The outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011 put Hamas in a difficult position. Linked ideologically to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but having been sponsored by the Damascus regime since the 1990s, the Palestinian group ultimately made the decision to back the Brotherhood and cut ties with Damascus in 2012. In the process, Hamas damaged its relations with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. It moved closer to Egypt’s then-Muslim Brotherhood-led government, Qatar, and Turkey, which all supported Sunni rebels fighting to topple the Tehran-backed regime in Damascus.
Yet having mended their ties with Hamas in 2017 and 2018, Iranian officials and Lebanese Hezbollah have spent the past year and a half attempting to bring the Palestinian group and Syria back together. They want to restore the “axis of resistance” that included Gaza until the Syrian split. Last year, there were signs that such efforts may soon pay off.
In December, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, Ali Barakeh, reacted to Israel’s December 26 bombing of Syria by declaring that it amounted to “an attack on Palestine.” Several days earlier, another high-ranking Hamas official said that he hoped Syria would be able to “overcome its ordeal, recover, and flourish.” One of Hamas’ main proponents of reconciliation with Damascus is Mahmoud al-Zahar, who has met with Iranian officials and Hezbollah members for talks on Syria’s conflict with a possible Damascus-Hamas rapprochement likely discussed.
Last year, al-Zahar stated: “Hamas and Syria do not have to reach a point of pointing fingers and exchanging accusations about what happened in the past . . . . What we need today from both sides is coordination and cooperation to liberate their occupied territories from Israel. Hamas wants Syria to recover without interfering in its internal affairs and the movement’s position on the Syrian crisis is justified.”
Looking ahead, the odds are good that Hamas will pursue its interests in restoring relations with Syria’s regime. Out of all the factors driving the Palestinian group toward Damascus, the most significant seems to be Hamas’ desire for the military support from Syria that it once received. Additionally, Tehran and Lebanese Hezbollah view the prospects for a Hamas-Syria rapprochement as beneficial for their interests. This is mainly due to operational factors that would strengthen Iran and its Lebanese proxy’s strategic postures vis-à-vis Israel, as well as the anti-Iranian Gulf states.
Nonetheless, there is a divide between Hamas and the al-Muhajireen Palace. Chiefly, the Syrian government has not been as open to reconciliation with Hamas as is the Palestinian group.
Nonetheless, there is a divide between Hamas and the al-Muhajireen Palace. Chiefly, the Syrian government has not been as open to reconciliation with Hamas as is the Palestinian group. Figures in the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are still angry with Hamas, which they accuse of having stabbed Damascus in the back by not supporting the regime during the civil war. Assad himself recently had harsh words for Hamas when he stated: “Palestinian resistance movements use the resistance to achieve political goals under the pretext of religion.”
As an outcome of the regime’s victories over Sunni rebel forces and the Islamic State, as well as scores of diplomatic gains across the Arab world with more regimes reopening their diplomatic missions in Damascus and gradually re-opening their economic relations, the leadership in Damascus is emboldened. From this position of strength, the Syrian government may impose conditions on Hamas for restoration of the Damascus-Hamas alliance to move forward. Such conditions could potentially include Hamas distancing itself from Ankara and Doha until or unless both the Turkish and Qatari governments restore their relations with Damascus.
Although over the past two years both Iran and Hezbollah have determined that reconciliation with Hamas serves their grander strategic interests in the region, it may take time before the Syrian regime reaches this same conclusion and agrees to restore its ties with Hamas. If the Damascus-Hamas alliance is brought back to life, Iran will have achieved a major objective in terms of healing the worst rift that the “axis of resistance” has experienced since 2011.
Even if Hamas returns to the Iranian-led bloc by mending its ties with Syria, Hamas will likely approach the “axis of resistance” more cautiously than it did before the Arab Spring.
Even if Hamas returns to the Iranian-led bloc by mending its ties with Syria, Hamas will likely approach the “axis of resistance” more cautiously than it did before the Arab Spring. Viewing excessive reliance on Iran as a weakness, Hamas is set to learn from its mistakes. These include failure to balance its regional relationships and the adverse impact of the Egyptian coup of 2013 that ended the pro-Hamas Muslim Brotherhood government’s hold on power in Cairo, and the Qatar crisis resulting in Doha decreasing (but not ending) its support for Hamas.
Regarding Qatar, last month Hamas declared its rejection of the third tranche of a Qatari grant to Gaza. This decision was due to Israel’s stalling of the transfer and extortion of Hamas by using the Qatari funds as a bargaining chip to pressure Hamas into stopping residents of Gaza from protesting according to the Palestinian group’s spokesman.
Within this context, the Palestinian group’s efforts to establish new ties, or strengthen existing ones, with the governments of Algeria, Egypt, Malaysia, and even the United Arab Emirates underscore Hamas’ interests in diversifying its partnerships to avoid seeming excessively pro-Iranian or too reliant on any government in particular. Hamas’ future relationship with Assad’s regime will be significant. However, Hamas will prioritize maintaining enough independence to allow it to navigate the Middle East’s geopolitical instability and ideologically-charged disputes.