Leaders of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas publicly turned against their long-time ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, endorsing the revolt aimed at overthrowing his dynastic rule.
The policy shift deprives al-Assad of one of his few remaining Sunni Muslim supporters in the Arab world and deepens his international isolation. It was announced in Hamas speeches at Friday prayers in Cairo and a rally in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas went public after nearly a year of equivocating as al-Assad’s army has crushed mainly Sunni protesters and rebels.
In a Middle East split along sectarian lines between Shiite and Sunni Islam, the public abandonment of al-Assad casts immediate questions over Hamas’ future ties with its principal backer Iran, which has stuck by its ally al-Assad, as well as with Iran’s fellow Shiite allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
“I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform,” Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, visiting Egypt from the Gaza Strip, told thousands of Friday worshippers at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque.
“We are marching towards Syria, with millions of martyrs,” worshipers chanted at al-Azhar, home to one of the Sunni world’s highest seats of learning.
“No Hezbollah and no Iran,” they said. “The Syrian revolution is an Arab revolution.”
Contemporary political rivalries have exacerbated tensions that date back centuries between Sunnis — the vast majority of Arabs — and Shiites, who form substantial Arab populations, notably in Lebanon and Iraq, and who dominate in non-Arab Iran.
Hamas and Hezbollah, confronting Israel on its southwestern and northern borders, have long had a strategic alliance against the Jewish state, despite opposing positions on the sectarian divide. Both have fought wars with Israel in the past six years.
However, as the Sunni-Shiite split in the Middle East deepens, Hamas appears to have cast its lot with the powerful, Egypt-based Sunni Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose star has been in the ascendant since the Arab Spring revolts last year.
“This is considered a big step in the direction of cutting ties with Syria,” said Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian political commentator.
Damascus might now opt to formally expel Hamas’ exile headquarters from Syria, he said.
Banned by deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood has moved to the center of public life. It is the ideological parent of Hamas, which was founded 25 years ago among the Palestinians, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims.
Shiite Hezbollah still supports the al-Assad family, from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which has maintained authoritarian rule over Syria’s Sunni majority for four decades, but now may have its back to the wall.
Hamas, however, has been deeply embarrassed among Palestinians by its association with al-Assad, as the death toll in his crackdown on opponents has risen into the thousands.
In Gaza, senior Hamas member Salah al-Bardaweel addressed thousands of supporters at a rally at the Khan Younis refugee camp, sending “a message to the peoples who have not been liberated yet, those free peoples who are still bleeding every day.”
“The hearts of the Palestinian people bleed with every drop of blood shed in Syria,” Bardaweel said. “No political considerations will make us turn a blind eye to what is happening on the soil of Syria.”