Iran plays Hamas card ahead of Israeli elections

Hamas insists on Qatari money; Iran offers training for Palestinian factions; Russia wrestles with its limits in Syria; UAE leads GCC rapprochement with Damascus.

al-monitor Palestinian Hamas-hired civil servants wait to receive their salaries paid by Qatar as a banner showing a picture of Qatar's Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is seen, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip Dec. 7, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Jan 13, 2019

Hamas to Netanyahu: Money or Rockets

“The heads of Israel’s defense establishment believe that Qatar’s financial grant to Gaza played a major role in preventing an armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, but now the third installment of that grant is at risk,” reports Shlomi Eldar. “As of Jan. 8, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given an order that the money is not to be transferred to the Gaza Strip, and Hamas is once again threatening Israel.”

Netanyahu reportedly sent a message to Hamas that he is ready for a cease-fire, now that Knesset elections will be held April 9. “What Hamas wants is Qatari money,” writes Eldar. “Failure to transfer it could lead to an unwanted armed conflict between it and Israel. Then there is the deepening rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which continues to hover in the background. On Jan. 6, President Mahmoud Abbas ordered PA inspectors to leave the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. It was the latest in a series of steps through which he is trying to disassociate his government from the Gaza Strip, which has not been controlled by the PA for over a decade now.

The bottom line, adds Eldar, “is that $15 million were not transferred to Gaza this month. In response, either Hamas or some group acting on its behalf fired a warning rocket at Israel on the night of Jan. 6-7. The rocket was shot down by the Iron Dome missile defense system. This is Hamas’ undiplomatic means of declaring its intent: If there is no money, there will be rockets instead.”

Iran steps up support for Palestinian factions

The pause in Qatar’s support for Hamas provides an opening for Iran. Tehran’s police chief has offered to train members of Palestinian armed groups, as Netanyahu blamed Iran for the lack of progress in peace talks. 

“Further consolidation of relations between Iran and the Palestinian factions is possible, as Hamas and the PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] recognize that Iran is their main supplier of arms and money,” writes Adnan Abu Amer. “If that happens, it is likely these factions would enter a military battle in a unified front with Iran, Hezbollah and Syria against Israel. Former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman had warned of that possibility in October 2017.”

“Al-Monitor spoke to a senior military commander in the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of armed factions that opposes reconciliation with Israel,” adds Abu Amer. “He, too, pointed out that Iran has spared no effort to provide Palestinian factions with military expertise that has significantly improved their capabilities. He noted on condition of anonymity that during the recent military escalation with Israel, the Palestinian factions demonstrated these advanced military capabilities.”

Russia turns to Iraq-Syria border

“It is not clear how well Russia, Iran and Turkey were prepared for the announced withdrawal of US forces,” writes Anton Mardasov. “Due to the possibility of a vacuum appearing, the Astana format guarantors of the resolution in Syria may face additional challenges and burdens in the geopolitical and economic realms. The void temporarily left in the trans-Euphrates region could potentially be settled by the active involvement of the Arab states that are interested in restraining Iranian and Turkish ambitions. Certain Russian experts cautiously point out that Russia may make a deal on this with the Gulf nations. This argument suggests that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi influenced the opposition in Syria's southwestern de-escalation zone in exchange for the restoration of diplomatic contacts with Damascus and Moscow’s permission to expand their presence in eastern Syria. Previously, Emirati and Saudi delegations repeatedly visited the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).”

“Considering the obvious politicking with the Kurds and obscure prospects of stabilization in the region, keeping the border between Syria and Iraq secure becomes a priority,” adds Mardasov. “To accomplish this, military and counterintelligence methods alone will not suffice. It is also necessary to rebuild infrastructure in the areas where numerous Arab tribes, both large and small, live. Their own views have transformed substantially during the years under Islamic State (IS) control. Moreover, permanent poverty, destruction, involvement of pro-Iranian militants and the opening of “cultural centers” compel the communities to support radical structures.

“However, Russia had supposedly failed to develop fully functioning counterterrorism structures in Iraq,” continues Mardasov. “As a result, Moscow focused on the ad hoc approach, solving issues such as the identification of Russian nationals fighting in Iraq and the deployment of special forces in the town of Abu Kamal near the border. Thus, even if this type of cooperation is suitable for the local counterterrorism effort, it is hardly efficient to eliminate developed Islamist networks. But these measures allow for diversification of logistic routes inside the so-called Shiite corridor between Iran and Lebanon.”

UAE leads Syria rapprochement

“Despite probably preferring not to deal with Assad’s regime, the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] states accept that doing so is the only way for the oil-rich Gulf monarchies to exercise influence in post-conflict Syria,” writes Giorgio Cafiero.

“It appears logical that apart from Oman, which never cut its ties with Assad’s government, the UAE [United Arab Emirates] is the GCC member most supportive of the greater Arab world re-accepting Damascus into its diplomatic ranks and re-engaging the regime,” explains Cafiero. “In contrast to Saudi Arabia, the UAE was never a major supporter of the anti-Assad rebellion due to its strong and overriding Islamist identity that led Abu Dhabi to fear that the secular Syrian leader’s ouster could pave the way for a Muslim Brotherhood government to ascend to power in Damascus, much like in Cairo in 2012.”

“The closeness between the crown princes of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, will be key to observe when it comes to GCC-Syria relations,” adds Cafiero. “Analysts expect bin Zayed to use his influence over bin Salman to facilitate a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement with Abu Dhabi, serving as a diplomatic bridge between Riyadh and Damascus.”

“The GCC state that might prove to be the biggest outlier with respect to political and diplomatic re-engagement of Syria is Qatar,” concludes Cafiero. “Despite Qatar’s past role as a major foreign state sponsor of the Syrian rebellion, officials in Doha, like all Arab capitals, recognize that Assad’s regime has ‘won’ the civil war. Thus, the pragmatic reasons for any GCC state to engage Damascus also apply to Qatar. As the Qataris move toward engaging Syria diplomatically and politically, Doha’s view of both Turkish and Iranian activity in post-conflict Syria will differ from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s with the Qatari leadership far more accepting of Ankara and Tehran’s determination to heavily influence the war-torn country’s trajectory. Whereas the UAE has supported the dominant Syrian Kurdish militia — the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — in northern Syria to push back against Turkey’s actions in the war-torn country, Qatar has expressed its full support for Ankara’s anti-YPG/anti-Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) operations in both Syria and Iraq. Similarly, in a sign that Qatar has truly escaped the Saudi shadow, earlier this month Doha’s ambassador to Moscow spoke about Iran’s “legitimate interests” in Syria.”

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