Topsy-turvy Middle East as jihadis turn on jihadis

The upheavals in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon are redrawing the lines between the radical Islamist forces surrounding Israel.

The latest configuration pits the Egyptian-led, anti-Iran camp against Salafist groups allied with al-Qaeda, and a branch of al-Qaeda against Hizbollah.

Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip have carried out raids on Salafist groups, arresting a number of leaders and activists and confiscating weapons in an attempt to prevent these al-Qaeda-linked jihadists from launching missiles at Israel.

This follows a wider campaign by the Egyptian military over the past three weeks against Salafist strongholds in the Sinai peninsula. The Egyptian operation included the first air strikes in nearly 40 years in Sinai and the entrance of a small number of tanks into the area without the required co-ordination with Israel.

The forces were sent on President Mohamed Morsi’s orders following the jihadist attack on the Egypt-Israel border a month ago in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed.

Both Hamas and the Egyptians are anxious to contain the al-Qaeda presence in Sinai and Gaza — which is eroding their control of the region — and to prevent terror attacks which could trigger an Israeli retaliation against targets in Gaza.

Until last year, Hamas was mainly financed and supplied by Iran, but the bloody repression of the revolution in Syria has caused a rift with Tehran.

Hamas has closed its headquarters in Damascus and, following the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has accepted Cairo’s patronage.

Iran’s continuing support of the Assad regime in Syria was also one of the reasons that Hamas did not send representatives last week to the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran.

President Morsi did arrive at the summit to pass on the movement’s presidency to Iran but the visit was brief and contentious.

Mr Morsi spent only a few hours in the Iranian capital, refused to hold bilateral meetings with Iran’s leaders and strongly criticised the Assad regime in his speech to the summit.

Significant elements of the Syrian opposition, who are mainly Sunni, identify with the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and are therefore close to Egypt and Turkey. In addition, however, hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters identifying with Salafist movements and al-Qaeda have also entered Syria.

This has opened up a new front between one of the al-Qaeda affiliates, the Abdullah Azzam Battlions, and Hizbollah, which is actively supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, an al-Qaeda commander broadcast a message to the Shia community in Lebanon, calling on them to disassociate themselves from Hizbollah and warned them about “sending your sons from Lebanon to fight on the side of the criminal regime in Syria”.

The broadcast contained a veiled threat of anti-Shia reprisals, saying that “Hizbollah is a threat to the security and the tourism in Lebanon”.

Last updated: 11:02am, September 6 2012