Syria: In the face of crackdowns against Sunni-protesters Hamas sends mixed signals to the regime of Bashar al-Assad

As reported today by International Herald Tribune the relationship between Hamas and the regime of Bashar al-Assad has become strained during the weeks of crackdowns against, mainly, Sunni protesters. This Saturday Al Hayat, an influential pan-Arab newspaper claimed that Hamas is considering a move from Syria to Qatar. This has been denied by Hamas. A similar rumour on Monday caused Hamas to issue a new denial. So, what is this all about?

The Syrian regime has, according to Hamas, stated that “whoever is not with us is against us”, demanding that Hamas expresses its support for the Syrians regimes crackdown against protesters. Hamas has refused and said that they are neutral and have no right or wish to interfere in Syria’s internal problems.

Hamas is in a bind. The are supported by Syria as a proxy against Israel; as an intergral part of the ‘resistance’ together with Hizbullah. From Syria weapons and money are shipped to Hamas to be smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels. In Syria Hamas fighters can get the latest weapon training on new weapon systems. And the top brass of Hamas with the secretary general Khaled Meshal lives in Damascus.

Yet Hamas is closely connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Syrian branch was crushed after a brutal five year civil war in 1982 in the city of Hama. Hamas is religiously orthodox Sunni. The Syrian regime, though secular, is dominated by Alawi, a sect connected to Shia Islam but seen by many orthodox Sunni as heretical. Now the Alawi- dominated regime is waging a fierce crackdown against protesters, who mainly consist of Sunni.

Furthermore Hamas like to project the image that they are populist. Although Hamas is by no means adverse using harsh methods against protesters, as seen by the crackdown against peaceful demonstrators in Gaza demanding Palestinian unity, Hamas does not want to be associated with the repression in Syria, or that of other authoritarian regimes such as Mubarak, Ben Ali and Khaddafi. A support of the crackdown by the Syrian regime would be ultimate proof that Hamas is as corrupt as the other Arab regimes. A toppling of Hamas in Gaza would then just be a matter of time.

So Hamas cannot express their support of the actions of the Syrian regime. But at the same time the Syrian regime demands that Hamas do just that. What to do? The answer – deny that you are planing a move to Qatar. A leak of information from someone close to the Hamas leadership to Al Hayat that Hamas is considering a move to Qatar followed by a denial from Hamas. A signal to Bashar al-Assad to ease off the pressure and to avoid such methods against Sunni protesters that it might force Hamas to take a stand.

From a Syrian perspective if Hamas was to move its top brass to Qatar this would be a serious loss. Strategically Syria would loose influence over its ‘southern proxy flank’ and cripple their possibility to influence the peace process. Symbolically a move to Qatar could be much worse. This would signal a lack of trust of and faith in the survival of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Such a move would be seen as a signal of support to the Muslim Brotherhood and for the protesters of whom the majority are Sunni. A move to Qatar might be the the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Hamas signing of the agreement with Fatah is another sign of the strained relationship with Syria. A deal such as have been signed today is something that Syria oppose. And according to sources Hamas did not inform the Syria regime of their intentions. The signing of the agreement might also signal a weakening of Hamas position, as they watch their relationship with Syria unravel under the fierce crackdown against protesters.

The rumours that have been circulating since the beginning of the protests in Dara’a that Iranian troops or advisors have assisted the Syrian regime to quash Sunni protesters might also add extra spice to the to already hot Sunni – Shia/Alawi dish.

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About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Board specializing in the Middle East, as head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus and as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus.
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