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Hamas restores ties with Syria as leaders meet with Bashar al-Assad

Thaw between old allies was brokered by Iran and Hezbollah
Bashar al-Assad
The Syrian presidency said President Bashar al-Assad met a delegation of Palestinian leaders, without mentioning the restoration of ties with Hamas (AFP/file photo)

Palestinian movement Hamas on Wednesday said it had restored relations with the Syrian government after a visiting delegation held an "historic meeting" with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. 

The group, which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, was once one of Syria's closest allies. Hamas maintained a headquarters in Damascus and its leaders often found refuge in the country due to its shared position on the Palestinian struggle.

In 2012, however, Hamas left Syria after backing the street protests against the Assad government, the crackdown against which spiralled into the country's civil war.

"This is a glorious and important day, in which we come back to our dear Syria to resume joint work," Khalil al-Hayya, Hamas' chief of Arab relations, told reporters in Damascus.

"This is a new start for joint Palestinian-Syrian action," he said after meeting Assad, along with other representatives of Palestinian political factions.

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Hamas and Assad have agreed to "move on from the past and look to the future", al-Hayya added. 

Shifting alliances 

Restoring ties with Damascus could revive the traditional "axis of resistance" against Israel that includes Tehran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah - along with, more recently, Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Hamas' realignment with Damascus comes as other Arab states reach out to Israel. The UAE, Bahrain and Morocco normalised relations with Israel as part of the US-backed Abraham Accords.

That move broke with decades of precedent which conditioned official Arab recognition of Israel on a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though Rabat and Abu Dhabi had maintained informal ties with Israel for decades.

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More recently, Turkey, which has provided a safe base for Hamas figures, has sought to improve relations with Israel as Ankara grapples with a devastating economic crisis. In October, Turkey named a new ambassador to Israel after the countries decided to restore full diplomatic relations.

The Syrian presidency said Assad met a delegation of Palestinian leaders, without mentioning the restoration of ties with Hamas. 

But the presidency published a video of Assad and al-Hayya holding hands as they walked with other Palestinian officials. 

The two-day Hamas visit to Syria comes after the Palestinian group signed a reconciliation deal with its domestic rival Fatah in Algiers last week, vowing to hold elections by next October in a bid to settle a 15-year intra-Palestinian rift.

Coming in from the cold

Hamas' reconciliation with Damascus is the latest example of Syria coming in from the cold across the region.

Assad made his first trip to an Arab state for some years in March when he visited the UAE. Meanwhile, Algeria has called for Syria's return to the Arab League and Jordan's King Abdullah II, a close US ally, held a rare phone call with Assad last year.

A Hamas leader told AFP that the group plans to reopen its Damascus office.

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But it was "too early" to talk about relocating its headquarters to the Syrian capital, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

The thaw between Hamas and Damascus was brokered by Tehran and Hezbollah, a senior Hamas source said.

For the past decade, Syrian officials had accused Hamas of betrayal.

In a 2013 speech, Assad accused Palestinian groups he did not identify of treating the country like a "hotel" that they leave "when conditions are tough" in a thinly veiled reference to Hamas.

Hamas' origins go back to the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Syrian branch was one of the leading factions in the armed opposition after Syria's civil war broke out.

Hamas officials have said they broke ties with the Brotherhood in 2017.

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