Tom Dine, Senior Advisor
As key regional players pressure Qatar to drop its support of political, militant Islamic groups, greater Middle East state and non-state entities are in the process of rearranging their strategic positions.
For instance, the Palestinian Hamas movement of the Gaza Strip, at odds with the Palestinian Authority leadership, is trying to increase its relations with Algeria as a protector and provider.
Reports have circulated recently in the Arab and Western media that several Hamas operatives living in Doha, Qatar — such as Saleh al-Arouri, the founding commander of the Hamas’ Qassam Brigades and prominent leader — have moved to Algiers, the capital of Algeria, as part of a potential post-Doha reorganization of the Palestinian radical wing. This has caused further hostility between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Algeria’s government, hot and cold for several years.
Since winning independence from France in 1962, Algeria has championed the Palestinian struggle for statehood. Palestinians have seen Algeria’s National Liberation Front (NLF) as a model to follow for the independence cause of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). PLO chairman Yasir Arafat declared a state in Algiers. In his U.N. General Assembly speech in 1974, Arafat singled out and complimented Algeria’s then Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika. After the Palestinian declaration of independence on November 15, 1988, Algeria became the world’s first country to recognize the new state, officially establishing full diplomatic relations a month later.
Although Algeria shifted to a nonaligned stance in its external relations in 1976, Algeria has favored the Gaza movement, refusing to recognize Hamas as a terrorist group. Algiers backed Hamas overtly in the 2008-2009 Gaza war between Hamas and Israel.
In 2010, the Gaza Algerian Hospital was built by the Algerian Muslim Scholars, a non-governmental organization. In 2013, Hamas named a high school for Algeria’s Islamic Movement of Society for Peace, an organization that was formed by the same Muslim Brotherhood that spawned Hamas.
As Algeria continues its rapprochement with Hamas, the Algerian-Palestinian Authority relationship has visibly diminished. Algerian President Boumediene infamously urged the Palestinians to “solve their own problems by themselves.” Today, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza need a visa to enter into Algeria, although there is no official diplomatic representation in the Palestinian territories. Algeria has not opened an embassy or consulate in Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority; the Algerians argue that this would be a recognition of the state of Israel.
The well-known Hamas spokesman and militant Sami Abu Zuhri called for opening an official bureau in Algiers in May 2013. Last week, he repeated this policy call. The London-based newspaper Al-Shariq al-Awsat reported that Hamas asked the Algerian government to station a Hamas office in the capital city, not surprisingly placing the controversial Zuhri there to man that post. The Algerian government has not, however, confirmed this proposition.
Meanwhile, the West Bank-Gaza rift widens. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah spokesperson Osama al-Qawasmi repeated recently a comment he made last year when he publicly remonstrated against Zuhri, saying that “Hamas is crossing red lines in Palestinian politics by opening an office in Algiers to replace the PLO.” He added, “All of Hamas’ attempts to eliminate the PLO are pointless.”
Former Gaza de facto prime minister Ismail Haniya, now the Hamas politburo chief, remains living in Gaza. It is not clear where former politburo chief Khaled Meshal is living. Although still influential, Meshal no longer holds a position in the militant organization. Will these leaders move to Algiers?
Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has had a hostile relationship with Hamas. He has loudly accused Hamas of collaborating with the Islamic State branch in Sinai. But when Hamas agreed recently to stop sheltering jihadists, the relationship began to soften.
Hamas is also restoring good relations with Iran, extending the geopolitical equation from Algeria, to the two parts of Palestine, to Syria, to Iran, and to Qatar. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Hamas refused to support President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Iran was and is his major ally. In anger, Tehran cut off its financial and military support to the Gaza-based movement. But the recent Qatar crisis, along with Algerian encouragement and Hamas’ disassociation from the Muslim Brotherhood, of which it is an offshoot, pushed the Hamas leadership to re-seek close ties with Tehran. In talks in Lebanon this week with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah, Iran resumed financial support for Hamas, desperately needed, plus provided diplomatic relations. It was also reported that Ismail Haniya would soon be visiting Tehran.
Amidst the Qatar crisis, Hamas is today actively cozying up to Algeria, Egypt, and Iran. The dispersal of leaders across the Middle East, from the Western Mediterranean to the Gulf, and re-structuring warmer relationships with nation states along the way is a reminder that when non-state actors Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, even Hezbollah, dispersed in years past, they became more aggressive and deadly. Does this foretell a future development for Hamas?
A Report on the Lebanese Prime Minister’s Visit to the US to Stabilize Country’s Economy
Caroline Quinn, Analyst
Today, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his delegation, including Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil and central bank governor Riad Salameh, conclude a five-day visit to Washington, DC.
Throughout the week — which included an Oval Office sit-down with President Trump, discussions with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin, meetings on Capitol Hill, a forum at the World Bank, and a keynote address at the Carnegie Endowment — Hariri reiterated three points, all of which have a bearing on US engagement in the region:
The Lebanese economy can no longer sustain 1.5 million Syrian refugees;
Regional security will be even weaker if the State Department cuts Foreign Military Financing (FMF), a program that last year provided the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with $85.9 million in weapons and training;
Further Congressional sanctions against Hezbollah will only impede economic stabilization, as the group is too embedded in state institutions.
How the Trump administration and Congress respond to Hariri’s messaging will impact the Washington-Beirut relationship. Here’s a closer look at what Hariri wants from the United States, and what’s at stake:
Jumpstarting the Economy
The Syrian conflict has devastated Lebanon’s economy. To date, the cumulative loss to Lebanon’s gross domestic product (GDP) is $18 billion dollars; revenue lost is $4.2 billion.
Here, Hariri scored an instant victory. As he met with Secretary Tillerson, the State Department announced that the United States will give Lebanon an additional $140 million to help Syrian refugees. The money will be used for food, shelter, and medical assistance for the refugees and host communities.
The grant will not, however, address structural economic challenges. With one percent economic growth last year, Lebanon needs to spur job opportunities and investments. Exploiting gas discoveries in the Mediterranean and developing offshore oil and gas industries is one way to do so.
Another potential economic boost is Syria’s eventual reconstruction, which the World Bank estimates will cost $200 billion. According to Prime Minister Hariri, “The Chinese are very serious about investing in Lebanon” and using it as a hub for rebuilding Syria. Lebanese politicians and bankers confirm that four Chinese delegations visited Lebanon in the past year in “scoping mode.”
Hariri welcomed American investment in Lebanon, but said that “Today, we don’t see as much interest” from US companies, likely because this would bring American corporations face-to-face with Hezbollah. Moreover, the business climate remains “sensitive to domestic and regional political and security developments” as the State Department’s 2017 Investment Climate Statement on Lebanon reads.
With Lebanon luring Chinese investment, the United States is, once again, distancing itself from the region.
Supporting Lebanese Armed Forces
Since 2005, the United States has provided more than $1.4 billion in weapons, equipment, and training to embolden Lebanon’s national army, the LAF, vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat, calls Hezbollah the region’s “military giant.” But if the State Department’s proposed budget cuts go through, this support to the LAF would end.
Critics of US investment in the LAF argue that the military cooperates too closely with Hezbollah, allowing the group to smuggle weapons and send fighters to Syria. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called the LAF a “subsidiary unit of Hezbollah.” In a Tablet article published Wednesday, Tony Badran — a Lebanese-born Levant expert now based in the United States — writes, “Hezbollah controls Lebanon, its strategic orientation, and its security policy and apparatuses.”
But the Pentagon continues to back military support to the LAF, and US lawmakers who recently visited Lebanon came away impressed with the Lebanese Army’s improvement and recent performance. Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, the LAF have been deployed to prevent Sunni-Shiite clashes in Tripoli and other hot zones, like Arsa.
Aram Nerguizian, an Hezbollah expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says Iranians have never been able to “crack [the] nut” of the LAF — meaning Iran does not control the Lebanese Army. According to Nerguizian, the current LAF cadre has a long term vision to make it the preeminent national security actor in Lebanon.
This week, Hezbollah announced it was close to retaking the Syrian-Lebanese border from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Hezbollah’s secretary general said the group would hand over the seized territory, if the Lebanese army requests it. If this happens, the LAF could establish a continuous presence along Lebanon’s frontier with Syria for the first time in 73 years. Such an accomplishment would be impossible without the support of the United States over the last decade, argues CSIS’s Nerguizian.
Tempering Sanctions on Hezbollah
Just last Thursday, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate called for a new bill that would further restrict Hezbollah’s ability to fundraise and recruit. The legislation would also increase pressure on banks that do business with the group and crack down on countries, including Iran, that support Hezbollah.
In Washington, Prime Minister Hariri urged policymakers to understand how such sweeping, unspecified sanctions would hurt Lebanon’s banking and finance sectors, the backbone of Lebanon’s economy. Speaking with House Speaker Paul Ryan and others, Hariri lobbied for legislation that would allow the United States Treasury to work with Lebanon to stop terrorist funding, but at the same time not hurt the Lebanese economy. During his address at Carnegie, Hariri stressed that his party has to share power with Hezbollah’s powerful political faction, or else state institutions will not function.
Lawmakers and the Trump administration face a difficult task: curbing the influence of Iran and its allies — including Lebanon’s Hezbollah — without damaging the Lebanese state in the process. Washington surely wants to strengthen Lebanon’s institutions, but doing so while also checking Hezbollah is like trying to square a circle. For now, Washington should consider targeted sanctions that won’t upend Lebanon’s relative stability.
At Tuesday’s Rose Garden press conference, Trump said he would announce his administration’s official position on Hezbollah “in the next 24 hours.” Now two days past this marker, all eyes are fixed on Twitter. The president’s decision will either solidify or shake Washington’s relationship with Beirut, one of the United States’ closest allies in the region.