Hamas Removing Staff From Syria – By JOSHUA MITNICK
Hamas ordered the departure of nearly all its staff at its Damascus headquarters by next week following pressure from Turkey and Qatar, two regional allies trying to isolate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amid an eight-month crackdown on antiregime protests, according to a Hamas official.
The Islamic militant group’s parting of ways with Mr. Assad marks the latest blow to his regime. Damascus has hosted Hamas since the Palestinian group was forced out of Jordan in the late 1990s.
Leaving Syria also distances Hamas from Iran, an ally of President Assad that has provided the Palestinian militants with money, training and military hardware. Over recent months, Tehran has urged Hamas not to relocate, the official said.
Hamas will establish new headquarters in Cairo and Qatar to replace its operations in Syria, the official added. At the same time, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal is scheduled to meet with King Abdullah II of Jordan to discuss upgrading its presence in the kingdom.
The shift from Syria to Egypt is expected to moderate Hamas’s behavior while reducing Tehran’s ability to threaten clashes with Israel, said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert based in Israel, who called the move « a major strategic setback » for Iran.
Hamas officials have for months sought to portray the organization as neutral in the Syrian conflict. But recent progress in Hamas’s rapprochement with Egypt and Jordan has emboldened the militants to accelerate their departure after months of quiet preparations—an operation dubbed by members as « soft exit. »
The Hamas security official said that 90% of the staff will be dispersed to cities around the region, leaving behind a nominal presence in Damascus.
Over recent months, Hamas has been divesting itself of Syrian assets, including business investments, real estate and bank deposits, the Hamas official said.
After the Arab League decision to impose sanctions on Damascus last month, Hamas leaders were admonished by Ankara and Doha.
« Qatar and Turkey urged us to leave Syria immediately, » said a senior Hamas security official who has relocated to Gaza from Damascus. « They said, ‘Have you no shame? It’s enough. You have to get out.’ »
Meanwhile, dozens of bodies were dumped in the streets of Homs, Syria, at the heart of the uprising, in a sign that sectarian bloodshed is escalating.
Up to 50 people were killed on Monday, but details came to light Tuesday on reports of retaliatory attacks pitting the Alawite sect against Sunnis.
The discovery in Homs came as the U.S. stepped up pressure Tuesday on the Assad regime to end its crackdown on the anti-government protests. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met in Geneva with Syrian opposition figures, and Washington said it was sending its ambassador back to Damascus.
Mark Toner, U.S. State Department spokesman, said U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford was returning to Syria to « continue the work he was doing previously—namely, delivering the United States’ message to the people of Syria, providing reliable reporting on the situation on the ground, and engaging with the full spectrum of Syrian society on how to end the bloodshed and achieve a peaceful political transition, » Mr. Toner said.
Turkish criticism of its Syrian neighbor’s conduct has been increasingly harsh, with Prime Minister Recep Erdogan calling for Mr. Assad to step down. Qatar, meanwhile, has led efforts by the Arab League to punish Syria. While Turkey has lobbied for an end to Israel’s blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, Qatar has provided financial support.
Hamas officials were unavailable for official comment. One Hamas official, Salah al-Arouri, quoted in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, denied reports there of a decision to leave Damascus and called group ties with the government « excellent. »
Arab observers have linked Hamas’s consent to an October prisoner swap with Israel and to a November summit meeting with rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, with a desire to improve its credentials with Egypt’s government in anticipation of a departure from Syria.
Hamas is considered by analysts to be more welcome in Cairo after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and in anticipation of a Parliament dominated by parties of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In addition to the external pressure, Hamas’s presence in Damascus put the organization at odds with its own grass roots in the Palestinian territories, well as with Islamist affiliates within Syria, where the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is leading one of the main groups opposing the regime.
Moreover, Hamas-affiliated clerics regularly deliver sermons in Gaza mosques blaming the Syrian government for the death toll of 4,000 in the uprising and predicting the eventual collapse of the regime.
When newly released Hamas prisoners arrived in Damascus in November after being deported from the Palestinian territories as part of a swap with Israel, they thanked the Syrian people rather than mentioning the government. The omission was telling, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Al Azhar University in Gaza City,
« That is a sign [Hamas] is unhappy, » he said. « It seems to me that Hamas is in a very bad position by keeping its headquarters in Damascus. »
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has made repeated trips to Cairo, and a deputy, Moussa Abu Marzook, is expected to head up the operation there, said Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist who passed messages with Hamas during the negotiations leading to the prisoner swap of Gilad Shalit.