A Hamas supporter attends a rally in Gaza City
A Hamas supporter attends a rally in Gaza City Reuters

Reports have emerged that the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas has turned its back on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and expressed its support for the Syrian opposition who are in revolt. This comes as something of a breakthrough since Assad had long provided a sanctuary for Hamas exiles.

Two months ago, International Business Times spokes to an expert on Middle East affairs to discuss the likelihood of Hamas abandoning Assad.

Here is that interview.

Dilshod Achilov is a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn.

IB TIMES: What does the civil strife in Syria mean for Hamas' operations in the country?

ACHILOV: For Hamas, the civil strife in Syria most likely means a great deal of confusion and uncertainty. More precisely, the civil strife seems to bring both near-term problems and long-term opportunities -- both at the same time.
Syria has long been a key supporter of Hamas. For a long time, Assad's regime has safeguarded Hamas and provided logistics, monetary and political support. The popular uprising in Syria is making Hamas' relationship with Assad very uneasy.
Hamas is led by Sunni Muslim leaders. Therefore, it would be uncomfortable for Hamas to vocalize its support for the Shiite-Alawite Assad's regime in the light of Sunni-led uprising in the country.
In the long-term, if Assad is toppled, a new Sunni government could potentially be a stronger supporter of Hamas. It is a complex situation for Hamas in Damascus.
In this tense context, Hamas has to balance its rhetoric with respect to the ongoing civil strife in Syria. Perhaps it is in Hamas' best interests to keep a low profile and stay neutral in the current crisis.

IB TIMES: Would Hamas have any incentive in supporting the anti-government movement in Syria? Or are they too beholden to Assad?

ACHILOV: This is the main dilemma that Hamas finds itself in today. Hamas has incentives to support the anti-government movement given the fact that Assad's fall has become a matter of time. It would probably be a viable investment for the future, too. However, this would also trigger Assad's harsh response to Hamas.
For years, Assad has protected Hamas. Thus, Hamas is indeed indebted to Assad. Even if Hamas decides to leave Syria, it will probably remain neutral and keep a low profile until the dust settles in Syria.

IB TIMES: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal moved to Damascus in 2001. What were the circumstances surrounding that move?

ACHILOV: Syria is technically still in the state of war with Israel. The Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel following the six-day war of 1967, stands at the core of the Syrian-Israeli rivalry/conflict.
Syria views Hamas as a key card (and strategic tool) against Israel. The main Syrian motive in hosting Meshaal in 2001 was based on sending a strong message to Israel.

IB TIMES: What is Meshaal's relationship with the Hamas hierarchy in Gaza and West Bank?
ACHILOV: Meshaal is a leading figure of Hamas and enjoys substantial political influence in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, he is the one who calls the shots in Gaza.
However, Meshaal's popularity has been shrinking as the growing number of Palestinians are becoming frustrated at Hamas' leadership for its ineptitude to govern effectively.
Yet recently, the exchange of political prisoners with Israel brought some political capital for Hamas in Gaza.
Meshaal is nowhere near as influential in the West Bank as he is in Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is represented by the incumbent Fatah political party in the West Bank, which is led by Mahmoud Abbas.

It is important to note that the political divisiveness among Palestinian political factions (Hamas and Fatah) has taken a heavy toll on the prospects for two-state solution.

IB TIMES: How does the Middle East view Hamas? Who are their biggest supporters?
ACHILOV: In general terms, the entire Middle Eastern Arab world supports Hamas (Gaza Strip) and the Fatah movement (West Bank) under the auspices of the Palestinian cause.
The Arab states generally view Hamas as a movement fighting for its independence from Israel. Until the Arab Spring, there were two main outspoken supporters of Hamas: Syria and Iran. Even though Turkey has recently emerged as an outspoken supporter of Palestinians, Ankara predominantly uses supporting Gaza in its rhetoric and comes short (or purposefully avoids) mentioning Hamas.
Hamas delegations often visit the Arab states, as well as Turkey, and solicits support for its cause in the region. Also, it is important to distinguish that supporting Gaza strip (e.g., the recent Gaza flotilla aid ships sent by various countries, including Turkey) does not necessarily mean supporting Hamas in particular, as they often get lumped in together.

IB TIMES: Wouldn't Hamas be better off relocating to Cairo where an Islamist party is likely to take over?

ACHILOV: Hamas would probably view this as an ideal option. Egypt is strategically, economically, tactically and now politically close to Gaza strip - in fact, it is in the backyard of Gaza. However, I do not think that the situation is ripe for Hamas to relocate to Cairo - yet. Egypt is still too politically unstable for Hamas to undertake this step.

IB TIMES: Why did Jordan's King Abdullah evict Hamas in 1999?
ACHILOV: Partially because Jordan had signed a peace treaty with Israel. While the peace treaty provided a partial pretext for Jordanian actions, coupled with Israeli pressure, to evict Hamas, Jordan was also concerned that Hamas would grow too big for Jordan to control/maintain (which could later pose security risks to the Kingdom).

Hosting Hamas also posed problems for peaceful Israeli-Jordanian relations. Israel pressed hard on Jordan to evict Mashaal. In addition, the U.S. pressure on Jordan was not insignificant either, given the fact that Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State.
The official justification by Jordan, however, was that Hamas was conducting illicit activities in the Kingdom.

IB TIMES: Does Turkey support Hamas? Do they want Hamas to vacate Syria?
ACHILOV: Turkey supports the Palestinian cause and selectively supports Hamas in that respect. At the same time, Turkey often criticizes Hamas for failing to recognize Israel (Hamas does not recognize Israel as a nation state) and for doing little to take steps toward a two-state solution for the Palestinians. There is no reason for Turkey to see Hamas leave Syria.
However, Turkey would definitely want to see Hamas distance itself away from Assad's regime and support or join the anti-Assad uprising.

IB TIMES: Is there a large number of Palestinians living in Syria? What is their status?
ACHILOV: Yes, there is a sizable number of Palestinians living in Syria. Approximately 5 percent of the Syrian population is of Palestinian origin (somewhere between 1-million and 1.5 million). There are approximately 10 Palestinian refugee camps in the Republic.
According to the United Nations, more than one-third of Palestinians in Syria live under conditions of severe poverty.

IB TIMES: Could Hamas move to Iran?
ACHILOV: This is highly unlikely, as it would be a political suicide for Hamas.
Hamas has always had to balance its relations between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab world. While maintaining good relations with Tehran, Hamas has been highly careful not to upset the Arab Middle East -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf (Qatar and Kuwait in particular) States in particular.

IB TIMES: Why does a Hamas-in-exile group even exist when they already rule Gaza?

ACHILOV: The main operational leadership of Hamas chose to establish its headquarters outside Gaza and the West Bank in order to escape Israeli assassinations. This is the main reason why the key leading figures of Hamas live in exile.

IB TIMES: Does Saudi Arabia oppose Hamas because of its links to Iran?
ACHILOV: Not really. Hamas (the ruling political party in Gaza) and Fatah (the ruling political party in West Bank) are both political rivals and do not get along with each other. Each political faction has its own vision for a Palestinian future.
At times, Saudi Arabia is seen on the side of Fatah, and sometimes on the side of Hamas. Overall, Saudi Arabia maintains good relations with both factions.

IB TIMES: How will sanctions against Syria impact the local Hamas group?
ACHILOV: The sanctions may hurt the influx of funds to Hamas from the Arab league states. This may restrain the operational capacity of Hamas both in Gaza and Syria. The sanctions could also hurt their international travel, which may adversely affect the mobility of the Hamas' cadre in Damascus.