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Washington — The move from Syria is related, experts believe, to Hamas’s position as a Sunni movement stuck in the midst of a struggle of fellow Sunnis against a minority regime in Damascus dominated by Alawites, a spin-off sect of Shi’ite Islam. As violence in Syria grew, the Sunni-oriented Hamas could no longer be associated with Assad, so it chose to break off and side with the rebels.
“In a weird way this strengthens Hamas, because it no longer has the liability of being associated with Syria and its oppressive regime,” said Danin, a former senior adviser on Middle East issues at the White House and State Department.
The break with Syria also distanced Hamas from Shi’ite Iran, another longtime supporter, and from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite faction.
The United States and its Western allies are locked in conflict with Iran and also oppose Hezbollah, as well as the Syrian regime. But Hamas’s moves away from these anti-Western regional forces does not seem to be bringing it any closer to cooperation with Washington.
“Our position on Hamas has not changed,” a State Department spokesman told the Forward. “Hamas is a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.” The spokesman added that all parties working for freedom in Syria “have an interest in ensuring Al Qaeda and Hamas cannot take advantage of the situation.”
Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited Hamas’s new stand in arguing against providing arms to Syrian rebels. “Hamas is now supporting the opposition,” she noted in an interview with CBS News. ”Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?”
In the build-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush persuaded some unlikely partners, including Syria, to join the American-led military coalition against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This endowed the anti-Iraqi military force with a breadth of support that had few precedents in the fractious region. But this time around, few see a comparable place for Hamas as opponents of Assad struggle to coalesce against his regime.
“The fact that Hamas left Syria doesn’t have any bearing on what Hamas is,” said Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They left because they couldn’t operate there, not for any other reason.” Hamas has yet to accept the conditions set by the international community, which include giving up terror, accepting Israel’s right to exist, and adhering to previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Meanwhile, Hamas is also deeply riven internally. Mashaal, representing the group’s external leadership, still supports a national unity government agreement that Hamas forged with the Fatah faction centered in the West Bank. Under their agreement, the two parties are to share power in a new Palestinian government that will rule both the West Bank and Gaza.
But that agreement is under attack by Hamas leaders in Gaza — the so-called internal leadership — and now seems far from implementation. The result is a power struggle within the movement.
“The movement has lost the pretense of cohesion,” prominent Israeli-Arab affairs commentator Ehud Yaari wrote in a February 27 column published in The Times of Israel. “The battle over command and direction is on.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org