Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran's 'Axis of Resistance' Loses Its Palestinian Arm to Syrian War

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran's 'Axis of Resistance' Loses Its Palestinian Arm to Syrian War

Article excerpt

Before the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011, Hamas was a key ally of Damascus and a component of the Iran-led "axis of resistance" that challenged Israel and the West in the Middle East.

But after two years of bloodshed in Syria, Hamas has abandoned Damascus and distanced itself from Iran, a major supporter of the Assad regime. Instead the Palestinian militant group is courting potential new suitors, particularly the small but influential Gulf state of Qatar, and Egypt, which controls the crucial southern border of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and is ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological parent of Hamas.

"The Hamas split with Damascus... is undeniable. Hamas could not maintain any relationship with the Syrian regime in the face of the wide and deep opprobrium it faces in the Arab Sunni street, Hamas' principal support base," says Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

But given the shifting dynamics of the region and the sharpening of the Sunni-Shiite divide, Hamas still appears to be keeping its options open with its former patron Iran and fellow anti-Israel resistance group, the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

"Hamas is forced to navigate uncharted waters post-Arab Spring and it is in its interest to keep all channels open," says Slim.

Military support

The extent of the rupture between Hamas and the Assad regime is underscored by the fact that the Palestinian group is allegedly helping train units of the rebel Free Syrian Army in several areas of eastern Damascus, according to Western diplomats and sources in the Syrian opposition.

The training appears to be specialized, focusing on helping the rebels develop better rockets and dig tunnels from which they can launch attacks in preperation for a widely anticipated offensive to uproot the regime from the capital. The Ezzidine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, has extensive experience at building tunnels in the Gaza Strip, some for smuggling weapons and goods from neighboring Egypt, and others to infiltrate Israel or launch attacks against Israeli outposts.

"The Qassam Brigades have been training units very close to Damascus - in Yalda, Jaramana, Babbila. These are specialists. They are really good," says a Western diplomat with high-level contacts in the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition who visits Damascus regularly.

A Syrian opposition source who lives in Damascus confirmed that tunnels were being dug in some areas under rebel control and that the regime is aware of the tactic. The source says that the Syrian army has dug a seven-yard deep trench "to cut off any extending tunnel" around the perimeter of Mezzeh airport, a key military facility in Damascus, and similar measures have been taken around Rawda presidential palace in the center of the capital.

But a senior Hamas official categorically denied allegations that Hamas fighters are training FSA rebels or are involved in any military activities in Syria.

"Our position is clear on what is happening in Syria and we believe there must be a political solution," says Osama Hamdan, who lives in Lebanon. "There are no members of Ezzidine al-Qassam or any militant members of Hamas in Syria. We don't interfere in the internal problems of Syria. Our members there are normal civilians, Syrian Palestinians, who live with their families there. From the beginning of what has happened in Syria we rejected as a movement any involvement of any Palestinian in the current events in Syria."

The break

The Assad regime has hosted Hamas in Damascus since 1999, when the group was expelled from Jordan. However, when the uprising against the Assad regime began two years ago, Hamas found itself caught between its loyalty to the regime that took it in and obligations to its Palestinian supporters, who overwhelmingly sided with the Syrian opposition. …

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