Following the outbreak of full scale hostilities between the Israeli Defence Forces and Gaza-based Palestinian militia groups led by the territory’s ruling party Hamas, world attention has been focused on the conflict zone as Israel has launched an invasion of the territory and mass air strikes. Despite the current and longstanding animosity between the two warring parties, it is a notable but little known fact that Hamas and Israeli forces were less than a decade ago fighting together in Syria to support a jihadist insurgency seeking to overthrow the government in Damascus and install an Islamist regime in its place. Although Hamas and Israel had very different reasons for intervening in the war effort against the Syrian state, their common cause ultimately highlighted the Palestinian group’s close ties with the Western Bloc’s closest strategic partners in the Middle East, Turkey and Qatar, the former a NATO member and the latter a former host of the U.S. Military’s Central Command and leading basing site for American forces in the region. With Turkey, Qatar and Israel having been leading regional players in efforts to topple the Syrian government, which was a primary objective of the United States and its Western allies on which all three regional states relied heavily for support, Hamas’ involvement in the initiative served as a key indicator of the organisation’s ‘rogue’ status and willingness to fight alongside NATO and Israeli forces when this was seen to further its interests, while at other times cooperating with Hezbollah and Iran against Israel.
Following the outbreak of insurgency in Syria in mid-2011, which saw jihadist forces pour across the Turkish and Jordanian borders and stage mass executions of captured soldiers and police forces, Hamas quickly sided with Qatar, Turkey, Israel and other Western-aligned regional actors against the Syrian government. In December 2011, after 12 years based in Syria, Hamas transferred its political bureau to Qatar, the leading sponsor of the Syrian insurgency in the Arab world at the time, with the Palestinian party’s deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad stating that Damascus had “oppressed its people” – echoing Western and Turkish rhetoric at the time. Subsequently in February 2012, when Hamas’ close affiliate in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood appeared poised to take power in the wake of the Western-backed overthrow of the government the previous year, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh delivered an emotional speech at the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo praising “the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy, and reform.” Worshipers there specifically targeted Israel and the Western Bloc’s two greatest adversaries in the region – chanting “No Hezbollah and No Iran.” Hezbollah had five years prior dealt Israel the only military defeat in its history, and was considered a leading challenge to Western Bloc and Israeli interests at the time.
While other Palestinian groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad notably did not support Western-led efforts to overthrow of the Syrian state, with the Gaza Strip under Hamas’ rule flags of the Syrian insurgency would quickly appear across the territory. As a leading supporter of both the Syrian government and Hamas, Hezbollah notably sought to reign in its strategic partner, reminding the Hamas leadership that Syria had been their sole Arab state to provide major arms supplies during hostiles with Israeli in 2008-2009. Relations quickly worsened as it emerged that Hamas was turning training provided by Hezbollah against the Syrian state, with its militias actively participating in the war effort against Syrian and Hezbollah forces. Unlike Hamas, a Sunni Islamist group, Hezbollah’s support base were primarily from the minority Shiite branch of the Islamic faith, and Shiite population centres captured by insurgents which Hamas had aligned with in Syria were consistently being massacred as part of a policy of ethnic cleansing. Hamas’ jihadist partners also sought to target Hezbollah’s support base within Lebanon’s borders, attacking Shiite population centres in the party’s strongholds with car bombs. The beginnings of massacres of minority Shiite civilians in Egypt were also apparent shortly before the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown in the country in July 2013.
Although Hezbollah and Iran sought to retain relations with Hamas due to their common enmity with Israel, as the Palestinian group’s support for Al Qaeda linked actors grew relations became increasingly strained. In one of the most strongly worded statements from an Iranian official, member of the Iranian Foreign Affairs and National Security Committee Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh stated in 2016 that the Palestinian party was providing “support [to] terrorist groups working under the umbrella of the Syrian opposition.” For the Syrian state, which saw its population suffer immensely under jihadist onslaught, relations were considerably more hostile. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in a 2014 interview with the Swedish newspaper Expressen charged that Hamas “supports al-Nusra Front” – Al Qaeda’s largest affiliate in Syria. Like Hamas, the terror group was very heavily armed and financed by Qatar and Turkey in particular.
Regarding Al Nusra, which was one of Hamas’ main partners in Syria and a leading recipient of Qatari and Turkish support, the group had been a leading perpetrator of ethnic cleansing and other severe war crimes. It was by far the most powerful insurgent group in Syria until the growth in strength of the Islamic State terror group from June that 2014. The Islamic State was formerly a part of Al Nusra, while Al Nusra itself was in the war’s initial years a key part of the Free Syrian Army – a coalition of insurgent groups many of which received significant support from across the Western world and Western-aligned states. Hamas’ support for these groups led the Syrian government to cut off all ties with it. The following year in 2015 a captured Palestinian-Jordanian jihadist affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood was reported by Syrian sources to have confirmed that Palestinian refugee camps under Hamas’ control had become hubs for training of terrorists from the Ahrar Al Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Suqour Idleb and Failaq Al Sham militant groups in the Idlib governate straddling the Turkish border where jihadist forces were most concentrated.
While Western, Turkish and Qatari support for the Syrian insurgency were much better publicised, and the possibility of open Israeli support for militant groups fighting against the Syrian state threatened to delegitimise them due to significant anti-Israeli sentiments in the Arab world, in February 2019 Israel Defence Forces’ Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot confirmed his country had been providing armaments to the insurgency Hamas was fighting under. Israeli media outlet Haaertz at the time referred to this as Israel “exposing its ‘anti-intervention’ lie after so many years of denial?” This admission came months after a report by Foreign Policy magazine revealed after interviewing militants from insurgent groups fighting alongside Hamas that at least twelve such groups were receiving Israeli armaments and funding. The Israeli government also provided monthly salaries to the insurgent fighters.
The Syrian Arab Army had reported as early as 2013 seizing Israeli-supplied weapons from insurgents, and while this was widely dismissed as propaganda to exploit anti-Israeli sentiment at the time the later revelations by U.S. and Israeli sources made it appear much more credible. More conspicuous than its material support, however, was Israel’s leading role alongside Turkey in providing air support with strikes on Syrian government and Hezbollah targets throughout the war, often at points where the insurgents Hamas was fighting alongside were particularly hard pressed on the ground. The insurgents in turn notably particularly targeted air defence sites from the outset of the conflict in 2011, in part due to hopes for a broader NATO air assault similar to that launched against Libya that year which could help bring them to power.
The conflict in Syria ultimately highlighted the very significant ideological differences between the majority of Israeli and Western Bloc adversaries in the Middle East, including Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, the Yemeni Ansurullah Coalition and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, when compared to Hamas which ideologically had no qualms about taking up arms against Western Bloc adversaries and aligning with either NATO members or with Al Qaeda affiliates. It also highlights that Hamas ties to Qatar, Turkey and the ideology of the trans-national Muslim Brotherhood led it to perceive a strong interest in imposing Islamist rule on Syria even if its primary adversary Israel was also supporting this objective. By the late 2010s the defeat of the insurgency in Syria, alongside Qatar and Turkey’s unwillingness to arm Hamas against Israel and only do so to fight Syria, forced the Palestinian party to again reorient its ties. Its restored partnership with Hezbollah and Iran, however, is likely to remain an alliance of convenience rather than one built on trust or common ideology. For Syria, where Hamas served as a key enabler of the rise of jihadist insurgent groups in a war effort that killed over a quarter of a million people, the conflict between the Palestinian group and Israel now appears as one pitting two of its adversaries against one another.
For more information on the role of foreign state and non-state actors in the Syrian conflict see the 2021 publication World War in Syria: Global Conflict on Middle Eastern Battlefields