Hamas and al-Assad: A rapprochement driven by interests and supported by allies

President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and member of the Hamas Political Bureau (Politburo), Khalil al-Hayya - 19 October 2022 (Syrian Presidency / Facebook)

President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and member of the Hamas Political Bureau (Politburo), Khalil al-Hayya - 19 October 2022 (Syrian Presidency / Facebook)

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Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa

After its delegation visited Damascus on 19 October, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) joined the list of the parties that normalized relations with the Syrian regime following a nearly decade-long estrangement. This raises questions about the motives and reasons for this reconciliation.

The head of the Hamas delegation participating in the visit and member of the movement’s political bureau, Khalil al-Hayya, described the meeting with the head of the Syrian regime on the same day as “warm and historic” and as a “new start for joint Palestinian-Syrian action and a novel addition to the Axis of Resistance.”

According to al-Hayya, both of the parties have agreed to “turn the page on the past.” He explained that Hamas had returned after some of its members made “individual mistakes” that were not approved by its leadership, and it is “convinced of the correctness of this path to transcend the past into the future.”

What are Hamas’ motives?

Following the movement’s first announcement of its decision to restore relations with the Syrian regime on 21 June through Reuters, quoting an unnamed source within the movement, numerous criticisms came from Syrian and Palestinian institutions and individuals, among others, condemning this “unjustified” move as they put it.

The recent visit also had its fair share of criticism that went all the way to the United States; on 20 October, US State Department Spokesperson, Ned Price, stated that the move “undermines the interests of the Palestinian people” and “wrecks global counter-terrorism efforts in and outside the region.”

He added, “The US State Department will continue to reject any support for the rehabilitation of the Assad regime, especially from designated terrorist organizations such as Hamas.”

Regarding the motives for this step, Palestinian researcher and political analyst Pr. Majed Azzam told Enab Baladi that the “blackmail” and Iranian pressure for continued support for the movement required it to re-establish relations with the Syrian regime.

Azzam considered that Hamas negotiated “badly” with Iran in order to proceed with this step, as it could have insisted on its narrative and its contentious position with the president of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, or better yet, link the restoration of relations with the implementation of United Nations resolutions. Iran and Hezbollah, the other negotiator on the Iranian side, need Hamas as an axis of “actual resistance” more than the movement needs them.

However, according to Azzam, the movement “went galloping” towards reconciliation, as it “whitewashed the regime’s slate and Iran’s criminal practices in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen,” paying a “low price” in exchange for its interests.

For his part, the Palestinian-Syrian researcher, Ayman Abu Hashem, explained to Enab Baladi that Hamas wants this relationship with the regime to secure a “space” for its presence and movement at the level of leaders and members.

In Abu Hashem’s view, the transformations that took place on the Syrian scene after the revolution suggest that the Syrian regime cannot support any Palestinian faction but rather work to contain these factions to trade them in service of its propaganda.

Abu Hashem agreed with Azzam that the movement’s decision to restore relations with the Syrian regime had appeased its Iranian ally for the purpose of maintaining its material and logistical support for the movement.

Al-Hayya said in a press conference after the meeting with al-Assad that the reason for Hamas’ return to Damascus at this time, i.e., following ten years of estrangement, is that the Palestinian cause currently needs “authentic Arab” support, in light of heavily propagated normalization agreements in the region.

By restoring its relations with the regime, Hamas is looking for a “safe haven,” according to a report by the British magazine The Economist on 13 October. Hamas became “isolated” within a strip under a siege imposed by Israel and Egypt, so it was necessary to have a headquarters abroad.

For the time being, only a few Arab countries are willing to host the Islamic movement, as Hamas is prohibited in the West as a terrorist organization due to its ideological affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood; the latter had also supported the Arab Spring revolutions that made them “pariahs” in the eyes of most Gulf and North African governments according to the magazine.

To the satisfaction of the Egyptian government, Hamas agreed to renounce its allegiance to the Brotherhood. Since leaving its office in Damascus, the movement’s leaders have moved mainly between Turkey and Qatar, but Turkey is working to mend its differences with Israel, and Qatar is attempting the same with its anti-Islamist Gulf neighbors, so Damascus may be the “safest haven,” according to the magazine.

Internal divisions

Hamas’ decision to normalize its relations with the Syrian regime was followed by the emergence of certain voices within or close to the movement opposing that move, which referred to internal divisions that contradicted the official statements announcing that the restoration of the movement’s relations with the regime was a unanimous decision.

During his statements in Damascus, the head of the movement’s delegation noted that there was support and “overall satisfaction” expressed by the leadership of Hamas and its cadres for the restoration of relations with Syria without confirming that there was consensus on the move.

The Palestinian analyst, Majed Abu Azzam, confirmed the existence of these “differences” within Hamas. Since the beginning of the talk on the restoration of relations in 2019, leader Nayef Rajoub reiterated that “the current Syrian regime no longer has any weight or value, and it is wrong to rely on or approach it.” He also added that “the Syrian file was completely consumed, and it became a losing bet.”

Azzam added, “Recently, Sheikh Issa al-Natsheh, one of the leaders of Hamas, has repudiated what the movement’s political leadership had done. He referred to the division of the local Iranian and Syrian media of Hamas into two sections, “Brotherhood-affiliated” and “resistance-affiliated,” in an attempt to marginalize the “section opposed to rapprochement.”

In turn, researcher Ayman Abu Hashem reported that the decision to restore relations with the Syrian regime was not agreed upon within the movement and that it was the political leadership inside Gaza that pushed towards it, while the Khaled Meshaal (head of the movement abroad) trend rejected the move. Internal divisions were likely to occur as a result of the movement’s majority of Syrian Palestinian cadres rejecting it.

In a report published last September, the British Middle East Eye website quoted an informed source within Hamas as saying that “the decision to restore ties with Syria was approved by all members of the General Political Bureau (Politburo), except for one member who was kept unnamed.”

Meanwhile, The Economist explained that two of the movement’s leaders, Yahya Sinwar, who was elected to lead the Gaza Strip, and Ismail Haniyeh, Chief of the movement’s Political Bureau (Politburo), supported rapprochement with Damascus. However, its former political leader, Khaled Meshaal, who is trying to rebuild relations with “Sunni” Arab countries, opposes it.

On 16 September, a member of the founding generation of Hamas, Nawaf al-Takruri, criticized, on his Telegram account, any rapprochement with the Syrian regime, which he described as “continuing to practice all forms of criminality and murder against the Syrian and Palestinian peoples.”

Iranian dependency

The move to restore relations between Hamas and the Syrian regime was the result of mediation efforts led by Iran and Hezbollah, indicating Iran’s influence on the movement due to financial and logistical support, despite the embrace of the movement by some countries such as Qatar and Turkey, which officially oppose the regime.

Hamas believes that Turkish support is not guaranteed or continuous and that its decision could be subject to change following the forthcoming Turkish presidential elections. As for Qatar, it may be affected by US and Israeli “dictations,” which could lead to transformation and disengagement from the movement. Therefore, the movement went for the “wrong” option, Damascus, as an alternative, according to Ayman Abu Hashem.

For his part, writer Majed Azzam explained that there is no direct financial support for the movement from any Arab or Islamic countries and that the support is “institutional of a charitable nature for the Palestinian people” from countries or individuals, while Iranian support is “to whitewash its slate and to extend its dominance.”

In response to a journalist about the opposition of countries with ties to Hamas to re-establish its relations with the Syrian regime, al-Hayya replied that all countries, including Turkey and Qatar, have welcomed and encouraged this step.

Meanwhile, al-Hayya retracted a statement expressing Qatar’s approval and encouragement for the movement’s decision to restore its relations with Damascus on 20 October.

The visit comes at a time when there have recently been indications of a potential rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Turkey, following statements by Turkish officials calling for “reconciliation” between the regime and the opposition, mainly supported by Ankara, in a significant shift in its opposing stance since the beginning of the conflict.

The past years have also seen a resumption of relations between Syria and other Arab countries, the first of which was the United Arab Emirates (UAE), following an estrangement against the backdrop of the conflict.

“The return of communication between the al-Assad regime and other Arab countries seems to have facilitated reconciliation between Damascus and Hamas,” researcher at Century International, Aron Lund, told AFP, noting that recent changes in Turkey’s position on Damascus have also been “beneficial to Hamas.”

What is the future of relations?

Regarding the form of the movement’s future representation, al-Hayaa said, “We will complete our future arrangements with Syrian brothers on the subject of remaining in Damascus.”

The local newspaper al-Watan, close to the regime, reported on 10 October that relations at the current phase were related to the return of Hamas only as a “resistance” faction within a delegation representing all Palestinian factions, without any individual representation in Syria.

Researcher Majed Azzam believes that the idea of setting up an office for the movement in Damascus is “on the table,” and the relationship with it is probably currently limited to the security level. He asserted that the movement will not benefit from a Damascus office in light of the security breach and the loss of sovereignty, referring to the security relations between Israel and Russia, with the latter being in force in all circles of the regime.

The regime will not deal with the movement as it previously dealt with it, as it no longer has confidence in it. The movement will be subject to strict security monitoring if it opens an office in Damascus, according to analyst Abu Hashem.

Social media platforms circulated the Syria Air’s Directorate of Ground Operations circular to directors and airline agents last July, prohibiting Palestinians from entering Syria without the consent of Branch 235, known as the Palestine Branch, in the capital, Damascus. Palestinians who hold Syrian ID documents are excluded from this decision.

A senior Hamas source told Middle East Eye that Iran and Hezbollah have made strenuous efforts to restore relations between the movement and the regime over the past months and years.

He added that the regime had two main points before restoring relations with Hamas, the first being to apologize for its position after the start of the revolution in Syria, and the second not to allow certain figures to enter the country again, the most prominent being leader Khaled Meshaal.

The source explained that Hamas categorically refused to apologize, and it was agreed to issue a statement confirming the “support for the Syrian leadership,” as expressed in the statement prior to the visit.

Hamas also does not expect its leadership to return to Syria due to the difficult security situation as a result of Israeli bombing and instability in different areas of Syrian territory as a result of clashes between the regime and other forces. According to the website, Hamas also acknowledges that the political and logistical restoration of relations is in order to strengthen alliances in the region.

Hamas, which manages the besieged Gaza Strip, was one of the closest Palestinian allies to al-Assad. It made Damascus its headquarters abroad for years before criticizing the regime’s repression of Syrian protests starting in mid-March 2011.

 

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