Iran's 'axis of resistance' loses its Palestinian arm to Syrian war
Sunni Hamas has broken its longtime ties with the Assad regime to fight alongside the predominantly Sunni Syrian opposition.
Beirut, Lebanon — Before the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, Hamas was a key ally of Damascus and a component of the Iran-led "axis of resistance" that challenged Israel and the West in the Middle East.
But after two years of bloodshed in Syria, Hamas has abandoned Damascus and distanced itself from Iran, a major supporter of the Assad regime. Instead the Palestinian militant group is courting potential new suitors, particularly the small but influential Gulf state of Qatar, and Egypt, which controls the crucial southern border of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and is ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological parent of Hamas.
"The Hamas split with Damascus... is undeniable. Hamas could not maintain any relationship with the Syrian regime in the face of the wide and deep opprobrium it faces in the Arab Sunni street, Hamas' principal support base," says Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
But given the shifting dynamics of the region and the sharpening of the Sunni-Shiite divide, Hamas still appears to be keeping its options open with its former patron Iran and fellow anti-Israel resistance group, the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
"Hamas is forced to navigate uncharted waters post-Arab Spring and it is in its interest to keep all channels open," says Slim.
The extent of the rupture between Hamas and the Assad regime is underscored by the fact that the Palestinian group is allegedly helping train units of the rebel Free Syrian Army in several areas of eastern Damascus, according to Western diplomats and sources in the Syrian opposition.
The training appears to be specialized, focusing on helping the rebels develop better rockets and dig tunnels from which they can launch attacks in preperation for a widely anticipated offensive to uproot the regime from the capital. The Ezzidine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, has extensive experience at building tunnels in the Gaza Strip, some for smuggling weapons and goods from neighboring Egypt, and others to infiltrate Israel or launch attacks against Israeli outposts.
“The Qassam Brigades have been training units very close to Damascus – in Yalda, Jaramana, Babbila. These are specialists. They are really good,” says a Western diplomat with high-level contacts in the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition who visits Damascus regularly.
A Syrian opposition source who lives in Damascus confirmed that tunnels were being dug in some areas under rebel control and that the regime is aware of the tactic. The source says that the Syrian army has dug a seven-yard deep trench "to cut off any extending tunnel" around the perimeter of Mezzeh airport, a key military facility in Damascus, and similar measures have been taken around Rawda presidential palace in the center of the capital.
But a senior Hamas official categorically denied allegations that Hamas fighters are training FSA rebels or are involved in any military activities in Syria.
"Our position is clear on what is happening in Syria and we believe there must be a political solution," says Osama Hamdan, who lives in Lebanon. “There are no members of Ezzidine al-Qassam or any militant members of Hamas in Syria. We don’t interfere in the internal problems of Syria. Our members there are normal civilians, Syrian Palestinians, who live with their families there. From the beginning of what has happened in Syria we rejected as a movement any involvement of any Palestinian in the current events in Syria.”
The Assad regime has hosted Hamas in Damascus since 1999, when the group was expelled from Jordan. However, when the uprising against the Assad regime began two years ago, Hamas found itself caught between its loyalty to the regime that took it in and obligations to its Palestinian supporters, who overwhelmingly sided with the Syrian opposition.
Furthermore, Sunni Hamas risked angering the predominantly Sunni opposition in Syria by standing beside the regime that is drawn from the Alawite sect, a heterodox Shiite sect, and supported by Shiite Iran and Hezbollah.
According to a Western analyst who has close contacts with the Hamas leadership, Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, attempted in August 2011 to persuade Assad to follow a political path to end the crisis, and offered a series of suggestions.
“He, Assad, was intrigued by the Hamas program, which included reconciliation, the call for open elections – after which Assad would step down – an exchange of prisoners, a national plebiscite on a new constitution – seven steps in all,” the analyst says, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of his contacts with the Hamas leadership.
Assad apparently told Hamas that he liked the seven recommendations and said he would consult with his close aides on how to implement them.
“Twenty four hours after submitting the paper, however, the Hamas political leadership was told that the government had decided to go in another direction. It was at that point that Hamas decided that it would leave Damascus,” the analyst says.
According to a report last week in Kuwait's Al-Rai al-Aam newspaper, Mr. Meshaal enlisted the support of Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in persuading Assad to follow a political path. The report cited a source as describing Assad as “arrogant and inexperienced” and solely responsible for the crisis by rejecting a political solution.
According to the Western analyst, some members of the Hamas leadership initially preferred to remain in Damascus, among them Meshaal's deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk. But Abu Marzouk apparently changed his mind in October 2011, while driving to Damascus airport for a trip to Cairo.
"Inadvertently, his convoy came across a pile of bodies, the result of fighting by the Syrian Army. The grim spectacle stunned Marzouk," the analyst says.
Meshaal quietly departed Damascus in February 2012 and moved to Qatar. That same month, Ismael Haniyah, the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, openly declared the movement’s support for the Syrian opposition, lauding their struggle to achieve “freedom, democracy, and reform."
The Assad regime responded by raiding offices and homes of top Hamas officials and seizing cars and equipment belonging to the absent Meshaal. The state-run media accused him of being “ungrateful and treacherous."
In August 2012, a mid-ranking Hamas official in Damascus was shot dead in his home, an act that Hamas publicly blamed on Israel, although there was speculation that agents of the Assad regime committed the murder.
On April 3, following Meshaal’s reelection as head of Hamas’ political wing for a fifth term, Ath-Thawra, a Syrian regime newspaper, said that he had shifted “the gun from the shoulder of resistance to the shoulder of compromise.”
Meshaal “cannot believe his luck. After an acclaimed history of struggle, he has returned to the safe Qatari embrace, wealthy, fattened in the age of the Arab Spring’s storms,” it said.
Qatar fills the void
For now, Qatar has emerged as Hamas's new sponsor. Meshaal lives in the capital Doha, while Hamas has opened offices in Cairo. The Gulf state helped cement its relationship with Hamas in October 2012, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Qatari emir, became the first foreign head of state to visit Hamas-run Gaza. During his visit, he pledged $400 million to the tiny coastal strip.
But while Hamas has abandoned Syria, has it completely renounced its relationship with its former sponsor Iran?
Meshaal admitted last November in an interview with CNN that the Hamas relationship with Iran was "affected and harmed" by disagreements over Syria, but downplayed its severity. "It is not as it used to be in the past, but there is no severing of relations," he said.
The Western analyst says that the break with Iran was "complete and somewhat bitter." But other analysts don't believe that contacts have been entirely broken, partly because Hamas recognizes that during such a turbulent period in the Middle East, it is in no position to throw in its lot with any one particular sponsor. Qatar has proven to be a potentially fickle friend – little of the $400 million it pledged Gaza has so far been received.
Even Egypt under President Mohammed Morsi – a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Hamas ally – has proven disappointing for Hamas so far. The Egyptian authorities have blocked smuggling tunnels into Gaza and are more preoccupied with internal developments than actively supporting Hamas with cash and weapons.
"The distancing from Iran may prove problematic because it leaves Hamas more dependent on support from Arab governments that have either proved unreliable or whose interests clash with those of Hamas," says Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
"Although Hamas wishes to confirm its Sunni credentials to other Arabs, it has tried to reaffirm relations with Iran and deny irreconcilable differences over Syria," Mr. Sayigh says.
Indeed, while Iran and Hamas can disagree on the fate of the Assad regime - and perhaps actively support opposing sides in that conflict - both parties are still united in their opposition to Israel.
"I doubt a complete rupture of relations between Iran and Hamas. It is in neither party's interest," says Slim of the Middle East Institute. "Iran and Hezbollah's game is always long, nuanced, and strategic. Rarely do they burn bridges with former allies. Even with their enemies, they negotiate while fighting."