Hamas Rising

As the Palestinian Authority struggles to make payroll, the militant group is making friends and influencing leaders around the Arab world.

Countries across the Middle East are opening their coffers to support the Palestinian cause -- but the funds are increasingly being diverted in a direction that portends renewed conflict with Israel.

The U.S.-supported Palestinian Authority (PA), on the one hand, is rapidly heading for the poor house. Even after a promised $100 million injection of funds from the Saudis (which has not yet been delivered), the PA will still be suffering its worst cash crunch in years. It has an estimated budget shortfall of $1 billion for 2012 and has already stopped making payroll to its government employees. Yet regional leaders seem nonplussed about their longtime client's budget woes; their pledges of support continue to go unfulfilled.

Meanwhile in the Gaza Strip, Hamas -- the Islamist faction that violently wrested control of the area from the PA in 2007 -- is riding high on the beneficence of its new allies. After a rocky period during which Iran's largesse to Hamas dried up, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ongoing slaughter in Syria forced the group's external leaders to flee from their headquarters in Damascus, the group has regained its footing.

Hamas has two of the Middle East's emerging Sunni powerhouses to thank for its change of fortunes.

Qatar, despite an uneasy alliance with Washington that hinges on hosting a key U.S. airbase and now a new missile-defense station, has quietly become one of the Palestinian Islamist party's most generous new benefactors. In February, Hamas officials announced they had signed a $250 million deal with the Qatari government for reconstruction projects in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Doha is also providing funds for sports and housing projects in the Gaza Strip, according to other media reports.

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Qatari support is Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' external operations. As Assad's crackdown on Syria's predominantly Sunni opposition grew ever bloodier, Asharq al-Awsat reported in February that Meshal would leave Hamas headquarters in Damascus permanently and carry out his work from Qatar. Indeed, Qatar appears to be the new global headquarters of the Hamas politburo: A June 2012 Congressional Research Service report confirmed Meshal's relocation to Doha, noting that the Gulf emirate is the place where he "conducts his regular engagement with regional figures."

The Qataris also appear to be helping Hamas reintegrate into the Sunni fold. That's a tall order, considering that Hamas had long been on the Iranian dole -- the party is best known as an ally of the mullahs that has unleashed rocket attacks and suicide bombings across Israel, killing hundreds. But while the Iranian weapons pipeline still appears to be robust, known Iranian economic assistance has dwindled to small building projects -- and Qatar is exploiting this window of opportunity. In late January, for example, Qatari Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani accompanied a Hamas delegation to Jordan, the first time the group had made an official visit to Amman since Jordan's King Abdullah expelled it in 1999.

Turkey's Islamist government has also embraced Hamas, both economically and diplomatically. In December, the International Middle East Media Center, run out of the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, cited Turkish sources claiming that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had "instructed the Ministry of Finance to allocate $300 million to be sent to Hamas' government in Gaza." Hamas denied this, but Reuters and the Israeli newspaper of record, Haaretz, published subsequent reports, citing different sources, confirming this financial relationship. 

It is in Ankara's interest to keep direct assistance shrouded in secrecy -- after all, it has a reputation to uphold among its NATO allies, who designated Hamas for its terrorist activity. But other Turkish assistance to Gaza is easier to document. In January, for instance, the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported that the country would "help Palestinians in the Gaza Strip repair mosques," while its competitor, Zaman, quoted Turkish officials confirming that the country is "engaged in projects to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza," including the construction of a $40 million hospital.

Turkey, like Qatar, has also been an advocate of Hamas in the diplomatic arena for several years now. The ill-fated Turkish-led flotilla of 2010, after all, was designed to draw attention to the Israeli siege of Gaza and received government sponsorship. And Erdogan famously told an American television audience last year, "I don't see Hamas as a terror organization. Hamas is a political party."

Erdogan is not alone in his sentiments. The political tide across the Middle East is also highly favorable to Hamas. Most obviously, the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy in Egypt's presidential elections has energized Hamas. Following the Brotherhood's victory, Haniyeh expressed confidence that "the revolution led by Morsy will not take any part in blocking Gaza" -- a reference to the blockade enforced by fallen dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The Palestinian Islamist group also enjoyed a red-carpet welcome in Tunisia, where the Islamist al-Nahda party has taken the reins of power. This was a particularly galling development for the rival West Bank government, given that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian nationalist organization that Yasser Arafat founded and Abbas now heads, had previously used Tunis as its headquarters in exile.

With Islamist movements gaining strength across the region, Hamas's political rival has simply lost its mojo. The Palestinian Authority, created 18 years ago to midwife a two-state solution with Israel that has yet to materialize, is sorely lacking in popular appeal. It doesn't help that the PA earned a reputation for being corrupt and ossified -- two qualities that brought several Arab autocracies to their ends.

The PA's Western allies, meanwhile, are becoming less willing to underwrite its activities. Despite a denial issued by the PLO to Foreign Policy, Saudi, Palestinian, and Israeli sources have reported that the White House is indeed threatening to cut aid if Abbas attempts to pursue recognition of Palestinian statehood again at the United Nations this year.

Hamas, unlike the PA, has never needed Western handouts. Since its inception in 1987, the group has operated entirely on regional cash. And despite its recent fallout with Iran and Syria, its platform of resistance to Israel enjoys wide appeal in the new Sunni regional order.

Washington once had the clout to deter countries like Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt from backing a designated terrorist group. But after the great regional tectonic shifts of the past two years, U.S. consternation has become a secondary consideration for these new governments.

True, Hamas's new donors could moderate its politics. This is certainly the line that Turkey and Qatar will take. But more likely, the increased cash flow to Hamas will herald a new wave of rejectionism and -- given Hamas's track record -- possibly a new wave of violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.



Stopping Mali from Becoming Somalia

The United States needs to prevent Mali from turning into another failed state in the heart of Africa.

The parallels are striking: A government collapses in a divided country, militant jihadist groups quickly fill the vacuum, and a humanitarian disaster breaks out, threatening to breed chaos throughout the region. These factors have long been associated with Somalia, the world's most enduring failed state. But for months now they have begun to describe Mali, located across the continent to the west, which is now poised to assume Somalia's unenviable status as Africa's most troubled nation. And just as Somalia's instability ripped through the Horn of Africa, so too could the chaos in Mali mean trouble for the larger Sahel region in West Africa.

Things first started to go south in March, when soldiers staged a coup in Bamako, overthrowing President Amadou Toumani Toure only weeks before a new president was to be selected. Quickly thereafter, Tuareg rebels, who have had grievances with the Malian government since the early 1960s, aligned with jihadist forces, defeated the national army, captured the key cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao and declared the northern part of the country the breakaway nation of Azawad.

Since then, Islamic extremists have gained the upper hand. According to one source, Islamist factions have pushed indigenous Tuaregs out of northern Mali completely. The government in the south is weak, technocratic, and has been without its interim president, Diacounda Traore, since he left the country for Paris following a beating in his office on May 21 by backers of the coup. And there are no indications that the interim Mali government has the ability to pursue a political or military settlement with the Islamists in the north.

Mali had been the model counterinsurgency program for the United States in Africa. The sudden collapse of this program, in which the Pentagon had invested tens of millions of dollars over the last decade, suggests that Washington had significantly misread the environment in Mali. As a result, al Qaeda in the Islamic Margreb (AQIM) and its ally, Ansar Dine, now have control of several relatively significant urban areas from which they can plan attacks on American targets in West Africa and send resources to al Qaeda affiliates in other regions.

Today, the northern half of Mali is now a virtual no-go area for journalists and humanitarian workers; Ansar Dine controls the northern cities and AQIM fighters have free rein throughout the countryside. Together they have instituted a harsh form of sharia law and destroyed centuries-old monuments including ancient Muslim shrines in Timbuktu -- actions reminiscent of al-Shabab and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But while the situation in northern Mali has deteriorated rapidly, the international community has not responded in kind. Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council deferred a request by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for authorization to deploy 3,200 troops in Mali until it received "additional information" related to the goals and objectives of the proposed intervention. ECOWAS has also called for the creation of a government of national unity and elections. But State Department officials following this issue suggest that it might take up to 12 months to structure a force that could stabilize the north of Mali. During this time frame, State Department officials envision that elections would be held in Mali, possibly by May or June 2013, and a newly elected Malian government would be in place to signal its support for a U.N.-authorized ECOWAS force to take on the Islamists in the north.

By that time, however, northern Mali is likely to be an al Qaeda stronghold and a significantly larger force than ECOWAS is proposing would be needed to dislodge the jihadists. Together, AQIM and Ansar Dine currently can count on up to several thousand armed fighters. AQIM has generated millions of dollars from ransoms paid by kidnapped Europeans and illicit drug transactions, and will likely work to strengthen the military capabilities of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, adding more pressure to the challenges being faced by the Nigerian government, Washington's key strategic partner in the region. As Gen. Carter Hamm, the commander of Africom, recently remarked, the linkages between AQIM and Boko Haram are the "most worrisome" of any security threat facing the United States and African nations.

The conflict in northern Mali has already created more than 350,000 internally displaced persons and refugees who have fled to the neighboring states of Mauritania, Niger, and Burkina Faso. In Mali, 4.6 million people face food insecurity and further food shortages are looming. Mali has also lost hundreds of millions of dollars in suspended aid from the United States, the World Bank, and the EU, not to mention the loss of revenue from tourism and foreign investment.

ECOWAS is right to want to move quickly to challenge the influence of the Islamic extremist groups in the north. If the international community waits another 12 months to intervene, al Qaeda will have grown stronger in northern Mali and the human costs will be significantly higher. It is appropriate that ECOWAS try to negotiate a national unity government to restore Mali's territorial integrity. The reality, however, is that al Qaeda does not negotiate. An intervention force will be necessary.

The African Union (AU) seems to have grasped this, signaling cautious support for an ECOWAS intervention. At a recent meeting, the African Union Peace and Security Council adopted a resolution endorsing the plan to deploy regional forces under a Chapter VII resolution. The council also supported the ECOWAS call for a 12-month transition in Mali and the organization of a credible presidential election. The AU is not going to war, but ECOWAS wants to intervene -- and it is a credible objective, especially with the appropriate support as we've seen successfully implemented in Somalia.

The question is whether the AU or the U.N. Security Council is prepared to support the deployment of a stabilization force before there is a democratically elected government in Bamako. In the end, there may be little choice. There is no indication that Diacounda Traore, the country's 70-year-old transitional president, will return from Paris any time soon to head up the interim government. In fact, neither Traore nor Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra participated in the July ECOWAS summit in Burkina Faso that was convened to develop a road map for tackling the crisis, suggesting a genuine power vacuum in Bamako.

Moreover, the Malian military is in complete disarray. Even with an election, it is unlikely that a new Malian government would be able to defeat the jihadists in Timbuktu and elsewhere, let alone exercise effective administration of the nation in the next 12 to 24 months. In fact, it was the frustration over the Toure government's inability to pursue and sustain the brewing conflict with the Tuaregs that was a key contributing factor to the March coup. (Another contributing factor was the NATO-supported overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Many of the Tuareg fighters who had been hired by Qaddafi to strengthen his forces returned to challenge the Malian government with newly acquired arms.)

If there is any lesson to be learned from two decades of crisis and conflict in Somalia, however, it is that inattention and inaction by the international community fuels instability and enables conflict to spread beyond borders. Thus, as the international community deliberates over how and when to restore order and governance in Mali -- hopefully, sooner rather than later -- it is clear that NATO can, and has a certain obligation, to play a supportive role to the ECOWAS force.

Another painful lesson from Somalia is that there needs to be a legitimate government to consolidate the security gains that any U.N. or AU-authorized force might make. Malians are the ones ultimately responsible for restoring a credible government -- but the country's Western partners would be well served to invest as much, if not more, in governance, civil society, and job creation than in counterinsurgency in order to achieve that outcome.