Washington Watch: Rats deserting the sinking ship

Hamas is pulling up stakes and looking for a new home as Syria becomes engulfed in a bloody uprising.

Hamas leader Mashaal makes a speech in Damascus [file]_390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Hamas leader Mashaal makes a speech in Damascus [file]_390
(photo credit: Reuters)
After more than a dozen years of safe sanctuary in Syria, Hamas is pulling up stakes and looking for a new home as that country becomes engulfed in a bloody uprising.
Over the past several days one door closed and another opened for Hamas.
Assad & Son, a brutal enterprise with a long history of killing its own people, has given Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups protection, training camps, diplomatic cover, financing and weapons to carry out their war against Israel. They, in turn, have helped Syria retain its un-coveted status as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The top Hamas leadership has now fled Damascus, leaving only a token presence. Assad’s slaughter of so many of Hamas’s fellow Sunni Muslims, including the Muslim Brotherhood in which Hamas has roots, made it difficult to remain.
Hamas was evicted from Jordan in 1999 and soon set up shop in Damascus. Khaled Mashaal, the group’s political leader, would like to return to Amman because of its proximity to Palestine, but Jordan’s King Abdullah made clear when the two met Sunday in Amman that there would be no political activity and no Hamas bureau in the Jordanian capital.
The king recalls how Yasser Arafat and the PLO tried to overthrow his father in 1970, and he doesn’t want another Palestinian terror group trying again. Abdullah wants to restore relations with Hamas, but also to keep the group at a safe distance. And he wants to protect his ties with the United States and Israel.
The king had a blunt message for Mashaal: “Negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides with the support of the international community is the only way for the Palestinian people to recover its rights.” At the same time, with the growing influence of Islamists in the Arab world, and their own stirrings in Jordan, the king wants good relations with the Muslim brothers and to lessen tensions with demonstrators at home.
Abdullah also wants to play a larger role in regional diplomacy and fill the vacuum left by the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The former Egyptian president was the intermediary between Hamas and Fatah on Palestinian reconciliation, and between the Palestinians and Israel.
Abdullah is currently sponsoring a series of exploratory talks to find a way to get Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu back to the peace table.
But if the Jordanian door is closed to Hamas, another one is opening in Turkey. President Abdullah Gül said Turkey would allow Hamas to open a bureau in his country and possibly move its headquarters there, according to several Turkish newspapers. Mashaal, who barely escaped a botched Israeli assassination attempt in Amman in 1997, is close to the Turkish leadership and a frequent visitor.
Hamas’s Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh made his first visit to Turkey last month, and, according to media reports, left with a promise of $300 million in aid to make up for the cutoff of aid from Iran, which was miffed that Hamas wasn’t sufficiently supportive of Assad. Foreign Ministry officials in Ankara said there would be “no cash,” only “humanitarian” assistance.
Gül said, “Turkey is one of the strongest supporters of the Palestinian cause. And Hamas is an important political formation which participated and succeeded in elections.” While Turkey strongly supports Palestinian unity, it clearly favors the Islamist Hamas over the secular nationalist Fatah led by Mahmoud Abbas, which supports peace and co-existence with Israel.
Hamas remains committed to the eradication of the Jewish state. Hamas is considering dispersing its headquarters among several countries. Egypt is high on the list since Hamas is a spawn of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which won control of that country’s parliament in recent elections. Others possibilities are Qatar, Tunisia, with a new Islamist government, and Sudan. If the Muslim Brotherhood succeeds in replacing Assad, Hamas could return to Damascus, but that does not appear imminent.
The US government classifies Hamas a terrorist group, and any country giving sanctuary to such organizations could be a candidate for being classified a state sponsor of terrorism. In the case of Turkey that is unlikely to happen since the State Department will have to make the determination and other factors will likely outweigh Turkey’s links to Hamas. But the administration needs to have a serious discussion with the Turks about the implications of hosting a terror group like Hamas.
New terror attacks linked to Hamas would put serious strain on any host country’s relations with Washington. That would also raise questions in Congress about the safety of Americans visiting that country and the wisdom of sharing intelligence and defense technology with the ally of terrorists seeking the destruction of Israel.
Leaving Damascus will diminish Iranian influence on Hamas, which the Islamic Republic employed as a terrorist agent. Turkey or Egypt would have an interest in reining in Hamas violence to avoid risking clashes with the United States, NATO and other allies.
As Turkey turned toward the east it was quick to warmly embrace Syria, but when that country erupted in revolution the relationship began to crumble. Assad ignored Ankara’s advice to find a compromise, so Turkey, like Hamas, abandoned that sinking ship.