DAMASCUS – For the second time this year, the Syrian capital Damascus was shaken last week by a bomb attack against a leading figure of the fundamentalist Palestinian group Hamas. The target of the attack survived but it was another reminder of the role that Syria seems to be playing in Palestinian affairs.
The country does not only host some of the militant groups’ leaders and offices, but senior Palestinian leaders also say Damascus is trying to influence groups in the Palestinian territories. This has shaped up as a concern in the run-up to the elections Jan. 9 for a new chairman of the Palestinian Authority to replace Yasser Arafat.
The new Palestinian leadership is worried about the possibility that renewed fighting can disrupt the elections and scupper plans to restore a measure of calm and stability, and even restart negotiations with Israel. This week, fighting in Gaza between the militants and the army once again escalated after a period of relative calm in the wake of Arafat’s death.
In Damascus veteran Palestinian leader Naif Hawatmeh told IPS that Syria indirectly supports some of the militant factions inside Fatah through the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
"Everybody knows Syria and Iran support Hezbollah. Well, Hezbollah supports some of the groups in the Palestinian territories, not only the Islamic ones but also some inside Fatah such as the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades," said Hawatmeh, leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine who has been based in Damascus for decades.
Palestinian factions in the West Bank acknowledged in an IPS report in September that Hezbollah is in some way involved with some of them. The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades associated with the ruling Fatah movement said it had a problem with some of its cells requesting and receiving support from Hezbollah.
Nasser Badawi, a Fatah leader in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank city of Nablus had said earlier: "Hezbollah’s support is not innocent. They want to block all prospects of a peace process." Badawi, who had become an unofficial spokesman for the Brigades, was killed by militants last month.
A well-connected Syrian political analyst also confirmed the role of Hezbollah. Israeli claims about a Hezbollah link with militant groups in the Palestinian territories have generally been regarded with skepticism.
Hezbollah waged a bloody 20-year war to end the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. The Israelis withdrew in 2000, but the group still launches occasional raids across the border.
Israelis appear more concerned about what they consider Hezbollah’s influence on the Palestinian Intifadah. Some claims by the military say that the Lebanese group is connected to 70 percent of Palestinian attacks through financial or logistical support or just simple help with planning. Israel accuses both Syria and Iran of supporting Hezbollah.
Syria has a long history of meddling in Palestinian affairs. Relations between the mainstream Fatah movement and the Syrian government have been strained since Damascus supported rebels inside the movement in the early 1980’s.
Ties did not improve when Arafat signed the Oslo interim peace agreements with Israel in 1993, without coordination with the Arab states. Syria until now harbors officials of Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process, including the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements.
In the attacks against Hamas officials in Damascus, the finger obviously points in the direction of the Israelis. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently dismissed Syrian calls for a resumption of peace talks, saying that Damascus should first end support for "terrorist groups."
Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader and the leading candidate in the Palestinian elections visited Damascus in December and met with the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal. A Hamas source said that the visit yielded little agreement and that the elections for the leadership of the Palestinian Authority were not even discussed. Meshaal rejected a Hamas ceasefire.
After the meeting between Abbas and Meshaal in Damascus, Hamas increased its attacks on Israeli targets in and around the Gaza Strip.
One of the reasons that Syria may be interested in influencing Palestinian politics is its own quest to regain complete control over the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. The resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is likely to reduce its leverage and leave it isolated. Developments in neighboring Iraq and international pressure over Syrian presence in Lebanon have also increased the government’s worries.
After a meeting between Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Palestinian leadership led by Abbas, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara’a indicated at a press conference where Syria’s interests lie. Coordination between the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon over peace moves was a "demand" of all the Arab states, he said. Abbas also said he wanted coordination but he did not offer any firm commitments.
Hawatmeh emphasized the importance for the Fatah leadership to come to some kind of agreement with the Syrians. "If Abu Mazen (a popular name for Mahmoud Abbas) and his colleagues can solve the problems between Syria and Fatah it means that will help them to call all who are in Fatah to be with them in the coming elections for the presidency."
Abbas’s position was strengthened last week when his leading challenger, Intifadah leader Marwan Barghouti who is jailed in Israel withdrew his candidacy. Barghouti is a leading Fatah activist and his candidacy had threatened to split the movement.
Barghouti is especially popular among the younger and more militant segments of the Palestinian population, such as the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. But he may have underestimated Fatah’s anger with such groups’ rogue behavior and their links with countries such as Syria.
Hawatmeh echoed sentiments expressed earlier by Palestinians in the West Bank. "The Syrians have their own interest, they don’t support these groups because they like them so much. And we, the Palestinians, also have our own interests."