By Giorgio Cafiero
“I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform.” Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya issued this declaration before a crowd at the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo on February 24, 2012.
In 2011, Hamas withdrew its political headquarters from Syria and declined Bashar Al-Assad’s request to stage rallies in support of the Syrian regime at Palestinian refugee camps in Syria. Haniya’s statement simply confirmed that Hamas had officially broken ties with its longtime state sponsor in Damascus. The Arab Awakening ended the alliance that Hamas had formed with the Assad regime in the aftermath of the Palestinian group’s expulsion from Jordan in 1999.
The Syrian uprising placed Hamas in between a rock and a hard place. Even as Hamas sought to remain loyal to a regime that had provided economic aid and weapons during times of isolation, the group could not maintain an alliance with a regime that was brutally oppressing a Sunni-led opposition movement. Hamas’ final calculation that severing ties with Assad would best further its long-term objectives was driven by an assessment of the Syrian crisis, particularly with respect to Palestinian refugees in Syria and Palestinian public opinion. However, the rising wave of democratic and moderate Sunni Islamism throughout the region was perhaps Hamas’ greatest incentive to break ties with Syria and pursue alliances with Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar.
Hamas is betting that new geopolitical realities in the region may offer it an opportunity to escape isolation, gain recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians in Gaza, spread its ideology, and cultivate ties with neighbors. Nonetheless, by breaking ties with Assad and cultivating ties with Tehran’s strategic competitors, Hamas is jeopardizing its relations with Iran as well.
Evolving Approach to Syria
From March until December 2011, Hamas attempted to maintain a relatively neutral stance on the Syrian crisis. The organization even attempted to mediate negotiations between the regime and the opposition. However, such efforts proved futile. The opposition leaders Hamas intended to meet were incarcerated, and Damascus rejected the initiative several days after it was proposed. According to the Washington Post, “Hamas officials still seemed eager to depict themselves as straddling two sides, insisting that their policy was neutral and in favor of the Syrian people, not against Assad.” Hamas’ website explicitly stated: “we hope the current circumstances are overcome in a way that fulfils the hopes and aspirations of the Syrian people and preserves Syria’s stability and internal cohesion.”
A painful lesson from the first Gulf War influenced Hamas’ initial reaction to the situation in Syria. When PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat supported Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Palestinian refugees in Kuwait suffered from their leader’s alliance with Baghdad. Two decades later, Hamas did not want the half-million Palestinian refugees in Syria to face the wrath of a regime that could target them for being associated with a disloyal benefactor.
However, as the Syrian death toll mounted, Assad became a liability for Hamas. As polls among Palestinians—and in the Arab world at large—indicated that support for Assad was plummeting, Hamas determined that it could not afford to be on the wrong side of history.
By December 2011, after months of divesting its assets from Syria, Hamas removed its staff from Damascus. This decision was driven, in no insignificant manner, by pressure from Ankara and Doha. One Hamas official who departed Damascus stated, “Qatar and Turkey urged us to leave Syria immediately. … They said ‘Have you no shame? It’s enough. You have to get out.'” The mixed emotions surrounding this departure were summarized by another Hamas official: “We have to go. But you have to understand that we have a sense of gratitude to this regime. They did a lot for us. And there are a lot of intimate relations, on a personal level. Politically, however, there is no reason to stay.”
Unlike Hezbollah, which fears the rise of Syrian Sunni Islamists, the prospects of Syria becoming an Islamist state with a conservative Sunni identity do not alarm Hamas. And the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful faction within the Syrian National Council, has traditionally supported Hamas. If the Ba’athist order collapses and the Syrian Brotherhood takes power in Damascus, Hamas (itself an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) has reason to expect a flourishing relationship with post-Assad Syria.
Hamas is building relationships with other Sunni Islamist actors throughout the Middle East, the most prominent being Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led civilian government. Although Cairo’s relationship with Hamas will be compromised by certain Egyptian national interests—including maintaining security in the Sinai, preserving relations with the United States and EU, and avoiding a military confrontation with Israel—Egyptian-Hamas ties have unquestionably turned a new page since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. With the Egyptian government agreeing to host Hamas’ political headquarters and taking steps to ease travel restrictions between Sinai and Gaza, Haniya’s optimism about the future of Egyptian-Hamas relations is well grounded. Moreover, Cairo’s role in the Hamas-Israel prisoner exchange deal of October 2011 indicates that Egypt’s leverage can potentially reduce Hamas’ international isolation.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshal joined Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi at the ruling Turkish party’s congress in Ankara on September 30, 2012. According to Turkish media, Meshal was the “most applauded foreign guest” in a conventional hall where the audience chanted “Damn Israel.” When Haniya visited Turkey in January 2012, he expressed gratitude to Prime Minister Recep Erdogan “for Turkey’s continuing support for the lifting of the Israeli embargo on Gaza.” During that same trip, an AKP official, Omer Celik, stated that “[i]f Israel is sincere about the peace process it should quit declaring organizations like Hamas that support the peace process illegal, and stop building settlements.” Beyond warm rhetoric, Turkey invested $40 million in a hospital at Hamas’ Islamic University in Gaza, where Turkish is now part of the curriculum.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani visited Gaza on October 23, 2012—marking the first visit of an Arab head of state since the imposition of Israel’s blockade on Gaza—to inaugurate Qatar’s $400-million investment in infrastructure in Gaza. Tony Karon, a senior editor for TIME, interpreted the Emir’s visit as interconnected with Qatari interests in Syria, where his regime has played an aggressive role in militarizing the opposition. “Qatar’s mission, in part, has been to woo Hamas back into the Arab fold and wean it off support from Tehran — the Emir’s Gaza visit was widely interpreted as in part a reward for Hamas breaking ties with the Assad regime,” Karon wrote. Regardless of Qatar’s motives in Gaza, its support for Muslim Brotherhood factions from Syria to Tunisia is consistent with its support for the form of democratic Sunni Islamism that Hamas embodies. Furthermore, Qatar’s efforts to mediate past Fatah-Hamas disputes indicate Doha’s recognition of Hamas as a legitimate political entity.
The Gamble over Iran
Hamas and Iran’s opposing stakes in Syria have created tension between the two. In August 2011, Iran cut aid to Hamas by (USD) $300 million when it refused to defend Assad. Additionally, Hamas declared that it would not provide military support for the Islamic Republic in any Israeli-Iranian war. Whether this tension is temporary or will precipitate a divorce remains an open question.
Although both Hamas and Iran have deep interests in the Syrian crisis, the two have much to walk away from. For many years, Hamas has received more funding, weapons, and training from Tehran than any other capital. According to Ezzat al-Rashq, a Hamas political bureau member, Hamas would not be capable of paying its 45,000 staff members without Tehran’s financial support. Likewise, Hamas has provided the Islamic Republic a degree of leverage over Israel and prestige on the Arab Street as a defender of the Palestinian cause when most Arab governments have become non-confrontational actors in the Arab-Israel conflict.
Nevertheless, Hamas is gambling. Iran’s capacity to play spoiler could undermine Hamas’ power in Gaza. Tehran could deepen its ties with Hamas’ rivals (Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, etc.), who have posed challenges for Hamas when it has sought to enforce ceasefires brokered with Israel. If at Iran’s urging, such groups in Gaza fire missiles at Israel, Hamas’ capacity to rule Gaza would certainly be undermined. Furthermore, if such attacks elicit an Israeli response, Hamas’ role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could grow complicated as it attempts to serve as a resistance organization while gaining international legitimacy by enforcing ceasefires.
International Implications for Hamas
Syria has become the center of a Middle Eastern Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Hamas’ leaders eventually accepted the reality that they could not please all the regional actors—nor embrace a position of neutrality—as the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus fights for its survival against armed rebels funded by the Gulf sheikdoms and Turkey. Hamas’ decision to sever ties with Damascus and support the Syrian opposition was a major strategic setback for Iran and a major victory for Assad’s regional enemies.
Despite the national interests advanced by various states vis-à-vis Hamas, the Palestinian organization is unquestionably pursuing its own agenda as the Arab Awakening unfolds. Hamas’ leaders have no doubt taken note of the success of moderate and democratic Islamist parties throughout the region. As the democratically elected political party that survived a failed U.S.-sponsored coup attempt in 2007, the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, and the Israeli war against Gaza in 2008-2009, it appears that various Arab states have begun to accept that Hamas is not on the verge of disappearance, despite the dreams of Washington and Tel Aviv.
Nonetheless, as the tension in Gaza escalates each day after the Israeli Air Force assassinated Ahmed al-Jabari—Hamas military commander who negotiated the cease-fire that held for the majority of the last year—the prospects for a greater Middle East war are growing. Unfortunately, it appears probable that Israel’s ongoing military strikes against Gaza are only shoring up Netanyahu’s right-wing base before the election next January.
However, the interests of Netanyahu’s political future and the long-term security of Israel do not always coincide. It would be in Israel’s interest to elect a leader who can accept the reality of Hamas’ growing international support and reject military force as a means of addressing it.
Giorgio Cafiero is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.