Hamas has thrown its political clout behind an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Palestinian Islamist group's longtime patron and host, a shift that cracks a formidable alliance and further widens the Middle East's sectarian divide.What reporters didn't notice was how unusual it was that Ismail Haniyeh, and not Khaled Meshal, was making this statement.
Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, told worshipers at Cairo's Al Azhar mosque during Friday prayers that the political party and militia was supporting the uprising against Mr. Assad, calling the revolutionaries "heroic," according to the Associated Press.
After all, Meshal is Hamas' political leader. Haniyeh is supposed to only be the leader of Hamas in Gaza.
Yet Haniyeh has gone on three trips outside Gaza in the last couple of months, acting each time more and more like he is truly the leader of Hamas and that Meshal is a figurehead, not the other way around.
Meshal is the one whose headquarters, at least nominally, was in Syria, even though he has avoided his Damascus office for months now. Haniyeh's populist speech in Cairo, with the Muslim Brotherhood, seems to have been calculated to pull the rug out from under Meshal's careful balancing act between his Damascus sponsors and the Arab world that supports the opposition.
Yesterday, Meshal's deputy confirmed the split:
The Hamas leadership has left its longtime base in Syria because of the regime's crackdown on opponents there, the No. 2 in the Islamic militant movement said in an interview Sunday at his new home on the outskirts of Cairo.This doesn't sound like the fire-and-brimstone opposition to Assad that Haniyeh called for. This sounds more like an attempt by the political wing of Hamas to avoid the appearance of a split and to salvage Meshal's leadership while not quite burning bridges with Damascus.
Still, Hamas officials long played down reports of the movement's exodus from Syria.
Abu Marzouk noted Sunday that Hamas still has offices in Syria, but acknowledged that "practically, we are no longer in Syria because we couldn't practice our duties there."
Abu Marzouk has moved to a cottage on the outskirts of Cairo where he uses the second floor as an office. Previously, under the Israeli and Egyptian embargo on the Gaza Strip, only those with Gaza residency could live there, and many top Hamas leaders lived outside of the small, coastal enclave.
He said Mashaal and his aides have moved to Doha. Another Hamas official said this week that Mashaal twice turned down recent requests to meet with Assad and eventually decided to leave Syria.
"Our position on Syria is that we are not with the regime in its security solution, and we respect the will of the people," Abu Marouk said.
This weekend, Ismail Haniyeh has catapulted himself into becoming Hamas' recognized leader even in the international political arena. The "Doha Declaration" between Abbas and Meshal is all but meaningless in the face of Haniyeh's (and Mahmoud Zahar's) opposition and Meshal's increasing irrelevance.
A similar analysis was done by Ehud Yaari in The Times of Israel with lots of good detail:
Hamas’s no longer undisputed leader Khaled Mashaal is now in deep trouble. ...(h/t EBoZ)
Abandoning their secure base in Damascus without being able to obtain an alternative safe haven, the “External Leadership” of Hamas is fast losing ground in its ongoing rivalry with the “Internal Leadership” centered in the Gaza Strip. Mashaal is no longer in sole control of the movement’s purse strings, since contributions from Tehran were reduced. He no longer enjoys the recognition of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah in his supremacy within Hamas.
...And so, earlier this month, Mashaal resorted to a sudden dramatic exercise: On February 6 in Doha he signed — under the auspices (and financial incentives) of the Emir of Qatar — an agreement with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas to form a “temporary” technocrats’ Unity Government, with Abu Mazen himself as prime minister.They also agreed to postpone general elections without fixing a specific date.
This was a bombshell! Mashaal has agreed, at least implicitly, to make a major concession: to dismantle Hamas’ s own government in Gaza, which has ruled the Strip for the last five years, and to allow the PA administration (and security services?) to resume control over the different ministries. He seemed to be sacrificing Hamas’s autonomous enclave in the hope that, at an unspecified date, Hamas might win in the ballot boxes.
Furthermore, Mashaal made a few statements recommending “popular struggle” — which is the code for unarmed confrontation — against Israel. This was perceived as meaning he was willing to suspend use of bullets and rockets, contrary to Hamas’s traditional devotion to the concept of “armed resistance.” He also expressed acceptance of a Palestinian state within 1967 boundaries, although he stressed that there would be no peace or recognition of The Zionist Entity and the goal will remain the destruction of Israel. To many in Hamas, Mashaal sounded as if he was diverting to a dangerous course in an effort to adjust to the Arab Spring, handing their Fatah rivals an easy victory.
A chorus of protests by the Gaza leaders — not to mention by the West Bankers — immediately erupted. Mashaal was accused of acting behind the back of the Hamas institutions and deviating from the adopted policies. Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, an old foe of Mashaal’s, took the lead in public, but many joined him during the closed doors sessions of Hamas meetings in Khartoum and then in Cairo.The plan to appoint Abbas as prime minister was described as “unconstitutional.”
Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, embarked on a tour of several Arab countries avoiding any hint of support for the Doha Agreement. Then he ignored warnings by the Gulf states and the Moslem Brotherhood and paid a widely publicized visit to Iran, kissing and hugging Supreme Leader Khamenei, and asking for direct financial assistance to Gaza. On his return to Cairo, incidentally, the crowd at al-Azhar mosque Friday prayer cheered him by shouting “Down with Iran, Down with Hezbullah!”…..
And so, right now, the ever-negotiated reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah is again bogged down. Abbas insists on the implementation of the deal cut with Mashaal. The majority of Hamas leaders demand “amendments” to the Doha Agreement. Maintaining exclusive security control over the Strip is definitely a Hamas condition now, as is a demand for veto power over the appointment of all ministers.
The two parties keep conferring in Cairo but so far cannot agree on a visit of Abbas in Gaza. The internal debate within Hamas has been brought to the surface.
The movement has lost the pretense of cohesion. The battle over command and direction is on.