The New York Times has a hopeful but ultimately unconvincing analysis today proclaiming the rise of a more constructive Sunni “axis” in the Middle East. The theory is that Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt are challenging the hegemonic Iran and the civil war-torn Syria, and that this trio’s closer relationship to the Hamas terrorist gang running the Gaza Strip will prize diplomacy and stability over war while weakening Iran.
Of course this is what Western diplomats have hoped–and continue to hope–will one day become a reality. But at this point, not only is it premature to announce this new Middle East, but the thesis has actually taken quite a beating in the last two weeks. Here’s the Times describing the opportunity for a regional shift:
But uprising, wars and economics have altered the landscape of the region, paving the way for a new axis to emerge, one led by a Sunni Muslim alliance of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. That triumvirate played a leading role in helping end the eight-day conflict between Israel and Gaza, in large part by embracing Hamas and luring it further away from the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah fold, offering diplomatic clout and promises of hefty aid.
Let’s start with the obvious objection to this theory, which the Times itself offers in the next paragraph, noting that “while these Sunni leaders are willing to work with Washington, unlike the mullahs in Tehran, they also promote a radical religious-based ideology that has fueled anti-Western sentiment around the region.” They certainly do promote this ideology, and this ideology stands at odds with freedom, peace, and human rights–three things needed in the neighborhood much more than guns, missiles and no-strings-attached cash. This ideology prioritizes “resistance”–code for terrorism against Israel–and as such actually spreads support for resorting to violence rather than act as a break on the inclination.
The second problem with this theory is that Hamas never actually “broke with” Iran, which the article claims. Hamas, in fact, gets weapons from Iran. Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s political chief, went on CNN at the tail end of Operation Pillar of Defense to announce his continuing relationship with Iran. Last night, Palestinians in Gaza put up billboards in four languages thanking Iran for helping them attempt to wage permanent war against Israel.
Is it possible to accept long-range missiles from Iran and $400 million checks from Qatar? Indeed it is, and that certainly appears to be what Hamas is doing.
And of course there is reason to believe that the support for Hamas coming from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership and Turkey’s increasingly Islamist (and, at times, approaching fanatical) government may have the opposite of the intended effect. (Or, rather, the opposite of the effect the Times wishes were intended; Turkey and Egypt probably know exactly what they are doing.)
As Jonathan has written, Egypt’s support for Hamas has emboldened the terrorist group. This is only logical, as Hamas now has a major Arab state that shares a border both with Israel and the Strip that is its ideological ally. I shed no tears for the demise of the Mubarak regime, whose fault much of this is, but from Hamas’s perspective the country went from actively suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood to being dominated by it. The belief that this will cause Hamas to moderate seems like wishful thinking–there certainly is no evidence of it.
Turkey, meanwhile, as the Times has recently reported, has marginalized itself with its support of Hamas. Far from being a regional power broker, its extremist drift has been a major factor in its geopolitical divorce with Israel, robbing the country of its previous claim to fame as the only trusted mediator in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab states.
The Times is certainly correct, however, that the fall of the House of Assad would strike a serious blow to Iran’s influence in the region. Unfortunately, reports of Assad’s fall have been greatly exaggerated. Nonetheless, even a weakened Assad–which is surely what he is now–is good for the region in the long run, though is mostly a source of death, destruction, and instability in the near-term. And it’s hard to argue that Qatar isn’t preferable to Syria as a regional actor. But again, many of these developments have yet to actually happen.
The new Middle East is, for now, strikingly similar to the old Middle East.