Dr. Szekely is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
There is a long-running debate among scholars of international relations as to whether state behavior is more heavily influenced by systemic or domestic pressures. There is far less discussion, however, of the impact of these factors on the behavior of nonstate actors. This stems perhaps from an assumption that nonstate actors, by their very nature, have different priorities than states, and that system-level factors should therefore not matter very much. Their expressed goals are often the overthrow of a particular regime, the control of specific territory or (in practice if not in theory) victory over rival militias. None of these issues suggests that we should expect changes in regional realignment — rather than in the domestic political context — to shape their behavior. If militant organizations are concerned primarily with a local conflict, their alliance behavior, even at the regional and international levels, should be driven by an assessment of which alliances will help them further their goals.
Yet, the responses by Hamas and Hezbollah to the sudden regional realignment produced by the Arab Spring suggest that this is not always the case. Both organizations have long framed themselves in terms of their role as "the resistance" against Israel. ("Hamas" is an Arabic acronym for "the Islamic resistance"; Hezbollah's official label is "the Islamic resistance in Lebanon.") Both derive enormous legitimacy from this term. Hezbollah used its status as "the resistance" to justify remaining armed after the end of the Lebanese civil war, and Hamas has leveraged its status as a local resistance movement to differentiate itself from the PLO, especially during and immediately after the first Intifada. But their behavior in adjusting to the realignment produced by the Arab Spring suggests they have other concerns that trump the "resistance" project. This apparent contradiction is the central focus here.
An analysis of the responses of Hamas and Hezbollah to the Arab Spring can clarify how proto-state actors make decisions regarding regional alignment. This can, in turn, provide some ground for informed speculation as to the future alliance behavior of other such organizations, including the group calling itself the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.) For decades, one of the region's major divisions has been that between the Syrian-Iranian axis and the pro-Western axis. The outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the election (albeit temporary) of Islamist governments in Tunisia and Egypt created shifts in this alignment and presented a challenge for proto-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas, which had previously been allied with Syria and Iran. Hamas severed its relationship with Syria, while Hezbollah chose to involve itself directly in the Syrian civil war. These responses suggest that their decision making is informed by broader regional issues and domestic political concerns, rather than merely the imperatives of their protracted conflict with Israel. Both decisions are puzzling in other ways as well. The patrons for whom Hamas abandoned the Syrian alliance are far less likely to provide weaponry and support for operations against Israel, and Hezbollah damaged its political position in Lebanon by fighting openly alongside the Assad regime. Why would they choose these divergent but similarly costly courses of action?
I argue that these choices are rooted in the fact that both organizations, as regional proto-state actors, make alliance decisions based not simply on the immediate realities of their conflict with Israel, but also on regional alignment patterns and domestic political concerns, the same pressures that states face. For Hezbollah, preserving the Assad regime in Syria and demonstrating their commitment to doing so (particularly to the regime itself) are both priorities, even at a domestic cost. For Hamas, joining what appeared to be a newly emerging Islamist axis offered a potential springboard to greater regional legitimacy, even at the cost of its military effectiveness. This suggests that the tools used by scholars and policy makers to understand and bargain with states may also be applicable to proto-state militant organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. These insights can also further our understanding of the possible alliance behavior of ISIS.
Proto-state actors occupy a conceptual space somewhere between states and nonstate actors. Hamas and Hezbollah are only two examples; others include the FARC in Colombia, the POLISARIO in Western Sahara and the PLO. While many such organizations have political wings that engage with the existing government more or less on its own terms (running in elections or even serving in parliament), they may also perform other functions that challenge the authority or even the legitimacy of the state itself. However, though they possess many of the practical characteristics of a state, they lack the authority and recognition afforded to the government, even if that government is less capable of governing the territory to which it lays claim.1 While such groups are often referred to as "states within a state," "states without a state" is probably more accurate. They are defined here as nonstate organizations that have assumed a plurality of the functions of the state in a given territory and conduct their foreign relations independently from that state, challenging its legitimacy to govern a given territory.
The "functions of the state" that proto-state actors perform include a wide range of activities, the most obvious being military. The presence of an armed militia clearly poses a challenge to the state, defying the Weberian benchmark for state sovereignty, a monopoly over the legitimate use of force. The armed wings of some proto-state actors are quite large and well equipped, resembling or surpassing the militaries of small states. Perhaps more important, at least in distinguishing proto-state actors from simple militias, is that these organizations also perform a range of nonmilitary functions. While many militias also include charitable wings that provide services on a limited scale to local constituents, for proto-state actors these institutions can even include infrastructure maintenance, education, medical care and road safety.2 They may have highly functional bureaucracies and strong administrative capacities, sometimes rivaling those of the state whose authority they have supplanted.
Because many proto-state actors see themselves as "states in waiting," their foreign policy is often highly developed. The PLO, for instance, had its own delegation to the United Nations from 1974 to 1988 (when this function was transferred by the PLO itself to the newly declared, though not established, state of Palestine). Rather than seeing themselves simply in relation to their state adversary, they construct their foreign policies in response to both broad regional dynamics and the demands of domestic public opinion. The position of the adversary state is relevant, of course, but is not the only factor shaping their foreign-policy preferences. The foreign-policy decisions that Hamas and Hezbollah both made in the context of the Arab Spring demonstrate that proto-state actors make foreign policy much the way that states do: in response not just to local political imperatives, but also to larger regional and global political pressures.
PRE-SPRING REGIONAL ALIGNMENT
As of December 17, 2010 (the date on which Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, sparking the uprisings that would collectively become known as the Arab Spring), the regional alignment in the Middle East was characterized by several major cleavages. The Arab-Israeli conflict was only one. For many of the region's Sunni monarchies, the Sunni-Shiite division was paramount. In December 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan warned of the potential emergence of a "Shiite Crescent" in the Middle East, stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon:
Chris Matthews: Do you think that would be a danger to the region, an alliance between a Shia-led Iraq and Iran?
Abdullah II: If it was a Shia-led Iraq that had a special relationship with Iran, and you look at that relationship with Syria and with Hezbollah in Lebanon, then we have this new crescent that … would be very destabilizing for the Gulf countries, and actually for the whole region.3
Given that this interview took place on an American television network, Abdullah's warning was aimed at least in part at the Bush administration. But it is also emblematic of the long-running strategic competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, rooted in economic rivalry over control of oil prices, territorial rivalry in the Persian Gulf and the perceived security threat each poses to the other. Both states also have more specific grievances, including Saudi limits on Hajj visas for Iranian pilgrims, perceived repression of Shiites in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and alleged Iranian support for anti-regime Shiite organizations (armed and otherwise) in the Gulf states.
The Saudi-Iranian strategic rivalry has drawn each state's respective allies into two broad axes, one involving Iran and Syria, the other Saudi Arabia and the GCC states (plus Jordan). Of particular significance in reinforcing the divisions between the two camps was the Iran-Iraq War, during which most of the Arab states lined up behind Iraq, leaving Iran isolated. The lone exception was Syria, which allied with Iran. This was due in part to the rivalry between the Iraqi and Syrian wings of the Baath party, and perhaps also to what Hafiz al-Assad's biographer, Patrick Seale, believes was genuine sympathy for the position of the Iranians.4 In addition, the Iranian-Lebanese Shiite cleric Musa Sadr had done Assad a substantial favor in 1974 by declaring the Alawite religious sect a subset of mainline Shiism. This offset criticism by opponents of the regime that the Alawite Assads were not even Muslim (and by implication, unfit to govern Syria).5
There were certainly divisions within these alliances, such as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the late 1990s, and times when the interests of rivals converged, as when Syria participated in the campaign to drive Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait in 1991. Overall, however, this cleavage proved remarkably durable and has had a powerful effect on the foreign policies of states in the region, particularly with regard to their involvement (or attempted involvement) in the politics of neighboring states and their engagement with nonstate actors.
This rivalry shaped the approach taken by states on both sides of the divide to those states they perceived as potential arenas of contestation. Abdullah's warning, coming as it did in the context of the first Iraqi election after the U.S. invasion, reflects a growing discomfort with Shia influence in both Iraq and Lebanon. Both countries have been characterized by weak or failing governments and muscular nonstate military actors with substantial political influence. Both states were seen by the Gulf monarchies as potential battlegrounds in the struggle for influence between the Iranian and Saudi axes.
Given the repressive nature of political life in many states in the region, those countries with space for semi-open political dialogue are often treated as proving grounds for the region's competing ideologies. Lebanon in the 1960s is perhaps the best example: Nasserites, Iraqi Baathists, Syrian Baathists, communists, pan-Syrian nationalists and all other political parties opened offices, newspapers, radio stations and other platforms for promoting their ideologies in Beirut. Many sought out local Lebanese proxies or found them among the various Palestinian militias that set up shop in Lebanon in the late 1960s.6
For Iran, Hezbollah represented first an extension of its own political project (the establishment of an Islamic republic) and later a powerful means of projecting its power regionally. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, Hezbollah has become an important ally for Syria, especially during its occupation of Lebanon, which lasted until 2005. After the withdrawal of Syrian forces, the anti-Syrian March 14 faction and the pro-Syrian March 8 faction became political proxies for the rivalry between Syria and Iran. More recently, Hezbollah has become a crucial military ally in Syria itself, helping to turn the tide in favor of the regime in several crucial battles during the Syrian civil war.7
Given the normative power of the Palestinian cause in the Arab world, Palestinian politics was likewise an arena for the region's various ideological conflicts, including both the "Arab Cold War" between Nasserist Egypt and the Gulf states, and the later rivalry between the Iranian and Saudi axes. Having a Palestinian client, or at least being seen to be offering support to the Palestinian parties, was a powerful source of regional and even domestic legitimacy. Seeking common ground with other states in the region, immediately after the 1979 revolution Khomeini's government set about wooing the PLO, providing the organization with the former Israeli embassy in Tehran as office space and welcoming Arafat with full diplomatic honors. But in the early 1990s, the relationship cooled; Arafat's backing of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War and the signing of the Oslo accords were viewed as major betrayals. Hamas, despite its ideological differences with the Iranian regime, represented a welcome alternative. For its part, Syria saw Palestinian resistance as one way of forcing Israel to negotiate a multilateral peace treaty, which it hoped would lead to the return of the Golan Heights. Like Iran, after the Oslo Accords Syria saw in Hamas a possible alternative to the PLO. In short, Hamas's presence in the Syrian-Iranian alliance (sometimes referred to by the Syrian and Iranian governments as the "Axis of Resistance") served as both a source of regional legitimacy for the alliance and a powerful rebuke to those Palestinian factions that had signed on to the Oslo process, as well as a means for Iran and Syria to exert pressure on both Israel and the PLO.8
While these relationships were advantageous for the sponsoring states, they were also beneficial for the militant groups themselves. Over time, some came to wield substantial influence and can perhaps be viewed, if not as equal, then as very important junior partners in their respective alliances. Hezbollah has clearly benefitted militarily, politically and financially from its relationship with Iran. In its early years, when the Islamic Republic was led by a more militant faction, Hezbollah was given training, funding and weaponry. As early as 1982, Iran dispatched 1,500 Revolutionary Guards to train Hezbollah fighters in the Bekaa Valley.9 Iran also provided weapons, ranging from AK-47s to Soviet shoulder-mounted SAM-7s.10 In the 1980s, it also provided what some sources estimate to have been as much as $5 million to $10 million a month.11 This included funding for Hezbollah's social-service network (averaging $60 million a year throughout the decade)12 and for its media outlets.13 This funding decreased somewhat after the death of Khomeini in 1989 and the ascendance of the more pragmatic Rafsanjani as president of Iran. However, Iran remains a significant source of both funding and weapons for Hezbollah. During the 2006 July War, it became clear that in addition to the small arms and Katyusha rockets Hezbollah had used throughout the 1990s and 2000s, it also possessed anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, UAVs (drones), and longer-range missiles capable of hitting Israeli cities as far south as Haifa and Tiberias.14 Many, if not most, of these weapons were likely supplied by Iran.
Hezbollah's other important ally, of course, was Syria. While Hezbollah's relationship with Damascus during the 1980s veered between suspicion and open hostility, things became far more cordial after the end of the Lebanese civil war. Hezbollah prospered under de facto Syrian rule in Lebanon, acquiring ever-greater political influence. While Syria acted as a conduit for weapons and fighters between Hezbollah and Iran, there is some evidence that by the 2000s it was also directly supplying Hezbollah with arms, including 220mm and 302mm rockets and anti-tank missiles.15 In one of the cables released through Wikileaks, an official at the U.S. embassy in Damascus suggested, "There is overwhelming evidence that shows Syria provided not just logistical and other support in moving the weapons, but was the main source of the weapons."16
Hamas also benefitted substantially from its membership in the Axis of Resistance.17 In 1992, a combination of the PLO's backing for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War and the failure of the Madrid negotiations prompted Syria to cultivate a new "rejection front" of hardline Palestinian factions. Both Iran and Syria soon began to provide Hamas with significant backing. Iranian aid increased to $20 million, from $4 million in 1989.18 Reports also began to surface in the early 1990s that Hamas fighters were receiving Iranian training.19 By the early 2000s, Hamas was sending elite members of the Al Qassem brigades, its military wing, to Iran and Syria to receive training directly from the Revolutionary Guards in both warfare tactics and weapons manufacturing.20 There is also some evidence that Hamas's sponsors at times provided more substantial weapons, including Russian and Chinese missiles with ranges of up to 40 kilometers. 21 Israeli officials believed that Hamas was also receiving Iranian-made weapons, designed specifically for Hamas, that could be disassembled into four pieces for easier transport into Gaza via the tunnels, as well as Russian anti-tank missiles.22
In addition to funding and weapons, Hamas also received something it required perhaps more than most militant groups: office space. After its founder, Ahmed Yassin, was arrested by Israel in 1989, Hamas's leadership relocated to Jordan. But in 1999, after a period of about five years, during which relations between the Jordanian government and Hamas became increasingly hostile, the movement was expelled altogether and moved its headquarters to Damascus. While a foreign headquarters became somewhat less crucial after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, having a base from which its leadership could openly conduct foreign policy without being arrested or assassinated by Israel remains important.23
Finally, both Hamas and Hezbollah benefitted from their relationship with one another. Hamas was able to expand its influence in Lebanon by operating under Hezbollah's umbrella, and Hezbollah was able to gain greater credibility among Lebanon's Palestinians by supporting hardline Palestinian factions like Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC.) Outside the PFLP-GC offices in the Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp, I once saw a large billboard with pictures of Hassan Nasrullah, Ahmed Yassin and Ahmed Jibril (founder of the PFLP-GC) that said in Arabic, "From Lebanon to Palestine, the resistance is one."
In sum, a broader characterization of the regional alignment prior to 2011 would be Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas against the status quo forces represented by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Fatah and their Lebanese allies in the Sunni-dominated Mustaqbal party (which leads the March 14 bloc). All parties involved clearly benefitted from membership in this axis, including Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which received resources that helped them to pursue their local goals: funding for their social-service apparatus and weaponry for the confrontation with Israel. If those were the only concerns driving their alliance behavior, we would perhaps expect both to have remained members of this axis regardless of the changes in the region created by the Arab Spring. But as proto-state actors, both Hamas and Hezbollah have concerns that extend far beyond their own backyards. Both see themselves as regional, as well as local, actors; as such, they reacted quite differently to the regional realignment that began in winter 2011.
The Arab Spring changed the alliance structures of the Middle East in several fundamental ways. The most significant was that it at least temporarily created a new Sunni Islamist axis. Under the previous alignment, the various Muslim Brotherhood chapters across the region had operated largely autonomously. True, there was sympathy among them, and at times some regional chapters were able to leverage support for a neighboring movement for their own political gain. The Jordanian Islamic Action Front, for instance, enjoyed a boost in its fortunes when public sympathy for Hamas increased. (At least, the leadership believed this to be the case.) Similarly, Hamas helped collect charitable donations for Palestinians in Gaza, which were then distributed through their charitable network.24 But for the most part, the Muslim Brotherhood branches in each country tended to function as independent organizations struggling for survival. Perhaps the starkest indicator is Hamas's willingness to align itself with Syria in the early 1990s, despite Assad's massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood chapter in Hama in 1982.
The Arab Spring changed all this. As the governments in Tunisia and Egypt fell, the Islamic opposition parties seized the opportunity to finally take political power through elections. This was more reflective of structural and political conditions in these states than of a broad sympathy for the Islamist political project, but they were nevertheless quite successful, albeit briefly. In Yemen, the Al Islah party quickly became the center of the pro-democracy opposition, as the most organized of the opposition parties.25 In both Tunisia and Egypt, elections were held hastily, before the progressive or secular opposition had much chance to organize. The Islamist parties had managed to survive underground through a combination of coordination from abroad (the primary strategy of Tunisia's Al Nahda), the use of the mosque network to organize (in both Egypt and Tunisia) and a degree of accommodation with the regime (primarily in Egypt). Therefore, they were better placed to compete than any of their rivals.
These parties had the further advantage of support from the Gulf states (primarily Qatar), which presumably decided that, if there were going to be elections in the Arab world, they would at least like to influence the result. (This was hardly a new strategy; during the 2009 elections in Lebanon, the Saudi government helped pay for tens of thousands of expatriate Lebanese who were likely to vote for the Saudi-aligned March 14 coalition to fly back to Lebanon to vote.) Doha and Riyadh embraced the new Islamist governments in Tunis and Cairo, albeit only insofar as they hoped to be able to advance their own agenda through them. The Turkish government was more enthusiastic; in September 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a three-nation tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In short, by the end of 2011, a new Islamist axis had emerged. This represented an alternative both to the secular-nationalist, pro-Western governments in Jordan, the West Bank and Morocco, and to the Syrian-Iranian Axis of Resistance.
At the same time, the Syrian-Iranian axis was facing a significant challenge in the form of the Syrian civil war, the most substantial threat yet faced by the Assad regime. Most obviously, its control over a great deal of the country had been weakened. This is particularly true in the north along the border with Turkey. Some areas were taken over by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), many of which were later captured by ISIS; others became, effectively, autonomous Kurdish areas. (ISIS has largely refrained from taking territory held by the Assad regime itself, with the exception of Tadmur, where Palmyra is located.)
The war has also left Syria with hostile states on two of its borders. The relationship with Jordan, never particularly warm, at times became openly hostile. Jordanian and Syrian troops exchanged fire across the border in 2012,26 and FSA troops were trained (by the United States) on Jordanian soil.27 The Assad regime's relationship with Turkey, once quite cordial, has also become adversarial. When Syria shot down a Turkish jet over international waters in July 2012, open hostilities briefly seemed possible.28 Both of these states have now lined up against the Syrian regime.
More broadly, the war has generated a serious crisis of legitimacy for the Assad regime. This stems partly from the atrocities the Syrian military has committed against civilians, including the sieges of Aleppo, Homs and Hama, the siege and bombardment of civilian areas of Damascus (including the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp), the alleged regime use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, and alleged massacres in villages across the country. This is compounded by the increasingly sectarian cast of the conflict, in which the hostile Sunni versus Shia rhetoric has been enthusiastically embraced by ISIS and other takfiri (Sunni Muslims who accuse other Abrahamic followers of apostasy) factions such as the Nusra Front.29
In sum, the Arab Spring altered the strategic alignment of the Middle East in major ways. Prior to the uprisings, the two major sides were the pro-Western, Gulf-dominated axis and the Syrian-Iranian axis. The Arab Spring created a new option: a Sunni Islamist axis backed by some parties in the Gulf states (though not by conservative status quo states like Jordan or the Fatah-dominated government in the West Bank) and with a strong affinity for Erdogan's Turkey. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria badly weakened the Assad regime, and its atrocities against (Sunni) civilians have cost it much of the pan-Arabist legitimacy it previously was able to generate through its stance against Israel and support for various Palestinian factions. In November 2011, Syria was even suspended from the Arab League.
HEZBOLLAH AND HAMAS
The responses of Hamas and Hezbollah to the post-2011 regional upheaval have been quite different. Hezbollah's approach has been to recommit to the relationship with Syria and Iran. This has come at no small domestic cost but makes sense, given the movement's understanding of its place in the larger regional alliance structure. Hamas, meanwhile, broke with Syria and allied itself with what appeared for a time to be an emerging Muslim in Egypt and Tunisia.
When fighting first erupted in Syria, Hezbollah expressed support for Assad but initially refrained from openly committing its forces. From the early days of the civil war, Hassan Nasrullah, Hezbollah's charismatic leader, sought to bolster the regime's flagging Arab-nationalist legitimacy, speaking of its support for "resistance movements" against Israel.30 By the summer of 2012, rumors were already circulating in Beirut of coffins containing the bodies of fallen Hezbollah fighters coming back through the Bekaa Valley from Syria.31 But for the first two years of the war, Hezbollah never acknowledged its fighters' involvement.32
This approach was entirely rational in the context of Lebanese politics. Despite the power-sharing agreement signed in Doha in 2008, tensions remain high between the Hezbollah-dominated March 8 bloc and the Sunni-dominated March 14 bloc. These tensions have only been exacerbated by the civil war in Syria, in which the two Lebanese factions have backed opposite sides, though both publicly pledged to keep Lebanon uninvolved. The massive flood of Syrian refugees into Lebanon (as of the end of 2015, nearly 1.2 million, according to UNHCR,33 equal to approximately 25 percent of the country's population) has further destabilized the situation, especially given that many have sought refuge in the northern city of Tripoli, where the predominantly Sunni population has long harbored a grudge against the Assad dynasty for atrocities committed by the Syrian army in the 1970s. Clashes occurred between the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al Tabbaneh and the adjacent Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen even prior to the onset of the war in Syria.34 The war itself exacerbated tensions, leading to escalating violence between the two.35
Meanwhile, Hezbollah was facing a number of other challenges. By 2012, it was experiencing new levels of internal competition from within the Shiite community, from large families in the Bekaa and criminal networks that were increasingly reluctant to accept Hezbollah's authority over their business dealings in Beirut.36 The indictments of several of its members by the international tribunal investigating the Hariri assassination were looming. And much of the political goodwill it had gained for its performance in the 2006 July War against Israel had been wiped out by its takeover of West Beirut in 2008 and what many saw as its increasingly heavy-handed political tactics. In the midst of all this, it is perhaps understandable that the organization's leadership would seek to maintain, at the very least, plausible deniability regarding involvement in Syria.
In late April 2013, however, this policy was abandoned. Nasrullah gave a speech in which he confirmed for the first time that Hezbollah's fighters were active in Syria, alongside the Syrian military. Soon afterward, Hezbollah openly acknowledged its fighters' critical role in recapturing the strategic border village of Qusayr from the FSA. Hezbollah's involvement was framed by both its leadership and its media apparatus (in particular, Al Manar, its satellite station) as necessary to preserve the "Axis of Resistance" for the fight against Israel. It was also clear that this was about preserving the regime itself.37 Hezbollah's response was to double down on its alliance with Assad.
Hamas's response was very different. Whereas Hezbollah recommitted to its alliance with Syria and Iran, Hamas abandoned it entirely. In February 2012, less than a year after the onset of the civil war, Hamas formally broke with Syria. (It had unofficially moved its headquarters from Damascus to Doha and Cairo months earlier).38 This constituted a major rebuke to the Assad regime, and cost it dearly in terms of its wider Arab legitimacy. In a speech at the Al Azhar mosque in Cairo, Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government of Gaza, said, "I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform."39 In the streets, Egyptians chanted against the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah. Hamas's stance only hardened over the following year, as fighting in Syria continued. Repeated attacks on the Yarmouk (Palestinian) refugee camp by regime forces further heightened tensions between the two. After shelling by the army in August 2012 led to dozens of casualties, the Al Qassem Brigades, Hamas's military wing, posted a statement on its website condemning the attacks.40
Domestic political calculations strongly contributed to this choice. Association with the Assad regime was no longer an asset in Palestinian domestic politics, given the increasingly sectarian rhetoric surrounding the conflict, and particularly the attacks on the refugee camp. But this decision did not come without significant domestic costs as well. One of Hamas's main domestic priorities is to keep its government apparatus in Gaza up and running. This includes being able to pay civil servants, members of the security forces and other public employees. A second major priority is maintaining the ability (whether it chooses to make use of it or not) to launch retaliatory attacks against Israel. This is particularly important with regard to rivals like Islamic Jihad and the various would-be al-Qaeda mini-factions that have proliferated in Gaza.41 Retaining its military capacity is important to avoid being outflanked by more radical organizations.
For both of these priorities, Hamas has leaned quite heavily on Iran in recent years, due in large part to the international boycott and Israeli blockade that have left it without other sources of funding. 42 Prior to 2012, Iranian funding for Hamas amounting to as much as $25 million a month,43 was crucial to the continued operations of the Hamas government in Gaza. But the break with Syria led to a marked cooling in Hamas's relationship with Iran. Iranian funding was sharply reduced,44 and by January 2014, the movement's offices in Tehran no longer even had a permanent representative.45 While it is conceivable, and even likely, that Hamas was confident of finding a new patron to provide funding, it is extremely unlikely that any other sponsor will be as generous with the military assets, such as arms and training, that Iran has historically provided.
In sum, both Hamas and Hezbollah made decisions that would make very little sense if these organizations are motivated primarily by the demands of their respective conflicts with Israel. Hezbollah has weakened its position in Lebanon and destabilized the country, and Hamas has lost a major source of funding and weapons. But this decision is far less surprising if we view both organizations, not as purely local nonstate actors, but as regional proto-states.
The alliance behavior exhibited by Hezbollah and Hamas makes far more sense if we begin with the premise that each organization sees itself as more than simply a resistance or insurgent group, and that they make their foreign policy accordingly. While some militias may be so focused on their conflict with a primary adversary that it constitutes the sole determinant of their alliance behavior, larger and more complex organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah balance a range of domestic concerns with equally complex issues of foreign policy. In this, they resemble states far more than local gangs or rebel movements.
For Hezbollah, despite the domestic costs of not only staying loyal to Assad but also fighting openly alongside the Syrian military, remaining within the Axis of Resistance makes foreign-policy sense for a number of reasons. First, Syria constitutes an important corridor for the transfer of arms from Iran to Hezbollah; the loss of that route would be very damaging. But that alone does not explain Hezbollah's commitment to the alliance. Being part of a wider regional alliance is also useful for its own sake. Despite an attempt to frame the liberation of Palestine as a pan-Islamic (and in the case of Hezbollah, pan-Arab) issue as a means of building bridges to the non-Shiite Arab world, both Iran and Hezbollah have historically felt somewhat isolated in the region. Syria, despite being ruled by an Alawite dynasty, has far more substantial pan-Arab credentials rooted in its (albeit brief) membership in the United Arab Republic, Hafez al-Assad's support for various Palestinian militias, and its consistent leadership role in military confrontation with Israel. Preserving the Assad regime in Syria is therefore important in maintaining an Axis of Resistance that is more than an alliance among Shiites. (The Hamas membership was particularly useful in this regard.) It is also about a commitment to the idea of a broader resistance project, one that is not the exclusive property of the Sunni Arab world.
It was also important for Hezbollah to demonstrate this commitment openly, both to the Assad regime itself and to its adversaries in the civil war. The domestic political risks attached to fighting openly alongside the Syrian military, rather than trying to maintain plausible deniability, meant that Hezbollah was able to signal the seriousness of its purpose.
This is not to suggest, however, that Hezbollah's support for the regime has been a purely symbolic gesture. To the contrary, it has proved to be a major military asset. For one thing, while the Syrian army has been plagued by desertion and the defection of high-ranking officers to the FSA, Hezbollah fighters are essentially guaranteed to remain loyal. For another, Hezbollah's involvement in Syria lessens the regime's isolation by demonstrating that it has allies — without the need to directly involve Iran. While Hezbollah may be a Shiite organization, it is also an Arab organization, with a strong record against Israel. While reports on Al Jazeera of Hezbollah fighters clashing with Syrian rebels may not do the regime any favors in terms of regional public opinion — as the crowds in Cairo chanting anti-Hezbollah slogans after Haniyeh's speech suggest — this is still far less damaging than images of Iranian revolutionary guards firing on Syrians would be. In fighting openly alongside the Syrian army, Hezbollah demonstrates its commitment to both the Assad regime and to the Iranian-Syrian axis as a wider alliance. It also makes it somewhat more likely that both will be preserved. For Hezbollah, these regional foreign-policy issues are clearly just as important as local political concerns. Moreover, despite attempts to link the fighting in Syria to its larger resistance project, at least for the time being the war in Syria has clearly eclipsed its conflict with Israel in importance. Just as states pursue different priorities at different times, so do proto-state actors like Hezbollah.
Hamas's decision to flee its alliance with Syria likewise reflects a concern with regional politics that balances against the imperatives of domestic politics. Severing this relationship cost Hamas dearly in terms of its alliance with Iran and the weapons, funding and training that came with it. This was a significant sacrifice, given their local priorities. Ultimately, however, the desire to be a part of an emerging regional axis that felt like a more natural "fit" for Hamas trumped both gratitude to Iran and practical considerations regarding future access to weapons. The chance to join a new, Islamist axis proved far more appealing for Hamas than remaining with its existing allies.
This was likely motivated, at least in part, by concerns with domestic public opinion. The Assad regime has become unpopular in the Sunni Arab world, including among Palestinians. A public opinion poll in March 2012 put Palestinian support for the Syrian opposition at 83 percent.46 This made the decision easier than it would have been, for example, when Hezbollah's stock was at an all-time high following the July War, and an alliance with them carried significant domestic political cachet. Moreover, Hamas's leaders certainly must have believed that with an Islamist government in Egypt, there was a real chance that the siege of Gaza might be eased through a more open border (though in fact, conditions at the Rafah crossing did not appreciably improve after Morsi's rise to power).47
Broader regional considerations were also a factor. Part of this may stem from an ideologically rooted desire on the part of Hamas's leadership, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, to join with like-minded states, even at the expense of access to arms in the long run. (When the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, it was quite clear they had little interest in initiating open war with Israel, or risking the peace treaty by openly shipping arms to Hamas.) Perhaps more important, joining an alliance composed of "mainstream" Arab states like Egypt and Qatar held the promise of greater legitimacy for Hamas. This has great appeal, not only because it improves Hamas's position vis-à-vis its rivalry with Fatah, but also because it holds the promise of greater leverage in any eventual negotiations with Israel as well as greater recognition of its government in Gaza. In short, the demands that Hamas faced as a government ultimately outweighed its priorities as a militia.
ISIS AS PROTO-STATE ACTOR
All of this suggests that, when an organization evolves from a local militia into a proto-state actor, its concerns are likely to become far more complex; this will in turn shape its alliance-making behavior. This has important implications for our understanding of the behavior of other militant groups in this category. One obvious example, of course, is the organization calling itself the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. It has its roots in the branch of al-Qaeda established in Iraq (AQI) after the American invasion of 2003. The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime created a power vacuum into which al-Qaeda happily inserted itself. Over the next decade, under the leadership of the Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's Iraqi branch became increasingly independent of its central leadership, by then under the authority of Ayman al-Zawahiri. When the civil war in Syria broke out, the central leadership struck an agreement with the Nusra Front to serve as al-Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria — it was common to designate a specific local Islamist group to carry the official al-Qaeda brand in a given country. AQI, however, saw the power vacuum in northern Syria as an opportunity for its own expansion. In violation of al-Qaeda's agreement with the Nusra Front, AQI began conducting operations and seizing territory in Syria. The resources it gained from these raids, in turn, enabled it to exploit growing Sunni resentment of the abuses they had suffered at the hands of Nuri Al Maliki's government and the Iraqi security forces, and eventually to take control of major cities in Iraq, including Fallujah and Ramadi in January 2014 and Mosul in June. In February 2014, al-Qaeda officially severed ties with this organization, which had begun calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
It was not immediately clear from the statements by the ISIS leadership, or indeed from its behavior, what sort of entity it was attempting to become. In June, ISIS declared the establishment of a new caliphate, with its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, as caliph. On the one hand, the organization's interest in seizing territory and creating a new political entity clearly distinguished ISIS from al-Qaeda. On the other hand, its focus on expansion and a lack of clearly defined (or even aspirational) borders differentiated it from conventional secessionist movements. But, despite rejecting the Westphalian model of the nation-state, as ISIS has gained territory, it has certainly sought to establish at least a few institutions of governance. By some accounts, ISIS has begun establishing bureaucratic institutions for functions as diverse as formulating education policy, enforcing road safety and issuing fishing licenses.48 It also administers a muscular network of patronage that in some ways resembles those in other states in the region, albeit arguably more brutal.49 In a move reminiscent of authoritarian regimes in other regions (North Korea, Eritrea, the USSR), it has also begun restricting movement out of Mosul and punishing the families of those who flee.50 In sum, despite a lack of international recognition and some ambivalence as to what sort of entity it will eventually become, ISIS has certainly begun to take on many of the functions once assumed by the Syrian and Iraqi governments. The label "proto-state" is probably appropriate.
So, like other proto-state actors, ISIS must balance the imperatives of fighting a guerrilla war with those of governing. Thus far, the movement has avoided the foreign-policy tradeoffs usually faced by proto-state actors by simply avoiding any alliances that would force it to compromise on either measure. Because it has no state sponsor — or real allies of any sort — it has been able to (1) carry out its brutal pacification of the areas under its control unhindered by demands for restraint from other states whose own foreign policy might be complicated by ISIS's behavior, and (2) to maintain a reputation for rigid and uncompromising ideological purity by avoiding alliances with less extreme state sponsors.51
This stance may be difficult to maintain. Total isolation is unsustainable in the long term, especially as the ISIS financial situation becomes more precarious. If — or when — the leadership does seek out allies, they will need to balance four objectives: finding money for state-building and paying their fighters; obtaining military support for expansion; gaining regional legitimacy and recognition; and maintaining ideological purity to retain "true believers" and avoid schisms. No single ally can meet all of these needs. ISIS could perhaps gain funding and legitimacy through a tacit alliance with Saudi Arabia, but it would be unlikely to receive much military support and would have to compromise on some of its core ideological tenets, particularly given Saudi concern about domestic unrest. This is equally true of the other Gulf states. In any case, Saudi Arabia and its allies are unlikely to risk alienating the United States though open support for ISIS. Similarly, though ISIS and Turkey share an antipathy for the Kurds, even minor military or financial aid from Turkey is highly improbable, given Ankara's valued relationship with Washington. In the long term, without a major process of moderation, probably including a change in leadership, the alliance prospects for ISIS seem far dimmer than those of the other proto-state actors described here.
This discussion is not meant to suggest that either Hamas or Hezbollah has ceased to be motivated by the imperatives of its protracted conflict with Israel. For Hamas, in particular, this remains a major part of its political calculus, but both organizations have grown beyond their local origins. Hamas began life as the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, largely concerned with launching attacks against Israel and exploiting the first Intifada to wrest a larger share of the Palestinian political market from the PLO. Hezbollah, in its early years, was largely focused on attacking the Israeli forces based in southern Lebanon, kidnapping Westerners as bargaining chips and setting fire to the occasional liquor store in West Beirut. Both have evolved over the years into far more complex organizations that, in at least some of their decision making, resemble states more than nonstate actors. Their responses to the Arab Spring reflect these complex priorities.
This suggests that some of the analytical tools we use to explain foreign-policy decision making by states may also be useful for understanding proto-state actors in the Middle East and elsewhere. Research on the influence of bureaucratic politics on decision making can contribute to the analysis of internal tensions that proto-state actors face as they negotiate the balance between guerrilla action and governance.52 Similarly, work on rentier states and neo-patrimonialism has implications for the sorts of governmental institutions nonstate actors will be able to build, and the degree to which they are able to remain autonomous from the populations they govern. This, in turn, will have an effect on their responsiveness to public opinion in foreign-policy matters. An Egypt or Jordan that could not rely on funding from the United States might have had a harder time maintaining the unpopular peace treaty with Israel. Hamas, starved for funds and unable to create a patronage-based welfare state, has been forced to reckon with Palestinian public opinion. That these organizations are not actually states does not render this logic any less applicable. This is true of other proto-state actors as well, including ISIS.
It also suggests that states seeking to formulate responses to these organizations' operations will find it more productive to take into account their multiple motivations rather than assuming a singular focus on "resistance," regardless of the organization's own rhetoric. The domestic concerns faced by proto-state actors can be a source of pressure leading to sometimes surprising shifts in foreign policy. As alignments in the region continue to shift, particularly as a result of the Syrian civil war and the now-linked conflict in Iraq, proto-state actors like Hamas, Hezbollah and even ISIS will need to adapt in ways that balance the two sides of their nature.
1 Zachariah Cherian Mampilly, Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War (Cornell University Press, 2011); Jeremy Weinstein, Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Sara Roy, Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector (Princeton University Press, 2011); and Shawn T. Flanigan, For the Love of God: NGOs and Religious Identity in a Violent World (Kumarian Press, 2009).
2 Flanigan, For the Love of God: NGOs and Religious Identity in a Violent World.
3 "King Abdullah II of Jordan," Hardball with Chris Matthews (MSNBC, December 9, 2004), http://www.nbcnews.com/id/6679774/ns/msnbc-hardball_with_chris_matthews….
4 Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (University of California Press, 1990).
5 Asad Abukhalil, "Syria and the Shiites: Al-Asad's Policy in Lebanon," Third World Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1990): 9.
6 Kamal Salibi, A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (I.B. Tauris, 2003); Theodor Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation (I.B. Tauris, 1993); and Tabitha Petran, The Struggle over Lebanon (Monthly Review Press, 1987).
7 See Nicholas Blanford, Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle against Israel (Random House, 2011); Nicholas Blanford, Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2006); A. Nizar Hamzeh, "Lebanon's Hizbullah: From Islamic Revolution to Parliamentary Accommodation," Third World Quarterly 14, no. 2 (1993): 321-37; Eitan Azani, Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God: From Revolution to Institutionalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Augustus Richard Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2007); and Augustus Richard Norton, Amal and the Shi`a: Struggle for the Soul of Lebanon (University of Texas Press, 1987).
8 Anders Strindberg, "The Damascus Based Alliance of Palestinian Forces," Journal of Palestine Studies 29 No. 3 (Spring 2000), http://www.jstor.org/pss/2676456.
9 Norton, Hezbollah: A Short History, 44-45.
10 "More Missiles Brought to Beirut Suburbs," Beirut Voice of Lebanon, December 1, 1983.
11 Hala Jaber, Hezbollah: Born with a Vengeance (Columbia University Press, 1997), 150.
12 Magnus Ranstorp, "Hizbullah's Command Leadership: Its Structure, Decision- Making and Relationship with Iranian Clergy and Institutions," Terrorism and Political Violence 6, no. 3 (Autumn 1994): 321.
13 Ranstorp, "Hizbullah's Command Leadership: Its Structure, Decision-Making and Relationship with Iranian Clergy and Institutions;" and Azani, Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God: From Revolution to Institutionalization, 181. Hezbollah's television station, Al Manar, did not go on air until 1991.
14 Anthony Cordesman, "Preliminary 'Lessons' of the Israeli-Hezbollah War," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2006, 5-8, http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/060817_isr_hez_lessons.pdf.
15 Azani, Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God: From Revolution to Institutionalization, 233.
16 Charles Hunter, "Is Now the Time to Raise Hizballah With Syria?" (U.S. Embassy, Damascus, via Wikileaks, 2009), Wikileaks, http://www.wikileaks.ch/cable/2009/11/09DAMASCUS804.html.
17 For more detailed analysis of Hamas and its foreign policy, see Zaki Chehab, Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement (Nations Books, 2007); Shaul Mishal and Avraham. Sela, The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence (Columbia University Press, 2000); Azzam Tamimi, Hamas: A History from Within (Olive Branch Press, 2007); and Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement (Polity, 2010).
18 "Hizballah, Hamas Delegations Hold Talks in Tehran," Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, October 6, 1992.
19 "Palestinian Hamas to Open Office in Tehran," Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, October 17, 1992.
20 Marie Colvin, "Hamas Wages Iran's Proxy War on Israel," The Times, March 9, 2008.
21 "Rockets from Gaza," Human Rights Watch, 2009, http://www.hrw.org/en/node/84867/section/2.
22 Tel Aviv United States Embassy, "Cable 09TELAVIV422, IDF DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF DISCUSSES GAZA OPERATION" (Wikileaks, 2009), Wikileaks, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2009/02/09TELAVIV422.html.
23 Interview, Hamas political officer, 2009. Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp, Lebanon.
24 Interview, Zaki bin Rsheid, IAF Secretary General, 2009. Amman, Jordan.
25 It also benefitted from the leadership of Tawwakul Karman, a prominent press freedom activist and the first Arab woman to receive a Nobel peace prize.
26 "Syrian and Jordanian Forces Clash on Border—Al Jazeera English," http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/08/201281113718751973.html.
27 "Americans Are Training Syria Rebels in Jordan: Spiegel," Reuters, March 10, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/10/us-syria-crisis-rebels-usa-id….
28 Sebnem Arsu and Rick Gladstone, "Downed Turkish Plane and Dead Pilots Found," New York Times, July 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/world/middleeast/pilots-of-turkish-pl….
29 The narrative of a Sunni majority rising up against a minority regime has been used by regime critics in the past. In the 1970s, one particularly potent critique leveled against Hafez al Assad by political opponents was that his sect, the Alawites, were not even Muslim (and that, by implication, he and his family were unfit to rule a Muslim country). The elder Assad's response was, as noted, to reach out to his regional allies, specifically Imam Musa Sadr, in Lebanon.
30 Al Arabiya, "Nasrallah Slams Syrian Opposition, Stands by Assad," Al Arabiya, December 6, 2011, http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/12/06/181113.html; "Nasrallah Calls on Syrians to Support Assad—Al Jazeera English," http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/05/2011525174748827942.ht….
31 Some of these rumors were recounted to me that summer by journalists and local political figures in Beirut.
32 Nicholas Blanford, "Accusations Mount of Hezbollah Fighting in Syria," Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 2012, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2012/1015/Accusations-mount-….
33 "UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response," UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122.
34 "Two Grenades Fired into Tripoli's Jabal Mohsen District," Daily Star Lebanon, November 29, 2010, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2010/Nov-29/59971-two-gre….
35 BBC, "Deadly Clashes over Syria in Lebanese City of Tripoli," BBC News, August 21, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19329633.
36 Mohamed Nazzal, "Beirut's Dahiyeh: The Rise of the Outlaws," Al Akhbar English, July 1, 2012, http://english.al-akhbar.com/content/beiruts-dahiyeh-rise-outlaws. This was corroborated by informal conversations the author had in Beirut, July 2012.
37 See for instance "al amaliyet al askariyeh fi al-zabadani," http://www.almanar.com.lb/adetails.php?eid=1264327; "Celebrations in Al-Qusayr as Reconstruction Begins," http://www.almanar.com.lb/english/adetails.php?fromval=3&cid=23&frid=23…; "US and Israel Lobby Reels from Hezbollah Al-Qusayr Victory," http://www.almanar.com.lb/english/adetails.php?eid=96749&cid=41&fromval….
38 BBC, "Deadly Clashes over Syria in Lebanese City of Tripoli."
39 Fares Akram, "Hamas Supports Syrian Opposition," New York Times, February 24, 2012, sec. World / Middle East, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/25/world/middleeast/hamas-leader-support….
40 "Hamas Condemns Syrian Aerial Bombing of Yarmouk Refugee Camp—Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades," December 17, 2012, http://www.qassam.ps/news-6419-Hamas_condemns_Syrian_aerial_bombing_of_….
41 Jund Ansar Allah is only one example. "Hamas Says Gaza Now under Control," BBC, August 15, 2009, sec. Middle East, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8203713.stm.
42 Akram, "Hamas Supports Syrian Opposition."
43 Robert Tait, "Iran Cuts Hamas Funding over Syria," Telegraph, 15:07, sec. worldnews, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/palestinianauthori….
44 "Iran Cuts Hamas Funding for Failing to Show Support for Assad," Haaretz, accessed July 31, 2015, http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/iran-cuts-hamas-funding-for-fai….
45 Tait, "Iran Cuts Hamas Funding over Syria."
46 "PSR Poll No. 43—Press Release" (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, March 15, 2012), http://www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2012/p43epressrelease.html. Interestingly, in the same poll, which was held after Haniyeh's speech in Egypt, only 44% of respondents said they believed that Hamas supported the Syrian opposition, while 24% said they believed they were still allied with Assad, and 24% were uncertain.
47 "Hamas Official Asks Morsi to Lift Restrictions on Gaza Border," Al-Monitor, 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/politics/2012/08/hamas-tells-morsi-r….
48 Tim Arango, "ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as Tool," New York Times, July 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/world/middleeast/isis-transforming-in….
49 Azadeh Moaveni, "ISIS Women and Enforcers in Syria Recount Collaboration, Anguish and Escape," New York Times, November 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/world/middleeast/isis-wives-and-enfor….
50 Ben Hubbard, "Offering Services, ISIS Digs In Deeper in Seized Territories," New York Times, June 16, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/world/middleeast/offering-services-is….
51 While the Turkish government has tacitly and intermittently tolerated its activities out of antipathy for the Kurdish forces in northern Syria, this cannot be considered active support.
52 Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Little Brown, 1971); and Morton H. Halperin and Priscilla Clapp, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy (Brookings Institution Press, 2006).
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