In mid-March Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, spoke to Bashar Al Assad to express his concern about the Syrian regime’s crackdown on popular protests spreading across the country. Mr. Meshaal had been asked to do so by key supporters at a private meeting at his home in the Syrian capital a few days earlier.
Mr. Al Assad’s response was characteristically blunt: you are either with us or against us. He demanded that Hamas mobilise its followers inside Syria, in occupied Palestine and throughout the region in support of the regime. Mr. Meshaal responded by telling the president that Hamas was grateful for the regime’s support but that it also stood with the people, and wished to maintain its distance between the two.
While the regime was outraged, Mr. Meshaal made clear that if the regime insisted with its demands, he and his entourage would leave Syria. Faced with the prospect of losing one of his best assets, Mr. Al Assad relented, and the Hamas leadership, after much deliberation, decided to maintain its headquarters in Damascus, albeit with a reduced number of staff. Since then, an uneasy calm has existed between the two.
However, the uprising in Syria has shaken the foundations of the relationship. The announcement last week that Hamas had opened an interests office in Cairo, hot on the heels of the Hamas-Israel prisoner deal, in which Egyptian security officials played a crucial role, suggests that the movement has begun to consider options outside of Damascus.
As the growing influence of Egypt demonstrates, Hamas-Syrian relations are increasingly being shaped by other actors. Under the weight of a range of regional pressures, and given the new narrative of the Arab Awakenings, Hamas has found it difficult to chart an independent political course over the past few months.