Syria says no to restoring ties with Hamas
BEIRUT - For more than two years, Iran and Hezbollah have been trying to mend broken bridges between Damascus and their allies in Hamas. The “Axis of Resistance,” which included Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, they claimed, would never be complete without Hamas.
What started out as informal talks led by third parties developed into direct contact for the first time since 2011. So close were the two sides to an agreement that Hamas Political Bureau Chairman Ismail Haniyeh gave an interview to a Russian news outlet praising the Syrian leadership, which was republished in al-Watan, a Damascus newspaper.
Those negotiations ended in early June, however, after a senior Hamas official returned empty-handed to Gaza after an unannounced visit to Damascus. He is thought to be Saleh Arouri, a close confidant of Hamas military commander Yehya Sinwar and his personal envoy to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
Syrian officials were reluctant to re-establish ties with Hamas, arguing that the military group backstabbed its leadership in 2011. They only half-heartedly agreed to start talks after Hamas Chairman Khaled Meshaal was ejected from office in 2017.
A long-time friend of the Syrians and resident of Damascus, he famously defected to Qatar in 2012, seeing inspiration in the election of Muhammad Morsi, a leader of the Cairo-based Muslim Brotherhood, as president of Egypt.
Meshaal sent arms and weapons to militants in the Yarmouk Palestinian Camp near Damascus, hoping they would march on Damascus to install a “Syrian Morsi” as president. He wrongly believed that the Brotherhood regime in Cairo and the Brotherhood-affiliated one in Libya were there to stay and that the days of Bashar Assad were numbered.
Inasmuch as they hated Meshaal, the Syrians saw promise in the new generation of Gaza-based Islamists who replaced him. Three of them — Izzat Rushuk, Mohammad Nazzal and Musa Abu Marzouk — were public advocates of normalisation with Damascus. All the new figures hailed from the camps and streets of Gaza and were deep-rooted in society and close to the people and to Iran. Most were from military backgrounds and were senior figures in the Iran-backed Al Qassam Brigade.
Additionally, they adopted a new declaration of principles in May 2017, distancing themselves from radical jihadi thought, which made it easier for the Syrians to re-engage.
Their new doctrine was focused more on Palestinian nationalism than Islamism and had much less dogma, which makes the party open for a wider variety of members, not necessarily radical Islamists but moderates as well. It rejected the Oslo Accords of 1993 but accepted the Palestinian National Authority that came out of it, which is de facto recognition of Oslo. It also accepted de-escalation as a principle, packaging it as a form of resistance.
The new leaders welcomed normalisation with Damascus, realising that times had changed since Meshaal waved the tricolour of the Syrian opposition in December 2012. Their ally in Cairo, Morsi, had been in prison since 2013 until his death June 17 and so was the Egyptian Brotherhood’s top command. Their allies in Libya are facing an uphill battle against Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar and were expected to fall in due course.
Contrary to 2012 expectations, Assad survived in Damascus and won the war in his country, thanks to Russian support. Under the Trump administration, US enthusiasm for regime change in Damascus also waned, with Washington more interested in Kurdish empowerment, the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) and curbing of Iranian influence in Syria.
Also, the Gulf dispute of 2017, followed by steady isolation of Qatar deprived Hamas of the unlimited funds that were once at its disposal, resulting in a far more realistic and pragmatic agenda towards other Arab countries. All of that was topped with a weakening grip on security within Gaza, resulting from poverty and hunger, which triggered anti-Hamas demonstrations earlier this year, and a series of defections into ISIS-affiliated militias, feeding off illegal arms reaching them from Sinai and the Libyan battlefield.
With that in mind, Hamas snuggled up to Damascus, hoping to regain political influence and access to a large number of apartments, offices and cars that were confiscated by the Syrians in 2012. The Syrians said “no” but agreed to a representative office for Hamas in Damascus, conditioning that it issued a public apology and severed its relationship with both Turkey and Qatar.
While an apology was possible, accommodating the second request was not. The Syrians carefully inserted the second condition to kill the negotiations, blaming Hamas for their collapse. They asked for Hamas to distance itself from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which Hamas was in the process of doing, hoping to turn a new page with Egypt.
After Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani failed to mention Gaza during his UN speech last September, Hamas started to look for new allies, meeting with the UAE-based former head of Palestinian security Mohammed Dahlan. They agreed to set up a committee to help Gazan families in need, with donations of up to $50,000 per household. That was UAE money, of course, aimed at challenging Qatar within Doha’s traditional sphere of influence.
However, the Syrian rapprochement collapsed before bearing fruit, due to the impossible conditions set forth by Damascus. Additionally, given rising tension between the Syrians and Turkey over the recent operations in Idlib, it is likely that the Syria talks were amputated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Interestingly, after articles appeared in pro-Hezbollah media outlets in Lebanon, all predicting an imminent breakthrough, it was the Syrians who announced their failure, rather than Hamas.
On June 7, a statement was released on the Facebook account of the Syrian presidency and via the state-run Syrian television, saying Hamas was a “terrorist” organisation with “Brotherhood blood flowing through its veins.” Days later, senior Hamas official Nayef Rajjoub said: “Relations with the Syrian regime will not be restored.”