x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hamas benefits by distancing itself from Syria

Hamas shows signs of splitting from its patrons in Damascus. As alliances are being redrawn in the Middle East, Palestinians can find better friends.

Hamas appears to be distancing itself from the Assad regime, which has been an important patron for the group. Amid the worsening bloodshed in Syria, and the possibility of a fundamental change of regime, the decades-old alliances that have defined the Middle East have to be re-evaluated.

Damascus offered a shelter to Hamas's political leader Khaled Meshaal when he was denied elsewhere. But the alliance was always based on convenience rather than underlying affinity; Hamas was founded in 1987 on the same Muslim Brotherhood ideology that Syria bans. And as the Assad regime has so violently turned against its own people this year, it is clear that Hamas need to find other allies.

But first and foremost, Palestinians have reconcile among themselves as Hamas and Fatah have promised, but not delivered.

The so-called resistance axis of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah has long used opposition to Israel as a fig leaf; Damascus in particular was always busier bullying Beirut than helping Palestinian resistance. And the axis is being tested in these uprisings. Tehran has vigorously backed the Assads but, then again, the violent suppression of Iranian protesters in 2009 was a model for repressive regimes. Hizbollah, too, has spoken up for its patrons, at the price of reducing its own credibility.

To some extent, Hamas should be given credit for taking an independent line. As The National reports today, the Palestinian group is reported to be supporting anti-Assad groups in Europe, possibly to hedge its bets should the regime fall. High-level talks between Hamas and Damascus have apparently been frozen.

But this is not only a matter of expediency. The Arab Spring has exposed fundamental differences between the erstwhile allies. Yousef Al Qaradawi, a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, has given speeches in support of Syrian protesters who are being crushed by the regime.

At the moment, these are signs of strain, not a full-scale rupture of relations. With Mr Meshaal visiting Amman this week, ostensibly to visit his mother, there is speculation that Hamas may move its political base out of Damascus. It should. No amount of Syrian support is worth an alliance with the Assads at this point.

Hamas would do well to recognise that its interests, indeed its survival, are with the Arab street, not the dictators it has dealt with in the past. And if it listened to that street in the West Bank and Gaza, it would abandon Damascus while reaching out a hand to Ramallah.