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Three red cherries and a one-armed bandit

Slot-machines from a previous generation had a large metal handle on their right side. When this lever was pulled down, the one-armed bandit either swallowed your silver dollars or coughed up a trifling jackpot. For the rare winner, victory bells would ring on the machine and three cherries would line up on the glass-covered panel.

Today in the Middle East there are winners and losers. The slot machine’s bells are frantically ringing and three cherries have lined up. Syria is the slot machine in the present scenario, and the three Bing cherries are Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

Why does Russia love warm water?

Tim Marshall in his Prisoners of Geography (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoners_of_Geography) sheds light on Russia’s intense interest in the Mediterranean ports of Syria: “From the Grand Principality of Muscovy through Peter the Great to Stalin and Putin, every Russian leader has been confronted by the same problem: ports still freeze and the North European Plain is flat … This lack of a warm-water port with direct access to the oceans has always been Russia’s Achilles heel, as strategically important to it as the North European Plain. Russia is at a geographical disadvantage, saved from being a much weaker power only because of its oil and gas. No wonder, in his will of 1725, Peter the Great advised his descendants to ‘approach as near as possible to Constantinople and India. Whoever governs there will be the true sovereign of the world. Consequently excite continual wars, not only in Turkey, but in Persia … Penetrate as far as the Persian [Arabian] Gulf, advance as far as India.’”

Russia has three main ports open to world trade:

  • St. Petersburg (often ice-bound)
  • Vladivostok (ice-locked for several months each year, and accessing only the Pacific theater)
  • Sevastopol in Crimea on the Black Sea, officially under Ukrainian rule until recently

Vladivostok is seldom in the news. But on February 26, 2014 Russian forces in green unmarked fatigues seized Crimea. Russia officially annexed Sevastopol (the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Черноморский Флот) on March 18 of that year (www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/putin-was-surprised-at-how-easily-russia-took-control-of-crimea/2015/03/15/94b7c82e-c9c1-11e4-bea5-b893e7ac3fb3_story.html?utm_term=.53654bf4a2df).

Russia’s ‘drang nach Süden’ – its intense search for warm-water ports – has led it to the Syrian port of Tartus – strategically close to the Aegean Sea, the Black Sea and the Suez Canal. There it has constructed major military facilities which will significantly aid Russia in the Mediterranean against a potential clash with NATO forces. Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, says, “It is a thorn in the side of NATO, and an increased presence of Russian ships based in the Mediterranean will pose a big threat to the alliance on the its southern flank” (https://www.ibtimes.com/syrian-civil-war-russian-navy-base-tartus-syria-giving-nato-cause-concern-while-2092371).

In a scholarly article published by ISW (Institute for the Study of War) titled “Russian deployment to Syria: Putin’s Middle East game changer,” the authors conclude: “The Russian deployment to Syria is game-changing. It will alter the nature of international negotiations, compromise and weaken the cohesion and efforts of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, strengthen the Assad regime, and initiate direct Russo-Iranian military operations for the first time. The U.S. and its partners must fundamentally reassess their approach to the Syrian conflict in light of this critical inflection” (https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/193774/Russian%20Deployment%20to%20Syria%2017%20September%202015%20(1).pdf).

For an up-to-date analysis of current Russian military thinking vis-à-vis Syria in light of the upcoming evacuation of U.S. forces, see http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/search/label/Syria.

  • Russia in Syria is the first red cherry.

Hammer and sickle meet the Shi’ite Crescent

Over 2,500 years ago ancient Persia (modern Iran) marched its 500,000 strong army up to the shores of the Mediterranean and invaded Greece. The modern dream of Iran’s ayatollahs and its Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps is to conquer the world for its Shi’ite version of Islamist jihad. Its initial goal is an Iranian-controlled superhighway – a Shi’ite (or Shi’a) Crescent (http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Shia_Crescent_sm.jpg) stretching from Iran through Iraq, into Syria and Lebanon.

From the perspective of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Shi’ite Islam’s triumphant message must press west and pass through the keyhole of Syria. For that to happen, a Shi’ite war of control must be about crushing the Sunni powers and influence of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Yemen, as well as the Sunni forces in Iraq, Lebanon and Kurdish enclaves. But the short-term strategic goal is to establish a land route all the way to Syria’s Mediterranean coast. That way, missiles and rockets can be loaded onto trucks in Tehran and driven by land right into Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s storehouses in Damascus or even to Hezbollah bunkers in Beirut.

Iran is funding and arming Lebanese Hezbollah to the hilt, and is doing the same for Islamic Jihad forces in Gaza. Iranian GPS systems are being flown directly to Beirut where Iranian-run factories in Lebanon are feverishly upgrading Shi’ite Hezbollah’s over 120,000 rockets and missiles, currently aimed at Israel’s population centers. Iranian Fajr-5 long-range multiple-launch rocket systems are flown into Damascus and then transshipped to Hezbollah launch sites  (https://www.jpost.com/Breaking-News/Report-IDF-destroyed-cach-of-Iranian-Fajr-5-missiles-in-Syria-strike-575443). “Death to Israel” is not just an Iranian slogan. The Iranian secret nuclear program is still being pursued with this strategy in mind.

Iran is striving to establish air and naval bases in Syria as Russia has already done (https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1BM1P2). This would extend Shi’ite influence into the Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo) and seed European Islamic communities with the ayatollahs’ revolutionary message.

According to Dr. Azeem Ibrahim (Ph.D Cambridge, International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Adjunct Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College), “Iran now dominates, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, and may also end up doing so in Yemen. It is successfully extending the ‘Shiite crescent’” (http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2018/05/13/How-Iran-is-extending-its-Shiite-crescent-to-Africa.html). See also, “Looking the Wrong Way on Iran”, Shoshana Bryen, June 27, 2017, https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/10571/iran-shiite-crescent).

The brilliant commentator Charles Krauthammer spoke prophetically back in June 2017 about the current threat: “For Iran, Syria is the key, the central theater of a Shiite-Sunni war for regional hegemony. Iran (which is non-Arab) leads the Shiite side, attended by its Arab auxiliaries – Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite militias in Iraq and the highly penetrated government of Iraq, and Assad’s Alawite regime (Alawites being a non-Sunni sect, often associated with Shiism.) This alliance operates under the patronage and protection of Russia, which supplies the Iranian-allied side with cash, weapons and, since 2015, air cover from its new bases in Syria” (Charles Krauthammer, “At stake in the Mideast is consolidation of the Shiite Crescent,” June 22, 2017;https://www.denverpost.com/2017/06/22/the-great-muslim-civil-war-and-us/).

In January 2016, a confidant of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman claimed (in desert hyperbole which is not far off the mark) that the Arab world is being confronted not by a Shi’a Crescent (a sliver of moon) but “by a Shia full moon” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shia_crescent).

  • Iran in Syria is the second red cherry.

Turkey but no Thanksgiving – the resuscitation of the Caliphate

Sunni Islam’s dream of world domination through jihadi dictatorship (the Caliphate) crashed and broke into a thousand pieces on March 3, 1924. On that day Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of the Turkish Republic, constitutionally abolished the Caliphate. But some dreams die hard. The vision of a reborn and conquering Caliphate inspires and animates many jihadi Muslims. It is the crown jewels of such organizations as the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qa’eda and ISIS.

The current President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan is actively pursuing a dominant role for Turkey over the entire Muslim world. Erdogan is seen by close associates as the up-and-coming Caliph of a resuscitated Caliphate:

History shows that Turkey’s pursuit of Caliphate glory has left a bloody trail of Christian Armenians and Greeks victims between the 1840’s and 1918. Here are some main milestones (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_massacres_in_Turkey):

Since 1984, Turkey has destroyed 3,000 Kurdish villages and implemented mass transfer of two million Kurds who became refugees in their own country. Turkish army forces conducted massacres of approximately 30,000 Kurds. And Turkey has clearly stated in the past week that it will shortly move into Syria with plans to slaughter the restive Kurdish independence movement.

Turkey’s State-owned Anadolu news agency on Thursday December 20, 2018 quoted Defence Minister Hulusi Akar (speaking of Kurds in Syria) during a visit to a Qatari-Turkish joint military base in Doha. “Right now it is being said that some ditches, tunnels were dug in Manbij and to the east of the Euphrates. They can dig tunnels or ditches if they want, they can go underground if they want, when the time and place comes they will buried in the ditches they dug. No one should doubt this” (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey/turkey-says-syrian-kurdish-militants-will-be-buried-in-ditches-anadolu-idUSKCN1OJ0N8).

For more perspective see “Erdogan is not a benevolent sultan of old, he’s a monster that must be stopped” (Ben-Dror Yemini December 24, 2018:

A massacre of Kurds is set to be carried out by Turkish forces in the very near future
(http://www.timesofisrael.com/turkey-sends-more-troops-to-syrian-kurdish-area-as-us-pulls-out-monitor/).

The vacuum which will be created by the upcoming U.S. withdrawal of forces from Syria will open up opportunities for Turkey to once again butcher its opponents.

  • Turkey in Syria is the third red cherry

A recent conference in Beersheva focused on the three “cherry” nations, offering perspective on the threats involved. The following article is helpful: “Iran, Turkey, Russia threaten Israel in Eastern Mediterranean” (Efraim Inbar, December 17, 2018;https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Iran-Turkey-Russia-and-others-threaten-Western-and-Israeli-security-in-this-strategic-zone-574590).

The Middle East abhors a vacuum

On December 19, 2018 US President Trump announced the upcoming withdrawal of approximately 2,000 US troops currently stationed in northeastern Syria (out of a present total of 2,600):

On December 23 a U.S. defense official announced that “the execute order has been signed” and that evacuation is proceeding.

How is this withdrawal to be understood in light of all the above history and context?

Getting serious about Syria

Many commentators and analysts have deep concerns concerning Trump’s decision. Here are two examples:

Kurdish former Foreign Minister of Iraq Hoshyar Zebari sees the American evacuation as having ramifications far beyond the Kurds. “This sudden change in policy is worrying not only to Syrian Kurds but to all the U.S. allies in the region…The message it sends is that there really is a question of trust. This will cause many governments to rethink their alliances with a superpower that can really can just abandon them and leave them in the lurch and throw them under the bus… Russia, Turkey and Iran will be the biggest beneficiaries…These are the new powers in the Middle East” (Liz Sly, “This time, the United States is betraying more than just the Kurds, allies say”; (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/isis-is-not-defeated-and-will-return-if-the-us-pulls-out-says-americas-syrian-allies/2018/12/20/0e0502c2-03d5-11e9-958c-0a601226ff6b_story.html?utm_term=.f9a97161cafd).

On the other hand, some analysts see positive potential here.

For some time U.S. President Trump has expressed his intention to withdraw American forces from Syria  On April 3, 2018 he declared, “We were successful against ISIS. We’ll be successful against anybody militarily, but sometimes it’s time to come back home … So we’re going to be making a decision, we’ve had a tremendous military success” (https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/president-trump-pull-troops-syria/story?id=54208786).

“As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS. We’ve almost completed that task, and we’ll be making a decision very quickly in coordination with others as to what we’ll do … I want to get out. I want to bring our troops home” (https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/03/trump-wants-to-get-out-of-syria-but-military-advisors-say-isis-isnt-defeated-yet.html).

On that same day April 3, 2018, a few hours earlier in the same city the AmericanSpecial Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk said, “We’re in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and that mission isn’t over, and we’re going to complete that mission.” McGurk added that, while ISIS is on the run, it is not yet defeated.

About-face

On December 13 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed to have Trump and Erdogan discuss the latter’s threat to immediately attack and destroy U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northeast Syria, where American forces are also based. The National Security Council arranged the call, while Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis prepared a list of talking points for Trump, urging Erdogan to back off from hostilities.

On December 14 President Trump spoke with PM Erdogan, but ended up ignoring the script. Erdogan challenged Trump, reminding him that his official reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State. “Why are you still there?” Erdogan asked Trump, telling him that ISIS was 99% defeated and that the Turks could easily deal with the remaining terrorists. Trump quickly pledged to withdraw U.S. troops, shocking both National Security Advisor John Bolton and Erdogan (https://www.timesofisrael.com/trump-decided-on-syria-pullout-during-phone-call-with-erdogan-report/). The President reportedly wrapped up the discussion with Erdogan, saying, “OK, it’s all yours. We are done” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/trump-said-to-have-told-erdogan-that-syria-is-all-yours-we-are-done/).

On subsequent tweets President Trump posted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency” (December 19, 2018,https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1075528854402256896). And on December 23, 2018  Trump tweeted, “President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria … and he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right ‘next door.’ Our troops are coming home!” (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1077064829825966081).

Six days after Trump’s decisive conversation with Erdogan, on Wednesday December 19 the President publically announced the coming troop withdrawals. One day later, on Thursday afternoon December 20 Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis went to see President Trump in a last-ditch attempt to change Trump’s mind. For 45 minutes Mattis argued that America needed to stand by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF), who had taken the lead in ejecting ISIS from its Syrian strongholds. The President refused to budge. At the conclusion of their discussion Mattis handed the President his letter of resignation.

The letter stressed that the issues at stake involved abandoning international allies and not sufficiently blocking hostile moves by authoritarian governments such as Russia (https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2018/12/24/ignoring-history-trump-hands-russia-yet-another-win-in-syria/#12834867115d). “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held … Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/us/politics/letter-jim-mattis-trump.html?module=inline).

Mac Thornberry, top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, scored Trump’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan – another surprise move by Trump that leaked in news reports on Thursday. “Reducing the American presence in Afghanistan and removing our presence in Syria will reverse progress, encourage our adversaries, and make America less safe,” he said (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-mattis/in-mattis-resignation-a-singular-challenge-to-trumps-agenda-idUSKCN1OK2CF).

David Phillips (a Professor at Columbia University, a former senior State Department official, and the author of the new book: The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East) commented, “As soon as the US folds its tent and leaves, Turkey will immediately begin an air bombardment followed by a ground attack by the [Turkish-backed] Free Syrian army. Thousands will die, thousands will be displaced and will be given no haven within Syria. They will be turned away at the Turkish border … For more than three and a half years, the [Kurds] have been our boots on the ground and were the point of the spear in retaking [ISIS command center] Raqqa. Who is going to fight for us in the future when we throw our allies under the bus?” (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/21/james-mattis-resignation-trump-erdogan-phone-call).

“It’s a bad day for Israel,” says Ehud Yaari, a veteran Israeli reporter and fellow of theWashington Institute for Near East Policy. “Israeli decision-makers were left in shock by the US decision … Israel is being left alone on its most vulnerable front … The YPG [Kurdish forces] will be eradicated” (https://twitter.com/NTarnopolsky/status/1075452199772274688).

On December 18 Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “I spoke with US President Donald Trump and yesterday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told me that it was the President’s intention to withdraw their forces from Syria and made it clear that they had other ways to express their influence in the arena … This is, of course, America’s decision. We will study the timetable, the mode of operation, and of course the implications for us. In any case, we will take care to protect Israel’s security and to protect ourselves from that arena” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-gives-cautious-backing-to-us-troop-withdrawal-from-syria/).

Outbreak in Lebanon

The coming war between Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah and Israel is getting closer all the time. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) is interdicting and destroying Iranian, North Korean and Chinese ordinance in Lebanon and Syria on a regular basis (https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-official-says-top-hezbollah-officials-hit-in-alleged-israeli-strikes-in-syria/). Russian fighter jets, radar and anti-aircraft missiles track every IAF sortie, and the Syrians are fast catching up in their ability to operate new Russian systems. The region is a powder keg and one loose spark could trigger a war bringing Russia, Syria, Lebanon and Iran into face-to-face confrontation with the armies of Israel.

The words of the Psalmist prefigure this challenging situation:

God, do not remain quiet! Do not be silent and, O God, do not be still! For behold, Your enemies make an uproar, and those who hate You have exalted themselves. They make shrewd plans against Your people, and conspire together against Your treasured ones. They have said, “Come, and let us wipe them out as a nation, that the name of Israel be remembered no more.” For they have conspired together with one mind. Against You they make a covenant: the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites; Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre. Assyria also has joined with them, They have become a help to the children of Lot… who said, “Let us possess for ourselves the pastures of God” (Psalm 83:1-8, 13).

  • In verses 13-18 of this psalm, the writer calls out to YHVH in intense intercession. We would do well to heed the direction of his petitions, and add them to our own as we pray about these matters.
  • Also, in Ezekiel 38:5 Iran/Persia has a future military role against Israel. That is something worth praying about.

How should we then pray?

  • Pray for your country’s leaders to receive God’s heart and strategies about these matters
  • Pray for your own spiritual leaders to receive revelation about God’s heart and strategies here
  • Pray for divine encounters and revelation for Israel’s leadership about these issues
  • Pray for the raising up of Ezekiel’s army speedily and in our day

This article originally appeared on David’s Tent, December 26, 2018, and reposted with permission.

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Avner Boskey
Avner and his wife, Rachel, live in the Beersheva region of Israel and are dedicated to stirring up the creative arts, worship, intercession, evangelism and the prophetic gifts within a Jewish and Israeli matrix. They oversee Final Frontier Ministries.

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