Despite pressure from Tehran, Hamas activists flee Damascus
Iran's message to Meshal: Turn your back on Assad and lose our support.
Hamas is abandoning its headquarters in Syria and looking at other Arab states as an alternative location for its political command center, Palestinian sources have told Haaretz. Hamas' move comes despite intense Iranian pressure on the organization to refrain from relocating.
According to the Palestinian sources, only "second and third-ranking" Hamas activists are leaving Damascus, while senior members of the organization's political wing, headed by Khaled Meshal, are remaining in the Syrian capital.
Senior Hamas political figures even met this past weekend with representatives of the Palestinian factions that are not members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the sources add.
The Hamas activists on the move, the sources say, are those responsible for the activities and funding of the organization's military wing, as well as some members of the political leadership. Most have left together with their families to a number of destinations, including Gaza, Sudan, Qatar and Lebanon.
The Palestinian sources have defined the relocation activities as a hasty abandonment of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who until recently was Hamas' strongest ally in the Arab world.
Efforts on the part of the Syrian and Iranian regimes to ascertain whether Hamas is indeed fleeing Damascus have been met with denials from the organization's leadership.
"Hamas has not made any new decision, and there has certainly not been a decision to leave Syria," a member of Hamas' political bureau, Salah Al-Arouri, told Haaretz, adding that if a family or two had left Syria, they had probably done so for personal reasons.
"The organization's top officials are here in Damascus; our relations with the state and Syrian people are excellent," Al-Arouri said. "We respect all Syrians whomever they are. We have no intention of interfering in Syria's internal affairs."
Nevertheless, in recent days, a number of Hamas officials, particularly among the leadership in Gaza, have called explicitly for the organization to distance itself from Damascus in light of the ongoing violence and bloodshed in Syria and the severe harm suffered by the country's civilians.
Haaretz has learned that Hamas has made a decision to abandon Damascus without letting the Syrian authorities know. The decision was made by the organization's senior leadership in the wake of the harsh criticism voiced against top Hamas officials in Gaza and abroad because of their ties with the Syrian regime.
This criticism, coupled with the ongoing violent suppression of the demonstrations in Syria and the reported killing there of more than 4,000 people, intensified the dilemma facing the Hamas leadership - to continue to stand by its Syrian patron, or to abandon the Syrian capital and thus make it clear that Hamas, considered a part of the Muslim Brotherhood, is distancing itself from Assad.
The Arab League's decision to suspend Syria from membership of the organization and impose economic sanctions on Damascus tipped the scales, with Hamas finally deciding to covertly evacuate all its activists from Syria and leave behind only the organization's highest-ranking officials so as to preserve a low profile of activity there. Among the Hamas officials who are still coming and going from Damascus are Mousa Abu Marzouq (Meshal's deputy ), Izzat al-Rishq, Al-Arouri and Meshal himself.
The Palestinian sources also said that Iran had applied intense pressure to Hamas in an effort to persuade it not to leave Damascus, threatening even to cut off funds to the organization if it did so. The Iranian pressure also included an unprecedented ultimatum - namely, an explicit threat to stop supplying Hamas with arms and suspend the training of its military activists.
A Syrian opposition spokesman said recently that once Assad is toppled, his successors will have no intention of preserving the strategic alliance between Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, Syrian television yesterday aired pictures from a military exercise conducted on Saturday in the eastern part of the country. During the military drill, Syrian armed forces launched a Scud B missile, with a range of some 300 kilometers. The broadcast also included pictures of the firing of rockets with ranges of 150-200 kilometers.
It appears the Syrians were looking to show the international community that Assad still has the ability to set the Middle East alight if he so chooses, particularly if the international community intervenes militarily.
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