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Hamas, let down by the Gulf states, revisits ties with Syria

Hamas’ leaders have been exploring the restoration of ties with Syria in light of Gulf countries' engagement with the United States on a peace deal and therefore their increasing normalization of relations with Israel.
Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh attends a meeting with members of international media at his office in Gaza City June 20, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem - RC1BDF2E2180

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Hamas leaders have recently been probing the restoration of ties with Syria, with Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah serving as mediators. According to the Gaza newspaper Al-Quds, Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh told Turkish journalists during a July 20 conference call that he hopes relations with Damascus can be “repaired and rebuilt.” Haniyeh said that the resumption of ties with Syria has been under discussion across the movement’s institutions.

Hamas once had good relations with Syria, which beginning under President Hafez al-Assad and until 2012 had hosted the movement’s head and members of its political bureau, in effect offering them protection from Israeli attack. A rift emerged after the civil conflict erupted in Syria and the movement refused to side with the regime against its citizens. That decision led to Hamas' leaders, including the then-political bureau chief, Khaled Meshaal, departing Damascus in 2012 and Syrian security forces shuttering the movement’s offices.

Defending Hamas' position on the civil war, Haniyeh asserted to the Turkish journalists, “Hamas' decision to exit Syria was thoroughly considered within the movement.” That said, times have apparently changed.

A Hamas leader who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, remarked, “With the Palestinian issue at rock bottom today, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood remain steadfast in their support of the Palestinians. It is only normal for us to strengthen our relations with parties that support us.” He added, “There has been a decision in the movement not to further discuss this issue in the media since such a step needs careful consideration.” 

The shift in the movement’s position on Syria began after elections were held in 2017, and the leadership of the new political bureau reviewed the movement's internal and foreign relations. In August 2017, Yahya al-Sinwar, Hamas' leader in Gaza, announced that the movement was ready to resume ties with Syria.

Iran and Hezbollah have led the mediation efforts in a bid to restore the so-called resistance axis — to which they belonged along with Syria, the Popular Mobilization Unit's in Iraq, Ansar Allah in Yemen and some Palestinian factions — in light of improving relations between Tehran and Hamas since 2017, after they had cooled over the Syrian conflict. On July 20, a high-level delegation from Hamas headed by Saleh al-Arouri, a senior leader in the movement, visited Iran. While there, Arouri met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, on July 22.

Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassim said in a July 22 statement on Al-Mayadeen TV, “Hamas and Syria took a step forward toward a rapprochement following Hamas’ consideration and reviews of its relations with the different parties. Hezbollah is keen on preserving the resistance axis and bringing Hamas and Syria closer together.”

Israel’s state-owned Kan Television reported on July 22 that Hezbollah security chief Wafiq al-Safa had held a secret meeting with Hamas leaders in Beirut in June to discuss the movement’s ties with Syria, but it did not yield results. The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar had reported on June 3 that Arouri had at some point met separately with Syrian security leader Ali al-Mamlouk and with Bouthaina Shaaban, political and media adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also without a concrete outcome. 

Al-Akhbar claimed that both meetings had been mediated by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. On June 7, SANA, Syria's official news agency, quoted an unnamed media source as saying that ties had not been restored with Hamas, in apparent reference to Safa and Arouri's activities.

Hamas’ leaders have not hidden their desire to repair ties with Syria. Mahmoud al-Zahar, a member of Hamas' politburo, told the Beirut-based Al-Nahda news website on July 9 about efforts being made to reconcile. “I think we should not have abandoned Assad. We would have been better off not taking sides in the crisis from the very beginning,” Zahar said.

It appears that another factor pushing Hamas back toward Syria and the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is the position of the Arab countries in regard to the Middle East peace plan promised by the Donald Trump administration and those states' related desire to normalize relations with Israel.

Zahar stressed the need to recalibrate relations with the countries that have sided with Palestine. “Why are we not cooperating with the countries that oppose Israel, when the Gulf states are accepting of US and Israeli [policies] with open arms,” he said.

Yahya Moussa, head of the PLC’s Oversight Committee and deputy head of Hamas' parliamentary bloc, told Al-Monitor that the strategic vision of the movement is to forge relations with all the Arab countries, including Syria. “The return of Syria's role in the region will be a plus for all Arabs,” Moussa said. “Arab countries are all preoccupied with their crises at home, which has weakened the Palestinian issue.”

Moussa added, “The Hamas delegation visit to Iran was to strengthen the strategic relations between the two sides, especially since Iran is an evident supporter of the resistance movements and the Palestinian issue.”

Mustafa al-Sawaf, a political analyst and former editor in chief of the Gaza newspaper Felesteen, told Al-Monitor that the resumption of ties between the Syrian axis and Hamas is now possible based on the interests of both peoples in confronting Israel. He stressed that Hamas’ leaders are seriously considering the resumption of relations with Damascus, but claims that there has been no clear or official decision has yet been made in this regard.

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