By Jim Kouri
When a radical Islamic terrorist group evacuates an Arab country, that’s a sign of a dangerous situation even the most bloodthirsty killers fear. According to sources in Israel, the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas began evacuating its Syrian external headquarters this week.
According to the Meir Amit Center, by Thursday most of the Hamas operatives had already left Syria. While hundreds of Hamas members were stationed in Damascus, their headquarters is now staffed by a only few dozen men.
“Evacuating Hamas’ external headquarters from Damascus 13 years after it was moved there from Jordan, is, in our assessment, a watershed event in the history of the Hamas movement and liable to have repercussions in the internal Palestinian arena and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Initially, it is a result of the worsening situation of Bashar Assad’s regime and regional fluctuations in general. In our assessment, the recent dramatic developments in Syria make it necessary for the Syrian-sponsored terrorist organizations, among them Hamas and Hezbollah, to reexamine their relations with Bashar Assad’s regime after years of activity under a Syrian-Iranian aegis,” officials at Meir Amit stated.
Hamas’ evacuation was accelerated after the Arab League announced the imposition of sanctions on Syria. According to Meir Amit, although Hamas owes Syria a great deal, it does not want to find itself on “the wrong side of pan-Arab public opinion.”
The Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat reported that most of the Hamas activists from the Gaza Strip had returned to the Gaza Strip, while others had left for Turkey, Lebanon and Qatar.
According to that report, all the military operatives had left Syria and only a handful of political leaders were left (Al-Hayat, December 6, 2011). A “senior Hamas security official,” who relocated from Damascus to the Gaza Strip, told a Wall Street Journal correspondent that during the last few months Hamas had divested itself of its Syrian assets, including business investments, real estate and bank deposits (Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2011).
Officials at Meir Amit are unclear as to which country (or countries) Hamas will relocate its headquarters after leaving Damascus. According to the media, Hamas is currently examining options such as Egypt, Qatar, Sudan and Jordan. The visits of Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau, to Egypt and Sudan, and his planned visit to Jordan, might be related. Also, according to a previous Law Enforcement Examiner news story, officials from the powerful Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood visited Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip.
Behind Hamas’ evacuation from Syria are the movement leadership’s increasing embarrassment and confusion regarding Damascus. In recent months Hamas has found itself between a rock and a hard place, having to balance the movement’s interests, its ideological identity and worsening external pressure: On the one hand, Hamas is part of the “resistance axis” (i.e., countries and organizations which support terrorism) and is in need of Syrian and Iranian support.
The leadership, headed by Khaled Mashaal, has operated in Damascus since 1998-1999 with the permission and oversight of the Syrian regime. The headquarters in Damascus direct Hamas’ activities in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere, and it receives extensive, diverse military support from Syria and Iran, according to Meir Amit analysts.
On the other hand, as Bashar Assad’s regime has weakened, especially in recent months, it has become increasingly difficult for Hamas to continue operating in Damascus and being affiliated with the Syrian regime. That is particularly true in view of Assad’s growing isolation in the Arab world, and his strong suppression of the popular protests.
Moreover, the protesters have publicly supported the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent movement, and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, the source of its religious-ideological authority.
Special thanks to Law Enforcement Examiner’s Israeli source, former New Orleans police sergeant and terrorism expert Jeffrey Hochman.