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Muslim Brotherhood

Membership in any "Salafist" organization, a designation generally denoting conservative Sunni fundamentalism, is illegal. The government and the State Security Court (SSSC) have not defined the exact parameters of what constitutes a Salafist activity or explained why it is illegal. Affiliation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death, although in practice the sentence was typically commuted to 12 years in prison. The Syrian Independent Democratic Islamic Current movement attempted to play a conciliatory role between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Looming large in the problems of the Jihadi current in Syria has been the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose history provides a good example of the life-cycle of a radical Jihadi movement and the destructive effect of in-built weaknesses when faced with political realities. The list of the ideological ‘crimes’ of the Brotherhood, seen from the point of view of its enemies, provided a checklist of pressure points at which to direct counter-ideology initiatives.

Of these, its alliance with ‘parties of Infidelity, Zandaqa (‘freethinking’), and apostasy’ feature prominently, along with acceptance of the democratic system, “the last dagger in the back of the Islamic movement in Syria, particularly of the Jihadis.” The process of inter-Jihadi polemic whereby the al-Tali‘a al-Muqatila group (“The Fighting Vanguard”) vilified the Muslim Brotherhood even as it declared that members of the Baath party were Muslims was a major factor in confusing the Jihadi message and weakening the appeal of Islamic radicalism.

Most estimates of potential Muslim Brother support range between ten and thirty percent of the Syrian population, with many insisting that even these estimates are inflated. It is difficult to assess clearly the potential power of the Muslim Brothers at a time when the Asad regime has destroyed the movement and engages in ongoing repression (and reinforcement of the exiled status of the MB's leadership) to ensure they are not able to rebuild. It is also difficult to assess their potential support relative to other political currents in Syria, such as pan-Arabism, Syrian nationalism, and Ba'athism. The most striking constraint on the potential appeal of any repackaged Muslim Brotherhood grouping is the heavy minority make-up (35 percent) of the Syrian population that is generally opposed to any Islamist domination.

If the regime were still in control of the electoral process but wanted to make a show of free elections, it would manipulate the situation, as in Egypt, to win and to show that their chief rivals were extremist MB-type Islamists. A sudden collapse of the Asad regime, possibly caused by outside intervention, might remove some of the natural restraints on an MB resurgence. The result could be a sudden spike in MB/radical Islamist power, which would likely be nourished by the group's takeover -- from discredited collaborationist Islamic clerics -- of the extensive network of mosques and other Islamic institutions present in Syria.

The Muslim Brotherhood encounters of the 70s-80s provided the only widespread civil conflict in recent Syrian history prior to 2011. Patrick Seale has pointed out this struggle was more than a secular-Islamist confrontation, "behind the immediate contest lay the old multi-layered hostility between Islam and the Ba'th, between Sunni and 'Alawi, between town and country." While the Brotherhood uprising was utterly crushed, the causative issues were still present and the Brotherhood itself had many closet sympathizers in Syria. Moreover, the brutal 1982 extermination of up to 25,000 Sunnis at Hama by (mainly) 'Alawis is forever seared in the memory of most Sunnis and is a continuing obstacle to reconciliation between the majority Sunnis and the 'Alawi-controlled government.

Sunni Islamic fundamentalists have posed the most sustained and serious threat to the Baath regime. The government referred to these militants as the Muslim Brethren or Brotherhood (Ikhwan al Muslimin), although this is a generic term describing a number of separate organizations. The most important groups included the Aleppo-based Islamic Liberation Movement, established in 1963; the Islamic Liberation Party, founded in Jordan in the 1950s; Shabab Muhammad (Muhammad's Youth); Jund Allah (God's Soldiers); and At Tali'a al Muqatila (The Fighting Vanguard), established by the late Marwan Hadid in Hamah in 1965 and led in 1987 by Adnan Uqlah. The At Tali'a al Muqatila group, which did not recognize the spiritual or political authority of the exiled veteran leader of Syria's Sunni fundamentalists, Issam al Attar, bore the brunt of the actual fighting against the regime.

In the early 1980s, the Muslim Brethren staged repeated hit-and-run attacks against the Syrian regime and assassinated several hundred middle-level government officials and members of the security forces and about two dozen Soviet advisers. The armed conflict between the Muslim Brethren and the regime culminated in full-scale insurrection in Aleppo in 1980 and in Hamah in February 1982. The government responded to the Hamah revolt with brutal force, crushing the rebellion by killing between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians and leveling large parts of the city.

In the years following the massive arrests that began in December 1981 and the demolition of Hama in February 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood had been tamed. Long before Hama, in the seventies, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood split into at least three "tendencies." There was a group centered at Aachen in West Germany, under the leadership of 'Isam al-'Attar, who was exiled from Syria in 1964. As early as 1970 Muslim Brothers in Syria decided that they needed a leader closer to home, and 'Attar became increasingly irrelevant.

Leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brothers came to be divided into political and military "tendencies." The political tendency was led by a group of older men (born in the twenties and thirties) such as 'Adnan sa'd al-Din, Sa'id Hawwa, and the al-Bayanuni brothers. These men moved between Baghdad and Amman. The "political" group fell into the traditional mold of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the egyptian Hasan al-Banna: men who are "fundamentalist" in wishing to create a state built on the koran but who can accept certain Western humanistic and parliamentary ideas. In the early seventies, these men embraced the idea of military operations ("jihad"), in opposition to the less militaristic orientation of 'Isam al-'Attar, but they were subseqently upstaged by the far more active militarism of the "military tendency" that developed in the mid-seventies.

The "military tendency" from the beginning was led by a much younger group of men. Since its inception in the mid-seventies, it was known as al-Tali'a al-Muqatila lil-Mujahidin (the Fighting Vanguard of Warriors). It was willing to resort to any form of terror (e.g., Blowing up the cadets' artillery school in Aleppo in 1980, with over fifty killed). Its leaders rejected Western ideas, any form of compromise with secular movements, and any mercy for Alawis. In their fanaticism, they formed a Sunni analogue to the Khomeinists. This group's early leaders were one by one killed by Asad's security forces when Asad began to step up his campaign against the Muslim Brothers in 1979-80. The leader -- or "Caliph," as he was called by his adherents -- who succeeded them was 'Adnan 'Uqla (born 1950).

For a time, beginning with the formation of an "Islamic Front" and the announcement of the "manifesto of the islamic revolution of Syria" in November 1980 , their was greater cooperation within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. 'Isam al-'Attar joined the front, and 'Uqla and the "political tendency" held negotiations to try to patch up their differences. It appeared that they may even have coordinated to try to effect a coup against Asad, which they foresaw would be accompanied by mass uprisings throughout the country. They also hoped for external assistance-- from Iraq, in particular. The Muslim Brothers apparently had sympathizers in many quarters of the regime, including in high places in the armed forces.

Press reporting of the period suggests that coordination and planning were, however, lacking. Asad's security forces got wind of the plotting and began a major arrest campaign by the end of 1981. Four hundred officers were reportedly arrested in January, 1982. By the time Asad's men located the Muslim Brothers' headquarters in Hama, on February 2, 1982, Asad's men had probably already broken the back of the Muslim Brothers' infrastructure within the regime. The Muslim Brothers in Hama, forced to make a stand or face arrest and execution, overwhelmed the armed force that Asad orginally sent in to Hama, and a siege of several weeks ensued, resulting in thousands of deaths. One source claimed that 6,000 of Asad's forces, 400 "mujahidin," and 15,000 civilians were killed. Other Syrians are wont to cite very much higher figures, up to 25,000.

Tali'a and the "political tendency" had already broken off their negotiations in December 1981, at the time when the major arrests had begun, two months before Hama. Hama itself, therefore, was not the cause of the final rupture, although there is strong feeling among the "political tendency" that the Tali'a botched the job in Hama. The rupture became official when the "political tendency" joined the newly constituted "national alliance for the liberation of Syria" in march 1982, with nineteen other opposition movements or individuals,most of them secular and centered in Iraq. Sa'd al-din represents the Islamic front in the national alliance, which includes the pro-Iraqi wing of the Syrian Ba'th party (Michel 'Aflaq), the Arab Socialist Movement (led by 'Aflaq's erstwhile ally Akram al-Hawrani), Nasserists, and individuals such as former Syrian dictator Amin al-Hafiz.

The formation of the National Alliance signaled how far the Muslim Brotherhood had fallen. Not only had it lost much of its infrastructure planted in the regime and much of its fighting force, it had become irreconcilably split and the political wing had sullied itself by associating with groups alien to the idea of an Islamic state and by putting itself squarely into the grip of the Iraqi regime. It is little wonder that in the period after those devastating months, December 1981 to March 1982, there was little or no terrorist activity attributable to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and indeed, little apparent political activity.

It is doubtful that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had received extensive external support. With its internal structure disrupted and its name blackened among its own purists and among the Syrian populace at large, it presumably has had to look even more actively for external support.

Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni, led the outlawed group from London, and Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa succeeded Bayanouni in 2010.

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Page last modified: 19-12-2015 19:03:11 ZULU