x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hamas cools to Syria as the Arab Spring's tally mounts

Historically, some Middle Eastern leaders have been unable to learn from history, Increasingly, Bashar Al Assad looks like one of them.

Reports that Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, refused to openly endorse the government of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's heavy-handed tactics in suppressing his country's popular uprising might come as welcome news to some. But it's also evidence of just how dramatic and unpredictable this season of unrest has been for the status quo in the Arab world.

Reports from the Syrian capital say that Mr Al Assad and Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Palestinian group's political wing in Damascus, are hardly speaking to each other.

This is quite a dramatic change in policy given that the Syrians have been among the most ardent supporters of Hamas. The government of Mr Al Assad has provided Hamas with safe haven, arms, munitions and finances and no doubt has also funnelled intelligence reports to the Palestinians when they thought it necessary. But Hamas sees the handwriting on the wall and the message is clear: change is coming to Syria.

For instance one Baath Party official, who spoke to The National, accused Hamas of hedging its bets by funding anti-regime organisations in the expectation that Mr Al Assad will be toppled - an indication that the alliance might already be near to the breaking point.

"In public Hamas says it is not with either side in the [Syrian] crisis but in reality they have turned their back on Syria and have sided with Syria's opponents," the official said. "We have information that Hamas is channelling money to anti-regime groups in Europe. They have decided to bet against the regime."

He added: "There is nothing positive between the regime and Hamas at the moment. The regime wants Hamas to change its attitude and openly support them but people inside Hamas believe they have to be with the Syrian people on this issue." He gave no further details but described the move as a "serious mistake."

Hamas' stance differs from Syria's other major non-state ally, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah, which has remained faithful to the Baathist regime and has even reportedly sent in fighters to help put down the uprising. Hizbollah's situation is somewhat different in that it gets its funding, training and logistic support from Iran, Syria's main ally.

So why is Hamas moving in the direction it is? Perhaps it sees no other choice.

Revolutions, much like democracy, are highly contagious. What began in North Africa in Tunisia will stop only after other oppressive regimes become a bad memory, leaving as legacy a bad taste in people's collective memories. The monuments will be toppled and the leaders' statues will be spanked across the face with sandals in front of television cameras, the ultimate insult in an Arab country.

Streets, avenues and airports from Tunis to Cairo, Tripoli and beyond will be renamed and the omnipresent colour portraits that once hung in every office and every building will be used to line the bottom of bird cages. What a legacy.

No doubt Mr Meshaal does not want to be caught in the same predicament as Palestine Liberation Organisation chief Yasser Arafat who unwisely supported Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The repercussions for Palestinians living in the oil-rich emirate were disastrous. Thousands were rounded up and disappeared as returning Kuwaitis sought revenge, while the luckier ones were expelled.

But the Arab Spring has heralded many changes in the region. It would be somewhat cliché to say that the consequences of the Arab Spring continue to be felt across the Middle East and its repercussions will linger for many more years. It would also be cliché to say that nothing is likely to remain the same in the region after the recent upheavals that have shaken the very foundations of the Arab world, a world that was politically stagnant for decades.

But cliché or not changes will continue to be felt. The outcome of this wave that began in December in Tunisia and quickly washed upon neighbouring countries is in fact nothing short of historic. Already three Arab presidents - Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi - have been forced out of power by popular protests.

The final outcome of this sudden effervescence in the Middle East was predictable; it was only a matter of time when - not if - the ticking social time bombs exploded. The trouble with some Middle East leaders is that they never seemed to learn from history. People can be muzzled, oppressed, downtrodden, subjugated and ill-treated for only so long.

This season has already produced its losers, those who refused to face the reality on the ground and continued to live and rule through oppression and fear. Mr Al Assad is likely to join them. Just weeks before Syria faced its own uprising the president was predicting that Syria was different and that what was taking place in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi and Sanaa could not and would not happen in Syria.

But he was only partially correct. Syria was indeed different: the government's forces, the battalions of secret police and the rented thugs turned out to be far more brutal than those of other authoritarian regimes in the region.

Mr Al Assad has also erred by thinking he could ride out the storm as he had done in the past. This time the changes sweeping through the Middle East are turning out to be far more than an isolated storm, but rather are a string of gales from which there is no shelter other than change.

The outcome of this historic movement shook the very foundations of the region, and will continue to change the geopolitical structure of the Middle East in the months and years to come. Hamas' cold shoulder to its Syrian benefactors is just one more example of how unpredictable these changes will be.


csalhani@thenational.ae. Follow him on Twitter @ClaudeSalhani