mashaal, iran pres 298.8.
(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
If the unexpected were indeed to transpire, and world pressure succeeded in forcing Syrian President Bashar Assad to kick Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal out of Damascus, the world would be faced with a new dilemma: where is a terrorist head to go?
Amatzia Baram, professor of Middle East Studies at Haifa University and director of its Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies, said the most likely candidate country would be Sudan.
"Sudan is an Islamist regime, far enough from Israel to secure his well-being," Baram said. "Being there would not turn him into a target."
Baram said that Algeria would not let him in, because the Algerian leadership is wary of Islamic leaders, and that Tunisia would be unlikely to give him refuge, as it did to Yasser Arafat in the 1980s.
Egypt, Baram said, won't let Mashaal stay there because of its peace treaty with Israel and good relations with the US, and good relations with the US would also probably preclude Morocco as well.
Yoram Kahati, a senior researcher on radical Islam and international terrorism at the Intelligence and Terrorist Information Center at the Center for Special Studies at Glilot, and also a fellow a the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, added that Libya would not take him because of its improved relations with the US, and good relations with the US would also keep Saudi Arabia from accepting Mashaal, even though the Saudis have funded Hamas.
Iran is always an option, but Baram said Mashaal would most likely not feel comfortable there because Iran is a Shi'ite regime. Hizbullah, he said, would love to have him move to Lebanon, but the Lebanese government does not need that additional headache, Baram said.
While Baram said that Sudan was the most likely candidate, Kahati said he is not sure where Mashaal could go.
Kahati said Sudan, which has Hamas representation, would have been much more amenable in the late 1990s, certainly when al-Qaida had a stronghold there up until 1997. But now, he said, Sudan - in the shadow of the whole Darfur crisis - is looking more and more to improving its ties with the West, and may be less amenable to Mashaal camping out in Khartoum.
"Recently the overall impression is that the country's foreign policy is less and less Islamic," he said. With the world closely monitoring the Darfur situation, he said, Khartoum would likely be reluctant to invite additional criticism by taking in Mashal.
As to whether Syria would ever kick Mashaal out, Kahati said that it is instructive to look at what happened in 1998 when Turkey massed troops on the Syrian border and threatened an incursion if Hafez Assad did not hand over Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Assad didn't turn Ocalan over to Syria, but he did make sure he left the country, and he was later apprehended in Kenya.
Kahati said it was likely that the only way Assad would show Mashaal the door would be if he felt a threat to his regime similar to what his father felt from the Turks. In other words, if he felt that Israel was willing to wage war against Syria to get Mashaal out.