Marking the first public break with its longtime patron, a leader of Hamas spoke out against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria on Friday, throwing its support behind the opposition and stripping Damascus of what little credibility it may have retained with the Arab street.
Hamas’ prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, said during Friday prayers, “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic Winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform.”
Mr. Haniya made his remarks in support of the uprising that is seeking to oust Mr. al-Assad, a reversal after years in which Mr. al-Assad has given haven to leaders of Hamas while helping supply it with weapons and cash in its battle against Israel. But the remarks were almost as significant for where they were made: in Cairo. During the years Syria supported Hamas, Egypt’s leaders were hostile to the group, treating it as a despised relative of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was also tagged an outlaw and banned. So Mr. Haniya’s remarks in Egypt served as another measure of how much has changed since popular uprisings began to sweep the region, removing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and now attempting to topple Mr. al-Assad.
Mr. Haniya’s comments confirmed a distance between Hamas and Damascus that emerged several weeks ago when the group’s leadership abandoned its longtime base in Syria as the environment there became more violent. The remarks, which were seen as the group’s official position because of Mr. Haniya’s role, reflected a progressively deeper split with Mr. Assad. Hamas also recently allowed residents of Gaza to stage protests against Mr. Assad and in support of the uprising.
In Cairo, as Mr. Haniya spoke, the crowds also shouted against Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, both of which continue to support Mr. al-Assad and have long been hailed on the Arab street for remaining defiant toward Israel. That, too, marked yet another significant shift caused by the Arab uprisings.
Iran has been a key supporter of Hamas. On Thursday, Al Sharq Al Awsat, the London-based Arabic newspaper, published remarks by Ezzat al-Rashq, a member of the Hamas political bureau, who said that Iran had been the main financial supporter for the Hamas government in Gaza. Without the Iranian money, he said, Hamas would have never been able to pay its 45,000 government employees.