Hamas leaders meet Assad in Damascus to 'turn the page'

DAMASCUS, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad met a delegation from Hamas on Wednesday, with the Sunni Palestinian Islamist faction saying the meeting could help "turn the page" after shunning Damascus for a decade.

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

Normalising ties with Assad could help restore Hamas's inclusion in a so-called "axis of resistance" against Israel, which includes Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah, natural allies of Assad, whose Alwaite group is a Shi'ite offshoot.

A small delegation visited Assad in Damascus on Wednesday "to turn all the pages of the past," according to the head of delegation and Hamas politburo member Khalil Al-Hayya.

"We consider it a historic meeting and a new start for joint Syrian-Palestinian action," Hayya told a press conference.

"We agreed with the president to move beyond the past."

He said several factors had encouraged the rapprochement now, including Israel's development of ties with other Arab countries.

"The Palestinian cause today needs an Arab supporter," he said.

Hamas has already restored its ties to Iran, with party officials praising the Islamic Republic for its contribution to their Gaza arsenal of longer-range rockets, which they have used in fighting Israel.

It has eased into reconciliation with Syria more 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.

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.

Reporting by Kinda Makieh, Maya Gebeily and Nidal Al-Mughrabi; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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