Hamas feels the heat from Syria
By a Special Correspondent
As relations between Syria and leading Western countries continue to coalesce,
Damascus is set to take a major step in casting off its tag as a sponsor of
News has emerged that Hamas' political leadership, based in Damascus, is to be
asked to cease public statements and, over time, leave Syria. A source in the
Syrian capital said this week that Damascus is keen to be seen as complying
with demands from Washington and European capitals, while reiterating that
Hamas and Fatah must work to unite to strengthen the position of the common
"Damascus is beginning to view itself as a genuine power-broker in the region,"
said the source, who also mentioned the possibility
of Khartoum, Sudan, being proposed as a new base for the Hamas leader. "It sees
moving out Hamas as a legitimate move in that it can push the Arab-Israeli
peace process forward by putting pressure on Hamas to mend ties with Fatah by
presenting a united front against Israel ahead of any possible negotiations."
The source, who cannot be named for security reasons, said a serious precedent
was to be expected. "Hamas has been asked to tone down its public statements
from Damascus [something Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal and others had
been doing, particularly during and after Israel's recent military offensive on
Gaza] and eventually move out."
"But this is not going to happen within the coming weeks; it could take a year
A report in the Kuwaiti al-Rai newspaper last September stated that Meshaal,
chairman of the Hamas political bureau, was to leave Damascus for Khartoum for
security reasons. In addition, the Syrian ambassador to the United States
reportedly said that once a peace accord was reached between Syria and Israel,
the Palestinian factions would have to go. Meshaal sought refuge in Syria after
being poisoned in Amman, Jordan, apparently by Israeli Mossad agents in
September 1997. Hamas has been under intense pressure to tone down its
rhetoric, and now Syria has added its voice.
Furthermore, reports say divisions between Hamas factions based in Damascus and
Gaza have taken place and that the "Gaza Hamas faction" failed to persuade its
Damascus counterparts to accept the terms of an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire
with Israel in January. The Damascus bureau was said to have ordered the
continuation of rocket attacks and resistance at the end of the three-week war.
But like Damascus, Hamas seems to softening. In an interview with the New York
Times published on May 4, Meshaal said, "I promise the American administration
and the international community that we will be part of the solution, period."
The article also mentioned how only six rockets and mortar rounds were fired at
Israel from Gaza in the month of April, and Meshaal noted that rockets had
stopped firing "for now".
Damascus has come into America's sphere of interest for several reasons.
Firstly, the administration of President Barack Obama wants to push forward
toward a solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict and, whether its likes it or
not, it must engage Syria. Secondly, Washington wants Syria to police its
border with Iraq more extensively (the Wall Street Journal recently reported
that US officials believed a Tunisian who carried out a suicide attack in
Baghdad passed through the Syrian border), and lastly, to relinquish its close
ties to Tehran, as Washington attempts to isolate Iran.
In return, Syria wants to develop its stagnant economy by attracting foreign
investment and taking advantage of a glut of world-class historical sites in
its backyard. With a six-year drought taking its toll, peace with Israel based
on the return of the Golan Heights would provide it with an important source of
water: peace (and the Golan, naturally) is something the Damascus government
It hopes such attention based on trade relations and improved political ties
with Europe and America will help achieve its ongoing domestic goals. With a
half dozen international banks having sprung up on the streets of major cities
here, in addition to a tempered easing of sanctions since Obama's inauguration
in January, early signs show Syria’s plan seems to be working.
Trying to serve two masters?
In March, a Rome newspaper quoted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as saying
that Syria and the US were 80% in agreement over several issues and that he was
"ready to mediate with Iran", but added, "For now, I have only received an
invitation to play a role ... We need a plan, rules and specific mechanisms to
bring to Tehran."
Progress is steadily moving forward with the announcement that Jeffrey Feltman
and Dan Shapiro, two of Obama's top Middle East hands, are expected to visit
Damascus for a second time since March in the coming weeks. The Wall Street
Journal quoted US State Department officials as saying “the first round of
negotiations ... developed common ideas between Damascus and Washington, and
now they are hoping to put these strategies into operation."
While Washington's fear of Tehran has been well crafted over the years and will
not dissipate anytime soon, since January its tone has changed out of
recognition. As a result, Syria's readiness to act as an intermediary between
the US and Iran and to draw down on Hamas, a position its unique arrangement
lends itself to, could lead to an important step in getting past two issues of
major international concern.
Until now, standing with Iran and Hamas has made Syria much sought after. For
now it can argue to be working to support the wider Palestinian cause and its
own political and economic goals by "repositioning" its relationship with Hamas
and ceding to Washington's demands.
Even if the Syrian government is not quite sure where it is going - how much it
wants better relations with the West and at what cost to its existing
relationships with Hamas and Iran - it seems Assad is finally beginning to show
his cards. With the right diplomacy, he can attempt to play both sides, but at
some stage it seems likely Syria will have to choose between Hamas and the
Western capitals bearing markets, investors and tourists.
For personal security reasons, the writer of this article cannot be named.