Palestinians in Syria

Displaced again. Yarmouk refugee camp, January 2014.

With the death of Hafiz al-Assad in 2000, a peace deal between Syria and Israel remained incomplete. While some speculated that  Islamists in Syria would use the death of Assad to attempt to gain political control of Syria that reality did not occur. The Alawi political power remained intact when Bashar al-Assad took over for his father.

One such group that hoped to emerge with more power after the death of Hafiz al- Assad was the Muslim Brothers. The Brothers oppose what they see as the secularization of Syrian society by the Alawi political elite by the Ba’ath Party. In part, these conflicts led to the original ban on the Muslim Brothers in Syria in 1964.

The cries of secularization appeared to be confirmed in the 1970s when the Assad regime did not name Islam as the official religion of Syria in the new constitution. The omission was later remedied when law required the president to practice Islam. However, some Sunni did not consider the Alawi of whom President Assad was a member to be true Muslims.

Proclamations from various high-ranking Shiite designated the Alawi as a Muslim sect in the mid-1970s, but these declarations of the Alawi as true Muslims did not end the conflict between the Sunni Muslim Brothers and the Alawi political elite. The conflict between the Islamist group and the Alawi regime was not the only issue for the Assad regime.

The Syrian government maintained a strict stance against Israel. Through Assad’s negative dealings with the West, other Arab countries also distanced themselves from the Syrian regime. In order to obtain an ally in the region, the Syrian state formed a tighter alliance with the Shiite regime from Iran.

In conjunction with the Syrian-Iranian relationship came other allies close to the Palestinian cause. The Sunni-led Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Shiite Hezbollah from Lebanon. Both groups also had strong ties to Iran and spoke out for the Palestinian cause. Through these alliances, the Syrian Alawi government attempted to demonstrate they had the Palestinian cause as a priority.

Other Arab states in the region questioned the motivation behind the alliances. The other Sunni Arab states in the region had long acted as advocates for the Sunni Palestinian population. States such as Egypt and Jordan have peace deals with Israel in place.

The secular PLO was recognized as the principal negotiator on the Palestinians behalf. The Syrian-Iranian agenda often questions the tactics and concession of the PLO negotiations. Despite the Ba’ath championing of the Palestinian cause, the Islamist Muslim Brothers still viewed the Ba’ath regime as repressive in Syria and questioned their alliance with the Shiite Iran and Hezbollah.

The alliance with Iran and Hezbollah did not appear to bring Syria any closer to a peace agreement with Israel. In fact, the Ba’ath regime continued to reject any real negotiations with the Israelis. Some, including the Syrian Muslim Brothers, fear that Syria acts according to the will of Iran and not necessarily the will of Syria first.

Since the Shiite powers Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah continue to state their devotion to the Palestinian cause it became harder and harder for other groups to counter those claims with calls for secular peace negotiations that appear to illicit few results.

The motives of the Syrian Alawi political elite can definitely be questioned as to their supporting the Palestinian cause. However, until the other side makes real progress towards a peace deal, it is understandable why the Palestinian refugee population in Syria remains relatively un-mobilized towards nationalistic tendencies.

Without gross mistreatment by the state government, the Palestinian refugees in Syria remain fairly integrated with most civic rights and services available to them. Thus, Islamist groups have been unable to encourage mobilization in opposition to the Syrian government. Outside Islamist groups like Hezbollah have championed the Palestinian cause.

Until overt action demonstrates that their support of the Palestinian cause comes from impure motives, they appear to have the support of the Palestinian population in Syria in at least the Palestinians’ lack of mobilization inside Syria.

Again, the politics of the Syrian government’s actions with the PLO and Islamist organizations appear to centre less on aiding the Palestinian people and more on maintaining political clout.

Adapted from Palestinian Refugees in the Levant: Alternate Theories for Disparity in Treatment, by Stephanie L. Krueger (2011.) Photograph courtesy of ONU Ecuador. Published under a Creative Commons license.