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 striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Ismail Haniya, one of Hamas leaders, announced at Friday prayers at Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo.
“The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution,” worshippers chanted back, as Hamas’s break with the Syrian government, which used to host its leaders, became evident.
But now, a decade on, Hamas has reversed its position, and ties have been restored.
The move has sparked controversy in the Arab world, but it has not elicited surprise, with analysts saying that the Hamas decision reflects its backing of Iran and its allies – Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syria – which have supported its fight against Israel.
“Although Hamas sided in part with Syria’s opposition for a time, it never fully broke away from Iran’s orbit and as such, it was always going to come back to Assad’s fold eventually,” said Charles Lister, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“Hamas’s existence is defined by its resistance to Israel and to sustain that, it not only needs Iran’s strategic support, it needs Syria too,” he told Al Jazeera.
Relations between Syria and the Palestinian movement were strong for many years, with Damascus being a safe haven for Hamas’s leadership 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 revolt proved to be a breaking point in their ties, as relations quickly soured between Hamas and its longtime ally.
Hamas leaders rejected pressure from al-Assad to rally in his support in Damascus, and instead endorsed the opposition. They were then swiftly forced to shutter their offices in the Syrian capital city, before moving to Qatar in 2012.
Despite the apparent freeze in ties, discussions to mend relations have long continued among Hamas leaders, according to senior Hamas official Bassem Naim, who told Al Jazeera that Hamas “never decided to cut ties with Damascus”.
In a statement on September 15, Hamas said it was indebted to Damascus which had “embraced” the Palestinian people and resistance for decades.
It added that it was now the group’s turn to “stand” with Syria in the face of “brutal aggression”, in reference to escalating Israeli attacks on Syria – the latest of which killed five soldiers in an air attack 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’s council of political and foreign affairs. “We need the support of all Muslim and Arab countries and people.”
“Cutting ties with any entity must be justified in terms of the interests of the Palestinian people. In that regard, the only relation we refuse is with the Israeli occupation,” he added.
Naim argued that, as some Arab countries had chosen to normalise ties with Israel, it was “only logical for Hamas to side with those who choose resistance against the Zionist enemy”.
In 2020, four Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – normalised relations with Israel in United States-brokered deals that elicited mixed global reactions.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Damascus, Syria in 2010 [File: SANA via Reuters]Restoring ‘axis of resistance’
In separate speeches last week, both Tehran and its regional ally, Hezbollah, praised Hamas’s decision, with Hezbollah’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, saying that Syria and its leadership would remain “the true support of the Palestinian people”.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Foreign Minister Nasser Kanani said in a news conference on September 19 that the move was in the interests of the Palestinian people, as it helped strengthen their position against Israel.
“Iran encourages and supports this trend and believes convergence between resistance factions can help strengthen peace, stability and security in the region,” said Kanani.
According to Somdeep Sen, associate professor in International Development Studies at Roskilde University, the Hamas move has not only restored ties with Damascus but also worked to restore “the axis of resistance” which includes Iran and Hezbollah.
“As Turkey and many Arab countries restore their ties with Israel, the Palestinian faction has few options left in terms of allies in the region,” added Sen, who focuses on settler colonialism in Palestine.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the first face-to-face talks between the two countries’ leaders since 2008 as tensions between them begin to thaw.
Palestinian protesters react during a demonstration by the border fence with Israel, east of Gaza City, to denounce the Israeli siege of the Palestinian strip [File: Said Khatib/AFP]Syria analyst Karam Shaar agreed that with Hamas’s political isolation in the region, the movement has been pushed to remain close to Iran.
“Hamas moved to normalise relations with Syria under pressure from Iran, which is making its support to Hamas contingent with restoring ties with Assad,” said Shaar.
“This [move] will therefore increase Iran’s support for Hamas, as it realigns the movement under Iran’s wing,” he added.
But while Hamas cosies up to Iran and its allies, the Palestinian group may be risking its ties with a key supporter over the past decade – Qatar.
“The most intriguing dynamic at play would seem to be Hamas’s relationship with Qatar, which remains the regional government most determined to continue to resist any normalisation of Assad’s regime,” Lister told Al Jazeera. “Time will tell if Doha can continue to square those two contradictory circles.”
Not only did Doha take in Hamas leaders after they left Damascus, but it also provided millions of dollars in financial aid to the Gaza Strip since 2012.
This support has made Hamas increasingly reliant on Qatar to maintain its construction of homes, the education system and a steady supply of fuel to the besieged coastal enclave which has seen several wars with Israel since 2005.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi meets al-Assad in Tehran, Iran, May 8, 2022 [File: Official Presidential website via Reuters]Public perception
Away from the political realm, the move 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.
As many Syrians and other Arabs voiced their condemnation of the move over social media, Hamas’s restoration of ties with Damascus will affect its reputation, say analysts.
“With public perception in the region being extremely critical of the move, the organisation is bound to lose support in the wider Arab world,” said Sen.
“The move is sadly emblematic of the widespread regional fatigue with Syria’s crisis and a desire – albeit an illogical one – to ‘move on’ and pretend Syria’s crisis never happened and no longer exists,” added Lister.
A Syrian young girl runs next to a wall in a refugee camp for displaced people run by the Turkish Red Crescent in Sarmada district, north of Idlib city, Syria [File: Francisco Seco/AP Photo]