Palestinian factions reconsider relations with Assad

Leadership must decide loyalties as Syrian attacks on refugees lead to turning point in once circumspect policy.

Khaled Mashal 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Khaled Mashal 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A fierce attack by the Syrians on a Palestinian refugee camp has led Palestinian factions, both Islamist and staunchly secular, to relook at their traditionally close ties with Damascus.
Headquartered in the Syrian capital as the Bashar Assad regime falters, Palestinians were cautious not to badmouth the Syrian president personally as they condemned Sunday’s naval bombardment of the Raml Palestinian refugee camp.
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Navy gunships struck at the camp located in the port city of Latakia, killing an unknown number of residents and sparking 10,000 refugees to flee. Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) official Yasser Abed Rabbo condemned the attack as "a crime against humanity," while the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) demanded access to the camp, to survey the scope of damage.
Before the attack on Raml, the Palestinian leadership had been circumspect in speaking out against Assad's regime, which has fiercely oppressed a domestic mass protest movement since March. But the most recent surge of violence, directed for the first time against the country's Palestinian population, may be a turning point in Palestinian policy.
"The PLO does not intervene in the internal politics of countries," Taisir Khaled, head of expatriate department of the PLO, told The Media Line. "But the safety of Palestinians in refugee camps must be safeguarded; regardless of the country they live in."
Khaled is a senior member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a Marxist-Leninist Palestinian party, whose leader Nayef Hawatmeh sits in Damascus. He was careful not to blame Assad personally.
"We want political reform in Syria," Khaled added. "It should be a democratic civil state which grants freedom to all its citizens. We hope that a political solution prevails over any other."
The political leadership of the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas is also situated in Damascus, explaining perhaps its minimal media coverage of the Syrian attack on Latakia.
In April, the London-based Arab daily Al-Hayat reported that Hamas' political leadership was ordered to leave Syria following its neutral stance towards the country's popular unrest. According to the report, Qatar agreed to host political bureau chief Khaled Mashal, who has operated in Damascus since 1999. At the time, Hamas denied the report, and its leadership remained in the country.  
A Hamas spokesman refused the Media Line's request on Wednesday to comment on matters concerning Syria. But Basem Ezbidi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, said Hamas was facing the greatest dilemma of all Palestinian groups.
"On the one hand, Hamas does not want the Syrian regime to disappear," Ezbidi told The Media Line. "But on the other hand, how can it justify its strategic alliance with a state that kills Palestinians? Hamas has always regarded itself as a resistance movement which represents the Palestinian people, and that's the bottom line." He said Hamas will find it extremely difficult to reconcile the two conflicting interests.
Ezbidi added, however, that some Palestinian factions will never criticize the Syrian regime, as they are fully funded and protected by it.
"Smaller groups, like Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) will forever remain loyal to Syria, which supports it financially, logistically and politically," he said. "Other movements will certainly reexamine their ties with Syria, because what it has done is inexcusable."
Ayman Shaheen, a political scientist at Gaza's Al-Azhar University, said that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization, also led from Damascus, maintained stronger links with Iran than with Syria, making it relatively independent of Al-Assad's regime. However, Hamas, he said, likely would show flexibility in adapting to the new political reality in the region.
"Hamas is wise. It will create a new set of alliances to replace the Teheran-Damascus-Gaza axis," Shaheen told The Media Line. "Qatar is always open to Hamas and there is rapprochement with Egypt as well." 
But Taisir Khaled of DFLP said most Syria-based Palestinian movements, including his own, were not considering relocation.
"We will remain in Syria as long as Palestinians reside there," he told The Media Line, noting that between 350-400,000 Palestinians currently live in Syria. "We are not there because of the regime but because of our ties with the Syrian people."