The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

As Syrian President Bashar Assad grows more and more isolated, his regime’s arch-nemesis – the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) – is gearing for a comeback. Fortunately for the brotherhood, powerful politicians in Lebanon are ready to lend a helping hand against their former patron.

Background

Although nominally a branch of the eponymous movement founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1920s Egypt, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is a creature of the socio-economic, cultural, and political setting in which it evolved. Whereas Banna was a man of modest means who rose up to challenge post-colonial Egyptian elites, the Syrian brotherhood was established in the mid-1940s by pedigreed ulama (scholars of Islam) closely aligned with wealthy Sunni landowners and merchants in Hama and Aleppo. This ultra-conservative alliance was cemented by overlapping socio-economic and sectarian fault lines, as the political forces challenging urban notables were dominated by Christian, Druze, and Alawite minorities (10%, 3%, and 12% of the Syrian population, respectively) viewed as heretics by fundamentalist Muslims.
While the Egyptian brotherhood rejected democracy as an import from the West, the Syrian branch participated in Syria’s sporadic interludes of democratic political life in the 1950s, establishing itself as a leading opposition bloc in parliament. The movement was banned in 1958 when Syria joined with Egypt in the United Arab Republic (UAR), but quickly returned to politics after the dissolution of the UAR in 1961, winning ten seats in parliamentary elections.
After seizing power in a 1963 coup, the Arab nationalist Baath Party banned the brotherhood and tightened state control over religious institutions to weaken its influence, while launching major nationalization and land reform programs to weaken the power of Sunni notables. In 1964, the brotherhood network in Hama took up arms in defiance of the new “apostate regime,” but government forces quickly overran the poorly trained and equipped rebels. Brotherhood leader Issam al-Attar was forced into exile, while local organizers of the uprising went underground to prepare for jihad against the Alawites. Wealthy Syrian expatriates in Europe and the Arab Gulf provided financing for the underground, while Jordan and Iraq provided safe havens and specialized paramilitary training.
The Baathist regime further inflamed tensions by steadily concentrating power in the hands of Alawite officers (particularly after the ascension of Hafez Assad as president in 1970), but outbreaks of the war with Israel in 1967 and 1973 created an inhospitable environment for settling internal scores. Once the dust settled, however, conditions were ripe – the Sunni community was seething with popular resentment toward the conspicuous wealth, corruption, and extravagant lifestyles of the regime’s Alawite security barons (especially Assad’s brother, Rifaat) and outrage over Syrian intervention in Lebanon in support of Christian militias against a predominantly Muslim left-wing alliance.
In 1976, underground jihadist networks launched a highly sophisticated assassination campaign against prominent Alawite government officials, military officers, and Baath party leaders, as well as pro-government Sunni clergymen. Although brotherhood leaders publicly denied any links to the violence, the government cracked down heavily on the movement, arresting scores of its activists. Following the June 1979 massacre of 32 Alawite army cadets, the regime adopted a new tactic by executing several jailed brotherhood leaders. Unable to root out the cells responsible for the killings,[1] the government henceforth responded with furious retribution. After a failed assassination attempt against Assad in 1980, hundreds of detained brotherhood members were gunned down in their cells. As the scale of violence escalated, mass demonstrations and strikes began erupting in Sunni areas and for a brief time revolution was in the air.
Then, in the predawn hours of February 3, 1982, a Syrian army patrol in Hama stumbled upon the hideout of the city’s underground commander, Omar Jawwad (aka Abu Bakr), and was ambushed with heavy losses. As military units ringed the city, mosque loudspeakers once again called for jihad against the Baath. This time, Hama was given no quarter. Much of the city was reduced to rubble and up to 20,000 people lost their lives in three weeks of horrific bloodletting (less than 100 had died in 1964) led by Assad’s brother, Rifaat. Organized resistance to the Assad regime quickly disintegrated. Most brotherhood members who weren’t picked up by the secret police quietly went on with their lives, while hardcore elements stayed underground and continued to carry out isolated acts of violence (until their inevitable arrests) or found their way to Afghanistan (many of them later popping up in Al-Qaeda).[2]
After eliminating the brotherhood’s infrastructure in Syria, government spent enormous sums of money building and upgrading mosques, subsidizing higher religious education, and establishing some 120 Assad Schools for the Recitation of the Koran (informal recitation schools having been key vehicles of paramilitary recruitment for the brotherhood).[3] Cut off from their followers and increasingly bereft of foreign support, the brotherhood’s leadership in exile became paralyzed by infighting.
Since the election of Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni as general supervisor (muraqib am) in 1996, the brotherhood has negotiated on and off with the government (through intermediaries) in hopes of reaching an accommodation. These negotiations made some progress after the ascension of Bashar Assad,[4] who released several hundred brotherhood members from prison, but the regime remained unwilling to grant Bayanouni’s three core demands – a general amnesty that would free thousands of Brotherhood members still in detention, permission for all exiles to return home, and a lifting of the government’s ban on the Brotherhood (membership in the organization is still punishable by death under Syrian law).
In hopes of building bridges with secular opposition currents, Bayanouni (who has lived in London since being ejected from Amman in 2000) has steadily moderated the brotherhood’s declared objectives and principles.[5] In October 2005, the brotherhood joined other opposition groups in signing the Damascus Declaration, which called for the establishment of a liberal democracy in Syria. Nevertheless, many Syrian Christians and Druze share Alawite fears about Sunni domination, even if a democratic system is put in place.[6]
Because these fears are critical to his political survival, Assad has desperately tried to obstruct the brotherhood’s rapprochement with secular opposition forces. In May 2005, Kurdish cleric Mashuq al-Khaznawi was kidnapped and tortured to death shortly after returning from a meeting abroad with Bayanouni and publicly calling for the brotherhood’s re-entry into Syrian political life. A few weeks later, security forces arrested nine members of the Jamal al-Atassi Forum, a secular nationalist political salon, for reading a statement by Bayanouni reiterating the movement’s commitment to nonviolence and democracy (they were later released after pledging to cut off communication with the brotherhood).
The level of popular support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria today is difficult to gauge. There are no public opinion polls in Baathist Syria and the movement has not tested its popularity by calling for demonstrations or strikes in two decades. Although Syrian Sunnis are more outwardly religious today than they were then (veiling, for example, is much more common), the movement no longer has a deep social support base or control over religious institutions. There is evidence that radicalism is spreading in government-supervised mosques straddling the line between state and society (last year a preacher in the province of Homs killed a policemen),[7] but it’s not clear how extensively the brotherhood has penetrated them.
On the other hand, the brotherhood may not need to rely on traditional vehicles of mobilization in order to reestablish political preeminence in the Sunni community. Having appeared frequently on Arabic-language satellite channels, such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, Bayanouni is a far more familiar face to Syrians today than any Brotherhood leader was in the past and his organization communicates regularly with insiders via email.
In today’s political climate, the brotherhood’s reputation for conspiring with neighboring Arab regimes is no longer a liability. Apart from Egypt (for obvious reasons), most Arab governments do not seem particularly averse to a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Syria if it comes about peacefully. After the humiliation of Iraq, the Haririst victory in Lebanon gave the Arab world a much-needed dose of Sunni triumphalism and it is hungry for another one even if it comes at Assad’s expense. Although no Arab government has publicly received Bayanouni, the Arab press is full of innuendos that something is going on (e.g. Al-Sharq al-Awsat obliquely mentioned that the brotherhood leader was “outside Britain” when the paper interviewed him in October).[8]
In May 2005, Bayanouni reportedly tried to open a line of communication with the Bush administration through Farid al-Ghadri, the US-based head of the Reform Party of Syria.[9] It is likely that some indirect communication has taken place, though both sides have a strong incentive to deny it – a public relationship between the United States and the brotherhood could risk uniting and radicalizing Syria’s fractious Alawite power centers (whether behind or against Assad). Bayanouni’s public assurances that the brotherhood is “looking to share power, not to rule the country” appear intended in part to allay American concerns.[10]
However, there is much concern in Washington that a brotherhood-dominated post-Baathist regime will continue allowing terrorists to infiltrate Iraq from Syria. Bayanouni was quick to condemn the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but he has frequently denounced the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and portrayed the United States as a menace to Syria in public speeches.[11] Although such rhetoric usually appears as a prop for his argument that Assad must reconcile with the brotherhood to strengthen the nation against external threats (the “help us help you resist the Americans” appeal has been a common refrain among all opposition currents),[12] he has also berated Assad for “making concessions and more concessions” to Washington.[13] Publicly, at least, he has expressed little willingness to be more accommodating than Assad.
The fact that many Syrian Sunnis deeply sympathize with Iraqi insurgents (no one better understands their fear of being ruled by non-Sunnis) adds to the uncertainty. Even if Bayanouni sincerely commits in advance to halting the traffic, he may find it impossible to control the Islamist underground and politically unthinkable to coerce it. A weak brotherhood at the helm that lacks the ability to rein in radical Islamists would be a nightmare scenario for Washington. The most critical question mark isn’t what Bayanouni’s intentions are, but what he’s capable of delivering.
Adding to the uncertainty are divisions within the exiled leadership of the brotherhood (mostly in Britain and Germany). One wing, favored by Bayanouni, reportedly believes that Assad will never meet the Brotherhood’s core demands and therefore advocates close cooperation with all Syrian opposition currents (Rifaat Assad excepted) and dialogue with Western governments. The other wing, backed by the Egyptian brotherhood, believes that Assad’s growing domestic and international isolation will eventually force him to make these concessions and therefore opposes joining the bandwagon against him.[14]
This polarization was evident in the brotherhood’s initial reaction to the defection of former Syrian Vice-president Abdul halim Khaddam early this year. In a January 6 interview with the Financial Times, Bayanouni declared that the movement was willing to “work for political transition in Syria with former regime officials who are ready to commit themselves to democratic change,”[15] but then changed his tune two days later, calling Khaddam “a partner to the four-decade regime of corruption and despotism in Syria” and demanding that “apologize for his role in the crimes the regime has committed against the [Syrian] people.”[16]
Although no apology was forthcoming, Bayanouni met with Khaddam in Brussels a month later and agreed to form a united opposition front. Their sudden marriage happened to mirror a recent alignment in Lebanon between the Hariri family and the Lebanese branch of the brotherhood, known as the Islamic Association (al-Jama’a al-Islamiya).
In part because their union seemed so obviously brokered (and probably financed) by non-Syrians, Bayanouni and Khaddam had enormous difficulty attracting other opposition figures to join their ranks. They met again in Brussels in mid-March, this time with a handful of lesser known secular and Kurdish expatriate dissidents, and announced the formation of a National Salvation Front, as well as plans to establish a government-in-exile.
Official American reaction to the Brussels meeting was carefully worded. State Department spokesman Gregg Sullivan called the meeting an “internal Syrian political development,” adding quickly that the United States is “interested in hearing a wide array of views from Syrian opposition figures”[17]
Reaction within the Syrian opposition was decidedly more negative. “Anyone who in the past has had a hand in corruption or killings must not be supported by the international community,” cautioned Farid Ghadry, president of the U.S.-based Reform Party of Syria.[18] Leading opposition figures inside Syria immediately distanced themselves from the National Salvation Front.[19] “We are not cooperating with Mr. Abdel Halim Khaddam,” Syrian dissident Michel Kilo, a major organizer of the Damascus Declaration, told Al-Jazeera.[20] In early April, divisions within the brotherhood itself burst into the open, with Deputy General-Supervisor Farouq Tayfur announcing his withdrawal from the organization (though it does not appear he has actually left).[21]

(Gary C. Gambill, Mideast Monitor)

Notes

[1] This was partly because terrorist operatives were rarely caught alive – when cornered, they almost invariably used grenades to kill themselves (and others).
[2] “Spain links Syrian cabal to Sept. 11 plot; Prosecutors follow the money trail,” Chicago Tribune, 19 October 2003. Some have popped up in radical Sunni Islamist organizations operating out of Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp and the area around Tripoli.
[3] Al-Hayat (London), 18 June 2005.
[4] “Damascus, Brotherhood set to reconcile?,” The Daily Star, 26 May 2005.
[5] In May 2001, it issued a National Charter that called for democracy and rejected political violence. In 2002, Bayanouni presided over a conference of Syrian opposition figures in London that issued calls for reform while pointedly declining to directly criticize the regime. In 2004, it endorsed women’s rights and promised to seek only a gradual introduction of Islamic law through elected representatives. Earlier this year, it formally disavowed revenge in a National Call for Salvation.
[6] Although over 13% of its membership is Christian, relatively free elections for the Engineer’s syndicate in Aleppo last year produced a leadership council that was uniformly Sunni. See “The Road to Damascus,” The Jerusalem Report, 25 July 2005.
[7] Al-Hayat (London), 18 June 2005. According to this report, he fled to Jordan and was later extradited back to Syria.
[8] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 23 October 2005.
[9] Al-Hayat (London), 28 October 2005.
[10] National Public Radio, 1 December 2005.
[11] In April 2004, Bayanouni signed a statement with a number of other Sunni Islamist organizations in the Middle East condemning the “genocide” and “blind hatred of Muslims” of US forces in Iraq. See “Islamists urge Governing Council not to be partner in “U.S. crime” in Iraq,” Agence France Presse, 8 April 2004.
[12] Al-Jazeera SAT TV (Qatar), 29 May 2003.
[13] Al-Jazeera SAT TV (Qatar), 20 August 2003.
[14] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 20 January 2006.
[15] “Muslim Brotherhood leader offers support to Syrian defector,” The Financial Times, 6 January 2006.
[16] Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), 8 January 2006.
[17]Eli Lake, “America Says It’s Prepared To Listen to Syrian Muslim Brotherhood,” The Sun (New York), 4 April 2006.
[18]Eli Lake, “America Says It’s Prepared To Listen to Syrian Muslim Brotherhood,” The Sun (New York), 4 April 2006.
[19] Al-Hayat, 20 March 2006.
[20] Al-Jazeera, 25 March 2006.
[21] Al-Diyar (Beirut), 7 April 2006.

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