Thorn in the Side

Why is Turkey sheltering a dangerous Hamas operative?

Turkey is a member of NATO and an aspiring member of the European Union -- but it has one alliance that sets it apart from its Western counterparts: It's an important base of operations for at least one high-ranking member of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to transform Hamas into an accepted member of the international community. In 2011, he told a U.S. audience that the Palestinian party was not a terrorist group, and he has repeatedly vowed to visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Ankara has also provided Hamas with significant financial support -- as much as $300 million, according to some estimates.

In his attempts to strengthen Hamas, Erdogan has also allowed his country's ties with Israel to suffer. The Turkish leader famously stormed offstage during a contentious 2009 panel with Israeli President Shimon Peres, in protest of Israel's isolation of Gaza. Relations between Ankara and Jerusalem plummeted further the following year, after Turkey's largest NGO dispatched a flotilla that tried to break Israel's blockade of Gaza, leading to clashes between Israeli commandos and activists that left nine Turks dead.

More recently, however, the two countries have take steps to bury the hatchet. This year, U.S. President Barack Obama facilitated a phone call between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which began a process that resulted in Israel issuing an apology for the incident and agreeing to pay reparations to the victims' families. Mutual interests in Turkey -- namely the ouster of Syria's Bashar al-Assad -- have provided additional hope for rapprochement.

However, Erdogan's support for Hamas could become a serious stumbling block for a further warming of ties with Israel. The Turkish premier's ties with Hamas remain as strong as ever -- in fact, they appear to have deepened. 

Turkey currently serves as the home for Hamas operative Saleh al-Arouri, whom the Palestinian movement's website identifies as the founder of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, in the West Bank. One senior Israeli intelligence official described him to me as "one of the most important leaders of Hamas … involved in a lot of things including finance and logistics."

Arouri's presence in Turkey raises the stakes in what the official calls a "dirty game" that Ankara is playing with the militant group. Just this year, Hamas's military wing in the West Bank attempted to kidnap soldiers and civilians and even planned to bomb an outdoor shopping mall. As the head of the West Bank's Qassam Brigades, Arouri may well have directed those attacks from Turkey.

Arouri was originally recruited by Hamas while studying at Hebron University, and he has served as a high-ranking military leader for the movement since the early 1990s, according to U.S. court documents. After serving several stretches of jail time, Israel released him in March 2010, possibly as part of an effort to secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. After Arouri's release, he served as a political official in Hamas's headquarters in Damascus, where he reportedly played a role in negotiating the Shalit deal, which brokered the soldier's freedom for more than 1,000 Palestinians in Israeli custody.

When Hamas parted ways with Syria over the Assad regime's massacres in the country's ongoing civil war, Arouri left Damascus and is believed to have started operating out of Turkey last year. He has not been shy about his presence there: In March 2012, for example, he was part of a Hamas delegation that took part in talks with Turkish officials, including Erdogan. In October 2012, he traveled from Turkey to Gaza to attend the visit of Qatar's emir to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

But diplomacy appears to be only one part of Arouri's job. He is also allegedly involved in Hamas's illicit financial networks. In April 2013, Israeli security services announced the arrest of two Palestinians for smuggling money from Jordan to Hamas operatives in the West Bank. During the interrogation, according to the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, one smuggler admitted that he was moving the money upon the orders of Arouri.

Presumably, those orders were issued from Turkey. The veteran Israeli analyst of Palestinian affairs, Ehud Yaari, recently noted that Turkey is allowing Arouri to direct efforts to rebuild Hamas's terrorism infrastructure in the West Bank. If Arouri really has, as Yaari writes, "taken sole control of the movement's activities in the West Bank," Turkey appears to have in effect taken over from Damascus and become Hamas's West Bank headquarters.

On a recent trip to Turkey, two parliamentarians from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) told me they had no knowledge of Arouri's presence or activities. Similarly, two senior officials from the Turkish IHH charity -- which sponsored the 2010 pro-Hamas flotilla to Gaza and which the United States believes has provided Hamas with material assistance -- said they did not know Arouri's name. Even Western diplomats claimed ignorance of his whereabouts.

Given the strategic importance of Turkey to the United States, particularly in light of Turkey's role in helping to support the Syrian opposition, officials in Washington have demurred on confronting Ankara. Obama, who has maintained cordial ties with Erdogan, has given no indication that Turkey's relationship with Hamas is a problem for Washington. The only notable exception was a bipartisan congressional letter in May that expressed "concerns about Turkey's relationship with Hamas."

But a recent uptick in Hamas terrorism out of the West Bank may change Washington's calculus. Israel's Shin Bet recently foiled a Hamas plot to establish a terrorist cell in the West Bank city of Hebron. Meanwhile, there have been seven attempted attacks out of the West Bank so far this year, compared with six all last year.

If Arouri is behind the funding, recruiting, or planning of any of these Hamas operations in the West Bank, it will have grave consequences for Turkey. To the letter of the law, Turkey could meet criteria as a state sponsor of terrorism. Strange friends for a nation that views itself part of the Western alliance.

Photo: MOHAMMED ABAD/AFP/Getty Images


Swing and a Miss

The Sabermetric spat about whether it's important for a president to appear "credible."

If nothing else, Barack Obama's Syria policy has succeeded in exposing the widening fissures in America's foreign policy community. Even with what looks to be a brokered deal that, if implemented, would remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, the administration's gyrations over Syria have generated significant consternation in the foreign policy community. The most intriguing divide, however, is over the question of whether President Obama must respond forcefully to Syria's use of chemical weapons because of concerns about credibility. Administration officials have repeatedly argued that if the president fails to follow through on his "red line" comment about chemical weapons by keeping military options at the ready, other actors in the world like Iran and Russia will view the United States as a paper tiger. Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry pleaded with Congress to authorize the use of force in order to preserve the "core to American credibility in foreign policy." Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explicitly argued that acting on Syria was necessary to ensure U.S. credibility vis-à-vis Iran. And both Kerry and Hagel suggested in congressional testimony that a failure to act would embolden North Korea to use its chemical weapons stockpile. After rhetoric like this, it's not shocking that GOP Sen. Bob Corker took to CNN to blast the president for not caring more about U.S. credibility in the region after Obama reversed course.  

Influential pundits have made similar points. The Council on Foreign Relations's Richard Haass tweeted the importance of making the military option a credible one. Ross Douthat at the New York Times warned that there would be, "unknowable consequences for the credibility of American foreign policy" if Obama failed to rally congressional support for military action, while Roger Cohen reported that, "In Berlin ... the change has been noted. It has also been noted in Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and Jerusalem." Here at Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf argued that action in Syria was essential: "we must also consider what the 'too little, too late' message sends to others in the region who might consider violating the most important norms of international behavior." It is not hard to find other former policymakers or even straight news stories that articulate this thesis.

The odd thing about all of this emphasis on "credibility" is that the trend in international relations scholarship has moved in the opposite direction. The notion that a country or its leader has a single reputation for resolve or credibility has been pretty much dismissed. As one recent literature review by University of Alabama political scientist Douglas Gibler noted, "empirical support for the effects of reputation has been lacking." Dartmouth professor Daryl Press's Calculating Credibility argues that the balance of forces on the ground matter far more in how leaders assess each other's intentions than past reputation. To be sure, reputation and credibility do matter in some well-defined circumstances. Countries that perpetually default on their foreign debts face higher interest rates because of bad prior reputation. Nevertheless, credibility doesn't matter nearly as much as policymakers claim.  

Why is there such a disconnect between academics and policymakers on this issue? And who's right? Answering the first question goes part of the way towards answering the second.

One possible answer is that the last time policymakers or pundits thought deeply about these issues was back when they were in school decades ago -- and the thinking about credibility has evolved since then. Back in the day, debates about credibility focused on the question of nuclear deterrence. Theorists like Thomas Schelling stressed the vital importance of credibility in convincing opponents that one was willing to launch a massive second strike of nuclear weapons if attacked. Indeed, Schelling analogized the situation to a game of chicken, in which one driver would benefit from throwing their steering wheel out the window. Schelling's logic was generalized to all high-stakes international interactions.

It was only in the late 1990s, with the publication of Jonathan Mercer's Reputation and International Relations, that the field began to move away from that consensus. As Mercer observed, the issue is that similar actions will be interpreted differently due to factors Schelling never discussed, such as whether the other actor is an ally or an adversary. Empirical studies of deterrence and reputation have also suggested that it is not as potent a factor beyond nuclear deterrence. Still, any policymaker whose formative experience was reading Schelling -- or who watched the tractor scene from Footloose -- would buy into the overwhelming importance of credibility. If this explanation is correct, then it would behoove policymakers to listen to the academics.

Another explanation is that this divide is between theorists and practitioners. The latter could possess inside information and experiences that suggest credibility is a significant factor. That said, these experiences are hard to communicate to academics beyond the statement of "trust me, it matters." On the other hand, it is also possible that policymakers lack the wider view that academics possess when looking at a crisis. What's unclear is whether the academics have a better perspective because of their detached view, or whether those inside the Beltway might actually possess some pertinent inside information.

The problem is akin to the one between front offices and sabermetricians in baseball that existed a decade ago. Sabermetric enthusiasts like Bill James and Nate Silver argued that scouts were looking at the wrong attributes in baseball players. Athleticism mattered less than a hitter's ability to get on base, for example. Similarly, sabermetricians were far more dubious about the utility of sacrifice bunts than some managers. On a host of baseball strategies, the sabermetric argument turned out to have greater validity. On the other hand, as Silver acknowledged in The Signal and the Noise, it turns out that sabermetricians have not always been right either. Scouts turned out to be better in predicting which prospects would make it in the big leagues -- in no small part because they usually possess more information than can be read in a stat sheet. The best ones have embraced the lessons from Sabermetrics and blended it with their own analyses.

It's possible that policymakers possess some kind of tacit knowledge from their own experiences that suggests issues of credibility do matter -- in the case of Syria, for example, Secretary Hagel mentioned his conversations with his South Korea counterpart. If this explanation is correct, then maybe academics would be better served by listening more closely to current and former policymakers.

The final possible explanation is that policymakers and academics might be saying the same word but thinking about it differently. Academics have the advantage of thinking about the long term; for policymakers, the long term is two weeks (for the Middle East, it's two days). Because of these different perspectives, they look at credibility differently. Academics usually make the country the unit of analysis: does the United States show resolve or not, for example. They care about the role that credibility plays over the span of years. For foreign policymakers, all politics is personal. As Heather Hurlburt intimated in this Bloggingheads conversation, they care about whether they or their boss is perceived by others inside the Beltway as credible or not immediately after a crisis. And even the most structural international relations theorist would likely acknowledge that the Obama administration has not had a great two weeks.

If this explanation is correct, then both academics and policymakers are correct. International relations academics might well be correct in observing that what happens in Syria now will not affect what happens in Iran a year from now. Still, policymakers might well be correct in noting that if Barack Obama fails to follow through on his Syria pledges, his personal credibility might take a short-term hit inside the corridors of power.

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