The Mus­lim Brother­hood in Syria: a ‘cen­trist’ ji­had?, By Raphaël Le­fèvre

Much of the dis­cus­sion re­gard­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Syria has fo­cused on the rise of Is­lamic ex­trem­ists, to the detri­ment of an­other trend of the past months: the slow re­birth of the lo­cal branch of the Mus­lim Brother­hood and its claims to sup­port ‘cen­trist

Turkish Review - - CONTENTS - Fol­low the au­thor: @RaphLe­fevre The au­thor would like to thank Ali el-Yes­sir for his kind help in as­sist­ing this re­search.

De­spite its im­por­tance and a rich lo­cal his­tory, very lit­tle has been writ­ten about the Mus­lim Brother­hood’s 30-year strug­gle against the regime in Syria. Based for decades out­side of Syria, where the law con­demns any known mem­ber of the or­ga­ni­za­tion to the death penalty, the Brother­hood has taken ad­van­tage of the chaos of the past three years to re­build some of its past net­works in­side the coun­try in or­der to po­si­tion it­self as a grow­ing ac­tor on the ground.

Most of the aca­demic lit­er­a­ture on the sub­ject dates back to the 1980s, when the or­ga­ni­za­tion was tem­po­rar­ily crushed in Hama af­ter an up­ris­ing was bru­tally re­pressed by the Syr­ian se­cu­rity forces. 1 Re­cent years have re­newed aca­demic and jour­nal­is­tic in­ter­est in the se­cre­tive Syr­ian Mus­lim Brother­hood, but most re­ports still fo­cus more on the group’s in­flu­ence over ex­iled op­po­si­tion bod­ies such as the Syr­ian Na­tional Coun­cil (SNC) and the Na­tional Coali­tion than on its ac­tual role in the strug­gle on the ground. 2 Yet the is­sue mat­ters, given the Syr­ian Mus­lim Brother­hood’s flir­ta­tion with ex­trem­ism in the late 1970s, its sub­se­quent claims to have changed, and its re­cent dec­la­ra­tions that it is now sup­port­ing “mod­er­ate” rebel groups in­side the coun­try.

This ar­ti­cle aims at ex­am­in­ing whether the Mus­lim Brother­hood is wag­ing a “cen­trist” ji­had in Syria. It will start by giv­ing an over­view of the group’s his­tory and, in par­tic­u­lar, of its past strug­gle with the regime, be­fore mov­ing on to an­a­lyze its mil­i­tary in­flu­ence in the cur­rent Syr­ian cri­sis. It will seek to sit­u­ate the Brother­hood’s re­birth within the frame­work of Syr­ian Is­lamist pol­i­tics and, in par­tic­u­lar, to de­pict its role in the re­cent rebel in­fight­ing be­tween the “mod­er­ate” rebels and their more ex­trem­ist coun­ter­parts. The ar­ti­cle will go on to ar­gue that, even though it is in the Brother­hood’s in­ter­est to avoid re­peat­ing past mis­takes, its mil­i­tary off­shoots on the ground are none­the­less not im­mune to the process of rad­i­cal­iza­tion that is cur­rently af­fect­ing many “mod­er­ate” rebel groups in Syria. In or­der to pre­vent this trend from spilling over into Brother­hood-af­fil­i­ated groups, the or­ga­ni­za­tion must com­mit larger re­sources to ed­u­cat­ing fight­ers and in­tro­duce greater trans­parency re­gard­ing the ex­act range of its mil­i­tary ac­tiv­i­ties.

A CON­TRO­VER­SIAL HIS­TORY

In­side Syria, the Mus­lim Brother­hood is of­ten re­mem­bered for its 1979-1982 ji­had against the regime then headed by Hafez al-As­sad. The episode would pro­foundly af­fect the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s im­age in the coun­try, right up un­til today. Set up in the mid-1940s by Mustapha al-Sibai, a stu­dent of Has­san al-Banna, the Syr­ian branch of the Mus­lim Brother­hood started off by en­gag­ing in par­lia­men­tary pol­i­tics and by play­ing the rules of Syria’s young, post-in­de­pen­dence, democ­racy. 3 The seizure of power by the sec­u­lar and au­thor­i­tar­ian Ba’ath Party in March 1963 would vi­o­lently shake the course of its his­tory. The new regime’s poli­cies slowly an­tag­o­nized var­i­ous sec­tors of so­ci­ety linked to the Mus­lim Brother­hood (the souk traders, the ur­ban mid­dle class and the con­ser­va­tive Sun­nis amongst oth­ers) and mo­men­tum started to grow for mass demon­stra­tions against the Ba’ath Party. By the late 1970s, the regime was faced with grow­ing de­mands for more po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic lib­er­al­iza­tion but, in­stead of giv­ing up some of their power, Ba’athist of­fi­cers com­pro­mised with cer­tain seg­ments of Syr­ian so­ci­ety, such as the Da­m­as­cus souk traders, whilst us­ing harsh re­pres­sive mea­sures against the rest of the demon­stra­tors. 4 The Mus­lim Brother­hood, be­cause of its wide base and its or­ga­ni­za­tional ca­pac­i­ties, was harshly tar­geted by the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus. “As mem­bers of the Brother­hood, we then faced three op­tions: we were ei­ther sent to prison, or killed, or one af­ter the other,” 5 a Syr­ian brother now based in ex­ile ex­plained. In June 1980, an up­ris­ing in Aleppo was bru­tally re­pressed with a death toll of sev­eral thou­sands. Just a few weeks later, the De­fense Com­pa­nies, a unit of the Syr­ian Army specif­i­cally tasked with pro­tect­ing the regime in Da­m­as­cus, pen­e­trated Tad­mor Prison, where many Mus­lim Broth­ers were held, and re­port­edly gunned down be­tween 500 and 1,000 in­mates in the space of just a few hours. 6 Fi­nally, a few days later, Law 49 of July 1980 made it a cap­i­tal of­fense to be­long to the or­ga­ni­za­tion. “We had the choice be­tween ei­ther flee­ing our coun­try, or de­fend­ing our­selves,” 7 a Brother­hood leader sum­ma­rized, while jus­ti­fy­ing the group’s dec­la­ra­tion of ji­had against the Ba’ath regime in Oc­to­ber 1979. But, soon enough, “self-de­fense” trans­formed into re­venge and sec­tar­ian ret­ri­bu­tion.

This co­in­cided with the rise of the Fight­ing Van­guard, a na­tion­wide net­work of Is­lamic ex­trem­ists who had al­ways wanted vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion with the

Ba’ath regime and its sup­port­ers. At first, the Fight­ing Van­guard’s cam­paign se­lec­tively tar­geted a hand­ful of the regime’s top se­cu­rity and po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cers. But its deeds soon trans­lated into in­dis­crim­i­nate ji­hadi at­tacks against the Alaw­ites, the mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity from which Hafez al-As­sad hailed and a prime sup­porter of his rule. In June 1979 the Fight­ing Van­guard car­ried out a mas­sacre of 83 Alaw­ite cadets at the Aleppo Ar­tillery School, while spar­ing their Sunni coun­ter­parts. The Mus­lim Brother­hood was blamed for the in­ci­dent and, even though it im­me­di­ately con­demned the Fight­ing Van­guard’s deeds, from that time on­ward it started to be qual­i­fied by the Ba’ath regime as a “ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion.” 8 Trapped be­tween two bad op­tions; ei­ther giv­ing up on the op­po­si­tion to Hafez al-As­sad or, on the con­trary, en­dors­ing vi­o­lence and al­ly­ing with the Fight­ing Van­guard to top­ple the regime once and for all, the Brother­hood chose the lat­ter -with dis­as­trous con­se­quences for its im­age in­side Syria. In­deed, many mem­bers of Syria’s mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties, but mainly the Alaw­ites, have not for­got­ten this al­liance and the pe­riod of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence that fol­lowed. The al­liance be­tween the two forces was short-lived, how­ever; last­ing only un­til late 1981, as ide­o­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween the two or­ga­ni­za­tions soon su­per­seded their com­mon in­ter­ests. It was there­fore in a state of po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary frag­men­ta­tion that the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion even­tu­ally wit­nessed a large-scale mas­sacre by the regime a few months later at Hama, in Fe­bru­ary 1982, fol­low­ing a last stand by the Mus­lim Brother­hood there -- the re­pres­sion of which claimed the lives of be­tween 25,000 and 40,000 peo­ple. 9

This marked the de­fin­i­tive ex­ile of many mem­bers and lead­ers of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and it blood­ily ended the chapter of po­lit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion to Ba’athist rule for the next three decades -- un­til March 2011. But by es­cap­ing Syria, the Mus­lim Brother­hood’s lead­er­ship had to leave many of its fight­ers and mem­bers be­hind. Un­til today, there­fore, the Brother­hood’s lead­ers are not only ac­cused by the mi­nori­ties of hav­ing par­tic­i­pated in sec­tar­ian killings in the early 1980s, they are also crit­i­cized by many con­ser­va­tive Sun­nis who stayed in­side Syria of hav­ing let them down and given up on the strug­gle too soon. None­the­less, there was still a last-ditch at­tempt by the Brother­hood’s lead­er­ship to re­spond to the Hama mas­sacre, when it gath­ered a few thou­sand Is­lamist fight­ers in train­ing camps in neigh­bor­ing Iraq. They were go­ing to be sent to Syria to re­gain con­trol of Hama but, at the last minute, the lead­ers can­celled the plans and asked the fight­ers to sur­ren­der their weapons and re­turn home -- an episode of­ten re­ferred to as the failed nafeer (call). “Peo­ple are an­gry at the Mus­lim Brother­hood for let­ting them down af­ter the nafeer -- we had over a thou­sand fight­ers armed with weapons and lined up in 200 cars but the or­der never came,” 10 ex­plained a for­mer Syr­ian Brother who now lives in a “lib­er­ated” part of north­ern Syria. Through­out the decades that fol­lowed the Hama mas­sacre and the failed nafeer, the Brother­hood was thus left in ex­ile with vir­tu­ally no al­lies in­side Syria -- the mi­nori­ties mis­trust­ing its in­ten­tions and the more con­ser­va­tive Sun­nis bit­ter at its mis­han­dling of the past sit­u­a­tion.

BY ES­CAP­ING SYRIA, THE MUS­LIM BROTHER­HOOD’S LEAD­ER­SHIP HAD TO LEAVE MANY OF ITS FIGHT­ERS AND MEM­BERS BE­HIND

ARM­ING THE REV­O­LU­TION

The Mus­lim Brother­hood had to wait un­til March 2011 and the be­gin­ning of the Syr­ian up­ris­ings to re­gain a mea­sure of rel­e­vance in­side the coun­try. The group right away en­dorsed the rev­o­lu­tion, called for it to re­main as peace­ful and non-sec­tar­ian as pos­si­ble and stressed that it had drawn lessons from its own his­tory. 11 How­ever, as months passed by, the regime’s re­sponse to the up­ris­ings turned ever more vi­o­lent, leav­ing pro­test­ers look­ing for groups to pro­tect them from sniper fire. The Free Syr­ian Army (FSA) rapidly grew as the most vis­i­ble rebel um­brella or­ga­ni­za­tion tasked with the de­fense of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties to the ex­tent that, by March 2012, the whole ex­iled po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion had en­dorsed it as well as its prin­ci­ple of “self-de­fense”. But ev­i­dence sug­gests that at least some within the Syr­ian Mus­lim Brother­hood were al­ready in­volved in court­ing armed groups by late 2011. Back then, some of these Brother­hood fig­ures started to sup­port the work of for­mer mem­ber Haitham Rah­meh, who be­gan to pro­vide fund­ing and ma­te­rial as­sis­tance to FSA fight­ers

THE MUS­LIM BROTHER­HOOD HAD TO WAIT UN­TIL THE BE­GIN­NING OF THE SYR­IAN UP­RIS­INGS TO RE­GAIN A MEA­SURE OF REL­E­VANCE IN­SIDE THE COUN­TRY

in and around his na­tive city of Homs, then un­der an in­tense mil­i­tary siege. His group, called the Civil­ian Pro­tec­tion Com­mis­sion (CPC), was set up with the help of Nazir al-Hakim, a prom­i­nent ac­tivist with close ties to the Brother­hood in Aleppo. “Given that the no­tion of armed strug­gle was still, at the time, rather con­tro­ver­sial in op­po­si­tion cir­cles, the Brother­hood’s lead­er­ship de­cided to tem­po­rar­ily de­cen­tral­ize decisions on this mat­ter and leave it up to in­di­vid­u­als to en­gage or not in that type of ac­tiv­i­ties,” 12 ex­plained a Mus­lim Brother close to the lead­er­ship. How­ever, as the mil­i­tary strug­gle be­came more wide­spread through­out 2012, the whole lead­er­ship agreed to di­rectly send some fund­ing to care­fully se­lected rebel groups that shared its mod­er­ate Is­lamist ide­ol­ogy, such as the Omar al-Farouk Brigade in Homs and the Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo. 13 “These two groups ac­cepted our money and sup­port at first,” ac­knowl­edged an­other Syr­ian Brother close to the lead­er­ship. But as wealthy donors started more ac­tively sup­port­ing rebel groups in Syria, sources of fund­ing di­ver­si­fied and these bat­tal­ions gained in au­ton­omy. “Even though they now make their decisions in­de­pen­dently from us, we still en­joy good re­la­tions with both of them,” 14 the Brother added.

As time went on, and as loot­ing, re­venge and regime pen­e­tra­tion all be­came more com­mon in cer­tain FSA bat­tal­ions, ru­mors started spread­ing that the Brother­hood had grown frus­trated with the sit­u­a­tion and had formed its own rebel groups. 15 This fol­lowed an am­bigu­ous state­ment made on the sub­ject in the sum­mer of 2012 by Moul­hem al-Droubi, a prom­i­nent Mus­lim Brother from Homs, be­fore he was re­buked by the lead­er­ship, who im­me­di­ately de­nied the cre­ation of any Brother­hood-spe­cific rebel groups be­fore none­the­less ac­knowl­edg­ing, by Jan­uary 2013, that some “mod­er­ate” bat­tal­ions had in­deed formed and con­tacted the or­ga­ni­za­tion to co­or­di­nate. These “cen­trist-minded” groups that “trust the brother­hood” were fi­nally in­vited to a con­fer­ence in İs­tan­bul, where they gath­ered un­der the Duroo al-Thawra (Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion).3 “The goal of the shields is to unite all those who may be pi­ous Sun­nis, be they al­ready mem­bers of the Brother­hood or not, and who are true na­tion­al­ists and be­lieve in a civil state,” 16 ex­plained a high-rank­ing Syr­ian Brother who is in­volved with the is­sue. The po­lit­i­cal state­ments is­sued by the Shields echo this ori­en­ta­tion. On its web­site, the rebel plat­form thus claims to hail from a “mod­er­ate, cen­trist-Is­lamist” back­ground which binds it to no­tions such as ob­ser­vance for “in­ter­na­tional law on hu­man rights,” a com­mit­ment to “demo­cratic elec­tions and di­a­logue”

and a cat­e­gor­i­cal re­jec­tion of “all calls for tak­feer, forced dis­place­ment, mass mur­der and sec­tar­ian and eth­nic dis­crim­i­na­tion” -- in fact a clear hint at its re­jec­tion of the more ex­treme Salafi and Salafi-ji­hadi ide­olo­gies. 17

The Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion also rec­og­nize the po­lit­i­cal au­thor­ity of main­stream op­po­si­tion bod­ies such as the Na­tional Coali­tion, qual­i­fied as “the broad­est um­brella that ex­ists to rep­re­sent the Syr­ian peo­ple,”5 and they are nom­i­nally placed un­der the au­thor­ity of the FSA -- a net­work of main­stream rebel groups gath­ered un­der the Supreme Mil­i­tary Com­mand (SMC) which pro­vides fight­ers with equip­ment and fund­ing un­der loose cen­tral co­or­di­na­tion. The Shields, in fact, are led by three prom­i­nent FSA of­fi­cers who de­fected from the Syr­ian army. Brig. Gen. Sami Hamza is its head, Col. Mo­hammed Hus­sein Naas’an is his deputy and the in­flu­en­tial Col. Mustafa Ab­del Ka­reem rep­re­sents the plat­form in the SMC of the FSA, while at the same time be­ing “the op­er­a­tional fig­ure of the SMC who over­sees the five fronts.” 18 Since Jan­uary 2013, the Shields have be­come more vis­i­ble on so­cial me­dia and their equip­ment has be­come much more so­phis­ti­cated.

In Oc­to­ber 2013, Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion fight­ers who were part of the plat­form’s Air De­fense Brigade could be seen on videos posted on­line as han­dling high­qual­ity anti-air­craft and anti-he­li­copter weapons such as Co­bra 2, FN-6 and Igla. 19 Since it was cre­ated, the plat­form has also ab­sorbed many smaller rebel groups. 20 Today, the Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion is said to com­prise dozens of bri­gades, with an es­ti­mated man­power of 5,000 to 7,000 fight­ers, most of whom are based in Idlib prov­ince and with a high con­cen­tra­tion in the Homs, Hama and Latakia prov­inces, too. 21

A ‘CEN­TRIST’ STRUG­GLE?

At the heart of re­cent at­tempts to boost the Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion’s pro­file in Syria lies a deep con­cern on the part of the Brother­hood re­gard­ing the rise in the ac­tiv­i­ties of Is­lamic ex­trem­ists in rebel-held ar­eas. These have height­ened over the past few months as Salafi-ji­hadi groups such as Jab­hat al-Nusra and the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have seized swathes of the coun­try’s eastern and north­ern prov­inces, as well as the city of Raqqa. Ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous es­ti­mates, vi­o­lent in­fight­ing be­tween these groups and the more “mod­er­ate” rebels has cost the lives of 1,400 peo­ple in the month of Jan­uary 2014 alone. 22 So far, the rebel push against the Salafi-ji­hadi groups has mainly been or­ga­nized by the Is­lamic Front, which gath­ers sev­eral big Is­lamist fac­tions in Syria and claims to rep­re­sent 70,000 fight­ers in to­tal, closely fol­lowed by the Syr­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Front, a het­ero­ge­neous plat­form of a dozen groups gath­er­ing 10,000 men. 23 Sig­nif­i­cantly enough, the Shields did not take part in the emer­gence of ei­ther of these two an­ti­ji­hadi plat­forms, un­der the pre­text that their goals are guided by the agenda of for­eign pow­ers, chief amongst them Saudi Ara­bia, with which the Syr­ian Mus­lim Brother­hood has a “com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship.” 24 This not­with­stand­ing, how­ever, it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that the Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion is con­sol­i­dat­ing the lit­tle ground it holds and get­ting ready for its own con­fronta­tion, in due course, with Jab­hat al-Nusra and ISIS. 25 Mu­tual mis­trust is run­ning high. “Their se­cond tar­get af­ter top­pling the regime is to get rid of peo­ple be­long­ing to our or­ga­ni­za­tion and, more broadly, to our school of thought,” 26 a Syr­ian Brother went as far as sug­gest­ing. An­other mem­ber of the Brother­hood who is ac­tive in co­or­di­nat­ing mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions be­tween var­i­ous groups re­called be­ing in­vited to a meet­ing with lead­ers of Jab­hat al-Nusra who plainly told him: “You guys in the Brother­hood talk too much about civil so­ci­ety and democ­racy -- you are not real Is­lamists.” 27

To deal with this height­ened ten­sion, the Brother­hood’s strategy seems to be two-fold. “On the one hand, we en­cour­age di­a­logue to re­solve is­sues but, ex­cept in the case of Ahrar Al-Sham, this has not been very suc­cess­ful so far. On the other hand, we want to start pre­par­ing to de­fend our­selves,” 28 ex­plained a leader of the Brother­hood. How­ever, the loom­ing con­fronta­tion will not hap­pen just yet, for two rea­sons. The first is prag­matic. Many Syr­ian Broth­ers seem to think that re­cent splits within the Salafi-ji­hadi move­ment sug­gest that groups be­long­ing to that school of thought are not as co­he­sive as it first seemed. They of­ten tell sto­ries of peo­ple they them­selves know who are not ji­hadists, but who left main­stream FSA bri­gades be­cause of loot­ing and cor­rup­tion, in­stead join­ing the more hi­er­ar­chic and or­derly Salafi-ji­hadi groups, but who are now frus­trated with their ex­trem­ism. These are peo­ple who might even­tu­ally be lured into more cen­trist, Brother­hood-sup­ported groups. The se­cond, and per­haps more im­por­tant, rea­son is that the Brother­hood does not wish to start fight­ing the well-equipped ex­trem­ists too early. “We’re not in a state to fight them and win right now,” ex­plained one mem­ber of the Brother­hood. “Don’t bring the strug­gle to your­self quite yet,” 29 warned an­other.

But the Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion and the Mus­lim Brother­hood’s feel­ing threat­ened by more ex­trem­ist ac­tors in Syria does not mean their claims of “cen­trism” should be taken for granted. Their state­ments, of course, may be un­am­bigu­ous when it comes to sup­port­ing con­cepts such as the state, in­ter­na­tional law on hu­man rights, democ­racy and the pro­tec­tion of mi­nor­ity rights. “We have learnt from the fail­ure of our past strug­gle in the early 1980s,” in­sisted a Mus­lim Brother close to the lead­er­ship. “We want to be more in­clu­sive and to give

THE SYR­IAN MUS­LIM BROTHER­HOOD DOES NOT WISH TO START FIGHT­ING THE WELLE­QUIPPED EX­TREM­ISTS TOO EARLY

guar­an­tees to the mi­nori­ties.” 30 The Brother­hood re­cently at­tempted to trans­late this prom­ise into re­al­ity by, for in­stance, an­nounc­ing the cre­ation of a po­lit­i­cal party, Wa’ad (Prom­ise), which has lit­tle Is­lamist sub­stance, lim­its the group’s in­flu­ence to a one-third quota in its mem­ber­ship and lead­er­ship and even in­cludes some mem­bers of the mi­nori­ties such as Chris­tians, Alaw­ites and Kurds. 31 But the emer­gence of the Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion as the Brother­hood’s un­de­clared armed wing in Syria still raises the specter of fancy prom­ises made by the lead­er­ship out­side of Syria whilst some­thing quite dif­fer­ent is go­ing on on the ground. Such fears are height­ened by the Brother­hood’s re­luc­tance to of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edge that it di­rects, or at least heav­ily in­flu­ences, the poli­cies and op­er­a­tions car­ried out by the Shields. A prom­i­nent Alaw­ite dis­si­dent put it this way: “If the Shields are the Brother­hood’s new armed wing, then fine; but the fact that they are not pre­pared to con­firm it on the record sheds doubts on the group’s real in­ten­tions.” 32 This con­cern is par­tic­u­larly pal­pa­ble in prov­inces such as those of Latakia, Homs or Hama, which are home to sub­stan­tial Alaw­ite com­mu­ni­ties, some of whom may still re­mem­ber the Brother­hood’s rad­i­cal­ism and dou­ble-deal­ing of the early 1980s. On the sur­face the group’s lead­er­ship seems in­tent on not re­peat­ing past mis­takes and to pre­vent at all costs the process of rad­i­cal­iza­tion tak­ing place in Syria amongst “mod­er­ate” groups from spilling over into the Shields. 33

“The is­sue of ed­u­ca­tion is ab­so­lutely para­mount to pre­vent ex­trem­ism,” ac­knowl­edged a high­rank­ing Syr­ian Brother. “So we are send­ing mod­er­ate cler­ics to em­bed with Shields bri­gades and pro­vide them with cen­trist guid­ance on is­sues of war and so­ci­ety, we are also train­ing train­ers to ac­com­pany the fight­ers on the ground and make sure they all com­ply with the Shariah ethics code for strug­gle man­age­ment -- we take these is­sues very se­ri­ously even though it is a some­times com­pli­cated process in the mid­dle of a war,” 34 he ex­plained.

So far, the Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion do not seem to have been in­volved in sec­tar­ian retri­bu­tions or acts of ex­trem­ism. Even in the prov­ince of Latakia, which is home to a ma­jor­ity of Alaw­ites and where the num­ber of Shields fight­ers is es­ti­mated at around 1,000, the plat­form seems more pre­oc­cu­pied by the de­fense of the towns and vil­lages it holds than by par­tic­i­pat­ing in of­fen­sives on nearby Alaw­ite vil­lages. Sig­nif­i­cantly enough, the Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion did not, for ex­am­ple, par­tic­i­pate in the rebel at­tack of Au­gust 2013 against Alaw­ite civil­ians. This “coastal cam­paign” in­volved lead­ing op­po­si­tion bri­gades, most of them linked to Salafi-ji­hadi groups of an al-Qaeda bent, which car­ried out the killing of a hun­dred civil­ians in at least a dozen Alaw­ite vil­lages of the Latakia prov­ince. 35 “There are 2 mil­lion Alaw­ites in Syria -- not all of them are guilty of sup­port­ing the As­sad regime, it would be wrong to blame the whole com­mu­nity for the deeds of a few,” 36 ar­gued a high-rank­ing Syr­ian Brother.

But how much longer can the mod­er­ate dis­course pro­fessed by Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion and Mus­lim Brother­hood lead­ers wield in­flu­ence over their own mil­i­tants in a con­stantly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing se­cu­rity con­text? “Our cen­trist thought is los­ing ac­cep­tance in the Sunni street,” ac­knowl­edged an­other high-rank­ing Syr­ian Brother. “But there is no mys­tery: for our think­ing to re­gain more pop­u­lar­ity, we need to con­vince by pro­vid­ing more ser­vices to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties and by of­fer­ing more re­li­gious guid­ance,” 37 he said. As a re­sult, the Syr­ian Mus­lim Brother­hood re­cently set up its own char­ity wing in­side Syria, which not only pro­vides as­sis­tance in refugee camps in south­ern Turkey and Jordan, but also op­er­ates in­side Syria, where it do­nates funds and ma­te­rial help to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties in lib­er­ated ar­eas. Yet it re­mains to be seen whether the ex­tent and qual­ity of the ser­vices pro­vided will be enough to tem­per the grow­ing im­pa­tience, hu­man and fi­nan­cial loss and frus­tra­tion of the many “cen­trist” Is­lamist mil­i­tants on the ground.

ON THE SUR­FACE THE GROUP’S LEAD­ER­SHIP SEEMS IN­TENT ON NOT RE­PEAT­ING PAST MIS­TAKES AND ON PRE­VENT­ING RAD­I­CAL­IZA­TION

CON­CLU­SION

Af­ter three decades of ab­sence from Syria, the lo­cal branch of the Mus­lim Brother­hood has spent the past three years try­ing its best to re­build some of its past net­works within the coun­try and to po­si­tion it­self as a grow­ing ac­tor not only in ex­iled op­po­si­tion pol­i­tics but

also in the mil­i­tary strug­gle on the ground. This is a con­tro­ver­sial step for many in Syria be­cause of the group’s flir­ta­tion with ex­trem­ist ac­tors in the early 1980s, which earned it a neg­a­tive rep­u­ta­tion, es­pe­cially amongst mi­nori­ties. As a re­sult, the Brother­hood has re­cently tried to rebrand it­self as a “cen­trist” player, one will­ing to bridge the gaps be­tween sec­u­lar Syr­i­ans and the more con­ser­va­tive cor­ners of Sunni con­stituency by hold­ing a dis­course which, in sub­stance, has be­come more na­tion­al­ist than Is­lamist. But the rise of some of its mil­i­tary off­shoots in­side Syria, such as the Shields of the Rev­o­lu­tion, and the Brother­hood’s re­fusal to pub­licly en­dorse them, sheds doubts on the group’s will­ing­ness to com­mit to such a “cen­trist” line in the medium and long term.

True, the state­ments is­sued by the Shields echo the Brother­hood’s rhetor­i­cal mod­er­a­tion, not only by ar­gu­ing clearly in fa­vor of democ­racy and hu­man rights, but also by con­demn­ing in strong terms the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Is­lamic ex­trem­ists in Syria. Yet the lack of sound re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion amongst Shields fight­ers will soon put this self­pro­fessed “cen­trism” to the test. Un­til now, the Shields do not seem to have been im­pli­cated in bla­tant acts of sec­tar­i­an­ism or ex­trem­ism. But, as mo­men­tum grows for a ne­go­ti­ated po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment, and as the Syr­ian regime’s provo­ca­tions mul­ti­ply against rebel-held ar­eas, there is a risk that “mod­er­ate” bri­gades will be­come frus­trated and rad­i­cal­ize. From in­ter­views car­ried out with Brother­hood lead­ers and mem­bers, it is clear that the group is aware of the ex­is­tence of such a risk. But, given its in­sti­tu­tional ab­sence from the ground, there is lit­tle it can do ex­cept in­tro­duc­ing greater trans­parency re­gard­ing its mil­i­tary in­flu­ence, ac­cept­ing ac­count­abil­ity for Shields ac­tiv­i­ties, and com­mit­ting greater re­sources to train its fight­ers in such a re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal way as to even­tu­ally re­duce the risk of ide­o­log­i­cal rad­i­cal­iza­tion. Un­til it does so more force­fully, it will re­main dif­fi­cult for the Syr­ian Mus­lim Brother­hood to ef­fec­tively sell to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity and to the pop­u­la­tion on the ground its ar­gu­ment ac­cord­ing to which it is wag­ing a “cen­trist” ji­had against the regime. TR

MARCH 26, 2012 PHOTO: AP/ENN

Anti-regime pro­tes­tors in Bin­ish, Idlib prov­ince.

OCT. 12, 2011 PHOTO: AP, MUZAF­FAR SAL­MAN

Regime sup­port­ers demon­strate in Da­m­as­cus dur­ing the first year of the con­flict in Syria.

SEPT. 19, 2013 PHOTO: AP

A Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fighter in Idlib prov­ince

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