For most of the last decade, Iran treated Hamas as its Palestinian auxiliary force. Iran helped fund the group, and once it seized power in Gaza in a violent coup, it established a steady flow of arms into the enclave to challenge Israel in conjunction with its other Syrian and Lebanese allies. But the Iranians’ decision to pull out all the stops to save another ally, Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime, has helped break up their romance with the Palestinian terror group. Tension between Iran and Hamas has escalated in recent months after the latter’s international leader, Khaled Meshaal, shifted his headquarters from Damascus to Qatar. Faced with the choice between its old funder in Tehran and the whims of its Egyptian and Turkish allies, Hamas seems to have definitively chosen the embrace of the latter. The loss of Hamas is a blow to Iran’s hopes to become the dominant force in the region, and they are not taking it lying down. As the Times of Israel reports, an Iranian government newspaper this week threw the ultimate insult at Meshaal by calling him, wait for it, “a Zionist agent.”
While the spat between two groups of violent Islamist extremists can be viewed with schadenfreude, if not amusement, the West should not be fooled by this development into buying into some incorrect assumptions about Iran, Hamas or the situation in Syria. We should not be deceived into viewing Hamas’s decision as a harbinger of moderate behavior by the terrorist group. Nor should we be gulled into thinking Hamas’s defection from the Iranian fold will materially damage Iran’s hopes to keep Assad in power or lessen the need for a greater Western effort to end his reign of terror in Damascus.
First, Hamas has not changed its spots, just its donors. The alliance between radical Shiites in Iran and the radical Sunnis of Hamas was always one of convenience rather than conviction. They are much happier aligning themselves with Arabs than with the Persian power that is viewed with distrust by most of the region. More important, closer ties with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist party in Turkey allows them to pose as a mainstream Arab government in waiting rather than the terrorist group that they really are. Though advocates of dropping the Western isolation of Hamas will argue their abandonment of Iran should be rewarded, it makes the group more, not less, dangerous. Rather than assuming that Hamas is joining the good guys, their ties with Turkey and Egypt should make Americans think twice about the Obama administration’s desperate interest in portraying both governments as moderate.
As for events on the ground in Syria, the Hamas departure from Damascus has had zero influence on rebel efforts to unseat Assad. Whatever minimal assistance Hamas might have given Assad is more than offset by the willingness of the Iranians and Hezbollah to intervene in the fighting on the side of the dictator.
Iran’s influence in the region is waning, and that is a good thing. But unless the United States and the rest of the West steps up its minimal involvement in the struggle, they will have no say in the outcome. Despite the optimism about Assad’s certain fall heard from both the administration and much of the press, his regime remains in place because he has not lost control of the armed forces. The threats of Turkey and the hostility of Egypt and Hamas will not conquer Damascus. But if Assad does fall and the West has played no real role in the outcome, the result will be the creation of a government that will be just as dangerous as the current one and provide the “Zionists” of Hamas with a new ally who could make the situation in the region even more perilous. Either way, President Obama’s “lead from behind” style is a formula for disaster that will not be saved by this minor setback for the Iranians.