December 2011 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
WAR CLOUDS MULTIPLY OVER MIDDLE EAST
The already tense Middle East raced closer to a major conflict in December as news reports said Iran is probably on the brink of building a nuclear warhead. This news came after Iran intercepted an American intelligence spy drone that was reportedly gathering real time intelligence information on Iran's burgeoning nuclear facilities. In Washington, the US Defense Secretary declared that the Obama Administration might be forced to take military action to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program. Israeli officials continued to warn that they would have little choice but to launch an attack upon the extremist Iranian regime's nuclear production facilities if no one else-meaning the United States and/or possibly Great Britain or France-takes military action to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. Saudi Arabian leaders held urgent consultations with their regional Arab counterparts as the race toward a mew Middle East conflict gained steam.
Near the end of the month, Iranian leaders threatened once again to halt all oil shipments out of the Straight of Hormuz, even though this would further harm Iran's own weak economy. The oil rich country ships most of its crude by sea via the strategic outlet, much of it headed to China. The Straight of Hormuz is bordered on the north by Iran and on the south by the United Arab Emirates. The United States said that the threatened Iranian closure would be "intolerable" and warned Tehran that it would provoke an international military response. Iran held major war exercises near the Persian Gulf outlet in late December, prompting the United States to send an aircraft carrier and its support ships into the area. Iranian leaders characterized the action as a deliberate attempt to ratchet up tensions in the region-as if Iran's militant moves and war threats were not what prompted the relatively timid Obama Administration to react in such an unusually strong fashion.
Meanwhile copious amounts of blood continued to run onto the streets of Iran's closest regional ally, Syria, as the uprising there became more pronounced during December. This came as the Arab League tried to calm the situation by sending monitors to help insure that more Syrian Sunni Muslim protestors were not slaughtered by the brutal Assad regime. However the move did not halt the deadly bloodshed. The number of defectors from Syrian army and police forces continued to grow during the month, producing an upsurge in highly organized armed assaults upon the regime's security forces led by some of the former military and police commanders. Syrian opposition leaders said a major massacre took place in the middle of December when Syrian army forces opened fire at close range on around 70 Syrian army deserters in the northwestern province of Idlib, killing all of them.
Russian leaders faced charges of vote fraud at home while reinforcing their military protection of the embattled Syrian Assad family regime. Arab news reports said that Moscow sent advanced shore to sea missiles to Damascus to fend off a possible NATO naval attack along Syria's western Mediterranean coast. A Russian naval strike force was also stationed off of the Syrian coast in what analysts said was a clear message to officials in Washington, London and Paris not to intervene in the Syrian crisis. This came as the Kremlin shipped some three million protective gas masks to Syria, which were reportedly distributed mainly to loyal members and supporters of the barbaric Syrian regime. Israeli analysts said the ominous move might indicate that besieged Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his cronies are prepared to deploy such non-conventional weapons against any foreign forces trying to halt the internal bloodshed that left tens of thousands of Syrians either dead or wounded during 2011. Soon after the gas masks arrived at Damascus international airport, the Syrian Vice President flew to Moscow to hold urgent consultations with Russian governmental leaders.
Israeli media reports said NATO member Turkey's armed forces were placed on a full war footing during the month. This came as senior American officials held urgent consultation with their Turkish counterparts over the deteriorating regional situation. Meanwhile press reports revealed that controversial Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is undergoing medical treatment for cancer, although it is not thought to be life threatening at this point. Despite the rift in diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey provoked by Edogan's nearly endless verbal blasts against the Jewish state in recent years, indications are growing that the pro-western Turkish military will stand with Israel and its allies if any military attack is launched against Iran's nuclear facilities, especially if such dramatic action directly involves the United States.
Israeli leaders and the general public have been discussing the growing role that the Middle East crisis has been playing in the prolonged American Republican Party presidential race. In particular, controversial comments by Texas Congressman Ron Paul saying that Iran's nuclear ambitions pose no threat to Israel and the world made headlines in Israel. A later statement by a former top aid to the Republican candidate maintaining that Congressman Paul is anti-semitic and wants to see Israel erased from the regional map were naturally widely reported in Israel as well. The prospect that America's next president might be a practicing Mormon has also gained attention in Israel. The powerful and wealthy Salt Lake-based religious group runs an extension college campus located just above Jerusalem's ancient walled Old City.
NUCLEAR BOMB ON THE WAY?
Israeli media outlets reported the third week of December that an unnamed senior American official had told their Israeli counterparts that they have obtained hard evidence that Iran has embarked on what were termed "activities related to possible nuclear weaponization." If so, this would be crossing the important red line that the Obama administration has publicly laid down as impassable for the Shiite Islamic regime, which frequently vows to destroy Israel. The unidentified US official reportedly added that the "activities" could leave Iran with a nuclear warhead in a relatively short period of time. Media reports have quoted Israeli intelligence agents as predicting that such a bomb could be ready for deployment sometime later this year.
The ominous media reports about a possible pending nuclear weapon in Iranian hands came as new American Secretary of State Leon Panetta said that the US may be forced to take military action if Iran actually begins producing nuclear weapons. "If they proceed, and we get intelligence that they're proceeding in developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it," Panetta said in a televised interview he gave to CBS News. The comments-the clearest yet by a high level US government official indicating that the Americans themselves might be forced to react militarily to such a development-were subsequently reinforced by the Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, indicating that the American military establishment is ready to take action against Iran if that dramatic move is deemed necessary by the Obama administration.
Citing intelligence reports, Secretary of Defense Panetta added that, "it would be some time in around a year" when the Iranian regime would be technically able to build a nuclear weapon. However, he issued a caveat by echoing some Israeli officials who have suggested it might be possible for Iran to construct such a weapon in far less time. Panetta admitted that was a possibility, saying the potential timeline might depend on whether or not Iran has an unknown hidden nuclear facility located somewhere in the country, as some Israeli leaders say they suspect is indeed the case. Officials at the Pentagon later clarified that the US would quickly know if a final decision to build a bomb had been taken by the Iranian regime since international nuclear inspectors who regularly visit the Shiite Muslim country would detect that its centrifuges were enriching uranium up to weapons-grade levels.
IRAN CAPTURES US SPY DRONE
American government officials reluctantly admitted in early December that Iran had taken possession of a highly sophisticated US stealth drone aircraft that was apparently in the middle of an information gathering flight over Iranian territory when it was intercepted. The US initially claimed that the drone had fallen into Iranian hands due to a "technical malfunction" on board. However according to an Iranian engineer who was interviewed by the American Christian Science Monitor newspaper later in the month, Iran was able to hack into the spy drone's GPS navigational system in order to redirect it to land at an Iranian air base. If so (and most experts said this was probably the case), an electronic interception would be an extremely serious development that demonstrated Iran might be a more formidable opponent than previously anticipated if a full blown war develops as a result of any attack upon Iran's nuclear facilities.
Known as the RQ-170 Sentinel, the pilot-less aircraft was subsequently closely inspected by Iranian officials. US defense experts said it was highly likely that Iran will share whatever information it gleans from the inspections with its Chinese allies, and possibly also with Russia as well. The Sentinel drones have been heavily deployed in recent years in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in Iraq, which is now empty of US ground forces after the last American soldiers were pulled out in December.
According to the report relayed by the Iranian engineer, Iranian specialists somehow figured out that the RQ-170 Sentinels weakest point is its GPS. They apparently acquired this vital information by examining previously downed American drones in September. "By putting noise (i.e. jamming) on the communications, you force the bird into auto-pilot. This is where the bird loses its brain," the engineer told the American newspaper. He maintained that the Iranian scientific team then simply programmed the drone to "land on its own where they wanted it to." American defense experts said the Pentagon has known since 2003 that the GPS system on the high flying drones is vulnerable to outside manipulation. The intercepted Sentinel's base was reportedly in next door Afghanistan. Earlier last year, an entire fleet of drones was infected by a computer virus, while two years ago, live drone video transmissions to American ground communications stations were successfully intercepted by Iraqi insurgents.
Israeli media reports said that the captured drone was one of the subjects discussed between American President Barrack Obama and visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak when they met at Camp David in Maryland the middle of December. However the main focus was said to be the evidence mentioned by the unnamed senior American source indicating Iran has actually begun to assemble a nuclear bomb, or is at least on the verge of doing so. Also indicating that stepped up discussions about the situation in Iran and the region are now underway, a series of mid-level American officials paraded to Israel the second half of the month, including Lt. General Frank Gorenc, who commands a wing of the US Air Force. Media reports said had come to the region to organize one of the largest ever shared military exercises between the United States and Israel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's main lieutenant, Wendy Sherman, also traveled unexpectedly to Jerusalem in December, as did Robert Einhorn, the State Department's expert on nuclear weapons and nonproliferation issues. The two diplomats reportedly flew to Israel in order to "tie up" some strings dangling from the President's earlier meeting with Ehud Barak.
The situation in Iran was also thought to be a major topic when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta flew to Ankara to meet with Turkish leaders during the month. This came amid Israeli press reports that Turkey's troops had been placed on full war footing in order to deal with the possible spillover effects of any action in Iran and with the deteriorating situation in Syria, located due south of Turkey. Middle East military analysts say they expect that Turkish air bases would probably be used as a base of operations if American warplanes are ordered by the Obama administration to attack Iran's nuclear production facilities.
IRAN HOLDS MAJOR WAR EXERCISES
Iranian military units began what was billed as a ten day war drill on the last day of December. Iranian Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi told the Iranian FARS news agency that the exercises will end with the test firing of long range missiles that are capable of hitting many regional countries, including Israel. "The firing of missiles is the final part of the navy drill," said Mousavi, adding that, "The final phase of the drill is to prepare the navy for confronting the enemy in war situations." The drill came just a couple weeks after Iranian leaders threatened to shut down all international oil shipments through the Straight of Hormuz, through which about 40% of the world's oil supplies passes each day. Experts say it would be relatively easy to chock off the pass by simply sinking a couple of the dozens of large oil tankers that transit the narrow Persian Gulf outlet each day. The heavy tankers travel along narrow channels that were long ago dug into the fairly shallow waterway to accommodate them. Since Iran has major naval and ground forces in the area, it should be theoretically easy for Iranian military forces to keep rescue crews from removing any seriously damaged petroleum vessels. America's main regional naval base is in nearby Bahrain, meaning its ships also need to transit the passageway when leaving Gulf waters.
Israeli leaders again publicly called on the international community to band together in order to deal with the Iranian nuclear production program. IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz told Knesset members in late December that the Iranian threat can be neutralized if both Israel and the international community take what he called "a responsible stance" on the explosive issue. He added, "Iran is working on a nuclear program for its military. This warrants concern from us, but the threat is not only directed towards Israel. The countries in our immediate proximity, and indeed beyond, are all at risk."
Grantz also took the opportunity to warn Palestinian Hamas leaders that a major IDF ground operation might be unleashed if frequent rocket firings from the Gaza Strip at Israeli targets does not quickly cease and desist. As during most of 2011, a series of Kassam rockets landed inside Israeli territory during December, some striking the cities of Beersheva and Ashkelon. This followed the firing of three rockets the end of November at northern Israel from southern Lebanon. Allied with Hamas, the Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militia denied that its forces had been involved. The Lebanese Defense Minister actually claimed in late December that Israel itself had fired the rockets at its own soil in order to stir up tensions in Lebanon. His highly unusual contention was deemed totally absurd by officials in Jerusalem.
US JETS FOR SAUDI ARABIA
Among other Middle East countries that have expressed grave concern about Iran's actions and intentions is the oil-rich nation of Saudi Arabia. Saudi King Abdullah held a series of urgent consultations with other regional Arab leaders during December as additional war clouds gathered in the area. This came as the Obama administration finalized the sale of 84 advanced F-15 combat jets to Saudi Arabia. The huge transaction, approved by Congress after it was first proposed in 2010, is worth 30 billion US dollars. The combat jets are produced by the American Boeing aircraft conglomerate.
John Earnest, the deputy White House press secretary, said the large weapons sale "will positively impact the U.S. economy, and further advances the President's commitment to create jobs by increasing exports." According to industry experts, this agreement will support more than 50,000 American jobs, engaging 600 suppliers in 44 states and providing $3.5 billion in annual economic impact to the U.S. economy." Along with the F-15s, the package includes the supply of 70 Apache attack helicopters and 72 Black Hawk choppers. Israeli officials have not publicly opposed the weapons transfers, although they reportedly continue to worry that the advanced aircraft might eventually be used in a future Islamic war against the small Jewish State.
ARAB MONITORS IN SYRIA
As domestic upheaval continued to rock the Arab country of Syria, Israeli Defense Minister Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Committee on January 2 that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad will be toppled from power within a few weeks time. The veteran Israeli political leader and former armed forces chief said that the increasing defection of thousands of Syrian military personnel to the increasingly powerful anti-government opposition spells the end of the Assad family dynasty which has ruled Syria for since the 1970s. Barak added that anarchy will probably follow the overthrow of the brutal regime, warning this could easily spill over into the Israeli-ruled Golan Heights, which was captured by IDF forces from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War. He confirmed press reports that Iran and Hizbullah have both been aiding the Assad regime in its fight to remain in power, which cost the lives of over 5,000 Syrians during 2011, most of them opposition protestors.
After imposing economic sanctions on the Assad regime, the Arab League was reluctantly allowed by it to send monitors into the troubled country in December. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said the monitors would remain in place for the time being in an effort to halt the fierce attacks upon anti-regime protestors, who are mainly Sunni Muslims as are most Arab League member states. In another major concession that began in late December, Bashar Assad ordered his security forces to retreat from most of his country's besieged cities and towns, where street battles have raged since last March. However press reports revealed that military forces were merely moved to the outskirts of the cities and towns, and therefore could be easily moved back into urban areas very quickly.
Meanwhile, a web site linked to the Assad regime called the Damas Post reported in early January that the Syrian dictator will soon announce his intention to form a new government which will include prominent members of the opposition. The report added that Assad was briefed by senior government negotiators who are quietly meeting with leading members of the anti-government Sunni opposition. This came as Assad continued to publicly justify his army's repressive actions, which have been widely condemned in most Arab countries and elsewhere around the world.
Russian leaders expanded their military support for the embattled Assad regime during December, sending a naval strike force to dock at the Syrian seaport of Tartus. This came after the Kremlin reportedly rushed over 70 shore to sea Yakhont SSN-26 missiles to Damascus. The missiles have been deployed along the Syrian Mediterranean coast where the Assad regime is keeping a wary eye on American, British and other NATO naval forces that regularly patrol the international waterway between Cyprus and Syria. Both the United States and the European Union have called upon Assad to quickly step down from power. Israeli media outlets said the delivery by the Kremlin in December of over three million protective face masks to Syria was raising new concern in Jerusalem. Syria is known to possess one of the world's largest chemical weapons stockpiles, initially developed with the active aid of the Communist Soviet Union in the 1970s. Bashar Assad has hinted at the possible use of such perilous weapons in the past. Syrian Vice President Farouk Al-Shara flew to Moscow for crisis consultations soon after the naval strike force arrived at Tartus, apparently in an attempt to seek more aid to help keep the repressive regime in power.
With the Middle East spinning around like a Hannukah dreidel in motion, the year ahead looks likely to be one of the most dramatic ones ever experienced in the tumultuous region. This apparent reality should give us all a renewed mandate to obey King David's ancient admonition to "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem," knowing that the Eternal One will "prosper all who love her" (Psalm 122:6).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.