Hamas Is Running Out of Allies
The militant group is at odds with Iran over the war in Syria
Hamas once represented an oddity in the “Axis of Resistance,” an Iranian-led alliance of states, including Syria, and militant groups opposed to the United States and Israel. Most members — Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Yemen rebels, among others — have been Shias.
But Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, represented a Sunni people in a Shia-majority military alliance. That relationship collapsed after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Relations between Hamas and Iran have been strained ever since. To understand why, I spoke to Yusuf Al Maqid, a journalist in Gaza City.
He explained that Hamas’ relationship with the Axis of Resistance began in 1999, when Jordan — where Hamas officials lived — arrested Hamas leader Khalid Mashal. He fled to Qatar before settling in Damascus in 2001, starting a long friendship between Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine.
After winning elections and the Gaza Strip in 2006, Hamas overshadowed Islamic Jihad and strengthened its relationship with the Axis of Resistance. “The world boycotted Hamas then, so the doors of Syria and Iran opened to it and welcomed it at all levels,” Maqid said. “Material support began.”
As irony would have it, the international community by accident ensured that Hamas would depend on Iran for financial and material aid — including weapons. That relationship then imploded as Syria fell into civil war.
“The Syrian regime suppressed the people’s revolution,” Maqid said. “Hamas stands for neutrality in the affairs of other countries, with an emphasis on upholding the aspirations of the Syrian people for freedom.”
As Sunni rebels took up arms, Mashal left Syria and went back to Qatar. Iran demanded that Hamas support the Syrian government, which he rejected — an Alawite-led, Shia-supported government was massacring Sunni protesters. Maybe that war resembled what Hamas saw in its own war against Israel — a non-Sunni government oppressing Sunni civilians.
“Relations with Bashar Al Assad’s regime were cut off after the Syrian revolution,” Maqid continued. “These events pushed Hamas to abandon the Axis of Resistance and join a new axis, formed around the nucleus of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey, but the scales changed after the coup in Egypt.”
“Hamas still has a special relationship with Turkey and Qatar,” he added. “The relationship with Iran has deteriorated. Hamas needs weapons, so it is trying to correct the problems with Iran, but things between them are not so good.”
This complex military and political environment represents a potential conflict of interest for Iran’s foreign-relations policy in the Middle East, centered on the Axis of Resistance and the Shia Crescent — which connects all Shia actors to which Iran provides military or political support.
The balance of power between these two spheres of influence matters as much for Iran as it does for Hamas, which is still internationally isolated.
Much of the Axis of Resistance, namely Shia Hezbollah and Alawite-ruled Syria, overlap with the Shia Crescent. For the Crescent, Iranian-friendly Shia militants extend beyond the Axis’ territory into Afghanistan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Plus, the two alliances’ objectives are different. The Axis of Resistance exists to oppose Israel and the United States. The Shia Crescent exists to defend Shiism.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad allowed Iran to argue that it was fit to lead a non-sectarian, pan-Islamic movement to liberate Palestine. But when Iran asked Hamas to condone an Alawi government crushing a Sunni revolution, it in effect tried to subsume Hamas into the Shia Crescent.
Iran’s relationship with Islamic Jihad continued after the one with Hamas ended, so it seemed that Iran might be able to maintain some influence in Palestine.
“Hamas and Islamic Jihad believe that their relationship with Iran is not marred by any ambiguity, as both are Sunni movements from a doctrinal perspective,” Iran expert Fatima Al Smadi wrote for the Al Jazeera Center for Studies. “Intellectually and even politically, what links both movements to Shiite Iran are Islam and Palestine. In other words, Iran is an Islamic state that defends the Palestinian cause.”
But Islamic Jihad’s relations with Iran are also worsening because of the Yemeni Civil War — a repeat of what happened between Hamas and Iran over Syria. According to Smadi:
Despite statements emphasizing the strength of the relationship between the Islamic Jihad movement and Iran, there are several revealing indicators of a potential shift — the Islamic Jihad movement has entered a financial crisis, while its relations with Tehran are simultaneously strained due to its refusal to support the Houthis in Yemen or to publicly reject Saudi Arabia’s war there.
Based on the available information, it could be argued that Iran’s cessation of support reflects a severe crisis between the movement and Iran, after decades of strong ties, with even mediation by Hezbollah failing to prevent this split.
Iran may have to choose the Axis of Resistance over the Shia Crescent, not only for its foothold in Palestine, but its much-needed Islamic legitimacy.