On November 11, entire neighbourhoods in the Palestinian camps of Damascus were decorated with photos of Yasser Arafat, marking the 7th anniversary of the Palestinian leader's death. That, of course, was no coincidence, since it struck a raw nerve with Damascus-based Hamas leaders, who detested the late PLO Chairman. Paying homage to Arafat, it must be remembered, is uncommon in Syria, given a historic feud between him and the Baathists in Damascus. If anything, that small symbolic gesture spoke plenty about how much Hamas influence in Syria has dropped, and how furious the Syrians are with the Palestinian group that was once considered a strategic ally and main ‘Syrian card' in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The writing for heartbreak, after a long honeymoon, has been on the wall since mid-March when, days into the Syrian uprising, Hamas and Hezbollah were reminded of how far Syria had gone to support them since the 1990s. Hamas was explicitly reminded of Syria's unwavering support during the Gaza war of 2008. Now was ‘payback time,' the Syrians seemed to be saying, asking both parties to come out with strong statements of support for the Syrian regime. Taking its cue from Iran, Hezbollah responded affirmatively via Hassan Nasrallah. It echoed Syrian officialdom, saying that a conspiracy was indeed being hatched against Damascus because of its commitment to the resistance in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon.
Hamas, however, was more reserved, refusing to shower the Syrian government with praise, claiming that as a non-Syrian party, it needed to remain neutral and not take sides with the Syrian government against the Syrian street. Even if it was overwhelmingly in favour of the Syrian government, it could not say so, in fear of losing support in Gaza, which is supportive of the Syrian street. Hamas was pressured into making an explicitly clear position, forcing its leadership to come out with a mild and ambiguous statement saying that as a ‘populist party,' it cannot but respect and uphold the "legitimate rights of the Syrian people".
Many expected Hamas to panic when the Arab Spring came to Syria. Some went as far as to speculate that Hamas fighters would fight alongside Syrian troops if confrontations broke out in different Syrian cities. What happened was actually the exact opposite; Hamas saw the Arab Spring as a blessing in disguise. Although allied to Damascus for years, Hamas was clearly more committed to political Islam. First came the toppling of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February, which Hamas celebrated vigorously, due to their loud criticism of the man because of his relations with Israel. Hamas leaders hailed Mubarak's ouster as an achievement for the mother party, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt was transformed, almost overnight, from a country that persecutes Hamas into one that welcomes them with open arms, due to the Brotherhood connection. Then came victory of the Al Nahda Party in Tunis, a moderate Islamic party that was also inspired by the Brotherhood. And finally came the recent Gilad Shalit deal, which saw Hamas' popularity on the Palestinian street skyrocketing, even among pro-Fatah constituencies. What made things more complicated was that despite their alliance with the Syrian government, seeing the Islamists come to power in Damascus would be a dream come true for Hamas.
Hamas has an agenda today that is rather different from that of the Syrians. The Syrian regime's number one priority is survival, whereas Hamas' objective now is to win the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Palestine, scheduled for May 2012. Additionally, they are waiting to see whether the Syrian regime will survive, and preparing for a Plan B in case it doesn't. Qatar has opened its arms wide for Hamas, and so have Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood making Cairo a natural and welcoming environment for Hamas leader Khalid Mesha'al. It was the Egyptians after all who brokered the recent Hamas-Fatah rapprochement and it is the Qataris who are now trying to turn a new page in Hamas-Jordanian relations. Both deals, it must be noted, were done without help or advice from the Syrians.
Hamas is a nightmare for Arab governments. All of them realise that the group would love to see them fall, one after another, blaming them for all ills in Palestine. Despite the mutual lack of trust, however, Arab leaders are opening their arms to Mesha'al today, just as they did to Arafat before him, because it makes them look good before their own constituencies and the larger Arab masses. The Syrians might be furious with Hamas, feeling that the Palestinian group has been ungrateful. Meanwhile, the Qataris, the Turks and the Egyptians are all scrambling to win Mesha'al's favour, realising that once the Arab Spring waters settle, it is quite clear that the Islamic street in different Arab cities will need to be listened to and respected.
Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward magazine in Syria.