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The Fate of Syria is in the Hands of … Palestinians?

For decades, the Assad regime in Syria was the most ardent regional champion of the Palestinian cause. When the country went to war with Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973, it claimed to do so on behalf of Palestine. Hafez al-Assad stood steadfastly against the Oslo Accords, refusing to support the compromise that the Palestinians were themselves prepared to make. And since coming to power in 2000, Bashar al-Assad has been a crucial patron of numerous Palestinian terrorist groups, just like his father before him. In recent years, Syria has served as a pivotal training ground, transit point, and weapons pipeline for groups engaging in “armed resistance” against Israel, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, and Popular Resistance Committees.

For their part, the Palestinians who have been aided and sheltered by Syria—there are some 500,000 in Syria, the majority living in nine refugee camps throughout the country—have responded by paying fealty to the regime. But with an internecine war now raging inside Syria’s borders, the Palestinians appear to be breaking rank. The London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat reports that the PIJ has left Syria for Iran, whileMaan News Agency reports that PIJ leader Ibrahim Shehada recently departed Syria for Gaza.

Indeed, it is already clear that the Syrian conflict has placed Assad's Palestinian clients into an untenable position. It’s hard for Palestinian groups to claim they are fighting for justice when their patron is in the midst of slaughtering its own people—some 18,000 souls and counting—in cold blood. That is why an ever growing number of Palestinians are now working to topple the regime that once supported them.

THE MAJORITY OF Palestinians living in Syria are descendants of the original refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars, which means they were born and raised in their adopted country. As such, they have developed dual identities: Palestinian and Syrian.

But while the Assad regime has been willing to leverage the Palestinian cause on the international stage, those Palestinians living within Syrian borders have never been treated well. Though many of these Palestinians feel Syrian, as The Independent (UK) notes, Palestinians in Syria “are not allowed to vote or hold Syrian passports.” Moreover, they cannot “stand for parliament or other political offices. Palestinians are barred from buying farmland and prohibited from owning more than one house. The female descendant of a Palestinian refugee can become a Syrian citizen by marrying a Syrian man. The male descendants of Palestinian men and their children are barred from acquiring Syrian citizenship, even if they marry Syrian women.”

Once the protests against the Assad regime began in 2011, it was only a matter of time before the Palestinians were going to have to choose sides. The protests and crackdowns have resulted in the deaths of as many as 300 Palestinians. Some 10,000 Palestinians have reportedly been detained. Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, recently described Palestinians in Syria as “guests” and cynically told them to “leave Syria for one of the Arab democracies” if they misbehave.In recent weeks, the violence against Palestinians has spiked. In one incident, Syrian forces bombed a hospital in Yarmouk refugee camp, reportedly because medics were treating the wounded from both sides. This came on the heels of reports that Syrian forces opened fire on demonstrators in Yarmouk, killing four and injuring several others.

There is one Palestinian faction that clearly does fight on behalf of Assad is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command (PFLP-GC). Famously, in June 2011, members of the PFLP-GC shot and killed 14 of their fellow Palestinians in Yarmouk. As one Palestinian in Syria told the New York Times, “Every Palestinian in Syria knows that the PFLP-GC’s fighters are working for the mukhabarat [intelligence] and running security patrols for the regime.” Its leader, Ahmed Jibril, recently told theIranian press“if foreign elements want to invade [Syria], we will be part of this battle and we have discussed it with our brothers in Syria, with [Hezbollah chief] Seyed Hassan Nasrallah and our brothers in Iran.”

But the most well known Palestinian militant group of all, Hamas, has recently parted ways with the regime because of the violence in the country. It was likely not an easy divorce. Hamas has had its headquarters in Syria since the late 1990s, following the group’s expulsion from Jordan. Among other things, the external leadership in Damascus under Khaled Meshal was closely identified with the “armed wing” of Hamas, the Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades.

Aware of its debt to the regime, Hamas quietly stood by Assad in the early months of the uprising. But by February of this year, the external leaders packed their bags for Qatar and Egypt. Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh went as far as to “salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform.” Anti-Assad protests, previously unheard of, have recently erupted in the Gaza Strip.

While Hamas and the rival Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) can rarely agree on anything since the internecine conflict that erupted in Gaza in 2007, they do see eye-to-eye on the horror that has consumed Syria. Iranian propaganda occasionally suggests that the PLO is still behind the Assad regime. (One Iranian news article of dubious veracity cited an official claiming that Palestinian refugees would not embrace the “interests of the Zionist regime.”) But it has become increasingly clear that the PLO opposes Assad. In August 2011, Yasser Abed Rabbo, the PLO secretary general, said that Syrian security forces had carried out crimes against humanity with its attack on the city of Latakia, including the crowded refugee neighborhood of Raml. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman called on “Syrian authorities to stop the attack on the refugee camp immediately.”

Seeking to hedge their positions, most of the Palestinian militant factions residing in Syria have found a way to quietly exit the country as it descends further into anarchy. But the vast majority of the 500,000 Palestinians who call Syria their home don't have the option of leaving. Instead, they have decided to cast their lot with the opposition. As one activist noted, “Day by day, Palestinians began to see and hear by their eyes and ears what the Assad regime does, and this pushed us, slowly, to change.”

True, many stay put and simply hope their homes remain standing in the morning. However, as Human Rights Watch notes, increasing numbers of Palestinians have picked up arms and joined the FSA. Colonel Kassem Saadeddine, spokesperson for the FSA, confirmed that "Palestinians are fighting alongside us, and they are well trained." And while it’s impossible to know just how many have joined, it’s remarkable to think about the impact the Palestinians could have if even just one percent of the population joined the fighting; that would be a total of 5,000 fighters.

While the fighting rages, many Palestinians have fled to the Jordanian border, not to mention Lebanon and Gaza, much as previous generations had in the wake of the wars with Israel. But while the refugees of previous generations became living symbols of Syria’s opposition to the Jewish state, today’s refugees are now sadly ironic symbols of unspeakable injustices perpetrated by the Syrian regime that for decades championed their cause.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine. He tweets at @JSchanzer.