September 11, 2014
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Ever since Hamas launched its attack on October 7, experts have feared that the conflict, alongside the one in Ukraine, could spill over into a large-scale war between the world's major geopolitical players. Nikolai Kozhanov, associate professor at the Center for Gulf Studies at Qatar University, analyzes how likely this is and who would benefit from such a conflict.
Most of the world condemned the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas, but Israel's massive response on Gaza has shifted the focus of many countries, especially those in the Middle East, to the humanitarian situation for Palestinian civilians even as a temporary ceasefire has been holding for a week.
But how did we get here in the first place — and where are we going?
The central question of who ordered the attack remains unanswered. Notably, Hamas’s political wing seemed unaware, and key sponsors from the Arab world were also uninformed. Iran, too, is attempting to distance itself from any involvement.
An indirect assessment shows that Iran may have gained somewhat from a deterioration in Israel's relations with Arab monarchies. While Hamas has seen a return to the forefront of international influence, the losses suffered by the Palestinian people seem an unjustifiable cost for this resurgence. Moreover, it's doubtful that Hamas will achieve the significant gains they might have anticipated. Any Iranian gains are also outweighed by a range of losses.
It's important to acknowledge that the events of October 7 have shocked and alienated nearly all the countries that had dealings with Hamas. Politicians across the region have reacted with surprise and a certain level of irritation towards Hamas’s actions. Though not publicly stated, within elite circles, the question lingers: "Why now?," especially given the positive trends and improving relations that were ongoing in the region.
Iran has traditionally maintained close ties with Hamas. It provides training to the organization's military wing. But Tehran and Hamas aren’t directly associated or aligned. Hamas is an independent organization, and there were serious disagreements between Hamas and Tehran, for example, on the issue of supporting Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War.
On the first day of the conflict, the Iranians declared that Hamas’s actions had a certain degree of legitimacy, before beginning to distance themselves. Now, at least officially, they are trying to shift the discussion to the possibility of a humanitarian settlement in Gaza and the release of hostages.
Entire generations have grown up in Middle Eastern countries who are tired of this topic.
Hamas has also traditionally had ties to Qatar, and has received financial assistance coming from Doha. For the Qataris, the attack on Israel came as a big surprise. Apparently, even representatives of Hamas’s political wing who were in Doha at the time were kept in the dark. This will likely lead to a strain in relations between Doha and Hamas.
To be sure, Iranians see the disappearance of Hamas from the political map of Palestine as a significant blow to their interests. Still, replacing Hamas with in an alternative could be a bet in the game for dominance in the region. The same can be said about Qatar, for which effective interaction with Hamas and Gaza in general has become a convenient lever of influence in its relationship with both the U.S. and Israel.
At the same time, substituting Hamas is possible only in the event of its military defeat and the transformation of Gaza into territory controlled by Israel. It will not happen soon, and it is not certain that it will happen, full stop. Israel is capable of significantly weakening Hamas. But what comes after that?
Hamas is a product of the realities that on the ground in Gaza. These difficult conditions have given rise to an organization that offers people simple answers to complex questions about their existence and future. This organization expresses the opinion of a certain part of Palestinian society — though not all of it.
Parallels exist with the war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. Ehud Olmert, then Israeli prime minister, had announced that the Lebanon-based pro-Iranian Hezbollah would be erased from the political map or weakened decisively. This did not happen, and now Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric largely repeats Olmert’s. Both were forced to take a tough stance because this is what is expected of them within the country.
Even in the absence of direct elections in some countries, elites are forced to listen to the opinions of the population. The leadership of the Persian Gulf countries, Arab monarchies, and Iran are very pragmatic; they are not ready to die for Hamas or Palestine or greatly sacrifice their interests. But a significant part of the population remains angry.
Many of these countries have hosted Palestinian refugees in the past decades, and people with Palestinian roots are integrated into life in these countries.
At the same time, entire generations have grown up in Middle Eastern countries who are tired of this topic. If you ask any Arab if they support Palestinian independence, they will answer yes. But when asked about their readiness to die for Palestine... they would hesitate.
Funeral of two Hezbollah fighters killed in an Israeli missile strike in the southern Lebanese village of Khirbet Silem on Oct. 10.
A major war would be a direct clash between the U.S. and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. So far, what we see between Israel and Iran looks like a temporary aggravation that fits into the traditional rules of the game, though the situation may change if we see Hezbollah capturing settlements in Israel.
As to Iran and the U.S., their exchange of statements indicates that they are outlining red lines that should not be crossed. It is likely that the parties will try to keep things from boiling over. Hezbollah is an important element of Iranian foreign policy, an important lever. Hamas is not worth sacrificing any Hezbollah fighters or equipment for. Hezbollah would be used as a strike force only if there was a direct threat to Iranians. The recent statement by the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, fits into this paradigm. He expressed moral support for Hamas, but so far there is no talk of increasing military support and opening a second front.
Iran is trying to coordinate its actions with regional players. Iran's foreign minister has already visited Doha twice, the hostage situation being among the topics discussed. The problem for Tehran is that the American administration now has new reasons to increase sanctions pressure on Iran.
A direct conflict with the U.S. or Israel is perceived highly negatively in Iran. Scars from the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s mean that Iran would rather operated through proxies. Hamas is a group that can be sacrificed if necessary.
The desire of global world powers to avoid direct conflict will keep the region from sliding into total war.
Qatar and other Gulf countries perceive any crisis as a threat. Doha is actively playing its role as a mediator and wants to avoid increasing confrontation in the region, since this poses a huge danger for such a small country.
For Saudi Arabia, the political victory of concluding treaties and establishing ties with Israel has been put on hold. There are also risks for the United Arab Emirates, which too has been trying to mend its relations with Israel.
All eyes are on the humanitarian situation and the flow of refugees. No country in the Arab world is ready to accept them, and Palestine's closest neighbors — Egypt and Jordan — see new refugees as a political and economic threat.
For Jordanians, Palestinian refugees are a headache. Suffice it to recall the events of “Black September” of 1970, the clashes between Palestinians and the Jordanian army, which were preceded by an assassination attempt on the Jordanian monarch. The integration of Palestinians has gradually progressed since, but division remains at the everyday level between ethnic Jordanians and Jordanized Palestinians. Powers in Jordan are wary of increasing the Palestinian population and its influence on the country's politics.
The U.S. sent additional forces to the region, but solely to protect its own infrastructure. The Americans have their own terrifying memories — of the Iraq war, which has turned society and the political establishment against direct military intervention in conflicts in the Middle East.
The Israeli ground operation and the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, it would appear, shocked even the Americans. Yes, there had to be a response to Hamas’s attack, but nothing can justify the mass death of civilians.
Russia is moving away from Tel Aviv and getting closer to Tehran. The crisis in Israel is beneficial for Russia — so long as it is manageable. It not only distracts attention from the war in Ukraine, but also provides Russian propaganda with a great deal of vitriolic material to portray the west and Ukraine in a bad light. We have already heard attempts to accuse Ukraine of exporting weapons to Hamas. There have also been attempts to accuse the United States of undermining the stabilization process in the Middle East.
Above everything else, this is an opportunity for Russia to show off its importance. “We are ready to negotiate," they want to signal. "The Palestinians have come to us, we are talking to them, we are talking to Iran, and if you want, we can broker negotiations.” But the U.S. and Israel are clear that they do not see Russia as a neutral party, especially in the context of its aggression against Ukraine, and that no one is going to bring Moscow in as referee at the negotiating table.
However, if the entire region begins to burn, and if there is a threat that the conflict will negatively affect Moscow’s positions in the post-Soviet space, I believe Russia will make certain efforts to reduce tensions. The latest initiatives that Russia submitted to the UN (a draft resolution and amendments) were received positively in the region. I expected it to be some kind of dummy. But, having read it, I can say that they were not devoid of reason and consideration. Of course, Moscow is doing all this not for the sake of Palestinian people or for the sake of Israel, but solely to serve more global Russian objectives, which are also related to its invasion of Ukraine.
I generally don’t like historical parallels, but I associate the attack on October 7 with two events. The first is the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They did not become an existential threat for America, but they led to a complete reconfiguration of its foreign policy. The Israeli leadership today perceives the October 7 attack in much the same way.
But there is another historical parallel — with the bullet fired in Sarajevo that triggered World War I. Nobody wanted war, but the stakes gradually increased and that one spark ultimately set the world ablaze.
The Americans are trying to respond very selectively to attacks by Iranian “proxies,” but the rhetoric is growing increasingly harsh. The Iranians are also trying to de-escalate the situation in the political arena, but through their “proxies” they attack Israel. Such a step-by-step escalation of the situation is fraught with terrible consequences.
While, any attempts by Iran to somehow improve relations with the Europe and the U.S. have been put off or trashed, the Americans do not want to start a war just prior to the presidential elections. The war in the Middle East will without any doubt be a long conflict: a sluggish military operation in Gaza, accompanied by humanitarian and diplomatic crises. However, the desire of regional powers and global world powers to avoid direct conflict, I believe, will keep the region from sliding into total war.