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Dark Clouds Rising in the Middle East

April 10, 2012
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Russia, an Old Foe Returns

www.wikipedia.org/ Christophe Meneboeuf

One of the most troubling events in the winter months in the Middle East was the re-emergence of Russia as a renewed concern. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow has been a difficult neutral party whose main threat was their large-arms deals to Syria and Libya and nuclear power work in Iran. Yet, despite those negative behaviors, the recent belligerence of Russia on the world stage has made it very clear their alliance with Syria and Iran is more than just one of simple convenience that has turned Russia from a bother to a real problem.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov www.wikipedia.org/ premier.gov.ru

Those worries were perhaps most apparent in January when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov officially slammed impending European sanctions on Iran’s oil industry. In comments published by RIA Novosti, Lavrov said such sanctions would hurt Iranian citizens, while accusing Europe of seeking regime change. He also said it would actually make it harder to launch serious negotiations between Iran and the international community over their nuclear program.

“This has nothing to do with a desire to strengthen nuclear non-proliferation,” Lavrov said of oil sanctions later approved by the European Union. “It’s aimed at stifling the Iranian economy and the population in the apparent hope of provoking discontent.”

This strong line was not shocking in its content. After all, Russia has long opposed sanctions on Iran. But the timing was disquieting. War signals over Iran’s nuclear program were loudly resounding at the time. The European sanctions were virtually viewed as one of the “last chances” to try and prevent a war and still prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. When Lavrov was quoted as speaking out strongly against military conflict with Iran as well, the implication was truly troubling: Moscow is acting like they are okay with a nuclear-armed Iran.

As if words were not enough, Russia has also reintroduced its antagonistic activities in the United Nations. In the span of four months, Russia twice teamed up with China to veto a UN Security Council resolution targeting the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. The first veto was troubling but also not entirely shocking. Both Russia and China were uncomfortable with what happened in Libya, and their reluctance to open the doors to international war in Syria was somewhat understandable, albeit unjustified.

But the second veto in early February—in which the remaining 13 members of the Security Council voted yes, in which armed intervention was ruled out, and in which the Arab League was pushing for the UN involvement—confirmed what had been feared: Russia is actually protecting Assad! Murdering thousands of his own people, shelling one of his own towns, driving tanks and helicopters into civilian areas—it’s all irrelevant to Moscow.

Furthermore, Russia openly admits to selling weapons to the Assad regime. Lavrov, in comments to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Web site, defended the arms deals as fulfilling contracts and providing for the national defense of Syria—not the brutal crackdown on protesters. But defense for Syria against whom? Against Israel? Against the international community? In other words, Lavrov again confirmed what others feared: Russia is in league with Syria’s Assad. And if Russia is willing to stand alone with China in rebuffing the world as a massacre is left unanswered, then what else might Russia be willing to do?

Threatening Neighbors: Iran and Hizbullah

Val Lawless/ shutterstock.com

Russia, however, is more a threat on the diplomatic, long-distance level. Arms shipments aside, it is doubtful that Moscow would want to get into a direct conflict with Israel or the West at this point. Israel has much more pressing concerns from next-door neighbors, especially Iran. As of print time, Tehran’s nuclear program has continued to press ahead and raise more and more international concerns. But Iran has repeatedly raised a threat besides nuclear weapons that could paralyze the world economy and lead to another great depression—blocking a significant portion of the Middle East oil trade.

Iran lies along key naval transit lines for Middle East oil, and their ability to block the Strait of Hormuz could devastate oil transportation from multiple Arab states. The Strait sits at the strategic mouth of the Persian Gulf as it exits to other major seas. In other words, while some oil from the region could still get out, multiple Middle East nations would lose direct naval access to the rest of the world should the Strait be blockaded—and oil prices would then skyrocket. Iranian officials have been openly threatening to close the Strait in recent months, and the general expectation is they would try to blockade Hormuz if their nuclear facilities are ever attacked. That adds one more worry to an already precarious situation.

The other threat in the event of an attack on Iran is reprisals from their proxy, the Hizbullah terrorist organization in Lebanon. Hizbullah is believed to have acquired the missile technology needed to hit almost anywhere in Israel’s population centers. Now, because of the situation in Syria, a new terror has emerged. The Yisrael Hayom newspaper reported that Israel is concerned that Syria could transfer chemical weapons to Hizbullah in light of the unrest and instability of the Assad regime. Such a turn of events would clearly be a game-changer. Hizbullah would not only be capable of shutting up millions of Israelis in bomb shelters but could kill thousands of them with nerve gas and other weapons of mass destruction.

A senior Israeli defense official was quoted by Yisrael Hayom as calling the transfer of chemical weapons basically “a declaration of war.” That is clearly a nightmare scenario for Israel, and one for which war might be worth considering in order to prevent it. In other words, Iran’s nuclear program may not be the only lethal danger demanding a preemptive strike. And a conflict with Lebanon and/or Syria would certainly cause havoc and economic chaos in Israel—resulting in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem being practically paralyzed for a month or more.

The hypothetical Hizbullah chemical weapon threat comes as the terror group and Iran are stepping up international terrorism against Israel. Back in January, the Israeli Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a temporary warning to Israelis, saying that Thailand had arrested a Hizbullah operative and that an arms cache was discovered by Thai authorities. In a separate terror incident, Ynet reported that Iran hired mercenaries in a foiled attempt to attack Jewish targets in Azerbaijan.

Israel is tragically accustomed to international terror threats. But the spike in threats from Hizbullah and Iran, mere months after the US announced the arrest of a suspected Iranian agent planning terrorism in Washington, D.C., certainly gave the appearance of a raising of the stakes. And in the midst of all these threats and dangers, yet another threat has come up against Israel—and this one can strike anytime from anywhere.

Cyber Warfare

Pedro Miguel Sousa/ shutterstock.com

Israel is hated by many in the Arab world today. Now, thanks to the advancement of technology, new enemies are able to attack Israel without tanks, soldiers, or even weapons. All they need are advanced enough computers. Cyber warfare, which against Israel includes cyber terrorism, is a relatively new threat. In January, Ynet reported that Saudi hackers reportedly released the credit card information of thousands of Israelis. The cyber attacks shed no blood, but they made headlines and revealed the vulnerability of Israel’s home front to cyber attacks. They followed a number of less damaging attacks, including some that had targeted Israeli Web sites.

Dr. Col. (Res.) Gabi Siboni

What the credit attacks did show is that hackers can do more than target the Israeli weather service Web page, which Turkish hackers did previously. Though the activities of individual or group trouble-makers is relatively limited, the threat is broader than that. Dr. Col. (Res.) Gabi Siboni—director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and the cyber warfare program at The Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) in Israel—told The Mideast Update that the greatest cyber threat is from national governments.

For Israel, that’s potentially a real concern. Lebanon and Iran are already sworn enemies, and other nations might be willing to support such an attack more covertly with funds and resources. Siboni said synchronized attacks on Israeli companies that “cause substantial damage” to unprotected companies are also possible from nations.

Dan Fayutkin

And it goes beyond national attacks to cyber terrorism. Dan Fayutkin, a senior research fellow and a cyber warfare expert at the INSS, told The Mideast Update he is concerned by the prospect of terror groups combining resources and capabilities for strategically planned and comprehensive cyber warfare. In other words, the Islamic Jihad group has fired many rockets at Israel, but what if they got funding and training from Hizbullah to launch a cyber attack on Israel? What such hypothetical scenarios really underscore is the broad level of cyber threats against Israel. It’s more than just single hackers and national acts of war.

Business is an area where Israel should be most concerned. The most devastating attacks on major government facilities, such as electrical plants or water treatment facilities, are also the hardest to pull off. The defense in such places is normally the strongest. But Siboni pointed out that some business targets are less protected than government ones. As far as Siboni knows, there have not been any successful attacks on “core operational systems” that can cause real physical damage to businesses. Instead, attacks have focused on Web sites or private information.

That does thankfully diminish the lethal degree of an attack—it’s more difficult to put people at physical risk by an attack on an Israeli business, especially if the target is merely informational. But Israel’s economy and the peace of mind of its citizens are certainly in the crosshairs. Along those lines, Fayutkin raised the threat of attacks on financial institutions. While less violent, the psychological impact can make cyber attacks, even those on a smaller scale, a new form of terrorism. Fayutkin said cyber warfare for individuals “destroys their privacy and destroys everyday life…It makes his life uncertain.”

Shadows Growing

The cumulative effect of all these factors, from Russian hostile diplomacy to Iranian threats to cyber warfare, certainly lends a darker outlook on the near future in Israel. The number of Israel’s enemies and the lengths to which they are willing to go to hurt Israel in any way is a list that is growing. And worst of all, the threats mentioned in this article don’t even include Iran’s nuclear program or the turmoil caused by the Arab Spring. In other words, the birth pangs of “wars and rumors of wars” are getting louder and spreading by the day.

This doesn’t mean Israel should fear the future or dread the days ahead. There are many ways and steps they can take to protect themselves, and they still have friends in the US, Europe, and elsewhere. What it does mean is that the Christian world needs to be ever vigilant to encourage their governments to support Israel and to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Behind the dark clouds, the sun is still shining. But get ready—a storm is coming.

Source: By Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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