The crescent moon of Hamas

20 10 2012


Nearly two years after the start of the Arab Spring there are many questions left unsolved, and many situations that are yet to be defined, in one way or another. The future of many revolutionary movements that spread like fire throughout the Arab World, mainly in the North of Africa, is not clear to detail, but in general terms one thing can be assured: the Arab Spring has thoroughly reshaped the balance of power in the North of Africa and the Middle East, and the Muslim World as we knew it has entered in a new, utterly different, phase.

It is a thesis vividly defended in this Association (and in many other think tanks and Academies) that the Muslim World is experiencing now its own war of religion between Sunnis and Shiites, a war that started in the early years of Islam,[1] but that after the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 was renewed with unprecedented vigour. Since that year, Sunnis, championed by Saudi Arabia, and Shiites, led by Iran, have engaged in a series of proxy wars, mainly Lebanon 1975-2000, Iraq-Iran 1981-1989 and the civil war of Iraq 2005-2008. The result of this wars has been the establishment of a “Shiite Axis of Resistance” that comprised Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and, to some extent, Hamas. After the victory of the Shiites in the Iraqi elections of 2005, Iraq can be considered, though with extreme reserves due to the still large influence of Sunnis in the country and in the Government, as part of this Axis of Resistance. Needless to say, Iran has tried to expand this Axis of Resistance to every country where there is a Shiite population strong enough as to can have an impact, like Bahrain, Afghanistan or even Saudi Arabia´s Eastern Province[2], but they have not succeeded.

The Arab Spring probably didn´t start as one of these proxy wars, as it originated in a part of the world (the North of Africa) were Shiite presence is virtually inexistent, but when it came to the Middle East it could not escape that dynamic. Revolutions that could have begun as an honest mean to improve the civil society status were quickly kidnapped by one of the two parties, therefore destroying any legitimacy they could have hold and turning them into a mere extension of the sectarian war. This is true especially in the cases of Bahrain, where the revolt against the Khalifa monarchy was brutally crushed by Saudi and Emirati troops with the acquiescence of the USA, fearful that the ousting of the Sunni monarchs could result in an Iranian intervention in the country[3], and Syria, where the El-Assad regime, backed by Iran, is fighting for survival against rebels and militia men funded by Sunni Gulf States and where the presence of jihadist fighters is not to be underestimated. Overall, the initial winnings of the Shiite block during 1979-2009, and especially after 2001 (with the fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, the two main menaces to Iran), have been contested by the events of the Arab Spring, where Sunnis have seized power in many regions in dispute, and can still, should Syria fall, seize more.

One actor has been especially blessed by this reshaping of the balance of power: Hamas.

We have mentioned before that Hamas has been part of this Shiite Axis of Resistance, assertion that may sound strange, since Hamas is a purely Sunni movement. The reason for this “unholy” alliance was merely a practical one: they didn´t have any support from other Sunni countries or actors. Egypt had signed a peace agreement with Israel on 1978, and so had Jordan done in the beginning of the 1990s. Sunnis in Lebanon were engaged in wars against Shiites, Christians, Druzes and between them, Saudi Arabia was too busy hunting down the ghosts of Imam Ali and his heirs, and Sunni Gulf States were worried only about making money and building skyscrapers. No one cared for the Palestinian trouble, no one but the non-Sunni, non-Arabic Iran. This involvement was consequence of Persian Realpolitik: being extremely unpopular in the mainly Sunni Arabic World, they decided to fully embrace the only cause that was so popular between Arabs that they could forgive Iran for being Shiite and Persian in exchange for his support: the Palestinian cause. Guiding their efforts through Syria, that, as an Allawite regime fearful of Sunni influence, was more than happy to counter this influence by an alliance with Shiite Iran, the Ayatollahs spearheaded all the initiatives dedicated to battle Israel, something that had been widely discussed in the Arab League summits (one is tempted to say that it was the very reason for its creation) but abandoned after 1973. Iran was doing what no other Arab State was willing to do, no matter how intensely they had promised it. In this situation, Hamas was forced to walk the path with the Persians: no other nation would do what they were doing.

Things changed when the fall of Mubarak in February 2011 increased the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Mubarak, due to its alliance with the USA, had denied all moving to Hamas outside the Gaza strip, but the Muslim Brotherhood lifted those restrictions. Not only that: it offered his hand to Hamas, and retired the support that their enemies of Fatah had enjoyed from Mubarak, their strongest and most committed patron. The speech of Mahmoud Abbas at the UN on September 2011 can be considered a last and desperate intent on not losing all his support from an Arab World where the Muslim Brotherhood and akin movements, all of them closer to Hamas than to Fatah, were starting to take control of the streets. If we consider that Hamas is the ideological Palestinian son of the Muslim Brotherhood, we see that Abbas’s fears are substantiated.

However, a mere ideological connection cannot be considered a reason strong enough as to build an alliance in the extremely pragmatic world of Arab politics, especially if loyalties are confronted. Hamas was still part of the Shiite Axis of Resistance, and had its main headquarters in Damascus, the same place where the “apostate” Bashar El-Assad was holding his ground against a rebellion that with time has been more and more influenced by positions nearer to that of the Muslim Brotherhood… not to mention Salafism or even the jihadist ideology of Al-Qaeda. The same Arab street that was willing to support the fairly popular, fairly dying Palestinian cause was demanding Hamas one thing in exchange: to abandon the Shiite (therefore apostate, blasphemer, immoral and so on) Axis of Resistance. Unfortunately for them, that Axis of Resistance was demanding the same statement of unconditional support, especially in Syria, the only Arab country that had truly and incessantly backed Hamas. So they got caught in the crossfire.

A decision was needed, and one that clearly showed that Hamas sided with one part of the Muslim World and, no matter how hard this could be, abandoned the other. Let alone moral considerations of gratitude towards Syria, they could see the harmful effect that Nasralla´s support to the Syrian regime was causing on the popularity of Hezbollah, making the movement lose all the support they had gained with the 2006 war against Israel. They did not want to suffer the same, and not only that, they had no reason at all to suffer it: Hezbollah, as a Shiite movement, was too implicated in the Shiite Axis of Resistance, but that was not the natural place of Hamas. Its natural place was with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni Islamist world, and they ultimately had to accept they could not be between Shiites and Sunnis in a non-accepted mediating effort between the two. Hamas decided to go back home.

Irony also has a place in the complex world of Arab politics: the mosque of El-Azhar, in Cairo, is one of the most important places of Sunni Islamic learning, but was founded by the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty. This is the place where Ismail Haniyeh delivered a speech on 24 February 2012, breaking with the Shiite Axis of Resistance, siding clearly with the Sunni world and declaring the sympathy of Hamas towards the Syrian rebellion. The leadership of Hamas also abandoned Damascus and settled in Sunni countries like Egypt, Jordan, Gaza, Turkey and, especially, Qatar.

Notwithstanding this, such a rupture cannot be considered total. It is for the relation Syria-Hamas, but it isn’t for the relation Iran-Hamas, because it can’t be. Iran cannot afford to lose his main contact with the Sunni World and a Muslim Brotherhood whose star is on the rise, as well as the only gate to the Arab Sunni countries, and neither can Hamas forget Iran, the only country that is still sharing the same objective of totally and unconditionally making war against Israel, and the only country that still offers Hamas more than beautiful words. Not only that: Iran is the only supporter country of Hamas that is not, to any extent, allied with the USA. All of the others mentioned above are, to some degree, allies of the USA in the region, and would Hamas fully embrace them, this alliance could backfire: ties with the Sunni world, linked with the USA, can ironically result in a loss of liberty to achieve the supreme goal of Hamas, which is no other than the utter eradication of Israel. Retaining ties with Iran can assure the Islamic movement that it will always have a friend not subjected to American demands, as well as it serves Iran as the key to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose power and influence has sharply risen, as we have seen.

We can, to conclude, observe how this reshaping of power and influence spheres has largely benefited Hamas, probably more than it has benefited any other state or non-state actor in the region. Hamas has emerged from the turmoil as the only actor capable of playing in the two leagues, strengthened by the empowering of the Muslim Brotherhood and not weakened by the Shiite cataclysm. His main enemy at home, Fatah, has lost the support of Mubarak, and we can foresee an important loss of the control it still holds in the West Bank if Hamas can seize the opportunity. As for the outside, the ending of its long-lasting relation with Damascus is nothing compared to the opening of new countries like Turkey and Qatar, especially since it has not meant the complete rupture with Iran. Clearly the sun (the moon) is rising on Hamas.

Francisco Rivas

[1] Concretely after the death of Muhammad, when a small group of Muslims didn´t recognize the right of Abu Bakr to become the first Caliph, demanding that Ali should be chosen instead.

[2] The main procedure has been the training and funding of the Hezbollah groups, Islamic terrorist factions devoted to expand the religious and political structure of the Islamic Republic. Four Hezbollah groups were created, in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The two latter are virtually non-existing now, and Iraqi Hezbollah agreed to stop violence on January 1st 2012 following the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi soil, though, unlike many other Iraqi terrorist organizations that made the same declaration, they have not given their weapons to the Iraqi Government.

[3] Bahrain was for many years part of the Shiite Safavid Empire of Iran, and claims of Iranian sovereignty over the island are frequent. In addition, approximately 70% of Bahrainis are Shiite.



One response

23 11 2012
Operación Pilar Defensivo « GIN

[…] explicado repetidamente en esta Asociación (concretamente en Hamas rompe el equilibrio (13.3.12) y The rising moon of Hamas) el reposicionamiento estratégico de Hamas, que ha abandonado el eje de resistencia chií para […]

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