Tehran sees all its Middle East gains in the years of the Obama administration going to pot, because President Vladimir Putin, influenced by the imminent change of presidents in the White House, has sharply changed course. President Tayyip Erdogan is now the favorite ally at Iran’s expense, whereas Tehran is being cut out of premier status in the affairs of Syria and Iraq.
Iran’s clerical rulers got an unpleasant jolt when on Monday, Jan. 9, they heard Erdogan stressing that he was hopeful of “better Turkey-US relations under the Trump administration.”
Speaking in Ankara at a meeting of his country’s ambassadors, he said: “I believe we will accelerate dialogue when Mr. Trump takes office. I believe we will reach a consensus with Mr. Trump, particularly on regional issues.”
But it is Putin’s worrisome pivot away from the recently solid Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance that is causing sleepless nights in Tehran, as they watch a series of moves highlighted here by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources:
The Syrian peace conference sponsored by Moscow and Ankara opening in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana next Sunday, Jan. 23, will be attended by the chiefs of at least 100 Syrian opposition groups, some of which exist only on paper but for their external “offices” in Turkey.
(The problem of Iran’s attendance is addressed in a separate article in this issue.)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday, Jan. 10: “It is unclear how long the talks will last; preparation is quite intensive; we can say nothing more specific now.”
High-level Russian diplomatic and military officials will not be present at the Astana parley, which is seen as a preliminary event in the peace effort and not yet worth a high-prestige presence.
Anyway, they are fully engaged elsewhere.
Russian forces are behaving in Syria as though they own the place; they are doing as they please politically and militarily, without a by-your-leave from President Bashar Assad, his generals, Iran, or, least of all, Hizballah. Occasionally, they confer with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan – but only up to a point.
Moscow chose Astana, a small town of 600,000 inhabitants which straddles the Ishim River in northern Kazakhstan, as the venue for the tricky peace conference it is sponsoring with Ankara, because it is 3,500km from Damascus, and the unruly, endlessly squabbling Syrian rebel groups are therefore far removed from the public eye. At this remote site, it can be dinned in to the Syrian opposition at large that, having been roundly beaten at Aleppo, no anti-Assad group can hope to stand up to Russian might. Only ISIS and the Nusra Front remain to be subdued.
However, to guard against surprises, the Russians took three precautions.
1. They warned Syrian rebel groups in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, including the two powerful radical militias, Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, which maintain strongholds there, that they would be left unharmed so long as they refrained from attacking Russian and government forces.
2. A joint Russian-Turkish statement promised the formation of a committee representing all the parties at the Astana conference for drafting a new Syrian constitution. Since these wildly disparate opposition groups can’t be expected to agree on any fundamental principles for a constitution, Moscow will have a good pretext for dragging the conference on almost indefinitely.
This will leave the Russians free to accomplish their primary goal of stabilizing Assad’s rule. The Turkish president may continue his double game of clamoring publicly for the Syrian dictator’s removal, but on the quiet, he will work with Russia to keep him in power.
3. As a further irritant for Tehran, Moscow and Ankara asked Riyadh to try and persuade Saudi-backed Syrian opposition groups to join the peace conference in Kazakhstan. No answer has so far been forthcoming from Riyadh, or from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, to which a similar request was addressed.
Not surprisingly, the conference has become a bone of contention between the two staunchest allies, Tehran and Damascus.
This week, Assad sent his foreign minister, Walid Al-Moalem and his security chief, Gen. Ali Mamluk, to Tehran for “urgent deliberations.” The Syrian ruler needed to find out where the Iranians stand on the conference and, more particularly, on his future in power.
On Sunday, Jan. 8, Tehran sent one of its heavyweights to Damascus. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and one of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s closest confidants. He was told to get clear answers from Assad on the Astana conference and its purpose.
Iran’s rulers realize they are getting the runaround on this conference, but have not decided who is really behind that maneuver, DEBKA Weekly’s Tehran sources report. Is it Donald Trump?
At the same time, they are suddenly out of touch with the Syrian ruler’s direction. After six years as Assad’s most trusted and powerful ally, the Iranians are getting the uncomfortable sense that the ground in Damascus is falling away from under their feet.
The Trump transition team responded to Mahmoud Abbas’ threats on Jerusalem on Jan. 10 with a promptness that surprised the Palestinian Authority’s Chairman’s office in Ramallah – although it was the reverse of the reply he wanted.
Abbas had warned the US president-elect that the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem would have dire consequences. The Palestinians would go back on their recognition of Israel, end peace talks (what peace talks?) and call on the Arab League to order the recall of all Arab and Muslim ambassadors from Washington.
“A Palestinian state is meaningless without Jerusalem,” he wrote.
The reply that came back from Trump Tower made the following points:
1. The incoming US administration stood by Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to transfer its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – but no date had been set for the move.
debkafile revealed on Monday, Jan. 10 in an exclusive headline story, that the plan under discussion by the president-elect and his advisers is to ceremonially set the cornerstone at the allotted embassy site in Jerusalem. Further construction would then be frozen, contingent on the Palestinians abandoning their anti-Israel drive at United Nations agencies and world capitals. Continuation of these campaigns to vilify Israel would prompt the start of construction.
2. The site allotted for the embassy compound is located in West Jerusalem over which the Palestinians recognized Israeli sovereignty, as part of the 1993 Oslo peace framework accords. The Trump message stressed that since the Palestinians never abrogated that recognition, their resistance to the embassy’s transfer is unfounded.
3. Their refusal to acknowledge Israel’s sovereignty in West Jerusalem is, moreover, tantamount to reneging on their recognition of Israel as a state. If that is their intention, then it is incumbent on the Palestinians to make their changed position public.
Abbas and his advisers found Trump’s message utterly unacceptable. They decided to simply disregard it and carry on with their outcry against the US embassy move to Jerusalem.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources also report that the Israeli government was not much happier with a set of proposals posted by Trump’s advisers to Jerusalem with a request for their comments. But they drew welcome elucidation of the goals sought by incoming administration from the statements made by designated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at his confirmation hearing before the Senate on Wednesday, Jan. 11.
“Israel is, has always been, and remains our most important ally in the region,” he said, in answer to a question about the incoming administration’s Israel policy. “They’re important to our national security.”
In answer to another question, Tillerson said that the dispute could only be resolved in direct talks between the two parties, while America’s role was to create a “fruitful” context for such talks.
The Trump team’s proposals reaching Israel this week boiled down essentially to the scaling back of Israel’s military exclusivity in parts of Judea and Samaria and expanding Palestinian security access. In return, the Palestinians would have to abjure terrorism and other hostile strategies against Israel.
The format of Areas A, B and C, laid down in the 1993 Oslo peace framework accords, forms the basis of the Trump team’s proposals for Israel. This format is one of the few survivals of those accords up to the present day from waves of Palestinian terror. Areas A. B and C are also enshrined in various international documents.
Area A refers to the 18 percent of the territory Israel handed over to the civilian and security control of the Palestinian Authority. It covers all seven Palestinian towns and a number of villages. After Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2006, that enclave was incorporated in Area A, although it is ruled by the fundamentalist Palestinian Hamas - not the PA.
Area B covers 22 percent of the territory, which it was agreed should fall under PA civilian rule and Israel security control. It is off-limits to Palestinian security forces.
Area C – equal to 60 percent of the territory – is under Israeli civilian and security control. It covers the Jewish communities who have settled there, their road links, IDF bases and firing zones, and tracts of vacant land.
World governments often lump East Jerusalem in with the West Bank and therefore consider it part of Area C – a contention no Israeli government has accepted.
The Area C lands are contiguous, whereas Areas A and B are chopped up into segments by Area C.
The proposals floated by Trump’s advisers in their message to Israel call for the scaling down of its security presence in parts of Area B, and granting Palestinian security forces access and permission to move around between points.
But the most significant revision of the status quo in these proposals would affect Area C, one-fifth of which the Trump team suggests transferring to Palestinian Authority control. This would leave Israel with control of 40 percent of the West Bank.
To pay for these concessions, the Palestinians would be required to give up terror both in action and through their incessant incitement to hostility against Israel over their media, in their mosques and through their education system. They would also be required to halt their diplomatic campaigns against Israel in international forums, including the UN.
Taken together, the formula put forward by the Trump team follows the general lines of the Wye Plantation accord signed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the PLO chief Yasser Arafat at a White House ceremony on Oct. 23, 1998. That agreement was brokered by President Bill Clinton and signed in the presence of King Hussein of Jordan.
Like the Oslo Accord and other “peace” deals between Israel and the Palestinians, that document was soon reduced to ashes by the Second Palestinian Intifada of terror that was launched in September 2000 and ended only more than four years later in February 2005.
The entire Trump team’s package appears to DEBKA Weekly’s sources to be an attempt to nudge the Palestinians and Israelis into generating an environment of calm coexistence, preparatory to “fruitful” negotiations for a two-state solution, which would be left up to the two parties concerned.
The ISIS-style truck attack committed on Jan. 8 in Jerusalem by a Palestinian terrorist, who smashed into a group of IDF officer-cadets, killing four and injuring 13, has been taken by Israel’s security and intelligence authorities as the opening shot of a new wave of Palestinian terror scheduled for 2017.
This forecast is tied to four forthcoming events:
1. The incoming Trump administration will make some move – it may be only a token one – towards transferring the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The Palestinians have said they won’t take this lying down and are preparing to hit back. Although the projected embassy site is located on the western side of the Israeli capital, they regard the transfer as an act of aggression against their claim to Temple Mount.
2. June 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of a series of landmark events in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: the Arab armies’ defeat in the Six-Day War; Jordan’s loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem after 19 years; and the reunified city of Jerusalem’s proclamation as Israel’s capital, which the Palestinians never accepted. Each of these anniversaries has the potential for stirring fresh outbreaks of Palestinian violence.
3. The combustibility of these events may be further stoked by their occurrence in the holy Muslim month of Ramadan – a focal time of the year for radical Islamist terror.
The Muslim festival estimated to start in the Middle East on May 26 and end on June 24, coincides, moreover, with the Jewish Feast of Passover.
4. The 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration occurs on Nov. 2, 2017. On that day in 1917, British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour signed a document committing his Majesty’s Government to supporting the founding of a Jewish national home in Palestine.
This was the Zionist movement’s crowning achievement. The Palestinians regard the declaration as a national catastrophe.
A heads-up on the threat of an upsurge of Palestinian terror around these sensitive dates was relayed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the incoming US President Donald Trump. It was agreed that they would work in concert to head off the new wave of terror or, at least, keep it within bounds, mainly by preventive steps for defusing tensions.
a). Trump’s advisers have urged Israel to hand over more land - approximately one-third of Judea and Samaria – to Palestinian security and intelligence control.
(Details of this plan appear in a separate article in this issue.)
b) Cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces will be beefed up. While Israel has superior intelligence, the Palestinians are closer to the field and can pick up faster on groups or individuals about to perpetrate attacks.
The US advisory team under Security Coordinator Fredrick Rudersheim will supervise this collaborative effort, which in 2016 prevented 600 acts of Palestinian terror against Israelis
c) There will be more and closer monitoring of the social media. Already, a third of the Shin Bet’s (domestic security service) manpower is employed in technology departments, over and above the massive high-tech capabilities of the IDF Military Intelligence 8200 Division. This combined cyber effort will provide analysts with the tools for singling out individuals while still on the point of launching attacks in time to initiate preventive action.
d) Israel will persevere with the policy enacted in early 2015 to stem the outbreak of terror the Palestinians launched that year (which they dubbed “Haba”, Arabic for eruption). It consisted of isolating places where terrorist attacks originated, while showering good jobs and other benefits on the rest of the Palestinian population.
e) Netanyahu, accompanied by defense minister Avigdor Lieberman and chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott, paid a visit to the IDF’s Judea-Samaria Division HQ on Tuesday, Jan. 10, for a conference on how to handle the forthcoming eruption of Palestinian violence.
Since the peak month of October 2015 – 60 attacks in all, or an average of two a day – the level of terrorist violence has tapered down to an average of 10 per month. The top-level conference focused on ways to maintain that level.
As a first step, it was decided to issue the Palestinians with another 40,000 work permits. The current figure is 160,000. The coming months will therefore see around a quarter of a million Palestinians crossing into Israel regularly for legal employment.
Gen. Michel Aoun, whose election as Lebanese president in November ended a two-year political deadlock in Beirut, arrived in Riyadh on Monday Jan. 9 for a two-day visit, accompanied by a bevy of ministers for foreign affairs, education, finance and information.
Two days later, he touched down in Qatar, following which he made the rounds of other oil emirates.
Iran’s rulers must have clenched their fists in fury over the new Lebanese president’s itinerary. They had expected him to show some gratitude after they instructed the Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah to swing his vote behind Aoun’s election as president last November.
Instead they found him running into the arms of the enemy.
It took the Islamic Republic five years to displace Saudi Arabia’s political and economic influence in Beirut, sideline the Sunni leader Saad Hariri, and boost their Shiite protégé, Hizballah, as the preeminent military force in Lebanon.
In the years of fighting in Syria alongside Bashar Assad’s army, Hizballah polished its combat skills and won top-line military hardware, superior to the armaments of the Syrian and Iraqi armies. As the foremost external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hizballah was able to push Lebanon’s national army down into a position of subservience.
Confident in Hizballah’s uncontested power and assured that the Christian Michel Aoun was its man, Tehran endorsed his election as president of Lebanon, certain that Saudi Arabia finally got the boot.
However, the Iranians soon discovered their mistake. Just weeks after Aoun was firmly installed in the presidential palace for the next five years, he started singing a different tune.
“We have normal relations with Iran, which shouldn’t be a barrier in the face of normal relations with the Arab world,” he said to the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Wednesday, after flying out of Riyadh.
The Lebanese president’s message was clear: His administration would pursue a balanced policy between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab governments, including Tehran’s foremost rival, Saudi Arabia.
But more aggravation was yet in store for Tehran.
President Aoun and King Salman agreed to hold talks on restoring the $3-biliion military aid package, a Lebanese official said, “opening a new page in relations.”
“The blockage is lifted,” said an exultant member of the Lebanese presidential delegation.
He was referring to the lifting of the halt ordered for the $3-billion aid program for Lebanon, which Riyadh imposed eleven months ago in protest against the pro-Iranian Hizballah’s “stranglehold” on Lebanon.
When Iran’s rulers got wind of the Lebanese president’s approaching deal with the Saudis, a leading Iranian lawmaker, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, announced that his government was ready to send military aid to the Lebanese army “if this was authorized by the Lebanese government.”
But Tehran’s reaction came too late to hold back Aoun’s deal for the Saudis to fund a new arms deal for the Lebanese army. He could no longer be prevented from consorting with Riyadh with a view to throwing off the Iranian-Hizballah grip on his country.
Riyadh and the Emirates, wary as ever, are holding Aoun to the test of trustworthiness before they fork out petrodollars. They want to be absolutely sure he really has changed his Iranian spots. For now, the Saudis informed Aoun that the $3 billion would not be paid directly to Beirut but deposited in Paris. Riyadh and its Gulf allies had decided to buy arms for Lebanon in France. But the timeline depended on President Aoun making the right choices on his political orientation - and sticking to them.