Examining the Golan: Tahrir al-Sham and the Southern Front

The town of Mas’ade resides on one of the most northern peaks of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. It is one of the largest of the Druze settlements located in this region, though it remains dwarfed by the hilly settlement of Madjal Shams. The place, and indeed the area as a whole, remains distinct from the more central lands of Tel-Aviv and Haifa. These towns on the Golan are reminders of a bygone era, a frontiers land that celebrates its uniqueness in a host of ways. One cannot escape the feeling that the northern Golan is something in stark contrast to the Israeli heartland. Druze flags hang proudly amongst the winding streets of these towns and signs are marked in Arabic with only a sprinkling of Hebrew here and there. Nearly all of the stores in both Madjal Shams and Mas’ade were opened on the Sabbath and one would be astounded by the feeling of life one is privy too when entering and walking around these places.

Tucked away in Mas’ade is a small convenience store, one whose name is written in Arabic and hard to locate even from the main street. There presides a man, a store owner who will, for the sake of ease, be called Salah. Salah is a man of pride, an individual who illuminates when asked about what it means to be a Druze, a person who refuses to hesitate when talking about his people, his identity, and his allegiance. In my conversation with him, Salah presented an air of wisdom and passion that could not have been matched by any other thus far. What he told me came in two categories. His words were on one hand shining bits of insight into the dynamics of the region and the prowess of his people. The other aspect however were lamentations of the ongoing unrest and uncertainty that has come to characterize the Israeli-Syrian border. One of the most interesting points that Salah presented was on the connective strength that the Druze maintained with one another.

“Today, we are five fingers, separated from one another. This finger may be an American Druze, this one might be a Syrian Druze, and this an Israeli Druze, but when one is attacked, each finger closes, forming a fist.”

After his poetics, Salah discussed more specifically on a recent attack on a nearby Druze village, the settlement of Hader. It was located no more than five kilometers from Mas’ade and yet was in many ways a world apart; Hader was a Syrian village, an area only tenuously controlled by the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Where Mas’ade and Majdal Shams were safe places that had restaurants, pizza parlors, and a ski resort, just a few kilometers over an arbitrary border was a country broiled in civil war, violence, and terrorism. Where these Druze villages maintained a relative sense of peace and stability, Hader was surrounded on all sides by a plethora of rebels, from FSA-derivatives to hardline Jihadist/Salafist organizations.

Hader, Salah explains, had just recently defeated a contingent of Jihadist militants. Men, teenagers, and women all took up arms against the assault, taking losses but inflicting many more back. It was a harrowing point to consider, knowing that such heavy fighting had occurred in a place no more than three minutes away by car. It was an incident that occurred “approximately three kilometers from the Israeli border [and included] a car bomb that killed at least nine people and injured 23.”

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Druze fighters holding up the Druze standard.

When considering the nature of Mas’ade and Majdal Shams, this attack seems almost unimaginable. Yet when considering the dichotomy that exists between the Israeli-Syrian border, a different picture emerges.

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Blue: Golan Heights – Israeli, Red: Syrian Regime Territory – Bashar al-Asad, Green: Rebels/Nusra Front

Flanked on both sides by “rebels,” it becomes clear as to how this little village came into conflict. It is important to understand that the conflicts here are complicated, myriad, and that one narrative is not the end-all-be-all. To this end, Salah establishes a key point:

“We are farmers first. It is only after we have been attacked do we become soldiers, but until then, we are farmers.”

As the Islamic State begins to falter, many have begun to look at the Syrian conflict as something that is beginning to wind down. This belief is a dangerous fallacy, one that creates a false sense of security for a country that is still very much divided. The fighting in southern Syria for the village of Hader is a reminder of this fact, and to that end, it is important to reiterate the current nature of the Syrian Civil War. The principle actor today is no longer the Islamic State of the early 2010s. At the same time, the hopes of democracy under the banners of the Free Syrian Army are long dead. The war in its current state is now moving away from the Syrian Desert and towards the north, to the city of Idlib. There lies the might of Tahrir al-Sham, an organization who have cemented their strength after forcing the retreat of Ahrarm al-Sham.

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Soldiers of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

It was this organization, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, otherwise known as the Nusra Front or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, that attempted to defeat the Druze of Hader. While many know the name of the Islamic State, few have probably heard of Tahrir al-Sham (HTS for short) or the fact they are now the strongest militant force in the Syrian Civil War besides the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Arab Army.

Just What is HTS?

In short, HTS is a militant organization rooted in Salafism, Sharia, and Islamism. They emerged as part of a merger between various militant rebel groups in northern Syria, including notable entities such as al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the Ansar al-Din Front, and the Jayash al-Sunnah. In addition to this was the defection of prominent Ahrar al-Sham leader Abu Jabair, who would go on to lead the new organization. Indeed, formed in January of 2017, it was declared that “the groups would dissolve themselves and ‘merge fully’ into the new entity, the statement added. That was further reiterated by Abu Jabir’s recent message, which described the new body as a “melting pot for all factions.”

While some analysts have used this merger as an opportunity to look away from the roots of its founding organizations, others have reiterated a need to look deeper into the history of each entity. The Ansar al-Din Front was a noted Jihadist organization from 2014-2015 who had, for the most part, attempted to remain neutral with the Islamic State and did little to denounce the violence perpetrated by the group. The Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement was known for being a Sunni Islamist group with several human rights charges, one of which involved the beheading of a pro-regime soldier. This particular incident sparked waves of controversy, with some reports calling for international investigations and condemnation:

A Palestinian-Syrian boy was beheaded by a rebel group on Tuesday, opposition activists have reported. The child is estimated to be younger than 13, and was said to be a fighter with the Palestinian pro-regime Liwa al-Quds militia. He was allegedly murdered by members of the Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki rebel group in Syria’s Handarat district, just a few miles north of Aleppo. A video emerged showing five fighters surround the child as one held a knife to his throat… Earlier this month, an Amnesty International report accused the group – among others – of abductions, torture and summary killings in and around Aleppo.

Most notable of the founding groups was Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or more commonly known by their previous name as al-Nusra. Al-Nusra was formed as an al-Qaeda affiliate that was to operate in Syria. It took advantage of the Syrian Civil War in a manner similar to al-Qaeda in Iraq, but did not engage in renegade behavior as was noted in Zarqawi’s organization. The Nusra Front did not engage in genocide, nor did it make a conscious effort towards furthering sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias. Despite this, Al-Nusra has been accused of countless human rights violations, terrorist attacks, and bombings.

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Nusra fighters displaying their banner.

When considering the history of these groups, a somber picture emerges. HTS represents not another “rebel” faction fighting against the Syrian regime, but instead is an Islamist Jihadi organization that has been implicit in numerous terrorist attacks and human rights abuses. Those who label the entity as such do a disservice and fail to recognize the murky past the organization is involved in. Indeed, many others continue to accuse HTS of having links to al-Qaeda still, though other commentators make the distinction that only some factions of HTS can be safely considered al-Qaeda affiliates. Regardless, it becomes clear that the Jihadist elements of HTS are nothing to throw out.

The Southern Front

The south of Syria was once the bedrock of the resistance against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad. The first protests began in the capital of Damascus and would later spread throughout the country. As the protests erupted into civil war, many militias and organizations emerged in response. Of these was the Free Syrian Army, who at the time comprised many defected officers and soldiers who had nationalist aspirations for a democratic Syria. As time went on, the Free Syrian Army was beaten back and many groups in the south banded together into what is known today as the “Southern Front.”

Today, the Free Syrian Army is mostly dead. Though the Southern Front and its affiliates remain, their influence has been crippled and many have argued that the FSA can no longer be considered a central figure in the Syrian Civil War. During this time, Islamist organizations were able to abuse the faltering of the FSA and gain control of their own territory. The Islamic State was able to carve a pocket around the city of Tasil, an area that they continue to control today. At the same time, pushes by the Nusra Front were starting to be felt in the south. This was known as early as 2014, where one FSA spokesperson had noted that a “lack of funds and quality weaponry may cause the opposition’s Free Syrian Army to lose control over Syria’s southern province of Daraa to the Islamist Al-Nusra Front.” Such sentiments were echoed again in 2015, where it was revealed that “Western-backed fighters in southwestern Syria, the one part of the country where they are still strong, have spoken out against al-Qaeda.” It was already clear by this point that the secular militias of the early days of the civil war were gone.

The most powerful opponents of Assad in Syria’s civil war are Sunni Muslim jihadists from two groups: the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, and al Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front. Western and Arab countries which oppose both Assad and the jihadists aim to support what Washington calls “moderate” rebels. Although such Western-backed fighters control comparatively little territory, an alliance known as the Southern Front has an important foothold near the borders with Jordan and Israel. It has seized a border crossing and a government-held town in recent weeks after weathering a government offensive. But this week, Southern Front groups issued a strong statement condemning Nusra’s ideology, rejecting any cooperation with it, and declaring themselves the “sole military force representing the Syrian revolution” in the south.

Top Dog

In recent days, the Islamic State has begun to face defeat after defeat. They have lost key cities such as Raqqa, Deir-e-Zor, and Hawijah. Iraqi and Syrian forces were able to carve a continuous path between their two borders and much of the on going campaign revolves clean up and counter-insurgency. While the media has focused its attention on the more attractive Islamic State, few have paid attention to the strength of the Idlib rebels in Syria’s northern territory. The victories that al-Nusra was able to secure in the south was matched by key territorial gains in the north. Today, the city of Idlib and the surrounding regions have become stalwart fortresses for Tahrir al-Sham.

An important event in the history of Idlib however lies in the recent defeat of Ahrar al-Sham in July 2017. To many, Ahrar al-Sham was the spiritual successor to the Free Syrian Army. They were not secular, but they did consider themselves as moderate Islamists and in favor of democratic institutions. They were supported by many countries, such as Turkey, and were not listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. On paper, Ahrar al-Sham was the more supported and well liked organization, especially in comparison to the alternatives besides the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. Yet, “the swift defeat of Ahrar al-Sham by its one-time ally Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was shocking to many people – Ahrar was, until that moment, considered one of the strongest Salafist factions in Syria. It had more manpower and, theoretically, more support, locally and regionally, than HTS.”

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Members of Ahrar al-Sham before their conflict with Tahrir al-Sham.

With this defeat, Ahrar al-Sham fled to Turkey and has since remained a relatively minor power in the Syrian Civil War. Tahrir al-Sham on the other hand has been able to assert itself as the most dominant organization in the region, and today the most dominant opposition force in the conflict. Tahrir al-Sham is unique as it follows Nusra’s formula of ground engagement. They promote a strong commitment to social services and civil society in a way that is reminiscent to the strategies employed by Hezbollah and Hamas. This stands in stark contrast to the overtly dramatic state-building strategum of the Islamic State and many scholars assert that this is one key dimension for Tahrir al-Sham’s stability in this phase of the war.

Revisiting Salah’s Words 

With these points in mind, the battle Salah had discussed takes on new dimensions. It becomes evident that the battle was a momentous achievement. The Druze villagers of Hader were able to beat back the advancing forces of the strongest militant organization in the Syrian Civil War, taking relatively few casualties in the sortie. What Salah describes to me is an uplifting tale, a feeling further reinforced by his other words. Indeed, one key point he highlights to me is:

“The difference between us and those Jihadists is that our cause is righteous. We do not kill or harm others for our religion. We only fight when we are attacked. When you hurt my brother, whether he lives in Lebanon or in Jordan, it does not matter. When you hurt my brother, I go to grab my sword.”

And again he highlights the fact that:

“We are farmers first, but when you attack us, we become soldiers.”

Talking to Salah was helpful in recontextualizing the Syrian conflict in a manner that I had not considered. It was a legitimate encounter with an individual whose personal life was affected by the conflict. The village of Hader had much more in common with Madjal Shams and Mas’ade than those villages had with much of Israel. Salah recounted how many individuals had ran to the border fence just to watch the villagers of Hader fight off Tahrir al-Sham. Understanding this personal narrative was insightful into examining why analyzing the Syrian conflict has remained so difficult. For individuals like Salah, the Syrian Arab Army was not a legion of human rights abusers and murderers, but rather an army made up of civilians who have only sought to protect the Syrian people. To Salah, the SAA answered not to Bashar al-Asad, but instead to the Syrian populace. The defeat of Tahrir al-Sham in Hader was a confirmation of his conviction, that his God had approved and agreed to the victory of the Syrian regime.

As the conflict continues on, one must be hesitant to say that is nearing its end. The battles at Hader are microcosms on conflicts and battles that are still being waged today. While it might be easy to say that the war is over based off of colored maps and vibrant infographics, one only needs to have a simple discussion with a single individual from the region to see how that is completely wrong.

Acknowledging the Lebanese Quandary

The Call for War: Israel and Hezbollah

According to the works of analysts, officers, and think tanks, the next powder keg in the conflicts of the Middle East lies not in the Kurdish quagmire or in the rising tribalism seen in a post-ISIS world. Instead, a quick cursory glance over at Google News reveals a trove of prophetic articles, each of which containing eschatological headlines and titles of doomsday.

Researchers have been anticipating a war between these two states for some time now. The aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War left both Israel and Hezbollah with cold feet. Neither side had accomplished their objectives and instead both groups were left with casualties and rubble. Lebanon had lost thousands of citizens and the militant Hezbollah was forced to rebuild itself. Israel was unable to secure the successful release of its lost soldiers and sacrificed many more in the attempt.

However, it is important to understand that while a tactical military victory was not present for either side, it did not mean that the conflict was fruitless. For Israel, whose army was bogged down in the uncomfortably windy streets of urban Lebanon, new tactics and strategies were being quickly developed in the post-war era. Israel had learned that its inability in finishing off Hezbollah lied in its misunderstanding of the geography and terrain. In the decade following the conflict, Israel has developed real-world simulations of Lebanon’s streets. Out in the deserts of the Negev, IDF operatives are taught skills in close-quarters-combat and in operating as a tight-knit unit.

For Hezbollah, the 2006 war was a testament. While they had not secured any recognizable victory, they had instead done the impossible. Hezbollah was able to stall the strongest army the region had seen, the military force that was responsible for the Arab defeats in 1948, 1967, and 1973. For Hezbollah, winning was not the same as losing. It is understood by many that Hezbollah’s hybrid nature allows it to be flexible, and abhorrently, able to use civilian loses to further their cause. Indeed, experts like former Chief of Staff of the British Army, Richard Dannat, noted that Hezbollah “has shown no compunction about using civilians as cover for its personnel, purposefully manipulating noncombatants into becoming targets.” What emerges in this context is a somber understanding. The pattern seen in the days since the war is simple. Hezbollah launches an attack or skirmish against Israel. Israel is forced to respond, whether through airstrikes or artillery. This creates collateral damage that is felt amongst Lebanese civilians (many of whom reside in Hezbollah controlled settlements). This in turn furthers anti-Israel sentiments which Hezbollah is more than happy to exploit to their own advantage, through actions such as recruitment. Even Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose own father had been assassinated by Hezbollah operatives, understood this and noting somberly that “every time Israel attacked Lebanon or Hezbollah… Hezbollah became stronger.

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Israeli IDF training operations in urban warfare somewhere in the Negev.

However, while this strategy is rather known, it does little to dispel its current power and support base. Indeed, despite Saad Hariri’s comments and personal views on the group, he and his party have formed a coalition that includes Hezbollah. When asked as to why, Hariri relented that:

You know, in Lebanon, there is no, well, you know, the political positions between us and Hezbollah are very well known. They don’t agree on my policies, and I don’t agree on their policies. And there’s nothing that—there’s nothing in common in that area where the regional support comes from and all of that.

But when it comes for the sake of the country, for the economy, how to handle those 1.5 million refugees, how to handle the stability, how to handle the governing our country, we have to have some kind of understanding, otherwise we would be like Syria. So, for the sake of the stability of Lebanon, we agree on certain things, and we disagree on political issues that we—until today, we disagree. So, there is an understanding or a consensus in the country, with all political parties including the president, [and it] is how to safeguard Lebanon.

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Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah with Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

While I had originally wrote much about the history of Hezbollah and its relationship with Israel, much of that was accidently deleted. As such, this summary will be briefer than normal summaries. It is important to understand that Hezbollah’s very birth was within an anti-Israeli context. It formed in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, just shortly after the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982. While Israel’s intent was to repulse the Palestinian Liberation Organization, an objective that was met with success (and as a result the PLO was forced to vacate to Tunisia), the occupation did much to incite many local populations, and Shi’ite militia groups coalesced together in response.

Another key point of consideration here is Iran, who was just starting to emerge as its own polity following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and was itself in the midst of a war with Saddam Hussein (the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988). Feeling vulnerable by its lack of allies, Iran quickly sent funds over to the Shi’ite militias hoping to cause damage towards Israel and to secure itself a valuable supporter in the region. Another important factor to consider is the fact that following the resolution of the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah was not disbanded. The organization was not forced to adhere to the stipulations made in the Taif Agreement, which asserted that all militias in Lebanon were to disband and demilitarize. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar al-Assad), who at the time occupied much of Lebanon, saw Hezbollah as a strategic piece for his own designs for the Middle East and as a result, he permitted the organization to remain armed and operational.

Fast forward to the present and on some levels, the situation has remained the same. Yet the world of today is obviously not the same as that in the 1980s, and the 2006 Lebanon War has done much to change that within the Israeli-Hezbollah context. Beyond the factors noted above though, new geopolitical changes have led to a host of factors that need additional consideration. As Israel continues to bombard Hezbollah sites in Syria, the powder keg grows closer and closer towards being lit. So, rather than examine the historical context between Israel and Hezbollah, it is important to understand the wider factors that are to come to play in the next war.

The Iranian Axis

While the lands of Iran have been connected to the wider Middle East for thousands of years, there has been a distinctive barrier that divides the Arab world and the Persian outsider. When the Rashidun Caliphate ruled, they were keen on promoting a sense of Arabism, and despite its Persian holdings, many key positions were granted to only Arabs. During the time of the Ottoman Empire, Qajar Persia was seen as an enemy and a rival. Even the early 20th century saw a sharp divide between the Persia of Reza Shah and his son, and with the wider Arab realms.

Today however, Iran has done much to rectify these differences. It has gained footholds in many places, with its most notable (at least from a news perspective) ally being Syria. Indeed, it is well known that Iran has sent many leaders of its IRGC to command and support many of the operations occurring in the Syrian Civil War. Syria however is not the country’s only ally, and Iran would be much more pressed if that was the case. Instead, Iran’s current strategy is in solidifying its axis of influence within the Arab world, an axis that spans a belt that includes Iraq, Qatar, Syria, and Lebanon.

In Iraq, the Iranian regime has maintained strong relations with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a relationship that is furthered by the fact that the majority of Iraqis are Shi’ites. Iran has played a prominent role in aiding Iraqi forces in retaking key cities, though this has mostly been from a tactical perspective. Furthermore, Iran has been instrumental in supporting the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, a group of Shi’ite militias loosely connected to the official Iraqi government.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Iran has also been developing ties with countries in the broader region. They have maintained a working relationship with Russia and perhaps more interestingly, have grown closer to Turkey following the Kurdish quandary in Iraq. Iran has also supported non-state actors, and the claim that Iran does support terrorism is in fact true. In its search for geopolitical dominance, it has helped fund the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and of course Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Iranian Axis proves to be a fundamental factor in the Israeli-Hezbollah issue. The strength that Iran possesses means that it now wields considerable power and influence in the region. While it is currently more occupied with its cold war with Saudi Arabia, Iran is still ever present in its desire to end the Israeli state. Mounting tensions between Hezbollah and Israel will inevitably bring Iran into the mix. While many individuals are certain that the aid in this conflict will be financial at most, the threat of a full-on offensive cannot be ruled out. Indeed, just recently, Iranian officials made clear threats towards those who would attempt to harm the PMU or Hezbollah, noting that “anyone attempting to hit or neutralize Hezbollah and the PMU is trying to clip the Islamic Republic’s wings, and thus undermine its strategic depth.

The threat is clear. Israel must contend with Iran if it does engage in a war with Hezbollah. The difference between now and 1982 is that Iran is no longer in a full-front war with a strong military opponent. Instead, Iran has consolidated itself into a powerful, geopolitical entity that contains four Arab allies. As Iraq and Syria begin to slowly return to a state of normalcy, Iran will be able to focus its full attention onto Israel. If there is one caveat to this, it is the Iranian nuclear deal. The threat of sanctions may be enough to dissuade the Iranian state from any direct intervention in an Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, though this is a question that has no clear answer.

Muhammad bin Salman and the Israeli-Saudi Alliance

To the average layman, the notion that Israel and Saudi Arabia would ever ally is a ridiculous statement. It is however one that is happening clandestinely today. It is a simple point to understand however. Saudi Arabia and Israel have never had completely antagonistic relationships with one another. While other states like Jordan, Egypt, and Syria have invaded and attempted to eradicate Israel, Saudi Arabia has done little in terms of direct engagement. The closest example of a directly confrontational incident lies in Saudi Arabia’s agreement to the OPEC Embargo in the 1970s in response to the Arab defeat in the Yom Kippur War. This relationship has only strengthened towards cooperation in the recent years. It was known by many analysts that Israeli and Saudi intelligence officers would work jointly during the 2014 Israel-Gaza War. Indeed, many intelligence officers of both countries continue to work together in the fight against the Islamic State and other entities.

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Satirical imagery depicting the modern relationship of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The relationship between these two countries is one of mutualism. They both face similar enemies and have no direct reason to be opposed to one another. The cooperation seen in the Gaza War is directly a result of both country’s antagonism towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Today, both countries remain strongly opposed to Iran. For Israel, the threat of Iran is existential. One of the core tenets of Iranian policy is the absolute destruction of Israel. For Saudi Arabia, Iran poses a Thucydian issue. The rising power of Iran means that it will always be in direct conflict with Saudi Arabia, and today the two have emerged poised in a cold war that has defined many recent conflicts in the Middle East. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has sent troops to back the incumbent regime, while Iran continues to send funds and arms to the Houthi rebels. In Syria, Iran has made direct moves in order to stabilize the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while it is rumored that Saudi Arabia funds the operations of groups like the al-Nusra Front/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Perhaps most visible of these spats lies in the recent Saudi-Qatar split that has, for now, only been tenuously resolved. Here, the enemy of an enemy is indeed a friend, and so Israel and Saudi Arabia have joined together in order to stem the Iranian tide. Indeed, Saudi Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan was noted for his anti-Hezbollah sentiments, and is known to have asserted that “the solution is [to establish] a resolute international coalition that will fight it and whoever acts with it, for the purpose of achieving regional peace and security.”

An important piece in understanding this further is the new Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Much can be said about him. He is known to be the favorite son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and was known to many as the “Master of Everything” for his roles in many departments. He currently leads the rather devastating War in Yemen, was an architect in the Qatar disagreement, and has sought to revitalize Saudi Arabia in a new economic initiative known as Saudi 2030. Indeed, the magnitude in bin Salman’s changes cannot be understated. He is almost certainly the chief reason for the legislation that has permitted Saudi women to drive. Muhammad bin Salman has declared his hope of creating a new city akin to Dubai and with the cooperation of Jordan and Egypt. In the case of Israeli relations, Muhammad bin Salman was reported to have attended a secret meeting with Israeli officials in order to “discuss regional peace.

What Muhammad bin Salman represents then is a change for Saudi Arabia in every dimension. From economics, society, to the country’s relationship with Israel, Muhammad bin Salman will be an instrumental force that will shape the nature of the Middle East. Here then, it is assumed by many that Muhammad bin Salman will further his country’s relationship with Israel, and will further Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian tilt. Should Israel and Hezbollah engage in war, it is almost certain that Saudi Arabia will continue to work with Israeli officials. A move against Hezbollah is a move against Iran, and is thus an act of realpolitik that only serves to aid Saudi Arabia in its own war with Iran. While there is doubt that the two countries will have completely normalized relationships in the near future, the rise of Muhammad bin Salman is a good start.

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Muhammad bin Salman

Russian Times

The “Foundations of Geopolitics” by Aleksander Dugin has proved to be a rather prophetic vision of the world of 2017. The book outlines several strategies that Russia should aim to accomplish in order to strengthen its geopolitical goals. Of particular interest are its assertions that Russia must force the United Kingdom on a path of isolationism and that Russia should fan the fires of division within the United States. While many argue about the merits of this book and whether such points are obvious, it is an interesting perspective to examine. Its discussion on Russia’s role in the Middle East for example are poignant assessments that have proven true.

One area that the book emphasizes is Russia’s relationship with Iran, calling for a “Moscow-Tehran” axis. Today, that very much is the case. The relationship between Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani is one that remains stalwart. Furthermore, Russia has placed itself as an active ally for many of Iran’s own allegiances, having supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad for some time now. Russia has focused much of its work in Syria with airstrikes, placing emphasis on defeating the Islamic State and in the rebel factions found in Idlib. One important consequence of Russia’s geopolitical actions in the Middle East is the formation of its own axis of allies. In the present, Russia has been able to craft a coalition that consists of itself, Turkey, and Iran. Beyond Saudi Arabia, who remain staunchly within the camp of the United States, this alliance contains two of the strongest actors in the Middle East, and thus Russia has poised itself in a position of considerable power. Indeed, Russia has come to play a central role in Syria beyond its military aid. Indeed it was reported on October 30th that “Turkey asked Russia to mediate in coordinating meetings with the Syrian side on the de-escalation zone in the province of Idlib.

However, it is important to understand that Russia acts only for the sake of Russia. While it has created an alliance between itself with Iran and Turkey, it has also made commitments and ties with other nations. In particular is its current relationship with Israel. Russian Defense Minister Alexander Fomin met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 17th. Despite the knowledge that Russia has ties with Syria and Iran, Alexander Fomin emerged out of the meeting declaring that he “‘expressed confidence that the meetings held on Israeli soil will give an additional impetus to the development of Russian-Israeli cooperation.’

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Indeed, one can see Russia’s role of mediator in the Middle East come thru in its actions towards Hezbollah. While Russia continues to “[threaten] to veto the UN Security Council resolution renewing UNIFIL’s mandate in Lebanon if it cited Hezbollah as a terrorist,” at the same time Russia has complied in moving Hezbollah away from Israel’s Golan Heights and “Moscow has agreed to expand a buffer zone along the Israeli-Syrian border, where Iranian and Hezbollah forces will not be allowed to enter.” What this highlights is Russia’s commitment not to any particular ally, but instead towards its own self-image. Russia continues to want to play an important role in the Middle East, and indeed Russia’s resurgence as a military power is a direct result of the vacuum left behind when the United States chose not to involve itself in Syria. As a result, Russia will do what it can to remain a major power player in the region. As noted above, Russia seeks to be an instrumental figure in resolving the Syrian conflict. At the same time, Putin’s shrewdness allows him to secure good relations with both Israel and Iran. One however must question if either country is coy to this, or if both are in complete understanding as to the game that Russia is playing.

What one must question then is what side Russia will align with. An Israeli-Hezbollah conflict will force Russia to a hard decision. Russia must support Hezbollah if it wishes to maintain its relationship with Iran. Furthermore, Russia will not allow Israel a completely dominant victory, as doing so will threaten the position of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and thus lead to a faltering in one of Russia’s most central positions in the Middle East. However, should Hezbollah be on the clearly losing end, Russia may side with Israel in hopes that it can dictate or at the least influence the resolution of the conflict. Again, Russia acts only for Russian needs. It has no pure ideological allegiance, nor does it have any strong cultural or religious ties. It operates on a completely pragmatic and realist perspective. Whatever side Russia decides to choose, one must remember that there will always be an ulterior motive as to why. As noted in a recent article on Foreign Affairs, the “Kremlin will want to take advantage of a future war between Israel and Hezbollah to continue to strengthen Russia’s position in the Middle East.” It matters not which side the Kremlin chooses.

The “On the Ground” Perspective

Living in Israel, I have been given a unique opportunity to view the growing tensions from the ground. I am privy to the daily lives of many Israelis and indeed, I reside in an area that is, from a cartographic perspective, rather close to the potential conflict zones. However, if you were to ask me if there was any inkling towards war, I would not have a rather satisfying answer. The thing is, while there are indeed sights that remind one of the situation the country is in, they are not definitive points. Yes, there are alarm drills being conducted that remind one of the imminent threat of rocket fire. Yes, one can see the flight of fighter jets and helicopters heading to (or returning from) some strike in Syria. Yes, there are countless IDF individuals wandering the streets, many of which do in fact carry their rifles in plain sight. However, this quickly denigrates into a sight of normalcy. One quickly comes to realize that many of these individuals are normal kids who go to school, deal with homework, and go to what is effectively a “job” for a set period of time a day for a set amount of days a week. The feeling of imminent danger, whether it be the looming Israeli-Hezbollah war, or the on-going Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is non-existent here. Most people simply live their lives normally, and indeed this is strikingly similar to life back in the West.

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Personal photo of fishing in Jaffa.

Life goes on normally here. People hang out in bars, go jogging by the park, and go out to eat. One would be hard pressed to declare the situation here as being one that is a state of emergency. Yet at the same time, one should not be distracted by this. The fundamental threats remain and different issues have propped up, but simply masked behind average life. The tensions between the Hasidic factions of Israel and the wider populace are ultimately rooted in Israel’s outside threats such as Hezbollah. There continues to be a growing movement of Christians going between Israel and Lebanon that remains an elusive issue for both governments. Lastly, and most importantly, it is important to contextualize life here and its relationship to the wars of the past and the war to come. No individual wants this war. Many wish life to remain as it is right now in the present. As time’s arrow marches forward however, the clock strikes one tick closer towards artillery fire and destruction. It is in the best interests of both parties to not engage in war, but alas, that seems to not be the answer, and only time will tell how such a conflict will proceed.

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Personal photo of the Haifa Bay.

Lastly, I would like to state that while the points I’ve listed are significant ones to consider, there are many others that were omitted for the sake of brevity. One cannot for example forget key elements like the declining legitimacy of Hezbollah that has resulted in its failures in securing any significant gain in the Syrian Civil War. Another factor that should be given weight is the influence exerted by Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units in influencing the Iraqi government, and how this in turn will affect Iraq’s attitudes towards the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. There are in fact too many points to keep in mind and it would be virtually impossible to state them all, but I hope that here was a relatively good start.

 

The Historical Context

When I spoke the word “Israel” to my peers and friends, many were understandably concerned and incredulous. The country, and its adjacent neighbors, have a reputation of security issues, namely the threats of terrorism and militant Jihadism. To say that these fears aren’t well-founded is naive, but to claim that these issues are pressing also remains a fallacy. One must understand that there is indeed a serious point of contention between Israel and the Arab world, one that has led to stabbings and rocket attacks, all of which has led to the death of countless innocents on all sides. On the other hand, many individuals seem to subscribe to simplistic understandings of this, citing religious and extremist factors over other, more poignant matters like nationalism and unemployment. The conflict that Israel has had with its neighbors is one that is wrapped in misunderstanding, controversy, and a myriad of complexities that make it hard for scholars and experts in the Middle East-North African region (MENA) to make sense of.

The events of the last century have had a substantial mark on the nature of the Levant and make it a unique place to consider. Like much of the Middle East and North Africa, the Levant was the site of a brutal imperialist regime. The Mandate of Palestine, as it came to be known, was held by the British in the aftermath of the First World War and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Yet, many make the fallacy and claim that it is here in this moment when Jewish settlers began to emigrate over to the region. It is important to understand that Jewish “aliyahs,” or migrations, had been occurring under Ottoman rulers. Indeed, Ottoman sultans, such as Abdulhamid II, had allowed for groups such as Circassians and Armenians, to move over and populate the lands of modern day Syria, Israel-Palestine, and Jordan. Indeed, the Jordanian capital of Amman was at one point noted as being little more than a Circassian village.

To go into more detail would be a rabbit hole that would lose sight of what this post intends to do. To move forward, the conflict between the Arab and Jewish populations of the Mandate of Palestine would come to head in the 1930s, when various groups and militias formed up and fought one another in small skirmishes and conflicts. These conflicts would put additional pressure onto British imperial rule, who attempted to stem the bleeding by forbidding further Jewish migration. While many saw this as a betrayal of the Balfour Declaration, things took a sharp turn following the course of World War II and the Holocaust. Jewish migration increased dramatically into the Mandate of Palestine, and Britain finally grew weary of its colonial maintenance. Britain and the United Nations convened in 1947 and drew up a partition plan that saw the formation of independent Arab and Jewish states. This was followed by unrest and civil war in the region. Not too much longer after, Israel declared itself independent in 1948. Israel’s Arab neighbors promptly declared war, sparking the 1947 Arab-Israeli War.

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1947 UN Partition Plan

What followed was a consolidation of the Israeli state, a massive Arab refugee crisis, and half a century’s worth of conflict, anger, and new developments. It is impossible to be brief about any aspect of history, and the history of the Middle East and North Africa especially so. However, key points in this time included the rise of Gamal abd’ al-Nasser in Egypt, the growing strength of Pan-Arab nationalism following the Suez Crisis, and the tensions Israel held with its neighbors in the newly minted Arab-Israeli Conflict. The shadow of the Cold War resulted in the Middle East becoming a central proxy battlefield for the Soviets and the United States. Israel grew close with its relations in America, while states like Egypt and Syria maintained strong ties with the U.S.S.R. However, the turning point in this was the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, otherwise known as the Six-Day War. Here, Israel showed its domination on the battlefield by utterly decimating Arab airfields in the initial marches of the war. Lacking air superiority and support, the Arab armies were promptly defeated despite initial gains.

Here the conflict radically changes. The defeat of the Arab armies in 1967, followed by the death of Gamal abd’ al-Nasser in 1970, ultimately changed the dynamics of the region. The strength of Arab nationalism greatly deflated and instead more localized forms of nationalism begin to take center stage. Fatah, a key member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, took center-stage after its successes at the Battle of Karameh in 1968. Other groups, such as the PFLP, began to carve their own path towards Palestinian liberation. Indeed, many look at this period as being foundational for a new matrix in the Israeli conflict. Before, under the banners of Pan-Arab nationalism, the conflict the Arab world had with Israeli was an Arab-Israeli conflict, one in which solidarity was felt by members of all Arab states. Now though, following the loss of its spokesperson Nasser, the conflict became regional, an Israeli-Palestinian conflict per say.

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Yasser Arafat (left), Gamal abd’ al-Nasser (center), Jordanian King Hussein (right) in 1970

While much more happens in the period following, such as the Munich bombing, the Lebanese Civil War, the First and Second Intifadas, and others, it is important to consider the historical context in the immediacy.

In 2006, Israel launched an offensive advance into Lebanon following the deaths of three soldiers and the abduction of two soldiers by Hezbollah. The 2006 Lebanon War would prove to be a testing point for both Israel and the Lebanese militia. While both sides claimed victory in the end, a thousand Lebanese civilians were killed, hundreds of Israelis were slain, and hundreds of thousands on both sides were displaced by the fighting. The 2006 War proved that on one hand, Israel could be beaten, though to what degree remains contentious. On the other, Israel learned key lessons in the conflict and instead chalked their struggles due to overconfidence and a lack of tactical planning. Today, Israel has developed key innovations in urban warfare, having trained its troops in mock cities and corridors. Hezbollah has gained valuable experience in the course of the Syrian Civil War, with many of its fighters seeing huge successes in fighting the Islamic State in southern Syria. At the same time, Hezbollah has deepened its relations with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and with the Iranian government.

An additional group that cannot be forgotten is Hamas. The relationship between Hamas and Israel is a complicated one (unsurprisingly), and is in many ways similar to the American support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. However, after the First Intifada, Israel maintained a strong oppositional attitude toward the group. The Gaza War of 2008-2009 and the additional conflict in 2014, coupled with the ongoing blockade, has led to radical militancy in the Gaza Strip. Up until just a few days ago however, Hamas had been preoccupied with a conflict between it and Fatah, and as a result, there had a been a lull in Israeli-Hamas fighting. With the signing of the recent reconciliation deal in Cairo, the two factions appear to be on the a path towards solving this Palestinian fracture point. This however, is contentious for the state of Israel, who have criticized reconciliation and are watching the ongoing developments with caution.

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Fatah’s Azzam al-Ahmad (right) and Hamas’s Saleh al-Arouri (left) in Cairo

Furthermore, Israel’s lack of strong allies in the region has prompted it to support the Kurdish referendum of Barzani, in hopes of either further destabilizing the region or in gaining a potential friend. Israel also has begun to make clandestine relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and many signs point to a blossoming of this relationship under the future reign of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The fall of Saddam Hussein and the fracturing of Bashar al-Assad’s control means that Israel has gained some breathing room. The Iranian threat appears to be the greatest of Israel’s current worries. Further collaboration between the Iranians and Hezbollah continues to provide Israel with headache and fear. At the same time, heightened rhetoric between Hezbollah and the state of Israel continue to point towards a high potential for war. While many on all sides would wish there to be peace, one must wonder at the consequences of a new conflict, knowing that both sides have gained key skill and lessons in the decade after the 2006 Lebanese War.

Domestically, Israel finds itself in a confused situation. The most pressing concern remains in the ongoing divide between Israel’s secular and ultra-orthodox sects. Recently, Israeli courts ruled that certain religious groups, who previously had been exempt from military service, were now required to do their duty as every other Israeli had done. These groups however responded angrily, many of which see themselves as not being members of the Israeli state, but part of a different, religiously-based covenant. Furthermore, the Israeli Knesset finds itself struggling. Divisions upon party lines have reared, with many ultra-conservative and ultra-religious parties gaining popularity. Many individuals of the Knesset have strong ties to Israel’s criminal underworld. Benjamin Netanyahu himself remains under threat of an ongoing investigation and by members of his own parliamentary alliance. At the same time, Israel’s leftist and Arab parties find themselves at no possible advantage to contest. Rather, Israel’s internal politics seems to have pivoted towards the right, and yet at the same time appears to be showing signs of fracture and cracking.

This is the context in which I will be entering Israel.