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Hamas is trying to overcome obstacles to return to Syria

Hamas celebrate their 31st anniversary on 17 December 2018 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]
Hamas celebrate their 31st anniversary in Gaza on 17 December 2018 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Exactly six years ago, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement — Hamas — ended its official presence in Syria due to the deteriorating security situation in the country on one hand, and because an impasse was reached on discussions between the movement and the regime on how to handle the popular uprising that began in the spring of 2011, on the other. It was also due to the pressure on Hamas from the state and its allies to take a public position with unequivocal support for the Bashar Al-Assad regime.

The movement’s departure from Syria was perhaps one of the hardest decisions it has made in its history. Perhaps even more difficult would have been for it to respond to such pressure by declaring support for the regime’s violence against unarmed protestors who had not called for the fall of the regime, nor taken up arms until the situation made it impossible to do otherwise. The regime in Damascus refused to respond to any call for an understanding with the protestors, most notably during mediation led by former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal when he lived in the Syrian capital.

I was living in Syria between 2006 and 2010 and saw with my own eyes how Hamas had a high status and was well regarded by both the regime and the people. The movement was aware at the time that no other Arab country had not and would not offer it what Syria did on a political, public relations and military level. Despite this, Hamas made the difficult decision to leave Damascus, seemingly begrudgingly. It paid the price for this decision on every level and is still affected negatively by the consequences, but it had to be made.

Today, after six years and with much water under the bridge, Hamas has succeeded in mending its relations with Iran and Hezbollah, but the road to Al-Muhajireen Palace, where the Syrian President lives in Damascus, is still closed. Nevertheless, there have been claims of reconciliatory moves by the movement towards the regime and efforts to mediate between the two sides, especially by Tehran and Beirut.

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Some recent statements may have political connotations in this respect. Ali Barakeh, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, commented on the Israeli bombing of Syria on 26 December by saying that, “The Israeli attack on Syria is an attack on Palestine.” Meanwhile, three days earlier, the Hamas official responsible for the wider diaspora, Maher Salah, express his hope that Syria would “overcome its ordeal, recover and flourish.”

Moreover, a parliamentary tour by Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, headed by Mahmoud Al-Zahar, included countries such as Lebanon and Iran, where Syria was on the agenda. The Hamas delegation met with Hezbollah and Iranian officials and it is hard to believe that such talks could take place without discussing the movement’s reconciliation with the Assad regime.

Al-Zahar, who led the Hamas delegation, is one of the main advocates of restoring relations with Syria. “Hamas and Syria do not have to reach a point of pointing fingers and exchanging accusations about what happened in the past,” he explained on 9 December. “What we need today from both sides is coordination and cooperation to liberate their occupied territories from Israel. Hamas wants Syria to recover without interfering in its internal affairs and the movement’s position on the Syrian crisis is justified.”

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Despite the conciliatory statements made by Hamas towards Syria, though, the latter has not met the movement in a similar fashion. Instead, President Assad has not missed an opportunity to direct harsh accusations against the movement, the latest of which was in June when, in what looked like a direct reference to Hamas, he said, “Palestinian resistance movements use the resistance to achieve political goals under the pretext of religion.” In November, Selim Al-Kharrat, the general coordinator of the Syrian National Democratic Alliance coalition, which is close to the regime, accused Hamas of “stabbing the Syrian people in the back.”

However, there has been a development in the position adopted by Syria and its allies regarding their stance towards the resistance movement. They have reconsidered the policy of complete estrangement and seem ready to renew a relationship subject to certain conditions. This seems to be a clear desire on Syria’s part to play on what it once considered contradictions in the Hamas position on rapprochement with the axis led by Iran, with regard to how widespread support for a change is.

The first condition could revolve around the leadership of Hamas. The people at the top now embrace the restoration of the relationship with Tehran, Damascus and Beirut without reservations. This turns the page on the position under the former leader Khaled Meshaal. At one time, Meshaal was even called the second man in Damascus by the Syrians themselves. He confirmed in May that, “Hamas sided with the Syrian people, but it has not forgotten what the Syrian regime has offered it, so it decided to remain neutral.” He is now regarded by Damascus as an enemy to the extent that I would suggest that his position as the head of the movement’s political bureau did not help reconciliation with Syria. This seems to have prompted him to put the interests of the movement above his personal interest and step down as leader, as well as this being an electoral requirement within Hamas, of course.

Khaled-Meshaal

Former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal [file photo]

The second condition that Damascus believes would pave the way for necessary rather than voluntary reconciliation with Hamas is the fact that Qatar and Turkey are not involved in the Syrian war to the extent that they were before. There have been understandings reached between Turkey, Iran and Qatar regarding Syria’s future, in the light of Al-Assad’s leadership, and the softening of the previously held position of Doha and Ankara that he had to step down.

There are efforts being made by Hamas to visit Syria, something that all of the other Palestinian factions have done. Fatah seems to be in a honeymoon phase with Damascus despite the political differences between them. In addition, the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine have also visited the Syrian capital, followed by Islamic Jihad, which arrived a few days ago.

All things considered, it looks as if Hamas is looking to restore its relationship with the regime in Damascus for geo-strategic reasons, not least for the development of its military support. Furthermore, Iran and Hezbollah are interested in Hamas’s relations with Syria due to its operational importance.

With Hamas seemingly willing to rejoin the “axis of resistance” led by Iran, it may still take some time for it to happen. The movement’s leadership is well aware that the Syrian regime senses the euphoria of victory in the civil war, and that Hamas has lost out by leaving Damascus. It now seems to be more interested in reconciliation than the Assad regime is, meaning that it will be the task of Iran to overcome the remaining obstacles to the Hamas leadership being welcomed once more at the Syrian Presidential Palace.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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