June 23, 2007

A Warning from Gaza

By Michael J. Totten

Efraim Halevy writes about Hamas in the New Republic.
The handwriting was on the wall; everybody knew that there would be a showdown between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip; everybody knew that Hamas was the overriding force in that territory. In the Middle East where the “Mu'ahmara,” the conspiracy, has been the leitmotif behind every catastrophe, the man in the street knew that the Americans and Israelis had been conspiring with Fatah, that Hamas had been conspiring with the Syrians and Iranians, and that the Saudis were toiling to get things on track and to move the entire region in the direction of moderation. But now, a week after the events that culminated in the takeover of the Strip by Hamas, people are just now overcoming their surprise.
Let’s see: the Americans are siding with a weak government compromised and undermined by militarily superior terrorists, the Syrians and Iranians are backing the terrorists, and the Saudis are trying to broker some kind of moderate compromise. Sound familiar? It should.

Here is Michael Young in Beirut’s Daily Star:

In recent days, some have suggested that Hizbullah intends to do in Lebanon, or part of Lebanon, what Hamas did in Gaza. The reality may be worse, if more subtle. A statement on Sunday by Hizbullah's Nabil Qaouk could be read as notification that the party might defend what he termed “Lebanon's unity” by force - shorthand for a military coup. Qaouk's warning that foreign observers should not deploy on the Lebanese-Syrian border, his describing such a project as “Israeli,” his presumption that he had the right to impose a new “red line” on the state, all suggest a new mood in Hizbullah, one that is dangerous.

Hizbullah's attitude is only convincingly explained in the framework of Iran and Syria implementing a project to reclaim Lebanon, but more importantly perhaps to eliminate international, particularly Western, involvement in the Levant. After having won in Gaza, Tehran and Damascus are now pushing forward in South Lebanon. Their joint objective, regardless of their different priorities on other matters, appears to be to remove the Siniora government, undermine United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, and create a situation where the international community would have to accept a Syrian return to Lebanon, which would, by extension, scuttle the Hariri tribunal.

How would such a project be carried out? Here's one interpretation. The priority is to emasculate the Siniora government, whether by taking control of its decisions or through the creation by Syria of a parallel government. In this context, the opposition's calls for a national unity government don't favor unity at all. Opposition parties will only enter a Cabinet they can control and bring down. We know that because they rejected the 19-10-1 formula proposed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which would have given them the means to block decisions they didn't like. But the opposition's insistence on a 19-11 division is valid only for torpedoing a government through the resignation of its 11 ministers. The aim is apparent: to bring to office a president sympathetic to Syria.

If its conditions for a unity government continue to be rejected by the majority, the opposition might create a parallel government or engineer a situation allowing President Emile Lahoud to remain in Baabda. There are surely problems in a second government, not least of which that Sunni representation is bound to be anemic. This could create a troubling sense that a Sunni-dominated Siniora government is facing off against a Shiite-dominated pro-Syrian government, which could backfire regionally against Hizbullah and Iran. There is also the fact that Michel Aoun's bloc might begin cracking if the general enters such a government.

What would the purpose of this second government be, beyond wreaking havoc in the country and putting pressure on Siniora's government? Simply, to neutralize the effectiveness of the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL in the South, by making their interlocutor in the state unclear. Many have overlooked that the Nahr al-Bared fighting might have been a stage in a process to render the army less effectual in South Lebanon. Several units have been pulled out of the South in the past six months - first to prevent sectarian clashes in Beirut after the opposition built its tent city in the Downtown area last December; then to engage in fighting in the North. This has given Hizbullah much more room to maneuver in the border area, while also opening space up for groups operated from Syria. Even if Hizbullah did not fire the rockets against Kiryat Shmona on Sunday - probably the work of pro-Syrian Palestinians - it almost certainly was aware of the attack, and did not oppose it.
Arab governments are finally taking notice that the Islamist radicals they have been tolerating, appeasing – and sometimes even nurturing – are clear and present dangers to them. Their winking and subtle support for Israel during last summer’s war with Hezbollah may have been explainable by the Sunni-Shia conflict, but their sudden fear and loathing of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, cannot be.

I’m skeptical, to say the least, of the West’s sudden swooning for Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. This corrupt band of gangsters and killers destroyed Palestine before it was born, and they haven’t improved an iota since Arafat died. They are just about the most unconvincing allies and saviors imaginable.

But who knows, maybe they’ll turn it around. Not likely, but it’s barely possible. If the Hamas takeover of Gaza really does spook Arab governments, as it should, there is a chance – albeit a small one – that Fatah, the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the rest of the so-called “moderates” will finally figure out that Islamists threaten everyone in the Middle East, not just the Israelis, and that the Israelis, in fact, don’t threaten anyone but the Islamists and, tragically, the civilians who are unlucky enough to live in their neighborhoods.

Apparently none of the Arab governments, except the one in Syria, ever expected or even wanted Hamas to dominate Palestine or even defeat Israel. (Hamas could not do the latter without first doing the former.)

Arab regimes have been playing appeasement games of their own to keep the radicals busy fuming at somebody else.

You could even argue that the Syrian regime has been appeasing Islamists, that support from Damascus is really just a life-insurance policy so the Islamists don’t gun for the Baath Party as they did before Hafez Assad flattened large parts of the Sunni city of Hama. Bashar Assad’s regime is overwhelmingly Alawite. They belong to an extremely deviant and heretical branch of Twelver Shiism that is no longer really even Islamic. The Alawites probably figure that have no choice but to ride the Islamist tiger so they won’t be eaten. Assad also, quite cleverly I must say, whips up Islamists to deter the U.S. and Israel from terminating his regime. No one wants to see the Hamasification of Syria after the departure of the Assads.

I don’t expect most Arab governments to wise up and follow the lead of Jordan’s King Abdullah and forge an actual alliance with Israel any time soon. Some, none more than Syria’s, have gone too far to turn back.

But if Lebanon falls, and if Iran gets nuclear weapons, and if maniacs wearing ski masks take over Iraq after the U.S. withdraws, most of them will eventually figure out who their real enemies are. What’s happening to Abbas, Seniora, and Maliki can happen to any and all of them, even Assad.

The fact that Arab governments threaten to build nuclear arsenals to counter Iran’s, but not Israel’s, all by itself tells you who and what they’re really afraid of. Blowback isn’t just for Americans anymore.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 23, 2007 11:04 AM
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