Meshal and Khamenei in happier times
The Syrian revolution has yet another casualty: long-warm relations between Iran and Hamas have frozen over the latter’s renunciation of Bashar al-Assad. It began a year ago or so when Khaled Meshal was faced with a momentous decision about whether to remain true to his long-time ally or throw in his lot with the largely Sunni opposition (and tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees resident in Syria). Hamas’ leader had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the violent response to the peaceful opposition and felt Hamas could not side with a tyrant. Though he eventually renounced Assad , he did so quietly. Subsequently, most of Hamas’ personnel left their long-term refuge in Damascus, eventually finding a new home in Qatar.
This hadn’t sat well with some in Hamas’ leadership and for a time it appeared that Meshal’s star had waned. But internally, the split was resolved, the leader retained his job and the Sunni Islamist group never turned back from its decision to back away from Assad.
But in the past weeks, both Iran and Hezbollah have gone in exactly the opposite direction. They’ve gone ‘all-in’ for Assad. If this were poker, we’d say they’d bet the house on him. Hezbollah has committed thousands of its fighters to bolster Assad’s rule. They’re currently fighting an all-out battle for the strategic border town of Qusayr. With the rebels announcing that 1,000 new reinforcements have arrived to bolster defense of the town, it appears to be a fight to the end. Hezbollah losses appear to have been serious, with scores of funerals reported in the movement’s Lebanese Bekaa stronghold. The Shiite Islamist group has sent up to 4,000 fighters to Aleppo where they will try to retake the country’s second largest city for Assad.
It’s a curious position for Iran, normally known for its cold, calculation when important issues are at stake. I’d have thought it would be far more advisable for them to pressure Assad into negotiation and compromise with the opposition or, barring that, finding a group among the opposition that could be its proxy. That would ensure it might retain some level of access in a future Syria and guarantee arms transshipment for its Hezbollah ally. Instead, they appear to be playing a losing hand. But no matter how bad the hand, you have to play the cards you’re dealt.
In the poker game that is the Middle East, desperate nations make for dangerous enemies. Not because they may necessarily defeat you. But because you can’t account for how they’ll act. Any small mistake or miscalculation could blow this tinder box apart and start a conflagration. Those who remember Israel’s disastrous Carmel fire of several years ago, might liken it to what could happen in the region as a whole.
Now, Iran has made another momentous decision. It is forcing Hamas to pay the price for abandoning Assad. The $250-million yearly subsidy it offered the Gaza Islamist movement has dried up. Shipments of arms have stopped.
This means that the Syrian crisis has caused a massive realignment. Former allies are now enemies. Those who formerly found little interest in common have been thrown together for better or worse. This too has caused a new instability in the region. When your world is turned upside down and you aren’t sure where to turn, that’s when you are your most vulnerable and there is great danger.
Hamas leaders say they have other allies who will take up the slack. Qatar has stepped forward with a promise of $400-million in aid and a plan to create a $1-billion development fund composed of contributions from other Arab states. It’s not clear where Egypt stands in all this. The Muslim Brotherhood has always been an ally. But the tenuous political situation in Egypt now, along with Al-Qaeda terror cells operating in Sinai and killing army and police personnel, have raised questions about the relationship between the two former allies.
But we have to assume that Hamas, an ever-resourceful movement in even its darkest moments, will find substitutes for Iran. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan is scheduled to visit Gaza for the first time in two weeks. Though in the past two days he has developed political headaches of his own that might change his plans. But Turkey could become an important strategic ally of Hamas, just as that nation’s relations with Israel further worsen. It could more than take up the slack from the loss of Iran and Syria.
There is one party that, though it faces uncertainties, is delighted with Syria’s bloodbath: Israel. When its enemies are disheartened, it sits pretty. A weak, divided Syria, though posing a danger from a potential political vacuum, means there is no powerful champion for Syrian territorial claims in the Golan. No champion for Hezbollah. No arms corridor for Iran. A pretty good deal for Israel.
Unless of course, the victor in Syria is an Islamist extremist group like the al Nusra Front. It would mean a Shiite threat in Lebanon in the form of Hezbollah and a Sunni threat in Syria in the form of Al Qaeda. Add to that Hamas in Gaza and you have almost a perfect storm of Arab resistance. And unpredictable Arab resistance at that. At least with dictators like Mubarak and Assad you had an enemy you knew. Someone, in Margaret Thatcher’s inimitable phrase describing Gorbachev,” with whom we can do business.” But after the dictators fall, what follows, le deluge?