Hamas delegation to visit Syria after shunning Assad for years

GAZA, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Hamas leaders will visit Syria on Wednesday, in a move by the Palestinian Islamist group to rebuild ties after shunning President Bashar al-Assad for years over his violent crackdown on protests.

Normalising ties with Assad's government could help restore Hamas's inclusion in a so-called "axis of resistance" against Israel, which also encompasses Iran and Lebanon's powerful armed Shi'ite Hezbollah group.

Hamas leaders publicly endorsed the 2011 street uprising against Assad's dynastic rule and vacated their Syria headquarters in Damascus in 2012, a move that angered their common ally, Iran.

Hamas's relations with Iran were later restored and Hamas officials praised the Islamic Republic for help with building up their Gaza arsenal of longer-range rockets, which they have used in fighting Israel.

Palestinian political analyst Mustafa Sawwaf said Hamas’s reconciliatory move towards Syria aims to create new ground for the Islamist faction.

"I think most of the territories where Hamas is present began to narrow, including Turkey, and therefore, the movement wanted to find other ground, from which it can continue to operate," Sawwaf told Reuters.

In June, two Hamas officials told Reuters the group had decided to restore relations with Syria. Hamas has eased into the process slowly, fearing a backlash from its mostly Sunni Muslim financiers and other supporters, given that most of the victims of Assad's crackdown in Syria were Sunnis.

Asked whether the benefits were worth the criticism levelled against Hamas in the Muslim Sunni world, Sawwaf replied: "It is a matter of Palestinian interests and Hamas may have thought that couldn’t be achieved if the boycott continued."

Hazem Qassem, a spokesman for Hamas, told Reuters the delegation to Syria would be led by senior Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya, as part of a wider delegation made up of leaders of other factions.

Reporting by Nidal Al Mughrabi; Editing by Alison Williams, Lilian Wagdy and Nick Macfie

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A senior correspondent with nearly 25 years’ experience covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict including several wars and the signing of the first historic peace accord between the two sides.