Why is Hamas restoring ties with the Syrian regime?
On 21 June, sources within Hamas announced that the Islamist group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007 is set to restore ties with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
For years, the Hamas movement has been largely ostracised by Fatah, the secular nationalist party that dominates the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.
Hamas, widely described as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, staked out a position early on in the Syrian conflict in order to show solidarity with the Syrian uprising, while Fatah steadily rebuilt its ties with Assad in order to sideline Hamas.
While members of the Syrian revolution cut across the country’s various sects and political leanings, the opposition was largely viewed as predominantly Sunni, which pressured Hamas into suspending its relations with the Syrian regime over its brutal crackdown on protesters.
"There is a tendency in the region to rehabilitate ties with the regime and there are some within Hamas that feel they cannot afford to be outside of this trend"
At the time, Hamas officials feared they were going to end up “on the wrong side of pan-Arab public opinion” and even wanted to “book a seat in a post-Assad era”.
The Hamas political leadership, long based in Syria, closed its office in Damascus and moved to Qatar in February 2012. Assad was critical of Hamas, telling a Swedish media outlet in 2015 that the group was supporting the Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State groups.
He also accused Hamas of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood, and proclaimed, “I don’t think the Syrian people will trust them anymore”.
With the announcement of Hamas’ intention to restore ties with Assad, it did not take long for the Syrian opposition to blast the move as a betrayal of the Syrian revolution, urging the group to reconsider their position and stating, "Hamas will not be of any service for the Palestinian cause if it sides with sabotage, murder, rape and torturing [people] to death".
The opposition also highlighted the 2013 Tadamon massacre and remarked that the regime had a "deep-seated grudge" against Hamas and Palestinians.
But the political currents in the region seem to have already shifted in Damascus’ favour. As several influential Arab states are rapidly moving forward with normalising relations with the Syrian regime, there is now a new opportunity for Assad to rebuild a stake in Palestinian politics after a long period of absence from Arab affairs.
But how far will it go and what effect will this have on both the regime and Hamas?
“There is a tendency in the region to rehabilitate ties with the regime and there are some within Hamas that feel they cannot afford to be outside of this trend,” Khalil Jahshan, the Executive Director of the Arab Center Washington DC, told The New Arab.
“It feels compelled to take a position. That doesn't mean there is a consensus within Hamas but the balance has tipped in favour of doing so.”
A meeting of foes in Algeria
The rekindling of relations comes as diplomatic developments are unfolding across the region. Algeria hosted its Independence Day celebrations on 5 July, and Syria’s Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, was due to be in attendance.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met last week with the leader of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, in Algeria. This was the first meeting between the senior leaders of Fatah and Hamas since 2016.
Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune helped stage a photo of Abbas shaking hands with Haniyeh in Algiers. Algeria, which does not have relations with Israel, has facilitated a series of meetings between the Palestinian factions over the last few weeks. The Abbas-Haniyeh meeting also included a delegation of intelligence officials from the PA.
Since the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords, the region has been on a trajectory of establishing ties with Israel. The PA subsequently shunned the Trump administration’s efforts to strong-arm it into accepting the White House’s peace plan for the Palestinians.
"The [Hamas] leadership is divided. The military grouping that is closer to Iran is becoming stronger"
Abbas appeared content to wait out the Trump administration for the calmer seas of a potential Democratic administration in Washington. However, with the arrival of the Biden administration, there was little room on the agenda for reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the Palestinians have been left behind.
Domestically, there is a growing push for Fatah and Hamas to forge a platform of national unity that can reinvigorate political and diplomatic pressure on Israel.
Hamas has also been increasingly turning to Egypt for economic and humanitarian support. Cairo, along with Qatar, has been working to mediate with Hamas over the long-running tensions that have surrounded the frequent Israeli provocations in East Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Regional security implications
This comes as Russia and Iran have been working to increase cooperation amid international sanctions against Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. In late June, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Iran to meet with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
Moscow has hosted numerous meetings with Hamas. Relations between Israel and Russia have plummeted due to the fallout from the war in Ukraine, along with the frequent Israeli airstrikes on Syria, which Moscow has strongly criticised, particularly over the airstrikes that hit the Damascus International Airport.
“The [Hamas] leadership is divided. The military grouping that is closer to Iran is becoming stronger. Hamas also feels isolated and knows the risks involved...however, the pressure is not just coming from Iran but also Russia,” Jahshan remarked.
“Hamas cannot resist the pressure to re-join the relationship for military and political support.”
He noted that, within the last couple of years, there has been a growing bridge between Hamas, Iran, and Hezbollah and now it looks more appealing for the Hamas leadership to restore ties with the Assad regime in order to adapt to the new regional balance and re-join the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’.
In May 2021, Israel’s brutal 11-day war on Gaza killed more than 260 Palestinians.
Hamas is the one Palestinian faction that is willing and capable of directly engaging with Israel in armed conflict, despite the high cost, thereby winning the group popularity in the face of significant Israeli military might.
A return to old ideological struggles?
The question remains how genuine and deeply the restoration of ties will be felt by the powers that be in Damascus. Is Ba’athist Syria truly ready to reembrace Hamas, despite its ideological links to the Muslim Brotherhood and history of supporting the Syrian opposition?
For Assad, it is possible that this relationship represents an opportunity to bolster the Syrian regime’s credentials with the largely Sunni Arab street, at a time when many of the states in the region are moving forward with a policy of normalisation with Israel.
Restoring ties with the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation could help legitimise his regime as a champion of the Palestinian cause.
But not everyone agrees with this notion. “This has more to do with its relations with Iran and Hezbollah,” Joseph Daher, a professor at the European University Institute and author of Syria after the Uprisings, The Political Economy of State Resilience, told The New Arab.
"Future relations between Damascus and Hamas will be governed by interests structured and connected to Iran"
“In the case of a restoration of ties, officials in Syria will most probably lessen their criticisms against Hamas in the framework of their alliance with Iran, but not provide them with any form of strategic military and political support as in the past, at least in the short and mid-term.”
Daher added, “The future relations between Damascus and Hamas will be governed by interests structured and connected to Iran”.
Haniyeh himself has travelled to Beirut to meet with the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, along with other Palestinian factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
These activities indicate that the Hamas leadership is intent on building a wider framework that can offer a counterbalance to the politically stagnant position of the PA under Abbas. All of these movements have maintained ties with the Syrian regime and are keen to see Hamas return to the fold.
But it remains unclear how much legitimacy and ideological traction the Syrian regime could gain out of championing itself as a player that supports the rights of the Palestinian people within Syria itself.
“The Palestinian cause remains the official rhetoric in Syria, but this is becoming less important for the population, especially after more than 10 years of war and destruction, and more than 90% of the population living under the poverty line,” Daher said.
In this sense, the Assad regime is still on shaky ground. As well as being under heavy international sanctions, the regime’s forces are still relatively weak, unable to take back territory from armed groups, and apparently powerless to stop Israel’s air force from violating Syria’s sovereignty.
However, some have noted that there are differences of opinion within Hamas and that some are uncomfortable with restoring ties with Damascus and do not see any political or military value from this move.
In particular, the leadership outside of Palestine are among those who do not see this step as an added value.
“You cannot evaluate the steps made by either of the Palestinian factions without evaluating the actions that have been taken by Israel....when Damascus is being bombed on a daily basis by Israel, what is the added value of re-joining the Axis of Resistance?” Jahshan said.
As US President Joe Biden embarks on his trip to the region, pro-Western states aim to bolster their security interests against Iran’s influence in the region. Hamas will be a central part of this equation as Russia and Iran seek to offer a counterbalance to US interests in the Middle East.
Christopher Solomon is a Middle East analyst, researcher, editor, and writer based in the Washington DC area. He works for a US defence consultancy and is the author of the book, In Search of Greater Syria (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury). Christopher is a Co-Editor for Syria Comment and a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Follow him on Twitter: @Solomon_Chris