Assessment of position:
After months of preparation and ten years of break, Hamas officially decided to restore its full relations with the Syrian regime, which ignited a wave of widespread anger towards it, especially from its popular base and supporters of the Syrian revolution, who considered it an unjustified step that does not benefit the Palestinians, but rather revolves around the Iran’s ally.
The announcement of restoring relations with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, came when Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ leader, and other members of the Political Bureau (highest authority of the Movement), were in the Russian capital Moscow. Moscow was one of the mediators who helped in the restoration of the relations., in addition the Hezbollah, Iran’s affiliate, who’s leader has recently declared that he is personally interested in restoring relations between Hamas and Syria.
In a statement released on September 15, Hamas affirms that it is building and developing solid relations with the Syrian Arab Republic, within the framework of its decision to resume its relationship with “sisterly” Syria. The movement justified the restoration of relations as “for the sake of our nation and its just causes, the most important of which is the cause of Palestine, especially in light of the accelerating regional and international developments that surround our cause and our nation.”
The movement expressed its appreciation for Syria’s “Leader and people,” noting that “Syria has embraced Palestinian people and the resistance factions for decades, and that requires standing with Syria, in light of the brutal aggression it is being subjected to,” Hamas called for “achieving reconciliations and understandings between the Syrian components through serious dialogue.”
The movement has condemned the Israeli strikes that targeted the airports of Damascus and Aleppo, saying that it supports Syria in this brutal aggression.
The restoration of relations between Hamas and Syria came after several talks that began after the “Sword of Jerusalem” battle, under the auspices of Hassan Nasrallah, where the stalemate was broken as a first step, then it has recently reached the stage of building trust in preparation for restoring relations in a larger and broader way, according to information published by media outlets close to the so-called Resistance Axis.
Simultaneously, the steps of rapprochement, or rather the movement’s fawning over the regime, during the past months, provoked opposition stances from Syrian, Palestinian and Arab figures, in addition to other positions issued by Islamic entities, such as the statement of the eight scholars, after their meeting with the leadership of Hamas. The statement was signed by Sheikh Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani, head of the Yemeni Scholars Association, Sheikh Osama Al-Rifai, head of the Syrian Islamic Council, Sheikh Ali Al-Qara Daghi, Secretary-General of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and Sheikh Essam Ahmed Al-Bashir, Vice President of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Abdul Hai Yousef is a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Muhammad Abdul Karim, Secretary General of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Sami Al-Saadi, Secretary General of the Research Council of the Libyan Dar Al Iftaa, and Sheikh Wasfi Ashour Abu Zaid, a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Union of Muslim Scholars.
The restoration of relations at this time raises many questions about the implications of this step, the motives and gains of the movement, Damascus, Tehran and even Moscow from this, in addition to the consequences of the step and its reflection on the concerned parties, which MENA Research and Studies Centre will try to answer in the following lines.
Relations Between both Parties:
- Hamas was founded in 1987, at the beginning of the first intifada in the Palestinian territories, as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the relation between the movement and Damascus dates back to early nineties. The first visit by Hamas leader to Damascus was in January 1992, through a delegation from the movement was led by the head of its political bureau at the time, Musa Abu Marzouk.
- In May 1998, the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, visited Damascus, he was officially received at its airport, and met the Syrian president at the time, Hafez al-Assad.
- In 1999, the movement moved its foreign offices to Damascus after the Jordanian authorities decided to close its offices in Amman, due to the tense relation between both parties due to lack of understanding over some files in the Palestinian cause, including the relation of Hamas with the authority and the West Bank.
- During its presence in Syria, the movement experienced a state of relative political stability, in addition to benefiting from military and logistical support and media adoption. From Damascus, Hamas managed the military coup against the Palestinian Authority that it carried out in 2007. It also prepared itself for the legislative elections, won them and armed its members in addition to training them. On the other hand, the Syrian regime has benefited from the movement’s presence on its territory in marketing itself as the “backbone” of the so-called “axis of resistance and resistance,” using the slogan “the Palestinian cause” to plunder the Syrians’ wealth and to oppose Israel, the United States and even its Arab opponents in certain periods.
- The Syrian revolution in 2011 led to a rupture between the Syrian regime and Hamas, against the background of the movement’s ambiguous and neutral stance on the peaceful demonstrations, or rather its failure to support the regime. In late 2012, the Syrian authorities closed the offices of Hamas leaders in Damascus with red wax, most notably Khaled Mashaal’s office located in the western Mazzeh, the office of his deputy, Musa Abu Marzouk, and the movement’s leader, Muhammad Nazzal in the Dummar neighborhood, in addition to the offices of other leaders in Yarmouk camp. The movement had decided in February 2012 to leave the country without a clear announcement, and its leaders headed to Egypt, which was ruled by the MB, Qatar and Turkey.
- During Hamas’ celebrations of its twenty-fifth anniversary, Khaled Meshaal appeared in Gaza at the end of 2012, carrying the flag of the Syrian revolutionaries for a few seconds, as shown in the video; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UpkYmPPqSk
On the other hand, the Syrian regime’s media adopted a hostile discourse against the movement, describing Khaled Mishaal as the blasphemous traitor!
- Following the win of Ismail Haniyeh as head of the Political Bureau in the summer of 2017, and Yahya Sinwar’s arrival to the power in the movement in Gaza at the end of the same year, Hamas began courting the Syrian regime. As soon as he took office, Sinwar said that Hamas was ready to deal with the Syrian regime, particularly as the crisis in Damascus accelerated, ” In 2019, a member of the Political Bureau, Mahmoud al-Zahar, praised Bashar al-Assad. He said, “He opened the whole world to us. We were moving in Syria as if we were moving in Palestine, and suddenly the relationship collapsed against the background of the Syrian crisis, and I think it was better not to leave him and not to be with or against him in the course of the crisis.”
- On March 4, 2020, there were Russian efforts aimed at facilitating rapprochement between Damascus and Hamas. Ismail Haniyeh spoke at a press conference in Moscow, declaring that the Syrian government and citizens had for years been major supporters of Hamas. Haniyeh exonerated Hamas, saying: “We cannot forget this history. There is no policy or any decision by Hamas to get involved in the Syrian crisis, and I strongly deny the presence of any Hamas fighter or martyrs in Idlib, or before Idlib, or even during the whole Syrian revolution”.
- In May 2021, the Assistant Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Talal Naji, conveyed the greetings of Bashar al-Assad to the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, after his visit to Damascus and his meeting with al-Assad. The response came days later through the movement’s representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan who said in a televised statement, “Whoever greets us, we will respond with a better one.”
- On June 21, the first announcement of Hamas’ decision to restore its relations with Damascus came through Reuters agency, which quoted an unnamed source within the movement, that the two sides held several “high-level” meetings to reach this decision. On the 28th of the same month, a member of the movement’s political bureau, Khalil al-Hayya, said, “An internal and external discussion took place at the movement’s level in order to resolve the discussion related to restoring relations with Syria.” “With the conclusion of the discussions in which leaders, cadres, influencers, and detainees participated in prisons, it was decided to restore the relationship with Damascus,” he added.
Hamas’ step in declaring its desire to restore rapprochement with the Syrian regime came in light of a number of local and regional variables affecting the movement. The following are the most important of these variables:
- Repositioning the countries of the region and reviving the policy of axes and alliances. The Iranian axis, which includes Syria, Hezbollah, Iraqi and Yemeni factions, and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements, comes againt alliances that are now being formed in the region and include Israel.
- The presence of the “Syrian revolution” declined and the positions of several countries on the Syrian regime have changed. Some Arab countries have restored their relations with Syria and opened their embassies in Damascus, and others have opened political and economic channels of communication, such as Algeria, which calls for Syria’s return to the “Arab League.”
- The Turkish-Israeli rapprochement and its negative impact on Hamas in Turkey. Tel Aviv’s ambassador to Ankara, Irit Lilian, said publicly that “Israel has made efforts to close Hamas office in Istanbul and succeeded in that, and is currently working to deport activists from Turkey.” Hamas did not deny this, and a member of its political bureau, Musa Abu Marzouk, said that “a great disturbance has occurred in Hamas’ relations with Turkey, after Ankara improved its relations with Israel and other Arab countries, and in light of this, we are committed to and appreciate the understandings made by the Turks,” however, Abu Marzouk refused to confirm the information about the Turkish authorities’ harassment of the movement’s activists and asking them to leave the country. He indicated that Israel launches a media attack on the members of his movement who are in Istanbul every day.
- The failure of all Muslim Brotherhood movements to reach power.
- The new leadership of Hamas is headed by a movement affiliated with Tehran, the most prominent of which are Yahya Al-Sinwar and Saleh Al-Arouri, who held the position of deputy head of the Political Bureau, and is believed to be the godfather of restoring relations with Damascus. One of the most prominent manifestations of the arrival of this trend is the exaggerated adulation of Iran during the past five years, considering it a partner and an essential component in the steadfastness of “Hamas” and “the resistance,” in addition to describing Qassem Soleimani as a “martyr of Jerusalem” and exaggerating Iranian support for Gaza, with allegations that Tehran provided tens of millions of dollars for Gaza.
- The Russian war against Ukraine, which cast a shadow over the countries of the region and the active players in it. It is remarkable in this context that Hamas movement’s announcement of resuming its relationship with Damascus coincided with the presence of an official delegation headed by the head of the movement’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, in Moscow on an official visit, which lasted for days at an invitation from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
- In connection with the previous point, Hamas’ move comes amid a state of tension in relations and an exchange of accusations between Israel and Russia, against the background of the war in Ukraine, as it is said that Israel has already engaged in the war against Russia and secretly provided Ukraine with a defense system against the drones (most likely against Iranian drones) through Poland. In addition, Tel Aviv’s efforts to take Russia’s place in the field of pumping natural gas to Europe.
- Closing the page of the dispute and restoring full relations between Qatar and the boycotting countries during the Al-Ula summit on January 5, 2021, as Hamas and Doha have a close relationship that was demonstrated by the Qatari support for the movement in 2007 when Qatar was one of the few countries that supported Hamas after the movement overthrew the most moderate Palestinian power in the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup. The Qatari support for the movement continued under the guise of Gaza reconstruction and development projects. It is noteworthy that the Hamas statement came less than 24 hours after the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, repudiated the Muslim Brotherhood organization. He said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Point: “We have no such relations, we are a state, not a party. We deal with legitimate states and governments, not with political organizations.”
- The intensification of Israeli targeting of points belonging to the Iranian militias in Syria, where the rate of Israeli bombardment has ranged between one or two strikes within a week, and is now affecting critical sites; such as the airports of Damascus and Aleppo, which sparked criticism from Moscow and threats from Tehran.
It seems that the aforementioned changing regional and international circumstances have forced both parties to re-evaluate their foreign policy and make changes in their relations and policies under Iranian pressure. Here comes the importance of identifying the potential motives of both parties towards this rapprochement:
A – With regard to Hamas:
- The restriction on the movement in most Arab countries with the decline of the Arab Spring and the arrival of forces against political Islam, which weakened or stalled the movement’s activity in major countries such as Egypt and Sudan, not to mention banning it in other countries.
- Insufficient alternatives to provide movement with money and weapons.
- Responding to Iranian pressure in light of the high influence of Iran’s close wing, such as the Qassam Brigades and the current political leadership of the movement.
B- With Regard to Syrian Regime:
- Attempting to change bad reputation gained during the revolution, including the massacres against Syrian people, through claiming that it is a supporter of the Palestinian cause; in an attempt to legitimize and restore confidence in this regime at the internal, Arab and Islamic grass-roots level.
- Responding to Iranian pressure, Tehran is the regime’s foremost supporter, as is Hamas.
- Acquisition of more pressure cards in the region.
C- In regard to Iran
- To tighten its control over all factions in the region, including Palestinians, to continue claiming internally that they are the primary defender of Palestine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as always repeated in their speeches.
- The allies gathered in one camp, notably that Iran put forward the resumption of relations with Assad as a condition for resuming its financial support for the movement, according to some reports.
- Whitewashing the sectarian image in which Iran has emerged over the past years, by supporting a Sunni Islamic movement and linking it to Tehran’s cross-border project and justifying its expansionist policies known as “Exporting the Revolution”
Having addressed the circumstance and timing of the move, and the motivations of the parties involved to achieve reconciliation between Hamas and the regime, this development can be seen by reading its connotations as follows:
- The pro-Iranian movement, represented by Sinwar and the Qassam Brigades, controlled Hamas at the expense of Khaled Mishal’s movement, which is close to the Gulf camp
- The Syrian regime no longer makes its own decision, as there has become a significant influence by Hezbollah, Iran and Russia on Syria’s decision-making.
- It seems that Russia is seeking to consolidate its role as an influential international player, and in light of what is described as “the defeat of the Russian army in Ukraine” due to US support, Moscow is seeking to strengthen ties with countries and organizations hostile to the United States.
- Russia’s failure to push influential Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to fully normalize with the Syrian regime, and to exclude Damascus from participating in the Algiers summit, may have pushed Moscow to other options that may be practically useless, such as reconciliation with Hamas and the regime.
- Restoring relations between Hamas and Damascus came after mediation, or rather pressure, from Iran and its arm Hezbollah, given the great support provided by Tehran to both parties.
- Researchers in political Islam warn against the movement’s dissolution in Iran’s ideology, amid talks of some members of the movement actually adopting the Shiite sect, as is happening today with several Syrian militias that were receiving support from Iran and ended up calling for revenge for Hussein!
- In the event that relations between the Syrian regime and Hamas return to their previous status, it is likely that the division will intensify within the Palestinian arena, given that Hamas is part of an Iranian alliance, and the Palestinian Authority and Fatah movement (led by President Mahmoud Abbas) are within the opposite coalition (Saudi Arabia).
- It is expected that the move will negatively affect the movement’s popular support in the Gaza Strip, in addition to losing its Palestinians supporters in Syria, especially after what they have been subjected to during the past years of killing, displacement and arrest at the hands of the Damascus government. This was seen immediately after Hamas issued its statement, as a number of its members and leaders repudiated the move, such as Issa al-Jabari – Minister of Local Government in the tenth government formed by Hamas after its victory in the Legislative Council elections in 2006 – where he said, “I am repudiating Hamas’ decision, regarding restoring its relationship with the criminal Syrian regime.”
- It is unlikely that Hamas will obtain from the Assad regime the privileges it obtained previously such as military training and logistical or other support, whether due to the regime’s inability to do so, or its unwillingness to do so in light of losing confidence in the movement.
- There is a problem related to Syria’s constant exposure to Israeli attacks. Accordingly, Damascus is no longer safe for Hamas offices and leaders, as it was before 2011. Rather, those offices and their leaders will be subject to Israeli strikes. The movement’s members may also expose themselves to arrest by the same regime, amid talk of new laws preventing Palestinians from entering Syria without the approval of “Intelligence Branch 235” known as “Palestine Branch” in the capital, Damascus.
- There is a problem with Hamas’ affiliation with the MB in thought and Belief, and that the organization is theoretically hostile to the Assad regime.
The normalization of Hamas with the regime of Bashar al-Assad is an embodiment of what is called “political realism.” With this step, the movement meets the demands of the Iranian financier, and identifies with the harbingers of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the chilling it caused in Russian-Israeli relations. But on the other hand, Syria 2022 is different from Syria before 2011 on all levels; Whether political, where it is isolated and shunned from its surroundings, or economic, where about 90% of Syrians live below the poverty line, or even security, where Israeli planes hardly leave the country’s airspace.
Based on the data that we presented above, it can be said that the movement’s orientation towards the Syrian regime at this time and in this way, even if it is due to the isolation that the movement suffers from, reflects the shortcoming and naivety of the movement’s strategic decision-making mechanisms, and will also cause more Palestinian division in general, and fragmentation within the movement itself.