Lieutenant-Colonel Hussein Harmoush, one of the first Syrian army officers to defect, was contacted by the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after he arrived at a refugee camp in Turkey’s Hatay province in June of 2011. He was one of a small group of defectors, the Free Officers.
Brotherhood members visited him several times and promised him logistical, financial and material support in exchange for “cooperation”.
Lt Col Harmoush replied “tell me what you want and I will decide accordingly”, Lt Basim Khaled, speaking for the Free Officers, told me in an interview. “They wanted him to follow their directions and support them politically.”
No agreement was reached but the Brotherhood members stayed in touch with Lt Col Harmoush. They also contacted a more recent, higher-ranking defector who agreed to cooperate.
That officer, Colonel Riad Al Asaad, formed a new entity, the Free Syrian Army, without informing the Free Officers. The Brotherhood then abruptly dropped contact with Lt Col Harmoush, who was captured by Syrian authorities under mysterious circumstances in August 2011, after disappearing in Turkey.
The story shows how the Muslim Brotherhood – an Islamist group with little representation within Syrian society, due to decades of systematic cleansing by the Baathist regime – has successfully built influence over the emerging opposition forces.
The MB is viewed with profound suspicion by most Syrians. Despite 20 months of atrocious violence by the criminal regime, many Syrians – rightly or wrongly – still prefer the regime because they fear the Brotherhood more.
Activists downplay that fear, partly because the MB had acted behind the scenes. But its resistance to inclusiveness that would challenge its monopoly has become clear during the opposition’s meetings in Doha.
The Brotherhood has been resisting a US-backed initiative to form a more representative political entity, a plan that Syrians desperately need to reverse Brotherhood domination of the political process.
The Brotherhood will naturally cling to the influence it has built for itself over the past 20 months, because it realises the limits of its popular power and seeks to compensate by steering the political process, at least during the uprising and the coming transition.
Some observers have criticised the US-backed plan that would include various political and regional forces hitherto unrepresented, effectively replacing the Syrian National Council.
But the claim that foreign interference would undermine the popular legitimacy of these entities is invalid: the Brotherhood’s political monopoly was made possible in the first place by foreign interference – the council was formed in Turkey, which has links with the MB – and by partial international recognition. That monopoly needs to be reversed by those countries.
The Syrian National Council took over six months to set up, largely due to disagreements over the role of the Brotherhood. When the council was finally formed in October 2011, the MB was given a bigger share of representation than, say, the Damascus Declaration – a group of reformist intellectuals formed in 2005 – in itself a major achievement for the organisation.
Moreover, according to Muhammad Ali, an Istanbul-based Syrian analyst, some members of the Brotherhood have joined the SNC as independents, to ensure the organisation the upper hand. That is why, even though the Brotherhood has reduced its representation in the SNC from 25 per cent to 20 per cent under the new “reforms”, it is still a kingmaker.
It is hard to gauge precisely the MB’s popular base, but historical evidence and well-established social dynamics offer useful insights.
Tribal and Kurdish areas have over 30 per cent of the population and are loyal to their local leaders and increasingly to Salafi Islam. Non-Sunnis form 30 per cent of Syria’s population and Kurds 9 per cent.
These bases of ethnic and religious minorities, plus the tribes – altogether making up at least 70 per cent of the population – have been outside the MB’s influence in the past and will remain so.
Add to that the business community in Aleppo and Damascus, which has historically had social ties with moderate religious clergy and whose interests lie in a secular-leaning government.
When the Brotherhood was part of Syria’s democratic politics in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the organisation’s vote support never rose above 6 per cent (even as it allied itself with other Islamist groups).
The MB was perceived as moderate, preaching more about socialism than about Islam. It then alienated minorities when it successfully campaigned to change the constitution to be more Islamic, and engaged in sectarian violence. Finally, it had been subject to a systematic cleansing for over three decades by the Baathist regime.
On what basis, then, does the Brotherhood dominate political and military councils today?
In a democratic Syria, the Brotherhood would have the right to engage in politics and build support. But its current dominance is not justified by true representation and this is one of the major causes of rift and hesitation among Syria’s political and social forces. Its dominance needs to be addressed with urgency by activists and countries that have leverage in Syria.
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