Hamas Plans a Comeback to Damascus: US and Regional Implications

A delegation of Hamas leaders met on July 22 with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to enlist Tehran’s support in convincing the Syrian regime to reopen the Palestinian group’s Damascus office. Meanwhile, on the same day, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal al-Mokdad was receiving1 a delegation from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) whose most prominent political party is the Hamas rival, Fatah. This split-screen between Iran and Syria shows how the controversial US peace initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is benefiting Tehran and pushing the two main Palestinian factions into the arms of Damascus.

The Hamas visit to Tehran was led by the deputy chairman of the movement’s political bureau, Saleh Arouri, who is based in Lebanon and is one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades. In remarks on this meeting, Khamenei called the US peace plan “a dangerous plot” and an attempt to “eliminate the Palestinian identity using money.” During the same visit, Arouri affirmed that Hamas and Tehran are on the “same path” in fighting Israel. The last time Arouri visited Tehran was October 2017.

This new move by Hamas comes at a crucial time of US-Iranian tensions and as the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip awaits the unveiling of the political component of the US peace initiative. The chair of Hamas’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, set the tone of Arouri’s visit by asserting on July 20 that Hamas’s decision to exit Syria was an “institutional” one and that the Palestinian Islamist group never intervened in the Syrian conflict—while hoping that Syria would restore its strength and recover from the civil war. Mahmoud al-Zahhar, a former member of the Hamas political bureau, spoke on July 10 about an effort to reconcile with the Syrian regime, explaining that it is in Hamas’s interest to have close relations with countries that are against Israel, naming Iran, Lebanon, and Syria. Mousa Abu Marzook, another member of Hamas’s political bureau, visited2 Moscow on July 17 as a nod to Russia’s growing influence in the Syrian and Palestinian portfolios, most notably with Moscow’s attempt last February to reconcile Palestinian rivals.

Iran and Hezbollah had to renew once again their mediation between the Syrian regime and Hamas, with no reported breakthrough yet.

However, when reports emerged in June that Damascus and Hamas might mend fences, the Syrian regime leaked3 a denial to its official media on June 7 and asserted that “the blood of the [Muslim] Brotherhood is a dominant factor in this movement [Hamas] when it supported the terrorists in Syria and followed the same path that Israel wanted.” Assad argues that Hamas provided support for Palestinian armed groups in the Yarmouk camp that battled Syrian regime forces. Nayef al-Rajoub, a West Bank-based Hamas leader, responded on June 8 that the “current Syrian regime no longer has any weight or value. It would be a mistake to bet on this regime.” Hence, Iran and Hezbollah had to renew once again their mediation between the Syrian regime and Hamas, with no reported breakthrough yet.

Hamas’s Evolving Policy

As Gazans were widely supportive of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the Damascus-based Hamas leadership then declined to stand by the Syrian regime and even expressed public support for Syrian rebels at one point. Early on, there were two factions inside Hamas on this issue: the first—most notably the military wing—preferred to stay out of the Syrian conflict; and the second wanted to stand in solidarity with the Arab uprisings, the key supporter being Hamas’s former political bureau chair, Khaled Meshaal.

Hamas leaders closed their offices in Damascus in February 2012 and fled from Syria to Egypt and Qatar; the Syrian regime then raided and fully shuttered these offices in November 2012. One month later, during a rally in Gaza, Haniyeh affirmed that “the Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution,” which signified the ultimate public break of Hamas with the Syrian regime. However, as developments in Syria were tilting toward Russia and Iran, Hamas leaders began to weigh their options to survive the Israeli embargo on Gaza.

As developments in Syria were tilting toward Russia and Iran, Hamas leaders began to weigh their options to survive the Israeli embargo on Gaza.

This gradual shift started two years ago as a new and pragmatic Hamas began to emerge. In January 2017, Hamas leaders visited Cairo for the first time in over three years, which officially and gradually triggered this unlikely coordination over Gaza between the Brotherhood-inspired Hamas and the regime of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who continues to run a massive campaign against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas needed to break out of the isolation via Egypt and Sisi wanted to show the strategic usefulness of Cairo.

In May 2017, Hamas underwent an overhaul by unveiling a new charter and chose Haniyeh as a successor to Meshaal, who ultimately had to step down and allow this Hamas policy shift to unfold smoothly. In this charter, Hamas recognized the 1967 border with Israel as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood by prioritizing its Palestinian identity over the Islamic one. In June 2018, Haniyeh regretted the foreign powers’ intervention in Syria. This year, Hamas began actively seeking to reopen its office in Damascus, which was officially established in 1998 after a visit to Syria by founder of Hamas, the late Ahmad Yassin.

The Calculations of Hamas and Damascus

Hamas remains pragmatic in its decision to plan a return to Damascus—despite the fact that the Syrian regime detained and/or displaced thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria, most notably in the Yarmouk camp south of Damascus. Hamas views the reopening of its Damascus office as a symbol of returning to what is called “the axis of resistance.” The Palestinian Islamist group, however, wants this physical comeback to Damascus to occur on its own terms. Hamas seems to believe that the Syrian regime is now weaker and that it could circumvent Damascus by being open to Russia and Iran as the two main benefactors of the Assad regime. The question is whether having Hamas as a bargaining card with the United States will be enough for either Tehran or Moscow to veto the Syrian regime’s decision to allow Hamas to resume its political activities in Damascus.

Hamas, however, might also be reluctant to have a picture of Haniyeh meeting with Assad if nothing is gained in return, especially that Hamas leaders are most likely safer in Lebanon than in Syria under an increasingly weaker Syrian regime. Moreover, Israel is very active on Syrian soil, hence the Hamas leadership might not be able to secure the safety of its leaders. But Hamas wants Syria to remain an alternative if pressure mounts at some point on its leaders to leave Lebanon.

For the Assad regime, the decision whether to welcome Hamas back in Damascus is not only about the movement’s stance during the Syrian uprising; it is also about regional calculations. The Assad regime remains hopeful about restoring relations with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates; hence, refusing to welcome Hamas might help Damascus make its case when the United States gives these Gulf countries the green light to normalize relations with the regime in Syria. Moreover, Moscow might not share the Iranian excitement about having Iranian-backed Hamas back in Syria, which is what Assad is most probably banking on.

Moscow might not share the Iranian excitement about having Iranian-backed Hamas back in Syria, which is what Assad is most probably banking on.

The relationship between the Syrian regime and the PLO has been improving gradually since 2017. While the PLO visit to Damascus is focused on addressing the issue of Palestinian refugees in Syria, mostly in the Yarmouk camp, it is also sending a signal to Hamas that the Syrian regime prefers to deal with the PLO moving forward as the only representative of Palestinians. The PLO previously had tensions with the Syrian regime during the Lebanese civil war in 1975 as the Fatah movement, the PLO’s core group, believed that Damascus sought control over the Palestinians’ independent decision-making. However, the PLO, and the Palestinian Authority in general, stayed away and did not take sides in the Syrian conflict since 2011. What is further motivating the PLO to engage Damascus is the US peace plan and an interest to make inroads in Syria, especially if Hamas fails to reopen its Damascus office. It is worth noting that the Palestinian Authority opened4 its new office in Damascus in August 2016 and the Syrian regime approved reopening Fatah’s office in Damascus in August 2015 after nearly three decades of closure—hence the rapprochement between both sides is not new.

The US Peace Plan and the Hamas Shift toward Tehran

While the relationship with the Syrian regime was severed, Hamas—and in particular, its military wing—never completely cut ties to Iran and Hezbollah. Even though their relationship has gone cold over Syria, Hamas and Iran have always agreed on the same foe, Israel.

In early 2018, after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017 and began floating the idea of a peace plan that would favor Israel, Hamas began to reengage5 its traditional allies at a faster pace. In fact, this reengagement started after the February 2017 selection of Yahya Sinwar as the Islamic movement’s leader in Gaza. Sinwar told6 al-Mayadeen TV in May 2018 that relations with Hezbollah have never been better and that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps was a great help for Hamas. The hawkish wing, mostly in Gaza and Lebanon, wants Hamas to return to the “axis of resistance.” This is unfolding as Palestinians face a US peace plan that is unfavorable to them while Hamas’s more Islamist wing argues that such a move runs against the movement’s values and complicates its relationship with Doha and Ankara.

During the period of breaking away with a major benefactor as Iran, the Palestinian Islamist group became cash-strapped and curtailed its operations in Gaza. Hamas has brokered a deal with Egypt, Qatar, and Israel where Qatari funds enter Gaza with Israel’s approval to finance the civil service and families in need. The Iranian regime is now restoring its influence in Gaza, which might become a new bargaining card to disrupt the already problematic US peace plan. The White House’s economic plan for Gaza might not materialize without a buy-in from Hamas, and Tehran is empowering the hawkish factions in the Palestinian Islamist movement that want to move closer to the “axis of resistance.” However, given that the Iranian regime is under US sanctions, it is unclear whether Tehran would be able to restore the same financial and logistical support to Hamas.

By expanding and reinforcing ties with Iran, Hamas may jeopardize the steps made in recent months to mitigate the Israeli siege of Gaza.

Yet, Hamas’s options are limited. By expanding and reinforcing ties with Iran, Hamas may jeopardize the steps made in recent months to mitigate the Israeli siege of Gaza. It even risks a potential new round of confrontations with Israel. Evidently, both Hamas and Fatah are trying, separately, to improve their relationships with either Moscow, Tehran, or Damascus instead of moving forward with the Palestinian reconciliation that would reunite the West Bank and Gaza.

As Hamas comes under pressure while watching Arab governments inch closer to the Trump Administration and Israel, the decision to normalize with Tehran and Damascus is a strategic one: it opens options in case Hamas is forced to accept a deal with Israel. While there is a division of labor among the Hamas leadership in dealing with the various foreign powers that are influential in Gaza, it remains to be seen how the movement could enjoy simultaneous close coordination with Egypt, Qatar, and Iran while maintaining full control of Gaza.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here

1 Source is in Arabic.
2 Source is in Arabic.
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6 Source is in Arabic.