BY HOURIYA AHMED AND JULIA PETTENGILL, FOREIGN POLICY—
The shifting allegiances in this tumultuous era of Arab politics have come to resemble a game of musical chairs. According to an unnamed Hamas official quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the hard-line Palestinian group is seeking to move its political headquarters from Damascus as early as this week. Its reliance on the tottering regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has left it significantly weakened and in search of a new base for political operations, and Egypt and Qatar have both materialized as possible new bases, according to the official. In the case of the Qatari capital of Doha, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
It’s still unclear if Hamas will actually make the move. Speaking to the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, another Hamas official was quick to dismiss the Wall Street Journal story, claiming that only administrative staff will leave Damascus while the top political figures will stay. But whatever Hamas’s current plans, it’s clear that Assad’s violent crackdown — and the negative reaction from Arab powers — have pressured the group into exploring its options.
The fall of traditional regional power brokers like former Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak and the likely fall of Assad have helped to burnish Qatar’s diplomatic and strategic influence. Qatar took the lead in persuading the Arab League to impose sanctions on the Assad regime, and was also the first Arab country to back international intervention in Libya — even sending its own special forces to support the anti-Qaddafi rebels.
For the countries that could be potential new bases, Hamas’s weakness presents an opportunity to turn the group away from extremism, isolate it from Iranian influence, and potentially lay the groundwork for renewed negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The Wall Street Journal article contended that Hamas is being encouraged to make a hurried exit out of Syria by Qatar and Turkey. According to the Hamas official quoted in that piece, the two countries have castigated the group for its continued relationship with the murderous Assad regime, allegedly telling Hamas, in the words of the official, “Have you no shame? It’s enough. You have to get out.” On the verge of becoming embroiled in a Syrian civil war, Hamas is “looking to re-establish themselves somewhere with stability” according to one Palestinian official quoted in the Times of London last week, but also where it will be “protected, diplomatically and militarily, from Israel.”
It is unlikely that Hamas’ top leadership will move its headquarters to Gaza, as the group would be vulnerable to attacks by Israel. Jordan is another possibility, but the Hashemite kingdom and Hamas don’t have a smooth relationship — Hamas officials were expelled from the country in 1999 for actions deemed harmful to the state. Fear of becoming a flashpoint for regional conflict could still convince King Abdullah to avoid strengthening ties with Hamas. There’s always Khartoum, but relocating to distant Sudan would look like an act of desperation for Hamas, which has always prided itself for exercising influence at the center of the Arab world.
Hamas’ position is unenviable. On the one hand, it faces pressure from Iran, another patron, which has allegedly threatened to withdraw funding should the group leave Damascus — a threat the Islamic Republic also reportedly followed through on briefly this year when Hamas refused to publicly support Assad. On the other hand, the longer Hamas remains in Damascus and implicitly stands by Assad, the more legitimacy it will lose among Palestinians living in Syria and broadly among Sunnis opposing the regime. It will also find itself working against its ideological affiliates in the Muslim Brotherhood — an important force in the Syrian opposition movement.
As we argued in our July 2011 report on Fatah-Hamas unity, Hamas’s increasingly untenable position toward the Arab revolt was what induced politburo chief Khaled Mashaal to discuss reconciliation and a unity government back in May with his Palestinian political rival, Fatah — an arrangement the group had previously rejected when offered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2010. The fragility of its position in Syria may have also inspired Hamas to arrange the prisoner swap that exchanged Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners — a move designed to secure much-needed popular kudos and international credibility. Hamas is trying, in its own way, to look like a group that other countries can do business with.