Across the Bay

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Assad, Jalili, PFLP-GC, and the Rockets from Lebanon

As expected, a few rockets were lobbed into Israel today. While no one has claimed responsibility, it's fairly clear a- who's behind it, and b- why.

The threat of rockets from Lebanon was delivered early on in the fighting when the Lebanese Armed Forces dismantled eight Katyusha rockets set for firing into Israel. The Lebanese authorities at the time openly suspected this to be the work of the Syrian proxy, the Damascus-based PFLP-GC.

Then, as the fighting went on in Gaza, the Iranians sent a delegate to Damascus, Saeed Jalili, to discuss the Gaza situation with the Syrians and the Palesitinian factions based there. After the meeting, the PFLP-GC's secretary general, Ahmad Jibril, declared that "new military fronts will be opened and the circle of war will be widened as long as the Rafah crossing remained closed."

Three days later, the PFLP-GC is once again suspected of being behind the rockets fired into Israel today. The PFLP-GC is even threatening targeting US interests (one more reason why Syria will remain on the US list of state sponsors of terror). Hezbollah, who are denying any responsibility, naturally knew about it and turned a blind eye, in order to conveniently maintain deniability, but also to try and avoid a massive Israeli retaliation, which speaks to the success of Israeli deterrence post-UNSCR 1701.

So why did they fire the rockets, and why now?

The Israeli operation in Gaza has clearly dealt a massive, crippling blow to Hamas. There was therefore a need to prevent a humiliating defeat for the Iranian-led "resistance" axis.

Nevertheless, opening a full-blown new front in Lebanon is not as easy as one might think given the known Israeli response, recently articulated as the "Dahiyeh doctrine."

So, as Jonathan Spyer wrote today in the Jerusalem Post, the rocket fire from Lebanon "is the first indication that Hamas's friends may be considering intervention to help their ally in its predicament. The performance of Hamas in the conflict so far gives little cause for celebration in the Iranian-led camp."

But there's another angle here as well. Hamas's humiliation (and that of its backers Syria and Iran) was going to be compounded by the fact that Egypt was still the main broker of any new security arrangement, a fact that Hamas couldn't get around -- despite all the anti-Egypt rhetoric emanating from Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Since one central goal of the war (i.e. of Syria and Iran) was the undermining of the Egyptian position, this would've been tantamount to adding insult to injury.

Here's where the "engagement" fetishists should pay attention. Into this complex picture -- with the regional balance of power in play -- stepped the freelance crisis solver du jour, the international man of mystery, Nicolas Sarkozy.

In a particularly ill-advised move, Sarkozy went to Syria and asked Assad -- a mere subsidiary of the Iranian campaign -- to intervene with Hamas. Sensing the possibility of freely-donated leverage, Assad did the obvious and came out fully in support of Hamas, and declared that if France would ensure that all of Hamas's demands were secured (which would be an existential threat to Egypt), including lifting the siege and opening the Rafah crossing (i.e., affording Hamas the charade of declaring "victory" for the "resistance" axis), he would gladly "see what he could do" with Hamas.

Therefore, it was no surprise that the Damascus-based Hamas rejected the proposal put forward by Egypt (with the French tagging along). Not only would the humiliation be hard to swallow, but since Sarkozy gave Bashar an opening, then it would behoove the Syrian terror-sponsoring dictator to try and up the price and see what more he can get from the hapless French. What better way to set the stage for the incoming Obama administration, and screw the US-allied Egyptians?

A day later, the PFLP-GC fires rockets from Lebanon and even threatened to target US interests!

Bashar, therefore, is trying, in typical Syrian fashion, to opportunistically scavenge some gains by selling his usual snake oil. In other words, once again badly-conceived flashiness sold as "diplomacy" results not in security and stability, but more conflagration and the potential sabotage of allies. There's no "regional" framework here. There's an Israeli and an Egyptian framework involving the PA -- period. Martin Kramer explained it well:

It is the PA, for example, which could be reinserted at the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah (as already demanded by Egypt).
Legitimation of Hamas could seal the fate of the "peace process," and give "resistance" the reputation of a truly winning strategy. The United States will have to assure that all contact with Hamas runs exclusively through the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Turks, and above all, the PA. Europe and the United States must stay well out of the diplomatic reach of Hamas, until it meets the Quartet conditions—a highly improbable prospect.

This also means that once more, the advice of the ICG should be safely discarded in the nearest possible trash bin.

Bashar is working for the diametrically opposite objective, and seeking the full legitimization of Hamas and the undermining of Egypt, which has been crucial in blocking the opening of the Rafah crossing, and his introduction as the sole interlocutor. He called the continuing closure of these crossings an act of war, thereby justifying and supporting Hamas's torpedoing of the truce (little surprise there, as it was all coordinated with the Iranians, including the Bahrain plot which I discussed here).

In fact, Walid Moallem recently revealed that Syria had been using its "indirect talks with Israel" fiasco in order to protect Hamas and allow it to build up its (Iranian and Syrian-supplied military capabilities). Moallem said that the Syrians had conditioned these bogus talks on Israel not launching attacks on Hamas. In other words, it's the vintage Syria policy of talking while simultaneously supporting terrorist groups, and using the talks to protect terrorists groups and prevent being held accountable for supporting them.

The Israeli response to the Katyushas from Lebanon has so far been limited to a strike against the launching site. The Israelis had been expecting, since the eight Katyushas were dismantled earlier in the fighting, the possibility that some Palestinian faction could fire from Lebanon, with Hezbollah's knowledge and acquiescence. As long as Iran and Hezbollah don't escalate further, the IDF might not either, while keeping an eye on the northern border, especially as Hamas continues to get pummeled to the ground.

In the meantime, what the US and its allies should ensure is that Syria is not afforded an opportunity to sell useless snake oil and embezzle gains from this episode in which it's been nothing but a supporter of Hamas and the Iranian campaign against US allies, Israel and Egypt.