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Will Hamas return to Damascus?

Head of the Political Bureau of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh during a conference in Gaza held to protest against the Manama Workshop on 26 June 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]
Head of the Political Bureau of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh (C) during a conference in Gaza held to protest against the Manama Workshop on 26 June 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

A few days after visiting Moscow last month, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, headed to Tehran with a bigger and higher-level delegation. The visit lasted several days, hinting at its importance, the greatest indicator of its significance being the number of Hamas officials in the delegation and their meeting with the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei and other senior officials.

The replacement of Hezbollah mediation by a personal delegation also suggests that Hamas is attempting to re-establish relations with the Syrian regime, an ally of Iran. Is Hamas planning to return to Damascus by normalising its relations with the regime?

It seems natural to ask this question, as there was apparently a close relationship between Hamas, Damascus and Tehran before the Syrian revolution. It is also a natural given the wave of normalisation of relations recently between a number of countries and the Assad regime in Syria.

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It should be noted that a number of Hamas officials, both political and military, believe that leaving the Syrian capital was very costly for the movement on a political, economic and security level. Hamas is currently at a loss because neither Qatar nor Turkey are able to host its officials openly, as Damascus did before the start of the conflict there in 2011. Diplomatic statements by the movement have always claimed that leaving Syria did not affect the course of its work.

Hamas has been negotiating with the Syrian regime through Tehran since 2017 in order to return to Damascus, and based on the movement's current political and security situation, it is said to be keen on going back to Syria. However, it seems that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad is being difficult about the matter, as it believes that Hamas has not supported it enough during the crisis, and thus did not "pay it back" properly. Hence, it seems that even if the regime is convinced about the return of Hamas — or is "persuaded" to be so by Iran — it is difficult to imagine things being as they were pre-2011.

In terms of timing, the geopolitical situation in Syrian is based on the rearrangement of all regional and international agendas in a manner conducive to it having influence equal to that of the opposition forces. This implicitly generates "geographical allocation" in which Hamas seeks to benefit from Tehran's share. In what some observers describe as "political realism", the movement is trying to return to Syria on the back of Tehran's influence to ensure a suitable location for its ambitions to be realised.

Despite the Assad regime's resentment towards Hamas and its position on the Syrian conflict, Tehran desperately needs a strong relationship with the Palestinian movement, not least so that it can still promote itself as being at the apex of the "axis of resistance".

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Moreover, Hamas's pre-emptive step is being taken in the context of its concerns that Russia might give in to Israel's demands for Hamas to be prevented from returning to Syria. This may happen if Iran's influence in Syria is reduced, so Hamas is seeking to achieve what it needs before it is too late.

The visit to Tehran also addressed the current confrontation with the US in order to rescue whatever Palestinian rights might be possible in the face of the "deal of the century". Hamas believes that cooperation with Russia and Iran will create an important axis to challenge US hegemony around the world. Another issue discussed was the mechanism for maintaining Iran's support for the movement given the possibility of this declining due to US sanctions imposed on Tehran.

In conclusion, Hamas and the "axis of resistance" have mutual interests that prompt them to seek to maintain strong relations with each other. Hamas needs financial, political and geographic support in light of the harassment that the movement and the Palestinian cause are subjected to, while the "axis of resistance" cannot succeed in promoting itself as such without having a good relationship with the major Palestinian resistance group. On the basis of the mutual benefits available, therefore, the return to an open and strong relationship, as was the case in the past, is not all that difficult to imagine.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 1 August 2019

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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