Khaled Abu Toameh
The Jerusalem Post
December 9, 2011 - 1:00am

There, Hamas came out in support of the demonstrators and even urged them to topple their leaders.

Hamas was the first Palestinian group to welcome the downfall of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi.

With Syria, however, Hamas has found itself in a delicate situation. On the one hand, Hamas can’t afford to voice support for those who are seeking to overthrow a regime that has been hosting and backing the movement for more than two decades.

Hamas leaders know that they would pay a heavy price the moment they betray Assad. They know that Assad is a ruthless tyrant who does not forgive those who turn their backs on him and his regime.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal does not want to undergo the same experience as former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, who was expelled from Syria in 1983 in a humiliating manner by the president’s father, Hafez Assad.

Hafez Assad decided to expel Arafat after the latter accused the Syrian regime of collusion with dissident PLO officers to perpetrate massacres against Palestinians in Lebanon.

Arafat was given a letter at 8 a.m.

ordering him to leave Syria before 2 p.m. He was driven to the airport in a bulletproof limousine escorted by Syrian security vehicles. He was permitted to take only six bodyguards with him.

On the other hand, Hamas can’t afford to be seen supporting a murderous regime that is slaughtering dozens of Syrian civilians on almost a daily basis. In fact, Hamas, like most Palestinians, has never expressed public support for any of the Arab dictators.

Hamas is well-aware of the fact that the moment it sides with an Arab dictator, it will lose a lot of points on the Palestinian and Arab street.

Hamas’s dilemma in dealing with the revolt against Assad is best reflected in mixed messages coming from its leaders and representatives. While Mashaal and most of the Hamas leaders sitting in Syria have not uttered one word against Assad, many lowlevel activists, especially those living in the Gaza Strip, have adopted a tough stance against the Syrian regime. Almost all of Hamas’s publications have also endorsed the anti- Assad line.

The crisis between Assad and Hamas is said to have begun a few weeks ago when Syrian authorities asked Mashaal to go on TV and express support for the regime in its battle against “armed terror groups.”

Mashaal politely turned down the request under the pretext that Hamas does not interfere in the internal affairs of Arab countries.

Later, Hamas further enraged the Syrians when it rejected a request to send Palestinian refugees living in Syria to the streets to demonstrate in support of Assad.

Some Palestinians say that the crisis with the Syrian regime hastened Mashaal’s decision to seek reconciliation with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction.

Since the beginning of the anti- Assad revolt, Mashaal has met twice with Abbas and signaled his desire to end the rift with Fatah – much to the dismay of both Syria and Iran.

Mashaal’s close ties with Qatar have also earned him the wrath of the Assad regime. Syrian authorities have accused Qatar of supporting the anti-Assad forces, especially through the Doha-based Al-Jazeera network. Assad is also angry with Qatar for spearheading and initiating Arab League sanctions against the Syrian regime.

Recent talk about a possible reconciliation between Hamas and Jordan has only aggravated the crisis between the Islamist movement and Assad. Mashaal, according to Hamas sources, is scheduled to visit Amman shortly as part of an effort to mend fences with the kingdom.

The new Jordanian government has even indicated that it was considering restoring Mashaal’s Jordanian citizenship, which was revoked about a decade ago.

Mashaal’s apparent rapprochement with Jordan is regarded as a spit in Assad’s face, particularly in wake of King Abdullah’s recent call on the Syrian dictator to step down.

Hamas officials said this week that Assad would like to see Mashaal follow suit with Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and stand with the Syrian regime. Earlier this week, Nasrallah again reiterated his support for Assad when he declared in a speech in Beirut that “from the beginning, we have made it clear that we stand by the [Syrian] regime, a regime of resistance” against Israel But Nasrallah went a step further by launching a scathing attack on the Syrian opposition, which he accused of seeking to “destroy Syria.”

“The so-called Syrian National Council, formed in Istanbul, and its leader Burhan Ghalyoun, are trying to present their credentials to the US and Israel,” Nasrallah charged.

The Hezbollah chief’s allegations came after Ghalyoun was quoted as saying that a Syria run by the opposition would cut ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Unlike Iran and Hezbollah, Hamas has decided to jump off Assad’s sinking ship.

Is Hamas planning to move its headquarters from Syria to another Arab country? This is the question that many Palestinians have been asking in the past few weeks.

Several Hamas officials denied this week that their movement had any plans to leave Syria. The denials came in response to numerous reports in some Arab media outlets about Hamas’s intention to move its offices to another Arab country.

According to these reports, President Bashar Assad is furious with Hamas because of its refusal to support his regime against the popular uprising that began earlier this year.

Hamas, which is one of 10 radical Palestinian groups based in Damascus, has been sitting on the fence ever since the beginning of the anti- Assad protests in Syria. Hamas leaders have thus far refrained from taking sides in the conflict, arguing that the movement’s policy is to avoid interfering in the internal affairs of Arab countries.

But this has not been Hamas’s policy toward the anti-government uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan.

The Hamas leadership is reading the writing on the wall, namely that the countdown for the collapse of the Assad regime has begun. It’s big, clear writing that neither Iran’s ayatollahs nor Hezbollah's Nasrallah want to read.

Hamas is also taking Ghalyoun’s remarks seriously, and that’s why many of the movement’s leaders and top officials have asked their families in recent weeks to leave Syria. Some of these families have moved to Cairo while others have arrived in Amman and the Gaza Strip, a source close to Hamas disclosed.

It now remains to be seen which Arab country would agree to host Hamas when and if the movement leaves Syria. Unconfirmed reports have named three countries as possible venues: Qatar, Egypt and Jordan.

But what is certain for now is that in a post-Assad Syria there would be no room for Hamas or other radical groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.


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