Analysis: Sinai saga casts light on new regional dynamic

Teheran's role in new cold war grows clearer as Iranian proxy terror cells cross red lines in Cairo.

Sinai huts 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  (file))
Sinai huts 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski (file))
The latest revelations of Hizbullah involvement in northern Sinai cast a sudden light on a silent war currently under way across the Middle East and beyond it. The events in Sinai showcase a number of defining factors of this new, Middle Eastern Cold War. Firstly, the Sinai events confirm that where there is disorder, weak central government and ongoing local conflict - there is Iran. Northern Sinai provides a near-perfect environment for the activities of the clandestine arms of Iranian government and its proxies. As a result of long-term indifference on the part of the Egyptian authorities, an entire local economy based on smuggling and lawlessness has grown up among the Beduin of the northern Sinai. Over the last decade, Sunni global jihad groups have moved in to take advantage of the tempting prospects offered by the combination of lawlessness, light government, nearness to Israel and the close proximity of large numbers of western and Israeli tourists. Sunni jihadi terror attacks took place in Taba in 2004, Sharm e-Sheikh in 2005 and Dahab in 2006. It is now clear that Sunni global Jihad groups were not the only ones to see the potential in northern Sinai. The infinitely more serious networks of Iran and its proxy Hizbullah have made use of the smugglers' trail that leads from Sudan through Egypt and into Sinai to bring the weapons intended to turn the Hamas enclave in Gaza into an Islamist fortress. The growing boldness of Iran and its proxies evidently led to the idea of making use of the ideal conditions available for terrorists in Sinai to build active Shia-led Islamist terror cells in the area. The Egyptian authorities have made half-hearted efforts in the past to prevent weapons smuggling to Gaza. This new threat, however, appears to have constituted a red line - leading to determined action. In particular, the possibility of an attack on shipping in the Suez Canal served to concentrate the minds of the Egyptians. This highlights a second notable factor: namely the extensive current cooperation, behind the scenes, of the Egyptian authorities with their Israeli and US counterparts. Again - the offer of advice, information and assistance from Israel and the US is not new. On the contrary, Israeli and US officials have been exasperated in the past by the failure of the Egyptians to take seriously or act upon information readily made available to them. As the lines of the new regional situation become clearer, and as it becomes plain to the Egyptians that they are not going to be able to sit the conflict out - so cooperation is growing. The final and perhaps most important lesson to be drawn from the latest events relates to the nature and role of the Lebanese Hizbullah organization. A debate continues to rage in policy circles - encouraged by fellow travelers and sympathizers with this movement - as to whether it should be seen as primarily a domestic Lebanese political movement, or as essentially a creature of Iranian government. This debate has important policy implications. Elections are to take place in Lebanon on June 7. It is possible that the Hizbullah-led March 8 alliance will form the next government in Beirut. Should Hizbullah win, it will be claimed by its friends in the West that by participating in the elections, the movement has shown that it is primarily a Lebanese political actor. If and when these claims are raised, it is to be hoped that US and European policy-makers will keep in mind the events of the past days in Sinai. Hizbullah second in command Sheikh Naim Kassem told The Los Angeles Times earlier this week that he was encouraged by what he perceived as the "changing perception" of his organization in the West. He noted growing calls for "engagement" with Hizbullah emanating from a number of European capitals, and assured his interviewer that Hizbullah carries out no military operations outside of Lebanon. It is now clear that between giving saccharine interviews to eminent western newspapers, Sheikh Naim Kassem was also directly responsible for the Hizbullah cell in Sinai, led by Muhammad Mansour. Al-Ahram this week quoted Egyptian officials responsible for monitoring communications between the cell and the Hizbullah leadership in Lebanon who confirmed this. A clearer indication of the absurdity of Hizbullah's claims - and the credulity of those western officials prepared to countenance them - would be hard to imagine. Hizbullah has reportedly received $1 billion in the last months from Teheran for its election campaign. Its operatives have now been caught in the searchlight - exposed as wrapped up in Iran's ongoing project to ignite the region. Hizbullah constitutes one of the pieces on the chessboard to be moved at will by the guiding Iranian hand. So a new cold war is under way - and like the old one, it is being fought on a variety of blurred, interlocking fronts: military, paramilitary, political and diplomatic. The most important weapon - vital for all other advantages to be used - is clarity of thought. The latest revelations of meddling in Sinai by Iran and its Lebanese proxy may, it is hoped, contribute to the slow spread of this vital asset. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.