On 25 September 2019, the outlawed Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) issued a strongly-worded statement, saying that it would have nothing to do with the United Nations-mandated constitutional assembly, which was scheduled to start work in Geneva five days later. Those talks, it added, were nothing but sugar-coating to legitimize the imposition of a military solution by Bashar al-Assad’s government. The SMB was opposing the entire process because it made no mention of a transitional process to a government without Assad. “We don’t have a single official or non-official member on the committee”, the SMB noted.
Technically, this is correct: Ahmad Sayyed Yousef, the only member of the constitutional assembly affiliated with the SMB, was withdrawn from the opposition delegation days before the talks started and replaced by Hisham Mroweh, a lawyer. None of the remaining 50 names representing the Syrian opposition are affiliated with the Brotherhood, and nor are the 50 delegates from civil society organizations. The SMB’s position has left many confused, however, since its staunch ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has moved heaven and earth to inject them into the Syrian political system since 2011, and Turkey now owns the Syrian opposition file.
Erdogan’s blessing was essential for the start of the Syrian constitutional process—signed-off at the last round of the Astana talks with Russia and Iran in September. All of Turkey’s other Syrian allies are adequately represented in the opposition delegation, including the Syrian National Coalition (ETILAF) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It was only logical for the SMB to be present, too, as one of the first groups to be instrumentalized by Turkey among the Syrian opposition. There is also an ideological affinity. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) traces its ideological roots to the Muslim Brotherhood, and prominent figures from the Brethren’s branches around the globe, particularly Egypt, are now based in Ankara and Istanbul.
The Brotherhood’s fortunes have been on the decline across the region. In Syria, neither the SMB nor the secular opposition can now succeed in deposing Assad through force. And the democratic engagement path has no worked any better, as seen first in Palestine and then in Egypt. In the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006, Hamas, the local Brotherhood branch, won 74 out of 132 seats in Parliament. Six years later, the Brotherhood candidate in Egypt’s presidential elections, Mohammad Morsi, won with 51.75% and swept 235 out of 508 seats in the Egyptian Parliament. They also won 60 out of 100 seats on the Constitutional Assembly of Egypt. In 2013, the Brotherhood was removed from power in Egypt and the new government has helped to isolate an already unpopular Hamas in Gaza.
Law # 49
Among the reasons that the SMB has been removed from the constitutional process is the flat rejection of the Syrian government, which insists it will never deal with the SMB. With threats to walk out of the process—and Russian ruler Vladimir Putin needing this process to finalize his vision of the Syrian endgame—the issue was taken by Moscow to Erdogan, and the SMB was eased out.
It was in Syria that the first legal prohibition, Law #49, was put in place against the Muslim Brotherhood. Under the law, which labels the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, provoked by a failed assassination attempt on the then-president Hafez al-Assad in 1980, interacting with the Brethren is a criminal offence. Officially, membership in the SMB is a capital offense. In recent years, Arab heavyweights like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have joined Syria in banning the Brotherhood. They all share the view that the Brotherhood is indistinguishable from Al-Qaeda terrorists.
The Brethren and Jihadism
The Brotherhood does have similarities to the Salafi-jihadists like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). Both the Brethren and the jihadists aspire to an Islamic caliphate ruled by a caliph. The differences are tactical. The Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna’s ijtihad (intellectual discourse) was that the root problem of the Muslim world was individual corruption and moral decay of society. Muslims, therefore, had to rid themselves not only of the physical forms of occupation, but also of Western influences that contradicted Islamic morality and behavior. Banna said that after liberating the Muslim world from colonial rule, the time would come to establish the Islamic state. “Without its establishment,” he added, “every Muslim would be living in sin and would be responsible before Allah for the failure to do so”. This is how the SMB justified its decision to run for Parliament in the 1950s, claiming that the chamber’s pulpit would be used to raise the call for an Islamic state.
In parliament, the SMB proved not only to be fanatical but petty. At one point the SMB tabled a bill calling on the state to enforce an additional shade of black to the thin melaya that women wore in public, and demanded the prohibition of the albums of the Cairo-based Syrian pop singer Farid al-Atrash, who was adored by Syrian teenager girls. In 1950, the SMB lobbied hard to prevent the erection of a statue of General Yusuf al-Azma in downtown Damascus, the minister of war who was killed confronting the invading French Army in 1920, on the grounds that statues were reminiscent of the pre-Islamic jahiliya (the era of ignorance) and were pagan habits that ought to be eradicated. Such behavior presages the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues in the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in Hazarajat, central Afghanistan, in early 2001, and the more recent cultural devastation wrought in Syria, initially by Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, who, for example, beheaded a statue of the Abbasid-era poet and philosopher Abu Ala’a al-Ma’ri in Marat al-Numan in 2013, and then by ISIS, as it rampaged through places like the ancient city of Palmyra.
The SMB might have objected that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a pretender to the mantle of caliph, but it was they who had introduced the concept into the Syrian political dictionary, publicizing it through their sermons and their daily newspaper, Al-Manar, which was forcefully terminated in 1963 by the new Ba’athist administration. Soon after, in 1964, the SMB staged its first revolt, and the SMB erupted in rebellion again in 1976 after Syrian became embroiled in Lebanon. The second uprising ended in devastation at Hama in February 1982.
In the mid-1980s, a small handful of SMB operatives reconciled with the Syrian government, while others went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation. From there, the SMB declared that they would not rest until they could return to their country victorious. To do that, they needed plenty of things that they did not have—namely money, arms, and competent leadership. The aging commanders and theorists of the SMB had effectively driven the organization into the ground by 1984-85. Politically, it was spent. Many of the SMB veterans then moved into the camps run by Osama Bin Laden as the war with the Soviets came to an end.
Bin Laden lavished resources on the Syrians. They were a good investment: well-educated urbanites, with plenty of fighting experience. Ninety percent of them were university graduates, and almost all of them spoke conversational English or French. This meant that they could find their way around Europe for secret missions when needed. Most came from middle class families, and were not there for the money, but rather, were ideologically motivated. The Bin Ladenist training camps of Afghanistan absorbed some of the most prominent SMB members, like Mustapha Setmariam Nasser (Abu Musab al-Suri) and Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu Khaled al-Suri), both of whom were arrested abroad and returned to Syria in 2005, with the latter being released in 2011 and thereafter acting as the special envoy for Al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Bahaya was killed on the Syrian battlefield in 2014 by ISIS suicide bombers. Other SMB affiliates that went over to Al-Qaeda include the businessman Mamoun al-Darkazally, who was accused of heading a secret cell in Hamburg that was directly linked to 9/11, and Al-Jazeera’s television anchor Tayseer Allouni, who was accused by Spanish courts of being tied to Al-Qaeda. Allouni was a good friend of Al-Bahaya, the man who helped him set up an office for the Qatari channel in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Fear of American Sanctions
Erdogan fears that US President Donald Trump might one day put his thoughts into action and designate the Brotherhood as a “terrorist organization”. Last April, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said: “The president has consulted with his national security team and leaders in the region who share his concern”, a reference to Egyptian president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, and, “This designation is working its way through the internal process”. Such action would rule the SMB out of the constitutional assembly and create other problems for the Turks.
Still, it might well be that the SMB itself has wanted to stay out of the process, fearing, not unreasonably, that Erdogan will sell them out to the Russians, as has happened with many armed opposition groups. The Syrian opposition has little choice but to stick with Erdogan—Qatar cannot give them the same military and political backing, certainly not after the boycott imposed by the Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) in 2017—but there are few illusions left about Turkish policy. In 2016, Erdogan ditched the armed opposition of Aleppo in order to clear ISIS and the Kurdish militants from the border areas around Jarablus, Azaz, and Al-Bab. In 2018, East Ghouta was abandoned in order to overrun Afrin. Containing Kurdish expansionism is the primary Turkish policy, and deals with the Russians that negatively impact the Syrian opposition have to be cut in order to achieve this. The SMB should expect no different. After all, the constitutional process itself is a rubber-stamp for the Russian victory.
Proposed Amendments to the Syrian Constitution
Syrian Islamists are un-impressed with the suggested reforms currently on the table for the new constitution, penned by Russian lawmakers in early 2018. One suggestion is to do away with Article 3, which says that the president of the republic needs to be a Muslim. That article has been present in every Syrian charter since 1920, and all prior attempts to do away with it have caused ructions, the last time, in 1973, led by the SMB. The Russians want the Article scrapped as part of their policy of co-opting Levantine Christians and marketing their intervention as a campaign to protect minority rights. It would have little practical effect due to the Christians’ demography in Syria, but it is perceived as a slight by an opposition dominated by conservative Muslims.
The Russians have additionally suggested changing the name of the country from “Syrian Arab Republic” to the “Syrian Republic,” which was the name before the 1958 Syrian-Egyptian “merger” (the Egyptian occupation of Syria). The intention here is to appeal to non-Arab groups, such as Turkmens and Circassians. Above all it is aimed at the Kurds, who are Russia’s old allies and it hopes to recover them from the Americans. For differing but compatible reasons the SMB and Turkey oppose this, the SMB having given enthusiastic support to the Turkish incursion in northern Raqqa province.
Secular Opposition to the Brotherhood
Syrian secularists were hardly dismayed by the SMB’s walkout, seeing it as a blessing in disguise. The Brotherhood’s organization, and the support from Turkey, has made it difficult for seculars in the Syrian political opposition to find footing since 2011.
The seculars also recall how the SMB galvanized the street back in 1950 through a proposal to make Islam the official religion of the state. At the time, they were strongly represented in the constitutional assembly, which unlike today, was elected rather than appointed. The mass circulation daily Al-Qabas came out with an op-ed saying: “If the country was ours alone, we would have been free to impose our religion on the state. That is not the case. Syria is for us and all others, especially Christians who were here before us”. The Brotherhood trashed its author, Najib al-Rayyes, a Sunni Muslim from the conservative city of Hama, describing him as an atheist and enemy of Islam. A sub-committee was eventually created to decide on the matter, composed of three ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the founder of its Syrian branch, Mustapha Sibai’i. It was finally decided to make Islamic fiqh the source of all jurisprudence in Syria, rather than the official religion of state. Communists, Baathists, and independent opposition figures still see that episode as a golden opportunity to advance institutional secularism throughout Syria, which was thwarted by the Brethren. Given their ideological drive towards theocracy, the Brotherhood would have wasted no effort in pushing through with such a vision yet again; their interest in democracy, equality, freedom of speech, and the rule of law is conditional at best.
“I think the bar of what can be accomplished should be set very low” said David Lesch, a prominent university professor and author on Syria. “More balanced negotiations require more evenly matched participants”, he said to EER, adding: “Currently, the Syrian government is holding most of the cards. It has the leverage, and as any government would do, it is going to use it to the utmost to get what it wants, i.e. give up the least possible in terms of political reform and yet can still serve as window-dressing by the international community to call this a success. It will be the Russians, Turks, and Iranians along with the Syrian government who will be making the important decisions behind the scenes anyway.”
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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