The Game Changes in Iraq and Israel

by MAJ. GEN. PAUL E. VALLELY, US ARMY (RET) November 7, 2011
America is repositioning its forces out of Iraq by the end of the year after a nine-year involvement. President Barack Obama has said that “the last American soldiers will cross the border out of Iraq” on 31 December. The chess master of the Middle East, Iran, is making its moves day by day to fill any vacuum left by the United States, militarily and politically. Most Iraqis will exhale with a great sigh of relief.

The United States will not be gone from Iraq altogether as some 16,000 U.S. personnel will remain in the form of diplomats, Defense Department experts, military and police trainers, and a large number of security contractors, of whom some 5,000 will be armed to protect the U.S. mission. All US and non US Contractors will be continual targets for the radical Islamists supported by Iran and its main proxy, Hezbollah. History’s verdict on America’s Iraqi war is likely to be severe. The United States has not suffered a military defeat at the tactical level but the Victory for America in the strategic sense will not reflect a Victory (like Vietnam). The damage to the United’s leadership, credibility, reputation, moral stature and political influence has been seriously damaged.
The Iraq war will be seen as a landmark in the downward slide of the United States from its once pre-eminent place in the community of nations.  After the Soviet collapse in 1991, the United States was the world’s unchallenged super-power. Today, twenty years later, we seem to have lost our way because of a lack of Vision and the flawed, forward strategies of our political leadership. Even our closest friends look at us askance and wonder what has become of us.
The cost in human lives and treasure has been immense. As discussed in previous Chessboard articles, the Middle East is nothing but a giant “sponge” that will soak all the human and financial resources that you put into it. Some 4,500 US soldiers have died in Iraq and tens of thousands more were wounded. The cost to the American taxpayer has been estimated at $700 billion and upwards. Future projections forecast the ultimate cost could well be $3 trillion with billions unaccounted for by other reports.
Once a strong and united country, Iraq is now a weak and querulous federation. The Kurds have broken loose and enjoy something close to independence under their own regional government, while Sunni Arabs, outraged at the discrimination they suffer at the hands of the Shi’i Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, are threatening secession in a northern province around Irbil.
An unintended consequence of America’s war was to put the Shi‘is in power in Baghdad, that only opened the door to Iranian influence; and in the wider Gulf area, the regional balance of power to Iran’s advantage. Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s leading Sunni power, is understandably perturbed. Saudi-Iranian rivalry is now intense while relations between Saudi Arabia and Shia-led Iraq are close to breaking point.
To ease the tensions, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Shaykh Hamad bin Jassem -- a leading mediator of regional conflicts -- has proposed that Saudi Arabia and Iran hold talks over American allegations of an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Few experts believe the American accusations have much substance, but they have served to destabilize an already volatile region. Overall, therefore, the geopolitical costs of the Iraqi war have been very great indeed.
Can America change course and proceed with a well thought out forward strategy? Nothing is less likely.
Through a number of leaks and well-publicized war exercises, the Israeli government has dramatically increased its threats against Iran in the past weeks. Since the Israeli military likes to act by surprise, it seems this current escalation is a bluff designed to help pass tougher diplomatic measures against the Islamic Republic at the United Nations Security Council, specifically following the anticipated publication of an important report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) next week.
However, given the exceptionally high and rising regional tensions (not all of which involve Israel directly), a larger war in the Middle East is a growing distinct possibility. The Israeli rhetoric can be interpreted in two additional ways (all three are not mutually exclusive): as an attempt to deter a possible first or second strike by Iran and its allies, and as a campaign to prepare public opinion, both at home and abroad, for hostilities.   According to a widely circulated if anonymous assessment (presumed to have come directly from high-ranking Israeli officials), the window of opportunity for striking the Iranian nuclear sites this year will close in a matter of weeks, with the coming of the winter.
Intelligence tells us at SUA that Iran already has several nuclear weapons that can we launched with the Shehab 3 as the vehicle of choice. A launch against Israel and an EMP launch using container ships against the United States. In the worst-case scenario, if the Iranian leaders choose to dash headlong toward using a bomb, they can do it without a real test of their nuclear weapons capability. Screw a well- designed nuc on the end of a Shehab and pray that Allah will ensure detonation.
It was not very difficult to twist the assessment into a powerful sound bite ("the window of opportunity for a strike against Iran is closing") and to put it to use to justify and amplify an impressive Israeli show of force. In the space of a week or so, Israel conducted a simulation of a long-distance air strike together with Italy, tested what was allegedly an upgrade of its Jericho 3 intercontinental ballistic missile, and conducted a home front drill centered on the scenario of a chemical weapons attack delivered by a missile. All three drills were conducted in an extraordinarily open way; the usually tight-lipped Israeli military censor allowed the Israeli press to publish pictures of the exercise in Italy and speculations about the Israeli missile program.  Moreover, these reports were accompanied by a flurry of other reports and leaks, all conveying, explicitly or implicitly, the same message; that an Israeli strike on Iran is imminent.
"Benjamin Netanyahu trying to persuade cabinet to support attack on Iran," was the title of a November 2 article on the Israeli prime minister's intentions in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. "With Syria on the way down, Iran needs nukes more than ever,"  another Ha'aretz headline from the same day reads. "US fears unilateral Israeli strike on Iran," a website associated with another Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, claimed just days earlier.  Even The Guardian chimed in, reporting that the United Kingdom was "stepping up" its preparations to assist the United States in a "potential military action against Iran". 
Last month, the US think-thank Stratfor suggested that the US was finally siding with Saudi Arabia in a more aggressive stance against Iran. On the one hand, much of this is clearly posturing, and Israel seems to be playing the bad cop in the American pressure campaign against Iran at the UN Security Council.
If Russia and China could be persuaded that the Israeli government is serious in its threats, they would theoretically become more amenable to tougher sanctions against Iran (something they have so far opposed).  The IAEA report is due to be released next week, and it is rumored to be harshly critical of the Iranian nuclear program. It could  backed up by the American allegations that Iran conspired to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington - serve as a basis for another round of sanctions.
In the past, Israel has conducted highly dangerous and controversial operations. Planning a potential strike on Iran would fall in this category - in the greatest of secrecy; it is unlikely that it would make so much noise now while preparing to attack imminently. Nevertheless, as a whole there is a real danger of a regional war, the time frame for which is not clear, and the Israeli moves could well be meant to address that threat.
In the analysis of Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, It is important to note that the drills and tests of recent days, and those expected to take place in the coming days, were all planned months ago.... However, one cannot ignore the proximity of these events, together with the continuing operational work on the Iron Dome systems in Gaza and in northern Israel, the acceleration of the Magic Wand and Arrow 3 defense systems - and naturally the. All these elements - with differing degrees of planning - provide the background music in a concert of a military apparatus preparing for a possible large-scale operation.
Even if the decision to attack Iran has not yet been made, and despite opposition by senior security officials, the IDF's (Israel Defense Forces) task - and that of the rest of the security and intelligence bodies - is to provide the decision-making level with the maximum number of operational options and the offensive and defensive options. An attack on the Iranian nuclear program might not come from Israel - and neither is it certain that Iran and its allies will desist from initiating hostilities themselves. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, recently threatened to "burn the whole region" in case of a foreign intervention in his country. Days ago, he professed to accept an Arab League plan for defusing the violence, but then reportedly contradicted himself once again by murdering dozens of people in cold blood.
Meanwhile, after the death of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, the attention of all those who feel Responsibility to Protect is clearly fixed on Syria. The comparisons run on multiple levels - according to a recent report, the IAEA is investigating a new suspicious site in Syria, which closely resembles a Libyan uranium plant that Gaddafi abandoned several years ago. Such an allegation could theoretically help justify an intervention against Assad.
For Israel, moreover, a confrontation with Iran or Syria need not take the form of a direct exchange with either of these countries. It is very likely, for example, that last weekend's escalation in Gaza between the Israeli army and the Islamic Jihad militant organization happened on orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Israeli muscle flexing can thus be interpreted also as a loud warning to Iran that it can easily cross the line when stoking conflict on Israel’s borders. Contributing Editor Paul E. Vallely, Major General (USA/Ret.) is an author, military strategist and Chairman of Stand Up America and Save Our Democracy Projects. 

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