Death in Damascus Raises Questions

At approximately 11 p.m. on the night of Feb. 12, the most wanted terrorist in the world, after Osama bin Laden, was blown up by a car bomb in Damascus.

Imad Mugniyah, head of Hezbollah’s Special Operations Command, thought he was safe in the Syrian capital, and with good reason. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, working closely with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, considered Mugniyah a valuable asset. He allegedly reported directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini in Tehran, putting him on the same level as Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. Protecting him was a high priority.

But his enemies were legion.

The most wanted terrorist after bin Laden – the FBI put him on its most wanted list and slapped a $25 million bounty on his head – Mughniyah was fingered for master-minding the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Maine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 servicemen, as well as numerous kidnappings of Westerners in the 1980s in the Lebanese civil war, including Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson. He may have been in contact with al Qaeda operatives in the 1990s, and was accused of being behind the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

Now the question arises: Who killed Imad Mughniyah?

The easy answer – and the one that most people have settled on – is that the Israelis did. Hezbollah’s television station, al Manar, outright accused the Jewish state. “The martyr was killed at the hands of the Israeli Zionists,” the group said via a statement read on air.

It would make sense. Car bombs are not attacks of opportunity; they require advanced knowledge of the subject’s locations and travel patterns, and it needs operatives on the ground to trigger the bomb. This attack has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated intelligence hit.

The explosion left a charred crater approximately 700 yards east of the Cham City Center in the Kafer Soseh area of Damascus. That’s right next to an Iranian school and a Syrian intelligence office, and Mughniyah was apparently meeting Hamas and Syrian intelligence. Whoever killed him knew where he was and who he was meeting. That means Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, or possibly the CIA, has penetrated Hamas, Syrian intelligence agencies, Hezbollah or possibly all of them.

If it was the CIA, this assassination would represent a delicious bit of revenge for the agency. The CIA has been gunning for Mughniyah since the 1980s. In addition to the Marine barracks bombing, Mughniyah is blamed for the attack on the U.S. embassy that same year that left 63 people dead – including eight senior CIA agents. He was also suspected of kidnapping and torturing to death Beirut’s CIA station chief William Buckley in 1984.

The method of his passing is significant, too. A car bomb makes a statement. It’s a terror tactic, frankly, and the goal is to show the Syrian regime as weak and incapable of providing security for its “guests.” If the CIA planted a car bomb, that’s a giant “screw you” to the Syrians, who are widely suspected of being involved a similar style assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri who was killed three years ago on Feb. 14. The timing of the Mughniyah’s car bomb death — just two days before the Hariri anniversary — is unlikely to be coincidental.

Another possibility is that Syria ratted Mughniyah out to CIA or Mossad, perhaps as part of a deal Syria offered up Mughniyah in exchange for flexibility in Lebanon or the Golan. While this idea is circulating in Lebanon’s political circles, along with the suggestion that the Syrians did the deed themselves, it strikes me as unlikely. Syria usually doesn’t blow up its gifts to the West. They commit suicide by putting several bullets in their heads, as in the case of Abu Nidal in Baghdad in 2002. – a “suicide” widely seen as an attempt by Saddam Hussein to turn over a wanted terrorist as a show of good faith to the West.

A third possibility is that Mughniyah isn’t really dead at all, and Hezbollah – which announced his death to the world – is making an already invisible man disappear even more. But why? What could they have planned? In recent weeks, there have been rumors of a new campaign of kidnappings against Westerners in Beirut to force concessions from the U.S.-backed government of Fuad Siniora, with whom Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon have been locked in a stalemate for more than year.

There’s no doubt Mughniyah’s death raises a lot of questions, quite apart from who did it. Another one is why did Hezbollah proclaim his death as a martyr and hold a massive demonstration for him in southern Beirut today — the same day that Hariri’s supporters packed the city’s downtown to commemorate his death? After the Israeli pullout in 2000, Hezbollah claimed to be changing its ways, that it was no longer the terror group of the 1980s, that it was a legitimate political group. To tie itself again so tightly to a wanted terrorist with American blood on his hands is at once a cry of defiance and a worrying sign that more extreme Iranian influences are again on the upswing within the organization.

No matter who killed him or what happens next, one of Iran’s and Syria’s main chess pieces was just taken off the table. There are high-fives in Langley and Jerusalem these days.

The Razor’s Edge Can Still Cut

The most interesting thing about Lebanon these days – given the continuing political upheaval in the region – is what hasn’t happened. And for many Lebanese, the absence of obvious headline-grabbing activity is the calm before a very bad storm.

The country hasn’t gone up in flames, as so many have tiresomely predicted every few days. I don’t care whether it’s the Christian cab driver who is convinced his Shi’ite neighbors will slit his throat the moment things get a little twitchier or the politicians who toss out incendiary accusations against entire sectarian groups, your average Lebanese is convinced that no Lebanese is to be trusted. As I said, in a land of many faiths, the people have no faith in each other.

But what else hasn’t happened? Well, there’s still no presidential candidate agreed upon. President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian stooge, is due to step down later this month but since Hezbollah and its allies walked out of the current government last year, he says he won’t turn over power to an “unconstitutional” cabinet. Since there are no Shi’ites in the current government, and the Lebanese constitution requires representation of all the various sects, he says the government is illegitimate. That Hezbollah and its allies voluntarily removed themselves from the system, in the collective mind of the pro-Syrian faction, is considered beside the point.

Lahoud’s blowing smoke. Because when his term is up near the end of November, that’s it. The Constitution is clear — assuming you read Arabic — so if the president’s term expires without a new president, the pro-Western majority bloc gets to call an extraordinary session of parliament and elect their guy with a simple 50 percent plus one vote. The more pressing problem is that legalities don’t play well in Lebanon. This is a delicately balanced country that operates on consensus, and neither the pro-Syrian bloc, led by Hezbollah, nor the pro-Western government, led by Fuad Siniora, can agree on a consensus candidate. The two sides are far, far apart on fundamental issues: the status of Lebanon’s relationship with Syria, its former occupier, and the status of Hezbollah’s weapons and its current state-within-a-state structure. The fear is that if the pro-Western bloc elects its own majority president, Hezbollah and its allies will form their own shadow government or possibly stage a coup.

The Army, which has so far shown remarkable unity and has been containing Lebanon’s centrifugal forces, is making plans to maintain security and order should there be a presidential vacuum. In my more paranoid moments this sure sounds like planning for a coup to me and it doesn’t reassure anyone when Michel Suleiman, chief of the Army, is talked up by Hezbollah as a “transitional president” for a military government. It also doesn’t help that Suleiman has been making pro-Syrian statements lately and that up to half the army is Shi’ite. No wonder many Sunnis and half the Christians in the nation are worried about their primary loyalty: Is it to the state or to Hezbollah, the separatist Shi’ite militia?

And so there are rumors and stories of the various factions arming up in preparation should the presidential decision go badly.

“The old weapons have been taken out, dusted and oiled up, and new weapons have been bought in alarming quantities,” said Omar Nashabe, who writes on security issues for the opposition Al-Akhbar. “They are ready to burn the country again.”

Even private citizens are getting in on the action. In downtown Beirut this week, two armed drivers argued over the right of way on one of Beirut’s many narrow streets. The argument ended with one of them shot dead.

Hezbollah is preparing for something. Last weekend, the group staged a massive military exercise on both sides of the Litani River, south of which the group is not supposed to wander while armed. So, the fighters didn’t carry weapons when they cross the river. Both Israeli military observers and members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) watched the exercise, which was personally overseen by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.

Hezbollah said the maneuvers were in response to similar exercises by the Israelis, who flew jets over Lebanon’s southern airspace in continued violation of UNSCR 1701, which ended last year’s war. “I hope that both friend and foe will realize that the resistance is totally ready to confront all kinds of Israeli threats,” Nasrallah said.

And all kinds of domestic threats as well. The demonstration of Hezbollah’s organization and manpower wasn’t lost on the pro-Western government faction in Beirut. Sure, Siniora dismissed it as a simulation on paper, but Hezbollah’s second-in-command warned of “measures” the group would take should a pro-Western president be chosen. And there are reports that Hezbollah is stronger than ever. Last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a report that said Israel worries that Hezbollah has rearmed with new long-range rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv, that the group has tripled the number of C-802 shore-based anti-ship missiles and established an air-defense unit armed with surface-to-air missiles. (I’ve highlighted the good stuff, on page 6.)

So to say people are nervous is an understatement. Newspaper columnists have even taken to saying that failure to elect a president in Lebanon — seeing as its tied in with geopolitics involving Syria, Iran, Israel and the United States — could spark a war stretching from Beirut to Tehran. Actually, the Cassandra columnist forgot Afghanistan, so such a war would stretch from Beirut to Kabul.

Will that happen? Hard to say. Lebanon’s poor fate is to be the punching bag for the bullies and battleground for the region’s various rivalries. And it’s been that way for centuries.

I guess a lot has happened after all — but nothing has changed.

Piracy 2.0: Deadly and Dangerous

With our Hollywood images of swashbuckling heroes and fairytale villians the idea of taking pirate – pirates? – seriously sounds like a bit of a joke. But this ancient scourge is playing a role in the 21st Century global war on terror in an important part of the world: off the east coast of Africa, near Somalia to be exact.

These aren’t lovable ruffians of the high seas. Clan warriors from Somalia, they are bloodthirsty criminals in small motorboats that like to either kill or capture the crews of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) vessels trying to bring aid relief to Somalis scarred by war.

Over the course of 2007, there have been at least 26 actual and attempted pirate attacks on large vessels in international waters of the east coast of Africa, up from eight in 2006. The real number is undoubtedly much higher. Pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increase off the coast of Somalia through which more than half of the world’s crude oil and 95 percent of the cargo trade between Asia and Europe crosses.

“This is a very serious security problem on the African coast,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. “These are not pirates who will remind you of Johnny Depp. These are quite different kinds of pirates.”

In February, the MV Rozen, a U.N.-chartered cargo ship was hijacked, drawing the attention of American warships attached to Combined Task Force-150, the maritime adjunct to Operation Enduring Freedom which the United States launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Other incidents are even more serious. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Criminal Crime Services Web site, On Oct. 28, a Japanese chemical tanker called the Golden Nori and possibly carrying highly flammable benzine put out an “undesignated distress” signal as it was sailing in the Gulf of Aden. It went silent soon after, and Coalition ships in the area guessed it had been hijacked and taken into Somali territorial waters.

Now, normally, ships attached to the CTF-150 aren’t allowed to enter the Somali waters because there’s no U.N. mandate or request from the government of Somlia to enter. After all, there’s not really a Somali government. But that didn’t stop the guided missile destroyer, the USS Porter from chasing a hijacked ship into Somali waters and even opening fire on skiffs tied up to the Golden Nori. As I write, the Porter and the pirates are in a standoff, with the Somalis demanding the Navy ship move off while the Navy is determined to remove the pirates from the ship.

But what does all this have to do with the war on terror? Plenty.

CTF-150 was established in the months after 9/11 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

I was able to accompany some of the men and women of the FGS Bremen, detailed to CTF-150, last May as it patrolled in the Gulf of Aden near Djibouti, right where the tip of Arabia reaches to meet the Horn of Africa. To the south of us, for miles, the Somali coastline stretched. It is a dangerous stretch of land and water infested with pirates, traversed by jihadis and trafficked by smugglers. No ship is immune.

The Bremen was part of the 10-ship task force from 10 nations, which has responsibility for a 2.4-million square-mile patch of ocean that covers the Arabian Sea, the northern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden, an area about the size of the continental United States. Around the 7,480-mile-long rim of the area of operations lie 14 nations ranging from the friendly Bahrain and Qatar to the chronically disintegrating Somalia — a basket case of a country that is much of CTF-150’s raison d’être.

The CTF-150’s area of operation is a maritime crossroads – a kind of floating Dodge City – where massive amounts of legitimate trade intersects with narcotics traffic headed to Europe from Pakistan to Yemen and Kenya. Weapons are smuggled from Yemen to Somalia, fueling the violence there. Even more worrisome is the movement and trafficking of people from Sudan and Eritrea into Saudi Arabia, refugees and economic migrants from Somalia to Yemen and “people of particular interest” moving from Yemen to Somalia.

In many ways, this battle is a return to the original mission of the U.S. Navy. The war on the Barbary pirates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the first war on terror the United States ever fought, and was also the first protracted overseas war fought to protect the personal and commercial interests of Americans abroad. As today, the pirates were ruthless and unconventional enemies, much like al Qaeda. And there is growing evidence al Qaeda is learning from, and influencing, today’s pirates, aiming to interfere as much as possible with the flow of crude oil traffic.

Oil and chemical tankers like the Mori are increasingly targeted, both for their cargo and for the possibility the ship itself can be turned into a floating bomb. Offshore oil terminals like those dotting the Persian Gulf are vulnerable to hijacked supertankers set on collision courses. And don’t forget the USS Cole – a picture of which hangs in the gangway of the Bremen – which was attacked by suicide bombers on an explosive laden speedboat. Seventeen crew members died.

While on the Bremen, some of its sailors told me they didn’t feel they were at war. They’re wrong. The maritime battlefield affects everyone who buys things or puts gas in their car, and Europe is especially vulnerable to trade interruptions. Piracy has always been with us, but now it’s part of a larger struggle – one that is moving off the sands of the Middle East and into the azure waters of the world’s oceans.

Turkey’s Game of Chicken

Still, there’s little doubt that Turkey is royally pissed off and resentful of the United States and have decided to warn the Americans with what they see as a legitimate security measure to protect their borders…. The Turks figure that the KRG and its American backers will choose to crack down on Kurdish rebels if they’re faced with the prospect of a Turkish invasion and the collapse of the Kurdish economic miracle in the north – much of which relies on trade with Turkey and Iran.

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War Without End, Amen

Last week I talked about the alternate ways of dealing with Iran in the Middle East, one that didn’t involve violent confrontation. The idea was to bow to reality and negotiate with Iran, smoothing the lines of friction by bowing to some of its demands, while getting some changes in behavior out of the regime in Tehran.
But that’s not what’s happening. The U.S. and the West are backing Iran into a corner, forcing it to push back. This makes it almost inevitable that Iran would foment chaos and instability in the region while surging toward nuclear arms as a means of deterrence.
If this confrontation continues, there are two possibilities, neither of which are good for the U.S. Let’s take a look at them.
One possibility is a large-scale withdrawal by the United States from Iraq, although that would leave Iran as the dominant military power in the Gulf. It has the largest military in the region (even if it’s poorly equipped) and its Revolutionary Guards Corps is capable and trained in asymmetric warfare. It has reach, a deep bench and good weapons. (Exhibit A: Last year’s war between Hezbollah and Israel.) So what are we looking at?
First, southern Iraq and its oil fields will likely become an Iranian vassal state in all but name. While Iraqi Shi’ites have been patriotic in the past — large numbers of them died in the battle for the Fao Peninsula in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War — Iran has tentacles in every major Shi’ite party in Iraq. Even Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which exhibits a form of Iraqi/Arab Shi’ite nationalism, is not immune. His militia has been splintering for months now, and there are credible reports that rogue elements under the influence of the IRGC are operating in Iraq.
And al-Sadr has an uneasy alliance with Iran. He’s perfectly happy to take their money and weapons, but by no means is he a lapdog. That means he’s in danger. Should Iran make a solid play for southern Iraq — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — al-Sadr could end up dead, with the blame falling on retreating Americans. That will drive Shi’ites loyal to him bonkers, so look for harassment attacks on the withdrawing U.S. forces to escalate to a full-on rout and scramble for the relative haven of Kuwait. Other Tehran-backed militias would quickly take care of their rivals in southern Iraq and it’s likely that after a short, sharp civil war within a civil war, those parties would emerge triumphant in Baghdad and in the south. The Kurds will be threatened in the north by both Turkey and Iran — who already seem to have a de facto alliance against the upstart Kurds — leaving the Sunnis to fend for themselves against foreign *jihadi* elements in Anbar and other majority Sunni provinces. This effective partition won’t take long.
That positions Iran in a dominate position in the Gulf and should it acquire nuclear weapons, other countries will have to follow suit. Saudi Arabia will nuke up, as would Egypt. Syria would benefit from Iranian nuclear technology or simply be given bombs. Israel would be pressed on all sides and would likely drop all pretense and declare itself a nuclear state. The Middle East — and much of the world’s oil supply — would be hostage to one of the most unstable balances of terror the world has ever known. It wouldn’t take much to spark off a regional, nuclear war. Oil prices will rise and plateau at God-knows-what because of the constant, hair-trigger tension and a world-wide recessions or even depression might ensue as prices rise because of cascading costs in the distribution chains. Food would cost more, business travel would drop, jobs would be lost, public transportation would become more expensive, etc., etc. The era of cheap oil and the lifestyle it affords would be over.
Meanwhile, as oil prices rise, the very Middle Eastern countries staring eyeball to eyeball would reap the benefits and be able to buy more modern weapons. It would be an oily, vicious cycle.
That’s one scenario but, unfortunately, it’s the less likely of the two. It’s predicated on the idea that Iran will be left to do as it pleases in Iraq and no one will interfere. But as has been shown, the U.S. is not going to just up and leave Iraq; It will have 35,000 to 50,000 troops there for the foreseeable future even with a drawdown, as well as its considerable over-the-horizon assets (ships and jets) in the region. This means that the U.S. continues to plan for for a possible military confrontation with Iran. And that means Iran intends to build a bomb.
They can’t not try to build a bomb now thanks to the breakdown in talks over Iraq. There’s some dissension within foreign policy circles whether Iran wants an actual, working bomb or merely the capacity to build one quickly, but neither is the least bit palatable to Israel, the surrounding Arab states, the United States or anyone in the Western world, really.
What might a war with Iran look like? Initial strikes would come from the Gulf in the form of a barrage of cruise missiles and fighter jets from the carrier groups there and the surrounding air bases. The Bushehr nuclear plant is certainly on the hit list, as is the Natanz uranium enrichment center. Struck, too, will be the heavy water plant and radioisotope facility in Arak; the Ardekan Nuclear Fuel Unit; the Uranium Conversion Facility and nuclear technology center in Isfahan. And that will only be the first wave of sortie after sortie striking targets that, after the initial nuclear facilities, will grow to include Revolutionary Guard positions and eventually infrastructure points such as bridges, power stations and oil refineries. It would be an attack designed to bring the Iranian economy — and, hopefully, the regime — to its knees.
The Iranians aren’t defenseless, of course. They have robust anti-aircraft defense systems, so there likely would be casualties among the pilots. And they have good surface-to-ship missiles that can take down tankers and smaller ships stationed in the Gulf. There’s a good chance they would try to choke off the Strait of Hormuz, through which a vast amount of the world’s oil flows. It would only take a couple of hits on tankers in the Gulf for all traffic there to stop.
Warships can be further taken down by swarms of suicide speed boats, tactics the Iranians have been perfecting for just this occasion. While the damage to Iran would be severe early on, the repercussions to American forces in Iraq, the Gulf and even Europe could be as bad. Shi’ites in Iraq, goosed by Iranian-backed militias, could inflict heavy losses on the 160,000 troops there.
The Iranians have already thought of this. On Sept. 1, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced the commander-in-chief of the country’s elite military corps with Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, a former IRGC commander from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. By placing their top Iraq hand in charge of their most potent military force, the Iranians are signaling they mean business in the event of an attack.
At sea, a few warships might be lost, with who knows how many casualties. If Israel is involved in the attack, look for Hezbollah in Lebanon to jump in, pummeling the Jewish state’s north with hundreds of Katyushas in a playback of last summer’s war. That will bring Syria, Israel and Lebanon into the fight. If it drags on, Pakistan could fall to an Islamist coup d’etat, again stoked by Iranian agents. Elsewhere, in Europe, South America and North America, members of the al Quds Force — Iran’s elite international paramilitary unit — could wreck their own brand of havoc with terror attacks.
War would rage from the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, a continuous swath of fury and violence. It would be the end of the world as we know it.
Oil prices would skyrocket, well over $100 barrel, China, the U.S. And Europe, the world’s top producers and consumers, would suffer economic pinches as the oil economies ground to a halt. The Western standard of living would rapidly fall, thank to a similar cascade of squeezes that I mentioned above.
This is the likely outcome of a war, and it’s not at all clear the West would win this one. Yes, Iran would be devastated, but the West would stand hated and impoverished, starved for oil. It would take years to recover, and the simmering resentment of the Muslim would would be stoked for another generation.
Is that what the White House wants? As I mentioned last week, negotiations are the best way forward.

Iranian Hegemony: What’s Not to Like?

Tehran wants Washington to accept Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf as its “near abroad” – “a zone of influence in which Iran’s interests would determine the ebbs and flows of politics unencumbered by American interferance.”

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A Razor’s Edge

If the March 14 bloc elects a president from its own ranks using a simple majority vote outside of parliament, Lebanon could be facing the creation of two governments and little hope of compromise.

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That Way Madness Lies…

Indeed, the Times of London reported Sunday that the Pentagon has prepared a 1,200 target, “three-day blitz” designed not only to take out nuclear installations but “the entire Iranian military,” said Alexis Debat, director of terrorism and national security at the Nixon Center…. Nixon was so crazy that at one point he put the whole U.S. military on global war readiness and flew nuclear-armed bombers near the Soviet Union’s borders for three days to freak them out—right at the time that war tensions were simmering between Beijing and Moscow.

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One War: Four Glasses. Who Won?

With backing from Syria and, possibly, Iran, it has led an opposition that has so far been unsuccessful in all of its objectives: removing the pro-Western government from power; scuttling the international tribunal that’s investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; and claiming for the Lebanon’s Shi’ites a greater share of political power…. A a devotee of Donald Rumsfeld’s theory that air power can win wars, he chose an aggressive strategy of bombing runs against civilian infrastructure in an attempt to split the Lebanese Christians and Sunnis from Hezbollah in the hopes they would turn on the Shi’ite group.

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