Hamas and the Syrian regime have not been on the best of terms since 2012, when the Palestinian movement left the Syrian territories after the revolution began. Though Hamas has expressed interest in repairing the relationship, Syria continues to shut the group out.
Meanwhile, Syria has been more open to Hamas rival Fatah, which has made several official visits to Damascus.
Most recently, a delegation led by Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad arrived in Damascus on July 9 to discuss bilateral relations, the situation of Palestinian refugees in general and the status of Palestinian camps in Syria, as well as political developments in the region.
On July 10, the delegation met with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad, who stressed Syria's support for the Palestinian cause. Ahmad congratulated the Syrian leadership on its victories against the armed groups it has been battling.
On July 11, the delegation met with Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis in Damascus to discuss regional events and the war on terror. Khamis reiterated that Damascus will remain supportive of the Palestinian people despite Syria's preoccupation with the war on terror.
That same day, Ahmad and his group met with some Palestinian factions, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, at the Palestinian Embassy in Damascus to discuss the state of the Palestinian cause.
In June, another delegation, headed by Fatah Central Committee member Samir Rifai, visited the graves of Palestinian victims in Damascus' Yarmouk refugee camp, which opened in 1957. In attendance were leaders of the Palestinian national factions in the Syrian arena, except for Hamas, which has not been present there since 2012.
Fatah’s branch in the Syrian territories held its first general conference in Damascus in March with the participation of its members from various Syrian areas. In January, Fatah organized a festival at the Jalaa sports complex in Damascus and expressed its appreciation to the Syrian leadership and people for their continued support and care for the resistance and the Palestinian factions.
The delegation visiting this month is "focusing on the reconstruction of the Yarmouk camp, which has been badly affected by battles between the Syrian army," opposition groups and the Islamic State, Abdullah Abdullah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, told Al-Monitor.
“We feel the Syrian position is similar to our stance against the 'deal of the century,'" said Abdullah, in reference to US President Donald Trump's proposal for peace in the Middle East. "Syria believes the [PLO] is the Palestinians’ legitimate representative. Fatah succeeded in restoring its relationship with Syria without angering others such as Saudi Arabia, unlike Hamas, which [makes] pledges to this or that country based on its alliances.”
In August 2015, Syria agreed to reopen the Fatah office in Damascus, and Rifai was appointed the group's representative there. The office had been closed for more than three decades since the Damascus-Fatah estrangement in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
“Syria is keen to restore the Palestinian card it once held, so as to improve its image after all the destruction in Syrian camps," Mahmoud Zaghmout, a member of the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor. "But it is only opening communication channels with Fatah and not Hamas. Over the past few years, Syria has welcomed Fatah’s charitable activities and political events, which had been banned since 1982. This indicates that ties are growing stronger."
The Yarmouk refugee camp spans 3 square kilometers (about 1 square mile) and was once home to 170,000 Palestinians and Syrians. After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the regime targeted opposition forces there and, later, the Islamic State. The destruction pushed tens of thousands of its residents out, leaving only 6,000 people. In April, the Syrian regime was finally able to expel armed groups from Yarmouk.
On June 11, Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ political bureau, told Russia's Sputnik news agency, “Hamas did not sever the relationship with Syria, but the circumstances led to the current situation. We consider it to be a sister state, whose people and regime stood [up for] Palestinian rights. We hope civil peace will return to Syria.”
Khaled Meshaal, former head of Hamas’ political bureau, told the BBC on May 25 that the movement had sided with the Syrian people but never forgot what the Syrian regime had done for it, and preferred to remain neutral.
In a May 21 show of support for Syria, Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar told Al-Mayadeen channel that Hamas rejects any Israeli aggression against Syria. He was referring to the US shelling in response to an April 8 poison gas attack against Syrian civilians in Douma, allegedly carried out by the regime, that killed 70 people. Hamas condemned the incident back then as blatant aggression.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Mardawi, a Hamas leader in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas looks at Syria from a geostrategic point of view. Syria is important for the movement to develop its military support.”
Mardawi added, “We cannot deny what Syria has done for us and it deserves our thanks for the support it has offered to the Palestinian cause. Iran and Hezbollah believe rebuilding our ties with Syria is of great operational importance. Still, a visit to Syria has yet to make it onto the Hamas leadership’s agenda.”
All these Hamas positions seeking to restore the relationship with Syria didn't soften the latter’s position. On June 13, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Iranian Al-Alam news network in Damascus that groups of Palestinian resistance are exploiting the resistance to achieve political goals in the name of religion. He didn't specify which groups, but it was a likely reference to Hamas.
This is proof that the wedge between the two parties is still far from being bridged. When Hamas left Damascus in 2012, refusing to get involved in the internal Syrian conflict, the regime was disappointed. It had welcomed the movement in the Syrian territories since 2000 and gave it all the concessions it ever asked for, which Hamas never denied.
Raed Nairat, a political science professor at An-Najah University in the West Bank and head of the Contemporary Center for Studies and Policy Analysis, told Al-Monitor, “Syria's openness to Fatah is the reward the movement got for supporting the regime against the Syrian revolution. Fatah is a ruling party and has always been against popular protests. Meanwhile, Syria is still angered by Hamas’ stance and will always be, so long as the movement does not give Syrians what they wish for: a clear position. Syrians believe you are either with us, or you are against us. However, Hamas is unable to take such a position, and thus estrangement will prevail.”
It seems that Syria's rapprochement with Fatah and its estrangement from Hamas are based mainly on whether these parties support the regime’s survival and reject popular protests. Fatah supported the regime and Hamas urged it to reach an understanding with peaceful protesters. This is why the Syrian regime feels closer to Fatah despite their differences when it comes to politics and the stance against Israel.