Iran resets Palestinian fault line
Iran is intensifying its support for Palestinian groups in response to being put "on notice" by the Trump administration and reports of the United States' trying to broker an intelligence-sharing relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states.
Ali Hashem writes from Tehran, “With regional wars intensifying from Yemen to Syria, and with US President Donald Trump having officially put Iran 'on notice,' the Islamic Republic has chosen to respond in a different manner. Iran has highlighted its decision a year ago to boost its support for Palestinian factions fighting Israel and to say openly that it's putting this issue at the top of its agenda. … But it's worth mentioning that if it wasn't for the yearlong renewed dialogue between the Palestinian faction Hamas and Tehran, alongside other mainstream Palestinian groups, little could have happened. Indeed, Palestinian groups complain they are left without any Arab or Islamic support to confront Israel, and that their cause is day by day becoming more forgotten and ignored.”
On Feb. 21-22, Iran hosted a conference in Tehran with participants from the major Palestinian parties including Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani both gave speeches at the conference. The Palestinian delegates also met with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani.
Adnan Abu Amer reports that the election of Yahya Sanwar as the head of the Hamas political bureau in the Gaza Strip, replacing Ismail Haniyeh, signals an acceleration of the warming trend in Iran’s ties to Hamas. “Remarkably,” Abu Amer writes from Gaza, “following Sanwar’s victory, there were repeated talks on Hamas’ willingness to promote ties with Iran, which have worsened since 2012 [over Syria]. Hamas’ military apparatus insists on preserving ties with Iran, as Iran is an important source of financial and military support.”
Sanwar is one of Hamas’ most prominent military leaders and activists who was arrested by Israel in 1988 and sentenced to four life terms. He was released in 2011 as part of a prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit, and since his release has been among the top ranks of Hamas leaders, including handling the account that deals with captured Israeli prisoners in the 2014 war.
Turkish limitations exposed in al-Bab
On Feb. 24, Turkey’s military claimed that its forces and Syrian armed groups had finally defeated the Islamic State (IS) in al-Bab and seized control of the city.
The Turkish campaign in al-Bab has revealed the limitations of Turkey’s ambitions in Syria. Syrian armed groups backed by Turkey attacked al-Bab in December to head off an offensive by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which consists primarily of Syrian Kurdish militias. An SDF victory would have been a step toward linking the two Kurdish cantons in northern Syria. Despite Russian support, it took the Turkish military and its proxy forces almost three months to dislodge IS from this town just 18 miles from the Turkish border.
Cengiz Candar writes, “The second alternative plan — Turkey's preferred approach — is moving to Raqqa from Tell Abyad in the north, some 62 miles away. This would allow Turkish forces to proceed through largely empty territory and without the natural barrier of the Euphrates River. This proposal to the United States envisions a line of 12 miles to allow the Turkish army to march to Raqqa.”
He continues, “That plan would divide the territory controlled by the YPG [People's Protection Units] and the US-supported Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party [PYD] into two. Actually, this is the gist of the Turkish proposal: dividing the Kurds so Turkey can provide support to the United States to liberate Raqqa. In fact, Ankara doesn't just want to prevent the two Kurdish cantons east of the Euphrates River uniting with the one on the west (Afrin); it wants to also separate the two cantons on the east.”
With the victory in al-Bab, Ankara may now believe that its hand is strengthened in convincing the United States to back off its reliance on the SDF for the eventual assault on Raqqa, IS' capital in eastern Syria.
Amberin Zaman reports that these may be false hopes. “The Pentagon, and the US Central Command in particular, are in favor of proceeding with the SDF,” she writes. “Should their recommendations be heeded, Trump will sign a special legal dispensation known as Section 1209 that authorizes the Pentagon to train and equip nonstate armed groups ahead of a planned operation to take Raqqa proper.”
Zaman adds, “Turkey is said to have until Feb. 27 to submit its own plans, but Washington remains unconvinced that any of them can work for logistical and other reasons that have been amply covered. It is above all skeptical about the numbers and the battle-readiness of an Arab force that the Turkish army is said to be training inside Turkey.”
Last week, this column summarized Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse reporting on the motley crew of armed groups backed by Turkey, which struggled against IS forces in al-Bab. Candar observes that “a military force that is unable to maintain control over al-Bab even with some Russian support cannot be an asset for taking Raqqa, which is a far more formidable task.”
The United States is seeking to assure Turkey that even if the SDF leads the ground assault on Raqqa, it will not be the force that holds the city once it is liberated. Washington is also sharing targeting information with Ankara against the Kurdistan Workers Party bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. “But Turkey,” Zaman notes, “is unlikely to be satisfied.”
The possibility of a confrontation between the Turkish military and affiliated armed groups on the one hand and Syrian Kurdish forces on the other seems greater than ever, including in Manbij, which is under Syrian Kurdish administration.
Zaman argues that there might be a case for freezing the current battle lines and holding off on Raqqa for now. “That situation may suit the Syrian Kurds just fine,” she writes. “Since the start of the Syrian uprising, the Kurds have displayed a remarkable ability to take maximum advantage of events on the ground, adapting to the dizzying shifts in power balances, playing at once with the Russians and the United States and holding the regime at bay. But they have reached the limits of their territorial expansion and with Turkish forces firmly wedged between their eastern and western cantons, the chances of their being able to link them for now appear to be low. Besides, the prospects that Washington will recognize the Syrian Kurds' self-declared Northern Syrian Federation are fading by the day. Against this background, the Syrian Kurds have little interest in engaging in a battle that is likely to be very bloody and with no immediate benefit for their cause.”
In the meantime, Turkey has intensified its rhetoric against Iran as scapegoat for its troubles in Syria and the region. Semih Idiz writes, “Turkey’s much more modest aim today is to contain developments that have evolved to its disadvantage, rather than trying to be a key player that charts the future of the Middle East. Meanwhile, Iran has become the target of Ankara’s ire for blocking Turkey’s regional ambitions.”
Fehim Tastekin adds that the anti-Iran line also reflects “a desire to grab a partnership opportunity with the new US administration. Gulf countries are delighted that President Donald Trump has again made Iran a target. This is the concept Erdogan has his eyes on.”