Controversial Hamas-Syria normalisation reveals ‘internal divide’ within movement: expert

The latest development comes as various Arab states warm towards the Syrian regime, namely Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. 

Hamas’ decision to restore ties with the Syrian regime may have revealed a split inside the movement itself, analysts told Doha News on Thursday, just a day after leaders met with Bashar Al Assad in Damascus.

“The decision by Hamas to restore relations with the regime in Syria was not an easy one. It seemed at one stage that it was likely to split the movement,” Dr. Azzam Tamimi, British-Palestinian academic told Doha News on Thursday.

On Wednesday, Hamas announced a controversial meeting in Damascus with Assad, the first such move since stepping out of Damascus in 2012.

At the time, the movement publicly and vocally stood against Assad’s violent crackdown on peaceful protesters taking part in Arab Spring demonstrations to call for democracy.

However, the movement’s apparent U-turn this week has triggered outrage worldwide, with Dr. Tamimi noting Hamas’ decision “is seen by many adherent[s] of the Islamic cause as a major setback.”

“Many Hamas members and Hamas supporters are dismayed and feel betrayed. I personally believe that we are in an entirely new era in which the Hamas leadership is more pragmatic and less principled,” Dr. Tamimi suggested.

“While almost the entire Diaspora Hamas objected to the move, the representatives of the Gaza and West Bank constituencies were overwhelmingly in favour,” said Dr. Tamimi.

The latest development comes as various Arab states warm towards the Syrian regime, namely Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. 

With world leaders from the regional bloc scheduled to meet in Algeria next month, Algiers has been increasing its efforts to push for the reinstatement of the Syrian regime’s membership.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has also joined Algeria in working to bring back Assad to the bloc’s table. In 2019, Abbas called for the return of Damascus to the Arab League, though this did not come as a surprise given that he maintained ties with Syria.

While earlier reports quoted the Hamas official as saying countries like Qatar had no reservations over its latest decision to normalise, Al-Hayya later clarified the move was completely “independent”.

“What we meant is that despite our good relationship with the State of Qatar, they differ with us on some positions, and this is normal. It is a sovereign right, and they respect our decisions as we respect their positions,” said Al-Hayya on Thursday, as quoted by Al Araby Al Jadeed.

Qatar has maintained its unwavering stance towards the Syrian conflict, continuously expressing its refusal to normalise with the Syrian regime as well as standing against its return to the Arab League. 

Since the height of the Arab Spring protests a decade ago, Qatar has repeatedly and openly called on Assad to step down and was the first Arab country to close its embassy in the war-torn country.

Possible motives

Looking into the possible reasoning behind Hamas’ latest decision, Dr. Tamimi said the divide in the movement has been a contributing factor – pointing towards the Gaza leadership’s close ties with Iran.

Iran has been a key supporter of Assad throughout the decades-long crisis, with various meetings taking place between Syrian and Iranian officials.

“The relations with Iran are not new but they grew stronger as an increasing number of Arab regimes turned against Hamas in the post-Arab Spring era,” said Dr. Tamimi.

The academic added that “the failure of the Arab spring led to the revival of talk of the existence of two axes in the region”. Explaining one part of the axis, Dr. Tamimi said that it comprises of the “resistance” that has been supported by both Iran and Syria.

“This axis traditionally included Hezbollah of Lebanon and a number of Palestinian factions including Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” said Dr. Tamimi.

As for the other axis, the analyst said that it turned from being ‘the axis of moderation’ to ‘the normalisation axis’.

“This is led by Saudi Arabia but includes the UAE and other Arab countries that signed treaties or peace deals with Israel such as Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan,” he said, adding that Hamas lost Khartoum as “a strategic ally”.

“Iran does not do good for the sake of God. It expects a lot in exchange. In the past it was content with being perceived as a supporter of the Palestinian cause and the struggle against Israel,” he noted.

A senior Hamas source told AFP on Wednesday that the restoration of ties with the Assad regime was brokered by Tehran as well as the Lebanese Hizbollah. 

Looking into Iran’s possible influence in the decision, Dr. Tamimi said that Tehran now expects more in return.

“It was Iran, to the best of my knowledge, that leveraged both Hamas and Syria to mend relations. Initially, Assad did not want Hamas back but the Iranians pressed him,” he said.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) said that at least 1,271 civilians, including 229 children, and 104 victims of torture were killed in Syria in 2021 alone.

The UN Human Rights Office estimates more than 306,000 civilians were killed over 10 years in the Syria conflict. According to the UN, there are 5,724,230 Syrian refugees as of 31 March.

To date, the Assad regime has not been held accountable for its crimes despite evidence and investigations pointing to its torture and killing of civilians.

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