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Revealed: Russia’s Great Game in the Middle East

It was a bizarre turn of events at the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York on the 70th Anniversary of the world body.  President Obama gave a speech lambasting Putin’s Russia over its seizure of Crimea and  invasion of eastern Ukraine violating the country’s sovereignty. However, he paid court to Russia and China for supporting the  Iran nuclear pact unanimous approved  by the UN Security Council poised to release tens of billions in sequestered funds as of December 15, 2015. He  questioned Russia’s sudden military presence in western Syria building a military complex to bolster the Assad regime.  A regime that rained barrel bombs causing the deaths of 250,000. A regime ethnically cleansing the country’s Sunni population sending millions to displaced persons camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and hundreds of thousands in flight to the EU.  The President got warm applause over his rapprochement with Cuba.

Putin, when he had his turn at the rostrum accused the U.S., without naming it, of causing the rise of the Islamic State through its invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan,  ultimately creating a Sunni supremacist Caliphate.  Following Putin Iranian President Rouhani  had his turn at the rostrum in the Assembly hall. He made the astounding proposal that an international alliance including Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq  combat terrorism in the Middle East.  A proposal that Rouhani  said should be confirmed in another Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action akin to the Iran nuclear pact.  He noted the nuclear pact  was  concluded  “without the impediment of the Zionist enterprise”, meaning Israel.  Witness  the cheek of President Rouhani   of Iran  suggesting  a new Shia alliance in the Middle East, plus Russia welcoming  the US to join in fighting Sunni Supremacist  Islamic State.

What was on display at the UN was the supplanting  of the U.S. in the new great game of the Middle East by  Russia.  It was enough to make one’s head spin with these sudden turns  of events. It made the U.S., look like a “JV team “struggling  to keep up.

The usually astute Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Washington, DC-based  Jewish Policy Center  was asked  by this writer during the September 27, 2015 Lisa Benson Show why  these developments occurred so suddenly.  She said that  Putin’s Russia like all great powers do when they are confronted by a vacuum, especially one that threatens its national  interests.  Thousands of Jihadists have left Chechnya, Dagestan, and Tartarstan in Russia attracted by the Salafist  Islamic doctrine of the Islamic State as a declared Caliphate.  Thus  Putin’s objective is to “bottle” up these Sunni Jihadists in Syria and Iraq.  Putin admitted as much in a CBS 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose  Sunday evening when he said:

More than 2,000 fighters from Russia and ex-Soviet republics are in the territory of Syria. There is a threat of their return to us. So instead of waiting for their return, we are better off helping Assad fight them on Syrian territory.

Watch the CBS 60 Minutes Charlie Rose interview with Russian President Putin:

When Lisa Benson asked Bryen about  where Iran’s proxy Hezbollah stood in these developments, she  replied  Hezbollah “had not been an efficient fighting force in Syria.  Further, she commented that Russian presence in Syria is meant to actually limit Hezbollah’s  involvement, perhaps  to a defensive role “in the Alawite enclave.”  Moreover, she noted  that Putin is not interested  in a war with Israel ,suggesting that the meeting with Netanyahu  in Moscow was  to coordinate means to avoid conflict. However, Bryen  noted  Putin has another interest in the region, “control over the flow of gas to Europe” being developing offshore in Israeli, Egyptian,  and Lebanese fields.  Bryen thinks there is ‘no evidence’ of Russian presence on the Syrian frontier on Israel’s Golan Heights.  Notwithstanding a spate of rocket and mortar attacks on the Golan responded to by the IDF this past weekend that Israeli Minister of Defense Ya’alon thinks were ordered by Iran.  We shall soon see whether Putin’s gamble pays off.  Or results in another graveyard  like Afghanistan  rout of the Soviet 40th Army in 1989.

We could see this  thunder clap about to occur in the run up to the UN General Assembly session.  We had the Russian announcement of  military aid and mission to be established in the Alawite bastion of Latakia province.  Included were  the building of expanded landing fields to accommodate Ilushin cargo aircraft  and squadrons of  Mig and Sukhoi fighters, transiting from Russia to Syria  via Iran and Iraqi airspace. Then there was the announcement of Black Sea fleet maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.  In late July, following the UN endorsement of the Iran deal, Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Commander  Qasem Soliemani in Moscow  met with Putin and  Russian Defense Minister Shogui. Those discussions were  ostensibly to expedite deliveries of Russian advanced air defense systems, but  in reality to plan for Russian direct involvement with Iranian forces . In May , we witnessed an alleged US ally, Iraqi Premier Haidar al-Abadi traveling to Moscow  to obtain additional fighter  deliveries to aid in the battle against the Islamic State. Meanwhile, President Obama had committed 3, 500 American military trainers to assist  the  Iraqi National Security forces  to recover Anbar province and  Mosul. Abadi, our alleged ally in the coalition against ISIS,   brought in Russian military advisors to link  up with   Soliemani  directing  Iraqi Shia militia forces.

The unkindest  cut of all was the announcement  on the eve of the UN General Assembly of a joint intelligence and security operations center in Baghdad sharing  information among Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

There was  also evidence that the U.S. led coalition strategy in Syria and Iraq “defeating and degrading” ISIS had collapsed.  That was reflected  in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee by CENTCOM commander, Gen. Lloyd Austin who told Senators that  the $500 million program to train Syrian opposition fighters had failed ignominiously. We had spent $40 million training and equipping 60 candidates, who signed waivers that they were to fight ISIS, not Assad. 40 of those surrendered their weapons and joined Al Qaeda affiliate jabhat al Nusra.    If that wasn’t  enough, we had the roiling scandal of a revolt by CENTCOM  intelligence analysts who requested a Pentagon Inspector General  investigation into why assessments were being prettied up by superiors  to present a misinformed picture to the President and National Security Staff that we were succeeding in the air campaign without US boots on the ground.  That was further depicted in testimony by ex-CIA director, retired Army General Petreaus , who  testified  before the same Senate Armed Services Committee  recommending establishing   no fly zones, sanctuary havens in country and deploying  Special Forces teams.  Add to that the failure of the Obama White House to honor its commitment to supply  Syrian Kurdish YPG  and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces with updated weapons, ammunition and equipment.  The Kurds are  being attacked by Turkish air force fighters.  To cap things off, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, coordinator of the  Coalition effort,  resigned after a year of service.  As former Defense Intelligence Agency  head, retired Army General Michael Flynn observed, this is what you get when you “politicize intelligence”. The President suggested in his UN address  that the Islamic State   “violent extremism , distorts ”the true meaning of the Islamic faith.”

Russian may have “frozen” the Syrian conflict in a stalemate.  The U.S. finds itself suddenly on the sidelines, largely, by its own “red lines”. Now with Russia’s direct involvement in Syria and Iraq, we will soon find out if ISIS is vanquished or remains a growing global threat. Such are the rules of The Great Game that in the 19th Century pitted imperial Czarist Russia against the British Empire.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.

What’s behind The American Jewish Divide on the Iran Nuclear Deal?

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Council of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations (CPMAJO) Pres. Stephen M. Greenblatt, Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein with Secretary of State John Kerry , Manhattan, July 24, 2015. Source: CPMAJO and Times of Israel

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry flew up to New York to brief  skeptical leaders of major American Jewish organizations on the Administration-backed Iran Nuclear Agreement announced on July 14th. This followed Thursday’s presentation before a truculent Senate Foreign Relations Committee Iran nuclear  review with Kerry, Energy Secretary Earnest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. A provocative question by Senate panel member, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, prompted Kerry to issue a warning to Israel not to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry was also caught touting J Street propaganda suggesting that former Israeli security officials from Shin Bet and Mossad considered it a good deal. As reflected in a Times of Israel (TOI) report on Kerry’s briefings, American Jewish leaders expressed concerns about his inability to answer their questions.

However, a poll released Thursday by the Los-Angeles based Jewish Journal  suggested that virtually half of American Jews backed Obama on the Iran nuclear deal in contrast to less than 28 percent of  all Americans. Thus, confirming the deepening American Jewish divide over support for Israel discussed at length in Ambassador Michael Oren’s memoir, Ally. The TOI article on the Manhattan briefings by Kerry to American Jewish leaders noted the results of the Jewish Journal– sponsored survey:

According to the [Jewish Journal] survey, 49 percent of American Jews support the deal and 31 percent oppose it. Among all Americans, 28 percent support the deal and 24 percent oppose it.

Jewish Journal survey of American Jews on Iran nuclear deal

L.A. Jewish Journal survey of American Jews on Iran nuclear deal, July 23, 2015.

The Times of Israel reported comments from participants in the briefings by Kerry:

Among the issues raised were reports of provisions to shorten the embargoes on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles and secret accords dealing with inspections at Iran’s Parchin military base and the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s past nuclear activities.

“It was a very interesting exchange,” one attendee told the Times of Israel. “We spoke rather frankly and he gave his assessment. Some of the things we agree with and some of the things people disagreed with, but that is the nature of this debate.”

“People remained concerned. He filled in some blanks and on some issues people still feel quite differently,” the attendee added. “Whether you agree with his answers or not, it was an important exchange.”

The meeting with Conference of Presidents involved more than 100 participants from a wide range of Jewish groups including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), incoming Anti-Defamation League Executive Director Jonathan Greenblatt, Yeshiva University President Richard Joel, and representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America. AIPAC is vehemently opposed to the agreement. It has launched a massive lobbying campaign in a bid to see it stonewalled by Congress, which is currently reviewing the terms of the deal.

Let’s look at the nuances of the Jewish Journal Iranian nuclear deal survey findings:

The LA Jewish Journal Survey asked respondents’ views on “an agreement … reached in which the United States and other countries would lift major economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons.” Almost half – 49 percent of American Jews – voiced support, and 31 percent opposed. Jews differ from the national population. Of all respondents in our national survey, only 28 percent support the deal, 24 percent oppose and the rest (48 percent) “don’t know enough to say.”

[…]

As a group, Jews hold these supportive views of the agreement, notwithstanding their mixed views regarding its outcomes. Asked whether “this agreement would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons over the next 10 years or so,” only 42 percent are somewhat confident or very confident, while 54 percent are not so confident or not confident at all. A slim plurality believes the agreement will lead to more rather than less stability in the Middle East (46 percent versus 41 percent), but a wider margin believes the deal will make Israel more endangered (49 percent) rather than safer (33 percent), almost the same as in the U.S. survey (48 percent versus 32 percent respectively).

But even with their misgivings, Jews overwhelmingly think that, in retrospect, the idea of the U.S. conducting negotiations with Iran was a good one (59 percent) rather than a bad one (19 percent).

Shoshana Bryen jpg (3)

Shoshana Bryen, The Jewish Policy Center

Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Policy Center in our 1330amWEBY interview in a forthcoming August 2015 New English Review article commented about the American Jewish divide:

In the Jewish community there is an element that believes any deal is better than no deal. The President said, “Please think of the alternative to this deal.  Think of it,” he said. Clearly, he was leaning in the direction that without the deal, there is war.  There is a group of people in the Jewish community that thinks you must do anything you can, to prevent war.  Anything, everything.  If you give up sanctions and accept demands its okay, because you’re not having war. There’s another group of people in the Jewish community, that says, if you give up everything, you’re going to end up with war anyway, but from a less advantageous position.

Ted Belman of the Jerusalem based blog Israpundit was “shocked” by the L.A. Jewish Journal survey findings pointing to the Shmuel Rosner Journal article, The growing divide between Jewish Americans and Jewish Israelis

Rosner opined:

The Jews of Israel oppose the agreement with Iran. The Jews of America support it. The just-released LA Jewish Journal survey turns an assumption into a fact: The two largest Jewish communities cannot agree on a major world development that could significantly change the state of the Jewish state.

Israel will discover today — much to many Israelis’ surprise (because they don’t much understand American Jews) — that it cannot count on the majority of American Jewry to fight the battle against the agreement alongside it. A majority of American Jews will discover today that amid all the noise made by opponents of the deal, not much has changed for them as a group: They support President Barack Obama; they vote Democratic; they approve of the agreement. American Jews are just like Americans, as sociologist Steven Cohen, who oversaw the survey, writes: They are all skeptical about the deal, but their politics dictate the way they ultimately see it.

My response to Belman was The Jewish Journal publishers hew to a reform movement precept-to repair the world. Shmuel Rosner is a left-wing Israeli journalist who made career of viewing American Jews through that lens including opposition to Bibi and the settler movement. If you look at who consulted on this survey – the West Coast Reform seminary of UAHC- there are likely two biases in both framing questions and population sampling. The first is support for J Street among the reform movement leadership and seminary academics. There are 600 members of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet largely drawn from the Reform movement pulpits in the U.S.  The second is the liberal reform readership of theJewish Journal editions across the U.S.  Increasingly, it seems liberal Jews view Israel as alien to their assimilationist values. That meme comes through in Michael Oren’s memoir.Ally.

Essentially, the Reform movement in the U.S. has returned to its traditional pre WWII anti- Zionist roots.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.