On 19 October, a Hamas delegation arrived in Damascus to meet with Syria’s ruler, Bashar al- Assad. The meeting was announced after months of speculation about the restoration of ties between the al-Assad regime and Hamas, the Palestinian movement which is the de facto authority in the Gaza Strip. The al-Assad family had historically cultivated close relations with Hamas in the 1990s and 2000s, but the partnership unravelled during Syria’s civil war. In 2012, as violence mounted against the Syrian opposition, Khaled Meshaal, then-chairman of Hamas’s political bureau in Damascus, decided to leave the country and to close the Hamas office in the Syrian capital.
The meeting in Damascus in October can be read within the broader context of realignment among strategic players in the Middle East. In particular, it is indicative of Hamas’s efforts to further anchor its foreign policy in the Iranian orbit. This has been apparent since Yahya Sinwar became governor of the Gaza Strip in 2017. Sinwar has prioritized cooperation with Tehran in order to bolster Gaza’s military arsenal with Iranian missiles and UAVs. At the same time, closer consultation has taken place between Hamas and Hezbollah, including the creation of a joint operations cell based in Beirut involving these two non-state organizations as well as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
To be sure, relations between the members of the self-proclaimed “Axis of Resistance” predated Sinwar. However, previous Hamas leaders were more reluctant to be forthright about these ties. Under Sinwar’s leadership, Hamas has made no secret of this cooperation. Hamas’s return to Damascus is the latest step in re-establishing the “Axis of Resistance” that emerged in the 1990s as a response to the Oslo peace process between Israel and the PLO.
The restoration of ties between Hamas and the al-Assad regime could have major repercussions. Previously, much attention has been given to Hamas’s absence from the three-day war last August between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)—another Gazan group with strong ties to Tehran. At that time, Hamas did not intervene in the conflict and let the Israel Defence Forces target the PIJ leadership in the Gaza Strip. Hamas’s restraint seemed to indicate a desire to avoid being dragged into a new cycle of escalation with Iran. Observers speculated that Hamas might not systematically align itself with Tehran’s regional agenda. However, Hamas’s deepening operational links with Hezbollah and Iran, as well as its renewed ties with Syria, suggest a more complex reality.
That reality has implications for both Palestinian politics and the regional balance of power. Hamas’s embrace of al-Assad does not come without a domestic cost. The Syrian regime’s crimes against its Sunni population were the reason that the Palestinian group had kept its distance in the first place. Hamas’s desire to strengthen partnerships within the framework of an “Axis of Resistance” has strong sectarian undertones that are unlikely to make Gazans happy. There have been reports of internal dissent within Hamas over the decision to visit Damascus, most notably from Khaled Meshaal. Meshaal, who withdrew from Hamas leadership in 2017, was absent from the visit to Syria. There were rumours that the Syrian regime had specifically requested that he not come.
The rapprochement between Hamas and the al-Assad regime also comes at an uncertain time for Palestinian politics with regard to the selection of Mahmoud Abbas’s successor. Although the current president of the Palestinian Authority has designated Hussein al-Sheikh to succeed him, the transition plans are far from clear. Once Abbas exits Palestinian politics, there is likely to be a ruthless struggle for power between Fatah and Hamas, with the latter trying to conquer the West Bank as it did before in Gaza. If that transition becomes violent, Hamas will certainly find supporters in the Iranian-Syrian axis who are eager to get rid of Fatah.
Hamas’s visit to Damascus also reflects the extent to which the regional environment has changed in the last two years. Hamas’s policy towards the Iranian axis is clearly shaped by the shifting foreign policies of its two main partners, Qatar and Turkey. In the past two years, both Doha and Ankara have scaled back their engagement with Islamist groups, following the end of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar (announced at the Al-Ula Summit in January 2021).
Turkish President Erdogan also hopes to ease relations with Middle Eastern partners. Turkey has launched reconciliation efforts with Gulf states and with Israel after more than a decade of friction. Israeli Minister of Defence Benny Gantz visited Ankara in late October, which demonstrates that Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is more than political posturing: both sides intend to relaunch their defence cooperation, including in counterterrorism efforts. That development is obviously bad news for Hamas: Israeli officials have made clear that they want Turkey to close Hamas’s local offices, which were reportedly used to plan “hundreds of terror attacks” against Israel. Although the Turkish government has not yet expelled Hamas officials, that possibility is clearly driving the Palestinians’ search for alternative regional ties.
The Damascus visit is also revealing of Hamas’s limited options as a non-state actor. For all its bombastic rhetoric, Hamas does not actually have much leeway on its own and still needs state sponsors such as Iran or Syria to fight Israel.
The relaunched “Axis of Resistance” could quickly be put to the test in Gaza. Since 2008, Hamas has fought no fewer than four wars against Israel. In the end, Hamas might only have been absent from the latest round of fighting between the IDF and the PIJ because it needed to rearm and reorganize its forces. The renewed coordination between Hamas and its partners in Tehran, Beirut, and now Damascus suggests that the next clash in Gaza could easily spread to other fronts, whether in southern Lebanon or the Golan Heights. In other words, Hamas’s return to Damascus makes the regionalization of the next Gazan conflict a more immediate threat.
Jean-Loup Samaan is a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.