GAZA (Reuters) - Dozens of Hamas operatives have quietly returned to Gaza from Damascus as the Islamist group scales back its presence in Syria and gauges the uncertain future of President Bashar al-Assad, diplomats said on Sunday.
Officially, Hamas leaders are sticking to their denial they plan to quit the Syrian capital, where the group keeps its main headquarters outside the Gaza Strip.
But diplomats and regional sources said the Hamas delegation in Damascus, which once numbered hundreds of Palestinian officials and their relatives, had shrunk to a few dozen.
Departures were speeded up, one regional intelligence source said, by the Arab League’s suspension of Syria last month over its military crackdown on protests rocking the Assad government.
Diplomats said dozens of Hamas operatives and their families, who had lived in Syria since the 1990s, and others who moved there in recent years have returned to Gaza via Egypt in recent weeks.
Hamas would keep a skeletal presence in Syria to “book a seat in a post-Assad era,”” one diplomat said.
“Meanwhile, Hamas officials are on planes most of the time, bolstering ties with other countries like Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Sudan, or in contact to explore new bases and not a sole base,” the diplomat added.
Asking not to be identified, the diplomat said: “Hamas will pull out of Syria in the right time but not for good.”
When asked about Hamas’s presence in Damascus, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman said: “There is no change.”
In Beirut on Friday, a Hamas representative said the group was “still committed to supporting Assad.”
But, one intelligence source said, although Hamas “owes Syria a lot for its support, it doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of pan-Arab public opinion.”
Angering Syria, Hamas has refused to hold rallies in Palestinian refugee camps in support of the Assad government, which has sunk deeper into international isolation.
Tensions with Damascus rose further when Hamas opted not to sign a statement by nine other Palestinian groups, including President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine Liberation Organization, in support of the Syrian leader.
Hamas, which Israel and many Western powers consider a terrorist group, won a 2006 Palestinian election and, a year later, seized the Gaza Strip following a schism with its secular rival, Fatah.
Editing by Sophie Hares