The international media has trained virtually non-stop attention on the cyclical violence between Israel and Hamas over the past two months. Yet, very little notice has been given to the enabling actors who have had a significant impact on how the conflict has unfolded. During May’s outbreak of violence, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) fired over 4,000 rockets into Israeli territories. The volumes of missile and rocket launchers used in this period suggested that the weapons were smuggled into Gaza; the Israeli Defense Force’s blockade of the Strip and heavy border search policies are intended to prevent any large-scale weapons acquisition in Gaza.
At the end of May, Libyan intelligence officials reported that militant Islamist groups in Libya funded by Iran, Qatar, and NATO-member Turkey were the primary conduits for smuggling arms into Gaza during the outbreak of violence. Despite the relative dearth of reportage, the collaboration of this tripartite Turkey-Qatar-Iran entente is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, the beginning of the Qatar-GCC diplomatic crisis and blockade in 2017 served as the catalytic point of departure for this regional triumvirate’s collusion.
Here are four points to consider as this axis continues its development.
1. Why are the nations collaborating?
There are multiple incentives for this tripartite relationship that, thus far, outweigh the points of tension and conflict that exist amongst the trio.
The partnership offers an opportunity for each nation to play a disruptor role vis-à-vis the Transatlantic Alliance, and vis-à-vis status quo powers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The partnership also offers the countries an opportunity to maximize their respective advantages, which actually coincide on a soft power level. All three are interested in exporting an Islamist agenda—notwithstanding their sectarian difference—and are interested in supporting state and non-state actors who are committed to violent and nonviolent change on the basis of an Islamic mindset. Furthermore, this collaboration provides an opportunity for the actors to deploy their soft power assets in tandem with hard power, material advantages, whether that be in the form of exporting foreign fighters or material, or, in the case of Qatar, operationalizing an enormous reservoir of economic incentives.
Ultimately, the axis is a marriage of convenience where short-term interests currently outweigh medium- and longer-term sources of irreconcilable identity commitments and material ambitions.
2. What are the tensions within the trio?
There are three primary tensions that exist within the group, and that have the potential to cause intra-group conflict in the long-term: asymmetries of power, sectarian differences, and ethnic/national clashes. There exist glaring asymmetries of power between small Qatar, on the one hand, and large Iran and Turkey, on the other. Iran and Turkey both have aspirations to regional hegemony, and both, in some ways, have a transnational imperial set of ambitions rooted in the wellspring of religion—Iran to regionally and transnationally export the Islamic Revolution (but which is ultimately a Shia revolution for them), and Turkey its neo-Ottoman ambitions to recreate the Sunni Islamic empire. Qatar lacks these large-scale ambitions and has a comparatively inconsequential territorial footprint and level of manpower, consequently facing a big asymmetry vis-a-vis these larger powers.
The other two primary tensions work hand-in-hand, creating identity rifts amongst the actors. In terms of sectarian differences, Turkey and Qatar are Sunni Muslim majority countries who are committed to Sunni maximalism (evidenced in their support of the Muslim Brotherhood). Iran, meanwhile, is the global Shia authority, and is committed to Shia preservation and maximalism. Although less intense, ethnic and national differences also create tensions; these are ethnically and linguistically Persian, Turkish, and Arab countries who have different distinct histories and who understand their nations both in terms of sectarian religious identity but also ethnic identity and national mythologies.
3. What are the most critical ramifications?
Essentially and most importantly, the current collaboration is a collaboration based on opportunistic disruption. The axis is capitalizing on the fragmentation of weaker and more conflict-prone regional players (Libya and Israel-Palestine), and infiltrating weak spots to gain support and control. This method of expansion and aggression has the potential to seriously recalibrate several regional and transcontinental dynamics, most seriously implicating Saudi Arabia, the US, and Russia.
On a regional level, the tripartite coalition threatens the current status quo and particularly challenges Saudi Arabia’s already dwindling dominance, creating the potential for a diversification of interests and power groupings. Meanwhile on a transcontinental level, as the US adopts a more passive approach towards MENA and reorients towards the Indo-Pacific—the example of the power vacuum in Afghanistan is instructive—the region becomes increasingly vulnerable to malicious actors. The trio also brings up questions about Russia—Russia’s potential responses to the relationship are practically unlimited, and the next few months will be instructive.
4. Finally, which actor benefits the most from this relationship?
Turkey is the key disruptor and key beneficiary of this relationship. It is the one actor that aims not only to expand its influence, but to establish complete hegemonic control and alter the territorial status quo in the region—one need look no further than Syria, Iraq, and Cyprus. Furthermore, unlike Iran, which is internationally isolated, Turkey is intertwined in various international organizations and is utilizing its international connections to more effectively pursue its aggressive hegemonic expansionist project.