The Magazine

The Rogues Strike Back

Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah vs. Israel.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By ROBERT SATLOFF
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Iran thumbs its nose at Western diplomats and continues nuclear enrichment. Hamas's chief, speaking from Damascus, boasts about kidnapping an Israeli soldier. Hezbollah launches a cross-border raid, prompting Israeli retaliation in Beirut and a return volley of rockets on northern Israel. Just another bleak week in the hopeless Middle East? Regrettably, no. This one was different. This was the week the Dark Side went on the offensive.

Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah: These are not marginal fringe groups. The first two are sovereign states, the third forms the elected government of the Palestinian Authority, and the fourth holds 25 of the 128 seats in the Lebanese parliament and, effectively, two ministerial portfolios. This was the week that the rogue regimes of the "Old Middle East"--as opposed to the shadowy, faceless terrorist groups of the "New Middle East"--reminded the world that they too have the potential to grab headlines and wreak havoc.

Here's a recap: On Monday, July 10, Khaled Meshal, head of the political bureau of Hamas, held a news conference in Damascus in which he took full responsibility for the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom he called a "prisoner of war."

On Tuesday, July 11, Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, told European Union envoy Javier Solana that Tehran was in no hurry to respond to a U.S.-European offer of incentives to end its nuclear enrichment program and would not give a formal reply until late August. Larijani then flew to Damascus, where he praised Hamas for its noble resistance to Zionist occupation.

On Wednesday, July 12, militiamen belonging to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah crossed the internationally recognized Israel-Lebanon frontier and attacked an Israeli position, killing eight soldiers and capturing two. This was "an act of war," said Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who authorized airstrikes on Beirut airport and Hezbollah facilities. Later that day, the United States and other permanent members asked the U.N. Security Council to compel Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment activities. "We called [Iran's] bluff today," a senior State Department official told the Los Angeles Times.

On Thursday, July 13, Hezbollah rockets--supplied by Iran, via Syria--fell on major cities in northern Israel, including Haifa, Safed, Karmiel, and Nahariya, killing two, injuring dozens, and sending thousands to shelters. Israeli shelling shut down all civilian and military air access to Lebanon, as Israel continued bombing Hamas targets throughout Gaza, too. "All operations are legitimate to wipe out terror," said Israel's northern front commander Major General Udi Adam.

That's a lot of tough talk about war, face-offs, and showdowns, even for the Middle East, but what makes this train of events more worrisome than a typical week in the region is that these events--and their perpetrators--are all connected. No, this is not another Middle East conspiracy theory; to paraphrase Henry Kissinger's line about paranoids, sometimes bad guys shooting at you from all directions just might be in cahoots. In fact, the quartet of Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah constitutes a better oiled, more cohesive unit than the diplomatic quartet of the United States, the U.N., the E.U., and Russia. Indeed, the rogue foursome is linked ideologically and operationally in a much more organic way than the charter members of the Axis of Evil ever were.

The key, it is important to note, is not religion. Iran and Hezbollah are led by Shiite extremists; Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an international Sunni movement; and Syria is governed by the world's only remaining Baathist, a secular chieftan of the Alawite sect, which reviles (and is reviled by) Syria's majority Sunni community. A feverish brand of radical Islamism certainly inspires some of these actors, but what drives them together is politics.

A generation ago, before Hamas and Hezbollah ever existed, Hafez al-Assad's Syria and Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran forged an alliance born of their common fear and loathing of Saddam Hussein. When the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Syria of its superpower patron, leaving it surrounded by NATO-ally Turkey, pro-West Jordan, and the same thug in Baghdad, Assad continued to reach out to Tehran to avoid isolation. For their part, the Iranians exploited the situation, using Syria as the staging ground from which to build Hezbollah into their instrument for exporting the Islamic revolution.

In recent years, Hamas's success has been manna from heaven to the Iranians, Syrians, and Hezbollahis. Though these Palestinian Islamists fought and won their own battles against the more secular Fatah, Hamas's partners in the rogue quartet were perfectly happy to reap the benefits of a new front in their proxy war against Israel.