Ten years ago, Hamas, the Palestinian movement that rules the Gaza Strip, publicly came out in support of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are fighting for freedom, democracy and reform,” said Ismail Haniya, one of the leaders of Hamas, during Friday prayers in Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.
“The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution,” chanted the faithful, as Hamas’ break with the Syrian government, which hosted its leaders, became evident.
But now, a decade later, Hamas has reversed its position and the ties have been restored.
The move sparked controversy in the Arab world, but it came as no surprise, with analysts saying Hamas’ decision reflects its support for Iran and its allies – Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria – who have supported his fight against Israel.
“Although Hamas partly sided with the Syrian opposition for some time, it never completely broke away from the Iranian orbit and as such was always going to return to the fold of the Syrian opposition. ‘Assad,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“Hamas’ existence is defined by its resistance to Israel and to sustain that, it not only needs strategic support from Iran, but also from Syria,” he told Al Jazeera.
Relations between Syria and the Palestinian movement have been strong for many years, with Damascus being a haven for Hamas leaders since the early 2000s. Syria was also home to at least 500,000 Palestinians, according to United Nations estimates.
But the start of the 2011 Syrian uprising proved to be a breaking point in their ties, as relations quickly deteriorated between Hamas and its longtime ally.
Hamas leaders rejected pressure from al-Assad to rally support for Damascus and backed the opposition instead. They were then quickly forced to close their offices in the Syrian capital, before moving to Qatar in 2012.
Despite the apparent freeze in relations, talks to mend relations have long been ongoing among Hamas leaders, according to senior Hamas official Bassem Naim, who told Al Jazeera that Hamas “never decided to break links with Damascus.
In a September 15 statement, Hamas said it was indebted to Damascus, which had “embraced” the Palestinian people and the resistance for decades.
He added that it was now the group’s turn to “stand” with Syria in the face of “brutal aggression”, in reference to the escalation of Israeli attacks on Syria – the latest of which killed five soldiers in an airstrike on Damascus International Airport on September 17.
“The foundation of our engagement in the region is one of continuity for the sake of the Palestinian cause,” said Naim, who heads Hamas’ political and foreign affairs council. “We need the support of all Muslim and Arab countries and peoples.”
“Severing ties with any entity must be justified in terms of the interests of the Palestinian people. In this regard, the only relationship we refuse is with the Israeli occupation,” he added.
Naim argued that since some Arab countries had chosen to normalize relations with Israel, it was “only logical that Hamas would side with those who choose resistance against the Zionist enemy”.
In 2020, four Arab countries — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — normalized relations with Israel under US-brokered deals that drew mixed global reactions.
Restore “axis of resistance”
In separate speeches last week, Tehran and its regional ally Hezbollah welcomed Hamas’ decision, with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah saying Syria and its leaders would remain “the true support of the Palestinian people”.
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Nasser Kanani told a September 19 press conference that the move was in the interest of the Palestinian people, as it helped strengthen their position against Israel.
“Iran encourages and supports this trend and believes that convergence among resistance factions can help strengthen peace, stability and security in the region,” Kanani said.
According to Somdeep Sen, associate professor of international development studies at Roskilde University, Hamas’ move not only restored ties with Damascus, but also worked to restore the “axis of resistance” that includes Iran. and Hezbollah.
“While Turkey and many Arab countries are restoring ties with Israel, the Palestinian faction has few options in terms of allies in the region,” added Sen, who focuses on colonialism in Palestine.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in first face-to-face interviews between the leaders of the two countries since 2008 as tensions between them begin to thaw.
Syrian analyst Karam Shaar agreed that with Hamas’ political isolation in the region, the movement has been pushed to stay close to Iran.
“Hamas decided to normalize relations with Syria under pressure from Iran, which is supporting the Hamas contingent by restoring ties with Assad,” Shaar said.
“This [move] will therefore increase Iran’s support for Hamas as it realigns the movement under Iran’s wing,” he added.
But as Hamas closes in on Iran and its allies, the Palestinian group risks risking its ties to a key supporter of the past decade – Qatar.
“The most intriguing dynamic at play would seem to be Hamas’ relationship with Qatar, which remains the regional government most determined to continue resisting any normalization of the Assad regime,” Lister told Al Jazeera. “Time will tell if Doha can continue to reconcile these two contradictory circles.”
Not only has Doha hosted Hamas leaders after they left Damascus, it has also provided millions of dollars in financial aid to the Gaza Strip since 2012.
This support has made Hamas increasingly dependent on Qatar to maintain its construction of homes, the education system and a steady supply of fuel to the beleaguered coastal enclave which has seen several wars with Israel since 2005.
Far from the political realm, this decision has alienated the Syrian opposition and its supporters, who blame al-Assad for the death of tens of thousands of civilians and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more.
Hamas’ official alliance with the Assad regime should fuel the anger of our Muslim and Arab communities, pushing them to support Syrians in their communities more than ever. Where is the resistance in a group of “resisters” who shamelessly pride themselves on the support of a murderer?
— Razan Saffour (@RazanSpeaks) September 17, 2022
While many Syrians and other Arabs have expressed their condemnation of the move on social media, restoring Hamas’ ties with Damascus will affect its reputation, analysts say.
“With public perception in the region being extremely critical of this decision, the organization is bound to lose the support of the wider Arab world,” the senator said.
“This decision is sadly emblematic of widespread regional fatigue with the Syrian crisis and a desire – albeit illogical – to ‘move on’ and pretend that the Syrian crisis never happened and never happened. no longer exists,” Lister added.