The enemy of my enemy: Hamas and the Syrian regime
Prospects of reconciliation between the Syrian regime and Hamas movement, encouraged by Teheran, have been increasingly mentioned in the media since the end of 2020. Now, it seems, the tightening of relations may be accelerating.
While senior Hamas officials and cadres loudly voiced their support for the Syrian revolution in the first years of the uprising, officially, Hamas maintained a neutral position. But, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt following the fall of Mubarak, and popular support for the Syrian revolution among Palestinians, made it impossible for the Hamas leadership to follow the requests by the Syrian regime, to simply vocalise a “political solution” to the conflict, as Hezbollah did.
This caused much conflict with the Syrian regime and eventually prompted the Hamas leadership in Damascus to leave the country in 2012.
However, over the past years, Hamas officials have repeatedly condemned Israel’s bombing of Syria and made conciliatory statements towards it. Damascus, on the other hand, has maintained a negative stance towards the Islamic Palestinian movement. Bashar al-Assad and Syrian officials have on several occasions attacked Hamas who they consider as traitors.
''Any evolution in the relations between the Syrian regime and the Palestinian movement will not mean a return to the pre-2011 setup, when Hamas leaders enjoyed the privilege of major support from the Syrian regime.''
Nevertheless, news about a potential restoration of ties have re-emerged in recent weeks. An unknown Hamas official declared at the end of last month, that the two sides have held several "high-profile meetings to achieve that goal."
This coincided with head of the political bureau of Hamas, Ismail Haniyah’s trip to Lebanon for an official meeting with Hezbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. Both leaders talked about the importance of strengthening cooperation in order to consolidate an "axis of resistance" to Israel's "threats and challenges."
After more than a decade since Hamas’ departure from Damascus, where its political bureau and headquarters were based, the reasons behind this possible renewal of relations are on one hand connected to regional political developments and alliances, and on the other, the internal politics within the Islamic Palestinian movement.
Hamas has been witnessing with growing concern, the conclusion of the US-brokered Abraham Accords in the summer of 2020, and further normalisation of Israel with Arab states.
Not to mention, the continuous rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. In March, Israeli president Isaac Herzog, was the first high-profile Israeli official to visit Turkey since 2008.
In addition to this, Hamas' position in Gaza continues to be unbearable. From the numerous wars launched by Israel against the Gaza Strip, to the Israeli blockade assisted by Egypt, and the economic sanctions imposed by the Palestinian Authority.
This context has therefore only strengthened Hamas’ crucial alliance with Iran – and therefore Hezbollah. Its relations with Teheran have continued to provide Hamas with military assistance including weapons and training, in addition to important financial funding.
The leadership changes within Hamas’ political movement have also had an impact. While the relationship has certainly been maintained on a political and military level over the last decade – despite disagreements on the Syrian uprising – the replacement of Khaled Meshaal with Ismael Haniya as Hamas’ leader in 2017, opened the door to closer relations between the actors.
Moreover, the nomination of Sheikh Saleh al-Arouri – one of the founders of Hamas’ armed wing, al-Qassam Brigades – as deputy head of the group’s political bureau, also facilitated this development. As did the election of Yahya Sinwar, another founding member of the Izz Al-Din al-Qassam brigades, as leader of the movement in Gaza.
This is because the military wing has always maintained close ties with Iran, unlike the movement's political bureau under the leadership of Meshaal. In fact, Al-Qassam Brigades’s leadership opposed Meshaal’s attempts during his rule to steer Hamas away from Iran and Hezbollah, in favour of improved relations with Turkey, Qatar and even Saudi at some point.
Hamas officials have since multiplied their visits to Teheran to meet with the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani, while repeatedly praising Iran's assistance in the media. They declared at several occasions that the group had succeeded in significantly developing its military capabilities because Iran had provided them with a lot of money, equipment and expertise.
The renewed and deepened relations with Iran have not come without criticisms in the Gaza Strip and even among Hamas’ popular bases, however.
A picture of the late Iranian Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, that was posted on a billboard in Gaza City was vandalised and torn down just days before the first anniversary of his death. Soleimani’s assassination by a US strike in Baghdad in 2020 was heavily condemned by Hamas, and Haniyeh even travelled to Tehran to attend his funeral.
The instigator of the action, Majdi al-Maghribi, accused Soleimani of being a criminal. Several other Soleimani banners were also been taken down and vandalised, with one video showing an individual describing him as the “killer of Syrians and Iraqis”.
Ultimately, the restoration of ties between the Syrian regime and Hamas should be seen as Teheran’s attempt to consolidate its influence in the region and rehabilitate relations with two allies. This potential rapprochement could also allow a further development of Iran’s military support to Hamas.
That said, any evolution in the relations between Syria and the Palestinian movement will not mean a return to the pre-2011 setup, when Hamas leaders enjoyed the privilege of major support from the Syrian regime. Officials in Syria will most likely lessen their public criticism of Hamas in the framework of their alliance with Iran, but not restore any form of strategic military and political support, at least in the short term.
Future connections between the Syrian regime and Hamas are therefore very much governed by interests structured and connected to Iran and Hezbollah. Moreover, the ‘reconciliation’ reflects a more general problem in the political strategy of the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation.
The dominant Palestinian political parties, from Fatah to Hamas and passing through the Palestinian left, look not to the Palestinian masses and the regional working classes and oppressed peoples as the forces to win liberation. Instead, they seek political alliances with the region’s ruling classes and their regimes to support their political and military battles against Israel.
Hamas leaderships have been pursuing a similar strategy; its leaders have cultivated alliances with monarchies in Gulf states, especially Qatar more recently, and Turkey, as well as with Iranian regime. Rather than advance the struggle, these regimes restrict their support for the cause to areas where it advances their regional interests and betray it when it doesn’t.
Joseph Daher teaches at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and is an affiliate professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he participates in the "Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project." He is the author of "Syria after the Uprisings, The Political Economy of State Resilience".
Follow him on Twitter: @JosephDaher19
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