I apologize for taking such a long break from posting on this blog. Between my work on the Hill, trying to write a book, and keeping some semblance of a social life, things kind of got away from me. I’ll try to do better.

Much has been made of the United State’s military downsizing due to budget constraints, and the ripple effects of less U.S. spending are being felt in far off places. An example is Israel’s specialized Army corps.

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Corps-specific agendas for Israel’s Defense Forces have been scuttled in recent months in favor of more traditional support roles. This reassessment in priorities has kept Israel’s Artillery and Armored Corps (to name only two) from mission creep.

Israel is determined to protect RDT&E (research, development, test, and evaluation) spending with a push for bigger risk-taking.

In order to protect technology, Israel will invest in a few big bets. Look for Israel to modernize some existing weapons and equipment. However, the real goal will be to move beyond marginal improvements – to replace existing programs with new technologies and strategies. Due to the continued deterioration in Syria, Iran’s quest for the bomb, and Hamas trying to grow its influence, Israel has to take this moment as an opportunity to skip a whole generation of technology.

Israel’s government has come to the conclusion that their current structure of military spending is not sustainable.

These budget constraints come three years into an age of austerity in Western military spending. Some analysts expect these spending cuts to result in a new wave of mergers and acquisitions in the defense industry like the one that followed the end of the Cold War.

Western defense industries emerging from the Cold War experienced a reset in customer’s expectations. In the United States, the industry quickly consolidated into a half dozen premier contractors. While in Europe, consolidation was slower, but it produced a dozen or so premier transnational firms. These consolidations were a direct result of defense ministries being concerned about the costs of overcapacity in the wake of shrinking budgets.

Today, the focus is on the shrinking technological advances of the West.

Western governments are now investing in advanced computing, robotics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. This change in focus will allow Western defense companies to maintain financial strength which will result in more strategic choices. We are already seeing evidence for some of these choices through advancements in cloud computing, big data analytics, and robotics.

Israel has a small population and an exceptional level of threats. Over the years, its ratio of RDT&E spending and procurement has risen and fallen, reflecting the relative priorities of immediate needs and investment for the future.

Israel’s future military spending will continue to be dictated by its threats. Hamas, the militant Muslim authority in Gaza that rejects Israel’s right to exist, has been maneuvering for control over the largely secular Fatah organization administering the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hamas is currently restrained in Gaza, but it is trying to translate its vision into a plan to dominate Palestinian society in the West Bank.

According to the latest U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates, there are nearly 2.7 million Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Israeli government can no longer count on the convenience of ambiguity to stave off critics and competing constituencies. Israel will have to chose a path for preserving its character as a Jewish and democratic state while opening the door for a two-state plan.

If Palestinian hopes and expectations continue to go unrealized, the frustration will only strengthen Hamas’ hand.

In Syria, rebels fighting the Assad regime keep attempting to change the military balance of power. The Syrian government has been bolstered by its foreign supporters, and to combat this, the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, is using porous borders to smuggle arms, supplies, and fighters into and out of the country. This continued spilling over of conflict into Syria’s neighbors in real-time has been a destabilizing force in Israel and a distraction.

Despite Western claims of progress in slowing Iran’s nuclear ambition, there are few signs the Iranian government is conditioning its citizens for any major limitations on nuclear work. Thousands of scientists and engineers are employed at a growing number of nuclear facilities in cities including Isfahan, Natanz, and Qom. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have advanced their careers by championing Iran’s nuclear rights as diplomats on the international stage. More importantly, Iran’s nuclear-fuel infrastructure has grown too vast in recent years, and the international community’s willingness to maintain expensive sanctions on Iran appears limited. Iran’s nuclear quest has Israel planning for military contingencies that carry big risk-taking, and they will no doubt require the new technologies and strategies that Israel is developing.

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The Syria Problem

September 3, 2013

U.S. President Barack Obama’s surprising announcement Saturday that he would go to Congress for use-of-force authorization against Syria will require the president to extrapolate what a strike will accomplish and what contingency plans his administration has should the conflict spread.

A swift resolution is unlikely. Meaningful changes in Syria will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve under any circumstances.

Syria6000

The real threat is the conflict spilling over. If the U.S. attacks Syria, expect Hezbollah to hit Israel from southern Lebanon and the Israelis to retaliate over a period of weeks.

Iran will rattle its sword, but any rhetoric about attacking Israel will be a bluff. If Tehran were to strike Israel, its nuclear facilities would immediately be a target; therefore, Iran will be happy to use Hezbollah as a proxy.

The threat of spreading conflict will drive up oil prices. Key oil-producing countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia could be drawn into the strife and cardinal transit points for oil transport like the Persian Gulf and Egypt may be jeopardized.

I think it is safe to expect oil prices to hit $120 to $125 a barrel, up from about $107 now. The impact on American drivers will be about a 15 cent a gallon increase.

Even if Assad is ultimately removed from power, broader unrest in the Middle East will continue for decades and any rebel faction that takes over Syria will be anti-American while al Qaeda (an important contingent of the opposition) will be well positioned to gain power and influence.

In reality, war between the U.S. and Syria has already commenced.

The pro Assad Syrian Electronic Army hacked the U.S. Marine Corps website over the weekend. The electronic attack was aimed at discouraging U.S. entry into the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels. The hackers left a message stating that Mr. Obama is “a traitor who wants to put your lives in danger to rescue al Qaeda insurgents,” according to the New York Post.

The hackers then urged the Marines to rebel against their commander-in-chief and to join the civil war on the side of the Assad regime.

Many people are asking themselves, if the U.S. attacked Syria, how would we define winning and losing the conflict? While Mr. Obama has yet to define to the world what he would consider to be a win, members of his administration have voiced how the U.S. could lose.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been resolute that the consequences of inaction in Syria would be dire.  Mr. Kerry has said that if the U.S. doesn’t act, it would send a signal to Iran and North Korea that it is okay to advance their nuclear programs and to move ahead in proliferation of their weapons. Kerry said that it is important to show that if a red line is crossed, the U.S. is prepared to back it up.

No matter the outcome, the U.S.’ standing in the Muslim world will continue to erode.

Two audacious and carefully coordinated jailbreaks that occurred in Baghdad over the weekend and which killed at least twenty security guards have now been claimed by the al Qaeda affiliate al Qaeda in Iraq. The al Qaeda franchise has been emboldened in recent months and these latest efforts have freed hundreds of Islamic militants including many senior al Qaeda officers. 

Prison guards in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib

The main target of the jailbreaks was the infamous Abu Ghraib prison which became famous in 2004 when American military prison guards were exposed for abusing its prisoners.

Until the attack, Abu Ghraib was one of Iraq’s most secure locations, and this is yet another example of security all over the country disintegrating.

More than 2,500 people have been killed in Iraq in the past three months alone while over 90,000 people have been killed next door in Syria since the beginning of its civil war. 

There is a real danger that many of these freed militant fighters will cross the border into Syria to join the ongoing sectarian war. Al Qaeda’s Sunni fighters have been heavily involved with trying to bring down the Shi’ite Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad.

The Syrian civil war has become ground zero for the Middle East’s sectarian conflict, and the violence is drawing in fighters (both Sunnis and Shi’ites from other countries) into Syria to join the battle. The resulting sectarian violence is then leaking over the Syrian border back into Iraq as well as into Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Iran. This means Iraq could revert to being devoured by sectarian conflict as it was a decade ago, but the even bigger fear is that other countries could follow. 

Iranian elections are scheduled to take place this spring, and elections inside Iran have the ability to trigger political instability and upheaval. These elections could change the political calculus and the national conversation around Iran’s nuclear issue. Possibly sensing this, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian supreme leader, announced in a speech last week that he may be interested in reopening political channels with Israel and the United States to negotiate Iran’s nuclear program. 

The upcoming Iranian elections (and any instability that results) could complicate the strategic political decision the Iranian regime makes whether to actually build a weapon. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in their latest report that the Iranian effort to develop a capacity to produce nuclear weapons persists. The enrichment process continues in an effort to reach bomb grade levels at 20 percent, the number of centrifuges at the Fordow facility, which is the Iranian facility that intelligence agencies are worried about.

Last September Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech at the United Nations where he held up an image of a cartoon time bomb and said that Israel could no longer tolerate Iran’s uranium enrichment after this summer, because that would be the time when Iran would reach a point of no return. Mr. Netanyahu warned that Israel would have to forcefully intercede before this happens. Israel sees a strike on Iran as a war of necessity, because Israel believes a nuclear Iran is a threat to its security. 

Mr. Netanyahu at the U.N. last September

Mr. Netanyahu at the U.N. last September

Consequently, Iran is facing both national elections and an Israeli deadline for war. 

Were Israel to bomb Iran, there is the very real possibility that it might set off a regional war. I say this because both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories would come to Iran’s defense. 

The Lebanese Hezbollah has operated as an instrument for the radicalized Shi’ite community. Iran is seen as the de facto leader of the alliance between Shi’ite Muslim states, because the biggest effect the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had on the Middle East was to encourage the most uncompromising elements within the Shi’ite community to fight a regional counteroffensive against what was then a Sunni status quo

Syria has long been an important mechanism for arming pro-Palestinian militant groups to fight Israel inside Gaza. With the civil war in Syria refusing to abate, Hamas currently lacks the ability to re-arm itself like it once did in the past; therefore, Hamas now depends more heavily on Iranian power. 

Furthermore, the United States is in the process of drawing down its troops in Afghanistan. The Iranians will do everything possible to turn up the heat on American forces in Afghanistan if Israel attacks Iran. 

Iranian supplies to the Taliban and to other groups within Afghanistan cannot be trivialized. Insurgents have long moved freely across the border Iran shares with Afghanistan, and Iran has been a safe haven for members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and others hiding from Western intelligence. 

Sunni governments in the Middle East are also afraid of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Shi’ite faith has always appealed to the poor and oppressed waiting for salvation. Iran’s propaganda promotes an “Islam of the people,” and incites the poor to rise up against the impiety of Sunni-lead governments. An empowered and emboldened Iran would complicate the fragility of the region. 

The Middle East has been dominated by Sunni power centered in Saudi Arabia since the creation of the Islamic conference in 1969. However, Iran has considered itself the true standard-bearer of Islam since its revolution, despite its Shi’ite minority status. Iran considers the Saudis to be “usurpers who sold oil to the West in exchange for military protection–a retrograde, conservative monarchy with a facade of ostentatious piety” (Kepel 2000). 

Shi’ites currently make up about 15% of the Muslim population worldwide. The Shi’a were an early Islamic political faction (Party of Ali) that supported the power of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph (ruler) of the Muslim community. Ali was murdered in 661CE, and his chief rival, Muawiya, became the new caliph. It was Ali’s death that led to the great schism between Sunni and Shi’ite. 

Back to Iran, the south eastern region of country is volatile due to narcotics trafficking. The area is known as a gateway for smuggling drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan into Western Europe. Therefore, elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda have connections with Sunni insurgents working there.

Jundullah (Army of God) is a Sunni resistance group openly opposed to the Shi’a led government of Iran. Jundullah first made a name for itself in 2003, and it is believed that Jundullah was founded by a Taliban leader out of Pakistan named Nek Mohammed Wazir. Jundullah has a sectarian/ethnic agenda: the group wishes to free the millions of Sunni Balochs which it alleges are being suppressed by Tehran. 

The Taliban and al-Qaeda’s regional influence has spread, and Jundullah has used suicide bombers, a hallmark of the al-Qaeda playbook, in it’s attacks against Iran. This indicates that Jundullah militants are likely receiving training from al-Qaeda (possibly within Pakistan’s borders), and one can only speculate how al-Qaeda would seek to take advantage of Iran turning into a war zone. 

We’ve already seen al-Qaeda fighters pouring into Syria from Iraq to promote a jihadist vision that is fanatically anti-Shi’a. Al-Qaeda’s main grievance with the Syrian regime is that it is run by Alawites, people who belong to a branch of Shi’a Islam. Syria’s population is over 70% Sunni, yet the country is run by minority Shi’ites who make up only around 12% of the population.  Al-Qaeda wants to change that, and it would love nothing better than to also install a Sunni government inside Iran. 

As I said in my previous post, much of the Middle East remains politically unstable, because most modern Muslim states are only several decades old and were carved out by now-departed European powers. Cobbled-together states (a Sunni ruler over a majority Shi’a population or vice versa) highlight the artificiality and fragility of the Middle East and Muslim politics. 

Iran is populated primarily by Shi’ites, and it remains a security (mukhabarat) state whose rulers focus on retaining their power and privilege by focusing on military and security forces at the cost of societal modernization. Islamic revivalism has stunted Iran’s march toward “Western” modernization, and is a prime example of what I was speaking of in my previous post when I said “a trend toward Westernization in Muslim societies has created a growing social split.” 

Iran’s official language of Persian (Farsi) helps to keep Iran culturally isolated from much of the Middle East where Arabic is the dominant language. While Persian and Arabic share an alphabet, they are completely different languages with completely different pronunciations. This causes difficulties with Iran sharing in cultural products such as news, entertainment, and religious services with the majority of the Middle Eastern region. This fact is especially important to remember when we consider Iran’s communications (or lack thereof) with other countries in the Middle East. A lack of clear communication could complicate and escalate any conflict brewing in the region. 

Iran, under the shah, wanted 22 nuclear reactors for energy, and at the time the United States supported this position. Iran only ever built one, but it has plans, it says, for others, but it’s taken a very long time to get to the point where it can build them. The question is, is Iran’s current regime also moving toward a weapon. Iran is supposed to declare everything that it’s doing on the nuclear front with the IAEA, but it has not cooperated with the international community in terms of giving it access to its scientists or in providing information on what it has been doing. Iran has blocked the IAEA at every turn, and it is currently in violation of the international agreements it has signed. 

The Palestinians have won their bid for stronger recognition at the United Nations. To be candid, this could be a game changer… but it probably isn’t. Most likely this move is yet another hollow gesture that ends up being meaningless.

The U.N. General Assembly voted last week to recognize Palestine as a non-member state. One hundred and thirty-eight countries voted in favor of changing the status of the Palestinian territories from a non-member “observer entity” to a non-member “observer state”.

While this does not make Palestine a voting member of the U.N., this vote does give Palestine the rights to join some of the specialized agencies of the U.N. which can only create complications for Israel. Symbolically, what this vote means is that Israel has lost leverage with countries that used to back it unquestioningly, but that doesn’t necessarily change the reality of the political landscape.

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Israel Strikes Back

November 15, 2012

Even though the US Congress is well into its Lame Duck session, I’ve decided to take a moment to comment on the heaviest fighting to happen inside the Palestinian territories in years.

Earlier this morning, Israel resumed its assault within the Gaza Strip against the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Israel is acting in self defense against Hamas which has been increasing its rocket attacks that have long been terrorizing Israeli citizens.

The timing for Israel’s actions appear to be very calculated.

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Different Perspectives

August 23, 2012

Hezbollah’s Military Wing

There are many perspectives within the Middle East about Hezbollah. These perspectives vary from person to person when they presuppose what Hezbollah is, who it symbolizes, and what it’s achieving.

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A four pound bomb exploded outside a bus stop in Jerusalem today. It killed one Israeli woman, and injured more than twenty-five others. The attack has occurred in the midst of increasing violence in the region; however, this is the first such attack in Jerusalem in about four years.

The armed wing of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian Islamist group, claimed responsibility. It has vowed to continue targeting cities far within Israel.

Small metal ball bearings that were packed within the bomb were found more than twenty feet from the explosion.

Israelis and Palestinians have engaged in quid pro quo violence for the last several weeks in the Gaza strip and the West Bank. Over the last week, Palestinian militants have fired more than 60 rockets into southern Israeli towns. Israel has threatened to retaliate with a large scale attack in Gaza should the violence continue.

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