What is the significance of Hamas, an extremist group long resident in Damascus, suddenly throwing its weight behind the anti-Assad uprising? At first blush it is easy to dismiss it with a snort as rats leaving a sinking ship, and there is much truth in this analysis, but there is also more than that going on here–and it bodes ill for Bashar al-Assad’s longevity. A friend who follows the Middle East closely emails me this compelling analysis which bears a close read:
This development, which I personally find astonishing (a sentiment that I have to think is shared by the Syrian regime), is a body blow to Bashar al-Assad’s fundamental narrative, in which he claims to be targeted by the west and Israel because of his leadership of the “resistance” and his support for the Palestinian cause. When the party that is the Palestinian resistance chooses to desert Assad’s regime, the regime’s resistance and pro-Palestine narrative collapses–and that is what [Ismail] Haniyeh’s speech yesterday accomplished.
It is also a severe strategic blow to the Assad regime and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies. With Hamas abandoning the Assad-led resistance coalition, the Syrian regime no longer has two fronts with which to confront Israel–Gaza is now lost to them. Perhaps gone, too, are the Palestinian camps of Lebanon, which for decades have been a weapon the Syrian regime could use to manufacture violent crises at its convenience. Without Hamas’s cooperation, it would be extremely difficult for the Syrians to provoke a crisis in the Lebanese camps, especially since their main proxy, the PFLP-GC, lost its credibility after busing young Palestinians to the Israeli border to be shot at by Israeli troops.
Haniyeh’s speech also signals Hamas’s full switching of patronage from Syria to Egypt. Whatever regional support Hamas summons in the future will come through Cairo rather than Damascus. It is hard to imagine that Hamas would have taken this step if they judged that Bashar can survive this crisis. We have to assume Hamas believes Assad is doomed.
Hamas’s desertion also means the “Axis of Resistance” is now a single-sect affair, comprised only of Iran, the Iraqi Shia militants, the Assad regime, and Hezbollah…and no major Palestinian group at all. Simply put, Bashar al-Assad has lost the ability to credibly claim he is defending Palestine against Israeli aggression. He is now only a minority sect dictator fighting to preserve his sect’s ascendancy.
All of that strikes me as accurate, but of course even a doomed Assad can still take many people down with him–as his security forces are currently doing in Homs. That is all the more reason for other states including the U.S. and our regional allies to do more to help the opposition and thereby shorten Syria’s ongoing civil war. It may be odd to be on the same side as Hamas, but if the U.S. and more moderate nations don’t act to help the Syrians then we will forfeit influence in the future to the likes of Hamas and al-Qaeda.