Studies on the Islamic Movement in the Syrian War

Studies on the Islamic Movement in the Syrian War
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This file is published with collaboration between Suwar Magazine and Democratic Republic Studies Center



The Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian Revolution



Arabic version





The day after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March, 2011, the clarification of the fact that it would not be a temporary event in light of the increasing number of participants in the peaceful protests, and the expansion of the latter to include many areas of Syria, attention was focused on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. From the point of view of many, it may have been “…the strongest and most organised movement among the Syrian opposition forces,” as described by the US research group the Carnegie Endowment, and so it would be able therefore play a crucial role in the course of events at that time and in the future.



However, during more than five years the Revolution passed through different stages, some of which involved radical changes. It began its transition from a peaceful movement to militarisation, and then took the form of a proxy war until direct Russian military intervention took place, after a long period of similar intervention on the part of Iran. In addition, a variety of Islamist movements have appeared, both those that present themselves as ‘moderate’, especially the Ahrar al-Sham Movement, or those that are classified regionally and internationally as terrorist organisations, specifically Al-Nusra Front and the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS).


Hence, this paper seeks to answer the question: What is the size of the presence and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the tracks and organisations of the Syrian Revolution, militarily and politically, domestically and abroad, and what are the factors affecting it from 2011 until today?


In answering this question, this paper is based on the hypothesis that there is an exaggeration, not supported by facts on the ground, regarding the estimation of the size of the group’s presence and its impact inside Syria and also the group’s internal cohesiveness, allowing it to play a decisive and dominant role during the post political-settlement phases.


From the Leader Party to the Leader Group


The presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the domestic Syrian scene ended completely when the group was almost eradicated after the confrontation between it and the regime in the city of Hama, in 1982. This was preceded by punishing membership in the group with the death penalty under Law No. (49) of 1980. Despite that, since the beginning of the revolution, a set of Syrian, regional and international objective data justified the conclusion that the Brotherhood made up the strongest group, at least politically speaking, in Syria.


These initial data or expectations could potentially have stemmed from a firm belief by many that the Syrian Revolution was not different from its Tunisian and Egyptian, or even Libyan, counterparts in terms of speed to topple the Assad regime and to allow the national political opposition forces to fill the vacuum. Despite the fact the Ba’ath Party, which has been ruling Syria since 1963, finished off all other political forces or weakened them somewhat until they lacked effectiveness, the Muslim Brotherhood distinguishes itself because of the benefit it receives from the presence of its leaders outside of Syria. This has allowed preservation of its organisational structure abroad, where it continues to conduct internal elections due to the margin of freedom in those countries, Arab and Western, which were not opposed to the existence and activities of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the group was one of the key elements in many of the initiatives, such as the ‘Damascus Declaration’ in 2005 or as in the case of the ‘National Salvation Front,’ which was formed in March 2006, with the alliance of the Brotherhood and Abdul Halim Khaddam, the vice president who defected in 2005.



In addition, the regime itself has helped to amplify the power of the group, as when it sought to blame the group in the launch of the popular movement and its leadership, with the claim that the Brotherhood were doing so in ‘alliance with the Salafi jihadists’.  This was taking advantage of the coincidence of the issuance of the first statement of the group in support of the Syrian revolution on April 28, 2011 with the issuance of a statement, on the same day and from the same perspective, by one of the main theorists of so-called ‘Salafi jihadism,’ Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.


Even with the conviction of the regime that there is no substitute for ‘reformatory’ measures to contain the escalating and expanding popular demonstrations, one of the most prominent measures, which received a large foreign media welcome, was the general amnesty measure issued by Bashar al-Assad on May 31, under the Legislative Decree No. (61) in 2011. This ensured full pardon from punishment for the perpetrators of the crimes stipulated in Law No. 49 of 1980, accompanied by a succession of media leaks about the intention of the regime to repeal this law as a whole.


In addition to the above is the impression that all of the people displaced from Syria during Assad’s rule, especially at the beginning of the eighties of the last century, on the eve and the day after the massacre of Hama, are members or sympathizers of the Brotherhood. This is especially applicable to the younger generation who were born or grew up in exile, as stated by a pro-regime journalist the day after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the regime's attempt to open up to the Syrians abroad for fear that they might be exploited by then U.S. President George W. Bush (the son) in preparation to overthrow the rule of the Ba’ath party in Syria. That journalist mused that, ‘We [the regime] created an army to fight for the Muslim Brotherhood for free.’


This impression was expanded to include many Syrians inside the country with the start of the revolution. Perhaps one explanation is the way in which many researchers, and perhaps also Western and Arab politicians, deem the ‘Arab Spring’ movements - which all occurred in Sunni Muslim countries (or in the centre of the Sunni community, as was the case of the movements in Iraq before the recent movements in Baghdad) - as a peaceful alternative to the Sunni ‘Al-Qaeda’ terrorism. Additionally, by virtue of the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood was a Sunni religious political movement with a continuous presence for decades, perhaps the impression was that the majority of the Arab people will vote automatically for the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly since the group in Syria had been undertaking political initiatives before and after the revolution, mainly based on the adoption of a non-religiously based Constitution and recognition of pluralism and equal citizenship rights for all, regardless of religion, social class and ethnicity. Such initiatives included the ‘Political Project for Syria's Future’ (2004) and the ‘Treaty and the Charter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria’ (2012). This is also interwoven with what the group demonstrated through its ‘pragmatic’ alliance for years with Abdel Halim Khaddam.


This latter conception has actually found credibility, given the strong presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia and Egypt in particular, which later translated into overwhelming success in the first free parliamentary elections after the revolution in each of those countries, although the group was banned decades ago in both. In Tunisia especially, members of the Brotherhood were exiled, tortured and liquidated during the reign of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a way that approaches Hafez al-Assad’s regime’s practices in Syria. However, the Brotherhood was active in Egypt and participated in the elections before their revolution, though independently rather than as an organisation.


Brotherhood’s recognition of their limited presence and influence inside Syria


In addition to the total absence of the Muslim Brotherhood from inside Syria since the eighties of the last century, it is not true that all the displaced Syrians are supporters of the group or sympathisers, for a variety of reasons. As said by one Syrian activist, “Frankly, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is a club for retirees. I myself can be considered part of the second generation or even a third of the families of the Brotherhood, but I grew up outside Syria, so I do not have the same loyalty to the group. I am not alone, there are thousands of us.”


What exceeds the previous generations’ conflicts in terms of importance are the internal conflicts on a regional basis within the group: Aleppo, Hama, Damascus and Idlib. The regional variables that began with the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the participation of the regime in the liberation war led to a weakening of the group’s ability to protect their base of supporters in the Arab host countries, leaving them to face their fate. They were deprived of their simplest personal documents, particularly passports, while many of the leaders of the Brotherhood had passports of some of the host countries, or the nationalities of the Western countries they had been residing in for a long time.


In fact, the group was more than aware of the weakness of its presence inside Syria, as well as abroad. It has expressed signs of this awareness on more than one occasion before the revolution and during it.


Although the relative delay in its declaration of explicit endorsement of the revolution is referred to, the group also remained unable, after it, to grasp the momentum and direction of the revolution. This emerged clearly with the issuance of a general amnesty at the end of May, 2011 as commented on by the official spokesman for the group at the time, Zuhair Salem, in remarks to the Associated Press in the U.S. He said, “Every decision towards comforting people and prisoners of conscience in Syria represents a positive step in the right direction,” and he urged “…the abolition of Law 49 of 1980, which sentences members of the group to death, as a complementary legal measure, if the amnesty was  intended to be effective.”


This weakens the hypothesis that the relative delay of the release of the group's pro-revolutionary position was caused by the Brotherhood’s desire to protect the revolution - which started with strong reformist civil demands and demands for full ‘citizenship’ – from the legacy of the group that has been linked with violence since the ban in 1964 and up to the massacre of Hama in 1982. A more likely conclusion seems to be that the Brotherhood was completely surprised by the revolution while also aware of the reality of their influence inside Syria.


The other more prominent evidence regarding the Brotherhood’s acknowledgement of their weakness, both domestically and abroad, appeared on the eve of the revolution, and specifically in the middle of January 2011, when Mohammad Rias al-Shuqfeh, who is supposed to belong to the current group that is classified as ‘extremist,’ and has served as the General Comptroller since September 2010, in an interview with the Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq said: “If we were allowed to go to Syria, we would only work in dawah (preaching of Islam), not under the Muslim Brotherhood’s name, and without any parties unless the system in Syria becomes multi-party and the state agrees to it. We can deal with reality in dawah if the regime allows us to return to work in our circles and our cities, and nothing more, and we will respond to this situation if it happens.” He revealed that there were many attempts to mediate, without mentioning names, but they were not able to accomplish anything with the regime. However, the former Comptroller, General Ali Sadr Bayanuni, denied in a statement to Islam Online his knowledge of Al-Shuqfeh’s remarks, saying, “It is a strange position to give up on the group's name and things like that. I only heard it through newspapers.”



This was preceded by the group’s declaration in January 2009 of the suspension of opposition to the regime “…in recognition of the historical phase experienced by the Arab and Muslim nation, the political, military and humanitarian conditions imposed by the Zionist aggression on our people in Gaza .. and the priority of the Palestinian cause as the pivotal cause for the nation.” This decision did not change when the ‘Hamwi [from Hama] Current’ led by Al-Shuqfeh, took over the leadership of the group. This caused the termination of the ‘National Salvation Front’ initiative, as the group declared in April 2009 its withdrawal from the front. Khaddam responded by accusing the Brotherhood of a mediation “…between them and the Syrian regime through senior security figures.”


A Political Spring...Disproportionately Militaristic


The reality of the weakness of the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence became clearer in the domestic scene as the Syrian Revolution started to become militarised. The group had sought very early to, what might be called, ‘buy loyalty’ by providing support for undeclared factions that do not follow them directly, including especially the Al-Faruq Brigades in Homs, Al-Tawheed Brigade in Aleppo and Suqoor al-Sham in the Zawiya Mountain area. This was achieved through the ‘Public Body to Protect Civilians’, which was headed by a former member of the group, Haitham Rahmeh according to Rafael Lefevre. Then, since August 2012, there was talk about the existence of one military faction, at least, which followed the group directly. One of its members, in an interview with the British newspaper the Telegraph, called it ‘Militants of the Muslim Brotherhood.’ This was confirmed by the official spokesman of the group, Mulham al-Droubi, in an interview with the newspaper Middle East of London, since he revealed that, “The Muslim Brotherhood formed armed brigades within Syria nearly three months ago, whose mission was self-defence and securing the protection of the oppressed,” and that, “These battalions are deployed in most Syrian areas and provinces, especially the dangerous ones,” and they follow “…the Free Syrian Army and cooperate and coordinate with it.” However, the group was quick, on the same day, to deny those statements in the words of a member of the National Council from the group, Mohammad Sarmini, through statements to the Anatolia Turkish news agency.


However, Al-Droubi’s confessions regained their credibility shortly after that with the announcement, in Istanbul, of the formation of the ‘Body of the Revolution’s Shields’ on December 21, 2012, in the presence of the Comptroller General of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Riad al-Shuqfeh, despite the latter’s announcement at the conference that, “…the Shields group is independent and is not an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.”


One of the sources refers to the fact that, “…only a minority of the Shields’ fighters ... is actually part of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this raises apprehensions regarding several Muslim Brotherhood-related issues, notably loyalty, lack of education and discipline, and the potential tendency towards extremism, among other things.”  Estimates indicate that the number of fighters in the Shields group as a whole is small, relatively speaking, as the number did not exceed 5,000 to 7,000 fighters, and reached 10,000 fighters at the latest estimate according to the Brotherhood themselves. This impacted the effectiveness of the Shields on the ground, as shown by the media coverage, as even the Shields latest post on Facebook goes back to May 8, 2015.


Currently, according to one of the latest available analyses, the group is linked to several armed factions, most notably the ‘Levant Corps’ with only 4,000 fighters (in addition to other small factions such as the Ansar Brigade, Jund al-Haramen Brigade and Amjad al-Islam Brigade in Aleppo), out of an estimated 70,000 fighters spread over other major factions. On the other hand, the exact nature of the relationship between the Brotherhood and Al-Nusra Front is unknown, noting that the group had been defending Al-Nusra Front at least until the declaration of the recent pledge of allegiance to the leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in April/May 2013. After this, the group urged Al-Nusra Front to disengage from al-Qaeda.


Compared to this military weakness, the Muslim Brotherhood’s dominance at the political level was manifest through the opposition bodies abroad, namely, the Syrian National Council, to the extent that the group deserved to be described as the ‘king-maker’ at this level.


It is true that the Syrian Brotherhood has never possessed a majority in the General Assembly of the Council which was formed in Istanbul on October 2, 2011, and even the Comptroller General of the group confirmed in a press statement on April 15, 2013 that the Brotherhood’s ratio does not exceed 10 percent of the members of the Council. The same applies to the two more important Council bodies regarding actual policy and decision making: the General Secretariat and the Executive Office. Member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Council of Syria, Tarif al-Said Isa explained in detail in September, 2012 that the group’s presence is “…only twenty seats in the Syrian National Council [General Assembly], one seat in the Executive Office, and six or seven seats in the Secretariat.” Yet, except for the group’s “…quick control over the Offices of Military Affairs and Humanitarian Aid in the Council, which received most of the money provided to the opposition,” it also “…was much stronger than indicated by official figures.” It is known that the Brotherhood has not too small of a base whose members are undisclosed officially, or their affiliation to it is undeclared, but they automatically vote for it and for those whose candidacy it supports. But doubts have been raised that ‘the movement of National Action for Syria,’ announced at the beginning of 2011 and led by the group member Ahmed Ramadan (which changed its name at that time to the ‘National Action Group for Syria’), was formed by or split off from the Brotherhood and that, “It was like a Trojan horse for the Brotherhood in the Syrian National Council,” especially since the National Action group entered the Council, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the Interim Government independently of the Muslim Brotherhood group. It also participated in the Geneva II conference, which was boycotted by the Brotherhood.


Stumbling of the Brotherhood’s ‘Spring’?


The beginning of the decline in influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the opposition abroad can be dated back to the formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, on November 11, 2012. The ‘National Council’ became part of the Coalition after the Council’s opposition to, in the words of its head, George Sabra, the feeling that “The Syrian National Council is bigger than this initiative and others, and has a major political and territorial entity.” Meanwhile, the Comptroller General of the group at the time, Mohammed Riad al-Shuqfeh condemned ‘Western interference’, which seeks to form an entity larger than the National Council. He deemed it against the Muslim Brotherhood, stressing that “…the manoeuvres that aim to marginalise the Brotherhood are doomed to failure.”



But the biggest blow to the Syrian Brotherhood, like the Brotherhood in other Arab countries in general, came with the military coup in Egypt on July 3, 2013 led by then Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi against President Mohamed Morsi. The coup revealed the size of hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole by influential Arab states regionally, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which hastened to classify the group as a terrorist organisation. This meant that more political forces and armed factions in Syria distanced themselves from the group for fear of punishment and isolation both politically and financially by those countries.


Later, in a new sign of the decline of political power, the Brotherhood failed to influence the decision of the Coalition to participate in the Geneva II Conference on January 22, 2014 in which the group and the National Council announced that they were participating.


Also, the group announced in August 2013, in the words of Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni who became the Vice Comptroller, that “…the Muslim Brotherhood cannot sit down with Al-Assad and his military factions at the same table because the underlying demand is his permanent removal before sitting to reach a political solution”. The group changed again and announced its support for participation in the Geneva III Conference, a position which followed endorsement of the Riyadh Conference  outputs for the Syrian opposition, which was held in December 2015 and led to the formation of the High Negotiating Committee despite the group’s admission of possessing a different vision concerning “…some points about representation rates and mechanisms to deal with the security and military forces”, according to a statement from the Muslim Brotherhood.


Conclusion: The Revolution and the Brotherhood’s Future


Evolutions of the Syrian Revolution show the validity of the hypothesis this paper was based on and the weakness of the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its influence on the Syrian scene in general, and on the domestic level in particular, whether in the peaceful movement stage or in the militarisation stage. This weakness also applies to the political bodies representing the Revolution, particularly with the formation of the National Coalition, then the High Negotiating Committee, in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s classification as a terrorist organisation or undesirable in a number of influential Arab countries.



The group also suffers from crises and internal conflicts that have affected its performance and effectiveness. There appears mainly to be a conflict on a regional basis between its leaders, especially among the so-called ‘Hamwi Current’ and ‘Halabi current’, which perhaps led to splits both declared and undeclared. The most recent conflict followed the group’s elections in 2010. In addition, there seems to exist a generational conflict within the group between the senior members and the younger generation, with the senior members dominating the leadership until now. Some deem this conflict as the reason for the defection of youth from the Brotherhood, and the formation of the National Action Group for Syria before its name became the ‘National Work Movement for Syria’. Some deem this movement to be a defection of the ‘Halabi Current’ from the ‘Hamwi’ leadership of the group at that time.


On top of that, the group is facing fierce competition from armed Muslim groups that enjoy military revolutionary legitimacy, do not hide their political ambition and present themselves as representatives of politically moderate Islam in Syria. One group in particular is the Ahrar al-Sham Movement which Foreign Relations Officer Labib al-Nahhas emphasised in an article in the British Telegraph last year, is the Sunni alternative for al-Assad and ISIS.


Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood possesses a comparative advantage over other Syrian political forces, in that its organisational structure is clear and firm, which may play a crucial role in any elections it participates in after reaching a political settlement to the conflict. The weakness of its military presence may make it more acceptable at the international and regional levels as the best political-religious alternative available to contain the conservative population mass compared to ‘Islamic’ armed factions, albeit temporarily.




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