North Africa, West Asia

Hamas’ response to the Syrian uprising

Are we now witnessing a third phase in Hamas’s response towards the Syrian Uprising?

Nasrin Akhter
18 January 2014

In an interview with the pro-Syrian Al Mayadeen channel based in Beirut, the Hamas deputy chief, Mousa Abu Marzouk was said to have asserted in October 2013 that Khaled Meshaal was ‘wrong’ to have raised the flag of the Syrian revolution on his historic return to Gaza at the end of last year.

While on the face of it, Marzouk’s comment may not in itself hold much significance, referring only to the literal act of raising the flag, an inadvertent error made during an exuberant rally in which a number of other flags were also raised, subsequent remarks by Marzouk during the course of the interview describing the Syrian state as the ‘beating heart of the Palestinian cause’ and acknowledging the previous ‘favours’ shown the movement by the Syrian regime, may be more indicative of a shift in Hamas’s position of open opposition towards the Assad regime. Are we now witnessing a third phase in Hamas’s response towards the Syrian Uprising?

In the first stage of its response, a period lasting from the outbreak of hostilities in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011 until December 2011, Hamas’s position appeared to be one of constructive ambiguity, publicly refraining from condemning Syrian authorities, but studiously avoiding anything which could have been interpreted as an open act of support for the Syrian regime.

Such a position clearly stemmed from Hamas’s own vulnerabilities, acting with caution for fear of exacting reprisals against the movement still operating out of Damascus. Thus, in a carefully calibrated statement issued in April 2011, Hamas declared that what was happening in Syria was strictly an ‘internal affair’ and that Hamas does not interfere in the internal affairs of any Arab state, all the while resisting Syrian pressure to organize a public demonstration in support of the Assad regime in any of the Palestinian refugee camps throughout the country, and failing to disavow statements by the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, condemning the atrocities of the Syrian regime, despite statements made to the contrary in the Syrian press, in an effort to uphold the movement’s own resistance credentials.

By January 2012 however, with all attempts by Meshaal to mediate between the Syrian regime and the opposition rebuffed by Assad, Hamas’s policy of equidistance gave way to one of open alignment with opposition forces in a period that marked the second phase in the movement’s response to the Syrian crisis. Manifest in the relocation of Hamas’s political bureau, with Khaled Meshaal operating at a safe distance in Qatar, and Mousa Abu Marzouk based in Cairo, this paved the way for a decisive break with Damascus in a declaration issued by the Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh at an impromptu speech at al-Azhar in February 2012 praising the Syrian resistance and ‘salut(ing) the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform.’

No doubt important in this decision was the sustained campaign of pressure by the regime to force the movement’s hand, culminating in a fractious 4-hour meeting between Meshaal and Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, in January precipitating the final decision to leave. Equally important though was the success of Muslim Brotherhood parties elsewhere in the Arab world, brought to power by the events of the Arab Uprising in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco that formed an alternative to the Syrian alliance. Emboldened by this regional reconfiguration that saw Qatari pledges of aid worth some $400 million to the besieged authority in Gaza, by May 2013 Hamas appeared to have stepped up its support for the Syrian resistance, going beyond a mere rhetorical level, with reports of the transfer of technology and know-how to FSA fighters in the decisive battle for Qusair.

In this regard then, the recent statement by Mousa Abu Marzouk in praise of the regime’s resistance record appears to indicate a marked shift in Hamas’s earlier stance. Coming as it did in the wake of a reconciliation agreement with Hezbollah in July 2013 at a meeting hosted at the residence of the Iranian ambassador to Beirut, the first visit by a Hamas representative there in some two years, Hamas appears to be reaching out to its erstwhile resistance allies. Prompted by the overthrow in July of the Morsi government in Egypt, in which so much optimism had been invested, and with the realization that the so-called ‘moderate’ Arab camp proved no substitute for previous Syrian strategic support, a stark reality brought home by Hamas’s isolation in the face of the Israeli onslaught in Gaza in November 2012, Hamas arguably has few available options.

Whether this will bring about a complete return by Hamas to the Syrian fold though remains to be seen, dependent on a number of factors, not least of all in the response of the Syrian regime itself. Thus, while Hezbollah and Iran have welcomed the rebuilding of relations with Hamas, seeing in the movement important Sunni and Arab cover against a regional backlash in an increasingly sectarian conflict, for the short term at least, any full Syrian-Hamas rapprochement is likely to be impeded by the personal animosity of Assad towards Khaled Meshaal. Still reeling at Meshaal’s earlier refusal to relinquish to Syrian demands, Bashar launched a wave of invective against Hamas in October 2013, citing the movement’s history as one of ‘treachery’ and ‘betrayal’ in a pattern of relations that recalled earlier tensions between Hafiz al-Assad and the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat.  

No less important for Hamas though in preventing the re-establishment of closer ties with Syria in a renewed alliance is the concern of the movement’s own domestic constituency. While the regime continues to enjoy the support of its traditional Palestinian proxies in the form of the PFLP-GC and Saiqa, it is important not to underestimate the opposition of the Palestinian population at large towards the actions of the Syrian state. 

With the naval bombardment of the Palestinian refugee camp at Al-Raml camp in August 2011, the displacement of some 6000 refugees from Ein El Taal alone, and an aerial attack and subsequent siege on Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, in an effort by the regime to flush out rebel forces in a policy of collective punishment that brought the Palestinian community there to the brink of starvation in October 2013, it is hard to see how Hamas can re-forge links with the regime without marginalizing its own political base.

For as long as the regime’s ‘scorched earth’ policy continues, the plight of Palestinians in Syria will undoubtedly attract the sympathies of those in Gaza, living under similar besieged circumstances, a sentiment that Hamas can ill-afford to ignore.

For the time being then, while there may be clear strategic and economic dividends to be made in re-establishing links with Hezbollah and Iran, given Hamas’s increasing regional isolation and Israeli aggressiveness, there seems to be limited utility in doing so with Syria. The total decimation of the Syrian state and economy worth an estimated $60-$80 billion, means that even if the Assad regime wanted to champion the Palestinian cause for reasons of its own domestic legitimacy, the priority of any Syrian government in years to come will be on its own domestic reconstruction rather than furthering Palestinian interests.

In this the third phase of Hamas’s response to the Syrian crisis, the movement will therefore in all likelihood return to its initial policy of neutrality, careful not to unduly criticize the Syrian state for fear of antagonizing Iran and Hezbollah, but avoiding too close an attachment to the regime to protect its own reputation – a delicate balancing act that Hamas has pursued not for the first time in the movement’s history.  

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