Phil Sands
The National
October 2, 2011 - 12:00am

Damascus // Syria's relationship with Hamas is increasingly strained over the Palestinian group's refusal to openly endorse Damascus and its tactics in suppressing an anti-regime uprising, according to figures close to both sides.

Once firm allies, the Syrian authorities, led by President Bashar Al Assad, and the Islamic resistance movement, headed by Khalid Meshaal from his headquarters in Damascus, are now barely on speaking terms, regime officials and an Islamic cleric close to Hamas said.

An official in Syria's ruling Baath party even furiously accused Hamas of hedging its bets by funding anti-regime organisations, in the expectation Mr Al Assad could be toppled - an indication that the alliance might already be near to breaking point.

"In public Hamas says it is not with either side in the [Syrian] crisis but in reality they have turned their back on Syria and have sided with Syria's opponents," the Baathist said.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject.

"We have information that Hamas is channelling money to anti-regime groups in Europe. They have decided to bet against the regime," the Baathist said. He gave no further details but described the move as a "serious mistake".

A respected Islamic scholar in Damascus with links to Hamas dismissed that claim but said there had effectively been a freeze in formal contacts with top-level Syrian authorities, despite efforts by Hamas leaders to arrange meetings.

"There is nothing positive between the regime and Hamas at the moment," he said. "The regime wants Hamas to change its attitude and openly support them but people inside Hamas believe they have to be with the Syrian people on this issue."

Alongside Iran, Syria and Lebanon's Hizbollah, Hamas has been a key member of the "axis of resistance" ranged against Israel and its allies, including the United States, which has been at pains to try to break down the four-way alliance.

Damascus has provided important political support to Hamas, and hosting the resistance group's leadership-in-exile has burnished Syria's credentials as a staunch defender of Arab rights in the struggle to win back territories illegally occupied by Israel.

But unlike Iran and Hizbollah, which have very publicly thrown their support behind Mr Al Assad, Hamas has been silent.

In March, shortly after the Syrian uprising began, tensions between the two parties broke into the open after regime officials accused Yousef Al Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Islamic cleric and spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood - including Hamas - of inciting sectarian hatred in Syria after he backed demonstrators in a sermon.

Shortly afterwards, Syrian media reported that Hamas had rejected Mr Al Qaradawi's remarks, only for the Hamas leadership in Damascus to publicly say it had done no such thing.

In June, the disagreement turned bloody when more than a dozen Syrian-Palestinians were killed after trying to storm the heavily mined frontier with Israel during a protest, organised by a pro-regime Palestinian faction with at least tacit approval from the Syrian authorities which police the border.

Those deaths provoked an angry backlash inside Syria's 500,000 strong community of Palestinian refugees, dominated politically by Hamas and Fatah, who said the border protest had been designed to distract attention from Syria's internal problems by spilling Palestinian blood.

At least 11 Palestinian Syrians were in killed Damascus' Yarmouk Camp the following day, during a demonstration at the offices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), the pro Syrian-regime fringe group behind the border incident.

The crowd set fire to the PFLP-GC's offices and cars and, in response, the Palestinian security guards at the compound fired live ammunition at the protesters. Syrian security forces stayed away, Yarmouk residents said.

There have been no subsequent outbreaks of such violence and neither side has openly spoken about the condition of their relationship.

But tensions have been simmering, fuelled by protests in Damascus neighbourhoods with large Palestinian communities, including Qaboun and Qadam. Many Palestinians - although not all - say they sympathise with the anti-regime demonstrators but are obliged to remain neutral.

It is Hamas's Muslim Brotherhood connection that has so troubled Syrian officials, highlighting the tenuous nature of the regime's alliance with the resistance group against Israel while simultaneously suppressing its sister organisation at home.

Membership of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is a capital offence - membership of Hamas is not - and the organisation's Syria wing has unequivocally sided with anti-regime protesters. Qatar, home to Mr Qaradawi, has led growing Arab criticism of Damascus over its crackdown.

Meetings between Hamas figures and Qatari officials, as well as the conclusion of a rapid Egypt-sponsored reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, has exacerbated Syrian concerns that they are losing influence over one of their key foreign policy levers.

Following the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood's influence in Egypt has also grown.

Turkey, another close ally-turned-opponent of the Syrian regime, has also been courting Syria's Muslim Brotherhood and hosting its exiled leadership, adding to suspicions in Damascus that a hostile Sunni Islamic front is forming against it.

That concern is tinged with sectarian undertones, and a feeling among Syria's ruling Alawite minority that the region's Sunni powers want the regime toppled.

"Radical Islam is on the rise," the Baathist official said. "Turkey, the Gulf, the Muslim Brotherhood are all extremists at heart even if they show a different face to the public. They see a chance to get rid of a secular state [Syria] and they have tricked the United States and Europe into playing a part in that plan.

"Europe and the US are making a strategic mistake. They are trying to hand power to the Islamic movements that will be waging war against them in 10 years from now."

Syria has cast the anti-regime uprising as an armed Islamic insurgency, backed by foreign states. The US, EU, United Nations and other Arab countries have given that claim little credence, characterising the uprising as a largely peaceful call for democracy and civil rights that Mr Al Assad's regime has tried to break using lethal force.

According to the UN, security units have killed more than 2,700 people since March, with tens of thousands arrested. Syrian officials say 1,400 people have died - all at the hands of militant groups.

The cleric with links to Hamas said the Syrian authorities were mishandling their relationship with the group and would face a final rupture if the pressure continued.

"Hamas now has other options that it did not have before," he said. "It can move to Egypt now, it can go to Qatar, it is not so dependent on Syria as it used to be.

"If Syria pushes them to come out in public support [for the suppression of anti-regime protests], Hamas will refuse and, if it comes to that, relocate, it would be the political sensible decision to make."

He said Hamas would "not make the same mistake as Hizbollah", whose popularity as a champion of the downtrodden, certainly among many Syrians, has taken a hit because of its support for Mr Al Assad.

A Syrian official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the relationship with Hamas was in a fragile condition and needed to be handled carefully.

"Hamas has not been supportive enough [of the Syrian regime] and it has made mistakes in its strategy recently that have weakened it," he said. "But we have to be pragmatic.

"We are not looking for any extra enemies at the moment, we need friends, so if some people close to Hamas are silent or even criticise Syria, we should not get into an argument with them now."


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