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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Syria and Hamas: an analysis (updated and gutted)

A few days ago, a Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai reported that exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal had been asked by Syria to move from Damascus to Sudan. Hamas denied it, and there has been no independent confirmation of that rumor.

Today, a different Kuwaiti newspaper is reporting that Jordan rejected a request by some Hamas leaders to move their offices to Amman. This gives a bit more credence to the earlier story that Syria is pressuring Hamas to leave.

The Western press makes the assumption that this must be the result of the indirect Israeli-Syrian talks; that Syria wants to push their "peace process" forward. This assumption is worth examining.

Syria has been remarkably consistent over the past thirty years. Its primary concern has not been Israel, and neither has it been the happiness of its people; the consistency of Syria has been in keeping its leaders in power. Hafez Assad was a master at this game; his son Bashir seems to be learning quickly.

The peace talks with Israel has two potential benefits for Syria. By far the most important one was to blunt Western pressure on Syria as a terrorist state; if it could talk to its implacable foe, how dedicated to terror could it be? Syria could not afford the economic isolation that the West has been putting on Iran and above all it needed to make sure that such pressure never happens to Syria. The net result is that Syria is dodging a bullet yet again.

The secondary result is that if the current Israeli government is so stupid and desperate for "peace" that it is willing to give up the strategically important Golan for a piece of paper, why not? Syria has had a de facto peace with Israel on that border - the quietest border in Israel - for decades; it has literally nothing to lose. The chances that Syria and Israel would normalize relations is nil; they would spin gaining the Golan as a military victory to the hungry-for-victory Arab world, shrug off the criticisms the way Egypt did, and that would be that.

Any moves that Syria makes vis a vis Hamas needs to be looked at through the same prism. If Syria has quietly made Hamas' leaders know that they are no longer as welcome there, there must be more benefot to Syria than simply the desire for peace - it must be that Hamas in Syria has become either irrelevant or a burden.

It is easy to make the case that Hamas in Syria is irrelevant. Hamas is not monolithic, and the Damascus Hamas has lost all of its influence over Gaza Hamas. After all, there is effectively an Arab state in Gaza run by Hamas - those are the practical leaders of the group, not Khaled Meshaal making speeches from abroad. It is Gaza Hamas that Jordan has spoken to recently in recognition of its growing power, not Meshaal. Meshaal has just become a windbag; the equivalent of Farouk Kaddoumi railing against Israel from his PLO offices in Tunisia. They are good for headlines but they have literally no power over the people they pretend to lead.

As such, Hamas in Syria no longer gives Syria any benefit. And it might be a burden.

Meshaal might not be a leader in any real sense any more but he is smart enough to try to ride Hamas Gaza's coattails as its influence increases. Hamas Gaza's coup has been the greatest practical victory for the Muslim Brotherhood - the first time that al-Ikhwan ever controlled any territory.

Syria has been trying to co-opt and channel internal Islamic fundamentalism to deflect the danger it poses to the regime, and right now the Muslim Brotherhood is a looming - of not immediate - threat. The Assads have not been in the habit of letting potential threats survive very long. While Hamas in Damascus has no political power in Gaza, it is the vanguard of the Ikhwan in Syria, and as such it is a threat to the Syrian regime itself, and not to Israel.

The very moment that Hamas in Syria is perceived to turn from an asset to a liability is the moment that the regime will start trying to use that fact for political advantage, which is precisely what we are seeing.

UPDATE: I emailed this to Barry Rubin, prolific author, analyst and expert on the Middle East, where he disagreed with some of my points and demolished others.

He writes:
Just because Kuwaiti newspapers say something has no necessary relationship to the truth but either is guessing, wishful thinking or misinformation. I think these are planted rumors from Syria. Probably nothing has happened at all.
I'm not so sure, because the second "leak" was from Jordan, not Syria; this is what made me take notice (the first report I ignored.)
Meshaal has just become a windbag; the equivalent of Farouk Kaddoumi railing against Israel from his PLO offices in Tunisia. They are good for headlines but they have literally no power over the people they pretend to lead.
Actually Meshal is the main leader and his supporters just purged the local “moderate” politicians. The reason Jordan talks to the Gaza Hamas is that the Damascus people are enemies of Jordan.

As such, Hamas in Syria no longer gives Syria any benefit. And it might be a burden.
Hamas is the main instrument for Syria to influence (and possibly some day take over) Palestinian politics, a key aim of Syria for almost 50 years.


While Hamas in Damascus has no political power in Gaza, it is the vanguard of the Ikhwan in Syria, and as such it is a threat to the Syrian regime itself, and not to Israel.


Not at all true. Hamas and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood are allies of Syria and oppose the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Everyone in the area knows this.
As the late Emily Litella put it, "Never mind." :)