Syria’s al-Assad and supporting Hamas, for political gain or optics?

The regional fallout from Israel’s war on Gaza has drawn renewed attention to the so-called “resistance axis” – an alliance of sorts between Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.

But while Hezbollah and Iran have been visibly active since October 7, the Syrian regime has played a more muted role in support of its on-again, off-again ally, Hamas.

My enemy’s enemy

It was only in October of last year that Hamas formally re-established ties with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, more than a decade after they fell out in the early years of the Syrian civil war when Hamas threw its lot in with the Syrian opposition’s revolution.

The reconciliation was reportedly encouraged by Hezbollah and Iran in part to counter the growing number of Arab governments normalising their relations with Israel through the Abraham Accords.

Boxed in by Israel’s tightening siege of Gaza that had been in place since 2007, Hamas was in desperate need of allies. And with the Syrian economy in tatters and Syrian infrastructure increasingly targeted by Israeli air raids, Damascus was in no position to maintain its grudge when its main supporters Iran and Hezbollah were pushing for reconciliation.

Syria’s contribution to Hamas’s material strength is small and unlikely to have played any role in facilitating the October 7 assault.

While Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’s political wing, told Al Jazeera last year that part of the group’s long-range rocket arsenal comes from Syria, the vast bulk of its military stockpiles come from Iran or are domestically manufactured. However, Syria’s position within the broader alliance with Iran and Hezbollah remains a significant factor in the escalation of violence across the region.

“Syria still plays an important role in the Axis of Resistance, simply by virtue of its geostrategic position,” says Nasrin Akhter, a PhD candidate at St Andrews University researching relations between Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria.

“As well as serving as a conduit for the transfer of arms to Hezbollah, Syria provides Iran with a foothold in the Arab-Israeli arena, allowing it to open up a second front against Israel, and giving it a base from which to target US positions in the region.” But within this alliance, the Syrian regime is a “passive actor” argues Joseph Daher, an academic and expert on Hezbollah and Syria.

“Since 2011, Syria has had almost no autonomous role, and is dependent on either Iran or Russia, sometimes playing one against the other,” says Daher. “Any opening of a military front [against Israel] from Syria will actually be launched by Hezbollah or pro-Iranian militias,” with Syria itself, “unwilling and unable to launch a war against Israel”.

Smoke rises from an Israeli airstrike, left, and artillery shelling, right, on the outskirts of Aita al-Shaab, a Lebanese border village with Israel in south Lebanon, Monday, Nov. 13
Smoke rises from an Israeli air strike, left, and artillery shelling, right, on the outskirts of Aita al-Shaab, a Lebanese border village with Israel in south Lebanon, November 13, 2023 [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah admitted as much himself: “We cannot ask more of Syria and we have to be realistic,” Nasrallah said on November 11 in a speech to supporters. “Syria has been undergoing a global war for 12 years. Despite its difficult situation, it supports the resistance and suffers the consequences.”

A battleground for proxy war

Since the start of the war on Gaza, Syria has been the site of attacks and reprisals between Israel and the US on the one hand, and Iran and Iran-backed militias on the other.

Over the last month, the US has conducted multiple air raids in Syria against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its allies, and Israel bombed the airports in Damascus and Aleppo. Meanwhile, Iran-backed militias have struck US targets at least 40 times in Iraq and Syria, according to the Pentagon.

The escalation in violence creates yet more instability in Syria, and “increases the likelihood that Syria will be transformed into a battleground for a proxy war waged by regional and global powers, heaping further suffering and misery on the Syrian people,” says Akhter.

But while Syrians suffer the consequences of the regime’s alliance with Hamas, Assad himself may stand to benefit politically as regional leaders come under increasing popular pressure to change their stance towards Israel.

the village of Khuzaa, near Abasan east of Khan Yunis
A Palestinian girl pets her cat amid the destruction caused by Israeli attacks in Khuzaa, east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 27, 2023 [Said Khatib/AFP]

As the Abraham Accords look increasingly untenable, the Syrian regime’s normalisation with Arab leaders continues apace. In November, al-Assad attended the Arab-Islamic summit hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, standing alongside regional leaders who previously denounced him.

But regardless of the regime’s rhetorical support for Gaza, or the photo opportunities that come with regional summits, al-Assad remains a divisive and unpopular figure.

“The key issue [for the Syrian regime] is not the liberation of Palestine, but its own survival and geopolitical interests,” says Daher.

“Assad’s popularity is already very weak within the country because of the continuous deepening of the socioeconomic crisis, with more than 90 percent of the population living under the poverty line. There will be no significant increase in his popularity as a result of his support for Hamas.”

Akhter agrees: “There is widespread realisation in the Arab world that the Syrian regime is simply championing the Palestinian cause for its own political purposes, in order to deflect attention away from its own domestic human rights violations.

“This will do little to erase the recent memory of atrocities perpetrated by the Syrian regime, with many drawing parallels between Israel’s punishing blockade and bombardment of Gaza with Syria’s siege of the Yarmouk refugee camp, which brought the Palestinian population there to the brink of starvation.”

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