RAMALLAH // Hamas has reduced the size of its headquarters in Syria's capital because of the brutal suppression of pro-reform demonstrators by the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, Palestinian officials and foreign diplomats here have said.
The Islamist movement, which for a decade has relied on its base in Damascus to conduct diplomacy, raise money and wage war in its campaign to replace Israel with an Islamic Palestinian state, decided that its presence in the embattled country was no longer politically tenable and began in October sending all but its most senior officials abroad, the sources said in recent days.
While maintaining a nominal presence in Damascus, the organisation was also seeking a new location for its headquarters, the sources added.
"They have been doing this for at least two months now," said Mamoun Abu Shahla, a businessman in Gaza City who helped broker a reconciliation deal in May between Hamas and its West Bank rival Fatah.
Senior Hamas officials denied any move was afoot to vacate Syria. Khaled Meshaal, the chairman of the Hamas political bureau and the group's de facto chief, remains in Damascus as a gesture of support to the regime, they said.
In the decade that Hamas has been based in Damascus, it has never had a large number of personnel there, said Ahmed Yousef, an advisor to Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza.
"We are talking about a few people leading the politburo in Damascus," Mr Yousef said.
A foreign diplomat in the West Bank city of Ramallah confirmed, however, that dozens of Hamas officials, staff and members had left the Syrian capital and had been permitted entry in Turkey, Lebanon and Qatar. Others have returned to the Gaza Strip, the diplomat said. Furthermore Mr Meshaal's deputy, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, has moved to Egypt to set up offices there (the purpose of which was not immediately known), according to a well-placed Syrian source .
The move by Hamas out of the capital of its steadfast ally has been rumoured for months, but the statements by Mr Yousef and diplomats in Ramallah are the firmest indications yet of a sea change under way for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which was founded in 1987 as a pious alternative to the more secular and popular but in the view of many Palestinian, more corrupt Fatah party.
The group and its military wing, Ezzadin Al Qassam Brigades, later rose to become a leading practitioner of suicide bombings in the struggle against Israel, the ruler of Gaza and a kingpin in Palestinian affairs.
The relocation of Hamas members and the search for a new headquarters, in particular, is an embarrassment for the Syrian government. Under the rule of Mr Al Assad and his late father, Hafez, the support of liberation struggles and resistance movements has been a pillar of Syrian diplomacy and its claim as a beacon of Arab nationalism.
With Damascus under siege and its high-ranking members dispersing, Hamas is under pressure.
On Thursday, Mr Meshaal denied rumours that the movement would renounce the use of violence against Israel and announced that Hamas would focus on holding mass Arab Spring-style non-violent protests against Israeli occupation.
Mr Meshaal, in Cairo to attend reconciliation talks with Fatah, also said Hamas would allow elections to go ahead next year in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and would join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which is led by Mr Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah's chairman.
Yet with its friendly sanctuary in Damascus drying up, how Hamas will be able to operate has become a major concern for the group.
Since Hamas was expelled from Jordan in 1999 and Mr Meshaal took up residence in Damascus two years later, Syria has provided invaluable support to the movement, including cash, weapons, training facilities and a haven from Israeli warplanes.
Though Hamas has never enjoyed as conspicuous a public profile in Damascus as Hizbollah, it has hardly been secretive.
The location of its administrative headquarters are widely known, as are the affluent Damascene neighourhoods where its top officials live and the more modest streets where its staff have resided.
Before the uprising against Mr Al Assad began in March, Mr Meshaal met regularly with Syrian reporters, and joint Hamas-Islamic Jihad rallies were held routinely in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp that attracted thousands of flag-waving supporters.
The Ramallah-based diplomat said it was still unclear whether any country in the region would take over in Syria's stead.
Bordering Hamas' Gaza stronghold, Egypt is an obvious candidate to become the movement's headquarters. But Cairo has a peace treaty with Israel, which along with the United States considers Hamas a terrorist organisation. Some sources also mentioned Qatar as a new home but Doha, too, maintains diplomatic ties with Israel.
For its part, Turkey denied offering refuge to any Hamas officials leaving Damascus. "I don't think that's the case at the moment," a Turkish diplomat told The National this week, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The continued presence of any kind by Hamas in the Syrian capital has become a source of growing friction inside Hamas and between the group and friendly Arab governments, said Mr Shahla and analysts. By remaining in Damascus amid popular protests and a widening armed insurgency against Mr Assad, Hamas risks further damage to its credibility as a self-described liberation movement, especially among its rank-and-file, they said.
Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University, said that Hamas officials are privately fuming at the Syrian government. In the Gaza Strip, that anger was being vented loudly through indirect channels, he said.
During recent Friday prayers, imams in Gaza's Hamas-controlled mosques curse the Syrian government. Moreover, at this year's mass rally marking the founding of Hamas, there flags of the Syrian opposition movement waving.
"Officially, Hamas doesn't speak out, but in the mosques the killings and the Syrian regime are denounced, and the imams express hope that God will bring down the Syrian regime, like what happened to Libya and other countries in the region," said Mr Abusada.
Mr Shahla, the businessman and part-time negotiator, said he hoped that the political pressure on Hamas would bring it closer to Arab states that have strong links with Fatah.
With additional reporting by Thomas Seibert in Istanbul.