BEIRUT: The exiled Muslim Brotherhood is campaigning for support with money and arms on the ground, positioning itself as the most organized force to fill a political vacuum as a post-Assad Syria becomes more feasible.
The exiled Muslim Brotherhood, persecuted for decades under the late Hafez Assad and his son, President Bashar Assad, has enjoyed a resurgence during the 17-month uprising.
The Brotherhood is acknowledged as the dominant force in the external opposition Syrian National Council, controlling important financial networks. But aware of the need to allay fears of a Sunni Islamist takeover, in keeping with trends in Tunisia and Egypt, the Brotherhood has been at lengths to avoid distinguishing itself as a political party from the broader opposition movement.
Recent weeks have proved a turning point in the conflict.
Several blows to the regime – including a bomb attack on the security headquarters in Damascus that killed four key members of Assad’s crisis cell on July 18, and a string of high profile defections – have buoyed the opposition and brought street battles to the capital and Syria’s commercial center, Aleppo, prompting predictions Assad’s grip on power is slipping.
With opposition fighters still dramatically outgunned and opposition groups divided, there have been hastened calls from Western opposition backers for the formation of a transitional government to avert a chaotic political vacuum in the event of Assad’s departure.
The Brotherhood is now banking on Assad’s fall and making more assertive efforts to fill a political and military void.
Smugglers, opposition fighters, activists and Muslim Brotherhood representatives have told The Daily Star the organization is funding opposition fighters and distributing aid via networks in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in some cases independently from the military council operating under the SNC.
Hossam Abu Habil, whose late father was an exiled Muslim Brotherhood member, is acting as an intermediary between wealthy Brotherhood members in the Gulf and weapons dealers in Lebanon.
He told The Daily Star in late July that he receives $40,000-$50,000 a month from Brotherhood contacts in Qatar and Kuwait to buy arms, medical supplies and salaries for two rebel battalions near Homs.
He said there was a lack of support for the SNC on the ground, claiming the Brotherhood is now directly supporting 60-65 percent of battalions around Homs and Idlib.
“The Muslim Brotherhood don’t talk to the media about it, but they are administering the revolution,” he said.
Muslim Brotherhood and SNC member Mohammad Sarmini detailed to The Daily Star reconnaissance tours he undertook in Syria to assess the needs and capacities of fighters on the ground and unify militias under an Islamic umbrella.
“While I was in Syria I communicated with all the militia leaders, with the political activists with a view to establishing coordination between the governorates toward the real goal of toppling the regime,” he told The Daily Star.Ahead of the announcement of the formation of the Islamic “Syrian Rebel Front” in June, Sarmini said the Front’s goal was to “arm Islamist fighters.”
“The main purpose is to organize financial and military support for Islamists fighting on the ground,” he said, adding that the Front would coordinate with the SNC and Free Syrian Army forces. SNC leaders have distanced themselves publicly from the movement.
Habil, the intermediary, said the Brotherhood’s intention was not to “form an army,” but to build awareness of Islamic principles in a post-Assad civic state.
“The Muslim Brotherhood believes now that the regime in Syria is going to end very soon. They are preparing for people to open the doors to become members.”
Molham al-Drobi, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership who sits on the SNC’s foreign affairs committee, told The Daily Star the Brotherhood had resorted to arming people as a result of “extraordinary force” by the regime.
“People were forced to pick up arms to defend themselves and their families; likewise the Muslim Brotherhood did,” he said in an email interview.
Secular activists and opposition critics, however, complain the Brotherhood is “buying allegiances” and fomenting potentially dangerous rivalries between armed groups competing for resources.
Evidence that extremist Islamists and jihadists, including affiliates of Al-Qaeda, are increasingly joining the fray is also sounding alarm bells over using Islam as a unifying force.
A senior member of the Local Coordinating Committees, an activist network operating across local governorates inside Syria, Maher Isber, said the Brotherhood campaigning was “what worries me most about the direction of the revolution.
“They want to build their role militarily,” he said, adding that some had complained that arms were being supplied to “Islamic” groups on a preferential basis.
“There are almost 250 defectors in Turkey who are going hungry, but a lot of the financing is going to certain groups that are Islamic. They are going through the channels of the sheikhs in many cases, through Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “This is the first time we have seen a political party trying to build an armed force,” he added.
Prominent opposition figure Kamal Labwani, who broke with the SNC along with several leading dissidents in March, complaining over the dominance of the Brotherhood in the body, echoed that sentiment.
Speaking after the announcement by veteran dissident Haitham Maleh late last month that he would lead attempts to form a transition government, Labwani told The Daily Star the Brotherhood was monopolizing power and buying territory.
“They want to use money for everything,” he said, adding that he feared a disintegration into competing militias.
“Until now they have had success in buying the loyalty of about 20 percent of militias on the ground, but ... there is resistance.
“They will deceive the Western states and after they win power they will show their true face as fanatics,” he said.
Drobi denied the Brotherhood is controlling territory and reiterated claims that the group aspires to a moderate civil state, based on Islamic principles.
“We [strive] for national unity and share a common vision among all Syrians,” he said. “There are no territories in Syria controlled by Muslim Brotherhood and there will be none.”
Repeating the vision outlined in the Brotherhood’s manifesto, published in April, he said the organization would work to “promote national unity and equal rights for all Syrians.”
Acknowledging that “moderate Islam can act as a unifying force, as Syria is more than 70 percent Sunni Muslim,” Drobi said, “this moderate Islam ... will assure equality for all Syrians, without any discrimination [according to] religion, race, or gender.”
He denied the Muslim Brotherhood is angling for power in a post-Assad Syria, but said the party had made polling calculations.
“In a free, transparent election the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria will not cultivate more than 25 percent of the votes in our relatively accurate calculations.”
Wissam Tarif, a prominent dissident, said the Brotherhood’s rise was natural.
“They are attracting every other group precisely because they are the best organized. It’s not just weapons ... the Muslim Brotherhood are stepping in at every level,” he said, pointing to investments set up in Gulf countries after the Brotherhood was exiled in the 1980s. “They have the money, they have the political structure, so they are strides ahead of other opposition groups.”