Iran's Greater Regional Strategy: Dispelling The 'Rogue Element' Myth
By Steve Schippert | June 22, 2007
The violent Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip has effectively severed the Palestinian Territories into an ironic version of the 'Two State Solution.' Rather than an Israeli state and a Palestinian state, Hamas has effectively delivered a divided Fatahland (West Bank) and Hamastan (Gaza Strip) to the equation. This, of course, was long the design, as Hamas began accumulating massive stores of smuggled weapons and munitions, formed an “Executive Force” militia and prepared for the conflict apparently now before us. It must be recognized that Hamas is deeply indebted to Iran for its primary support role in Hamas' survival after Western aid was cut off and funds could no longer be channeled to their activities. Consequently, Iran exerts significant if not decisive strategic and operational influence over the Hamas leadership in both Gaza City and Damascus, Syria. Understanding this and observing Hamas' activities and operations will be key to understanding coming regional events of the summer and beyond, including the potential of another Israeli summer war.
Establishing Dominance In Gaza
Israeli intelligence had warned of Hamas' massive stockpiling of weapons, explosives and ammunition throughout 2006. The immediate threat was perceived as one on Israel and Israelis. And while Qassam rockets flew from Gaza into Israeli towns nearby in a persistent crescendo, Hamas last week resorted to turning its stores – at least initially – upon rival Palestinian power Fatah in a successful bid to gain full dominance within the Gaza Strip.
Since its electoral victory in late January of 2006, Hamas had also begun recruiting for and building its “Executive Force,” the terrorist organization's Gaza answer to Fatah's presidential security forces. In just nine months, Hamas touted a 6,000-man force. The purpose of this force was never to attack Israel, but rather to field a local militia directly under Hamas' control, after negotiations with Fatah after the elections failed to wrest control of PA security forces from Fatah.
What Hamas has ultimately gained, and lost, has yet to be seen. In the short term, they have gained full control of a swath of land wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and Israel's Negev Desert. They have killed, captured or driven off their less violent rivals, evicting what control and power Fatah Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas exerted within the Hamas stronghold.
But in the long term – and perhaps not so long term – Hamas may have done itself significant harm. By forcing Fatah out of their midst and seizing unchallenged control of Gaza, they have afforded the West also to isolate Hamas and Fatah, one from the other, and treat them not as intertwined (if reluctant) governing partners in the Palestinian Authority. The West is now more readily able to treat each as it wishes, and this does not bode well for Gaza's new terrorist sole proprietors.
The United States and the European Union have already begun to restore funding to the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank, with the United States freeing up an immediate $40 million in direct aid, including for arms and training. Israel has restored the flow of collected tax revenues to the new Abbas-appointed PA government created just days ago. This will include handing over $400 million in taxes, collected and held since Hamas' electoral victory 17 months ago, on the assurances that the funds will not be distributed to terrorist groups. Such groups would include Fatah's 'armed wing,' the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Gaza, in the mean time, has had its borders sealed, with the IDF not even allowing fleeing Fatah members passage from Gaza into the West Bank. And if Israel retakes the Philadelphi Route along Gaza's southern border with Egypt, Gaza will be completely and tightly sealed at its land crossings – declared and undeclared (tunnels). Receiving aid of any tangible sort from its principal benefactor, the Iranian regime, will prove difficult at best.
Thus Hamas will finally have full control of its stronghold, but one in an already impoverished and dysfunctional state with little prospect for improvement. Yet Hamas' control is not its own.
The Gaza Storm Was Brewing
In a ThreatsWatch report one year ago on Hamas' massive arms smuggling operations into Gaza titled The Palestinian Buildup For War, we concluded that the Hamas-Fatah confrontation in Gaza was inevitable and that it would result in an isolated Hamas and the unlikely alliance of Fatah and Israel against them.
The power struggle between Abbas’ Fatah and Hamas - complete with a looming July 31 2006 referendum - is so high that not even increased attacks from Israel remains a unifying factor. While many fear another Intifada, the conflict that looms on the horizon will resemble mayhem and chaos more than an Intifada. Hamas will find itself fighting on two fronts: Against Fatah for control of Palestinian governance and, unimaginably, Israel, which will be not only attacking Hamas to end the attacks on its civilians, but also in ironic defensive moves to assist the Fatah forces if and when needed. Which and how many Fatah forces will choose to battle the Israelis rather than Hamas will be an important factor going forward.
This is precisely the situation before us now, fully one year later. But, regardless of Hamas' aims within the Palestinian Territories, their actions and decisions are not their own.
To illustrate this, it is critical to recognize that the most important variable to acknowledge in the entire Gaza-Hamas calculus is that Hamas is directed by their Iranian benefactors and Syrian hosts. Iran has been supplying, training and preparing Hamas for this moment since the January 2006 elections hurled the terrorist group into a governmental majority. Thus, Hamas' decision to attack Fatah and drive them from the levers of power in Gaza was not their own. As Dr. Walid Phares expressed to National Review's Military Blog, The Tank, the decision came down from their “Syro-Iranian” regional masters.
And what this means is that, regardless of what some in Hamas may or may not see as their primary goal in Gaza and the Palestinian Territories, their local ambitions are supported and enabled by Iran and Syria because their violent pursuit serves a greater regional strategy. Just another example of why the argument that Shi'a terrorist groups and states (Iran, Syria, Hizballah) would never cooperate significantly with Sunni terrorist groups (Hamas, al-Qaeda, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades) is a dangerous myth furthered by profound misunderstanding.
The greater strategy – of which Hamas' violent moves are but a part - being played out at a dangerously crescendoing pace throughout the Middle Eastern region is as troubling as it is revealing.
In northern Lebanon, the confrontation initiated by Fatah al-Islam has been a direct challenge to the Lebanese Army. The massive Hizballah-organized obstructionist protests in Beirut which saw hundreds of thousands camped out in tents around Lebanese government centers was a direct challenge to the Lebanese government. Hizballah, a creation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and directly and openly supported by both Iran and Syria, has openly called for the dismantling of the elected Lebanese government and seeks the implementation of a Khomeinist Islamist state.
Barely one week ago, yet another anti-Syrian figure was assassinated in Beirut. Lebanese Minister of Parliament Walid Eido, his son, two bodyguards and six pedestrians were killed when a car bomb was detonated as the MP's vehicle drove by. Such attacks are not a new strategy nor their source a mystery, as Syria seeks to reassert itself over Lebanon while avoiding any UN tribunal and punishment for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri.
Al-Qaeda's frontlines of terror in Iraq are facing enormous difficulty through grassroots Iraqi opposition and a new lethally aggressive American counterterrorism/counter-insurgency strategy led by General David Petraeus. But that has not curtailed the influx of weapons and men directed from al-Qaeda's central command in Pakistan. Nor has it diminished the infusion of Iranian support for both Sunni and Shi'a groups in the theater as well as the deployment of its Quds Force operators there.
Iranian support for Sunni groups in pursuit of their grand regional strategy does not stop at Gaza and Iraq. It arches to the other side of the Persian Gulf and into Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the regime is sending arms - including the armor-piercing EFPs - to the Taliban, al-Qaeda's host and local ally. US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said, Nicholas Burns said last week, "There's irrefutable evidence the Iranians are now doing this. It's certainly coming from the government of Iran. It's coming from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps command, which is a basic unit of the Iranian government."
Regional Strategy, Not “Rogue Elements”
Clearly, the oft-touted disclaimer in certain American circles asserting that the Iranian support for violent attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan comes at the hand of “rogue elements” must be disqualified. Never was Iranian support of Hamas described as “rogue elements” filling in with over $100 million plus arms and munitions after the United States and Europe cut of funds with Hamas' ascent into governance. Because it wasn't.
But viewing the unfolding regional picture and the Iranian hand in each theater, it is counterintuitive at best to suggest that disparate “rogue elements” of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Quds Force leadership took it upon themselves within a hyper-controlled state to complete the strategic mosaic.
For its part, Hamas operates at the pleasure of the Iranian regime, it's primary remaining source for funds and arms. It also operates its Damascus headquarters at the pleasure of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime. And thus, clearly a heavily dependent movement, its decisions and actions are not its own.
Observing Hamas: Looking Ahead for Signs
Going forward into the summer of 2007, it may be instructive to recall the summer of 2006. While Hizballah – also operating largely at the behest of the Iranian and Syrian regimes which provide the lifelines of cash and weaponry – sparked the war with Israel with an incursion into Israeli territory and attacking an IDF vehicle, killing and/or taking captive several IDF soldiers. The operation was neither unique nor original, as it was a near carbon copy of the Hamas-led tunnel raid attack into Israeli territory, resulting in the capture of IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Also, for the first time, Hamas terrorists employed the same effective advanced anti-tank rockets that would later also be employed en-mass by Hizballah against IDF Merkava tanks in southern Lebanon.
The raid and capture of Cpl. Shalit resulted in a fierce Israeli response and massive military incursion into Gaza, Operation Summer Rains. This proved to be the southern front, as Hizballah duplicated the attack and kidnap operation in the Israeli north. Hizballah's later claims that the massive Israeli response was a surprise to them should therefor be considered with considerable skepticism. The terrorist operation into northern Israel was a clear attempt to open a second front against Israel, part of a strategy directed by Iran, who was the principal supplier of both cash and weapons to both Hamas and Hizballah. Iran is, in fact, the life's blood for both groups and both operate with considerable Iranian direction rather than independence.
This history of direction and concert makes the close observation of Hamas actions keenly important, as they may foretell a 'next move' within the greater Iranian strategy in the Levant and elsewhere. Many have predicted another summer war for Israel this year, and Hamas actions may be key indicators in 2007 just as they were in 2006. While Hamas and Fatah fight internally for control of the Palestinian Territories, a bold attempt by Hamas to spark and Israeli military incursion may telegraph the opening of a hot front to the north, and perhaps vice versa.
Hamas will find great difficulties capitalizing on their newfound sole-proprietorship of Gaza soil, if in fact Hamas internally has any designs beyond warfare and terrorist attacks. But, like so many other groups, Hamas has effectively ceded the initiative of self-determination to their Iranian masters. And what Iran wants, Iran gets. Particularly from those who owe them. And as Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza has made their economic isolation far easier for the West, Hamas' debts to their Iranian benefactor will grow ever greater, and the Iranian control over their actions ever tighter.