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The Middle East Situation is All Question Marks

Even after a week, the obscene Hamas attacks on Israel have lacked for a coherent narrative. 

I tried to construct one, and gave up in frustration. There are simply too many threads to follow, and each thread ends in a question mark.

As I tend to follow the threads less travelled, here are some of the questions I’ve been asking, not that I expect any real answers:

Were Russia and Iran just as Surprised as Israel?

When news of these attacks first broke, it was widely assumed that both Iran and Russia were key figures, lurking in the background, pulling the strings. Iran had supplied Hamas with missiles. Russia had repeatedly hosted Hamas leaders in Moscow. All this was suggestive of multi-dimensional chess being played by the big boys in the region.

But not so fast. More recent reports, citing U.S. intelligence sources, have revealed that they don’t think Iran knew anything about Hamas’ plans. Or at least they were taken aback by the news.

Then Mark Galeotti — a go-to Russia specialist, whose sources go deep into the Kremlin — declared, quite convincingly, that Putin was also gobsmacked by the attacks, to the point of paralysis. Apparently, Russian intelligence has as much egg on its face as the Israelis.

The official Russian reaction to the war so far has been low-key, incoherent, and befuddled. They’re busy with their own atrocities, and don’t have time for other peoples.’

But both Russia and Iran have a history of placing serious firepower in the hands of marginal actors without thinking through the consequences. What could go wrong?

Can the Bromance Between Bibi and Vlad Survive?

Israel and Russia have been flirting with each other for decades, which was only natural. With all the Russians in Israel and all the Jews in Russia, the commercial and cultural ties run especially deep.

In this century, Putin and Netanyahu have developed a wary bromance. Each claims to like the other, which seems unlikely. But even so, they’re about as close as Israel’s commitments to the United States can allow for. Which is to say, not very.

But you could look at Israel as a sort of Putin-ish success story, seeing as how Bibi continues to molest his own constitution in a power grab seemingly designed to shield him from multiple prosecutions. Trump can only look on in envy.

But Bibi’s fascist proclivities aside, the bromance has always been shaky. Beyond the problematic ties to America, there have long been plenty of Russian emigrĂ©s in Israel, many with bad memories of the motherland, and bad things to say about Putin.

And that was before the invasion of Ukraine, which did not go unnoticed in Israel, and which Bibi has tried to stay out of. Israel has conspicuously not sanctioned Russia, nor have they sent aid or weaponry to Ukraine. They’ve walked a tightrope that has left both Russia and Ukraine equally angry at them.

And now, with Hamas making Bibi look foolish — and with most of the world’s fingers pointing at Putin — I’m guessing the bromance is just about over.

Is this Really what Iran had in Mind?

The government of Iran is deeply committed to eradicating Israel, but they probably didn’t have this week in mind.

They already have quite enough on their plate, attending to the ongoing brutal suppression of all internal dissent in the name of a sclerotic theocracy nobody likes. Again.

They’d just recently reached a deal with the U.S. and Qatar to conditionally release $6 billion in funds that had been frozen in the U.S. banking system. The new war will surely tank that deal, and the $6 billion will apparently be re-frozen.

Which means the Hamas attacks are costing Iran $6 billion right off the top. And that’s unrelated to the substantial investment they’ve made in Hamas over the years, providing arms, training, and financing with few, if any, strings attached.

And this is the thanks they get. If the reporting is to be believed, Iran wasn’t consulted about the attacks — which they surely would have discouraged — and they were caught totally off guard by them.

In other words, Iran built a very expensive killing machine, and were surprised when it started killing people.

What Does Iran Get for its Investment in Hamas?

Hamas offers all the brutality of ISIS, but with better branding. A pumped-up terrorist cell — widely hated even by its own people — Hamas is nonetheless bringing a new level of media savvy and video sophistication to what we might want to call the New Barbarity.

This will be barbarity with production values. All indications are that Hamas has a video workflow up and running, prepared to accommodate any new footage as it happens. The graphics, music, and voiceover talent are ready to go. They can edit and re-edit depending on the communication strategy, and they’ll be pumping out a steady stream of barbarities through Telegram, all of which will go viral immediately.

If, as they’ve promised, Hamas actually goes ahead with televised executions of Israeli hostages, we can expect them to be slick productions, with hooded executioners performing unspeakable atrocities to a live audience.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My What Again?

Some of the world’s most influential authoritarian regimes are having a hard time distinguishing their friends from their enemies.

Israel and Russia have both been flirting with Mohamed Bin-Salman of Saudi Arabia, each for their own reasons, each with some recent success. Unfortunately, MBS doesn’t like how Russia has been cozying up to Iran. Neither does Israel.

But Russia, you might notice, is not having a good year. Bogged down in Ukraine, seemingly forever, they really need Iran. Mostly because there aren’t that many robust nation-states willing to do business with either of them.

The Saudis would probably do more business with Russia — MBS couldn’t care less about Ukraine — but they’re constrained by their hatred for Iran, by their close-but-rickety relationship with the United States, and by Russia’s pariah status in the rest of the world. And now, this Hamas thing means that any deal they had in mind with Israel is surely off the table.

It’s said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but that’s only when you can keep straight which is which.

The Hamas conflict is unleashing a world of unintended consequences. Its ripple effects have strained alliances, exposed national weaknesses, created strange bedfellows galore, and added enormous pressure to an already-stressed-out planet.

And that was just last week.




  1. The best explanation I've heard is that Hamas is responding to the thawing of relationships with various Arab states and Israel. If Israel has too many allies in the Middle East, Hamas loses their already limited support. Their hope was that Israel would overreact an force said Arab states to pull back on those burgeoning relationships. As usual, it seems their plan backfired spectacularly.


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