from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Hamas Breaks From Syria

February 29, 2012

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While the “Friends of Syria” were meeting in Tunis last week, Hamas was separately taking its own steps to disavow the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. In a significant move, Hamas officials announced last Friday—in Egypt as well as in Gaza—its break with the Assad regime. Hamas’ strategic realignment affects the Middle East chessboard, both regionally and within Palestinian politics.

Hamas’ abandonment of its long-time Alawite backers further deepens the Middle East fault line between the Sunni and Shiite worlds. Hamas has now aligned itself with its Sunni brethren already united against the Assad regime. Syria’s Middle East backers are now down to Shiite Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and Iran. Iranian officials are upset with Hamas, and it is not clear if Tehran will continue to supply Hamas with money and weapons. Iran’s leaders could not have helped notice that worshipers in Egypt, where the break was announced, responded by chanting, “No Hezbollah and no Iran. The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”

Indeed, the symbolism and locale of Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh’s announcement of the break—before a crowd of thousands at Cairo’s al-Azhar Mosque—is noteworthy. Hamas, originally an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has now even closer aligned itself with these ideological soulmates, who now hold the largest number of seats in the parliament in Cairo. Indeed, one byproduct of the Egyptian revolution and the subsequent elections has been to swing greater Egyptian support over the Palestine question toward Hamas and away from Mahmoud Abbas and his PLO, which had enjoyed strong support and patronage from former president Hosni Mubarak.

Hamas has now aligned itself fully with the sentiments of the region’s Arab uprisings. Here, Haniyeh’s comments were revealing: “I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy, and reform.” In contrast, PLO and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has largely been silent about the Arab uprisings in general, and the situation in Syria in particular. The loss of Mubarak—Abbas’s patron in negotiations with Israel—was a blow for the Palestinian leader, as Egypt no longer exerts the kind of heavy pressure on Hamas as it did under Mubarak to accede to Abbas and his Fatah party.

The small Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) remains the only Sunni organization still supportive of Syria, with the possible exception of a few largely ossified Palestinian splinter groups. Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shalah has pledged to retain PIJ headquarters in Damascus. One side effect of this will be the exacerbation of tensions in Gaza between the ruling Hamas and the even more militant PIJ, which has used violence against Israel as a way to challenge Hamas’ primacy. Israel regularly retaliates militarily against Hamas facilities for Islamic Jihad rocket and mortar strikes into Israel, arguing that Hamas claims to rule the Gaza strip and is therefore responsible. This generally helps incentivize Hamas to take steps to keep PIJ quiet.

Hamas also faces other challenges. Having lost its external base in Syria, it has yet to find a new one. Only Qatar, so far, has been willing to offer itself up as a potential home for Hamas’ headquarters. Moreover, the past year’s regional changes have exacerbated internal rifts within Hamas over doctrinal as well as tactical issues. This has been most apparent in the differing attitudes adopted within Hamas towards the unity deal signed last month between Hamas external leader Khaled Meshal and Mahmoud Abbas in Doha.

Hamas’ break with Syria has not been accompanied by a fundamental ideological shift. While some within Hamas hint at a move towards “popular struggle,” that tactical shift has not been universally accepted and remains highly contentious. For now at least, the organization remains committed to Israel’s destruction by means of armed resistance. Moreover, and at a deeper level, Hamas believes that long regional trends are breaking their way. Islamist parties have gained power in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Many believe Hamas’ ideological soulmates, the Muslim Brotherhood, will emerge strengthened if not empowered, in Syria. Many in Hamas will argue that they need not change, since it is the Middle East that is changing more to their liking. In the immediate period ahead at least, they well may be right.

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