Iran: Sorting Out Syria

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July 17, 2017: Earlier this year the religious dictatorship running Iran saw itself as on the way to some major victories in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The optimism turned out to be premature. The good times were supposed to begin in the wake of a July 2015 treaty that would lift the many sanctions Iran operated under. That did not, as many financial experts pointed out, solve the immediate current cash crises because first Saudi Arabia refused to cut production and the continued use of fracking triggered a massive (more than 70 percent) drop of the price of oil in 2013. Iran is busy trying to comply with the 2015 treaty to get most of the sanctions lifted and so far that seems to be working. Even then international economists believe the Iranian economy won’t get moving again until the 2020s.

Still unresolved are the other problem that bothers Iranians; an Islamic conservative minority with veto power over any attempts at reform from within. Independent reformers are considered enemies of the state by the ruling clerics. Most Iranians just want a better life in this life rather than rushing off to the afterlife. Iranian Islamic conservatives are not helping with their determination to support terrorism overseas and build nuclear weapons at home, rather than concentrating on improving the economy and living standards. Talk of addressing the corruption within the government remain just that, talk. Expensive efforts to aid pro-Iran groups in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon have worked but have to be presented as examples of the ancient Iranian empire being reborn. The government sees these foreign adventures as a way to distract an unhappy population. The nukes are still important because Iran has been increasingly vocal about how Iran should be the leader of the Islamic world and the guardian of the major Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in Saudi Arabia. Iranians believe that having nukes would motivate the Arabs to bow down. The Arabs have been kicked around by the Iranians for thousands of years and take this latest threat very seriously. The problem is more and more Iranians are less and less interested in paying for a new empire.

Meanwhile Iran had modified its internal counter-terrorism efforts in response to the recent ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) attacks in the capital. Several senior IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) commanders have been replaced and government controlled media blamed the United States for the ISIL attacks and spoke vaguely of striking back.

At the same time the government plays down the cost of paying for Iranian involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. While the government keeps Iranian casualties low (by using lots of mercenaries) these foreign wars are very expensive and the government cannot hide the financial cost. Most Iranians are more concerned about their personal finances and freedoms than they are with reviving the Iranian empire or making Shia Islam the dominant force in the Moslem world.

Israel

With the Hezbollah and Assad threat to Israel crippled by the Syrian civil war Iran has sought to find other ways to hurt their archenemy Israel from the inside. Iranian efforts to cultivate an alliance with the Palestinians in general are not working out so well. Since 2011 Arab governments have been more open with their criticism of the corrupt and inept Palestinian leadership. This process accelerated after 2016 when the Arab Gulf states admitted they could no longer trust Hamas (or Fatah either) and are put off by the Iranian boasts that it was still subsidizing Hamas, which has run Gaza and its nearly two million Palestinians since 2005. Iran supported Hamas early on. There were recently more rumors that Iran had stopped supporting Hamas. Iran decreased its support for a while, in large part because of the sanctions and low oil prices Iran but never cut off Hamas completely. Although Sunni Hamas sometimes persecutes Shia in Gaza, Iran supports energetic Hamas efforts to attack Israel. Hamas also supports Islamic terrorists active in Egypt and that has turned Egypt completely against Hamas and helped put Egypt firmly into the anti-Iran Sunni coalition. In response Hamas is currently trying to make peace with Egypt. The Iran link made Hamas an enemy as far as most Sunni Moslem nations were concerned. Hamas made a lot of bad decisions since 2005 and the Iran link is seen as one of the worst. In response Arab states who have cut aid to Gaza and the West Bank Palestinian leaders have quietly told the reluctant Arab donors that if they do not increase aid there will be violent Palestinian protests (in Gaza, West Bank and Jerusalem) against the Arab donors as well as Israel. These Arab donors (mainly Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait) have lost patience with the Palestinians and not only cut donor aid (which was being stolen or misused by corrupt Palestinian leaders) but also openly allied themselves with Israel against Iran. The Arab world still technically backs the Palestinians and the effort to destroy Israel but have lost confidence in the Palestinians.

There are more and more signs of shifts in long-established alliances involving Israel. Recently the president of India visited Israel and aside from the symbolism, announced more trade deals with Israel, which has become a major military supplier for India. Iran and India had always been trading partners and on good terms diplomatically. Shia Islamic terrorists were never a problem inside India. But Sunni Islamic terrorists, especially those sponsored by Pakistan, are. Israel offered India help dealing with the Islamic terrorists and India noted that Israel was a major supplier of military equipment worldwide and was especially good when it came to border security and dealing with Islamic terrorism. The alliance between Israel and India has grown stronger since 2001 and now India is quite open about it.

Lebanon

Israel pays close attention to Hezbollah activity in Lebanon because Hezbollah was created and sustained by Iran and that Iranian connection makes Hezbollah (representing the Shia third of the population) very unpopular with many (if not most) Lebanese. After 2011 Iran ordered Hezbollah to send most of their trained fighters to Syria to help keep the Assads in power. Syria in general and the Assads in particular are not popular in Lebanon. In part that’s because Syria has always considered Lebanon part of “Greater Syria” (which it is historically, sort of) and for decades has stirred up trouble in Lebanon. Since 2011 Hezbollah has suffered about 8,000 casualties in Syria. While Iran has picked up the cost of medical treatment and “life insurance” payments to the families of the 2,000 or so Hezbollah that have died in Syria, all those casualties were not only unpopular in Lebanon but made it more difficult to recruit men to serve in the Hezbollah militia. Then there is the fact that there are still about 8,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria and Iran cannot afford to send them home just yet and is not sure when it can. Therefore, with ISIL defeated the Syrian civil war is far from over but it does get more complicated.

Israeli aerial, space based and on-the-ground efforts to keep track of what goes on in Lebanon have been consistently accurate, despite energetic efforts by Hezbollah and Iran to hide things. As a result of all this surveillance Israeli media is one of the best sources (for Israelis, Lebanese and everyone else) about what is going on in southern Lebanon. That area has been controlled by Iran (via the local Hezbollah organization) since the 1990s and for a long time Hezbollah had some success in hiding things. But since the 2006 war with Israel, when some of those secrets were revealed, an embarrassed Israel has increased its surveillance efforts and regularly warns Lebanon, while taunting Hezbollah and Iran, about dangerous things Iran is doing in Lebanon. The latest warnings are about the Iranian effort to build weapons production facilities, especially ones for long range rockets, in Lebanon. Israel has made it clear they know where these facilities are being built and will destroy them before they can begin production. One facility, building the Fateh 110 and M-600 ballistic missiles is in northern Lebanon and the other one, for shorter range rockets as well as small arms and ammo, is down south. Naturally this alarms civilians living near these “secret” facilities and discourages Iran from trying to build such military facilities outside of Hezbollah controlled territory in southern Lebanon. Israel keeps repeating that it will bomb Hezbollah facilities wherever they are in Lebanon and wants everyone to know that the Lebanese government has been informed, repeatedly.

Syria

Currently the Assad government controls about 70 percent of the remaining Syrian population. About a quarter of the 2011 population, almost all of them anti-Assad Sunnis, have fled the country and probably will not return to an Iran dominated Syria. The Sunnis are still a majority, just a much smaller one. The rebels, (mostly the Kurd led SDF) control about a quarter of the population and ISIL controls about a quarter of the land areas (mostly in the largely desert eastern Syria) but only about five percent of the population. The Assads control only about a third of the country, making it easier for them to protect and patrol the population they control. The Assads have the coast and the two largest cities (Damascus and Aleppo). The only thing left to fight over is how much access Iran gets to Syria. Israel is openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Turkey quietly agrees with that. Russia agrees with Turkey and Israel on this but does not say so (much) in public. The Sunni Arab states are more open in opposing Iranian plans here. Despite all that Iran is determined to have a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria.

Iran is getting what it wants in Syria, with the Assads agreeing to a long-term lease on one of the recently recaptured airbases in central Syria. Iran would pay to rebuild the base and would be free to use it without Syrian interference. Iran is seeking a similar deal for a port on the Mediterranean coast. Iran has also been seeking 5,000 Shia mercenaries for the post-war Iranian controlled force to guard the airbase and port as well as operations on the Israeli border. Israel knows that Iran wants to establish a pro-Iranian militia in Syria similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Assads know this would mean they would have to share power in Syria with Iran. Most Syrians don’t care for this, just as most Lebanese don’t care for the Hezbollah presence since the 1980s. No one, including Russia, Turkey and Israel, want another Hezbollah established in Syria. Iran will not back down on this and that has damaged their relationships with their allies.

Iran has a more immediate problem with the fact that the war, and the rebellion against the Assads is not over in Syria. While ISIL is on the verge of defeat it will not be gone after it losses Raqqa and other urban areas. ISIL is basically the outlaw (by any standard) extremist wing of al Qaeda and has always existed in one form or another. ISIL will always strive to attack Iran wherever Iranians, especially armed ones, can be reached. Meanwhile the Assads still face al Qaeda (in the form of al Nusra or whatever new name this group adopts to avoid American air strikes) and the more secular Syrian rebels (mainly the Kurds but also a growing number of Syrian Sunni Arabs who have lost faith in the ability of Islamic terrorism to make much of a difference.) The best thing about the secular rebels is that they are openly supported by the United States and a coalition of local Moslem states. The secular rebels tend to be better trained and led and, of course, have air support and U.S. logistical and training support. These rebels also have emergency medical aid for their families in Israel. This is an unofficial benefit but it encourages the secular rebels (and even cooperative al Qaeda groups) to maintain a presence on the Israeli border.

The secular rebels and al Nusra want the Assads gone and Iran has 24,000 fighters in Syria to make sure that does not happen. Some 62 percent of the Iranian forces are Shia mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Another 35 percent are Hezbollah (Lebanese Shia) and the rest are Iranian trainers and technical advisors. The Syrian armed forces have about 200,000 men on the payroll but most are not effective for offensive operations (that’s what Hezbollah and Iranian mercenaries are for) and useful mainly to provide local security. Russia has a few thousand military and contractor personnel in Syria providing the Assads with air, intel and logistical support. This plays a major role in keeping the Syrian army and air force operational, if nothing else.

Turkey has even fewer troops inside Syria whose main duty it to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous area in northern Syria. In this the Turks are opposed by the U.S. and NATO. Since Turkey is a member of NATO and that is something most Turks value. The current (since 2000) Islamic government in Turkey finds itself in a difficult position with expulsion from NATO a real possibility if Turkish and U.S. aircraft clash over Syria. Then there is Israel, the strongest military power in the region, which recognizes the Iranian threat for what it is and massing its forces and alliances (with Russia, the U.S. and several Arab states).

Israel has also managed to interfere with the Iranian alliance with Russia in Syria. Russia realized it had some unique opportunities here. Israel considers Iran its major military threat and for that reason is actively involved opposing Iran in Syria. Iran’s allies there, Russia and Turkey, are not backing Iranian efforts to destroy Israel once ISIL is destroyed in Syria. Russia is quite open about its good relationships and cooperation with Israel while Turkey is making it clear that if pressed to choose sides, they would prefer Israel to Iran. Nevertheless Turkey is still run by an Islamic political party that is highly critical of Israel, and the West in general. But that’s another problem.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil states have quietly formed a military alliance with Israel. They get away with this because most of Arab citizens of these oil states see ISIL and Iran as more of a threat than Israel but are less likely than their rulers to admit that Israel would be a splendid economic and military ally. The only problem is nearly a century of anti-Israel propaganda.

Yemen

The war in Yemen has morphed into two separate conflicts. In the northwest and along the Red Sea coast it is Iran-backed Shia rebels versus the Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia (and their local allies plus the United States). The rest of Yemen is a fight between Yemeni government (backed by the Saudi coalition) and Yemeni tribal separatists (backed by al Qaeda). At the same time Yemen has serious economic and social problems that are getting worse because of all the unrest since 2011 (and outright civil war since 2015). Before the civil war began in 2011 the Yemeni GDP was $37 billion. Now it is less than half that and falling. Hunger and disease are increasing as are associated deaths. Foreign aid efforts are often plundered by locals. Yemen has long been considered one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. In 2016 Yemen ranked 170th out of 176 countries. Most Yemenis will agree that corruption is a major problem. Yet most Yemenis are less willing to admit that Yemen is not a country but rather a collection of tribes that don’t get along and cannot agree on how to work together to make a united Yemen work. Iran understands all this and considers Yemen an opportunity to make the Saudis look bad and little else.

The Wall

Turkey has started construction of a border wall on about 150 kilometers of its Iranian border. This comes after Turkey completed its new security wall along its 560 kilometer-long Syrian border this year. The Turks spent $700 million to build a three meter (nearly 10 feet) high concrete wall with additional security features. The wall is meant to make illegal crossings more difficult and easier to detect. The wall is directed at smugglers, illegal migrants and Islamic terrorists. There is a larger military and police presence on the Turkish side and more watch towers, sensors and armed patrols. People can still get across, but they are more likely to be detected and pursued.

Qatar

On June 5th Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain cut diplomatic, economic and military relations with Qatar. Ambassadors were expelled, borders were closed and Qatar was made to feel very unwelcome. Yemen and several other Moslem nations followed the suit. In addition Qatar was expelled from the coalition that sent forces into Yemen in early 2015. Qatar contributed about a thousand troops, apparently with the understanding that they would not be required to do any heavy fighting. By the end of June the Saudis had presented Qatar with a list of demands (cut ties with Iran, end the Turkish military presence, shut down al Jazeera and so on) that Qatar politely declined to consider. Qatar is a very wealthy nation with many powerful allies (like the United States, Turkey and in this case; Iran). These allies came to the aid of Qatar which is now coping with the Saudi led effort to deal with what many Arabs simply call the “Qatar problem.”

The demands on Qatar come after years of criticisms over Qatari support for Islamic terrorism and the perception among Arab states that Qatar could not be trusted. Cutting ties with Qatar was partly retaliation against the Qatar based and subsidized al Jazeera satellite news network which often reports on real or imagined (depending on who you ask) bad behavior by Sunni Arab governments and their security forces, including the Arab coalition bombing campaign in Yemen and Egyptian efforts against Islamic terror groups in Sinai where troops often murder civilians and try to pass that off as a clash with Islamic terrorists. While that happens, al Jazeera also gives sympathetic treatment to Islamic radical and terrorist groups, especially in Egypt and Syria, that hardly anyone else (Moslem or otherwise) has much sympathy for. Qatar also openly supports Palestinian terror group Hamas, although Qatar recently ordered some senior Hamas leaders to leave Qatar for another sanctuary. Al Jazeera reporters have a hard time avoiding arrest (or worse) in Egypt and other Moslem states but they are often abused by Islamic terror groups as well.

Qatar is also seen as siding with Iran (or at least playing both sides) in the current struggle between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. This sort of behavior is not uncommon in the region and the small Arab Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait and the member states of the UAE have survived for centuries using these methods. One could say Qatar has been too successful and the current unpleasantness is the price of that success. As is the local custom secret meetings will be held, demands discussed and agreements made. How long this takes will depend on how long Qatar can last without its usual providers of all the food and just about everything else. The expulsion cut off half of that immediately and a naval blockade would be disastrous. About 40 percent of imports came via Saudi Arabia.

The move against Qatar was always seen as a gamble and now it looks like the Saudis have lost and in doing so have given Iran another win. Iran played a major role in replacing the supply routes the Arab embargo cut and that particular aspect of the Arab pressure soon faded to nothing.

Air Defense

One of the Iranian S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries is missing. Back in October 2016 Russia completed deliveries of four S-300 batteries to Iran and these were be operational by 2017. One battery has been spotted at Bushehr air base (allowing coverage of the northern Persian Gulf as well as parts of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) and the other two near the capital (Tehran). The port of Bushehr on the Persian Gulf is the largest port in Iran and handles about half the foreign trade. The S-300PMU2 version Iran received can use the latest S-300 missiles with a range of 200 kilometers. Each Iranian S-300 battery has a fire control radar and four launcher vehicles (each carrying four or two missiles). One reason Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs are openly collaborating with Israel is because of the S-300s. If anyone in the region has electronic (and other) countermeasures to the S-300 it is Israel. The Israelis are willing to make a deal on that point, depending on how much the Arabs are willing (or able) to tone down their traditional anti-Semitic policies.

The Bomb

Although Iran has abided by the terms of the 2015 treaty that lifted most sanctions on Iran in return of Iran abandoning its nuclear weapons program. So far both sides appear to have complied with the terms of the treaty. Yet Iran has become more of an international troublemaker and a growing number of security agency experts in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East believe Iran is still pursuing work on nuclear weapons. Iran appears to justify this effort internally by invoking “the Israeli threat.”

July 16, 2017: Another American citizen was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to prison (10 years) for espionage. The latest victim is Xiyue Wang, a graduate student in Iranian history who was born in China but is a naturalized American citizen. He was arrested in mid-2016 and, like all other foreigners imprisoned this way, to be used to trade for the freedom of Iranians arrested in the West for espionage, smuggling or whatever.

July 15, 2017: In the southwest on the Pakistani border someone (described only as “foreign terrorists”) in Pakistan fired machine-guns and several mortar shells into Iran, wounding two civilians. IRGC forces immediately returned fire killing one of the terrorists and wounding two others. The rest of the terrorists (apparently Iranian Baluchi rebels) retreated further into Pakistan.

July 11, 2017: The American forces commander for Iraq and Syria noted that the recent liberation of Mosul was very much a collaborative effort and the Iran backed Shia militias made an important contribution. It was also noted that these Shia militias never interfered with or threatened American troops in Iraq. Other American officers and NCOs had noted that some of the Shia militias were rabidly and openly anti-American but that most of the Shia militias worked well with the Americans and some of those militiamen expressed concern about the Iranian (Quds Force) officers who supervised their training and support. These observations reflect the complex situation Iran faces in Iraq, where the Shia Arabs are a majority of the population but most Iraqi Arabs (Shia or Sunni) are wary of Iranian intentions. The United States, on the other hand, overthrew the Sunni dictatorship in 2003 and that was popular in Iran as well. Unlike Iran, the U.S. has no historical claims on Iraq and despite Iranian propaganda blaming the Americans for everything that goes wrong, more Iraqi Shia note that Iran is the traditional and still the current threat to Iraqi Arabs no matter what form of Islam they follow. For that reason the Iraqi government (dominated by Shia Arabs) officially refuses to send Iran-backed Shia militia forces into Syria. Some of these militiamen have crossed the border (usually with Iranian encouragement) and it has been noted that these illegal moves were not supported by anyone on either side of the border.

July 8, 2017: In the southeast Iranian border guards fired three rockets across the border into Pakistan (Baluchistan).

July 4, 2017: In Syria the United States, Russia and Jordan began implementing a ceasefire and "de-escalation agreement" they had worked out days earlier to keep the Assad, rebel and Iranian forces from advancing towards the Israeli border and southwestern Syria in general. This ceasefire mainly means no airstrikes in the area, especially none by U.S. or Russian aircraft which have been providing most of the air support for the rebels and the Assads. This ceasefire will be monitored from the air (manned and UAV aircraft as well as satellites) and a Russian military police battalion will man checkpoints. The Assads and some of the rebels have agreed to this but Iran has been evasive while ISIL and some other rebel groups have ignored ceasefires in general. Iran did agree to halt the advance of the troops it controls (mainly Shia mercenaries from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere). Israel expects Iran to violate this ceasefire one way or another even though the Israelis made it clear that Hezbollah forces showing up on their Syrian border was considered a major threat and would be dealt with accordingly. The major problem with these ceasefire deals is that Iran is all about increasing its military threat to Israel and Israel knows it. But aside from the Assads and Hezbollah none of the other nations involved (Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Russia and the U.S.) will side with Iran in a showdown with Israel. Worse, Iran is reluctant to even recognize that most of the world sees Iranian attitudes towards Israel as, well, a bit overdone. Israel was always friendly to Iran, even after the monarchy was replaced in the 1980s by a religious dictatorship. Iran’s Arab neighbors see Iranian official hatred of Israel as some kind of scam that includes the Arabs suffering a loss even if the Israelis do not.

July 3, 2017: The Syrian Army declared a temporary truce along its southern border, to try and persuade rebels fighting down there to participate in the peace talks being held in Kazakhstan. None of the rebels are willing to attend and only Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Assad government show up and make deals no one pays much attention to.

July 2, 2017: In the northwest (West Azerbaijan Province) IRGC troops fired several dozen shells into Iraq. Three Iraqis were wounded and hundreds of Iraqi Kurds fled their homes. There was some damage to property. The artillery fire was aimed at a rural area that was often used as a base area by Iranian Kurdish KDPI separatists as well as the larger PJAK Iranian Kurdish rebel group (with about twice as many armed members as KDPI). Until early 2016 KDPI had observed a 1990s ceasefire with the Iranian government but is now back in the fight. The KDPI apparently has over a thousand armed members (many of them women) in the area. The armed KDPI provided protection from bandits and such and until 2015 Iranian security forces observed the ceasefire. But increasing aggressiveness by PJAK led the IRGC to go after any armed Kurds and that often meant attacks on KDPI as well. The local population on both sides of the border is largely Kurdish. The Iranian Kurdish separatists maintain bases in Iraq and IRGC artillery has fired shells and rockets at these Iraqi bases regularly for the past few years. The Iraqi Kurds don’t officially approve of these Iranian Kurds hiding out in remote border areas but they won’t send their own troops in to oust them. The Iraqi government (run by the Shia Arab majority) apologizes to Iran but will not go to war with its own Kurds over this. Thus it is no surprise that Iran is currently blaming Saudi Arabia for the Iranian Kurds finding sanctuary in northern Iraq.

June 29, 2017: Syrian rebel groups announced that ISIL founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead but would not provide details. As recently as June 16th Russia still claimed that it had used an airstrike to kill Baghdadi on May 28th.

June 28, 2017: Further west, on the Lebanese border with Israel, Hezbollah erected Hezbollah and Iranian flags along the border along with signs that said “We are coming.”

June 24, 2017: In the east Afghanistan again blamed Iran because across the border in Herat province the Taliban attacked an army checkpoint 13 kilometers from a major dam. Ten soldiers died, three were wounded and the Taliban stole many weapons and other equipment from the checkpoint. Iran opposes the many new dams (which keep water in Afghanistan that used to flow into Iran) and is accused of supporting Islamic terrorists who will attack the dams. Iran denies encouraging efforts to destroy these dams but that’s what Iran has done in the past when faced with similar threats. This is one issue that generates the most anti-Iran activity in Afghanistan.

June 23, 2017: In the northwest (Kurdistan province) Iranian troops killed three Iranian Kurdish separatists and arrested another. The four Kurds were apparently members of the leftist Komala movement that became active in 1979 but seemed to disappear in the 1990s. Komala reappeared in April 2017.

June 20, 2017: In the southeast a Pakistani JF-17 fighter shot down an Iranian Shahed 129 UAV that was at least three kilometers inside Pakistani airspace. Meanwhile in Syria an American F-15 shot down another Iranian Shahed 129 because the UAV was headed for U.S. supported rebels and was armed. Shahed 129 is one of the largest (over half a ton) UAVs Iran has developed and built. Since 2014 Shahed 129s have been spotted in Syria and Iraq (near Iranian border) doing surveillance. In early 2016 video on Iranian TV showed the Shahed 129 using laser guided air-to ground missiles. Iran did not make a big deal about the UAV lost over Pakistan and quietly told the Pakistanis that there was probably a navigation error by the UAV. Iran is trying to persuade Pakistan to abandon Saudi Arabia as an ally and work closely with Iran instead. This is a hard sell as Pakistani ties with Saudi Arabia go way back. Moreover both nations are Sunni majority states and while some Pakistani officials favor more cooperation with Iran most Pakistanis do not.

June 19, 2017: In the southeast Iran and Pakistan apparently cooperated in Baluchistan to find and kill Jalil Qanbar-Zahi, the leader of a local Sunni Islamic terrorist group called Ansar al Furqan which had recently pledged allegiance to ISIL. Zahi had replaced Abu Hafs al Baloushi, who died in the same way in August 2016, by the end of 2016. This group has been around since 2013 and was involved with drug smuggling and working with Iranian Baluchi separatists. Iran declared that men like Zahi and Baloushi are actually mercenaries working for an unnamed foreign government. Iran portrayed Ansar al Furqan as paid killers rather than religious fanatics. No proof was presented but in this part of the world no proof is needed because many, if not most Moslems in the Middle East believe that groups like al Qaeda and ISIL were created and are controlled by Israel and the West as a means to attack Islam. In southeast Iran the reality is that the local Baluchis are Sunni and never got along with the Shia Iranians. Armed Baluchi groups often base themselves across the border in Pakistan, which has been unable to halt this sort of thing.

June 18, 2017: Iran fired six of its new Zulfiqar ballistic missiles at ISIL targets in Syria (Palmyra and Deir Ezzor). Only two of the missiles hit anything of value but some of them travelled about 620 kilometers. Four apparently landed in western Iraq. Iran denied these Israeli backed claims about accuracy and Israel dismissed the denials as more Iranian posturing. This public disagreement went on for a week and the Israelis did not back down with their claims that the Iranian missiles performed poorly. For a nation constantly threatened with attack by Iranian ballistic missiles the Israeli observation of the Zulfiqar performance is yet another embarrassment for Iran. The Iranian media described (and published pictures) of the Zulfiqar ballistic missile. This appeared to be another version of the Fateh-110 which is a 3.5 ton, solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 250 kilometers and a half ton warhead. Iran first revealed Fateh-110 in 2002. These missiles were also manufactured in Syria (as the M-600). The Iranian version appeared to be based on the Chinese DF-11, which entered service in 1979 and continues to be used by China and was exported to Pakistan. The DF-11 (also known as the M11) is a single stage solid fuel missile that weighs 4.2 tons, has a range of 300 kilometers, and carries a .8 ton warhead. By 2011 there were reports of a DF-11A which used a smaller warhead and larger solid fuel to achieve a range of over 700 kilometers. Several years later an update of the DF-11A entered service with a more accurate and reliable guidance system. By 2013 Iran was airlifting in more Fateh-110s to Syria, apparently meant for Hezbollah. These longer range missiles, that can reach all of Israel’s major cities, are a primary target for Israeli forces in any future war with Hezbollah and some were destroyed by during at least one of the recent Israeli air strikes in Syria.

The Iranian ballistic missile attack was in response to a June 7th attack in the Iranian capital by six ISIL men armed with firearms and explosive vests. The attack went after two targets; the parliament (in central Tehran) and a shrine to religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who established the current religious dictatorship) south of Tehran. All six attackers were killed but not before seven other people died and 43 wounded. It was soon discovered five of the dead ISIL men were Iranians who police knew or suspected had left the country to join ISIL. The five apparently returned to set up an ISIL branch in Iran and ISIL boasts that this is the first attack of many in Iran.

June 17, 2017: In Yemen the Iran backed Shia rebels refuse to allow outside groups (like the UN) take control the Red Sea port of Hodeida. This has been the main port for the delivery of 80 percent of the foreign aid for civilians in rebel held areas and, in theory, government controlled areas. Government forces are closing in on Hodeida and that will make it more difficult for the rebels to smuggle in military supplies. The UN proposal (which the Yemeni government backs) involves Shia rebels giving up control of Hodeida but the rebels are not interested even though the UN proposal has Hodeida turned over to a neutral third party. This is not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of keeping control of the key port for handling foreign aid for most people in rebel controlled territory. Then there is the smuggling. The rebels have prevented UN personnel from inspecting aid shipments (for weapons and other contraband) and the government claims the rebels have been seizing aid shipments and preventing UN personnel from verifying that the aid is going to civilians. The rebels are putting up a strong defense around Hodeida and that slows down the advance but cannot stop it. As long as the rebels hold onto Hodeida and Iran still has powerful allies in the UN (mainly Russia and China, who can veto some measures) the smuggling can continue as can the use of food to control civilian populations that are hostile to the rebels.

June 15, 2017: In northwest Iraq (west of Mosul) several hundred members of an Iran-backed Shia militia crossed into Syria for a second time despite assurances by the Iraqi government that these pro-Iran militias would not enter Syria. As happened on June 2nd the Iraqi militiamen went back to Iraq after a few hours. In both instances the action was justified to deal with ISIL forces on the Syrian side that were firing rockets and shells into Iraq.

Another problem was that the Iraqi militiamen entered an area (Hasakah province) that has largely been under Kurdish control since 2012 and the Syrian Kurds warned Iraqis to stay out. This incursion apparently has more to do with the Iranian goal of establishing a safe (for Iranian arms shipments) land route from Iran to Lebanon. A major highway crosses the border in the area where the Iraqi Shia militia are operating, now on both sides of the border. The Iraqis did not advance far and most returned to Iraq.

June 14, 2017: In the southeast security forces near the Pakistani border killed two Baluchi separatists and arrested five people. One security agent was killed in the process.

June 11, 2017: The government announced that it had killed the mastermind of the June 7 ISIL attack on the parliament (in central Tehran) and a shrine to religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

 


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