In early May, Moscow accepted the request of a visiting Hamas delegation to mediate between rival Palestinian factions. This diplomatic achievement gives Hamas new ways to challenge Israel; both in consolidating its own political standing in the Palestinian territories and by shifting Russia’s views on the merits of its security cooperation with Tel Aviv.

Hamas’ domestic consolidation

Since 2007, Hamas, which governs Gaza, has been rivals with Fatah, which forms the Palestinian Authority (PA) governing the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their conflicting stances on Israel are a major cause for this split – with Hamas’ policy of military deterrence against Israel contrasting starkly with the PA’s security cooperation with Tel Aviv.

Both Hamas and the PA’s approaches have complicated their relationship with the Palestinian population. The PA’s more diplomatic strategy – resulting, inter alia, in the Oslo Accords in the 1990s – led to the deterioration of its support. Israel’s failure to slow its project of settlement expansionism, despite the spirit of the agreement reached, disillusioned the Palestinian population from its diplomatic approach. Hamas’ enhanced military capabilities and Israel’s recent failures to subdue Gaza, on the other hand, have allowed it to grow its popularity among the dissatisfied West Bank Palestinians.

Bringing Russia into the diplomatic equation helps Hamas gain more political ground at the expense of the PA; whose historical compliance with a US monopoly over Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy is widely resented by Palestinians. Importantly, it signals a shift in Palestinian leadership: with Palestinian representation being in the hands of Hamas, and the PA being sidelined in decision-making.

This decisive transition and focus on Hamas leadership translates to a larger, more organized resistance against Israeli authority and settlement construction in the West Bank. In fact, beyond consolidating domestic power, Hamas’ Russian diplomacy initiative also enables it to challenge Israel at a regional level; not least because it complicates Russia’s alignment with Israel in countering Iranian presence in Syria. 

Russia’s Israel-Iran calculus

Russia’s military coordination mechanism with Israel in Syria and its pledge to restrain Iran and Hezbollah’s forces in Syria from confronting Israel show Moscow’s alignment with Tel Aviv on countering Iran’s regional presence.

However, closer contact with Hamas could make Russia rethink the merits of aligning with Israel against Iran.

Hamas, after all, is part of Iran’s regional alliance, which spans across Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon and Yemen. While Hamas is not taking its cue from Iran in its engagement with Russia, its strategic ties with Tehran are still relevant to its outreach to Moscow.

Iran’s role as Hamas’ sole military supplier renders Iran the guarantor of Hamas’ political relevance. Hamas’ prospects of side-lining the PA and becoming the leaders the Palestinian populace rely on is grounded in their military capabilities. Without Iran shoring up its military prowess, Hamas loses the foundations of its political standing.

This complicated web of alliances and enemies muddies the diplomatic waters for Russia. After all, it cannot credibly mediate between Palestinian factions if it appears intent on undermining either of them. So, Moscow will need to accept Iran’s strategic depth in the Palestinian Territories as a firmly rooted reality that must be worked with, rather than challenged.

This diplomatic picture, however, may not be as easy to draw as Moscow might expect. A Russian diplomatic role in the Palestinian Territories that does not treat Iran as a threat will bother Israel considerably and show that Russia’s commitment to its present Israel-leaning view of regional security is not ironclad.

The Ukraine factor

The Ukrainian War is leading to a fork in the road between Russia and Israel. Israel’s pro-Ukrainian statements, and its hints towards support for Kiev, have already frustrated the diplomatic ties Tel Aviv and Moscow once shared. It has been suggested that Russia’s increased accommodation of Hamas is tied to its resentment towards Israel over Ukraine; something that has not been ignored by Hamas’ political class. It has recognised the weakened relationship between Russia and Israel, and has taken it as an opportunity to boost its importance to Russia and its allies.

Additionally, a Ukraine-based Russian interest in Palestinian diplomacy can balloon into a bigger problem for Israel than just a bilateral disagreement between it and Russia. As reported by the National Interest’s CEO Dimitri Simes after extensive meetings with officials in Moscow, their dispute is making Russian officials question cooperating with Israel vis-à-vis Iran, and even consider mending Russian ties with Iran in retaliation for Israel’s support of Ukraine.

Russia can kickstart this ‘Plan B’ by using its Hamas-induced role among Palestinians. Namely, Moscow can use Hamas’ strategic ties with Iran to portray Russian policy on the Palestinian Territories as defying Israel at the geopolitical level, caused by Tel Aviv’s pro-Kiev moves. If this does not prove enough to shift Israeli policy on Ukraine, Russia can distance itself from Israel – and draw itself closer to Iran – by threatening to halt its cooperation against Iran in Syria wholesale.

Thus, the Ukraine factor – and the political relationships it has forged and broken – improves Hamas’ chances of driving a diplomatic wedge between Russia and Israel.

The Syrian Conflict: Reflections and Prospects

Held on 10 November, 2022


Ola Rifai | Senior research fellow and the Deputy Director for Outreach at the Centre for Syrian Studies.

Mohamad al-Ashmar | Humanitarian professional and consultant in international development and humanitarian crises. International Relations doctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews (UK).

Dr Francesco Belcastro | Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Derby (UK) and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrew.

Professor Raymond Hinnebusch | Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Founder and director of the Centre for Syrian Studies.


“Agency has largely passed from Syrians to external powers.”

The nature and impact of external influence in the Syrian conflict was the most prominent issue discussed by the panel. The speakers concurred that the persistence of international interference by powers such as Russia and the US play a harmful and restrictive role in the region, which ultimately prevents the resolution of the conflict.

Tracking Russia and Iran’s support of the Syrian regime since the 2012 uprisings, Dr Belcastro argued that the Syrian regime is reliant upon these powers to the extent of surrendering its autonomy. In light of recent distractions which threaten Russia and Iran’s support of the regime, namely civil unrest in Iran or Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of the regime’s ability to hold its ground can be brought into question. Belcastro argued that regardless of the extent of engagement, these external powers will continue to play the role of ultimate guarantor for the Syrian regime, as the regime remains too weak to stand on its own.

Professor Hinnebusch discussed the role of US interference and influence on the conflict, highlighting the superpower’s recent shift in approach from primary to secondary sanctions. Painting a bleak picture, Professor Hinnebusch outlined the key consequences of these sanctions as economic collapse and escalation into further humanitarian crisis. At the societal level, he argued that the sanctions are failing to spawn revolt and have instead instilled a sense of hopelessness, with the struggle for daily economic survival debilitating the Syrian people’s political agency.

“Demographic engineering is reconstructing identity and provoking identity clashes.”

A key theme evoked by the speakers was the relevance and centrality of identity within the Syrian conflict. The speakers explored the topic of identity through the perspective of different players within the conflict, from the Syrian diaspora to Syrian people who remain in the region.

Emphasising the delicate historical process of identity construction and reconstruction for the Syrian people, a panellist criticised Turkey’s recent inorganic transplantation of 1 million Syrian refugees into North Syria, a land which was historically ethnically mixed and is surrounded by Salafi militias, as disruptive to the natural process of identity construction. Taking a more positive stance, a panellist explored the role of Syrian identity as a mobilising force. Focusing on the power of the Syrian diaspora in the Syrian relief effort, they emphasised the force of the
Syrian diaspora in constructing hundreds of charitable organisations worldwide in support of those in Syria, and the way in which the common Syrian identity felt by those involved has helped fuel collective mobilisation. However, the panellist resigned to the limitations of this form of resistance, acknowledging that the diaspora is ultimately incapable of significantly impacting the political situation in Syria.

“The importance of sect was over romanticised.”

The panel was critical of the tendency of Western political figures and media to overemphasise the role of sectarianism in the Syrian conflict. Dr Belcastro cited this as an oversimplification of multifaceted political tensions by Western powers. Similarly, a panellist identified this tendency as a manifestation of the wider historical trend of the West imposing orientalist lenses upon Middle Eastern subjects. This depiction of the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms ultimately places identity groups as oppositional forces, ultimately fuelling inter-group conflict.

Dr. Belcastro expanded this thought beyond the immediate context of Syria, suggesting that this sectarian lens is imposed by the West onto the wider Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape, such as the ongoing tensions between Iran and the Gulf nations. The speakers posed the question of how, acting from within this imposed sectarian lens, the Syrian regime will attempt to negotiate reintegration into regional politics in the near future.

“External Interference is unlikely to ever withdraw entirely.”

Ultimately, the panel agreed that moving forward, the prospect of a Syria without any form of external interference is a fantasy. External actors have invested too much into the conflict to completely absolve themselves of all influence. Ultimately, as we have seen with the US’s shift toward secondary sanctions, it is expected that external powers such as the US and Russia will simply recalibrate the way in which they choose to interfere. Neither Russia nor the US are predicted to completely abandon their role within the conflict.

“The Success or failure of the US’s secondary sanctions on Syria have implications on the global order.”

Russia and China are expected to push back against the US’s secondary sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime, which punishes any company or state who chooses to do business with those that do business with Syria. Moves such as attempting to reduce the use of the dollar in international trade and producing an alternative world banking payment system have been triggered, in part, by these sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime. This has implications far beyond the Syrian context. This act of defiance suggests a gradual shift toward a multipolar global financial order, which would see the US removed as the global financial hegemon.

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