The Syrian government and Palestinian militant group Hamas publicly resumed ties this week after a decade of estrangement, a move experts believe could have significant regional implications.
A high-ranking Hamas-led Palestinian delegation met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Wednesday in Damascus, the first such visit in 10 years.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, had severed its ties with the Syrian government in 2012 in response to the latter’s crackdown on anti-government protests at the beginning of the country’s conflict.
Hamas’ reconciliation with the Syrian government comes after several countries in the region have either restored their ties or signaled at starting dialogue with Damascus.
Designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Hamas has traditionally been a close ally of Iran, itself a stronger supporter of the Syrian government.
Although its relations with Iran have also been strained due to their opposing stances on the Syrian conflict and other regional issues, the Islamist Palestinian group has been trying to amend its ties with Tehran, experts said.
“This meeting (in Damascus) clearly constitutes an element of Hamas's broader rapprochement with Iran which has been in evidence in recent months,” said Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based research institution.
He said the meeting involving Hamas officials and Assad signals the end of the idea of an independent Sunni Islamist power bloc in the region, which some saw as a possibility following the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011.
“Hamas (a Sunni Islamist group) was enthusiastic about the birth of a bloc of this kind,” Spyer told VOA. “The movement’s departure from Damascus and its support for the Sunni Arab and Islamist insurgency against Assad formed an element of this support. The military coup in Egypt, the defeat of the rebellion in Syria and the rise to power of Kais Saied in Tunisia ensured that no such bloc emerged.” Saied is Tunisia’s president.
Palestinian sources have said that Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah played a role in brokering talks between Assad and Hamas.
“In this regard, there was a role played by Iran, Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions, but that came only after Hamas decided to talk with the Syrian regime as a prelude for reviving ties,” said Mustafa al-Sawaf, a Palestinian affairs analyst based in Gaza.
Khalil al-Hayya, a politburo member of Hamas, who was part of the Palestinian delegation in Damascus, told reporters after his meeting with Assad that other countries in the region, including Qatar and Turkey, were also notified about the decision and they encouraged the group to take the step.
The move also comes as several countries have normalized their relations with Israel, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and other Arab nations as part of the U.S.-sponsored Abraham Accords in 2020.
Analyst Sawaf told VOA that Hamas was prompted to reestablish ties with the Syrian regime to try to form a coalition to counter Israel and promote the creation of a Palestinian nation.
Iran is the only the power that could make possible the existence of such a coalition, experts said.
“Hamas remains dependent on Iran for its military capacity. Hence it has had to go with cap in hand back to the Iranians. Rapprochement with Assad constitutes an additional price that Hamas must pay for readmission to the camp led by Tehran.”
Other experts believe the thaw in relations between Syria and Hamas could also prove beneficial for the Syrian regime as it seeks to break its regional and international isolation.
“Assad could use Hamas, just like before the Syrian war, as a proxy against the interests of Israel, the United States and some Arab countries that are opposed to Islamist groups, particularly such groups that are aligned with Iran,” John Saleh, a Syria researcher based in Washington, told VOA.
At this critical juncture, he said, both sides need each other.
“Hamas also needs the Syrian regime,” Saleh said, “because its ties with Iran, most Arab countries don’t deal with it anymore. So, Hamas didn’t have a choice but to return to Damascus.”
It’s not clear when Hamas will reopen its headquarters in Damascus, but leaders of the group have indicated that it will happen in a gradual manner.
(This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish service.)