The Palestinian faction Hamas has issued a statement asserting its persistence in wanting to restore relations with the Syrian state after a boycott of nearly one decade. It comes at a time of upheaval for Hamas, which once saw Syria as a safe haven for its top leaders and a training ground for its members, as well as providing major logistical support for its bases.
The breakup between Hamas and Syria began after the 2011 political crisis in the country. Hamas adopted the same positions as its mother group the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and supported the Syrian uprising. Syria then began expelling Hamas leaders and closed its offices in Damascus.
Hamas’ opposition to the Syrian state continued to escalate until relations broke down. This also extended to relations with Iran and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, although these are more receptive to restoring relations with Hamas, especially after the group sent prominent members to Tehran and Beirut to heal the rifts and end the quarrels.
In its recent statement, which some analysts have viewed as a public apology, Hamas said it “expresses its appreciation to Syria, both leadership and people, for standing by the Palestinian people and their just cause.” It denounced the repeated raids attributed to Israel on Syrian territory and reiterated its intention to restore relations with Syria.
The Hamas statement comes after mediation efforts by several parties, most notably Iran and Hizbullah and most recently Russia. A senior Hamas delegation led by chief of politburo Ismail Haniyeh visited Moscow and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Damascus has remained aloof about Hamas’ repeated overtures, clearly indifferent and uninterested while questioning the group’s motives for taking the step. After relations were normalised between Israel and Turkey, Hamas may be concerned that the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement will come at the expense of its freedom of movement in Turkey.
Although Ankara has so far not announced any action against Hamas, the Turkish authorities have started tangible steps to restrict the group by limiting visas for Palestinians. Palestinian sources confirmed to Al-Ahram Weekly that Turkey has also blocked Hamas from launching a satellite TV channel that would have been a mouthpiece for the group on Turkish soil.
They added that Hamas was trying to launch a channel from Turkey to replace the Al-Quds channel that was headquartered in Lebanon but closed three years ago. Turkey has refused the request.
Despite the silence of Syrian officials about restoring relations with Hamas, some media platforms close to the regime continue to attack Hamas and have been listing the regional upheavals that have forced the group to think about rebuilding bridges with Syria. They say that Hamas’ position is part of Turkey’s about turn on Syria, since Ankara has also taken positive steps to also reconcile itself with Syria.
Younis Al-Zerei, a Palestinian political analyst, believes the reasons behind Hamas’ overtures to Syria are mainly due to setbacks suffered by the international organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood in several Arab countries.
“Hamas’ attempts to fix relations with Syria are due to consecutive blows to the Muslim Brotherhood and the failure of its so-called Political Islam project,” Al-Zerei told the Weekly. “It reflects the fractures that the Brotherhood and its various branches in the region are experiencing.”
He said that Hamas had realised that regional and international developments are not in its favour and that linking its positions to those of the Brotherhood will have a serious negative impact on the group.
Several leading Brotherhood figures criticised Hamas’ overtures to Syria, while others tried to justify its moves by saying that the group was under a lot of pressure due to regional changes. Hamas says that its “decision comes from an appreciation of the nation’s interests,” but this claim is not convincing to many Hamas supporters, according to observers of Palestinian affairs.
Hamas says that it is not part of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group, arguing that it is only an “intellectual extension” of the Brotherhood in Palestine. “Palestinians have paid a heavy price because of some of Hamas’ positions towards some Arab countries,” Al-Zerei said, “which were essentially rooted in its association with the Brotherhood.”
He added that Hamas was trying to market itself as a regional influencer, even by shedding former positions and policies that it was forced to adopt due to its connections overseas. “Hamas wants to restore relations with all neighbouring countries, but it is clear that Syria has rebuffed these efforts,” Al-Zerei said.
“This is why Hamas has sought the help of Russia and Iran to end the tensions.”
According to Al-Zerei, Hamas’ new policy is to “build new relations with the Arab countries and the rest of the world that are separate from the domestic issues of these countries and their positions regarding relations with Israel.”
Syria currently does not need to restore its relations with Hamas, especially since Israel continues to bomb Iranian and Hizbullah targets in Syria. Damascus does not want to add Hamas targets on its territory for Israel to bomb.
Several evaluations, including Israeli ones, indicate that Hamas is trying to create a new and more pragmatic image for itself, adopting positions that are unlike its former stances. The group is trying to establish relations with Arab and other countries.
Hamas’ decision not to participate in recent military confrontations between Israel and the Palestinian faction Islamic Jihad demonstrated a shift in the group’s positions in dealing with Israel. It is adopting positions that are less reckless and more consistent with the political realities of the region and the world.
According to one Israeli newspaper, Hamas wants to improve its regional and global standing, as competition heats up over who will succeed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the openness of some world powers to the group, including Russia, increases.
The newspaper said that Hamas had taken advantage of growing disputes between Russia and Israel against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine to draw closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow has no objections to warming up to Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and is close to Iran. Russia and Iran are working together to form a coalition against the Western countries that are imposing harsh sanctions against Russia.
According to Al-Zerei, Hamas is depending on its own interests, which are prioritised above anything else. But this could make the group vulnerable to major political shocks due to serious tensions in the region caused by several explosive issues, he said.
Speaking to the Russian media during his trip to Moscow, Haniyeh announced that Hamas wants to improve relations with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. However, it does not seem that the group will be able to realise such ambitious goals, especially since it wants to cross political contradictions even though its positions are subject to complicated circumstances.
Among the most complex of these is its relationship with Iran, which contributes vital funds to Hamas and its military wing.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.