by Yvette Talhamy
Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2012, pp. 33-40 (view PDF)
As Syrian president Bashar al-Assad struggles to contend with a massive popular uprising, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) is poised to dominate whatever coalition of forces manages to unseat the Baathist regime. Though in many ways the Brotherhood’s official political platform is a model of Islamist moderation and tolerance, it is less a window into the group’s thinking than a reflection of its political tactics. Unlike its parent organization, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which often kept its ideological opponents at arm’s length, the SMB has repeatedly forged alliances with secular dissident groups even as it secretly tried to negotiate a deal with the Assad regime to allow its return from exile. Since the moderation of its political platform over the past two decades has clearly been intended to facilitate this triangulation, it does not tell us much about the ultimate intentions of the Syrian Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood’s Background
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has openly declared its support for the current protests but has denied responsibility for organizing them. The demonstrations, they claim, are not led by the SMB but by the newly formed Syrian National Council, which proposes to unite all opposition groups including SMB members.
The SMB was established in 1945-46 by Mustafa as-Sibai as a branch of Hassan al-Banna‘s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Though favoring the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, it participated in parliamentary elections after the country gained independence in 1946 (winning 4 seats in 1947, 3 seats in 1949, 5 seats in 1954, and 10 seats in 1961) and even had ministers in two governments.
When the secular, nationalist Baath party took power in 1963, it quickly moved to weaken the SMB and the urban, Sunni merchant class that supported the movement. The group was outlawed in 1964, and its leader Isam al-Attar was exiled. That same year, a revolt led by the SMB erupted in the city of Hama and was quelled by force. During the 1970s, relations between the SMB and President Hafez Assad (r. 1970-2000) deteriorated into large-scale violence.
Although the Brotherhood’s opposition to Baathist rule was expressed ideologically in polite company, there was a deep sectarian undercurrent, as the Assad regime was dominated by Alawites, a schismatic Islamic sect viewed as heretical by religious Sunnis. Armed elements of the SMB assassinated government officials and carried out bombings of government buildings, Baath party offices, and other targets associated with the regime. In 1979, the SMB carried out a massacre of eighty-three unarmed Alawite cadets at an artillery school in Aleppo. In June 1980, it is said to have made an assassination attempt against the president, who allegedly retaliated by ordering hundreds of captured SMB prisoners gunned down in their cells. Although the SMB has always maintained that it had no connection to underground, armed factions responsible for violence, few take the claim seriously. Continue reading