• Ola Rifai

Hamas: The Pragmatic Shift & the Syrian War

After some 30 years of hard-line policies and vows to "eliminate the Jewish State" Palestinian militant group Hamas softens its stances saying that it would support the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders. Hamas; the Arabic acronym for The Islamic Resistance Movement unveiled last Monday a 42-point political document that is said to guide the group. In this document of principles; Hamas accepts the two states solution while tuning down its anti-Semitic language and ignoring links to the Muslim Brotherhood (which Hamas is considered an offshoot of). Although the document’s ambiguous circumlocutions are open to many interpretations, the document represents a milestone in the political history of the movement; maybe a second one after Hamas’ massive electoral victory in 2006.

Hamas’ significant shift towards a more pragmatic rhetoric is absolutely a direct outcome of the Arab Spring; and in particular; of the Syrian Uprising that turned into a bloody struggle for power. The Arab Spring pushed Hamas towards reconciliation with its old rival; Fatah as they both feared an internal uprising and thus they signed the Cairo agreement in April 2011. Yet, unprecedentedly, the war in Syria is pushing Hamas a step toward a foreign adversary; Israel.

For the first 11 months of the Uprising, Hamas sought to stay neutral, however, the brutal response by the Assad regime to what started as peaceful protests trapped Hamas in the corner with a very hard decision to make: either to denounce actions by regime forces and lose a two-decade alliance with Iran-Hezbollah and Syria. Or to get involved in a bloody quagmire which would threaten its legitimacy in the eyes of many Gazans and other Hamas supporters around the region; especially those in Qatar and Turkey. Based on realistic calculations; Hamas opted for the first option that indeed forced the movement to adjust its political line as it ruined its longstanding alliance with the so called "refusal front" jabhet al-muman'aa which consisted of Hamas; Iran; Hezbollah and Syria. This alliance was established in the early 2000s based on a pure Machiavellian logic that put together actors with contradicting ideologies (Shiite, Salafi Sunni and Secular). Politically, financially and militarily speaking, Hamas benefited from this axis, and furthermore its existence relied, to large extent, on it.

Since 1993 Hamas opened the first office in the Syrian capital to oppose the Oslo accord; in 1999 the movement moved its headquarters to Damascus after the explosion aimed at the Hamas leader in Amman; Jordan. Yet, the Syrian war changed the equation and forced Hamas to leave its offices in Syria heading to Doha while pursuing new alliances in a chaotic context of the Arab Spring. Qatar, Turkey, Saudi and Egypt were the remaining alternatives. All of these actors supported Hamas financially and politically in the past, however their support was extremely limited compared to the Iranian funding, the Syrian sheltering and Hezbollah backing. Nevertheless, events that took place post March 2011 have forced a new reality for Hamas which started to lean towards pragmatism in order to please potential allies, and promote a new public image on the international arena and ultimately erase Hamas from the terrorism list.

Alas, these actors seem powerless to do so as each of them is struggling with different challenges posed by the Arab Spring. Mr. Erdogan is now busy fighting the Kurds in Syria and seeking to balance the power with Russia while approaching the EU. At the same time, he is facing internal challenges from longstanding rivals; the Kemalizm; AKP and Gulen followers. Saudi is dragged into what looks like an attrition war in Yemen. While Qatar is drawn to the back rows after a mysterious power transition in the peninsula. On the other hand, General Sisi of Egypt, Hamas’ only bordering neighbor, is extremely hostile to any supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood group. To further complicate the situation for Hamas; on May 20, American President Donald Trump lumped Hamas with ISIS in a summit held in Riyadh while attending Arab leaders remained silent. Only two weeks later; the Saudi Kingdom severed ties with Qatar opening the worst rift among key states in the Arab World since the Gulf war. The Saudis convinced Egypt; the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to join in boycotting Qatar. They accused the latter of supporting terrorism. Last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir clearly asked Qatar to end its support for what he called ‘terrorist’ groups including Hamas. Surely, this escalation has positioned Hamas again in the midst of a regional struggle for power, and seems to have hindered Hamas’ attempts to form alternative alliances to the ones it used to have.

With no strong allies and a worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza, Hamas would struggle to survive, the movement leadership seems to be very aware of this fact. Throughout two decades, the Syrian regime manipulated Hamas for realpolitik ends. However, in return, Hamas benefited from the Assad regime and furthermore, during both Assads era, Hamas witnessed its golden days; yet, it is now experiencing what appears to be its darkest days. Hamas’ fate in any post-Assad Syria is uncertain, as it lacks leverage over all factions of the Syrian drama, however what is certain is that no faction is capable of providing what the Assad regime once provided Hamas with.

In truth, if the Kurds were the biggest winner of the Syrian Uprising since it as yielded them with a golden opportunity to fulfil their agenda, Hamas by no means, is the biggest loser, as the Syrian crisis has imposed a new agenda on the movement.

*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.

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