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How Gaza Reunited the Middle East: A New Pan-Islamic Front May Be America’s Biggest Challenge

Author: Toby Matthiesen

Affiliation: University of Bristol, UK

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: February 9, 2024/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 13

Link: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/middle-east/how-gaza-reunited-middle-east

Keywords: Gaza, Axis of Resistance, Pan-Islamism, Hamas

Brief:

This article discusses the widening conflict in the Middle East that involves not only Israel and Hamas but also various other actors including Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and the United States. It highlights the convergence of interests among Shiite-led groups and Sunni Palestinians in the face of Israeli aggression in Gaza, blurring sectarian divisions in the region. The author argues that Palestinian liberation has historically unified Sunni and Shiite Muslims, with Iran and its allies increasingly supporting Palestinian armed resistance amid shifting regional dynamics. The conflict in Gaza has sparked a pan-Islamic front against Israeli aggression, posing a strategic challenge to the United States and potentially undermining its influence in the region.

 

Colonial Constructs:

This section explores the historical origins of sectarian divisions in the Middle East, which can be traced back to the schism between Shiite and Sunni Muslims regarding political succession to the Prophet Muhammad. It highlights the role of colonial powers, particularly the British and French, in exacerbating these divisions through their policies following World War I. In countries like Lebanon and Syria, French colonial rule institutionalized sectarian identities within political and legal frameworks. Similarly, the British mandates in Iraq and Palestine favored Sunni-dominated administrations, further solidifying ethno-religious categories.

However, the article also sheds light on instances of cross-sectarian cooperation and alliances. For example, Palestinians established connections with Lebanese Shiites and Iranian activists after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. This culminated in Ayatollah Khomeini’s embrace of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Iran following the 1979 revolution.

 

Despite initial displays of pan-Islamic solidarity, Sunni-led states in the Arab Middle East perceived Iran’s revolution as a challenge to their authority. Consequently, they aligned themselves with Iraq during its war with Iran, prioritizing relations with Baghdad and the Gulf states over Tehran. This geopolitical shift underscored the complex dynamics of sectarianism, nationalism, and regional power struggles in the Middle East.

 

Dividing, Not Conquering:

Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States embarked on interventions in the Middle East, notably the invasion of Iraq. The invasion, which aimed to oust the Saddam Hussein regime, inadvertently empowered Shiite Islamist parties with ties to Iran and Syria. At the same time, it fueled Sunni extremism, as exemplified by the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq, which later evolved into the Islamic State (ISIS). This period also witnessed a brutal sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, which was exacerbated by ISIS’s attempts to establish a caliphate.

Meanwhile, in the West, there was a perception that Sunni Islamist movements, such as Hamas, would struggle to gain widespread support in the Middle East, particularly in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. This belief stemmed from the marginalization of the Muslim Brotherhood and a perceived shift in Gulf Arab leaders’ priorities towards technological advancements and business ties with Israel, thereby sidelining the Palestinian cause.

However, these assumptions failed to account for several factors. Firstly, Sunni Islamist ideologies have an enduring appeal in addressing societal grievances and providing an alternative to autocratic regimes. Secondly, the Palestinian issue remains deeply entrenched in the region’s collective consciousness, despite shifts in political alliances. Additionally, Shiite-majority countries like Iran and Iraq also harbor sentiments of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, complicating efforts to normalize relations with Israel.

As a result, US efforts to push for normalization between Israel and Arab states, such as the Abraham Accords, faced criticism for neglecting the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and control. The absence of a comprehensive plan to address these grievances undermines the prospects for lasting peace and stability in the region, perpetuating the cycle of conflict and extremism.

The article highlights the long-standing unity among Sunni and Shiite Muslims in supporting the Palestinian cause, dating back to the 1931 Jerusalem congress against Zionism. It discusses how groups like Hezbollah, despite being Shiite, garnered support from both Sunni and Shiite communities for their resistance against Israel. This unity has pressured Arab autocrats and elevated Shiite groups supporting Hamas, challenging traditional alliances in the region.

 

Axis, and Allies:

This section highlights the evolution of the “Axis of Resistance” in the Middle East, and the factors contributing to its strength and cohesion. It emphasizes that the rise of resistance forces is not based solely on religious fundamentalism or sectarian identification but is further influenced by factors such as sustained funding, organizational structure, ideology, and social support. The formation of the axis was catalyzed by Western and Israeli military interventions and the policies of pro-Western Arab regimes. The alliance between Hamas and Iran’s Shiite allies played a significant role in shaping the axis of resistance, despite initial challenges and tensions. The text outlines how Iran’s support for Palestinian Islamist movements allowed it to maintain pan-Islamic legitimacy amid regional sectarian violence. It also traces the complex relationship between Hamas and Iran, noting periods of discord during the Syrian civil war but eventual reconciliation, which solidified Hamas’s position within the axis. Despite this alliance, Hamas remains somewhat peripheral compared to core Shiite members like Hezbollah, whose ties with Iran are more extensive and deeply rooted in Shiite ideology.

In 2022, Hamas began reconciliation with the Assad regime, solidifying its position within the axis. It raises questions about the extent of Iran’s coordination within the axis, particularly regarding Hamas’s recent attack on October 7. While there is newfound unity among axis members, there is also uncertainty about their preparedness to join Hamas’s conflict with Israel. The concept of “unity of arenas” is mentioned, suggesting collective defense among axis members. However, there is debate among observers about whether this doctrine is being fully implemented or if core Shiite members like Iran and Hezbollah are cautious about escalating tensions. The article also highlights the independence of groups like Hamas and the Houthis compared to more closely aligned Shiite militias like Hezbollah. Overall, there is ambiguity about the level of coordination within the axis, especially regarding their response to recent events.

 

A Game Iran Can Win:

In this section, the author highlights significant Arab support for Hamas and its armed resistance doctrine, despite criticism of Iranian allied militias for escalating the conflict. Opinion surveys and Arab social media indicate a decline in support for the United States and its allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, particularly following their normalization of relations with Israel in 2020. Recent polls in Saudi Arabia show an overwhelming opposition to establishing ties with Israel, while a Doha-based survey across 16 Arab countries revealed a substantial increase in negative views towards the United States since the start of the conflict.

This section explains how pro-Western Arab governments have failed to halt the conflict, allowing Iran and its axis forces to position themselves as regional leaders and the primary supporters of Palestinians. For instance, the Houthis, previously little-known rebels, gained prominence by disrupting commercial shipping through the Bab el Mandeb Strait despite US and British bombardment. The conflict in Gaza has fostered greater unity across the Islamic world. Ironically, Sunni extremist groups like ISIS now oppose the axis, despite some likening Hamas to ISIS. ISIS recently claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing in Iran, targeting a memorial service for Qasem Soleimani, who was a key figure in the axis of resistance. This act aims to reignite sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites, despite current unity between the two groups.

The text emphasizes that for the United States to effectively address regional escalation, it must prioritize securing a cease-fire in Gaza, ending the occupation, and establishing a viable Palestinian state. Without credible and concrete steps towards these goals, regional powers will continue exploiting the Palestinian issue for their own interests. However, achieving a lasting solution requires the support of all Palestinian factions and major regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, other Arab states, Turkey, Iran, and the axis forces. Despite significant obstacles, such a broad-based and just solution is essential for achieving lasting peace and fostering political and economic cooperation in the Middle East. Without it, the region faces a perpetual cycle of violence, declining Western influence, and the risk of integration in a manner hostile to the West.

 

By: Nabil Kahlouche, Strategic Researcher

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