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
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
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
Anti-regime protestors in Binish, Idlib province.
Regime supporters demonstrate in Damascus during the first year of the conflict in Syria.
A Syrian opposition fighter in Idlib province