In the Gaza Strip last week, the Islamist Hamas movement mounted a successful military coup against the rival Fatah movement, led by the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. In a matter of days, Hamas took complete control of Gaza, so that now the Palestinians, without a state of their own, absurdly find themselves divided in two separate entities: a Hamas-led Gaza and the Fatah-dominated West Bank.
In light of that episode, consider two statements indicative of what is really taking place in the Middle East today. We can begin with what Awss al-Khafaji, a senior aide to Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told the Arabic daily Al-Hayat. Last Saturday, he accused Iran of turning into "the strategic depth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq", and added that Iran's "intelligence services are implicated in terrorist activities in southern Iraq."
Exhibit B is a statement to the press by Iraqi Shiite parliamentarian Abdul Karim al-Anzi, who was minister of national security in the previous government of Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Anzi observed that "Syria is implicated to the bone in what is happening in Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine", and that it has "a hand in the violence and explosions" in Iraq—by which he meant the bomb attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda affiliates. Anzi, rather optimistically, called on the Arab League to deter Syria.
What do these two statements from Iraq have to do with Gaza? They help dispel a pair of unshakable canards in some American academic circles and byways of punditry. The first is that there is no way a Shiite party or clerical regime, for example Iran's, would collaborate with the Sunni Al-Qaeda, because ideologically they are mutually hostile. The second is that there is no way the secular Baathist regime in Syria, led by a minority Alawite community once scorned by Sunnis, would collaborate with Sunni Islamist groups, particularly groups belonging to Al-Qaeda.
Ideology should never be underplayed, but Arabs, Persians, or Muslims can be as pragmatic and cunning as others when their political interests are at stake. Iranians and Syrians see American soldiers deployed on their borders, so they have no scruples about collaborating with Al-Qaeda, or anyone else for that matter, against what they deem to be the U.S. threat. But it's also about accumulating cards for the bargaining afterwards. In creating an Al-Qaeda problem in Iraq or elsewhere, Iran and Syria can help resolve that problem for a high price. The Syrian regime has been particularly adept at sustaining itself by strengthening Islamists, in order to say: "If you ever try to get rid of us, you will be left with them."
So back to Gaza. Very little coverage in the Western media discussed the regional implications of the Hamas takeover. Nor did anyone seem to understand the meaning of the telephone call made at the height of the Gaza fighting by Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas' political bureau, who is based in Damascus. Suleiman, Egypt's point man on the Palestinian file, asked Meshaal to order his men to end their attacks—proof positive that the shots, figurative and real, were being called in Syria, not in Gaza. Indeed, Meshaal has long coordinated closely with his host, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and with Iran—which generously finances Hamas. The Gaza operation was a seizure of power that, plainly, received prior Syrian and Iranian approval, and that undermined the Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement that Hamas half-heartedly signed with Fatah. In that sense, it was a victory for the Iranian-Syrian axis and their Palestinian and Lebanese allies, against the pro-American Saudi-Egyptian axis and their Palestinian allies.
Hamas may be a Sunni Islamist group—it is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—but that has not prevented it from cooperating closely with Shiite Iran, Baathist Syria (which crushed the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in February 1982), and Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah. Does that mean ideology is meaningless? On the contrary. It just means that states or groups prioritize their ideological aims when necessary; and it confirms that Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, rather than immerse themselves in theological disputation, have regarded as their central and common objective the undermining of any peace settlement with Israel. They have done so because they think they can reverse by force what they view as the outrage of Israel's creation in 1948; but also because they see any peace process as a mechanism allowing the U.S. and its Arab friends to enhance their authority in the Middle East.
As for Syria, Assad is being opportunistic. His main concern is to save his regime from accusations that it assassinated Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, in February 2005. A mixed Lebanese-international tribunal is now being set up under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter to go after the culprits. With Syria the main—indeed the only—serious suspect, Assad is understandably anxious. That is why he has been destabilizing Lebanon in recent months, and that includes bolstering a hitherto unknown Sunni Islamist group calling itself Fatah al-Islam.
By allying himself with an Iran unambiguously aspiring to extend its sway throughout the region, Assad is gambling that he will be able to evade the tribunal's headlock; but also, and more vitally for him, to profit from a winning alliance with Tehran and Hezbollah that would break the international community's will when it comes to supporting a sovereign Lebanon, so he can re-impose Syrian hegemony over the country.
Anzi was correct: Syria, but also Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, are playing for keeps in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian areas. And they are mostly doing so in concert. Standing across from them is a U.S. gravely weakened by the Iraq fiasco, pallid European states peddling "engagement", only to watch as Iran and Syria contemptuously ignore them, and Arab states debilitated by regime illegitimacy, usually the result of an absence of democracy. The Iranians and Syrians have every right to feel confident.
Meanwhile, some in the U.S. described as Middle East experts spend an extravagant amount of time not seeing the forest for the trees. In claiming to know precisely who will not deal with whom for what obscure doctrinal reason, they ignore that ideology is usually there to serve power. If ideology becomes an obstacle to reaching one's primary political goals, then enmities tend to be reshuffled. Islamists, no less than ardent secularists or nationalists, will adapt to ensure they might succeed.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.