Could you provide a scene setter detailing some of the pivotal or most noteworthy events leading up to the attack by Hamas over the weekend as well as the now-ensuing conflict between Israel and Hamas?
Hindsight is 20/20 and nobody could have anticipated the extent of the violence, or the barbarity of the terrorist attack last Saturday that started this. What we can say, however, is that the status quo in Gaza was unsustainable. There had been regular rounds of violence between Israel and Gaza over the years and there was every reason to believe that there would be another explosion at some point. Nobody could have predicted the exact timing, certainly not the extent. Nonetheless, the status quo was unsustainable. You could pinpoint a whole series of small events—violence by Israeli settlers, skirmishes at the border, and smaller terrorist attacks by Hamas. But these were all basically friction points that illustrated how unsustainable that status quo was.
Another element is Iran’s steadily growing role in the Palestinian territories. We’ve talked a lot over the years about Iran’s growing role for Hezbollah in Lebanon, which goes back decades as well as Iran’s relationship with the Houthis in Yemen, which has really ramped up, especially in the last five or six years. Iran has had a growing role in Iraq and Syria in the last one or two decades as well. But in the Palestinian territories, Iran’s role has maybe been a bit quieter, with a bit less attention, and has been steadily growing. That presence really brought us to the point of this large-scale capability that Hamas demonstrated, which it never would have been able to do without Iran.
Can we narrow in more on the role of Iran, Hezbollah, and other regional actors in the emergence of this conflict?
Hezbollah is the jewel in the crown for Iran. Iran supports a network of non-state actors, some of them formally terrorist groups, others are militias—for example, in Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah is powerful, and militarily, it has demonstrated significant capability. Hezbollah is also, politically, the closest to Iran. It’s between these two that ties are really the most integrated. One thing that we’ve seen in the last few years that has been a significant development is that there’s still a hub and spoke model. Iran provides assistance to all of these groups. Iran is the hub, in the middle. Then you’ve got the spokes around in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. But more and more in the last few years, we’ve seen spoke-spoke relations. These groups working directly together, not because Iran is losing control, but because the network is increasingly mature. Even though there’s a lot of detail, we obviously don’t know, Hezbollah’s assistance, training, expertise, skill, and technological knowledge have been really key in helping Hamas boost this capability and ultimately do what it did.
Early on, we saw reports that perhaps Russia had been involved in coordinating the attack. Is that unsubstantiated at this point? Do we know anything about their potential involvement?
There’s absolutely no evidence of that. And let’s be really clear on that. That’s an idea that’s been floating, including by some people who should have known better, who repeated such claims. Russia’s policy in the Middle East is that it basically talks to everyone. Just think about, as an example, Iran and Saudi Arabia—Russia actually has quite workable relations with both, even though both are enemies. That’s different from the U.S., which has a close, not always easy, but close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and a hostile relationship with Iran. That’s not how Russia approaches the Middle East. It talks to everyone. It’s closer to some, like Iran, like the Assad regime in Syria, but it balances everybody. So, Russia talks to Hamas. A few weeks ago, there was a meeting in Moscow with senior Hamas officials and senior Russian officials—that picture came out on Twitter and that had people saying this is proof that Russia was behind this. There is no indication of that.
Israel and Hamas have been engaged in several conflicts over the years—does this latest development hold any special significance, is it precedent-setting, or different than previous conflicts?
It is different this time. I have no idea where it’s going to go. Nobody does. But the one thing that I think has to be clear is that things are not going to be the same after. There is going to be a before October 2023 and after October 2023. The extent of the violence from Hamas to Israel in the initial terrorist attack was unprecedented. I mean, the scale is just mind-boggling. The response—you can say the same. The extent of destruction that Israel is going to do in Gaza. I mean, it’s only just starting now with already 1000s of airstrikes, significant casualties, and significant infrastructure damage—it will get much worse with the ground combat that will come when Israel launches its incursion any hour or any day now. But what does that actually mean? I don’t know. I mean, Israel’s stated objective is to destroy Hamas.
That raises two questions: A) Is that possible? And B), what happens next? So, A) Is that possible? I actually doubt that. Hamas is a powerful organization, deeply entrenched in Gaza. They use extensive networks of tunnels and hidden safe houses everywhere—you can’t destroy a movement like that. The extent of the Israeli military operation will weaken it and will probably degrade its capabilities a lot, and more than in the past because of how intense the Israeli operational will be, but you probably can’t destroy it. But even if you significantly weaken it what happens next, who governs Gaza? Who runs the hospitals, runs the schools, pays civil servants, and so on?
The answer to that question is necessary. But it’s extremely difficult because there’s no alternative to Hamas. I mean, the second most powerful group in the Gaza Strip right now is Islamic Jihad, which are even more extremist than Hamas. Fatah, the group that sort of governs the West Bank, is not an appealing alternative. It is spectacularly corrupt, incompetent, and viewed as illegitimate by a large number of Palestinians. It was completely kicked out of Gaza 15 years ago by Hamas, so it can’t just get up and run Gaza whenever this ends. So as much as the objective of wanting to weaken, degrade, and ideally eliminate Hamas is legitimate, it still raises the question of what do we do next? And we don’t have any answer at this point.
From your view, what are the immediate geopolitical ramifications for the surrounding region?
When I said that there’s going to be a before and after October 2023, I meant that locally in terms of dynamics between Israel and the Palestinian territories, but arguably beyond the region. In what direction? I have no idea at all. Nonetheless, we could talk about Israeli-Saudi normalization, as part of what we call the Abraham Accords. Israel normalized relations with four Arab states, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan three years ago. Sudan is out of the equation. Morocco does its own separate thing. UAE is the main one with Bahrain basically following. There were multiple media reports of advanced negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, with rumours of a deal maybe before or after Christmas. So, what happens now? Does that take a step back? Or does that take a step forward?
We don’t know. We’ll have to see where this goes. It’s easy to think that this is going to take a step back and multiple steps back, looking, for example, at the rhetoric coming out of Saudi Arabia in the last few days, which has been very critical of Israel—very much emphasizing Palestinian rights, which is something that we have seen much less from Saudi Arabia in recent years. Politically and domestically, it becomes very difficult. Arab public opinion in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere is very pro-Palestinian. Saudi Arabia is not a democracy. But even the most brutal dictatorships have to be somewhat responsive to popular opinion. But there is a counterargument, which would be, yeah, but Iran is behind this? Which it is. So, once the dust settles does that provide more of an impetus, not less for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and a few others, to actually deepen integration with Israel to better counter Iran? Politically, that would be difficult, but strategically, you can also see that argument.
There was both controversy and concern surrounding Canada being left out of an official statement made by Quint, do you assign any significance to this, and do these recent developments in the Middle East have any direct implications for Canadians and Canadian security?
Do I sign any significance to Canada not being a signatory to the Quint statement? No, in the sense that it’s not a big deal. We are not a major player in the Middle East. The Quint is an informal arrangement of the U.S. and four key European powers that meet every now and then. Canada is not there. If you only look in narrow terms, it’s not a big deal at all—not a surprise. There is a broader point to make here, which is much more critical, which is that there’s a trend that we’ve been seeing recently and there’s no doubt in my mind that it will continue. More and more the U.S. is emphasizing multilateral arrangements that are flexible, that are nimble, and that are agile.
The Quint doesn’t have a secretary yet. It doesn’t have a permanent organization. So, for the U.S. to get something done with the Quint is extremely quick. It’s agile and that’s what they want. Think about the Quad. Think about other arrangements that are very informal and that are very transactional. Rule #1 in transactional multilateral settings like that, is that the U.S. is going to invite you, not because it likes you, not because of the colour of your eyes, not because people like to have Canadian flags on their backpacks when they’re travelling to Europe: You are invited if you have something to contribute—if you bring something to the table right away. In the case of the Quint, in the Canadian case, the answer is very clear. No. And in that specific instance, does it matter? Not really. But in the bigger picture, Indo-Pacific issues and so on. Yes, Canada is very vulnerable at that level because we have massively neglected, under this government, but predecessors as well, the whole array of tools that we need at this level.
To finish, it sounds cliché, but we need to remember the civilians. We talk a lot—I’m certainly guilty of that—in grand strategic terms. But right now, the people who are dying, the people who are suffering the most—there are soldiers on the Israeli side, terrorists on the Hamas side—are civilians in Israel in particular, in the first hours, of course, and now in the Palestinian territories. And the suffering on the civilian side is massive, and it is going to reach levels that we have rarely seen. So, we do need to remember that and we do need to keep that up front in the conversation. Because they are the victims. They are the ones who are dying right now.