The recent meeting in Beirut between Hamas and Hezbollah leadership where the threats to the Palestinian cause and normalisation between Israel and Arab states were discussed is the latest sign that the two resistance movements have revived relations. The reconciliation between the Hamas and Hezbollah has been in the works over the past seven years, after falling out over the conflict which engulfed Syria in 2011, the once long-time allies finding themselves supporting opposing sides.
Until 2012, the political bureau of the Palestinian movement Hamas had been based in the Syrian capital Damascus since it was expelled from neighbouring Jordan in 1999 after being accused of “illicit and harmful” activities. After initially abstaining from taking sides in Syria, referring to it as an “internal affair”, the dilemma Hamas found itself in soon became untenable as the country descended into civil war. Under then-leader Khaled Meshaal, the bureau left for Doha, effectively joining the “Turkish-Qatari axis” and shifting away from its traditional allies which it shared with Lebanon’s Hezbollah; Iran and Syria. Yet a year after the move to Doha and not long after the military coup in Egypt, Hamas felt it prudent to reach out to Tehran and its Lebanese ally.
Co-founder of Hamas, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, has been a vocal proponent over the years for re-establishing ties with the Iranian axis and lamented the decision to leave Damascus. While Hamas’ political bureau chief, Ismail Haniyeh, was a notable attendee at the large-scale funeral earlier this year for the late commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani. His deputy, Saleh Al-Arouri, who accompanied Haniyeh during the latest meeting with Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, has previously engaged in high-profile reconciliatory meetings with the Hezbollah leader after making a similar visit to Iran in 2017. He has made at least five visits to Tehran since then including one last year in which he said Hamas and Iran stand “on the same path” in fighting Israel.
Haniyeh is also up against his predecessor Meshaal and head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, in the November leadership elections. It could be with the “new” political landscape in the region after the open normalisation between the UAE and Israel, he is demonstrating his awareness as a leader in maintaining ties with reliable, strong allies regardless of differences in political or sectarian outlook.
After last month’s peace deal between the UAE and Israel, I argued that it was only the Arab states and non-state actors aligned with Iran who are committed to opposing Israel. Acknowledging that Hamas is indeed part of the “Axis of Resistance”, Haniyeh said in an interview with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV channel that Syria has always supported the Palestinian cause, pragmatically adding: “We hope that Syria regain security and stability as this would support the Palestinian cause.”
Faced with the prospects of the “new” Middle East taking shape in terms of the transparency of the US-Israel-Gulf bloc and other Arab states expected to follow in normalisation, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the UAE and Israel could form an alliance against Iran in order to protect US interests in the Middle East, it is no surprise that Hamas’ representative in Tehran spoke about the need for an alternative alliance between Iran, Turkey and Qatar. After all the three states are the primary financial supporters of the movement.
Iran and Turkey in particular have increasingly shown that they are prepared to work together over shared interests despite fiercely backing opposing sides in Syria. In June for example, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced his country’s support for the Turkish-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) which has been fighting against the Libyan National Army (LNA) supported by the UAE, Egypt, France and Russia. Turkey has also voiced its opposition to US sanctions imposed on Iran and both countries are now looking at ways to boost bilateral trade to $30 billion.
This comes after the Sixth Meeting of the High-Level Cooperation Council between Tehran and Ankara, where regional security was also discussed. One of the outcomes of the meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Hassan Rouhani, was a commitment to continuing joint military operations against Kurdish PKK targets along the common borders. Both countries carried out attacks against the PKK in northern Iraq in June, in offensives dubbed ‘Operation Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger’.
According to one Arab News piece on the operations, Iran and Turkey behave as allies more often than not, with differences easily managed when compared to what they have in common; an increased role of religion in politics and “their shared antipathy towards the US and the West”. It is true that whilst Syria is certainly a stumbling block when it comes to Iranian and Turkish relations, it is one that they choose to settle through diplomacy, with both countries – along with Russia – making up the Astana trio which are set to hold the next round of talks soon after recently reaffirming their commitment to the sovereignty of Syria.
Rouhani perhaps best summed up the relations with Turkey during the high-level meeting when he said in the opening speech: “Our relations have always been established on strong grounds; we have historical relations. Therefore, even though we go through painful periods, our relations are not harmed. The relations of both countries stand on good neighbourly relations, common cultural values, mutual respect and of course, mutual interests.”
Erdogan meanwhile stated: “Dialogue between Turkey and Iran has played a determinant role in resolving many regional problems.”
As pointed out in the Jerusalem Post though, the Turkish-Iranian relationship has caused some to doubt the simplistic, sectarian paradigm of “Sunni vs Shia” to explain the region’s conflicts, which really only gained momentum in the mainstream media after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq post-2003. When it comes to Iran and Turkey though, they have a mutual understanding, and both are regional powers and former imperial powers in the region with a long history of statecraft and interactions.
Several other Arab states are rumoured to follow the UAE in recognising Israel, which at its core is a US-backed alliance to contain and confront Iran and its allies who oppose Zionism. With no real guarantee on the freeze of Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, it has the potential to trigger another intifada. The reconciliation between Hamas and Hezbollah is therefore the sensible thing to do from the Palestinian movement’s perspective. As it shifts away from the West and increasingly finds itself at odds with the pro-Zionist Arab states, Turkey also would find that an alliance with Iran is the only alternative to being isolated in a hostile region.