The Axis of Resistance to Israel Is Breaking Up
Syria has turned against Hamas, and Iran’s efforts to mediate aren't working.
Yarmouk, once described as the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, was among the most ferociously bombed neighborhoods in the Syrian conflict. Home to 160,000 Palestinian Syrians before the civil war, the Damascus refugee camp-turned-suburb now lies in ruins and is nearly empty. The destruction of the camp, seen as a symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israel outside the occupied territories, has deprived Palestinians of their homes—and hope.
Yarmouk’s devastation, however, also tells the tale of Iran’s broken axis of resistance to Israel. It once comprised Hezbollah, Hamas, and Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian movement and militia, ignored Assad’s calls for support and instead backed the rebels in the Syrian conflict, the resistance broke apart. This weakened Tehran’s position in the region, as well as limiting its leverage in possible future talks with the United States.
Since 1979, Shiite-majority Iran has presented itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause with the aim of brandishing its credentials as a nonsectarian Islamic power worthy of leading a Sunni-dominated Muslim world. Its alliance with a Sunni militia, Hamas, continues to be important to its narrative. It started to rebuild its axis in 2017 as a change in Hamas’s leadership opened the door to reconciliation talks. To reunite Hamas and the Syrian regime, Iran deployed Hezbollah, the Lebanese arm of the resistance, which has held a series of meetings to facilitate the restoration of ties between the former allies. Palestinian activists in Syria, however, doubt that an unforgiving Assad will agree to reconcile with Hamas. Some instead point to possible Russian mediation between Syria and Israel as a sign of some sort of recalibration of that supposedly hostile relationship instead.
Most of the people of the Yarmouk camp who both wanted a free Palestine and a repression-free Syria fear that the regime has no intentions to rehabilitate them and has deliberately imposed obstacles in the way of their returning. Um Ridwan was a baby when her family was forced to escape the former Mandatory Palestine in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, seeking refuge in Yarmouk. Yarmouk was her home from then on, but the relentless bombing of her neighborhood by the regime in battles with the rebels, who included a range of groups from anti-regime Palestinians to the Islamic State, changed the face of it. Now, she can barely recognize it. “It’s all rubble,” she said.
In December 2020, she finally received the required permissions from the Syrian regime to visit her home but found nothing except crumbling walls. “Everything in our house was looted: doors, windows, sinks, even electrical wires in the walls and tiles on the floors had been stolen,” she told Foreign Policy from rented accommodation in Damascus where she has been living. “There is no electricity, no clinics, no schools, there is nothing. We were told the regime is fixing Yarmouk, but it hasn’t.”
It has been almost three years since the regime reclaimed Yarmouk, but it has not even cleared the debris inside the buildings, 60 percent of which were destroyed in the bombardment. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the U.N. relief agency for Palestinians, just 604 families have been approved by the regime to return as of last month. Palestinian activists say that these are the families of those who actively supported the regime, not those who opposed it or remained neutral. They accuse the regime of deliberately letting the rebels take over Yarmouk with the intention of isolating them and bombing the camp and then, in the postwar phase, of trying to steal the properties of its original inhabitants.
Foreign Policy spoke to several Palestinian Syrians with homes in Yarmouk who said that the regime wanted only supporters to return, no one else. The regime has demanded residents provide original documents proving ownership, which many may have lost in the chaos of war, and security clearance from the dreaded intelligence services so the regime can screen them for past allegiances. Other families may lose their homes if they fall on streets that have been allocated for redevelopment.
Palestinian Syrians, too, wanted an end to corruption and longed for better lives. They, too, participated in protests, but officially the various groups maintained neutrality in the conflict. However, Yarmouk grabbed attention when the people provided refuge to the internally displaced from elsewhere in the country and offered logistical support and humanitarian services to the rebels of the Free Syrian Army. Palestinian Syrians could not remain outside a conflict that was happening all around them for long.
While some supported the regime, Hamas backed the rebels. The group had been formed in 1987 as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab organization propagating political Islam, whose Syrian members were now fighting the Assad regime. Back in 2012, Hamas was also inspired by the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in placing their man, Mohamed Morsi, as president of Egypt, and hoped to cash in on the triumph of its parent organization by siding with them on the Syrian battlefield. Hamas’s leaders left Damascus for Qatar, a patron of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its breakaway fighters formed Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, which trained Syrian rebels to build tunnels and make rockets. They fought alongside the rebels against the regime on the Yarmouk front line and even against their old ally Hezbollah in the Syrian town of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border. Assad accused Hamas of supporting the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, then called the Nusra Front, while Hezbollah chastised it for using Iranian tunnel technology against the axis.
Soon enough, though, Hamas lost the gamble. Morsi was ousted in a coup in July 2013, and in Syria, too, they were eventually defeated by Assad and his Russian allies. But the Palestinians’ protests and Hamas’s rejection of Assad cost the community dearly. Assad’s intelligence services imprisoned thousands of Palestinians it suspected of sympathizing with the Syrian rebels, or those who in any way, howsoever remotely, advocated political Islam. They were seen as a threat by the regime, especially those from Yarmouk.
One activist who subsequently moved to the United Kingdom, speaking to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, said that fellow Palestinian Syrians were arrested if they happened to be from Yarmouk. “Bashar al-Assad considered Hamas’s refusal to support him as a stab in the back and perceived the whole community as unwanted guests in Syria,” the activist said. “Therefore the revenge was very extreme. They arrested anyone from Yarmouk, but it wasn’t limited to one camp. They chased Palestinians everywhere.”
Ahmad Hosein, the CEO of a U.K.-based monitor called Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, said anyone who did not support the regime was punished. “The regime did punish Hamas and its ‘official’ cadres for Hamas’s position toward the regime,” Hosein said. “But as for punishing the Palestinians as a community, I would say that every Palestinian individual who did not stand by the regime, regardless of their affiliation, was punished in one way or another.”
Iranian forces aided Assad in committing these crimes, but it still wanted to rebuild the axis. Over the last two years, Hezbollah’s head Hassan Nasrallah has met with Hamas’s leaders several times. Some of these leaders have also made conciliatory remarks about Syria’s previous largesse, which gave the refugees almost the same status as its own citizens—even though that decision predated the Baathist regime. A delegation from Hamas visited Damascus in 2019 and met with regime officials, but nothing came of it.
While Iran reeled under U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, the United Arab Emirates and three other Arab countries signed normalization deals with Israel. That should give further motive to Iran and Hezbollah to keep making an effort to revive the broken axis. But in an interview Nasrallah gave in late December 2020 he hardly seemed optimistic. “This relationship must be restored, but it will take some time,” he said.
There is perhaps too much bad blood between Assad and Hamas to mend fences for the time being. The Syrian regime was left seething when Hamas, a group that they supported over Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization since the ’80s, shunned it in preference for its own Islamist brothers. Besides, analysts say, Assad’s strong relationship with Russia and growing ties with the UAE, both of which want Syria to come to terms with Israel, has impacted the regime’s thinking. Rami al-Sayed, a former human rights activist from the Yarmouk camp, said that the regime had always been insincere about the Palestinian cause and deployed it to achieve its hegemonic ambitions in the Levant. Now, he said, it seemed more interested in cracking a deal to ensure its survival. “We have seen several deals recently, such as when Russia dug graves in Yarmouk to find to Israeli soldiers. Now we have heard that Israel is buying Russia’s coronavirus vaccine for Syrians,” he said. “This comes in parallel with the normalization wave between Israel and the Arab countries. It’s not impossible we will see a formal normalization between the regime and Israel very soon.”