Hamas, which made its home in Syria for well over a decade, has finally turned on its former master, Bashar al-Assad. Hamas’ senior Gaza leader, Ismail Haniya, threw his support to the Syrian opposition:
A leader of Hamas spoke out against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Friday, throwing its support behind the opposition and stripping Damascus of what little credibility it may have retained with the Arab street. It was Hamas’s first public break with its longtime patron.
Hamas’s prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, said during Friday Prayer, “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform.”
The worshipers shouted back, “God is great” and “Syria! Syria!”
It’s important to note as well that Haniya spoke these words at Cairo’s Al Azhar mosque and they reaffirm Hamas’ bonds with the Muslim Brotherhood, which recently became the political powerbrokers in the new democratic Egypt. As the sun sets on Syria’s Assad it rises with the Egyptian brothers. There is no love for Iran in the ranks of the Egyptian Islamists. Not even for Hezbollah, Syria’s proxy in Lebanon. It’s also telling that Haniya is in Cairo for major meetings between the Hamas leadership and Abbas’ forces. They will be attempting to move the unity deal, announced a few weeks ago by Meshal and Abbas, forward.
If the unity deal works (a big “if”), it will indicate that the Palestinians have given up on negotiations with Israel under U.S. aegis. It will mean they see their best shot at pressing forward with their national struggle as a united front. Perhaps it might thus be easier to gain support in the international arena through the UN Security Council or General Assembly for statehood.
So it appears that Hamas is embarking on a rough voyage that may take it to destinations it could never have foreseen even a few months ago. It will sail away from what had been protective home harbors and seek new anchorages in unlikely perhaps even forbidding places.
This is also important statement for another important reason: how it relates to Iran’s ongoing firm support for al-Assad. There is, as yet, no indication of any weakening in Iranian support. And it is also known as a strong supporter of Hamas. In fact, Haniya recently returned from a trip to Iran, where both sides reaffirmed in the most militant terms their strong support for each other.
One has to ask what exactly is going on here? Is Hamas striking out on its own without the blessing of Iran? Or has Iran tacitly or explicitly told Hamas that renouncing support for the Syrian regime is acceptable to it? While Hamas’ abandonment of Assad means little inside Syria or in the west, it marks a strong departure within the Arab and Muslim world. It means that the number of such states that are hanging with Assad has dwindled to one, Iran. It may have some indirect impact on Russia’s and China’s support for him since they would prefer to be supporting a regime that has at least some support in the Arab world.
Another question I’ve been asking is precisely what is going on behind the scenes within Hamas. There have been indications of discord between the Gaza wing and the Hamas exiles who previously were based in Damascus. Khaled Meshal recently negotiated a unity deal with Mahmoud Abbas that would make the latter the transitional president until elections were held:
Hamas leader-in-exile Meshaal, with close ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, sees it as a time for accommodation rather than confrontation, together with subtle policy adjustments to end Hamas’s isolation.
There was a mini-rebellion among the Gaza rank and file. Mahmoud Zahar, in particular, denounced the deal:
…Al-Zahar, a senior Hamas figure in Gaza seen as a hardliner by Fatah, described Meshaal’s agreement with Abbas as a “mistake.” Zahar clashed with Meshaal late last year when the exiled leader advocated giving Abbas more time to pursue his peacemaking with Israel.
Subsequently, some in Gaza walked that disagreement back and said it wasn’t what it appeared. But there have been no recent announcements or moves that showed the unity deal was progressing. So it’s hard to tell whether it’s in the deep freeze or whether it is still viable.
In the past few months, Meshal announced that he would step down from his post as head of the movement’s Politburo. This move seemed to correspond to a softening in Meshal’s positions regarding armed conflict and rejection of Israel’s existence. In statements made over that period, the leader has been willing to embrace the type of non-violent resistance seen in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled regimes. He’s also made increasingly explicit calls for a negotiated settlement that returned Israel to 1967 borders, without mentioning that this would be a temporary arrangement or a hudna or tahdiya.
In fact, the last time Meshal went to Iran I was astonished that his message about the Israel-Palestine conflict was so at odds with that of his hosts. It appeared at the time that Meshal was deliberately distancing himself from the militancy of the Iranian position. No doubt, that is why Haniya went to Iran this time. The Ayatollahs preferred not to be upstaged and embarrassed in their own backyard by a Palestinian leader who wasn’t on the same page.
It would appear that Meshal may be wearying of the unending conflict and bloodletting. Of course, there are many in Hamas who continue to have the stomach for armed struggle and retain a faith that the movement will liberate Palestine from the “river to the sea.” It is too early to see where this is going and which tendency will win out in the end. But “something is happening here, and we don’t know what it is,” to quote the old Dylan standard.