Iyad el-Baghdadi: Analysis of Middle East Options in Wake of Hamas Attack
A must-read piece on the wants, fears, and calculations of each of the actors in the unfolding Gaza tragedy
Below is a must-read analysis of the motives, desires and calculations of each of the major players in the ongoing Gaza tragedy — Israel, Hamas, Palestinians, the U.S., Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Russia and China.
It was written as a Twitter thread, and already has 1.7 million views. It’s long but highly readable. I’m providing it in full in this piece. (For the Thread Reader version, see here.) Hat tip to friend Dave Johnson for bringing this to my attention.
The author’s Twitter bio is below:
His Wikipedia bio says this:
Iyad el-Baghdadi (Arabic: إياد البغدادي) (born June 17, 1977) is a writer, entrepreneur, and human rights activist who attained international prominence during the Arab Spring. A self-styled "Islamic libertarian," he is an outspoken critic of both Islamic movements and secular dictatorships, and has set himself apart from many other activists through his use of humor and sarcasm. He contributes to his own blog site Islam and Liberty and podcast Arab Tyrant Manual on Soundcloud.
The full piece is printed below. Tweet numbers, headings and added links are mine. All editing was done to enhance readability.
1. Here's a thread outlining the geopolitical situation around the Israel-Gaza war its possibilities, impossibilities, and possible outcomes. Heads up, it's my longest thread yet. It's also raw, unedited, and unevenly paced. Sorry, none of us are well but at least we're trying[.]
2. A note that this thread rhetorically departs from my usual tone because it's about geopolitics. I'm analyzing the actions of many actors the majority of whom are awful. I'm trying to do that from a position of objectivity, which is hard when you actually value all human life.
The Attack by Hamas
3. Hamas's stated objectives for their Oct 7 operation were:
- Release Palestinians in Israeli prisons
- Stop normalization pacts between Israel & Saudi
- Punish Israel for violations/attacks on Palestinian holy sites
- (there was a fourth objective I can't find rn)
4. Most coverage of Hamas's attacks in Western media have focused on the atrocity factor (the mass killings & kidnapping of civilians). Virtually none have actually covered it from a military strategy standpoint. But it's important to look at that to get a full picture.
5. Hamas's attack was very well coordinated and meticulously planned. They first used drones to take down surveillance systems on the border fence, rendering them "blind", then moved bulldozers to knock down sections of the fence. Other fighters used tunnels. Others used paragliders[.]
6. Israel had relied upon high tech surveillance including tunnel detection systems for the security of the Gaza border fence. Hamas seems to have dug deeper than these systems can detect. The tunnels they dig across the border seem to be one-use only and are abandoned afterwards[.]
7. Their first targets were intelligence posts, police stations, and IDF points. They knew exactly where to hit and how long it'll take them to encounter a response. Their fighters were able to operate within enemy territory for > 24 hours, meaning they were well supplied[.]
8. Why is this important? Because we want to understand what Hamas was expecting as an Israeli response. Was it expecting or planning on a ground invasion? Or did they think this will be a kidnap operation that will be followed by bombing and then negotiations and a prisoner swap?
9. There are indications & early statements suggesting that Hamas's attack was more successful than they had expected. In one statement I came across: "The army collapsed as we attacked, what do we do in this situation? So we just pressed forward as far as we could"[.]
10. Other statements suggested that the wanton massacres and atrocities that followed as being the result of them running out of targets and trying to just gain as many hostages as possible. Basically a coordinated military op descended into an unimaginably bloody massacre.
11. But even if we assume Hamas planned this as a complex hostage-taking op, I find it hard to believe that they did not anticipate a ground assault in response. Whoever planned an attack this sophisticated couldn't have *not* planned for an unprecedented Israeli response.
12. In the early days after Oct 7 there were messages (originating on Telegram channels, copied into group whatsapp chats etc) that say that Hamas has "8 months of supplies", and that in addition to their homemade weapons they also have Iranian, North Korean, etc weapons[.]
13. About the tunnel network - some say it runs ~500 kms in total. For comparison Oslo's metro is 85 kms (and a lot of it is overground). It's multilayered and was built over many years. Also there's thousands of tunnels across the Egyptian border, plus temp tunnels into Israel[.]
14. So, did Hamas at least anticipate, if not actually plan, on a ground invasion? I think they did. Now for question 2 - did Hamas coordinate this with its allies (Hezbollah & Iranian regime)? I also think they did:
15. There are strong indications that Hezbollah at least *knew*, if not coordinated the attack. If we go by the report on this link, then Hamas's attack wasn't a one-off hostage op, it was part of a much broader strategy. nytimes.com/2023/10/13/wor…
16. If this is a coordinated broad plan, and if the Hamas attack planned on an Israeli ground invasion, then it would make sense for Hezbollah to wait until Israel is bogged in Gaza before they open a major new front to Israel's north. But I'll come back to this. I'm thinking aloud.
17. But let's look at Israel now. When discussing state actors and their decision-making, there's a kind of hierarchy that serves me well: The most fundamental imperatives are geopolitical; then the political; then the ideological. Keep in mind when analyzing Netanyahu's response.
18. What I mean is that what you see isn't just Israel acting for its own security (its geopolitical imperatives) but also Netanyahu acting for his own political career. And there's also his electoral allies acting out their ideology.
19. The Oct 7 attacks are a huge repudiation of much of Netanyahu's career. It's almost like everything he built for decades crashed in a matter of hours. Netanyahu presented himself as a master statesman who can do the impossible for Israel[.]
20. His project was to liquidate Palestinian national project:
- Normalize with Arab regimes to break the "land for peace" paradigm
- Strengthen Hamas to weaken the PA
- Annex the West Bank to make 2SS [two-state solution] impossible
- Treat Palestinians as a security problem to be managed indefinitely
21. Btw, the point about how Netanyahu's policy was to strengthen Hamas, a lot more can be said about this failure but here's a good place to start: haaretz.com/israel-news/20…
22. It was also under Netanyahu that Israel expanded its disinfo capacities and leaned hard into relying upon cyber capabilities and high-tech occupation. Also a reminder, Netanyahu is one of the first pioneers of the "war on terror" paradigm, more here[:]
23. So after Oct 7 Bibi had one of two options - (1) resign & admit that this is the result of a series of failures most of which lead back to him; or (2) go all out and try to accomplish a "victory" his allies always wanted but couldn't do. Ethnically cleanse 2 million Palestinians.
24. So my analysis is that Israel's response so far reflects primarily not Israel's security imperatives but Netanyahu's political calculations. His first statement was "We're going to change the Middle East", which if you follow Netanyahu you know is a very Netanyahu thing to say.
25. Netanyahu even seems willing to sacrifice the hostages for that. He's not even meeting with hostage families, and pro-Netanyahu mobs are calling hostage families "traitors" for calling for a cease fire to allow for hostage negotiations before a ground invasion[.]
26. I understand when people ask "What else could he have done in response to such a brazen attack". @AmiDar and others have written good posts about this. But while such a response would have been good for Israel it would have been bad for Bibi's career.
27. (Btw, Israel will come out of this a much more polarized and right-wing country. You'd expect people to rally to their leader and to unite vs a common threat after such horrors, but Bibi is placing his political career above everyone's security in Israel & regionally/globally[.])
28. And so the Israeli (Netanyahu & co) response to a humiliating failure is to "achieve the impossible" and ethnically cleanse Gaza. I'll come back to the actual Gaza op and the stated objective of "destroying Hamas". But now let's look at Egypt in all of this.
29. According to multiple Israeli commentators (and even think tanks), the Israeli demand is to transfer Gaza's population into the wilderness of the Sinai desert. It's even clear that the US, and perhaps other Western countries, tried to pressure Egypt's Sisi into accepting this.
30. Here's the thing - Egypt would *never* accept this, as a matter of geopolitical imperative. If 2 million Palestinians are displaced into Sinai, it could be fatal to Sisi's regime (not exaggerating when I say the regime could fall). And it won't even stop Hamas[.]
31. Hamas already has ~2500 smuggling tunnels across the Gaza-Egypt border + ties with smugglers in Sinai. If Sinai becomes the new Gaza, Hamas will just start to rebuild on the Egyptian side where they'd also have the advantage of a recruiting pool of millions of angry Egyptians[.]
32. Not to mention that Egypt was already getting screwed over with Biden's India-Middle East-Europe Corridor that bypasses Egypt and devalues the heavy investments they've made in modernizing their own infrastructure. So they were getting screwed even before these events.
33. Reminder that a significant part of the modern Egyptian national identity was forged in conflict with Israel. The current Egyptian regime itself was founded by army officers who overthrew the previous regime (the monarchy) after blaming it for the 1948 defeat vs Israel[.]
34. So not Sisi nor anyone else who wants to stay in power in Egypt would allow Gaza population transfer into Egypt. I am not exaggerating when I say that Egypt would sooner break the Camp David accords or even start covertly supply Hamas with weapons than accept such an outcome[.]
35. It is within this context that I read today's (?) call between Egypt's MFA and Iran's MFA. Sisi is feeling the heat and is looking for options in case of an escalation. He wants to be in contact with all sides. I can't imagine he's been sleeping easy these days.
36. Jordan too would *never* allow it. In Jordan the fear is that if population transfer happens in Gaza then the West Bank is next. Historical note: Jordan saw a 10-month civil war in the 1970s when Palestinian militants stationed themselves there to fight Israel[.]
37. Egypt and Jordan have the longest lasting peace treaties with Israel. That even *those* are being tested tells you something. Biden adopting Bibi's position shows he'd rather coddle Bibi than appreciate Egypt & Jordan's vital national security concerns[.]
[Click the image above or here to read the rest of that thread.]
38. Alliance means mutual interest/benefit. When you ask someone to slit their throat for you, the alliance is over. It means these countries no longer can trust the US to make their interests a priority. It also means they can start looking for an ally who'd respect their interests.
39. Basically if he gets his way the Bibi & co plan is to expel Gaza Palestinians into Egypt, and probably later expel West Bank Palestinians into Jordan, so Israel can have all the land without any of the Palestinians. And so for Palestinians to no longer exist as a national group.
40. (Also, I swear if I get another comment from a clueless person who seems to think Arab countries should accept refugees because "refugees should be welcome". This isn't a humanitarian operation you fucking morons, this is *ethnic cleansing* and the liquidation of a nation[.])
41. Ok. Now let's talk about Saudi Arabia, which was in the process of negotiating a normalization deal with Israel which included US security guarantees. Summary: MBS is annoyed that this war spoiled one of his main strategic aims, but has no choice but to take a hardline on Israel[.]
42. MBS has a project and it's to secure the Saudi regime's future. He wanted Israeli tech & investment in his pet project in Neom. He wanted US security guarantees. He wanted the prestige of being a hero for "making peace in the Middle East" etc. And he knows how to play hardball.
43. For over a year before the war MBS dangled public Israel normalization before both Bibi and Biden to get a long list of concessions and he kept asking for more. But he's aware that his people can't stand by with Gaza being slaughtered. He has no choice but to take a hardline.
44. Because MBS has a project, he doesn't want war. He really, really doesn't want war. The Iranian regime knows this of course, and for years had presented a simple formula: If they go to war vs Israel/USA, they'll consider US/Israel's Gulf allies to be targets as well.
45. In 2019 when there was an escalation with Iran MBS immediately deescalated and engaged them. Now again and shortly after Oct 7, MBS called Iranian president Raisi (first time ever!) and shortly after Iran's FM visited Saudi. Basically "hey if this escalates I'm not part of this"[.]
46. So it's not only that MBS thinks his people (including his own family) won't tolerate witnessing the massacre/ethnic cleansing of 2 million people nearby. He also has to send a clear signal to the Iranians that he's not on Israel's side in this[.]
47. That said, MBS would be hoping that this dies down and he can get back to the Israel normalization project in due time, but he knows that if this escalates it may be many years (if at all) that this can happen. He'll continue to engage Israel in private (probably already is).
48. (Weirdly enough MBS now prefers Biden to Trump because while Biden seems ready to entertain a US security guarantee Trump won't. Biden's agenda is securing the US empire in the world. Trump's is securing white supremacy within America. Choose your poison.)
Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis
49. Back to the Iran axis. Iran has assets in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The relationship between the Iranian regime and much of this militant network is complex. Calling them "proxies" reduces their agency. Calling them "allies" makes it seem they're totally independent.
50. Anyway. I don't think Iran wants a regional war at this point. The question is whether in case of an escalation, they'll go all in, or whether they'll stand by and sacrifice Hamas. Some thing they'll sit it out and allow Hamas to be destroyed. I think they won't, here's why.
51. Btw Iran's proxy network isn't just about ideology but geopolitics. Look at this map of the Sassanid empire (6th century AD), note how Persia at the time extended its influence into the Levant and the Gulf, and also... Yemen. It just makes geopolitical sense on this chessboard.
[Click image or here to enlarge.]
52. If Iran sacrifices Hamas it'll:
- Lose a critical asset
- Suffer a serious ideological & political setback
- Send a signal to its other proxies that it doesn't stand by its allies
The third point is critical and other analysts haven't considered it fully.
53. Iran's network is built over decades and based on long-term relationships. The regime *really* stands by its allies (look at Bashar in Syria). They don't waffle like others. To allow one of its allies to be destroyed while it stands by will really damage its network.
54. A similar calculus applies to Hezbollah. If Hamas is gone, and Israel no longer has a military threat to its south, then it can then focus all of its efforts on the enemy to the north. Hezbollah cannot allow Hamas to fall because it'll be next.
55. Btw Iran's assets have already been activated. Houthis fired missiles & drones towards Israel that US navy intercepted. US assets in Iraq & Syria were also targeted. US still has a lot of assets in the region. Iran's m.o. is to attack using proxies.
56. The Houthi missiles/drones were really a shock, Yemen is 1700 kms away from Israel. The fact that they have missiles and drones of this range is astounding. But it's also likely the Houthi attack isn't meant to actually threaten Israel but to tie up US navy assets in the Red Sea[.]
57. But there's another side to Iran's calculus - opportunity. If this becomes a major war, it would be a chance to use the chaos to attack US presence across the region. At best keeps the US distracted among multiple fronts; at best force US withdrawal that would be hard to reverse.
58. This is amplified by the fact that unlike other US wars in ME this isn't coming after significant pre and in line with overriding strategy. For years US geopolitical thinkers have focused on the China threat. Nobody serious has said "let's get involved in another war in the ME"[.]
59. So in this particular case the US is caught flatfooted, it hasn't prepared for this, it's not in line with its long-term geopolitical aims, it's just reacting, and from everything we've seen so far there's a lot of incompetence in their response. Even the messaging is confused.
The IRCG (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp)
60. What about the IRGC, Iran's *real* army? They won't get directly involved unless the US gets significantly involved. Keep in mind the US moved assets to "deter nonstate actors from exploiting the situation". I don't know if that means the US would act directly vs Hezbollah.
61. Is the US prepared to get directly involved alongside Israel? Put boots on the ground? Attack Hezbollah positions? Bibi clearly wants the US to be involved directly. Some even suggesting the IDF can't win this on its own. Some of Biden's messaging too can be interpreted this way.
62. If the IRGC acts its likely target would be to block off the Straits of Hormuz where 30% of world energy passes. Send oil prices skyrocketing, hurt the West in its pockets. They'll do it cheaply too using drones, mines, etc. They won't even claim responsibility.
China and Russia
63. China sent navy assets to the region. It's extremely sensitive to oil shocks and its main interest in preventing escalation is to ensure the oil flows. It's also a friend of Iran, perhaps it'll want to make sure shipments headed to itself can still pass.
64. There's also a non-zero chance that if this escalates to a significant degree and drags in the US, China will see this as a golden opportunity to move on Taiwan. But let's not even go there, this is already apocalyptic without another major war in the world. But non-zero chance.
65. Here's the thing about an oil shock. Russia will benefit twice (hurts West, more profit on oil sales). But you know who else greatly profits from oil shocks? MBS. Recall he was a pariah pre-Ukraine war. After the Ukraine war he was a darling of the West again.
Israeli Options & Outcomes
66. Back to Gaza. Some have blind faith that the IDF will absolutely win and eliminate Hamas. I don't share that view. Bibi painted himself into a corner with "destroy Hamas" as objective. He clearly doesn't have a well thought out plan.
67. To really "destroy Hamas", he'll have to wage a bloody, prolonged urban war to dislodge a well trained, highly motivated, well supplied army that has spent over a decade digging in and preparing for such a day. The IDF has *never* fought such a battle.
68. He'll have to take *all of Gaza* and hold it, and either push out its inhabitants or fight among them. A partial invasion will only relocate Hamas. An occupation will make IDF a target for a prolonged and bloody attrition war.
69. The deeper he gets into Gaza, the higher the risk of a second front opening to his north, plus multiple fronts vs the US, and a regional conflagration erupting. The regional escalatory potential will be almost infinite.
70. Also the deeper he gets into Gaza and the more desperate the situation gets for civilians there, the more likely it is that even his long-term partners Egypt and Jordan will turn on him, despite their hatred of Hamas, because they can't afford not to
71. And even if he actually wins, all he'd have done is relocated Palestinian militancy from a besieged and blockaded Gaza to a slightly further but much deeper (and suddenly much less stable) Egypt[.]
72. Right now in Israel a major shitstorm has erupted between Bibi and IDF. He wants them to take the blame for Oct 7. IDF also suspicious of the military aims he's setup and think some are unrealistic. Meanwhile the hostage families who want to see negotiations are being ignored.
73. The most likely outcome is[:] he'll go in as far as he can but[,] as the risks rise for everyone[,] he'll have to stop, declare victory and pull out.
The report card will be:
- Israel isn't safer
- Relations with long-term partners (Egypt & Jordan) damaged
74. Report card cont:
- Impossible for Saudi to normalize for a while
- Real damage to US standing in the region
- Hamas can claim victory because it wasn't destroyed
75. In the words of Noam: Many Israelis & their future and security are also captives of Netanyahu. De-escalation is in everyone's benefit. Except Netanyahu.
76. About Biden:
- He has his own domestic political calculus
- He's coddling Bibi (they don't get along)
- He revealed his cards to Iran by making it clear he doesn't want escalation
- His whole "diplomacy" amounts to ensuring Israel can attack Hamas without a spillover happening
Closing & Follow-On Thread
77. Anyway this is a very, very long thread and I'm tired and thirsty so I'll stop here. I'll answer questions and compile the answers into another thread. Thanks and my apologies for visiting such a long & badly edited thread on your TLs.
78. Also yes all of my writing will be public & free but I still have to eat and pay rent, so please support our work & donate:
79. There's so much more I want to say. Really. There's so much more to analyze. But I'm tired and this took me all day.
80. Like I said I'll answer questions (in a new thread). So ask. It'll help me flesh out and challenge my own thinking as well.
[Click the image above or here to read the follow-on thread.]