Photo Credit: Majdi Fathi/TPS
Mahmoud al-Zahar, co-founder of Hamas and a member of the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, delivers a statement against the reestablishing of the diplomatic relations between Israel and Morocco. Gaza, Dec 13, 2020.

A series of events and developments, accompanied by reports in the Arab and in particular the Lebanese media, indicate Hamas’s intention to renew relations with the Syrian regime in Damascus after 10 years of severed ties.

Various sources indicate that the current Hamas leadership, and especially members of the military wing, are working to renew relations with Syria, as it is a matter of strategic importance to them.

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The military wing of Hamas believes that Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran are the most important logistical home front.

This is also true following Operation Guardian of the Walls and its implications for Hamas’s military wing, and now there is growing concern with Hamas, that the stated US policy of strengthening the Palestinian Authority and efforts to channel reconstruction funds directly into the Gaza Strip will hurt the Hamas military, whose leaders are pushing the Hamas leadership to turn towards Damascus.

Sources in Lebanon claim that there is fear that Arab countries, hinting at Qatar, may not continue to provide economic assistance to Hamas due to concerns over potential lawsuits for terrorist financing offenses, and that is pushing Hamas to turn to the Shiite axis.

It seems that Hamas’s achievements and the heavy damage it suffered from Israel in the last round of confrontation are also accelerating this trend within Hamas, a trend that began with the rise of the new leadership in Gaza in 2017.

Various sources indicate that Muhammad Def, a senior member of Hamas’ military wing, has been pushing in this direction since 2017 and for this reason senior Hamas figures have met with Hezbollah members and the Iranians over the past two years, asking them to reopen the “Damascus gates.”

Sources attribute to Def the decision to embark on a round of pointed confrontations with Israel and also the movement in favor of the position that supports the renewal of relations with Syria. Already four years ago, with the military wing of Hamas taking over the organization’s leadership and as the influence of the Gaza leadership over Hamas’s foreign leadership increased, efforts to renew relations with Syria intensified and at the end of 2017 Saleh al-Aruri, number two in Hamas, was sent to Tehran to open contacts for the renewal of the relationship.

Iranian mediation and Hezbollah involvement

Iran, according to various reports, is working to bridge the conflict that erupted between Hamas and Syria when Hamas expressed views in favor of the rebels at the start of the Syrian civil war.

The political leadership of Hamas, according to various sources, has a position that claims that any appeal to the Iranian-Syrian axis will harm Hamas’ status and relations with the Arab states and especially with neighboring Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which disapprove of Hamas’s accession to the Shiite Iranian axis.

Within Hamas, the Sunni organization, there is an internal controversy following the current turn to the Shiite axis, but both Iran and Hamas argue that disputes over ideological and religious backgrounds should be pushed aside and the common denominator should be focused on strengthening the resistance to Israel. The enemy of my enemy is my ally.

Developments

But sources in Hamas and Lebanon claim that despite all this, it is clear to the Hamas leadership that it has no capacity for existence but “between the Dahiya in Beirut and Damascus and Tehran” and this is also supported by a number of developments in recent months.

In a discussion held by Hamas’ new Shura Council, 75% of those present recently voted in favor of returning to the Syrian axis, and there is widespread agreement in Hamas’ political bureau.

Even Khaled Mashaal, who is considered to be opposed to returning to the Syrian axis, has folded and now demonstrates “pragmatic positions” on the matter.

Recently, one of the senior members of the Popular Front for the Liberation if Palestine (PFLP) organization who is in Damascus also stated that the mediation efforts of several Palestinian factions led to an exchange of blessings between Bashar al-Assad and Hamas, with the start of Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Another statement is attributed to Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, as saying that “the efforts are successful and we are on the road to restoring relations between Hamas and the Syrians.”

Ibrahim Amin, the editor of the Al-Akhbar newspaper close to Hezbollah, was recently interviewed on this issue and expressed appreciation that the resumption of relations between Hamas and Syria is inevitable.

Hamas is trying to open doors in Damascus also through Russia and for this reason, its senior delegation went to Russia in July 2019, for a visit designed, among other things, to examine the possibility of renewal of relations.

The debate in Hamas

Sources in Hamas point to the advantage of joining the Shiite alliance with Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, which will strengthen Hamas’ military capabilities.

Sources with a senior position in Hamas reiterate that the trend of normalization in relations between Israel and Arab countries, especially in the Gulf, is sufficient to indicate the need to renew relations with Syria and the sponsorship under the Iranian umbrella.

Mahmoud a-Zahar is leading the efforts to renew relations with Syria and recently said that “resistance is a top priority for Hamas and all means serve the purpose. After all, it was Assad who opened the whole world to Hamas, and Hamas used to roam the streets of Damascus just as it roams the streets of Palestine.”

A year and a half ago, a-Zahar, a senior Hamas figure who is considered the biggest supporter of the Iranian line, said that efforts were being made to renew relations and that Hamas should have relations with Syria, as with any country that considers Israel its enemy.

Supporters of the Syrian option are demanding alliances to break out of the severe political isolation from which Hamas suffers and especially to prepare an Arab strategic home front, also in light of the assessment that Lebanon is expected to undergo upheavals that will affect Hamas’ presence there.

On the other hand, other factors in the organization say that this could undermine Hamas’ political power and create hostility in moderate Sunni states. It seems that in this debate, the hawkish wing of Hamas is growing, also in light of American policy toward the Palestinians and support for Arab states and normalization with Israel.

Sources in Hamas oppose al-Zahar’s position, as proximity between Hamas and Syria could take a heavy toll on Hamas’ relations with moderate Sunni Arab states and the Arab street because Syria is an ally of the Shiite Iranians.

Opponents of renewed relations argue that Syria is in crisis after the civil war and is not expected to support Hamas financially, and US sanctions on Iran also reduce such a possibility.

Official Syria is silent

One of the means of pressure held by the Syrian regime against Hamas is the situation of Palestinian refugees in camps in Syria and Lebanon. Hamas officials believe that future changes in Lebanon could harm Palestinian refugees and therefore an option and shelter should be prepared for them in Syria.

Officially Syria refuses, for the time being, any contact with Hamas and regime officials stress that when Hamas was required to make a decision on the Syrian issue it failed to maintain neutrality. Spokesmen for Hamas explain that on the other hand, Hamas did not take any position in the context of the Syrian civil war, did not go against any of the communities or sects, and did not intervene in internal affairs. Media outlets loyal to the Syrian regime emphasize that “although Hamas has a green light on the Iranian side, the red light is still on from the Syrian side” in all that is said about renewed relations.

Assad’s regime is not sympathetic, to say the least, to the Muslim Brotherhood and shows disgust with Hamas: the Syrian media called Masha’al a “homeless nomad, an orphan seeking refuge.” The Syrian media quotes serious remarks made by Assad condemning the “Brothers.” Syria did not support Hamas because it was part of the Brothers movement but because it was a resistance movement and the Brothers will never remain Brothers and will be opportunity-seeking terrorists.

The official media in Syria also condemns Hamas and recently things have been published against Hamas that has Brothers’ blood flowing in its veins and that outweighs being a resistance movement, in the eyes of Syria and is treading a path designed to please even Israel.

In the recent past, the Syrian media published information about Hamas’s armed activity in the al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, through the Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis organization, which was under the command of Muhammad Zuamut, who is considered a senior Hamas figure and was formerly Mashaal’s aide. In Syria, they claimed that the terrorist organization was established by Hamas as a means of protecting Palestinian refugees after a series of massacres in the refugee camp. The Syrian media notes that Hamas directly assisted in establishing the organization while transferring knowledge in the field of rockets, fortifications and even assisted in digging tunnels.

Hamas’s Syrian relations in the past have been very strong. Ahmad Yassin visited Syria in 1998 and was received by Hafez al-Assad, who recognized Hamas as a resistance movement. Following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Hamas has stated that it is based on the principles that respect the desires of the Arab peoples and has thus taken a stand against the Syrian regime.

The rift between Hamas and Syria became clear when in 2012 when Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh hoisted the flag of the Syrian revolution, in the heart of Gaza, declaring severance of relations with the regime. Following this, Syrian security forces broke into Hamas offices in Damascus and confiscated documents and computers and the leadership had to leave Syria.

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Baruch reports on Arab affairs for TPS.