Even if Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad somehow survives the current uprising aimed at toppling his regime, the beleaguered dictator will have a lingering identity problem. Indeed, a long-standing pillar of Syria's foreign policy has been support to the Palestinian "resistance" against Israel. But in the wake of the Syrian onslaught, the country's estimated 500,000 Palestinians are abandoning – even challenging – their long-time champion. With this dramatic shift, al-Assad is left more isolated in the Middle East than ever before.
Reports from the region continue to confirm what would have been deemed impossible just two short years ago: Palestinians are turning against the regime. Human Rights Watch notes that, "Palestinians have joined anti-government protests." One FSA commander, meanwhile, has boasted, "Palestinians are fighting alongside us, and they are well trained."
It doesn't help that the regime is murdering Palestinians. On Thursday, the regime reportedly killed 20 when it shelled a refugee camp. Reports before that indicated that al-Assad's campaign had already claimed the lives of some 300 Palestinians. It's still unclear just how many Palestinians have responded by taking up arms to challenge the regime, but a clearer picture is emerging of who is abandoning al-Assad in his hour of need.
The most prominent Palestinian defection has been Hamas. The Islamic Resistance Movement, as it is officially known, established its headquarters in Syria in the late 1990s. Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal reportedly liaised with Iran and other regional financiers from this office, which also played a key role in supporting Hamas' military operations in the Gaza Strip. Not surprisingly, when the Syrian uprising began in early 2011, the faction stood by their patron. But there is a level of violence that even a group designated a terrorist organization by the United States can't bear. In February, as the body count continued to rise inexorably, Meshaal left Syria for Qatar. Amidst the ongoing violence, Hamas spokesman Izzak Reshak recently condemned Syria for massacring 17 Palestinians.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), another long-time Syrian client, meanwhile, has been careful not to directly challenge the regime, but it may also be on its way out. Reports in Middle East news outlets recently noted that PIJ figures were exiting Syria after more than twenty years of close economic and military cooperation. Despite some denials from the PIJ politburo, other faction leaders reportedly quit Syria and headed back to Gaza. A new report suggests that the group wants to move its headquarters from Damascus to Beirut or Cairo.
And while the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has had choppy relations with the Syrian regime, due mostly to disputes arising from Syria's opposition to Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, the official voice of the Palestinians has also come out against Damascus. Last summer, a senior PLO figure lashed out at Syria. "We consider these actions to be part of the crimes against humanity that have been directed at the Palestinian people and their Syrian brothers who are also the victims of this ongoing bloody campaign," he said. More recently, PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas flatly condemned the regime's attacks on Palestinians
Even the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), a force that answers to Assad's military and is charged with policing Syria's nine refugee camps, has reportedly refused to carry out acts of violence on behalf of the regime. For this, some have paid the ultimate price. Indeed, Syrian forces reportedly kidnapped 16 PLA members and slit their throats. The regime insists that the PLA is still an arm of the military, but it's unclear if the faction has done more than police the camps
The one major faction that actively fights for the regime is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), led by Ahmed Jibril. Jibril has warned that his group would "take to the streets and fight on behalf of all those with honor and our Syrian brothers" to defend the Syrian regime. One Palestinian told the New York Times that Palestinians believe Jibril's group is "working for [Syrian intelligence]." The group is even reported to have killed 14 fellow Palestinians in a refugee camp on behalf of the regime last June.
But Jibril is the exception. Nearly every other Palestinian faction that had once latched itself onto the al-Assad regime has quietly found a way to exit the country or loosen its ties.
To be sure, many Palestinians have long appreciated Syria's political and financial assistance to Hamas, PIJ, Hezbollah, and other factions that have engaged in "resistance" against Israel. But it has become impossible for even these violent factions to support a state responsible for the deaths of an estimated 18,000 people.
Recently, on the website of the Beirut-based al-Akhbar, the Lebanese writer Amal Saad-Ghorayeb tried to argue that the "real litmus [test] of Arab intellectuals' and activists' commitment to the Palestinian cause is no longer their support for Palestinian rights, but rather, their support for the Assad leadership's struggle..."
This argument suggests that al-Assad's support for the Palestinians was never about the cause. Rather, it was a pretense he wielded for legitimacy.
With the majority of Palestinians now seemingly abandoning the Syrian dictator, that pretense is now shattered.