The Day Hamas Walked Away from Damascus (Part 1)

By Martin Accad

Please note: The post this week is part 1 of 2 under the same title. This week’s post is historical and political in nature. Next week’s post will look at the implications of Hamas’ action for the Church and Christians in the Middle East and North Africa context and beyond.

“You don’t bite the hand that feeds you!” No doubt these words must have echoed in the minds of many in the circles of the Syrian regime when Hamas decided to turn away from the Assad regime at the start of 2012. Damascus had, after all, been the only Arab capital to shelter Hamas’ political bureau since 2001, after it had been kicked out of Jordan in 1999. When the uprising began in Syria in 2011, it soon turned into a violent conflict between the Syrian government forces and a growing armed opposition with clear links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas itself, established in 1987, had grown out of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. Khaled Meshaal, chairman of the Hamas political bureau, no doubt was faced with a very tough dilemma. But the outcome was to be expected. Despite Assad’s support of the Hamas cause, their realignment with their founding ideology and with the anti-regime uprising was to be expected. The somewhat unnatural alliance with Iran-Hezbollah-Syrian Regime had died after just a little over 10 years.

Remarkably little[1] has been said in the media, however, about the longer term implications of that shift of allegiance.

After Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah had been at pains to justify its continued existence, since they had so far found legitimacy in resisting Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. They had to reinvent themselves by insisting on the identification of the Shebaa Farms, still occupied by Israel, as Lebanese territory. But at the same time, they also initiated a campaign to reposition themselves as the champions of the Palestinian cause, and insisting on the legitimacy of their continued existence so long as Israel had not been vanquished and the Palestinians not been vindicated. Meshaal’s settling in Damascus in 2001, after a 2-year stint in Qatar, must have been more than just a happy coincidence. This marked the rise of a new powerful front, a region-wide champion of the Palestinian cause, made up primarily of Hezbollah, Iran, the Syrian Assad regime, and Hamas. For the next 10 years, Hamas would be a part of this somewhat unlikely and uneasy alliance. After all, the Sunni nations, in the view of many Palestinians, had all largely capitulated to Israel through peace agreements and all but abandoned their cause. But in early 2012 this began to change. And one can think of many implications.

First of all, this will have an impact on the “resistance bloc.” Can they possibly remain the champions of the Palestinian cause after losing the only Palestinian element from their midst? How will this new – now essentially Shiite – bloc reinvent itself? Much will probably depend on developments in the intra-Syrian conflict. But already there are signs of a refocusing on Jerusalem, and on the religious rather than nationalistic elements of the conflict with Israel. With so much at stake, is it any surprise that Hezbollah have become so deeply entrenched in the Syrian conflict?

Secondly, what are the longer-term implications of this shift of allegiance on Hamas itself? If they have realigned with their Muslim Brotherhood roots, then they will probably become more accountable to the loosely connected elements of that movement as they make decisions of regional significance. There were many fears regarding the fate of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak; fears that turned out to be largely unfounded. The Muslim Brotherhood, like many radical marginal groups that rise to mainstream power, had to rise up to its new responsibilities before the international community, and they maintained the agreement. Hamas is likely to soften its own stance in the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel and to explore new avenues of dialogue and diplomacy as it seeks to reposition itself in leading its own people.

Thirdly, the Arab uprisings should have implications for the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The group had its early days nearly 90 years ago. They emerged in Egypt as an anti-colonial grassroots movement. Later, they joined hands with the “revolution of the officers” that would overthrow the monarchy of king Farouk I and lead to Gamal Abd an-Nasser’s Arab Nationalist movement. Their hope, as a pan-Islamist movement, from the beginning was to be part of a post-colonial and post-monarchial leadership in Egypt, but bloody disagreements with Nasser drove them underground. They remained essentially an underground movement for many decades, though continuing to draw massive grassroots support from the margins. As such, their rise to mainstream political power following the Egyptian uprising in early 2011 should be viewed as the fulfillment of a nearly 90-year-old dream. Naturally, the Muslim Brotherhood is having to reinvent itself as well. Their struggle to make the transition from the margins into the mainstream is quite obvious every time they attempt to apply new legislation inspired by their traditional ideology onto the ordering of Egyptian public life. It is doubtful that the peoples that overthrew largely secular and socialist dictatorships are going to accept their substitution by Islamist and pan-Islamist authoritarian leaderships. This transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood should no-doubt have an impact on Hamas as well.

In summary, Hamas’ shift of allegiance confirms a realignment of powers in the Middle East and North Africa region. The emerging alliances are clearly forming along religious sectarian lines and away from more nationalistic causes. The “resistance bloc” has become more Shiite than ever, and it is seeking new avenues of self-definition. Globally, it is receiving growing support from Russia and China, who are seizing the opportunity for renewed influence in the region beyond the Arab uprisings. On the other hand, the traditionalist Arab monarchies that had maintained a status quo with the West and with Israel are being infused by new blood through the energetic ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood which, as we have seen, is itself being transformed and drawn into the mainstream. This new – essentially Sunni – alliance, is likely both to mellow down the Brotherhood and to force the traditional monarchies into taking a more serious and active role in finding a solution the Palestinian plight. I would argue that there is today a unique window of opportunity opening up on the Arab front for reactivating the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. But will the influential voices and nations see the opportunity and seize it? And does the current Israeli government also offer a particularly ripe window of openness to peace negotiations? Both questions are probably best answered with “unlikely.”

Surely these recent shifts in the MENA political situation, these shifts of allegiances and forming of new alliances, have significant implications for Christians in the region and for the Church generally. To such questions of “implications” I will turn in my next blog installment next week.


[1] Some attention and analysis may be found in an article on the Carnegie website, written by Nathan J. Brown, “Is Hamas Mellowing?” Jan. 17, 2012 (http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/01/17/is-hamas-mellowing/921a), and in a Time article written by senior editor Tony Karon, “Hamas Signals Break with Iran, But Is That Good for Israel?” Feb. 29, 2012 (http://world.time.com/2012/02/29/hamas-signals-a-break-with-iran-but-is-that-good-for-israel/).

One thought on “The Day Hamas Walked Away from Damascus (Part 1)

  1. Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    This is a very important series of blog posts on the situation in the Middle East. An absolute read.
    Second part will follow next week.

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