The trillion-dollar question in the “Arab Winter” is who will blink first in the West’s screenplay of slouching towards Tehran via Damascus.
As they examine the regional chessboard and the formidable array of forces aligned against them, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the military dictatorship of the mullahtariat in Tehran must face, simultaneously, superpower Washington, bomb-happy North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, nuclear power Israel, all Sunni Arab absolute monarchies, and even Sunni-majority, secular Turkey.
Meanwhile, on their side, the Islamic Republic can only count on Moscow. Not as bad a hand as it may seem.
Syria is Iran’s undisputed key ally in the Arab world – while Russia, alongside China, are the key geopolitical allies. China, for the moment, is making it clear that any solution for Syria must be negotiated.
Russia’s one and only naval base in the Mediterranean is at the Syrian port of Tartus. Not by accident, Russia has installed its S-300 air defense system – one of the best all-altitude surface-to-air missile systems in the world, comparable to the American Patriot – in Tartus. The update to the even more sophisticated S-400 system is imminent.
From Moscow’s – as well as Tehran’s – perspective, regime change in Damascus is a no-no. It will mean virtual expulsion of the Russian and Iranian navies from the Mediterranean.
Yet key lateral moves by the West are already on. Diplomats in Brussels confirmed to Asia Times Online that the former Libyan “rebels” – now trying to come up with a credible government – have already given the go-ahead for NATO to build a sprawling military base in Cyrenaica.
NATO has no final say in such matters. This is decided by the boss – the Pentagon – interested in emboldening Africom in coordination with NATO. As many as 20,000 boots are expected to be deployed on the ground in Libya – at least 12,000 of them Europeans. They will be responsible for Libya’s “internal security”, but also be on alert for possible, further military campaigns targeted at – who else – Syria and Iran.
Bring those Shi’ites down
As much as the latest “coalition of the willing” – which by the way repeats the Libya model – is against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, it also represents a Christian/Sunni war against Shi’ites, be they the Alawite minority in Syria or the Shi’ite majorities in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
This is part and parcel of the “strategic opportunity” identified by the powerful Israel lobby in Washington; if we strike against the Damascus-Tehran link, we deal a mortal blow to Hezbollah in Lebanon. That, ideologues believe, can now be sold to world public opinion under the cover of the former Arab Spring – now “Arab Winter” after a metamorphosis, before “Arab Summer”, into the Arab counter-revolution).
As Tehran sees it, what’s really going on regarding Syria is a “humanitarian” cover for a complex anti-Shi’ite and anti-Iran operation.
The road map is already clear. A fractious, unrepresentative Syrian National Council – Libya-style – is already in place. Same for a heavily armed Sunni “insurgency” crisscrossing the borders in Lebanon and Turkey. Sanctions are already essentially hurting the Syrian middle class. A relentless, international campaign of vilification of the Assad regime has been deployed. And psy ops abound, with the aim of seducing sections of the Syrian army to defect (it’s not working).
A report  by a Qatar-based researcher for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) even comes close to admitting that the self-described “Free Syria Army” is basically a bunch of hardcore Islamists, plus a few genuine army defectors, but mostly radicalized Muslim Brotherhood bought, paid for and weaponized by the US, Israel, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey. There’s nothing “pro-democracy” about this lot – as incessantly sold by Western corporate and Saudi-owned media.
As for the National Council, based in Washington and London and sprinkled with the usual dodgy exiles, its program calls for governing Syria alongside the same military that has been – a la the Egyptian military junta – shooting civilian protesters. Makes one think that the only sensible solution would be for the people in Syria to topple the police state Assad regime, while being vehemently against the dodgy Syrian National Council.
This year’s model (dictator)
Then there’s the usually misguided and misinformed West, which believes that the Arab League – now no more than a puppet of US foreign policy – is siding with the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people. Angry Arab blogger As’ad Abu Khalil is correct when he says that after the fall of president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, “the League is now an extension of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]“.
The GCC is in fact the Gulf Counter-revolution Club. Their favorite sport is to privilege “model” dictators – starting with themselves, but also including Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and the little kings of Jordan and Morocco, who will be annexed to the GCC because they wish they were in the Persian Gulf (geography dictates they aren’t). On the other hand, the GCC abhors “bad” dictators – the snuffed-out Muammar Gaddafi and Assad, who not by accident are from secular republics.
The House of Saud, Jordan and rising Qatar are more than comfortable doing the US’s and Israel’s bidding. The House of Saud – the GCC’s top dog – invaded Bahrain with 1,500 troops to smash pro-democracy protests very much like the ones in Egypt and Syria. The House of Saud helped the ruling, Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty in 70% Shi’ite Bahrain to conduct widespread torture; Bahrainis confirm that everyone tortured was forced to confess direct links with “evil” Tehran.
In Egypt, the House of Saud supported Mubarak even after he was deposed. Now it supports – with over US$4 billion so far – a military junta that basically wants to keep power, unchecked, over a “democratic” facade.
The House of Saud couldn’t possibly coexist with a successful, democratic Egypt. Anyone believing the House of Saud’s claim to defend human rights and democracy in the Middle East should check into an asylum.
The Arab League – also a House of Saud extension – gave a green card to NATO to bomb a member state. It suspended Syria on November 12 – as it had done with Libya on February 22 – because, unlike in Libya, US and European designs in the United Nations Security Council were duly vetoed by Russia and China.
Welcome to a “new” Arab League where if you don’t prostrate in front of the GCC altar, you’re condemned to regime change.
Worshipping the GCC can’t compare to worshipping the Pentagon and NATO. Jordan and Morocco are members of NATO’s Mediterranean dialogue, and Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are members of NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. In addition, Jordan and the UAE are the only Arabic Troop Contributing Nations for NATO in Afghanistan.
Ivo Daalder, the Obama administration’s ambassador to NATO, has already ordered Libya to enter the Mediterranean Dialogue, alongside Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania and Israel. And early this month he told the Atlantic Council what’s needed for an attack on Syria; an “urgent necessity” (such as giving the impression Assad is going to raze Homs to the ground); “regional support” (that will come in a flash from the GCC/Arab League); and a UN mandate (it won’t happen, as Russia and China had made it clear).
So one may expect exactly that from the “coalition of the willing”; some black ops blamed on the Assad regime; immediate support from GCC/Arab League; and probably unilateral action, because via the UN is a no-no.
The Greater Middle East dream
No wonder some sound minds in Damascus, watching the tea leaves, decided to take some action. Damascus did send secret couriers to sound out Washington’s mood. The price to be left alone; to cut all ties with Tehran, for good. The Assad regime was left wondering what would they get in return.
The Alawites, roughly 12% of the population and members of the ruling elite, won’t desert the Assad regime. Christians and Druze expect only the worst from a possible, hardcore, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated new order. Same for a crucial neighbor, the Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad.
Russia knows that if the current Libyan model is reproduced in Syria – and with Lebanon already under a de facto NATO blockade – the Mediterranean will indeed become that dream, a NATO lake, which is code for total US control.
Moscow also sees that in the US-conceived Greater Middle East – and talk about “great”, spanning from Mauritania to Kazakhstan – the only countries that are not linked with NATO through myriad “partnerships” are, apart from Syria: Lebanon, Eritrea, Sudan and Iran.
As for the Pentagon, the name of the game is “repositioning“. As in if you leave Iraq you go somewhere else in the “arc of instability“, preferably the Gulf. There are 40,000 US troops already in the Gulf – 23,000 of them in Kuwait. A secret army for the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency is being trained by former Blackwater, “repositioned” as Xe, in the UAE. A NATO of the Gulf is being born. NATOGCC, anyone?
When the US neo-conservatives ruled the universe – that was only a few years ago – the motto was “Real men go to Tehran”. An update is in order. Call it “Real men go to Tehran via Damascus only if they have the balls to stare down Moscow”.
While the United States, Britain and Canada are planning to announce a coordinated set of sanctions against Iran’s oil and petrochemical industry today, longtime investigative journalist Seymour Hersh questions the growing consensus on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
International pressure has been mounting on Iran since the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency revealed in a report the “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear activities, citing “credible” evidence that “indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”
In his latest article for The New Yorker blog, titled “Iran and then IAEA,” Hersh argues the recent report is a “political document,” not a scientific study.
“They [JSOC] found nothing. Nothing. No evidence of any weaponization,” Hersh says. “In other words, no evidence of a facility to build the bomb. They have facilities to enrich, but not separate facilities to build the bomb. This is simply a fact.”
Dozens of spies working for the CIA were captured recently in Lebanon and Iran, current and former U.S. officials told The Associated Press and ABC News on Monday.
According to a report by ABC News, there were two distinct espionage rings targeting Iran and Hezbollah in which spies were recruited by the CIA.
Current and former U.S. officials said the two different spy rings were discovered separately but both caused a significant setback in U.S. efforts to track Iran’s nuclear activities and Hezbollah actions against Israel.
ABC reported that according to U.S. officials, the CIA used the codeword “Pizza” when discussing where to meet with the informants.
Other former officials said CIA case officers met several Lebanese informants at a local Beirut Pizza Hut branch, which helped Hezbollah identify the spies helping the CIA.
U.S. officials, however, deny any allegations that their agents were compromised at Pizza Hut, ABC reported.
To be sure, some deaths are to be expected in shadowy spy wars. It’s an extremely risky business and people get killed. But the damage to the agency’s spy network in Lebanon has been greater than usual, several former and current U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about security matters.In recent months, CIA officials have secretly been scrambling to protect their remaining spies — foreign assets or agents working for the agency — before Hezbollah can find them.
The Lebanon crisis is the latest mishap involving CIA counterintelligence, the undermining or manipulating of the enemy’s ability to gather information. Former CIA officials have said that once-essential skill has been eroded as the agency shifted from outmaneuvering rival spy agencies to fighting terrorists. In the rush for immediate results, former officers say, tradecraft has suffered.
The most recent high-profile example was the suicide bomber who posed as an informant and killed seven CIA employees and wounded six others in Khost, Afghanistan in December 2009.
Last year, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said the agency had to maintain “a greater awareness of counterintelligence.” But eight months later, Nasrallah let the world know he had bested the CIA, demonstrating that the agency still struggles with this critical aspect of spying and sending a message to those who would betray Hezbollah.
The CIA was well aware the spies were vulnerable in Lebanon. CIA officials were warned, including the chief of the unit that supervises Hezbollah operations from CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and the head of counterintelligence. It remains unclear whether anyone has been or will be held accountable in the wake of this counterintelligence disaster or whether the incident will affect the CIA’s ability to recruit assets in Lebanon.
In response to AP’s questions about what happened in Lebanon, a U.S. official said Hezbollah is recognized as a complicated enemy responsible for killing more Americans than any other terrorist group before September 2001. The agency does not underestimate the organization, the official said.
The CIA’s toughest adversaries, like Hezbollah and Iran, have for years been improving their ability to hunt spies, relying on patience and guile to exploit counterintelligence holes.
In 2007, for instance, when Ali-Reza Asgari, a brigadier general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran, disappeared in Turkey, it was assumed that he was either killed or defected. In response, the Iranian government began a painstaking review of foreign travel by its citizens, particularly to places like Turkey where Iranians don’t need a visa and could meet with foreign intelligence services.
It didn’t take long, a Western intelligence official told the AP, before the U.S., Britain and Israel began losing contact with some of their Iranian spies.
The State Department last year described Hezbollah as “the most technically capable terrorist group in the world,” and the Defense Department estimates it receives between $100 million and $200 million per year in funding from Iran.
Backed by Iran, Hezbollah has built a professional counterintelligence apparatus that Nasrallah — whom the U.S. government designated an international terrorist a decade ago — proudly describes as the “spy combat unit.” U.S. intelligence officials believe the unit, which is considered formidable and ruthless, went operational in about 2004.
Using the latest commercial software, Nasrallah’s spy-hunters unit began methodically searching for spies in Hezbollah’s midst. To find them, U.S. officials said, Hezbollah examined cellphone data looking for anomalies. The analysis identified cellphones that, for instance, were used rarely or always from specific locations and only for a short period of time. Then it came down to old-fashioned, shoe-leather detective work: Who in that area had information that might be worth selling to the enemy?
The effort took years but eventually Hezbollah, and later the Lebanese government, began making arrests. By one estimate, 100 Israeli assets were apprehended as the news made headlines across the region in 2009. Some of those suspected Israeli spies worked for telecommunications companies and served in the military.
Back at CIA headquarters, the arrests alarmed senior officials. The agency prepared a study on its own vulnerabilities, U.S. officials said, and the results proved to be prescient.
The analysis concluded that the CIA was susceptible to the same analysis that had compromised the Israelis, the officials said.
CIA managers were instructed to be extra careful about handling sources in Lebanon. A U.S. official said recommendations were issued to counter the potential problem.
But it’s unclear what preventive measures were taken by the Hezbollah unit chief or the officer in charge of the Beirut station. Former officials say the Hezbollah unit chief is no stranger to the necessity of counterintelligence and knew the risks. The unit chief has worked overseas in hostile environments like Afghanistan and played an important role in the capture of a top terrorist while stationed in the Persian Gulf region after the attacks of 9/11.
“We’ve lost a lot of people in Beirut over the years, so everyone should know the drill,” said a former Middle East case officer familiar with the situation.
But whatever actions the CIA took, they were not enough. Like the Israelis, bad tradecraft doomed these CIA assets and the agency ultimately failed to protect them, an official said. In some instances, CIA officers fell into predictable patterns when meeting their sources, the official said.
This allowed Hezbollah to identify assets and case officers and unravel at least part of the CIA’s spy network in Lebanon. There was also a reluctance to share cases and some files were put in “restricted handling.” The designation severely limits the number of people who know the identity of the source but also reduces the number of experts who could spot problems that might lead to their discovery, officials said.
Nasrallah’s televised announcement in June was followed by finger-pointing among departments inside the CIA as the spy agency tried figure out what went wrong and contain the damage.
The fate of these CIA assets is unknown. Hezbollah treats spies differently, said Matthew Levitt, a counterterrorism and intelligence expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies who’s writing a book about the terrorist organization
“It all depends on who these guys were and what they have to say,” Levitt said. “Hezbollah has disappeared people before. Others they have kept around.”
Who’s responsible for the mess in Lebanon? It’s not clear. The chief of Hezbollah operations at CIA headquarters continues to run the unit that also focuses on Iranians and Palestinians. The CIA’s top counterintelligence officer, who was one of the most senior women in the clandestine service, recently retired after approximately five years in the job. She is credited with some important cases, including the recent arrests of Russian spies who had been living in the U.S. for years.
Officials said the woman was succeeded by a more experienced operations officer. That officer has held important posts in Moscow, Southeast Asia, Europe and the Balkans, important frontlines of the agency’s spy wars with foreign intelligence services and terrorist organizations.