Opinion: Syria Key Reason for Shalit Deal

After years of off-and-on negotiating, kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit’s captivity finally came to an end on Tuesday more than five years after he was snatched by Gaza terrorists. But considering he spent a total of 1,941 days in Gazan hands, what happened in recent weeks that made a deal possible now? Media reports have indicated Israel was generally willing to reach the essentials of the Shalit deal years ago. It was Hamas that appears to have been the hold-outs. What changed?

A key part of that answer would have been shocking eight months ago: Syria appears to have played an essential role in the headline-grabbing swap.

Specifically, Syrian protestors are doing more than sending shockwaves through the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus. As one of multiple terror groups who are hosted in Syria, Hamas is feeling the heat too as their patron’s hold on power is threatened. And Egypt, who ultimately facilitated the Shalit swap, is looking like a safe back-up plan for Hamas if Damascus falls.

So after years of maximalist demands, Hamas finally relaxed just enough to match Israel’s massive compromise and swap 1,027 prisoners for one soldier. Besides their freed prisoners, which include hundreds of terrorists who had been serving life sentences, Hamas also scores points by boosting Egypt’s role and reputation. That could be a favor worth cashing in if the Syria situation deteriorates further.

Currently, Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal is hosted in Syria, but Syria provides Hamas with more than just another home base. By hosting Hamas, Syria effectively grants military cover to Hamas leaders there. Israel would be hard-pressed to target Hamas leaders in Damascus and the risk would have to clearly be outweighed by the reward.

Israel is believed to have taken out a key Hizbullah senior operative in Damascus in 2008, but as a high-ranking member of the highly aggressive Hizbullah terror organization, the special ops car-bomb assassination was apparently deemed worth it. With Hamas’ top leaders there is instead a tense equilibrium that seems to have been reached with Israel.

Furthermore, Syria provides Hamas with a key regional ally, including weapons supply and other forms of support, in addition to the endorsement by Hizbullah and Iran. Tehran is a stronger power, but is much farther away. Hizbullah has its own problems as a governing force in Lebanon. Syria has been the closest reliable ally for Hamas.

But that essential Syria relationship is tottering. The Arab Spring has a foothold in Syria and international sanctions and pressure are rising on the Assad regime. If Assad falls, there’s no guarantee the next group will accept the risk and responsibility of hosting and supporting Hamas—if they’re even capable of doing so.

Should anarchy erupt in Damascus, Hamas could find themselves without a key element of cover, which could have far-reaching implications ranging from opening up their leaders as Israeli generic viagra india online targets to losing weapons and financial support.

Egypt offers a vital alternative as an ally. For years the Egyptians, a technical ally of Israel, were not on good terms with Hamas. But since the departure of long-time leader Hosni Mubarak, Cairo is warmer towards Gaza.

Things aren’t ideal for Hamas, as Egypt is still putting some effort into preventing arms from reaching Gaza and their relationship with Hamas has had its rough spots. Things are better, however, from Gaza’s perspective. And the relationship has potential for further improvement.

In the coming months, Egypt is expected to hold its first national elections since Mubarak’s departure. The Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ ideological big brother in Egypt, has a chance to take a key role in the next government—even if they’re not officially leading it.

In diplomacy, the concept of political capital is significant. Favors and compromises can build up into goodwill and help at a later date. But what can Hamas give to Egypt that would make them more open to hosting them and perhaps even unofficially supporting them in other ways?

It so happens that Egypt appears very interested in becoming a regional broker of sorts, especially as it involves the Palestinians. As a long-time ally of the West, Egypt has in the past made connections with Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ government in the West Bank.

But now, with an improved relationship with Hamas, Cairo has also drawn closer to the other side of some key arguments. So back in May, Egypt helped Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah faction reach a unity agreement that made headlines.

While that deal has yet to be truly implemented, the Shalit deal instantly makes Egypt the latest big-time player in the Middle East. For a nation still trying to recover its footing in the region, their results are eye-catching already.

That political benefit brings significance to Cairo, could open further regional relationships and economic benefits and generally makes Egyptians feel important again.

So was it a quid pro quo? Did Egypt agree to help Hamas if they would finally back down from their all-or-nothing demands for Shalit?

Probably not. But in the months ahead, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood takes power in Cairo, Hamas might have a place to spend the winter if the Arab Spring knocks out their home in Damascus.

As Gaza’s neighbor to the south, Egypt would be a huge ally for Hamas, and actually an improvement on Syria. But Hamas didn’t make this deal in May, when Egypt was busy brokering their deal with Fatah. It was only done when Assad’s position has come increasingly into doubt.

So as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the Germans and the Egyptian government for their help in convincing Hamas to return Gilad Shalit, he might consider sending one to the protesters in Syria as well.

(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, October 18, 2011)