October 12, 2023

IntelBrief: The Regional and Geopolitical Implications of the Hamas Attack

AP Photo/Erik Marmor

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The October 7 Hamas cross-border assault on Israel will upend the geopolitics of the region and prompt a reconsideration of many of the assumptions underpinning U.S. and allied policy toward the Middle East.
  • Although Iran’s role in the attack is contested, its role as orchestrator of an “axis of resistance” will further alienate Tehran in the region, and could cause broader conflict if Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, fully enters the battle against Israel in what would be a second, deadlier phase of the conflict.
  • The attack demonstrates that U.S., Israeli, and Arab assumptions that the region was headed toward peace and security through normalization agreements and broader de-escalation have proven flawed.
  • U.S. leaders are likely to return their focus on the Middle East and counterterrorism that characterized U.S. global policy for a decade after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militia fighters, accompanied by allied forces from Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), will upend regional and international geopolitics for many years, regardless of whether Israel’s counter-offensive succeeds in removing Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip. The attack has undermined a multitude of assumptions, including the forecast that the Middle East was headed for a new era of stability and peace as more Arab states normalize relations with Israel. This view was reflected in a statement on September 29 by U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who listed off a string of achievements in the Middle East and asserted that the region is "quieter today than it has been in two decades." The widespread assessment that regional “spoilers” such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and other Iran-backed actors could be deterred - and regional conflicts kept limited - in turn, undergirded U.S. efforts to “pivot” toward countering the “pacing threat” from China’s burgeoning strategic power and from Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Underpinning the broad Arab move to build ties with Israel was the common threat perception from the growing strategic capabilities of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the assessment that relations with Israel could be normalized without demanding extensive concessions from Israel on the Palestinian issue. Many regional and global leaders also assumed, apparently incorrectly, that through aid to the people of Gaza, border controls, and vigorous diplomacy, any clashes between Israel and Hamas could be kept limited and quickly resolved with new informal agreements and understandings. Western and regional leaders also assumed that Hezbollah had become content with playing the role of “kingmaker” in Lebanese politics, while building the capability, aided by Iran, to exert substantial pressure on Israel when necessary. Should Hezbollah open a new front against Israel in full force - beyond the tit-for-tat exchanges of fire observed to date - the assumption that Iran and Hezbollah could be deterred from another major conflict with Israel would have to be reconsidered in the region and globally. After the Hamas attack, the United States moved a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean not necessarily to assist Israel’s counteroffensive – although providing intelligence and other support is part of the carrier group’s mission – but primarily to deter Hezbollah and its main patron, Iran, from joining the conflict. Hezbollah’s leadership has threatened to open up a full assault on Israeli ground forces entering Gaza – a threat that is likely to be tested in the coming days. On Wednesday, there were reports of a drone swarm entering Israel from Lebanon, sending millions into shelters, although the IDF later reported it to be a false alarm, suggesting either human or technical error in the warning. Iran has supplied Hezbollah with an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles of varying ranges and capabilities over the past decade, and the group has the potential capability to overwhelm Israeli missile and rocket defenses such as the Iron Dome system. A decision by Hezbollah’s leaders to fully join the conflict with Israel would represent a failure of U.S. deterrence and would potentially expand the conflict throughout the region, with Iranian proxies prepared to act in various corners of the Middle East.  At the very least, Iran’s role in supporting Hamas with reportedly $100 million per year over the past several decades, including providing technology used by Hamas to develop its large rocket and missile arsenal, will give pause to U.S., European, and regional efforts to de-escalate tensions with Iran through negotiations that, in the case of the United States, typically involve a measure of sanctions relief. The Hamas attack is certain to halt, at least for now, any move by U.S. officials to expand a September U.S.-Iran prisoner swap into a broader de-escalation with Tehran or a revival of formal talks to restore full U.S. and Iranian adherence to the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA).

One question that might affect the longer-term regional outlook is whether Israel tries and succeeds to topple Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip. That outcome might open up the potential for broader regional alignments by weakening Iran and its axis of resistance. A reunification of the Gaza Strip with the West Bank, presumably under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, might instill new momentum in long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks on a comprehensive solution. But Abbas lacks legitimacy and seems an unlikely figure for Palestinians to rally around, given the sclerotic nature of his tenure. One of the reasons longtime Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has cited for not engaging in consistent talks with the PA is that no solution can be reached with the Palestinians as long as Hamas is in control of Gaza and rejects Israel’s right to exist. The Hamas attack seemingly demonstrates that the group is not willing to moderate its rejectionist position. Hamas’ downfall, even if precipitated by Israeli military force and not by Gaza residents themselves, might presumably remove this obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian peace. However, even if Hamas is removed as the controlling authority in the Gaza Strip, the support for Hamas and the Palestinian people demonstrated throughout the region and in regional media suggests that a Saudi-Israel normalization deal, and other Israel-Arab normalization agreements, are highly unlikely anytime soon.

The Hamas attack will also cause U.S. leaders to rethink the assessment that the United States can move beyond the post-September 11 “global war on terrorism” to focus intently on great power competition, including countering near peers such as China and Russia. It is in large part because the Middle East’s conflicts appeared stable and manageable that the United States has been able to concentrate, over the past 18 months, on helping Ukraine defeat Russian aggression. The Hamas attack demonstrates that, while the two main global jihadist groups, Al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS), have been set back decisively - although not eliminated – violent organizations are still able to destabilize regional and global politics with little warning. Although Western leaders will not be forced off their efforts to aid Ukraine or to counter China because of the Hamas attack, it is likely that Western intelligence and military agencies will redeploy significant assets toward counterterrorism. However, the focus of the counterterrorism effort will shift from Al Qaeda and ISIS to Iran-backed groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and PIJ. Hezbollah, in particular, is assessed as having “global reach,” carrying out significant terrorist attacks as far afield from the region as Argentina, where it was implicated in deadly terrorist bombings of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in 1992 and 1994, respectively. And while Hezbollah’s modus operandi has lately been to focus its efforts closer to the region, including in Syria, it is possible that the ongoing conflict, should Hezbollah become fully engaged, could put pressure on the group to revert back to identifying targets outside of the Middle East.