Middle East

Syria’s sectarian war causes Hamas split, analysts say

An Egyptian border police sits at his post as he observes Palestinian youths waving their green Islamic and national flags while taking part in a military style exercises run by Hamas during a scouting summer camp next to the border between Egypt and Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, June 19, 2013.(AP Photo/Adel Hana)

GAZA CITY: Syria’s civil war has caused a split within Hamas over whether to cling to its Shiite backers Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah or side with Sunni allies such as Qatar, Egypt and Turkey, analysts say. Some in the Islamist movement’s military wing insist that aid from Iran – a key Damascus ally – should not be shunned simply to publicly back the Sunni-led rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hamas sources told AFP.

News of the split within the Palestinian movement which rules the Gaza Strip coincides with reports that Iran has scaled down its financial support to the group.

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, who is behind the movement’s shift toward Sunni regimes such as Qatar that back the rebels, left his Damascus headquarters in 2012 for Doha after refusing to support Assad’s deadly crackdown.

Meshaal and his Gaza-based Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh were Tuesday in Ankara, another rebel backer, to meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And the previous day, Meshaal had called on Lebanon’s Hezbollah to pull its forces out of Syria and focus on resisting Israel, accusing it of contributing to “sectarian polarization” in the region.

Pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi recently reported that leaders of Hamas’s armed wing the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades had warned Meshaal against getting too close to Qatar, as this was having a negative impact on aid from Iran.

It was Tehran’s military support rather than Gulf financial support, they reminded him, that had enabled Hamas to face the last major Israeli assault on Gaza in November.

Meshaal himself had publicly thanked the Islamic Republic for its provision of arms to Hamas during the eight-day conflict.

But a senior Hamas official told AFP there had been “decline in Iranian financial aid to Hamas because of our support for the just demands of the Syrian people,” saying it had caused “differing opinions” within the movement.

“There are those who support maintaining good relations with Iran in opposing the Zionist-American axis, since Iran and Hezbollah backed us when the Arabs abandoned us,” he said, adding that the opinion was “shared by Qassam.”

Walid al-Mudallal, a history and politics professor at Gaza City’s Islamic University, suggested Hamas should remain pragmatic over its involvement with opposing forces.

“Hamas, as a resistance movement, must stay away from the game of [opposing] axes and keep its relations balanced,” he said.

The movement “acted wisely when it sided with the Syrian people and still managed to maintain a minimum level of [good] relations with Iran and Hezbollah,” Mudallal said.

“Hamas then received support from Gulf countries [supporting the Syrian uprising] and so now have multiple sources of support.”

Qatar last year promised $400 million to help rebuild Gaza, which has been heavily bombarded in successive Israeli military campaigns.

Had Hamas supported the brutal repression of Damascus, its host at the beginning of Syria’s civil war, its popularity among Sunnis would have been eroded, said Mudallal, reasoning that the current outcome was much better, even if it entailed an inevitable drop in Iranian aid.

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, politics professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said the current debate within Hamas sparked by the Syrian civil war had “created two diverging trends whose resolution would depend on how the conflict pans out.”

“If the regime gets the upper hand, it will be easier for Hamas to rekindle old ties,” but a rebel victory would possibly be more problematic, he said.

A May visit to Gaza by Qatar-based Islamic theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi only served to exacerbate the Hamas split, as he subsequently called on Sunnis to join rebels fighting against the Shiite Hezbollah.

On June 14, the Hamas prime minister denied reports that the Qassam Brigades were directly helping rebels in Syria. “There is no truth to [claims] that Hamas fighters are in Syria, although we stand on the side of the Syrian people and condemn the brutal attacks they are exposed to,” he said.

But Al-Quds al-Arabi Monday said Hamas’s support for the rebels had been miscalculated. Hamas “rallied to the extremist Sunni camp because it counted on the downfall of the Syrian regime within weeks or months like in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but its steadfastness for more than two years has taken the movement by surprise.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 22, 2013, on page 10.

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