The decision last week by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas to abandon its Damascus headquarters and support the Syrians demonstrating for the removal of the Bashar Assad regime is noteworthy on several levels that point to the vulnerable and changing nature of strategic conditions across the Middle East.
Hamas’ decision to abandon Syria emphasises at the most basic level the pragmatic and political nature of the movement, as opposed to its rigid ideological or theological foundations.
When the kitchen gets too hot, rational people get out of it, and so do Arab Islamist resistance movements, it seems. This is in line with Hamas’ gradual slide into a more pragmatic political posture over the past decade, during which it declared its willingness to accept a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state and coexist with Israel if the principles of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative are adopted and the Palestine refugee issue is resolved equitably.
It has also signalled a willingness to drop armed struggle in favour of non-violent resistance against Israel, and to agree to a long-term truce with Israel under some conditions.
At another level, Hamas’ decision to leave Syria reflects ongoing divisions within the movement. In the final analysis, these Islamist organisations experience the same pulls and pushes as any grouping of diverse people who are united by a common cause but also divided by the many options they have to achieve their goals. We see this also in the different tactical strands among Hamas officials vis-à-vis the ongoing reconciliation with Fateh.
The implications of these various views on issues like negotiations (recognition) with Israel, power sharing with Fateh, relations with Iran or supporting Arab freedom demonstrators across the region — which range from hardline absolutism to more accommodating pragmatism — are that groups like Hamas operate according to a domestic political calculus of survival that ultimately overrides other forces.
This is also seen in the quiet debate within Hamas about whether the movement is best advised to consolidate its power base and control of Gaza and make do with a diminutive Palestinian statelet that makes little sense to anyone other than Hamas operatives or to choose the option of rejoining and reconfiguring Palestinian national institutions such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation in order to continue the ideological struggle at national and regional levels.
This raises the third level of analysis of Hamas’ decision, which relates to the condition of that grouping of states and movements called the Resistance and Deterrence Front — namely Syria, Hizbollah, Iran and Hamas.
These four partners have always been fascinating for several reasons, including their ability to transcend traditional divides in the Middle East, such as Sunni-Shiite, Arab-Iranian and religious-secular ones. Hamas’ decision to turn against the Syrian government is a blow to the Resistance and Deterrence Front, but probably a minor one for now, in a volatile region.
The Syrian government itself is under intense pressure at home and abroad, and may not survive in its present form. The Iranian government faces its own set of constraints and vulnerabilities at home and globally, and continues to be the major regional loser from the Arab uprisings.
Hizbollah in Lebanon — probably the strongest member of the front in the short term — must be working overtime to calculate how it should respond to the new possible scenarios on the horizon (the fall of the Assad regime, an attack on Iran, a revival of the Green Movement opposing the Iranian regime, an Iranian-Western nuclear agreement, etc.).
Hamas and Syria are the most vulnerable members of the Resistance and Deterrence Front these days. How Hamas plays its cards in the months ahead probably will not have a major impact on the region as a whole, because it has become a relatively minor and constrained actor in its Gaza fiefdom. Syria’s impact on the region will be much greater if the regime changes or only changes its policies.
For now, we can only conclude two things: the Resistance and Deterrence Front, like any political construct, is vulnerable to change and reconfiguration, and Islamist movements such as Hamas will make political decisions based on pragmatism and realism as much as on ideological purity and absolutism.
The change under way in this fascinating multinational, multicultural slice of the region is a logical step in the ongoing reconfiguration of power relationships in the Middle East, following the first year of the Arab uprisings.
Hamas’ reversal on Syria is an important example of how Islamist groups continue to make the transition from their previous world of abstract political opposition and often bloody and costly resistance to the new environment in which they must grapple more convincingly with real-world conditions and options, especially the advent of populist legitimacy and accountability in Arab countries.
Two of the four members of the Resistance and Deterrence Front have now been hit by the Arab uprisings. Others will follow in due course.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Jordan Times on Mar. 8, 2012