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Syria, the Yarmouk Camp Battle: The Games of Hamas, the Sunni Front and Iran

Translated from Italian by Roberto Mahlab

In just over 15 days, the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, a strategic anti-Assad enclave south of Damascus, switched from the rebels front to the government. It happened almost unnoticed in early April when the self-proclaimed Islamic State), while advancing unopposed elsewhere, tried to take control of the camp and had to pull back hastily. Fighters there, from inside the camp, carried out in a few days a task that in other parts of Syria and Iraq could appear long and arduous: pushing back the militia of the Islamic State. This is the latest wonder of the game of the factions. And more evidence that the Syrian tragedy is often just a matter of local interests and political calculation, a game of death among parties, tribes and international actors. The camp of Yarmouk is part of the larger equation. Here Hamas is in control. Or at least this is the situation since December 2012, when anti-Assad forces seized the Palestinian refugee camp.

Hamas, the organization controlling the Gaza Strip, has always been present in Yarmouk, together with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), however after the entry of the Syrian rebels it found itself the undisputed master of the camp. Hamas then began to bring weapons, operatives and social services to the refugee camp. Soon after, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis was established and it became the new umbrella organization of Hamas in Yarmouk, dedicated to the alliance with the anti-Assad rebels and with the Jabhat Al Nusra Front. Thus, at the beginning of 2013 the international media reported about the humanitarian crisis in the camp, the Palestinian organizations PLO and Fatah, traditionally neutral in the Syrian conflict, left Yarmouk and Hamas fighters lined up with the rebels against Assad and Iran. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP-GC) and the Army for the Liberation of Palestine, always allies of Damascus, fled the Palestinian refugee camp and many lost their life.

Gone were the times when Hamas could count on the support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and on the money of Qatar. The arrival of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi resulted isolation. Circumstances have changed, the break of Assad and Iran began to be lived as an exception to mend. And Yarmouk, with its militia, found itself in the middle. The Hamas fighters had to choose whether to stay faithful to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni front, falling apart in Syria, or to Assad and consequently Iran, who showed an unexpected endurance in Syria and presented an unprecedented sphere of influence throughout the whole Middle East.

On March 31, 2015, Yahya Hourani, nom de guerre Abu Suhaib. was assassinated in Yarmouk Yahya was the leader of Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, the key man for Hamas in Yarmouk. In the days following Yahya’s death Hamas reacted harshly and made a series of arrests in the camp; the aim was to detain militiamen from the Islamic State. Jabhat Al Nursa, hitherto allied with Hamas, rose up to assist the Islamic state fighters invading Yarmouk.

A few days before he was killed, Yahya Hourani had announced a semi-official agreement of Hamas in Yarmouk, an agreement that was not to be made public, but that was supposed to ferry the Palestinian organization from the Sunni to the Iranian front: a new alliance with the Palestinian groups PFLP-GC and the Damascus government. Al Nusra Front immediately rejected the agreement and called on the Islamic State for help. On April 1st the Islamic State invaded Yarmouk and conquered it. The Palestinian organizations allied with Assad, PFLP-GC and the Palestine Liberation Army; intervened alongside Hamas, supported by the Syrian Army. The Islamic State was forced to withdraw from Yarmouk within two weeks.

On April 9, while the battle at Yarmouk was underway, it appeared that also the PLO in Ramallah was going to join the fray. Ahmed Majdalani, PLO envoy to Damascus, announced a joint response by the PLO and Syrian Army in Yarmouk: Ramallah would deploy fighters alongside Hamas, this time against the Islamic State. A few hours later, a categorical denial came and Ramallah washed its hands of the matter. The PLO would prefer humanitarian aid to the local population instead of a military intervention. It is hard to make sense of this abrupt change of mind: maybe Ramallah, which since 2007 has been fighting with Hamas for the control of the Gaza Strip, has simply decided not to enter the game of its rival in Yarmouk. And it is certain that the PLO, even if interested in the control of the Palestinian refugee camps, cannot stand by the side of Assad and Iran: since the Oslo agreement with Israel in the 1990’s, ties with Damascus have not been good. And when the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, Abbas voted in favor of sanctions on Syria and the suspension of Damascus from the Arab League.

Even for Hamas, however, the alliance that took shape in Yarmouk, alongside Assad and Iran, it is dangerous tightrope to walk and it could lead to rifts within the organization: between those who would prefer to remain faithful to the Sunni front and the Muslim Brotherhood, with financial support from Qatar and possibly Saudi Arabia, and those preferring to devote themselves to Iran. A split has already taken place within the group Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis: some Hamas fighters have joined the Syrian rebels and the Islamic State, while others have sided with Assad’s Syrian Army.

With regard to Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s long period of hostility to Hamas, because of its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and fears of the Arab Spring spreading, seems to be coming to an end. Now that the Arab Spring has greatly reshaped geopolitical relations whole Middle East, the Saudi State would like to develop new relationships. It is rumored that Saudi Arabia would have asked Hamas to participate to the anti-Iranian front in Yemen, alongside with Egypt and Turkey. In exchange for money and control over the Gaza Strip.

Who the Hamas leadership in Gaza and abroad decides to ally with remains to be seen. And it could not be only a matter of choices. The men of the organization may have decided to play on two fronts: on the one hand Iran and on the other Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And maintaining a secure base in Turkey, another Sunni state rather ambiguous on its relations with Iran.

To understand Hamas’s strategy, it will be necessary to keep an eye on the Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon, where even the old alliance with Hezbollah could resurface.

The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).