Monday, January 22, 2007

Stratfor 2007 Mideast Report

TigerHawk has generously shared some Mideast portions of the Stratfor 2007 annual report with his readers. He chastises us all to subscribe to Stratfor. You can sign up for their e-mail list for free, though, and get some very insightful analyses, but the really in-depth stuff comes with a price.
However, we made a critical error in reading Iran’s intentions at this point. The Iranians saw an opportunity to use their militant and political assets in Iraq to delay a political resolution through a major escalation in Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence. As a result, the United States was buried deeper in Iraq, and Iran was able to strengthen its negotiating position substantially. The Iranian strategy involved activating Hezbollah, which manifested in the summer war between Hezbollah and Israel that left Israel politically and militarily paralyzed. Contrary to our prediction that the general trend for the Middle East would be toward political accommodation, the region witnessed a number of flare-ups that were largely attributed to the Iranian calculus in consolidating its gains in Iraq.
To shatter these expectations and demonstrate that the United States is still very much in the game, U.S. President George W. Bush announced Jan. 10 a strategy to “surge” U.S. troops in Iraq. The increase will total 21,500 troops, with a peak of 17,500 in Baghdad and another 4,000 in Anbar province. Ultimately, this looks unlikely even to bring the total level of U.S. forces to their peak strength of 160,000 — the number of troops that were in Iraq in November and December 2005, in the buildup to the general elections Dec. 15. It is likely to be accompanied by a shift in tactics to focus more specifically on counterinsurgency operations.

The forces will certainly be useful — assisting with security inside Baghdad and leaving units that would otherwise be shifted to the capital available to confront issues in their respective areas of responsibility. However, in and of itself, this new deployment will be insufficient to turn the tide in Iraq. Operation Together Forward — the failed attempt after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death to use a small surge in troop levels in Baghdad to impose security there — is a case in point. Together Forward was essentially the U.S. military’s last, best effort to secure Baghdad with the existing force structure.

Baghdad remains the key. Without stability there, there can be no Iraqi state. But the proposed surge of 21,500 troops — without a new, concerted diplomatic effort — is unlikely to succeed in effecting a political resolution in Baghdad.

However, there is a key psychological element to this strategy. The United States will spend the coming months taking an aggressive stance against Iranian operations in Iraq, including additional raids on Iranian diplomatic offices and arrests of Iranian officials in the country who are suspected of orchestrating attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces. The U.S. military will be posturing to dispel the Iranian perception that the battleground will remain within Iraq’s borders. The United States could also step up covert efforts to ramp up the militant activities of Iran’s indigenous separatist groups, such as the Ahvazi Arabs in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan in western Iran. Coinciding with U.S. moves, Israel will accelerate its own psychological warfare campaign, using a variety of leaks and denials to heavily publicize Israeli military plans to strike Iranian nuclear sites. By upping the ante against Iran, the United States is placing a critical bet that the Iranians will reconsider their Iraq strategy and come to the negotiating table rather than risk a serious miscalculation.
Israel is likely to revisit its objective of crushing Hezbollah in the summer of 2007, and has already begun to justify a coming military escalation in Lebanon through public declarations that Hezbollah and/or Syria will be the one to instigate the conflict. Who ends up igniting the war is unimportant. The big question for this year will be whether Israel can develop the capability to root out Hezbollah forces in their strongholds in the Bekaa Valley. A good deal of restructuring will have to take place first, beginning with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s return to the political scene.

Israel could move indirectly to destabilize Hezbollah in Lebanon ahead of a military confrontation. Hezbollah is currently brimming with confidence, but it also must be careful to preserve its legitimacy. By provoking sectarian violence in Lebanon, Israel could pit Hezbollah fighters against fellow Lebanese, which would wear down Hezbollah’s military forces and tarnish its reputationas a nationalist movement, making the organization more vulnerable to an Israeli onslaught. The Israeli Mossad could also be engaged in attempts this year to eliminate elements of Hezbollah’s core leadership to further destabilize the party.

Though Syria will be busy building up weapons acquisitions from its defense partners in Moscow, the Syrian regime will be careful to avoid provoking a major military conflict with Israel. In elections slated for March, Syrian President Bashar al Assad will be re-elected by a wide margin, and no opposition forces will be strong enough to challenge the al Assad regime this year. Though Syria will keep the window open for talks with the United States, it will continue with its agenda to re-consolidate influence in Lebanon, which involves political intimidation — frequently in the form of assassinations. The Bush administration is unlikely to make any major overtures to Syria this coming year, knowing that Damascus falls well below Tehran in its ability to wield any real influence in Iraq. Syria will be emboldened through its alliance with Iran and could instigate a low-level insurgency in the Golan Heights through a shadowy group of militant actors on the regime’s payroll, but will play its cards carefully for fear of inviting Israeli airstrikes on its own soil.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Hamas and Fatah will continue to struggle over how to create a power-sharing agreement in the government. As long as Hamas can continue to be bankrolled by the Iranians and the Gulf Arab states, the party can avoid making any serious concessions to Fatah in reshuffling the Cabinet. Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas will not resort to calling for early elections unless he can be assured that Hamas would be marginalized in the polls — an unlikely prospect for the near future. The stalemate in the Palestinian territories will lead Hamas’ leadership to make gestures with heavy caveats toward recognizing Israel, though Israel will not take the bait. The Israeli government will work to ensure that Hamas and Fatah are prevented from coming together in an agreement; while Israel is sorting out its own issues at home, it will much prefer to have the Palestinians fighting each other than focusing their attention on attacking Israel. The impasse in the territories will prevent the Israelis and the Palestinians from engaging in any serious final-status negotiations this year.
More excerpts at Tigerhawk's blog.


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