Just when you thought Syrian president Bashar al-Assad lost all of his allies nine months into his crackdown on protesters, another bombshell hits his desk. The situation inside Syria is deteriorating so rapidly that Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization that governs the Gaza Strip and heads the armed resistance platform against Israel, has found it in their interest to review its own ties with the Ba’athist regime.
If the reports are true, which suggest that some low to middle ranking Hamas political members have already streamed out of their Damascus headquarters, this could be an explosive setback for the Syrian leader, who has long relied upon relationships with armed groups to exert leverage in the region.
Compared to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and its ally Iran, Syria’s army hardly matches up. A large portion of its military technology is left over from the Soviet era and its generals have faced decades of economic sanctions related to military sales. The relationship with Hamas, in addition to Hezbollah in Lebanon, softened the blow to some extent.
The real interesting part of the story, however, is the motives behind Hamas’ decision. Its military wing, confined to the Gaza Strip, has used Syria as its main corridor for weapons supplies sent from the government in Iran. Syria’s support for Hamas ranges across the spectrum from mortars, machine guns and missile components to training in tactics and intelligence sharing.
The United States Department of State, long concerned about Palestinian terrorism in the region, boldly stated that Hamas fighters used Syrian soil for weapons training as recently as 2010.
The fact that Hamas officials are looking to relocate their central headquarters despite their decade-old partnership with the Syrians is a testament to how worried they are about the Syrian government crackdown — and how even the slightest association with that crackdown holds the potential of discrediting them as an Arab resistance movement.
These worries are not new. Last May, The New York Times ran a story suggesting that there was growing strain between Syria and Hamas over the former’s bloody operations against demonstrators. Rumors were that Syrian government officials even pressed Hamas to express its public support for Assad’s government. Hamas rebuffed those demands for an explicit statement of support for Assad would have severely hampered the movement’s image in the eyes of the average Syrian. Instead, the group vowed to follow a policy of neutrality.
Thousands of Syrian civilian deaths later, neutrality is evidently no longer an option for the movement.
Luckily for Hamas, there is no shortage of states willing to host the group. A post-Mubarak Egypt, with a resurgent Muslim Brotherhood picking up seats in the new Egyptian parliament, is a likely destination for Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and his colleagues to set up shop — close to the Gaza Strip and smack in the middle of the Arab world’s most populous country.
Mashal’s attempted reconciliation with the kingdom of Jordan, which kicked Hamas out of Amman over a decade ago, provides the organization with another possible venue (although the United States would surely use its influence with King Abdullah II to limit relocation to the bare minimum). Yemen could have been a possibility if the country was not going down the tubes, in a number of ways. Qatar, with its activist foreign policy throughout the Arab world and its long record of supporting Palestinian aspirations, could be a place holding a considerable economic upside.
Wherever the movement decides to go, Hamas has made a smart political calculation — not only for protecting the personal welfare of its members and their families but also because they the group recognizes that Syria’s Assad loses more control over the situation every time a bullet is fired at a protester. With Sunnis as a group getting killed at the fastest rate by an Alawite regime, it was increasingly becoming difficult for Hamas to brandish itself as a Sunni resistance group.
At the regional level, Syria has lost a valuable playing card in any future negotiations with the Israelis. But in the near term, Hamas’ potential departure will give Assad a reason to doubt his staying power. Now only Iran and Hezbollah are squarely behind him.