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By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
The past couple of weeks has seen Hamas’ tensions with Hezbollah come to the forefront despite past cooperation as the former has urged the latter to withdraw from the Syrian conflict immediately. At first sight, one may be tempted to accuse Hamas of hypocrisy on the basis of widespread rumors of the group’s involvement in Syria in aid of the rebels against the Assad regime. But how far, if at all, is Hamas really participating in the civil war?
Mainstream Media Reports
The main basis for claiming Hamas involvement in Syria lies in a few reports in media outlets. Thus in April the British newspaper The Times claimed Izz ad-Din al-Qassam fighters were training rebels in Damascus- citing anonymous Western diplomats. In the same month, the Kuwaiti paper ‘As-Sayaasah al-Kuwaitiya’ claimed that Hamas was preparing to send a thousand fighters from Lebanon into Syria to take on Hezbollah.
More recently, Rania Abouzeid wrote a piece for The New Yorker on arming rebels of Syria where she claimed in passing that rebels in Idlib had produced projectiles resembling the Qassam rocket, attributing the production to the provision of know-how from Hamas. Abouzeid offered no source for the conveying this information to her.
The problem with these claims is that they are all second-hand in nature, and they have all been denied vigorously by Hamas, whose leadership stresses an official policy of non-intervention in the Syrian conflict, even as Hamas officials abandoned Syria out of alienation from the Assad regime’s harsh repression against the mainly Sunni Arab uprising.
Hamas and the Social Media of Jihadis and other Rebels
Outside of the scanty media report testimony, claims of Hamas fighters’ presence in Syria primarily come from pro-regime media. For instance, one video was circulated recently of a Syrian soldier beside the bodies of several men, whom the soldier claimed were Hamas fighters and showed a photo of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin that one of the men purportedly had as proof.
In contrast, one can find extensive first-hand evidence of Hezbollah involvement even from before the Battle for Qusayr, most notably through pro-Hezbollah social media (Twitter, Facebook and chat forums) featuring photos of Hezbollah ‘martyrs’ killed in Syria. Far more reliable evidence by any measure than rebel media circles. By the same standard, the only real way to ascertain a Hamas presence in Syria is through acknowledgement in rebel media organs, jihadist organs, and so on.
Yet such acknowledgement is sorely lacking. There are of course many cases of Palestinian martyrs killed in Syria while fighting for rebel forces, but they are of a Salafist orientation in line with the rebel-battalion coalition known as the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), rather than the Muslim-Brotherhood-alignment of Hamas.
From Gaza itself, I have counted only two martyrs via forums and social media. One of them- called Mohammed Ahmad Quneiṭa– had gone to Syria some months before his death, participating in battles and training rebels. He is said to have been a commander in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
There are also conflicting reports as to whether he was acknowledged by Hamas in Gaza as one of its own: here is one report from the pro-regime site ‘Syria Now’ that claims so, pointing to the alleged acknowledgement of Quneiṭa as definite proof of Hamas involvement in Syria, besides giving citations from a ‘Syrian military source.’ Here is another Arabic news report that claims Hamas acknowledged the fighter.
However, the pro-regime site Zanobia denies that Hamas acknowledged him. Zanobia claims that Quneiṭa went on to become leader of a Jabhat al-Nusra contingent in the Idlib countryside near the Turkish border, but Hamas did not support his enterprise and apparently tried to dissuade him from doing so.
On balance, I am inclined to go with Zanobia’s account, for there is nothing in pro-Hamas social media to corroborate the claim of the group’s acknowledgment of him. It is merely on the basis of Quneiṭa’s apparent senior connections within Hamas that Zanobia takes as proof of Hamas involvement in Syria on the side of the rebels.
It is also of interest to note that the authoritative jihadi news agency- Dawaa al-Haq- claims that Quneiṭa was dismissed from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades for going to Syria to fight jihad. The entire report is worth reading, with claimed citations of close friends of Quneiṭa that purportedly show that despite his membership in the Qassam Brigades, he was always more sympathetic to the Salafi circles at odds with Hamas, such that he had even been arrested a number of times.
The other Gazan martyr- Niḍal al-Ashi– was a Salafist fighter killed in the Aleppo area and was claimed by jihadi sources to have been subject to persecution by Hamas’ security services, including time served in Hamas prisons for firing rockets at Israel and involvement in a plot to assassinate the former head of the International Relief Agency in Gaza.
Salafis in Syria and Hamas
Indeed, the Hamas-Salafist rivalry in Gaza has not escaped the notice of the SIF or al-Qa’ida-aligned battalions like the Katiba al-Muhajireen, both of which have issued statements criticizing Hamas for alleged mistreatment of Salafist mujahideen in Gaza.
Neither acknowledges any Hamas contribution to aiding the uprising against Assad. The SIF in particular made its sentiment clear as its statement was released with a subheading ‘On Hamas’ betrayal of the Syrian revolution’. The SIF then accused Hamas of still being beholden to Iran, noting Hamas officials’ denial of involvement in Syria.
In short, we can say at most that to the extent that any Hamas fighters have been involved in Syria, they have been doing so without approval from the Hamas leadership, and either travel to the country from abroad out of their own accord- perhaps with Hamas in Gaza passively allowing this- or could be left-behinds from Hamas’ evacuation of Syria. This is quite far removed from the level of Hezbollah’s involvement in the civil war.
In any event, attempting to infer a Hamas presence from rebel tactics can be easily explained by the fact that many Palestinian fighters of Salafist orientation were once Hamas-aligned and then defected.
Conclusion: Hamas, Syria and the Wider Region
Examining Hamas’ stance vis-à-vis Syria is important for analyzing the group’s wider position in the region. While it is conventional to talk of Hamas’ shift to the ‘Sunni bloc’, the reality is that the group is very much in a state of limbo, with all sides harboring some form of reservation towards it.
Iran- angered by Hamas’ withdrawal from Syria and abandoning of Assad- has drastically cut financial support for the group. Salafist factions in Gaza and Syria accuse it of collaborating with Egyptian intelligence to suppress true jihad against Israel. One particularly egregious accusation came from an Egyptian Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen commander in the Sinai, who claimed some Hamas military leaders fund takfiri terrorists.
Egypt, which has now given a green light for citizens to fight in Syria, has not been any more relaxed about border controls with Gaza, preoccupied with economic troubles at home and concerned about security threats posed by militants in the Sinai with links to Gaza.
Finally, Gulf states like Qatar have not been all that forthcoming on aid promises to Gaza, such that the Hamas government there faces its own financial crisis.
While Hamas’ popularity may flare up every time there is a conflict with Israel, the fact is that the group is more isolated than ever, with few reliable friends in the region. If Hamas is going to get more involved in Syria, then the Egyptian and Qatari governments in particular will at the minimum have to demonstrate a greater willingness to aid the Hamas government in Gaza.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org