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Hamas sees Russia visit as means to end regional isolation

Hamas political bureau leader Khaled Meshaal will visit Moscow in the coming weeks, where he is expected to ask Russia to help restore Hamas' ties with Iran and to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to soften his opposition to the Islamist movement.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (L) and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands as they meet in Moscow February 27, 2007. Meshaal praised Russia's efforts to end a Western aid embargo on the Palestinian administration during a visit to Moscow intended to win support for a new unity government.    REUTERS/Pool   (RUSSIA) - RTR1MVPV

Hamas spokesman Hossam Badran announced May 25 that the head of the movement’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, would visit Russia this month. Meshaal received an invitation during his meeting with Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Qatar in May.

The upcoming visit comes as Hamas suffers from regional isolation, and desires to break the political embargo against it.

Badran told Al-Monitor by phone, “The visit aims to develop Hamas’ foreign relations and bolster the reconciliation with Fatah, which Moscow considered to be a positive development. Furthermore, the movement believes in the need to keep the lines of communication open with Russia, because the latter is a superpower possessing a great deal of influence on the situation in the region, and is the only member of the Quartet that was not boycotting Hamas.”

Russia’s recognition and acceptance of Hamas is a breakthrough for the movement that has suffered international isolation in recent years.

“Russia is convinced that Hamas plays an important role in the Palestinian cause, and the movement is cognizant of the important role played by Russia in the region. Hamas being welcomed by a superpower is a great achievement, allowing it to break through the siege imposed upon it,” Badran said.

Ahmed Youssef, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s former adviser and a key Hamas representative on the world scene, said Moscow “knows that Hamas is able to promote Russia in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as a result of its ideological influence in those worlds. Inviting Hamas is a bold Russian move to re-establish Moscow’s presence in the Middle East, albeit through exploiting the Hamas card, amid America’s domination in that regard.”

Hamas’ official website said the visit aimed “to find a way to break the isolation imposed by the Americans and Israelis, while Russia was looking for a way back into the region that would once again establish it as a superpower to be reckoned with. Toward that end, it may pressure Hamas into modifying its political convictions, paving the way toward negating the international community’s rejection of the rapprochement taking place between them.”

Al-Monitor obtained a copy of an internal Hamas assessment of its international relations prospects, particularly with Russia, which stated that the movement “was giving particular importance to the most influential man in the Middle East today, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who prevented a Western strike against Syria at the last minute. Putin also backs Iran in its nuclear negotiations, and is readying the scene for Russia to succeed the United States in Egypt. Hamas realizes that Russia wants to gain an additional foothold for its influence in the Middle East, and hopes that the visit to Moscow will be a success and a turning point that encourages other nations to contact and invite it to visit.”

But Hamas’ expected gains from the Russia visit did not prevent dissenting opinions among those close to the movement, who warned about “a tug of war initiated by Russia to provide Hamas with gains that would make it reassess its policies, and strive to placate the Russians, and likewise the European Union, as well as the United States. This comes as a repeat of the Fatah experience throughout the past decades, while, in the end, Moscow would fail to guarantee Hamas any of its political objectives.”

Badran avoided discussing whether Hamas’ troubled relations with Iran and Syria, both allies of Russia, will be discussed in Moscow. “The talks will deal with bilateral issues and ways by which to support the Palestinian cause.”

But Hamas’ relations with Iran and Syria will most certainly be on the agenda in Moscow, with leaked information revealing that Syria is holding firm on refusing to restore ties with Hamas, despite Hamas' attempts to secure Iranian mediation.

A Lebanese official knowledgeable about Hamas’ regional relations told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “The reason why the movement was discussing with the Russians the issue of its relations with Tehran and Damascus is the fact that it knows that the Russians possess the final say in the Syrian capital. [Moscow] might, therefore, put pressure on [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad and try to bring together all their allies in the region.”

The official said, “Hamas will ask Russia to expedite Meshaal’s visit to Iran, and ensure that the latter does not impose tough prerequisites for the visit, and most importantly to confirm that Meshaal will meet [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, who does not seem to be in a rush to resume financial aid to the movement. [They will also seek Russia’s help in making sure] Iran leaves behind its request for a test period to improve ties, so that money is pumped immediately after the visit succeeds.”

Regarding Syria, Hamas is asking that the Russians “seek [to ensure that] Assad soften his positions toward [Hamas] and halt the media campaign against it, especially accusing its members of taking part in the fighting alongside militants and of helping them with war plans against regime forces. Yet, this does not mean that the Russians are not blaming Hamas for its stance regarding the Syrian crisis, and therefore ties between the movement and Moscow have been cold for a while,” the source said.

The Lebanese official said Qatar mediated between Russia and Hamas to arrange the visit.

“Qatar, which hosts Hamas, played an essential role in the scheduling of the movement’s visit to Russia. This was a result of the evolution of Doha’s relationship with Moscow and Qatar’s desire to improve its regional relations, namely with Egypt. The latter, in turn, has undertaken to bolster its relationship with the Kremlin. Hamas also hopes that the Russians would use their influence on Egypt to reduce the tensions in that relationship, all the while cognizant that Moscow did not possess a magic wand capable of restoring the movement’s relations with regional countries angered by its actions,” the official said.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), also likely to be a topic of discussion in Moscow, has so far been silent on Meshaal’s upcoming visit to Moscow.

However, an official at the PA’s Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor, “The visit takes place without any coordination with us. Yet we have no qualms about it because Russia is part of the Quartet, and, as such, it will not move forward with bolstering relations with Hamas unless the latter abided by the terms that Moscow sets, which mirror the political agenda of the PA, which has maintained historical ties with Moscow.”

Optimism prevails within Hamas that the visit to Russia will achieve some objectives, mainly normalization of ties with Iran and stopping the deterioration of ties with Syria. The movement is confident that the soft diplomacy of Meshaal and his counterparts in Russia can achieve that, since Moscow is considered the elder brother of Tehran and Damascus, the two capitals that can help break Hamas’ isolation.

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