Hamas uncertainty as Syria slides closer to civil war

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Hamas leader Khaled MeshaalImage source, Getty Images
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Hamas and its political leader Khaled Meshaal have been based in Damascus since 2001

The unrest in Syria has raised serious questions over whether the political leadership of the militant Islamist group Hamas can remain in Damascus. However, the group's options are limited.

The assumption that Hamas is poised to exit its headquarters in Damascus and sees Cairo as a likely new home may be based more on wishful thinking than fact.

Hamas, the largest Palestinian militant Islamist organisation, was formed in 1987 at the beginning of the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Designated a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and the EU, it is seen by its supporters as a legitimate fighting force defending Palestinians from a brutal military occupation.

Hamas has been headquatered in Damascus since 2001.

There is no question that the organisation is uneasy with the Assad regime's ongoing attacks on anti-government protesters.

With numbers of victims mounting daily and a death toll that the UN now puts above 4000, the Hamas leadership is feeling the heat from its own members.

"Khaled Meshaal [the Hamas political leader] is under pressure from the movement," says Middle East analyst Oliver McTernan. "Staying in Damascus is not his choice but his options are not as clear-cut as it might seem."

Thousands of Palestinian refugees remain in Syria and Hamas has long presented themselves as their champion. To pull out now would leave them in a country that appears to be fast descending into civil war.

And the Iranians who fund Hamas don't want to see them leave either. They are already concerned that the eviction of President Bashar al-Bashar Assad could cost them a key ally in the region.

Some sources have said that Iran has threatened to pull the plug on financing Hamas if it leaves Syria.

Where does Hamas go?

The options, if Hamas does get out, are as varied as they are intriguing.

Some commentators have suggested Gaza, where Hamas is the elected government.

"That's highly unlikely," says Mr McTernan, citing the near certainty of an Israeli air strike should the top leadership oblige by making themselves an easy target.

Cairo is another possibility. But the military council that is governing Egypt is not likely to welcome Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, into an already complicated political picture.

Nor is it at all certain that the Egyptian Brothers would welcome the charismatic and powerful Mr Meshaal into their midst either.

Image source, Reuters
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In 1999, King Abdullah kicked Hamas out of Jordan

Qatar is a possibility. The tiny gulf state and its energetic Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani have played a key role in lining up the 22 member Arab League against the Assad regime.

But such a scenario might threaten what the gulf states hold most dear - their stability.

Putting the leadership and its organisation in Qatar may keep Hamas safe from the Israelis but it would undoubtedly raise hackles in neighbouring Saudi Arabia - especially given the organisation's links with Iran.

So given that most observers now believe that the Assad regime will fall where is Hamas likely to go?

One possibility is it could simply stay put. But the difficulty for Hamas is that though it has not publicly endorsed the Syrian regime's handling of the uprising - much to Mr Assad's fury - it has not repudiated it either.

Many Syrians will see that as endorsement enough of a government whose troops have killed thousands of protesters.

The Jordan option

Oliver McTernan suggests a surprising choice - Jordan. On the face of it such a move would seem highly unlikely.

After all, the Jordanians drove Hamas out in 1999. Then, King Abdullah accused the organisation of using his country as a base for illegal activities, and Hamas' allies of trying to disrupt the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.

Khaled Meshaal and other top Hamas leaders were arrested and briefly held by the Jordanians.

But Mr McTernan notes that Mr Meshaal and King Abdullah are meeting soon in what he calls a "Jordanian overture".

And he points to a statement by the recently appointed Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, who said that expelling Mr Meshaal and his advisers had been a political and legal error.

"It was an unusual gesture, it just came out of the blue," Mr McTernan says.

Jordan has its own large Palestinian refugee population. Mr McTernan thinks Jordan may see a Hamas return as an insurance policy - a statement in effect to the Palestinians that King Abdullah does take their concerns seriously.

However Jordanian journalist Amer al-Sabaileh writing in Ammonnews.net calls any return of Hamas "a potential risk to national security and stability".

And, he adds, "rather than welcoming a hero, it's like hiding an outlaw in the house".