Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – The Palestinian Islamist armed group Hamas that rules Gaza is rekindling relations with the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus after a decade-long rift sparked by the outbreak of the bloody civil war in Syria.
Analysts say the shift pushes Hamas deeper into the fold of the Iran-led “axis of resistance” against Israel, which includes Syria as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and Yemen’s Huthi rebels.
Hamas’ move comes amid fundamental shifts in relations in the Middle East that saw Turkey, a longtime Islamist ally, restore full diplomatic ties in August with Israel, the Gaza militant group’s sworn enemy.
A delegation led by Hamas officials is expected in the Syrian capital next week, after a series of preparatory meetings.
Hamas considers itself the leader of armed resistance against Israel and its blockade of Gaza, but it is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
Last month, the group hailed its newly strengthened ties with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime as “a service to the (Palestinian) nation” whose residents also live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
Hamas cited “rapid regional and international developments surrounding our cause and our nation” – without directly referring to Israel’s restored ties with Turkey and relations with several Arab nations.
The change comes as Syria’s ally Iran, now hit by a wave of protests, is in deep disagreement with Western powers and some regional powers, particularly over its nuclear program, which Israel considers as an existential threat.
The Hamas leadership, which has ruled the impoverished enclave of Gaza since 2007, has long been based abroad as the Israeli military has repeatedly struck militant targets in the territory.
Hamas had its headquarters in Damascus but closed it in 2012 after the group, which grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, sided with the opposition against Assad.
Its leaders then visited the Gulf state of Qatar and Turkey, which had severed ties with Israel following a deadly raid by an Israeli commando on a Turkish aid ship that had tried to break up the maritime blockade of Gaza.
The Hamas delegation expected in Damascus next week will be led by Khalil al-Hayya, its Arab relations chief, said Khaled Abdel Majid, head of the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, a group close to the Syrian regime.
Hamas’ decision to ally itself with Damascus again follows numerous “secret and public” visits by its officials to Syria, a senior Hamas source told AFP on condition of anonymity. .
These meetings were mediated by Iran and Hezbollah, both of which fought alongside Assad in the civil war, the source said.
All this reflects Iran’s desire to strengthen the “axis of resistance” which also includes the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
As Iran’s talks to restore its frayed 2015 nuclear deal with major powers have failed, it has moved closer to Russia, which also faces deep international isolation over its war in Ukraine.
Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh visited Moscow last month and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“A Moral Sin”
As the group returns to Syria, the Hamas source told AFP, it plans “to open a representative office in Damascus soon, as a first step towards a return to normal relations”.
Former Hamas political chief Khaled Mashal once enjoyed rare privileges in Damascus and had a personal relationship with Assad.
However, the Syrian regime remains unlikely to allow Hamas to rebuild a foothold that has “the clout it had ten years ago”, said Jamal al-Fadi, also a politics professor at Al-Azhar.
The Hamas leadership may also be reluctant to spend too much time in Syria, given that Israel regularly launches airstrikes on the country, mainly targeting pro-Iranian fighters.
“Hamas’ relations with Syria for the time being will be subject to difficult security considerations,” Fadi said. “It puts its leaders and activists in danger of being easily targeted by Israel.”
The budding ties between Hamas and Syria have exposed divisions within the Islamic movement.
Saleh al-Naami, a politics professor at the Islamic University of Gaza and close to Hamas, called the deal with Damascus a “moral sin”.
“Nor does it reflect the base of the movement and the vast majority of its (political) elite,” he wrote on Twitter.
However, the head of Hamas’ political committee, Bassem Naim, said the decision followed years of regional and international discussions.
“Ultimately, Hamas followed the majority view on resuming relations with Syria,” Naim said. “There is no choice but Hamas to be at the center of the resistance axis.”
© 2022 AFP