ISW in Brief: Hamas to Abandon Syria, Iran

by Joseph Holliday

December 15, 2011

Senior Hamas officials’ repeated leaks show that the organization is prepared to evacuate Syria, despite public denials and party-line assurances that close relations with Syria’s embattled Assad regime continue. Hamas has been headquartered in Damascus, where hundreds of its members lived and worked, since it was forced to leave Jordan in September 1999. Yet, recent reports indicate only “a few dozen” representatives remain. One official told the Wall Street Journal that Hamas has been liquidating its assets in the country and that 90 percent of the organization’s staff will be relocated, leaving only a skeleton crew in the capital.

Brought on by the Assad regime’s brutality toward the Sunni population, Hamas’ decision to leave Damascus illustrates the Assad regime’s growing isolation and underscores Syria’s significance in the regional competition between Iran, the Gulf States, and Turkey. Iran has not only lost a strategic ally in Hamas, but also Tehran’s ability to claim ownership of the anti-Zionist movement.

Because Damascus was already a conduit for Iranian support to Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas established a headquarters in the city in order to benefit from Iranian and Syrian sponsorship of its anti-Israel campaign. Hamas originally began as a militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization, and its allegiance is ultimately to Sunni Palestinians. The Assad regime has violently suppressed Sunni protestors in general and Palestinian enclaves in particular. For example, over the summer security forces displaced many residents of Latakia’s Ramel district, a neighborhood inhabited by Sunni Palestinian refugees since the 1950s.

In March, President Bashar al-Assad called Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to a meeting and demanded that Hamas mobilize support for the regime, and Meshaal refused. According to one Hamas official, Assad issued an ultimatum, “Whoever is not with us is against us,” and Meshaal threatened to remove Hamas from Syria. The Assad regime decided that the credibility its relationship with Hamas provided was too valuable to risk, resulting in a stalemate. Iran opted for a different approach, cutting the group’s funding in July and August in an attempt to force Hamas to support Assad.

Instead, Hamas seems to have drifted further from Tehran. In October it conducted a prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit—a move the Iranian regime had opposed for years—and now it is seeking to build better relations with Arab states in the region by opening “interest” offices in Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, and others. As the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood grew in Egypt, Hamas strongly hinted its intent to move its headquarters to Cairo in September. Indeed, some have even speculated that the Egyptian transitional military government demanded Hamas’ reconciliation with Fatah on the West Bank in exchange for permission to relocate to Egypt.

Despite Hamas’ new footing, the organization is likely to maintain a nominal presence in Damascus, if only to keep their seat at the table if and when the Assad regime falls. Burhan Ghalioun of the opposition Syrian National Council has explicitly ruled out cooperation with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah in a post-Assad Syria, but he has not commented on the potential for a relationship with Hamas. Hamas’ strategic realignment away from Iranian and Syrian patronage in favor of the patronage of regional Sunni states represents an important shift in the momentum of Iranian regional influence.

Joseph Holliday is a Senior Research Analyst at ISW.