Arafat in danger of being hoisted by Iranian petard
The sudden united western front against Syria, with France joining the US in tabling a UN resolution demanding Syria withdraw from Lebanon was prompted by new evidence of Iranian-Syrian collusion to transform Lebanon into a safe haven for al Qaeda.
Syria has, after a short break, returned into Uncle Samâ€™s crosshairs. The immediate consequences were Israelâ€™s warning to Syria after the Beer Sheba terror attack, and a US diplomatic offensive aimed at forcing Syria to get out of Lebanon.
The criticism leveled against IDF CoS Moshe (Bugi) Yeâ€™elon for his remarks regarding Syria were unjustified. He did not make them out of a sense of frustration and incompetence, as the critics implied. Quite the contrary, the remarks were made in full coordination with the US.
The attack in Beer Sheba got the limelight, but the really important events this week in the Middle East occurred in Lebanon and Gaza.
On the 29th of August a firefight broke out in the Palestinian refugee camp Ein Hilweh, near the port of Sidon, in which two Palestinians were killed, supposedly by operatives of Sabaath al-Nasr, a small radical Islamic Palestinian terrorist organization. It seemed like just another small incident of random violence endemic to this part of the world, and was treated accordingly, relegated to the international mediaâ€™s peanut gallery.
However much more was at stake. The firefight was the end result of a botched assassination campaign hatched by Iran, intended to allow its proxies to replace Arafatâ€™s Fatah movement as the most important armed Palestinian force in Lebanon.
According to western intelligence sources, the attackers were not al Nasr operatives, but Pasderan (Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, an independent elite military force answerable only to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, similar to the SS in the Third Reich) officers.
The prime target of the offensive were not the two relatively junior Fatah officers killed, but Col Abdul Jaafar, one of the most senior Fatah officers in the camp, in charge of internal security.
Ein Hilweh is Arafatâ€™s most important base in Lebanon. Home to some 60,000 Palestinians, it is controlled by a well-armed militia of 5,000 men, with another 5,000 reserves. It is the last Palestinian autonomous stronghold in Lebanon, and as far as the Lebanese government and military is concerned, a foreign country.
Between 2-3 weeks Col. Sultan Abu Einan, the Fatah commander in the camp sent Arafat an urgent communication, warning him that his erstwhile Hezbullah and Iranian allies were planning to take over the camp. According to intelligence sources, Hezbullah and the Pasderan were recruiting Fatah troops, offering them $500 a month for their allegiance. He warned Arafat that unless something was done, Hezbullah would son be able to replace Fatah as the main military force in the camp.
Arafat was caught in a quandary. He has been closely cooperating with Iran and Hezbullah for about two years. He initiated the alliance with Teheran, hoping that Hezbullah reinforcements to the Palestinians could re-ignite the intifada, and that Hezbullah tactics not on the remote Lebanese border but in the heart of Israel would get it to agree to an unconditional withdrawal from the entire West Bank and Gaza.
Despite this dilemma, he realized that he could not afford to lose Ein Hilweh, and that if he let the Iranians and their Lebanese Shiite proxies take over his stronghold without a fight, he would be inviting a repeat performance in Palestine itself. He, better than anyone, knows the extent of Hezbullahâ€™s cells in the West bank and Gaza, he invited them in and set them up.
In addition Arafat is aware of Iranâ€™s cooperation with al Qaeda. He realized that if Iran succeeded in capturing Ein Hilweh, it would become a military base jointly operated by Iran-Hezbullah and al Qaeda. This was a development he was not willing to tolerate, as it could be the last straw, causing the Americans to give Sharon the green light to take him out.
As a result, he ordered Abu Einan and Jaafar to take whatever steps necessary to throw the Iranians and Hezbullah out of the camp, even at the price of a full-scale battle and a rift with his allies. The Iranians decided to try and preempt him by taking out the Fatah military leadership at one fell swoop. They failed, with Jaafar escaping unharmed and Abu Einan suffering only superficial injuries.
Iran however has not given up on its intentions to create military bases for itself in the eastern Mediterranean. Hezbullah has already succeeded in building a 300-man force in Gaza. The base in Lebanon is needed as a logistic and supply center to maintain and increase this force, running men and supplies from Sidon to northern Sinai, to be smuggled into Gaza.
Hezbullah, with a green light from Iran, has already allowed 10-15 al Qaeda operatives infiltrate Gaza. Israeli intelligence has reportedly been aware of this development, but has kept it under wraps. Given this, and other signs of cooperation between Iran and al Qaeda, it seems not unlikely that Ein Hilweh, if taken over by Hezbullah, would be at the disposal of al Qaeda as well. For the Iranians it would have been a win-win situation, enabling them to cooperate with al Qaeda while making the Palestinians the prime suspects if anything went wrong, as Ein Hilweh was supposed to have been taken over covertly. On the surface it would look to remain under Arafatâ€™s control.
A few days before the aborted take over of Ein Hilweh, unidentified Palestinians attempted to assassinate Brig. Gen. Tarek Abu Rajab, deputy head of PA intelligence. The operation failed, he was moderately wounded, but survived. His boss, PA Intelligence Chief Amin al Hindi contacted Israel to allow Rajab pot be treated in Ashkelonâ€™s Barzilai hospital. The reason was that Al Hindi believes the assassins were Hezbullah agents, and that the attempted assassination was part of the Ein Hilweh plot, designed to compromise Arafatâ€™s intelligence apparatus. Believing that they would try again, and unsure as to whom he can trust in Gaza, he preferred to se his deputy hospitalized in Israel, out of harms way. Arafat agreed to al Hindiâ€™s request to have his deputy hospitalized safely in Israel.
The recent acts of insubordination against Arafat should be seen in this light. Dahlan and his supporters are primarily concerned that Iran and Hezbullah might take over power after Arafat finally leaves the stage. The young Fatah Turks want to inherit Arafat. They, being more modern and sensitive to western expectations and demands will probably provide the Palestinians better government than Arafat has, but their main concern is to prevent Hezbullah being in a position to take over. They have not waited in Arafatâ€™s shadow for over a decade to see someone else inherit the spoils of power.
Hezbullah, it must be remembered is an Iranian proxy, and would not embark on any strategic undertaking without approval from Teheran. The most important question facing western intelligence experts and policy makers is what is Iranâ€™s goal that justifies it risking its alliance with Arafat, not to mention a possible Israeli and western response.
Iran has two major strategic goals. One is to buy time until it becomes a nuclear power, which it believes will buy it the same immunity from US attack that a similar status has brought Pyongyang. The second is to prevent the US from permanently entrenching itself across the Shat el Arab river in Iraq, and seeing Iraq fall into less than friendly hands.
Recently it has seen setbacks on both fronts. Al Sadrâ€™s revolt, which it instigated and supported, has flopped, at least for now. At the same time it has seen Europe unwilling to continue appeasing it over the nuclear issue.
As Maariv wrote in a previous analysis a few weeks ago, the hardline Iranian leadership seemed unwilling to back down, and would continue its confrontational policy, for both strategic and domestic political reasons. There have been reports of new crackdowns by the clergy on immodest dress, which can only fuel dissent by disaffected urban youth chafing under the regimeâ€™s harsh decrees.
A base on the Lebanese coast under the protection of Beirutâ€™s Syrian overlords would enable Teheran to project power southwards towards Israel, northwards towards Turkey and westwards towards Europe. Teheran hopes this would significantly increase its standing and prestige in the predominantly Sunni Arab world by succeeding in pressuring Israel into accepting a humiliating and unfavorable settlement, something the Arab world has singularly failed to achieve.
Such a base would also enable Iran to initiate terror attacks against France and other European countries, to intimidate them into not joining the US in targeting Iranâ€™s nuclear facilities, either via sanctions or military action. It could also serve a base to mount attacks on the vital Turkish oil port of Ceyhan, the planned major terminus of future pipelines designed to lessen the Westâ€™s dependence on Middle East oil by piping oil from the newly discovered Caspian Sea oilfield.