Hamas's BFFs

It's time to stop treating Turkey and Qatar like they’re anything other than proxies for terrorists.

The next time there is an effort to broker a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel -- and there will be a next time -- Qatar and Turkey should be sitting at the table beside Hamas, not among the respected diplomats trying to engage in honest statecraft.

It's getting harder and harder to deny that Doha and Ankara, two long-standing allies of the United States, are full Hamas partners. That much has been crystal clear to regional players like Egypt and Saudi Arabia for a while. And now the United States seems to be getting a better sense of where Qatar and Turkey's real allegiances lie. Why else would Secretary of State John Kerry have appealed to both countries to secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin before the Israelis announced he was dead?  

Qatar is widely believed to be Hamas's top sponsor. In 2012, then-emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani visited Gaza and pledged $400 million in economic aid. Just last month, Doha tried to transfer millions of dollars via Jordan's Arab Bank to pay salaries to Hamas civil servants in Gaza. While that was blocked at Washington's behest, support continues in other important ways. For example, Qatar is the home base of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and a gaggle of other senior Hamas figures. Neither Hamas nor Qatar is terribly concerned about the optics, either. Expatriates in Doha speak of Meshaal sightings the way New Yorkers talk of seeing Woody Allen.

Turkey is the home of another Hamas leader: Saleh al-Arouri. The founder of the West Bank branch of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing, Arouri has become an increasingly important figure for the group in recent years. One Israeli security official recently went so far as to say that "al-Arouri was connected to the act" of kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June. Meanwhile, the Turkish government under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged a strident proponent of Hamas. Erdogan's AKP government has reportedly agreed to donate significantly to Hamas, mostly through public works projects like mosques, schools, and hospitals, but also through direct financial support, according to some reports.

It is therefore not surprising that the Israelis have been opposed to the role of these two Hamas patrons in the cease-fire negotiation process since the current Gaza conflict began last month. Israel was particularly irked about the participation of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah in a high-profile diplomatic summit in Paris on July 26. They were even more incensed when the U.S. secretary of state reportedly forwarded a Qatari-Turkish cease-fire plan to Jerusalem for consideration.

In the current negotiations, Qatar and Turkey have been pushing a plan that benefits Hamas above all else. They have been angling for a one-sided deal that would ignore Israel's security concerns, ease Israel's blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and help connect the Palestinian terror group-cum-government to the global economy.

But it's not only Israel that was offended by this dynamic. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) also ripped into Turkey and Qatar for "bypass[ing] the PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" at the Paris summit. PLO President Mahmoud Abbas slammed Hamas for hiding behind its two patrons. "Those who want Qatar or Turkey to represent them should leave and go live there," he quipped -- a dig at Meshaal, whom Abbas sees as a political rival, and who is often derided for speaking on behalf of a terror group from the comfort of a five-star hotel in Doha.

Others in the Arab world, particularly the traditional monarchies that seek to counter the destabilizing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, are equally furious about the role Qatar and Turkey are playing in the cease-fire negotiations. As Newsweek reported, "Officials from ... Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to name a few interested parties, watched with astonishment over the weekend as Kerry engaged in Paris with ... the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey." Israel's left-leaning Haaretz also noted that the elevation of Qatar and Turkey constituted a "slap on the face" to these regional powers.

Egypt was also irked. The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew the Turkey- and Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi last year. The new regime sees Hamas, which was formed as a splinter of the Brotherhood in 1987, as an extension of their ideological foe. The Sisi government was apparently so angry at the inclusion of Qatar and Turkey in the Paris talks that it refused to send its foreign minister, Sameh Shukri. Shukri recently accused Turkey and Qatar of attempting to "thwart" Egypt's efforts to broker an end to the conflict.

The deep divisions in the Middle East over the Brotherhood and Hamas are a symptom of a larger phenomenon. There has been a disintegration of traditional Middle East roles since the Arab Spring. Egypt is no longer the most powerful U.S. proxy in the Arab world. Qatar and Turkey are trying to punch above their weight, while exploiting the strained ties between Israel and the United States over the Iranian nuclear program. And many other countries are too mired in their own chaos to care either way. This has created gridlock on the diplomatic front, which explains, to some extent, why a negotiated cease-fire has been elusive after four weeks of bitter fighting in Gaza.

But here's the rub: Israel and Egypt are the two countries that have to border Gaza. If they don't want to bend to the cease-fire demands of Hamas and its patrons -- independently or collectively -- it is ultimately their call. More importantly, Egypt and Israel understand Qatar and Turkey are simply not honest brokers. They helped create this crisis with Hamas and now they say they want to solve it.

Some argue that Qatar and Turkey play a necessary diplomatic role because, as Hamas's allies, they can bring the Islamists in Gaza to the table. But it's unclear if Doha or Ankara can actually deliver. Al-Attiyah and Davutoglu took an undeserved victory lap on Thursday when they issued a joint statement on the announcement of a three-day humanitarian cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. The cease-fire ended the following day, less than two hours after it had started, with the capture of Goldin.

That's when Kerry turned to both countries, imploring them to help get Israel's soldier back as a first step toward another cease-fire. Davutoglu wouldn't acknowledge that Hamas was to blame for the operation, but responded that, "together with others, we can take any step that could resolve this Israeli soldier issue. If Turkey can do anything, we will do our best." The Qataris had no comment.

But members of Congress do have something to say about the role of these two countries in their support for Hamas. Legislators penned letters to officials from both Qatar and Turkey last year, expressing deep concern for their support to terrorist-sponsoring states and terror groups. Congressman Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) released a letter last Thursday addressed to Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, demanding that Washington re-evaluate its relationship with Doha, including its hosting of the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East, so long as it continues to support Hamas.

For now, both Qatar and Turkey appear to have been sidelined after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would withdraw unilaterally from Gaza without negotiating the terms with Hamas. Netanyahu's official reason was that Hamas could not be trusted to hold up its end of the deal. But in so doing, the Israeli prime minister also negated the influence of Hamas's top patrons, leaving them without a diplomatic role to play in the ongoing negotiations in Cairo.

It's only a matter of time, of course, before a diplomatic process gains steam again. But whenever it does, this last month has helped to clarify a few things about Qatar and Turkey. These two Hamas patrons should not be part of the negotiating team that brokers the next deal. They should be sitting alongside the terrorist group's representatives, where they belong.

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Democracy Lab

The One Place Where Washington Can Make a Difference

Burma's democratic transition is running off the rails. Obama and Kerry can help to bring it back on track.

Lately, Washington doesn't have a great track record when it comes to intervening in the affairs of other countries. Obama's minimalist engagement in Syria and Ukraine appears ineffectual. With the gradual return of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq's looming descent into sectarian chaos, America's two grand projects of the last decade loom as failures. Not far away, Israel's offensive in Gaza hints at the unraveling of yet another U.S.-backed peace plan.

Yet there is one part of the world where the United States has a chance to shape events for the better: The tentative democratic opening in Burma is in trouble. And for once Washington is uniquely positioned to bring its diplomatic weight to bear for the better.

Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama are scheduled to visit the country -- Kerry this week, Obama in November. (In the photo above, Burmese monks hold a sign to welcome President Obama during his first visit in 2012.)

The visits come at a crucial moment. Key reform processes have stalled -- particularly whenever they seem to threaten the military's control of power. Unless the Burmese government can pass constitutional amendments and broker agreements that lock armed resistance groups into a non-violent political process, the structural problems that gave rise to uprisings in 1988 and 2007 and the continuing civil war will persist. The former regime will maintain control under the guise of democratic reform, and the international community will have played most of its cards without gaining much real change in return.

Starting in 2012, the government of President Thein Sein, a former general, has lifted press censorship, granted freedom of assembly, and signed initial ceasefire agreements with more than a dozen ethnic armed groups involved the country's civil war. Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed -- most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and champion of democracy, who was released from house arrest and elected to parliament. A lively parliament has embarked on an ambitious program of legislative reform.

The United States can fairly claim some reward. Burma's desire to pursue democratic and economic opening was influenced in no small part by the old guard's recognition that its enforced international isolation had engendered economic stagnation and subservience to China. The U.S. stood ready to gain a foothold at the Western flank of its widely heralded Asian pivot. Washington responded by suspending many of the sanctions it had implemented against the military regime, re-establishing diplomatic ties, and making generous developmental assistance pledges.

In retrospect, the achievements of 2012 were all relatively soft targets. They generated good headlines, but actually did little to challenge the fundamental interests of those in power. When the reforms have actually threatened the position of the elite, the government has instinctively reverted to its old ways, renewing the policy of throwing dissidents in jail and clamping down on critical media outlets.

The promises made in the initial ceasefires with ethnic armed groups have largely gone unfulfilled, while in the country's north, the army has continued a series of abuse-ridden offensives designed to secure its strategic interests in resource-rich areas bordering China. In Rakhine State and elsewhere, unwillingness to protect the rights and lives of vulnerable minorities has been an ugly feature of the transition.

The heady optimism of 2012 seems distant now. Since then, those who truly wield power have shown little willingness to allow the fundamental changes in the structure and exercise of power desired by Burma's democratic and ethnic opposition. Without these amendments, the reform process is at best stunted, and at worst a ploy to fool a naïve international audience.

A reinvigorated constitutional reform process is crucial to getting the reform process back on track. The 2008 constitution ensures military control of the executive and legislative branches of government, bars Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president, and fails to recognize the rights-based and power-sharing aspirations at the heart of Burma's civil war. Addressing these deficits is absolutely essential for the transition, but looks unlikely under the current parliamentary committee review process, which is dominated by military representatives.

A successful transition would also require a resolution to the country's continuing civil war. The state and Burma's non-state ethnic armed groups are currently negotiating a political agreement -- the nationwide ceasefire -- which seeks in tandem to formally end all hostilities while formalizing a longer term process to resolve fundamental power, resource, and rights-based disagreements. To establish a sustainable peace, Burma's old guard must recognize, at least in principle, the possibility of devolving power and resources to non-state actors within a new, possibly federal state structure.

During their upcoming visits to Burma, Kerry and Obama should focus on achieving these benchmarks of progress on constitutional reform and the peace process. There are reasons to believe it has the leverage.

The United States has withheld more of its cards than most of Burma's development partners. Unlike the European Union, the United Kingdom, and others, the United States has refused to partner with Burma's government, putting it in a better position to exert pressure on the government. Unlike other development partners, the United States is not risking any of its existing programs or investments by being critical, and can still use the possibility of closer ties to incentivize "good behavior." It also maintains a relatively strict sanctions regime, which if effectively targeted or re-imposed can still impact the interests of key figures blocking the transition.

At the same time, Washington has opened up avenues of engagement with the Burmese military, giving it closer access to the conservative power structure. The United States could, for example, offer opportunities for non-combat training in U.S. military staff colleges in exchange for the government's commitment to withdraw from contested areas of Kachin state, where the civil war has continued even as other regions have concluded ceasefire agreements.

Engaging rather than isolating Burma's conservative leaders is the best way to change the deeply held belief that devolving power threatens the security and integrity of the state. The people cannot afford to wait another 60 years for such thoughts to dawn independently.

Kerry and Obama's visits to Burma in August and November will come at an auspicious time. By promoting changes to the constitution before the elections, the United States could help Burma foster a truly competitive democratic environment for the first time in half a century. Furthermore, if the United States can persuade the military to cease offensive action and agree to a national dialogue framework, it can help to ensure that power-sharing reforms survive beyond the next electoral cycle. An end to the civil war is possible.

Perhaps most importantly, Kerry and Obama's public assessments of Burma's transition will provide highly visible international and domestic barometers of the country's progress. Rightful condemnations will make other donors' myopia to the derailing of the transition less tenable. Unlike some other countries, the United States is not yet so economically invested in Burma's opening that it can rationalize turning a blind eye. Taking a firm stance at this pivotal moment will deny the regime the international legitimacy it still craves -- and give Burma's people a reason to hope that the world has not been duped, and that real change is still possible.

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