June 20, 2007 -- WHO sets Hamas strategy? As the radical Palestinian movement braces itself for what could be a long struggle against its rival Fatah, if not a full-blown civil war, the question merits more than mere academic interest.
Just days after Hamas staged its coup to achieve exclusive control of Gaza, it's now clear that the military operation launched against the positions of the Palestinian security forces in the strip was never discussed in the Islamist organization's Consultative Assembly (shura).
Well-placed sources close to Hamas tell me that, had the issue been brought up, a majority of shura members most likely would have opposed the coup de force, which has divided the Palestinians as never before. Many believe that even ousted Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, the man who headed the first Hamas-led Cabinet, is "less than enthusiastic" about the operation.
"Only a few people knew about the scheme," says a member of the Palestinian National Assembly who, though close to Hamas, is an independent. "Many Hamas leaders knew that by seizing Gaza and expelling Fatah they would be burning all bridges."
Haniya appears to have placed his hopes on an impending mediation by Saudi Arabia to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah's leader, to put all security forces under a neutral command. The issue of Fatah's armed forces in Gaza did not come up in the secret talks that led to the Mecca accord a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, there was an implicit understanding that Fatah would transfer control of the bulk of its armed groups in Gaza to the so-called national-unity government formed under Saudi patronage.
Tehran, meanwhile, was concerned that a Hamas-Fatah deal would strengthen those in the Syrian leadership who dislike what they see as their country's increasing vassalization to Tehran. The same Syrian leadership elements recently opened an indirect dialogue with Israel and received some encouraging hints from Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert.
Syrian critics of the alliance with Tehran pointed to the Mecca deals as a model that might help repair ties with moderate Arab states, placate the United States and, eventually, even persuade Israel to give up the Golan Heights, which it won in the 1967 war. A Hamas defection followed by a Syrian change of policy would have left the Islamic Republic isolated and exposed.
Had the deals made in Mecca worked, Hamas would have geared its strategy to moderate Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and, indirectly through them, to the Middle East policies of the U.S.-led Western powers.
Until earlier this month, when the first Hamas guns fired in Gaza, it seemed that hopes of Tehran and Damascus to organize a new "Rejection Front" to oppose Israel and the United States had hit a bump on the road.
What looked like a Hamas sell-out to the moderate Arab powers came as major disappointment to the Islamic republic in Iran and its Syrian allies and Lebanese Hezbollah clients.
Palestinian sources concur that the man who effectively vetoed the Mecca deals is Khalid Mishaal, Hamas' "Supreme Leader," who lives in exile in Damascus. Mishaal initially endorsed the Mecca deals but was persuaded to change his position under Iranian and Syrian pressure.
During a visit to Tehran, where he was supposed to brief Hamas' Iranian allies on the Mecca deals, Mishaal heard point-blank that the Islamic Republic favored "an intensification of the struggle against the Zionist enemy" rather than an easing of tension that a coalition with Abbas implied.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has structured his foreign policy on the assumption that a military showdown with America and Israel is inevitable. He also thinks that, when and if it comes, the radical forces led by Tehran would be able to resist long enough and to raise the cost of the conflict in human terms to break the adversaries' will to fight.
For Ahmadinejad's policy to succeed, it is imperative that Lebanon and the Palestinian territories become advanced posts for the Islamic Republic. Despite occasional threats to unleash a hailstorm of missiles against Iran's Gulf-Arab neighbors, it is unlikely that the Tehran leadership would take the risk of killing large numbers of the very people it hopes to win over to its cause. The only U.S. regional ally that the Islamic Republic might attack without concern for who gets killed there is Israel. Tehran and Damascus believe that they can win the tug of war with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his governing coalition in Lebanon. In November, the Lebanese parliament, in which Siniora has a majority of five seats, is scheduled to meet to elect a new president of the republic to succeed the pro-Syrian incumbent Emil Lahoud.
It's enough to murder four more anti-Syrian parliamentarians for Siniora to lose his majority. In the meantime, the series of assassinations may well frighten some members of Siniora's coalition to switch sides and support ex-Gen. Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian ally of Hezbollah and Syria's candidate for the Lebanese presidency.
In anticipation of winning control of Lebanon, the Islamic Republic has increased its shipments of money and arms to Hezbollah and its allies. Most analysts agree that the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah had replaced virtually all of its losses in last July's war against Israel. A Lebanese army bogged down in battles against Sunni radical groups controlled by Syria would lack the means to take on Hezbollah if the Shiite party decided to stage a coup in Beirut.
And with Lebanon in turmoil to its north, the last thing that Israel would want is to be forced to intervene militarily to its south in Gaza.
The battle in Gaza was something more than a local struggle for power between rival Palestinian factions. It was dictated by strategic imperative that could affect the broader region as the Islamic Republic and the United States intensify their rivalry over who sets the agenda for the future of the Middle East.
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.