Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Iran's sanctions vulnerability/ The US raid into Syria revisited

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Update from AIJAC

October 31, 2008
Number 10/08 #08


Today's Update opens with an excellent piece by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on the vulnerability of Iran to sanctions, thanks to the drop in oil prices. He argues that rises in oil prices, commitments to grandiose spending, and the subsequent sharp fall in oil prices brought down both the Soviet Union and the Shah of Iran, and that Iran today looks similar with an economy remaining incapable of providing jobs or welfare without massive infusions of subsidies from oil. He argues that the West now has a shot an negotiating with Iran from a position of leverage, but like shopping for carpets, it is important not to appear overly eager to talk. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE.

Next up, we also offer some comment and analysis of the raid on Sunday by US forces into Syrian territory to attack an al-Qaeda commander, starting with an editorial from the Washington Post. The Post notes that Syria is responsible for all sorts of rogue behaviour, but "The logic of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad seems to be that his regime can sponsor murders, arms trafficking, infiltrations and suicide bombings in neighbouring countries while expecting to be shielded from any retaliation in kind by the diplomatic scruples of democracies." It expresses hope that the latest raid may help cause Damascus to start re-thinking its strategy. For the rest of the Post's argument, CLICK HERE. Also editorialising in favour of the raid was the Wall Street Journal.

Finally, background on the raid into Syria comes from Bill Roggio, a reporter specialising in the Middle East who spent a considerable period of time as an embedded reporter with US forces in Iraq. In the online "Long War Journal", which Roggio edits,  he gives the history and extent of the infiltration of al-Qaeda fighters into Iraq from Syria, and what is known about the extent of cooperation and encouragement they receive from Damascus. He also looks in more detail at the history and record of the reported target of the raid, the al-Qaeda leader known as Abu Ghadiya. For all the details, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, America foreign affairs reporter Eli Lake writes that the Syria raid apparently reflects a Bush administration decision to pursue al-Qaeda targets more forcefully across international borders over its remaining term in office, and a good Israeli comment on the significance of the raid comes from Amos Harel of Haaretz.

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Sleepless in Tehran

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
New York Times, October 28, 2008

I’ve always been dubious about Barack Obama’s offer to negotiate with Iran — not because I didn’t believe that it was the right strategy, but because I didn’t believe we had enough leverage to succeed. And negotiating in the Middle East without leverage is like playing baseball without a bat.

Well, if Obama does win the presidency, my gut tells me that he’s going to get a chance to negotiate with the Iranians — with a bat in his hand.

Have you seen the reports that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is suffering from exhaustion? It’s probably because he is not sleeping at night. I know why. Watching oil prices fall from $147 a barrel to $57 is not like counting sheep. It’s the kind of thing that gives an Iranian autocrat bad dreams.

After all, it was the collapse of global oil prices in the early 1990s that brought down the Soviet Union. And Iran today is looking very Soviet to me.

As Vladimir Mau, president of Russia’s Academy of National Economy, pointed out to me, it was the long period of high oil prices followed by sharply lower oil prices that killed the Soviet Union. The spike in oil prices in the 1970s deluded the Kremlin into overextending subsidies at home and invading Afghanistan abroad — and then the collapse in prices in the ‘80s helped bring down that overextended empire.

(Incidentally, this was exactly what happened to the shah of Iran: 1) Sudden surge in oil prices. 2) Delusions of grandeur. 3) Sudden contraction of oil prices. 4) Dramatic downfall. 5) You’re toast.)

Under Ahmadinejad, Iran’s mullahs have gone on a domestic subsidy binge — using oil money to cushion the prices of food, gasoline, mortgages and to create jobs — to buy off the Iranian people. But the one thing Ahmadinejad couldn’t buy was real economic growth. Iran today has 30 percent inflation, 11 percent unemployment and huge underemployment with thousands of young college grads, engineers and architects selling pizzas and driving taxis. And now with oil prices falling, Iran — just like the Soviet Union — is going to have to pull back spending across the board. Fasten your seat belts.

The U.N. has imposed three rounds of sanctions against Iran since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 because of Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment. But high oil prices minimized those sanctions; collapsing oil prices will now magnify those sanctions. If prices stay low, there is a good chance Iran will be open to negotiating over its nuclear program with the next U.S. president.

That is a good thing because Iran also funds Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and the anti-U.S. Shiites in Iraq. If America wants to get out of Iraq and leave behind a decent outcome, plus break the deadlocks in Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, it needs to end the cold war with Iran. Possible? I don’t know, but the collapse of oil prices should give us a shot.

But let’s use our leverage smartly and not exaggerate Iran’s strength. Just as I believe that we should drop the reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden — from $50 million to one penny, plus an autographed picture of Dick Cheney — we need to deflate the Iranian mullahs as well. Let them chase us.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, compares it to bargaining for a Persian carpet in Tehran. “When you go inside the carpet shop, the first thing you are supposed to do is feign disinterest,” he explains. “The last thing you want to suggest is ‘We are not leaving without that carpet.’ ‘Well,’ the dealer will say, ‘if you feel so strongly about it ...’ ”

The other lesson from the carpet bazaar, says Sadjadpour, “is that there is never a price tag on any carpet. The dealer is not looking for a fixed price, but the highest price he can get — and the Iran price is constantly fluctuating depending on the price of oil.” Let’s now use that to our advantage.

Barack Hussein Obama would present another challenge for Iran’s mullahs. Their whole rationale for being is that they are resisting a hegemonic American power that wants to keep everyone down. Suddenly, next week, Iranians may look up and see that the country their leaders call “The Great Satan” has just elected “a guy whose middle name is the central figure in Shiite Islam — Hussein — and whose last name — Obama — when transliterated into Farsi, means ‘He is with us,’ ” said Sadjadpour.

Iran is ripe for deflating. Its power was inflated by the price of oil and the popularity of its leader, who was cheered simply because he was willing to poke America with a stick. But as a real nation-building enterprise, the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been an abject failure.

“When you ask young Arabs which leaders in the region they most admire,” said Sadjadpour, they will usually answer the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. “When you ask them where in the Middle East would you most like to live,” he added, “the answer is usually socially open places like Dubai or Beirut. The Islamic Republic of Iran is never in the top 10.”

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Editorial:Mr. Assad's Medicine

After sponsoring terrorism against three of its neighbors, Syria plays the victim when its own border is breached.

Washington Post, October 28, 2008; Page A16

IT WAS interesting to observe the wails of outrage from Syrian officials yesterday following a raid on a target near the country's border with Iraq, carried out by helicopter-borne U.S. commandos. "Criminal and terrorist aggression," charged Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem. "The law of the jungle," bemoaned spokesman Jihad Makdissi at the Syrian Embassy in London. This from a regime whose most notable activities of the past few years have been the serial assassination of senior Lebanese politicians, including former prime minister Rafik Hariri; the continuous and illegal supplying of weapons to the Hezbollah militia for use against Israel and Lebanon's democratic government; the harboring in Damascus of senior leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups; and -- most relevant -- the sheltering of an al-Qaeda network that dispatches 90 percent of the foreign fighters who wage war against U.S. troops and the Iraqi government.

The logic of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad seems to be that his regime can sponsor murders, arms trafficking, infiltrations and suicide bombings in neighboring countries while expecting to be shielded from any retaliation in kind by the diplomatic scruples of democracies. For most of this decade that has been lamentably true: U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials have over and over again pointed to the infiltration of al-Qaeda militants through the Damascus airport and the land border with Iraq, and Syria's refusal to curtail it, without taking direct action. Yet in the past year Israel has intervened in Syria several times to defend its vital interests, including bombing a secret nuclear reactor. If Sunday's raid, which targeted a senior al-Qaeda operative, serves only to put Mr. Assad on notice that the United States, too, is no longer prepared to respect the sovereignty of a criminal regime, it will have been worthwhile.

Mr. Assad's government has lately taken a few cautious steps toward breaking out of its isolation, participating in indirect peace talks with Israel and granting formal diplomatic recognition to Lebanon for the first time. European governments have been quick with rewards, and the next U.S. president -- if it is Barack Obama -- may also hasten to upgrade contacts. If the Syrian regime is genuinely interested in making peace with Israel, distancing itself from Iran and the terrorist movements it sponsors, and rebuilding ties with the West, that is to be welcomed. What Damascus should not be allowed to do is reap the diplomatic and economic rewards of a rapprochement while continuing to plant car bombs, transport illegal weapons and harbor terrorists. Israel has let Mr. Assad know that it is prepared to respond to his terrorism with strikes against legitimate military targets. Now that the United States has sent the same message, maybe the dictator at last will rethink his strategy.

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Syrian strike aimed at al Qaeda's coordinator in Syria

By Bill Roggio

The Long War Journal, October 27, 2008 12:12 AM 

The US military incursion into Syria was aimed at the senior leader of al Qaeda's extensive network that funnels foreign fighters, weapons, and cash from Syria into Iraq, a senior intelligence official told The Long War Journal.

US special operations hunter-killer teams entered Syria in an attempt to capture Abu Ghadiya, a senior al Qaeda leader who has been in charge of the Syrian network since 2005. US intelligence analysts identified Ghadiya as the leader of the Syrian network, The Washington Post reported in July. Ghadiya was identified as a “major target” by the US military in February 2008.

The raid to capture Ghadiya occurred in the town of Sukkariya near Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, just five miles from the Iraqi border. Four US helicopters crossed the border and two of the helicopters landed to drop off special operations forces, who then proceeded to clear structures.

Nine people were reported killed and 14 were wounded. Syrian officials claimed innocent construction workers and women and children were killed in the raid.

US officials contacted by The Long War Journal would not comment if Ghadiya was killed or captured during the raid.

The US military has officially refused to confirm or deny the raid took place. But several senior intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject told The Long War Journal that the raid was indeed carried out inside Syria.

The raid is the first of its kind against Syria. The US has been striking regularly at Taliban and al Qaeda targets inside Pakistan’s tribal areas since the beginning of September.

Ghadiya, whose real name is Badran Turki Hishan al Mazidih, is an Iraqi from the northern city of Mosul. Ghadiya succeeded Suleiman Khalid Darwish, a Syrian national and lieutenant of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by US forces in June 2006. US forces killed Darwish in a raid in Al Qaim in June 2005.

Serving Syria notice

The cross-border raid took place just three days after Major General John Kelly, the commander of Multinational Force - West, said Syria is "problematic." Kelly said the Syrian the government refused to secure the border and al Qaeda operatives are openly working inside Syria.

"The Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi intelligence forces feel that al Qaeda operatives and others operate, live pretty openly on the Syrian side," Kelly said. "And periodically we know that they try to come across."

Kelly said that while al Qaeda has been diminished in the al Qaim region, it still remains a threat to Iraqi and US forces. A May 11 raid in Al Qaim by al Qaeda teams resulted in the death of 11 Iraqi policemen.

The Iraqi border police, with the help of the US military, are "redoubling" efforts to stand up the Iraqi border guards. The military is also rebuilding a berm along the Syrian border in an effort to stop infiltration into Iraq from Syria. "We're doing much more work along the Syrian border than we've done in the past," Kelly said.

The Syrian Network

Syria has long been a haven for al Qaeda as well as Baathists who fled the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Terrorists and insurgents took advantage of the long, desolate, and unsecured border, which stretches more than 460 miles along Iraq's western provinces of Anbar, Ninewa, and Dohuk.

At the height of the Iraqi insurgency, an estimated 100 to 150 foreign fighters poured into Iraq from Syria each month. Operations in Anbar and Ninewa have pushed that number down to 20 infiltrators a month, according to the US military.

Wanted insurgent leaders, such as Mishan al Jabouri, openly live in Syria. Jabouri, a former member of the Iraqi parliament, fled to Syria after being charged with corruption for embezzling government funds and for supporting al Qaeda. From Syria Jabouri ran Al Zawraa, a satellite television statement that aired al Qaeda and Islamic Army of Iraq propaganda videos showing attacks against US and Iraqi forces.

Al Qaeda established a network of operatives inside Syria to move foreign fighters, weapons, and cash to support its terror activities inside Iraq. An al Qaeda manual detailed ways to infiltrate Iraq via Syria. The manual, titled The New Road to Mesopotamia, was written by a jihadi named Al Muhajir Al Islami, and discovered in the summer of 2005.

The Iraqi-Syrian border was broken down into four sectors: the Habur crossing near Zakhu in the north; the Tal Kujik and Sinjar border crossings west of Mosul; the Al Qaim entry point in western Anbar; and the southern crossing at Al Tanf west of Rutbah near the Jordanian border. Islami claimed the Al Tanf and Habur crossing points were too dangerous to use, and Al Qaim was the preferred route into Iraq.

The US military learned a great deal about al Qaeda's network inside Syria after a key operative was killed in September of 2007. US forces killed Muthanna, the regional commander of al Qaeda's network in the Sinjar region.

During the operation, US forces found numerous documents and electronic files that detailed "the larger al-Qaeda effort to organize, coordinate, and transport foreign terrorists into Iraq and other places," Major General Kevin Bergner, the former spokesman for Multinational Forces Iraq, said in October 2007.

Bergner said several of the documents found with Muthanna included a list of 500 al Qaeda fighters from "a range of foreign countries that included Libya, Morocco, Syria, Algeria, Oman, Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom."

Other documents found in Muthanna's possession included a "pledge of a martyr," which is signed by foreign fighters inside Syria, and an expense report. The pledge said the suicide bomber must provide a photograph and surrender their passport. It also stated the recruit must enroll in a "security course" in Syria. The expense report was tallied in US dollars, Syrian lira, and Iraqi dinars, and included items such as clothing, food, fuel, mobile phone cards, weapons, salaries, "sheep purchased," furniture, spare parts for vehicles, and other items.

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point later conducted a detailed study of the "Sinjar Records," which was published in July 2008. The study showed that al Qaeda had an extensive network in Syria and the Syrian government has allowed their activities to continue.

"The Syrian government has willingly ignored, and possibly abetted, foreign fighters headed to Iraq," the study concluded. "Concerned about possible military action against the Syrian regime, it opted to support insurgents and terrorists wreaking havoc in Iraq."

Al Qaeda established multiple networks of "Syrian Coordinators" that "work primarily with fighters from specific countries, and likely with specific Coordinators in fighters’ home countries," according to the study. The Syrian city of Dayr al Zawr serves as a vital logistical hub and a transit point for al Qaeda recruits and operatives heading to Iraq.

A vast majority of the fighters entering Iraq from Sinjar served as suicide bombers. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point estimated that 75 percent conducted suicide attacks inside Iraq

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