The military unit of Hamas has broken ties with former ally Syrian President Bashar Assad and has begun training members of the opposition’s Free Syrian Army in Damascus, The Times of London reported on Friday.
Anonymous diplomatic sources told the Times that members of the Izzadin Kassam Brigades were training Free Syrian Army units in the rebel-held neighborhoods of Yalda, Jaramana and Babbila in the Syrian capital.
“The Kassam Brigades have been training units very close to Damascus. These are specialists.
They are really good,” a Western diplomat with contacts in both the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition told the London daily newspaper.
According to the Times, Hamas has been helping the rebels in digging a tunnel beneath Damascus in preparation for an attack on the city, a skill that Hamas has honed by constructing tunnels to smuggle supplies from Egypt into the Gaza Strip.
A Palestinian source from Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp reportedly said that Hamas’s aid to the rebels is common knowledge, however Hamas officials have denied any affiliation with Syrian rebels.
“It’s a false thing. There are no members of Izzadin Kassam or any militant members of Hamas in Syria... We don’t interfere in the internal problems of Syria. Our members there are normal civilians, Syrian Palestinians, who live with their families there.
From the beginning of what has happened in Syria we rejected as a movement any involvement of any Palestinian in the current events in Syria,” the Times quoted Osama Hamdan, a leading Hamas official based in Lebanon as saying.
As the initially peaceful uprising in Syria turned into an armed conflict, Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’s top political leader, quietly left Damascus in February last year and relocated to Qatar, reported the Times. That same month, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh allegedly declared the movement’s support for the Syrian opposition.
Syrian state-run media accused Mashaal of being “ungrateful and treacherous.”
German paper Der Spiegel and British daily The Guardian reported in March that the Syrian rebels were also receiving training from Americans in Jordan. The training focused on use of anti-tank weaponry. It was unclear whether the report meant the American army or members of private firms. The reports stated British and French instructors and Jordanian intelligence services were also involved in the training.
Meanwhile, it has been reported that the Syrian government was sending members of its irregular militias for guerrilla combat training at a secret base in Iran in a move to bolster its armed forces drained by two years of fighting and defections.
The discreet program has been described as an open secret in some areas loyal to Assad, who is trying to crush a revolt against his family’s four-decade hold on power.
Iranian officials have repeatedly denied military involvement in the Syrian conflict, saying they have only provided humanitarian aid and political support for Assad.
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Reuters contributed to this report.