Mideast Is Every Intelligence Analyst’s Worst Nightmare

As conflicts in the region spill over into neighboring countries, Western experts are having a tough time keeping up with the dizzying pace of events.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Children walk beside a painted wall inside Jarmaq school in Yarmouk refugee camp, April 14, 2015.
Children walk beside a painted wall inside Jarmaq school in Yarmouk refugee camp, April 14, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It’s hard to envy the situation of foreign intelligence analysts – be they American, Western European or Russian – who have to regularly report to their bosses about the chaos in the streets of the Middle East.

An Islamic State flag is seen near a barricade in Yarmouk Street, the main street of the refugee camp in Syria.Credit: Reuters

In the past, one could define the region by a list of important topics that had little to do with each other: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the Iranian nuclear program; relations between various Arab states.

The last four years, though, have been portrayed as a nearly unending war – from Iraq in the east to Libya in the west – that has splintered into dozens of bloody conflicts. It’s a regional mix that changes at a dizzying pace. One conflict spills over to, and influences, the neighboring confrontation. Intelligence analysts and leaders have only a minimal ability to foresee events or navigate through them.

The Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence branch describes four principle forces fighting for regional hegemony: the primarily Shi’ite axis, which Iran is leading along with Syria and Hezbollah; the central, West-leaning Sunni regimes, which Israel conveniently defines as “moderate” (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and most of the Gulf states); independent Sunni players tied to the Muslim Brotherhood (Turkey, Qatar and Hamas in Gaza); and Sunni jihadist organizations (Al-Qaida, Islamic State – also known as ISIS or ISIL – and the dozens of local factions that switch their allegiance between the two groups).

The local confrontations continue in parallel and constantly influence the others. Concentrating the effort of the moderate Sunni factions in Yemen affects the strength of the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Hamas, meanwhile, deliberates between renewing its pact with Iran and getting closer to the Saudi-Egyptian bloc.

Most of the press attention over the past two months has been turned to Yemen: Saudi Arabia successfully managed to assemble a surprising alliance of Arab forces in an attempt to stop the advance of Iranian-backed Houthi militants. However, the war in Syria – the longest and most murderous conflict – also has seen developments in recent days. Most of the ISIS fighters seem to have left the Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus – where hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed – but the situation for President Bashar Assad’s regime did not ease up.

Rebels repulsed, without any particular difficulty, the attack the regime planned – with the help of Iran and Hezbollah – in southern Syria, from the town of Dara’a, east of the Golan Heights. Damascus is still threatened, and the area around the presidential palace is often shelled, such that Assad literally cannot sleep in peace. The security blanket Iran and Hezbollah provide him is short. He cannot defend the contiguity of his remaining assets and is forced to dilute the presence of his forces in places he deems less vital.

The regime has two main concerns: First, the rebels have constantly tried to encroach on Damascus International Airport. They are dozens of kilometers away, but the area is often shelled; second, it is concerned that battles will restart along the Syrian-Lebanese border, which threatens its supply line from Hezbollah. These questions also concern Israel, because of the huge weapons depots near the airport. In recent years there were foreign media reports attributing attacks to Israel, including the bombing of weapons en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

A senior security source in Israel told Haaretz this week, “We are continuing to sit on the fence. It’s not a given, because you need to be wary of falling into the tempting trap of achieving a tactical benefit,” he said. “But we’ve made it clear to all sides, publicly, that there are red lines we won’t allow to be crossed. And in instances where there is a danger to our interests, there will likely be pointed intervention.”

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