Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Are Hezbollah sleeper cells a threat in the United States?

Members of Hezbollah. Washington Free Beacon/Getty. 

Congress is raising concerns about the possible threat that the Iranian backed Shiite militia group Hezbollah could pose a threat in the United States. Washington Free Beacon. Iranian individuals linked to the group have already been caught plotting terror attacks in New York. The threat from Hezbollah has been there for a long time, but as tensions rise between Iran and the United States over the nuclear deal, the fear is that sleeper cells could be activated. Congressman Peter King (R-New York) says that Hezbollah is an extremely dangerous group that can exceed ISIS and al-Qaeda in terms of danger. The vast majority of Hezbollah's forces are in the Middle East but there is evidence of them working closely with drug cartels in the Americas.

My Comment:
It's not often I link to the Washington Free Beacon but I haven't seen this story reported elsewhere. I don't usually like to use them as a source since they are both biased, and biased towards neo-conservatism, and that bias shows a bit in this post. Obviously they are very anti-Iran though in this case it might be justified. 

Are there Hezbollah sleeper cells in America? No doubt in my mind that there are. Are they a huge threat? That I am not so sure about. Given how large and powerful Hezbollah is, and the fact that they are a defacto Iranian militia, I would be shocked if they didn't have operatives in the United States. And we have seen a few cases where their links to the country have been exposed. It would be foolish to argue that the potential threat doesn't exist, it clearly does. 

But I don't think the situation is as dire as the Free Beacon report painted it to be. Sure, Hezbollah is a dangerous group but if they were to go off the reservation they could invite war to Iran. Right now Iran doesn't seem to want that as they got a sweetheart deal with the Obama administration over their nuclear program. Trump keeps threatening to do something about that, but he's distracted by North Korea and domestic issues. Any attack by Hezbollah now would force the issue, and not in Iran's favor to say the least. I can't imagine them just attacking us out of nowhere without approval from Iran. 

I also think that these operatives are probably monitored and known to our intelligence services. Indeed, they might even be infiltrated and should any moves towards a terror attack occur, they could be taken out. There is always a chance that more could slip through the cracks, but I am guessing that any attempt would stand a decent chance at being disrupted or prevented. Then again, our intelligence services, especially the FBI, has dropped the ball so many times with so many preventable tragedies, that we might not want to count on them to get it right this time. 

Finally, Iran is part of Trump's travel ban. That travel ban won't do much to prevent the potential sleeper agents that are already here but it would prevent them from getting any reinforcements. That's not the end all be all solution to the problem but it does reduce the threat quite a bit. 

So if I am not that worried about the threat, why post about it? Because I think that there is a chance that something could happen unrelated to our relationship with Iran. Tensions may be high between the United States and Iran, but it's nothing compared to the tensions between Iran and Israel. They are in a de facto shooting war in Syria right now with Israel regularly bombing Hezbollah and Iranian military units. Iran is moving weapons into place, testing Israel's borders and even vowing revenge for men killed in Syria. 

The situation in Israel is very dangerous and could spiral out of control. If it does that America will likely be dragged into a war with Iran, either by our obligations to Israel or in response to a strike by Iran on our forces in the Middle East or even in the homeland itself. If a war does break out I would not be surprised if there were sleeper units of Hezbollah activated in the United States and they could pull off some terror attacks. This is the worst case scenario and it is one we should prepare for even if it doesn't happen.

Still, all of this is hypothetical. I don't really expect a de jure shooting war between Israel and Iran (or Saudi Arabia and Iran for that matter). Right now most of the Middle East conflicts are proxy cold wars where a lot of people are dying but nobody is actually at war with each other. As long as the fighting remains limited to Syria and Yemen, I don't see the threat of Hezbollah sleeper cells to be that dangerous. 

That being said, I would be a lot more comfortable if I had heard that these cells were being cleaned up. Just because there isn't an immediate threat doesn't mean we have to tolerate members of Hezbollah being in this country. I hope that a crackdown is coming, sooner rather than later. Why take any chances? 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

North Korea and South Korea are in talks to formally end the Korean War.

Soldiers at the DMZ stare each other down. CNBC/AFP.

A local news report says that North Korea and South Korea are in talks to formally end the Korean War, in a major diplomatic development. CNBC. The two Koreas are technically still at war as the war between them ended in an armistice, not a peace deal. The leaders of Korea, Kim Jong Un for the North, and Moon Jae-in of the South, are meeting next week and they are expected to make a joint statement that could outline the end of the conflict. They may also discuss a normalization of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the two countries. If true, the deal would be a welcoming sign ahead of talks between the United States and North Korea regarding denuclearization. 

My Comment:
Though I just got burned by unconfirmed reports, this story is too important to be cautious about. Because if it is true it changes the world. The Korean War has technically continued since 1953 and has lasted far too long. A settlement to end that conflict would be a huge diplomatic victory and the first step towards a nuclear free Korean peninsula. 

It would also ratchet down tensions massively as well. North Korea would no longer be in a position that they could threaten the South and their American allies. South Korea would no longer have to maintain their huge army and defenses. And the US could consider scaling back their involvement there as well. 

All of that is a long way off. We still have much work to be done to ensure that peace is a possibility. The biggest sticking point is, of course, North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile program. North Korea must be willing to get rid of their nukes in order for any peace deal to have any teeth. Simply ending the war on paper is pointless if the North Koreans still have a sword at the South's throat. 

It looks as though that the North giving up their nukes is a real possibility. These diplomatic overtures are the most significant in my lifetime and it really seems like Kim Jong Un has seen the light. I think he understood that the sanctions and threats of military actions were only going to get worse so he decided to fold and get a better deal via peace. 

And a real peace/denuclearization deal really does work out best for everyone. The North Koreans get a lot out of it as well. Sanctions will likely be reduced or eliminated entirely. They would also have a lot more money that they can funnel from these programs back to the economy of North Korea and they would finally be able to trade internationally. Plus they would no longer have to worry about a US/South Korean invasion/regime change attempt. The deal would probably play well domestically as better conditions from sanctions relief, along with international respect that a deal would give, could help Kim's popularity.

South Korea obviously loses a huge security threat and would have a much lower chance of being involved in any wars anytime soon. They also would benefit from a more secure North Korean regime which, if it were to collapse, would cause a European style refugee crisis that could destroy their economy. 

Even China benifits. A North Korean collapse would be just as damaging for them as it would be for the South Koreans. And they would no longer have to worry about Kim going off half cocked and dragging China into a war. Relations with America would be better as well as this would be considered a major foreign policy concision which might lead to a better trade deal. 

And America wins as well. We obviously won't have as many nukes pointed at us, which is a great deal in any case. Plus we wouldn't have to worry about defending our South Korean (and Japanese) allies in any crazy war. We would also have quite a feather in our hat and will perhaps reverse the global reputation as warmongers. 

I really, really, really hope that this deal with North Korea happens and they give up their nukes. But there are a million and one things that could go wrong and derail the whole effort. Two things pop up at me right away. 

First, North Korea has a robust chemical and biological weapons program. Those two might have to go in order to get a peace deal passed. Though getting rid of nuclear weapons would be a start, it would make little difference if North Korea could load an ICBM filled with Anthrax or VX gas and launch it at California. North Korea might not want to give up this deterrence so it could be a sticking point.  

Second, North Korea has a horrible human rights record. Their treatment of civilians is among the worst ever recorded and everyone is going to have a problem if that continues in the future. Some of that will be mitigated by easing of sanctions, which would do much to improve the conditions of North Koreans, but it would still remain a country where people can be sent to a work camp for life just for saying something negative about Kim Jong Un. The treatment of North Korean civilians could destroy the whole peace deal.

Still, I am cautiously optimistic that peace might break out. If so, I sincerely think that the three major players in this drama, the leaders of North Korea, South Korea and America, should be strongly considered for the Nobel Peace prize. If Barack Obama can get one for simply existing, than those three men should get one for finally fixing one of the world's most dangerous tinderboxes, despite their flaws... 

Yesterdays reported airstrike in Syria was in fact a false alarm.

Russian MP's check for weapons in Douma. ABC News/AP.

Yesterday's reports of an additional airstrike targeting an airbase near Homs turned out to be a false alarm. ABC News. Syria had reported that they had shot down missiles targeting the Shayrat airbase near Homs with a second attack occurring at the Dumayr airbase near Damascus. Shortly afterwards, Syria took back those claims and said the incidents were false alarms. 

My Comment:
Ugh, once again we have all been a victim of the fog of war. I commented on this yesterday and now the whole story has fallen apart. In my defense, my sources got it wrong as well, but even so, it doesn't feel good. I will be updating the previous post with a link to this one so people no longer get confused. 

However, this incident does prove one thing. Syria's air defenses aren't that good. They apparently mistook nothing for a major attack and ended up wasting some of their precious missiles. And they didn't realize that they weren't under attack until several hours later. That doesn't speak well of the state of their air defenses which have clearly seen better days at this point in the war. 

I think this also demonstrates that we should be hesitant to rely on reports that come from the Assad government. In hindsight, their claim was fairly unbelievable in the first place. I don't think there is any way that the Syrian air defenses could shoot down a bunch of missiles without any of those missiles getting through. The recent attacks on Syria by Israel, America, France and the UK show that pretty clearly. We have to remember that the Syrian government has their own agenda and at times they don't seem to understand exactly what is going on in their own country. 

I do have to mention that there is a slim possibility that the Syrians really did come under attack but are lying about it now for some reason. That wouldn't make a whole lot of sense but I guess they could be trying to do some kind of psychological warfare against their enemies. I find that extremely unlikely, but with how stupid this story turned out to be, I wouldn't be surprised...

Monday, April 16, 2018

New missile strike targeting Syrian airbase.

Damage to the Shayrat airbase from the 2017 strikes. The Guardian/EPA.

EDIT: It turns out that this story is false. I regret the error but I am leaving this post up to remind myself how easy it is to get a story wrong. 
The Syrian government is claiming that they have shot down missiles targeting the Shayrat airbase near Homs. The Guardian. It is unknown who is responsible for this attack but the US government has said they have no forces in the area. There are also reports of a 2nd missile strike at a different airbase, this time at the Damascus area airport of Dumair. This strike has not been confirmed by Syria, but Hezbollah allies on the ground. The most likely suspect is Israel who has routinely attacked Syria but often denies these attacks, including the one last week.

My Comment:
Looks like Israel is stepping up it's attack on government targets in Syria. This is the 2nd major strike from them in a couple of weeks and a fairly important one. And one that could have severe consequence for everyone. 

Shayrat airbase has been used by the Russians in the past. It is unclear if they were there at the time but if they were than this was an extremely risky attack for the Israelis. Putting Russian troops on the ground at risk could result in retaliation from the Russians, which is, of course, a dangerous thing. 

I have very little doubt that this was Israel. America didn't do it as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made it very clear that last weeks strikes were a one off and wouldn't occur again without a 2nd chemical weapons attack. None of the local governments are good suspects either as some of them don't have the capabilities and the rest don't have a good reason for it. Only Israel does. 

So why are the Israelis doing this? If there were to admit they were the ones responsible, which they won't, they would probably use the chemical weapons attack as the excuse for it. Officially, the Israelis were outraged by that attack and want it to prevent that from happening again. They will say that the US/British/French attacks did not do enough damage. 

Unofficially though? My guess is that the chemical weapons use was just the cover Israel is using to do what they actually want, which is to strike Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria. Both groups use these airbases as a staging area and the Iranians may even use these airbases as a drone base to attack Israel directly. 

Striking Hezbollah targets is self explanatory, they have been at war with Israel for as long as I remember. Israel will always target them and attack them when they can get away with it as they view them as a major threat. 

Attacking Iran seems to be a priority as well. It seems very likely that Israel and Iran will be at war soon so it makes sense to target them, even if it means pissing off the Syrians and Russians. Israel knows that Iran is largely in the war in Syria so they can build bases and supply lines to target Israel directly. This is why Iran has sent so many troops to Syria and is also using Hezbollah to prop up the Assad government. 

The whole Syria situation is a mess now. There are so many factions all jockeying for power and all with different goals. None of the factions, the US included, seem to be interested in actual peace.They all want their own special outcome most of which include the status quo continuing...  

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Editor's Note: No post tonight, too busy shoveling!

An old shovel killed during a different storm in Wisconsin

As you may or may not know I live in Wisconsin and we just got hit with a massive Spring snowstorm. I spent most of the morning shoveling and plan to go out again soon. Given that we got about two feet of snow where I am, I'm not going to bother with a normal post. Even if I end up having time, I won't have the energy. Instead I will be resting and thinking about moving to a place where getting two feet of snow in Spring is unheard off.