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
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
"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
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."