Palestinian resistance movement Hamas has turned its back on its long-term ally Syria, publicly denouncing Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown while throwing its support behind the revolution. The decision represents a dramatic realignment for the Palestinian group, as it aims to exploit the shifting power balance in the region and strengthen relations with its Islamist parent organisation, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
After nearly a yearlong crackdown against Sunni protesters and rebels, Hamas has taken the step of breaking with Damascus, declaring on 24 February that it would cut all ties with Assad. ‘I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,’ Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told thousands of worshippers at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque.
The abandonment by Hamas of its long-time backer, which has in the past supplied Hamas with weapons and cash and offered a safe haven to its leaders, further isolates Syria in the region. Damascus can now only count on Iran and the Shiite groups Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad for support. The decision is partly due to the embarrassment felt among Sunni Palestinians, who have been widely critical of Hamas’ close association with Assad. It is also illustrative of the different strategic direction Hamas is taking, as it aims to establish a new political vision in the coming years.
Hamas, a Sunni fundamentalist group formed in 1987, now finds itself at a turning point. After unexpectedly sweeping parliamentary elections and winning the right to form government in Palestine in 2007, the group has largely existed in political stalemate for the last five years. An ongoing civil war with Fatah, deteriorating relations with Syria and Iran and various funding issues has seen it struggle in the past few years. The shifting power balance in the Middle East and the rising star of the Brotherhood in Egypt may yet revitalise the Palestinian group.
While the Brotherhood was previously suppressed under former president Hosni Mubarak, his fall and the subsequent parliamentary elections saw the ascendancy of the Brotherhood in Egypt. Now, with the Brotherhood as the ruling party in Egypt, Hamas has chosen to cut its ties with Assad in order to bolster its relations with the Brotherhood and to align itself closer to Sunni-led governments in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere in the Middle East.
One by-product of the Egyptian revolution has been a shift in terms of the Palestine question. Support in Egypt has moved towards Hamas and away from the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which had enjoyed support from Mubarak. Now more than ever, there is strong political support for Hamas in Egypt, which is why Hamas is now looking towards Cairo rather than Damascus to secure its future. Although the Brotherhood may be domestically focussed in the short term, ‘the Egyptian revolution has brought the two a lot closer and their relationship is likely to develop further’ said Professor Nathan Brown, a senior associate on the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
How the Brotherhood receives Hamas in the long run remains to be seen, however. The revolution may well have brought the two closer and certain elements within the Brotherhood will likely back Hamas strongly. But the Brotherhood has other issues to consider, too. ‘The MB leadership will be more concerned at managing the relationship with the Egyptian military (whose contacts with Israel continue), and reassuring the US that the MB is a responsible interlocutor … [so] that funding … through the IMF and other agencies continue[s]’, Adjunct Professor Robert Bowker, of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies in Canberra, told Future Directions International. Moreover, while the Brotherhood may offer some support for Hamas, it will not want to be held accountable should they offer outright support and financing to Hamas, as any violent activities undertaken by the group could lead to confrontation with the US or Israel.
Meanwhile, as Hamas looks to Cairo for support and the Brotherhood finds its feet, a concern for Hamas will now be how the split with Syria will affect its relationship with Iran, one of Assad’s few remaining allies. Iran has cut funding to Hamas in the past for its failure to show support for Assad. Although it is likely that Hamas will continue to receive some support from Iran by virtue of its armed opposition towards Israel, Hamas must now try to balance its relations with Iran and the region’s Sunni Muslim countries, many of which actively oppose Iran.
Many challenges for Hamas remain, including supplanting the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank, managing relations between Iran and securing adequate funding in the future. But the events of the last year and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are likely to embolden Hamas. ‘Hamas sees the region moving in directions it likes’, said Professor Bowker. With Hamas finally cutting its ties with Syria and Islamic governments taking root in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, he went on to say that ‘there is little doubt Hamas is full of confidence at the moment … I expect it is looking forward to … gaining a larger degree of international acceptability as the EU and others become accustomed to dealing with Islamist governments around the region.’
Future Directions International Research Assistant
South and West Asia Research Programme