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Hamas leadership seeks to restore ties with Syria

Hamas sees an opening to rebuild ties with Damascus.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Hamas movement is carrying on with its efforts to repair ties with the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis, which deteriorated during the Syrian civil war. Hamas had opted for an impartial stance in the Syrian internal conflict and its leaders left Damascus in 2012, though they had been present in Syria since 2001.

After electing a new leadership in May 2017, Hamas managed to restore ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Senior Hamas leaders, including Saleh al-Arouri, settled in Beirut's southern suburbs, Hezbollah's stronghold. Hamas also succeeded in repairing relations with Iran as Hamas leaders visited Tehran in 2017 and 2018, when Iran resumed financial support for the movement after minimizing it in 2012.

Yet Hamas faces multiple obstacles to resuming ties with the Syrian government. The latter is still angry at Hamas over its public support for Syrian protesters, exemplified in a 2012 incident in which Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, raised the Syrian revolution’s banner during a Hamas rally in the Gaza Strip. Syria also accuses Hamas of providing the Syrian rebels with arms. Hamas, however, has repeatedly denied these accusations.

The new Hamas leadership repeatedly tried to pave the way for the resumption of ties with Damascus. Most recently, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in late March that he rejects US President Donald Trump’s decision recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.

“The Golan will remain an integral part of the Syrian territory,” Haniyeh said March 25. “We stand by Syria in the face of the US arrogance that does not abide by international norms, covenants and laws."

An Iranian official who declined to be named told Al-Monitor that Iran has been mediating between the Syrian regime and Hamas since early 2017. He noted that several meetings brought together Iranian and Hamas leaders toward this end. 

The source indicated, however, that the Syrian government continues to perceive Hamas leaders' exit from Damascus in 2012, their settling in Qatar and Turkey, and the pro-revolution remarks of some Hamas leaders to be a stab in the back. However, he went on to say that the Iranian mediation, and Hezbollah’s mediation, have eased Damscus' stance toward Hamas.

The source stressed that it is too early for a meeting to take place between the two sides, and anticipates that Trump’s Golan decision, the continuation of Israeli airstrikes on Syrian territory and Hamas’ new leadership will help restore their ties.

Since the Hamas leadership was elected and the Iranian mediation kicked off, the Syrian regime eased media attacks against Hamas. 

Ali Baraka, a member of Hamas’ political and Arab relations bureau, told Al-Monitor that Hamas’ condemnation of the US Golan decision is a matter of principle that applies to any Arab land subjected to aggression.

Baraka refused to speak of the Hezbollah and Iranian efforts to repair the relations between Hamas and Damascus. Yet he affirmed there is high-level coordination among the parties in the resistance axis to counter US actions against the Arab region.

Rai al-Youm newspaper reported March 17 that Hezbollah's mediation resulted in a preliminary pact under which Damascus agreed to allow Arouri, deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, to serve as a liaison between Hamas and the Syrian regime and meet with Syrian officials in Damascus, away from media coverage.

Multiple Syrian officials refused to comment on Hamas’ stance toward the US decision on the Golan.

Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor at An-Najah National University in Nablus, told Al-Monitor that Hezbollah continues to work to restore Syrian-Hamas relations. He noted that reconciliation between the two sides is imminent, in light of their need for each other, given the US moves against Syria and the Palestinians.

When their relations were still good, “Syrian officers came to the Gaza Strip before the Syrian conflict was ignited and provided members of Hamas and the [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad [PIJ] with military training," Qassem said. "The regime also provided Hamas with anti-tank guided missiles."

The Palestinian cause is also a central cause for the Syrian government, he said, and Hamas and the PIJ — the largest armed Palestinian factions — are the only Palestinian parties Damascus would deal with in resisting Israel, he said. In 2017, Hamas disengaged from the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped ease the Syrian government's stance toward Hamas, given the regime's lack of trust in the Brotherhood.

Sharhabil al-Gharib, a political analyst close to Hamas, expects Hamas' stance regarding the Golan Heights will help bring about a convergence of views with Damascus, and noted that the matter depends on whether the latter will respond to the signs that Hamas wants to resume ties.

Gharib told Al-Monitor that Hamas has a very limited number of allies in the Arab region, which is why the movement wants to rekindle relations with Damascus. Hamas is betting that with time, the interests of Syria and the Palestinians will come together to challenge the US administration's still-unseen peace plan for the Middle East. It is also betting that more common interests will develop following the Israeli elections and formation of a new government in April.

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