finally acquiesced.

“We will send you to Syria; when you come back we will give you an Iranian passport, a house, and money,” the 21-year-old Afghan was promised when he got to Tehran. He was told he would be fighting a “religious war” in Syria.

His is one of many stories heard here in Herat, an ancient and largely Shiite city in northwest Afghanistan, that gives rare insight into how far the Islamic Republic is going to deploy a largely Shiite mercenary force of Afghans in Syria alongside its own troops, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and Shiites whom Iran has marshaled from Iraq and Pakistan. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Iraq on the path to disintegration

Michael Weiss writes: A fortnight before the battle got underway in Iraq to retake the city of Fallujah from the so-called Islamic State, I sat down with a native son of that restive town, Sheikh Khamis al-Khanjar. He was once a central power broker in Iraq’s political system and is now an exile with, it would seem, many millions of dollars at his disposal to try and buy his way back in.

As we talked in the lounge of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tallinn, Estonia, where we were both attending the annual Lennart Meri Conference, Khanjar touched on the core problem bedeviling Iraq, of which ISIS is only one manifestation. The United States, he believes, is almost autistically focused on the issue of Sunni jihadism at the expense of broader social cohesion and geopolitics, particularly Tehran’s meddling in the affairs of its next-door neighbor. The very integrity of the modern nation-state a Western superpower tried hubristically to reinvent in Mesopotamia 13 long years ago is now in mortal jeopardy.

“Instead of saying, ‘We need to keep Iraq united,” Khanjar said, echoing a favored American talking point, “we must admit that Iraq is no longer united and ask what can we do to bring it back together. Iraq is on the path to disintegration.”

“Again today, we are repeating the mistake of betting completely on one person: Abadi,” Khanjar said. He was referring to Iraq’s prime minister, a Haider al-Abadi, a U.S. ally who has faced popular revolt against his dysfunctional government and seems ever less in control over Iraq’s security apparatus. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Jihadist legacy still shapes Ahrar al-Sham

Hassan Hassan writes: Over the past five years in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has emerged as an important political and religious experiment. As one of the most powerful groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has struggled to reconcile the legacy of many of its founders as jihadi veterans with the need for an acceptable political discourse in the war-ravaged country. As the group engages cautiously in the political process for a transition, it is also important to understand whether it has really broken away from Salafi-jihadism.

The ideology of the group is further muddled by the fact that it works closely with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, though Ahrar al-Sham participates in political conferences and pacts that appear to deviate from the canons of jihadist organizations. After the death of its top leaders in an explosion that took place during a high-level meeting in September 2014, Ahrar al-Sham has also sought to present itself to the outside world as a moderate group and an indispensable fighting force on the ground.

Countries involved in the conflict in Syria are split about the organization. Some, primarily Russia and Iran, are pushing for its designation as a terrorist organization. Others, such as Qatar and Turkey, tried to present the organization as a moderate group and include it in the international funding scheme for nationalist rebel forces. The latter effort entailed the involvement of sponsors and clerics close to the group to steer it in that direction, combined with a public relations offensive to present the group as such.

But is Ahrar al-Sham merely a conservative Syrian faction immersed in an armed struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? Or is it still a bastion of Salafi-jihadism, the movement to which its top echelon once subscribed? Ali al-Omar, the group’s deputy leader, answered some of these questions during an hour-long talk he gave on Friday, “The Place of Ahrar al-Sham Among Islamist Currents.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Deadly hatred fractures anti-ISIS alliance in Iraq

Christoph Reuter reports: For over a year, the US has been pushing for the launch of an offensive on IS-held Mosul and has been bombing the city almost daily. But despite repeated announcements that an attack was imminent, very little has happened on the ground aside from the recapture of a handful of surrounding towns and villages. Nevertheless, Iraqi commanders have already made competing claims on the expected spoils.

“Nothing and nobody will stop us from marching into Mosul,” says Hadi al-Ameri, the top commander of a conglomerate of Shiite militias that are officially called the Popular Mobilization Units but which are widely known as Hashd.

“All areas of Mosul east of the Tigris belong to Kurdistan,” counters Brigadier Halgord Hikmat, spokesman of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, which controls the Kurdish fighting force. “We aren’t demanding any more than that, and the river is a clear border.”

What’s more, the Sunni ex-governor of Mosul — together with several thousand fighters and the support of 1,200 Turkish troops whose presence in Iraq is tolerated by the Kurds — is planning to invade the city from the north. Under Sunni leadership.

The government in Baghdad, under the leadership of the respectable yet weak Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has mostly stayed out of it — despite the fact that the Iraqi army would seem best positioned to prevent a fight among the allies over the spoils of Mosul. But Abadi has been fighting for political survival ever since followers of the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the government quarter in Baghdad a short time ago, the second such incident in a month. Instead of recapturing Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city, the military has now been tasked with first liberating Fallujah, the much smaller IS stronghold west of Baghdad.

Right in the middle, located at the halfway point between Baghdad and Mosul, is Tuz Khurmatu — the harbinger of Iraq’s future. It is a place where those groups fighting together to defeat IS are killing each other away from the front lines. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

America’s secret engagement with Khomeini

Kambiz Fattahi writes: On 27 January, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, the man who called the United States “the Great Satan” – sent a secret message to Washington.

From his home in exile outside Paris, the defiant leader of the Iranian revolution effectively offered the Carter administration a deal: Iranian military leaders listen to you, he said, but the Iranian people follow my orders.

If President Jimmy Carter could use his influence on the military to clear the way for his takeover, Khomeini suggested, he would calm the nation. Stability could be restored, America’s interests and citizens in Iran would be protected.

At the time, the Iranian scene was chaotic. Protesters clashed with troops, shops were closed, public services suspended. Meanwhile, labour strikes had all but halted the flow of oil, jeopardising a vital Western interest.

Persuaded by Carter, Iran’s autocratic ruler, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, known as the Shah, had finally departed on a “vacation” abroad, leaving behind an unpopular prime minister and a military in disarray – a force of 400,000 men with heavy dependence on American arms and advice.

Khomeini feared the nervous military: its royalist top brass hated him. Even more worrying, they were having daily meetings with a US Air Force General by the name of Robert E Huyser, whom President Carter had sent on a mysterious mission to Tehran.

The ayatollah was determined to return to Iran after 15 years in exile and make the Shah’s “vacation” permanent. So he made a personal appeal.

In a first-person message, Khomeini told the White House not to panic at the prospect of losing a strategic ally of 37 years and assured them that he, too, would be a friend.

“You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans,” said Khomeini, pledging his Islamic Republic will be “a humanitarian one, which will benefit the cause of peace and tranquillity for all mankind”. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How the U.S. flooded Iran with weapons

PRI reports: According to the arms transfers database of the independent international think tank, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which compiled all transfers of major conventional weapons in the world since 1950, the US was the largest arms exporter to Iran from the 1950s to 1970s.

The supply of arms from the US started to climb in 1953 after Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in a coup engineered by the British and American intelligence services. The Iranian shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, returned from exile to rule and become a close ally of the US.

According to a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations staff report in 1976, Iran was the largest single purchaser of US military equipment then. Military sales had increased more than sevenfold from $524 million in 1972 to $3.91 billion in 1974.

SIPRI data shows that the amount rose and peaked in 1977. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Fear of ‘catastrophe unfolding’ amid fighting in Falluja

The New York Times reports: Along the battle line north of Falluja, small units of Shiite fighters are raining mortar shells and rockets down on the city and its Islamic State occupiers. Militia graffiti is scrawled in red paint along a network of low walls cratered by bullets and bombs, and a wailing ambulance siren signals another load of wounded bound for treatment away from the front.

The battle for Falluja has become entrenched outside the city itself. Iraqi forces surrounding the area have been bogged down by a fierce Islamic State counterattack. A few civilians managed to escape the city as the fighting closed in, but the status of tens of thousands still trapped there is an urgent question.

Some parts of the extended battlefield are lush with date palm trees and almost bucolic, familiar to anyone who watched television images of American Marines fighting over the same territory more than a decade ago. But mostly, the land is brown and parched, scarred by the fighting. A charred tank, split in two, sits at an intersection, and smoke is always rising in the distance, from an airstrike, a mortar or a car bomb.

The landscape has also been gutted by an elaborate network of tunnels — some of which have been hit in recent days by American airstrikes — that the Islamic State was able to construct while it held the area for more than two years. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

America’s Middle East allies could win friends for ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: The tortuous war against Isis is taking a treacherous turn. Two years after the militant Sunni group declared its brutal caliphate, the US and its allies in Iraq and Syria have begun a two-front offensive to dislodge the militant group from its strongholds in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and Raqqa in Syria. But, while the campaign has made progress, the composition of the forces leading the battles in the two Arab Sunni cities is intensifying sectarian and ethnic tensions in the bitterly divided nations and beyond. The danger is that the US-led action will, ultimately, help Isis gain legitimacy as a defender of Sunnis — even if it cedes territory.

Heightened fears in Syria, Iraq and the wider region about the offensive in Falluja and Raqqa bode ill for the long-term fight against the group. With western help channelled to militias beholden to the Shia regime in Iran and close to Tehran’s allies in Damascus, the fight is widely seen in the region as nakedly sectarian.

The US-backed offensive is the first of its kind since the American-led anti-Isis campaign began soon after the group swept into Iraq. America has long sought to avoid providing air support for Shia and Kurdish militias to fight in two Sunni areas at once: when Baghdad launched the battle to retake the city of Tikrit from Isis in March last year, Washington refrained from providing air strikes in support of the estimated 30,000 Shia fighters until the battle stalled three weeks later. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Should Israel negotiate with Hamas?

Facebooktwittermail