The answer to why Israel has been prepared, since mid-July, to conclude a new truce with Hamas is staring us in the face – if we zoom out from Gaza and look at the whole region.
Make no mistake, as President Obama likes to say. It’s Hamas that delayed accepting a truce, on the terms proposed by Egypt. Israel has accepted essentially that same truce for more than a month. It was Hamas that wouldn’t agree to stop fighting.
I’ve written before about the reason Hamas believes it is so important today to be seen taking the fight to Israel: because other groups – most especially ISIS – are emerging to rival Hamas as quasi-state entities with a Sunni revolutionary-Islamist ideology. There is a very real possibility now of Hamas, qua Hamas, losing its privileged geographic position, and its pride of place in Arab and Islamic geopolitics as Israel’s torturer-in-chief.
It’s not just Western media attention that’s being siphoned off by ISIS: it’s the well-funded strategic focus of big players like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the interest of an up-and-coming generation of jihadi fighters. Nearly six years on from Operation Cast Lead, there are other places to be, if you’re a hip jihadi hoping to immanentize the eschaton. There’s another vision for subjugating Israel and restoring a caliphate.
That vision – as predicted more than five years ago – has moved on from its Oslo-era boresight on “Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.” As long as there is a Palestinian Authority, and Hamas and Fatah exist as viable entities, other organizations and leaders will continue to deal with them (e.g., the Saudis, the Qataris, Iran, the OIC, the Arab League, Yusuf Qaradawi of the Muslim Brotherhood). Hamas and Fatah won’t be dismissed or ignored – yet. But there is an increasingly perfunctory character to the interaction we see with them by those other entities.
With the destabilization ensuing on the withdrawal of U.S. power from the Middle East, a whole new era of possibilities has opened up. “Hamas in Gaza” is no longer the only way, or the best way, to put a hurt on Israel and advance the prospects for a caliphate.
A visit to the map
Imagine you’re a motivated enemy of Israel with a passion for Sunni jihad. Now let’s go to the map. Five years ago, in August 2009, you had little or no potential maneuvering space around Israel. Assad ruled Syria. Jordan was a relatively stable, Western-friendly kingdom observing formal accords with Israel. Egypt, ruled by Hosni Mubarak, had honored a peace treaty with Israel for 30 years. The territory governed by these rulers was neither penetrable nor readily exploitable as a path toward Israel.
Lebanon represented something of a territorial vulnerability for Israel; Gaza, an even greater vulnerability, was blockaded – and the potential vulnerability presented by both plots of territory was being exploited by Shia Iran. But the very stability of all the other players limited a jihadi’s vision for what kinds of “maneuver” were possible. There could be no territorial roaming or conquest, certainly. What the enterprising jihadi had to do was attempt to insert in place somewhere – perhaps with already-organized groups like Hamas, perhaps among Arabs in refugee camps in Jordan – and foment insurrection against the local order.
Even in the next ring outward, rule was secure and boundaries were (mostly) unquestioned: Iraq was politically fractious but still unified; Turkey, while Islamizing, was still careful to observe the niceties of her NATO orientation; the momentum in Southeastern Europe was toward the EU political model; Libya, that perennially strange and ungovernable case, was still unified under Qadhafi; Saudi Arabia dominated the Arabian Peninsula without having to try very hard, and no one outside western Yemen knew what a Houthi was.
Fast-forward to 2014, after the Arab Spring and the rise of Sunni state-Islamism and ISIS, and this whole picture has changed. Suddenly, all of Syria and most of Iraq represent potential maneuvering space. Hezbollah’s concern in Lebanon is as much to hang on to what it’s got as anything else. Egypt has been through the wringer; large swaths of the Sinai Peninsula are a poorly patrolled No Man’s Land, and the kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia are running scared.
The vulnerabilities ripple outward too. Libya is utterly up for grabs. The Mediterranean region hasn’t seen such lawlessness on its southern edge for more than a century; there is real reason to be concerned about the waves of refugees overwhelming Southern Europe and the literal armed danger developing for the seaways and commercial trade. If the wrong people get hold of Libya, the vaunted post-Arab Spring success of little Tunisia next door will collapse like a house of cards.
Once-promising trends in Sub-Saharan Africa are being menaced by an onslaught of dreadful predators: armed Islamism in Nigeria and Somalia, the Ebola outbreak along the West African coast.
Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen threaten to bring down yet another government backed by, and cooperating with, the United States. If they succeed, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates will find themselves flanked: Iran on one side, Iran’s client on the other. And Iran will have the finest frontage there is on the Gulf of Aden and the Bab El-Mandeb Strait: the gateway to the Red Sea.
Further east, Afghanistan is scheduled to fall to the Taliban by early 2015. From western Iran to Ukraine lies a belt of unease and instability, with some parties actively fighting (Kurds, ISIS, Russia, Ukraine) and others waiting for the next shoe to drop (Georgia).
If you had the geostrategic vision of an Islamist Alexander or Napoleon, as ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi does, you too would see possibilities in all this. You would see a way of extending a new caliphate all the way into Spain – by rapid maneuver and force of arms.
If you don’t see the possibilities, it’s because your mental idea of the Middle East and North Africa is outdated and no longer valid. Al-Baghdadi has a very grand-scale vision, but he’s not crazy. And the reason the calculations of all the Middle East’s political leaders are changing is that anyone with an intelligence service and a map sees what Al-Baghdadi does: that formerly unbreachable boundaries are giving way, and no one knows what, if anything, will stop the gathering storm.
Some of the players started this unfolding game with the goal of preserving order, and changing the status quo only in an orderly fashion. Israel, Egypt (under Al-Sisi), Saudi Arabia, and Jordan fall in this category, along with the current rulers of Bahrain, the UAE, Yemen, and Oman.
Some, like Russia, have had status quo changes they wanted to pursue, and were willing to breach the peace to do it even before the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS. But they hope to proceed carefully and do it on their own terms. Qatar under her new emir is turning into this type of player. The internal strife in Turkey is deciding right now whether Turkey will be such a player, or a more disruptive and revolutionary player, like Iran.
Iran is a separate category, and in fact is sui generis, having had an active model of disruptive state-Islamism for more than three decades already. Iran has been acting much longer than ISIS has, with degrees of motivation that have waxed and waned, on a vision for eschatological consummation involving the conquest of Jerusalem, and the proclamation of a caliphate. Iran’s operational model has been to sponsor proxies in place: her client Assad in Syria, the terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas.
And while it’s important to note that Iran’s is a Shia vision of apocalypse, as opposed to the Sunni concept, the most important factor of all is that everyone with an Islamist ideology now sees new possibilities for bringing it about. The proximate catalyst for the new energy among Islamists is not sectarian hatred. It’s the sudden expanse of maneuvering room unrolling before their eyes like a red carpet.
The models of jihad
The ISIS threat has a unique urgency because it is maneuver-based, territorial, and moving rapidly. The Iranian threat has always been state-based, and operates more on the former-Soviet model of proxy sponsorship, influence, and foreign clients. There is a third model – the “grand jihad” model – codified by the Muslim Brotherhood, which until the Arab Spring acted mainly on a global and abstract vision for civilizational jihad. (That vision was certainly not a pacific one; the grand jihad model is fully compatible with, and in fact has inspired and funded, Al Qaeda’s career of terrorism, which until the Arab Spring was designed mainly to sap the will of the non-Muslim world.)
The Muslim Brotherhood model secured big victories in Turkey over the last decade. It suffered a setback in Egypt when Mohammed Morsi was ousted in 2013, but it is by no means defeated. It’s alive and well in Europe and the United States.
These models are putting up active internecine competitors right now, but that does not mean that the Islamists will gratify the rest of us by all fighting each other to the death. They will make alliances that come together and fall apart. They will fight side by side as well as fighting with each other. Each will appropriate the other’s methods where necessary. Ultimately, what each envisions is the same thing: planting the flag of his particular vision at the seat of the caliphate.
A shorthand way of thinking about the three models is that ISIS envisions a maneuver-conquest method for establishing the caliphate; the Iranian vision – and quite possibly the neo-Ottoman Turkish vision – is to gain accretion over the map with a series of political coups abroad; and the Muslim Brotherhood vision is an “induction” method: inducing the walls of civilizational resistance to fall like dominos across the globe.
A key waypoint in the effort is “liberating” Jerusalem. (Which is why I have for some time dubbed this developing dynamic the “race to Jerusalem.”) There is no Islamist who has not made an overt priority of it.* It is a serious and predictable planning factor for all of them. The three models have different approaches to gaining control of Jerusalem, but they all assign it the same importance – even though the seat of the caliphate is to be elsewhere.
Gaza: Once more to the map
With all these factors in mind, let’s visit the map one more time. Hamas occupies prime territory in the post-Arab Spring battle space of the Islamist eschaton. Something that cannot be overstressed is that creating a vacuum in Gaza would unleash a maelstrom today. If Hamas is not occupying Gaza for Islamism, the rush to try to occupy it would make things far worse, for Israel, Egypt, and Jordan (even for Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, in fact), than the current situation with Hamas.
Moreover, Israel can’t occupy Gaza without setting off the same uncontrollable chain of explosions.
Even if the three nations most concerned – Israel, Egypt, and Jordan – came together somehow to crush Hamas militarily and try to build a new political regime there, the repercussions from that deliberate strategy would be uncontrollable. There is no backstop against which to rest, if such dynamics get started. There’s no secure border or stable point of refuge anywhere to count on. Egypt would invite an invasion of jihadi guerrillas in the Sinai with such a policy; Jordan would court the same thing around the Gulf of Aqaba. Saudi territory would be vulnerable in that area as well.
But under today’s conditions, it’s actually worse than that: Egypt and Jordan (and, again, Saudi Arabia, if to a lesser extent) could face jihadi infiltrations on their other borders – with Libya, Sudan, Syria, Iraq – if jihadi groups got especially motivated to race for a suddenly-de-Hamas-ified Gaza. Israel, and by extension Lebanon, would face the same thing on her northern border.
This threat isn’t theoretical. The jihadis are already there. Egypt is increasingly alarmed about the ones in Libya, as Jordan is about the ones in Iraq and Syria. Israelis heard yesterday that cross-border fire had been exchanged in the Golan, as Islamist fighters on the Syrian side – including fighters from the Al-Nusra Front – seized control of a crossing point. Today the UN has confirmed that several dozen peacekeepers were captured by the rebel fighters. This won’t end well; the danger is clear and present.
But the pressures on the nations around Gaza would come from other nations as well as from stateless guerrillas. Iran would inevitably be involved in a feeding frenzy for Gaza, through one proxy or another, and the Erdogan regime in Turkey would consider itself bound to be. Maritime movement could quickly become a factor, creating the potential for very dangerous standoffs as well as a new menace to the tradeways in the area.
Harbingers of the game change
And now, with all of this laid out before us, look at the most recent, unprecedented development in Libya over the last week: strike-fighters from the UAE conducting air strikes on targets in Libya, with Egypt’s help – but without the blessing of the UN or a consortium of global powers.
There’s certainly a dog-in-the-manger aspect to the complaints from America and our European allies about these strikes. But the complaints are a symptom of a legitimate security concern, which is that there is no overarching order now, if the UAE and Egypt don’t observe its forms.**
If those two nations can take matters into their own hands, others can too. It’s not just Russia that can invade a neighbor with impunity, and not just the members of NATO that can conduct expeditionary interventions on their own say-so. Moreover, the air strikes on Libya are a model for far-flung, geography-oriented military activism by Muslim governments. The importance of this as a “bust out” from the post-World War I paradigm of the last century cannot be overstated.
There is literally nothing to stop Turkey, for example, from maneuvering with armed force to back up an aspirant to a new crown in Gaza. Turkey wouldn’t attack Israel outright, of course. But Erdogan could create situations in which Israel’s only options are to either back down or fire on Turkish maritime or air forces.
In these ungoverned circumstances, is Iran less likely, or more, to make good on the kind of threats she has been lobbing at Israel since Sunday? On the pretext of having shot down an Israeli-made drone in Iranian air space, the Iranians just this week have issued a threat of unusual directness and specificity. (I assess that what Iran purports to have shot down was not a drone being operated by Israel; I just don’t have time to write a whole post on everything, but will be happy to answer questions on that.)
They waded in further on Thursday with an announcement that they have begun delivering arms to Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, with a view to the “annihilation of the Zionist regime.”
The threats could be about guerrilla attacks on Israel from the north or east. They could be about Iran establishing her bona fides as a revolutionary anti-Zionist force, as the jihadi cachet of ISIS catches fire. They could even be about Iran harassing and distracting Israel in preparation for conducting a nuclear warhead test, although I consider that unlikely. In any case, it’s a big punctuation mark on a security situation whose instability is spiraling far beyond any regional nation’s capacity to control.
I urge readers to understand that this is actually what matters about Israel’s situation vis-à-vis Hamas. There are very good reasons why the Netanyahu government has judged it best to defang Hamas as much as possible for now, but work with Egypt to continue living with Hamas in Gaza. It will not be up to Israel whether this status quo can last. But it is up to Netanyahu today whether Israel is the one to breach it, and set a match to the tinder.
* For further reading on this topic, see this post and the links from it.
** The point that Obama’s America had led the way in declining to observe the forms of the old international order is an equally legitimate one.