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Hamas Smartly Departing from Damascus

Sunni group early on tried to dissuade Assad from violent repression

Marc Tracy
December 21, 2011
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in May.(Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in May.(Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

In the context of Hezbollah’s refusal to condemn and in fact eagerness to deny Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crimes against his own people, last week I noted that the Shia paramilitary organization that effectively runs Lebanon stands in contrast to Hamas. The Palestinian branch of the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood—which is therefore, crucially, Sunni, not Shia—has quietly dissented from Assad’s actions and has even been looking to decamp from its current headquarters in Damascus for Sunni strongholds like Cairo or Doha, Qatar. But it turns out, according to a new report in a London-based Arabic-language newspaper, that Hamas’ days in Damascus are clearly numbered: most officials have already departed, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal will likely as well (probably for Qatar, which is quietly becoming a major player); before he does, though, he sought an audience with Assad … and Assad refused him.

There’s more: apparently Meshaal advised Assad to get ahead of the zeitgeist heralded by the Tunisian and Egyptian regime changes even before the Arab Spring hit Syria in the spring. After Assad began violently suppressing protest, Meshaal sought a meeting with Assad to further advise him, and got nowhere. At that point, Meshaal met secretly in Lebanon with Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah to urge him to intercede with Assad; Nasrallah proceeded to meet with Assad and cut Meshaal out. In the midst of this, the regional power behind all these actors, Iran, ended its funding of Hamas.

One thing I think this shows is Hamas’ unusual sensitivity to the great lesson of the Arab Spring (and also of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict): that all leaders, even those of ostensibly non-democratic societies, are ultimately at the whim of their people. This same sensitivity is what led it to pursue reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority when the Arab Spring first hit the territories in April, and presumably what is moving it to try again. May Meshaal’s sense of this move him toward a moderate position; and may Hezbollah and Syria learn this truism the hard way.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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