Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Hamas and Normalization with Assad: Signs and Consequences

Hamas Normalization with Assad
The head of Hamas political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, speaks at the opening of the Zahr Al-Hanoun center for the woman and the Palestinian heritage at the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus on February 19, 2011. AFP PHOTO/LOUAI BESHARA

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

There have been news leaks since the start of the 2022 summer that suggest the Palestinian Hamas Movement has been attempting to reestablish contact with the Syrian government through mediation and active attempts by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Reuters claims that Hamas and the Syrian government have already met at a high level for this reason.

Hamas confirmed these leaks in September 2022 in a statement affirming its decision to “resume its relations with brotherly Syria” for the benefit of the nation and its just causes, with Palestine at its core. Thus, since confirming its intent to normalize ties with Damascus, Hamas has entered the phase of “building confidence in a greater and broader fashion” with the Syrian regime, according to the head of the Arab and Islamic Relations Office in the Movement Khalil al-Hayya.

Reasons for the rift in 2012

This development, taken in a practical context, marks a turning point in the Syrian regime’s ties with the Arab sphere, particularly with the wings and factions of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Arab countries and the accompanying implications and long-term consequences. The Syrian regime had hosted the centers and leaders of the Hamas Movement, which represents the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, up until the movement left Damascus in February 2012, about a year after the outbreak of the Syrian crisis.

The schism in the ties between Hamas and Damascus emerged after the movement accused the Assad regime of raiding the office and home of Khaled Meshaal, the head of its political bureau, and seizing its contents. At the time, the Syrian Foreign Ministry had warned Hamas against trying to draw Palestinian factions into the Syrian conflict, in a clear reference to the movement’s involvement in the security incidents that Syria was witnessing.

However, while these formal exchanges of accusations contributed to the severing of ties between Hamas and the Syrian regime, the rift was precipitated by the events of the Arab Spring, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood emerge as a regional player that reached a stature of power in Egypt and Tunisia.

In such circumstances it was natural for Hamas, which remained a Brotherhood organization by creed and affiliation, to side with the opposition to the Syrian regime, which in turn was facing the beginnings of the Arab Spring that erupted in the country in 2011. As was the case with the Hosni Mubarak and Zinedine Ben Ali administrations, it should be underlined that the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was a crucial component of the Syrian movement aiming to topple the government.

Hamas’ position toward the Syrian regime was thus an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood’s, making it the perfect counterpart for the Brotherhood’s regional allies Turkiye and Qatar. Consequently, Hamas sought to benefit from Turkiye’s and Qatar’s political, financial and logistical support, in line with the Brotherhood’s rapprochement with these two countries, as an alternative to the support provided previously by the Syrian regime.

Hamas’ return to Syria today is an indication of changes in the region’s political map, topped by the conformity of the Muslim Brotherhood’s wings in the region, as well as the Turkish and Qatari positions toward the Syrian regime, not to mention some shifts within the movement itself.

Fragmentation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region

These transformations reflect the disarray and decentralization of the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement with coordinated orientations in the region, due primarily to the series of shocks and failures it encountered. In Egypt, for example, elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power in 2013 following the June 30 demonstrations. Subsequently the new regime spent years working to uproot and defang the Muslim Brotherhood, costing the movement its usual popular strength. The arrest or exile of its main leaders further weakened the organization within Egypt.

Soon after, the Ennahda movement, the Brotherhood’s arm in Tunisia, was ousted from power in 2014 after it sought to manage the state’s affairs in the country through an alliance known as the Troika. Another setback for the Muslim Brotherhood came from Tunisia’s Ennahda movement, whose disorganization and eventual ouster from power gave the impression that the movement’s wings weren’t prepared—either organizationally or psychologically—to assume power in Arab nations.

On top of its failures at the Arab level and its inherent weakness, the Muslim Brotherhood then suffered the blow of the Syrian revolt. The Muslim Brotherhood had gambled heavily on the success of the Syrian revolution given its historical influence in conservative Syrian circles in the country’s north that could have buttressed it in the framework of democratic pursuits in the event the Syrian regime fell.

Simply put, after the fragmentation and disarray of the parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas was deprived over several stages of the organization’s support, which it had banked on at the start of the Arab Spring. In that sense, Hamas’ return to the orbit of the Syrian regime is simply the result of losing the Brotherhood’s safety net and in indication of the organization’s lack of cohesion.

And while it has been years since most of these shifts occurred, Hamas’ delay of this step until now is due to its expectations of significant changes in region, especially in terms of the positions of Turkiye and Qatar.

Turkish and Qatari pragmatism

Hamas’ position can be better understood by observing the practical steps Turkiye and Qatar took toward the Syrian regime and their shift in tone regarding the Syrian crisis. In the past, Hamas and other Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated movements have mostly counted Turkiye and Qatar among their backers. In reality, upon exiting Damascus in 2012, Hamas was eager to move some of its centers to Ankara and Doha.

Currently, however, after 11 years of uncompromising stances that opposed communication with Damascus, Turkiye has started to send favorable signals toward the Syrian regime, indicating a move toward collaboration on some issues.

These new Turkish inclinations are driven by a number of factors, most notably President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to weave regional understandings regarding the refugee file, which the Turkish opposition is using against him. Erdogan also appears to be trying to pave the way for certain understandings with Damascus that could ease the pressure in regards to the Syrian Democratic Forces, i.e. the Kurdish-majority forces that rule northeastern Syria which Turkiye considers a strategic threat.

These developments, topped by Ankara’s more tolerant positions toward the Syrian regime, were highlighted by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu, who indicated that lasting peace in Turkiye requires reconciliation between the Syrian opposition and the regime. These new statements came on the heels of a quick meeting held by Cavusoglu with his Syrian counterpar, on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Belgrade, representing the first step toward restoring diplomatic contacts between Ankara and Damascus.

Qatar, another of Hamas’ strategic allies, has yet to show any significant leniency in its positions toward the regime, or give any indication that it is moving toward normalizing ties. However, alongside the move by Turkiye, recently an agreement between the football federations in Syria and Qatar came to the fore, a step that was unprecedented in the history of the ties between the two countries since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. As such, this suggests a new pragmatism in the Qatari position toward the Assad regime.

Bearing in mind these developments, Hamas’ move appears to be motivated by these new regional shifts, particularly in regards to the warming relationship of its allies in Ankara with the Syrian regime. Furthermore, Hamas has undoubtedly sensed the dangers of regional developments, namely those pertaining to the recent Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. As a result, it appears Hamas wants to expand and diversify its network of regional relations in anticipation of a decline in the support from Turkiye it currently enjoys.

Hamas’ internal calculations

Hamas’ move was also motivated by the rising influence of the resistance camp within the organization which has close ties with both Hezbollah and Iran. It is therefore not by chance that the leaks suggested explicit roles for Iran and Hezbollah behind the converging views of Hamas and the Syrian regime.

Additionally, critical regional considerations shifted the balance within Hamas, which at the start of the Arab Spring had insisted on fusing the movement’s efforts with the Muslim Brotherhood’s expanding prominence. Changes in the balance of power between the movement’s many wings, whose sympathies are dispersed among the region’s major countries like Iran, Turkiye, and Qatar, have had an impact on it for decades.

These facts lend credence to the notion that Hamas is working toward normalizing relations with Assad, in keeping with recent statements made by the group and its leaders. The possibility of reopening its operations in Damascus, which is home to a substantial Palestinian refugee community, would be made possible by this. Undoubtedly, Hamas will encounter some upcoming difficulties. These qualms will likely be surpassed by resentment from a sizable portion of its supporters over its decision to restore relations with the Assad regime.

At a time when these communities serve as the major birthing grounds for Hamas as an Islamic movement that embraces the Muslim Brotherhood approach, the organization will also encounter opposition to this approach from Islamists and Islamic currents.

In order to prevent serious setbacks at the popular level and maintain its relations with the surviving ideologically like-minded currents of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas will need to be conservative before advancing toward full normalization with the Assad regime.

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