ISTANBUL, Turkey – At a meeting of Syria’s opposition, Muslim Brotherhood officials gather round Marxists colleagues, nudging them to produce policy statements for the Syrian National Council, the main political group challenging President Bashar al-Assad.
With many living in the West, and some ditching their trademark beards, it is hard to differentiate Brotherhood from leftists. But there is little dispute about who calls the shots.
From annihilation at home 30 years ago when they challenged the iron-fisted rule of Hafez al-Assad, the Brotherhood has recovered to become the dominant force of the exile opposition in the 14-month-old revolt against his son Bashar.
Careful not to undermine the council’s disparate supporters, the Brotherhood has played down its growing influence within the Syrian National Council (SNC), whose public face is the secular Paris-based professor Bourhan Ghalioun.
“We chose this face, accepted by the West and by the inside. We don’t want the regime to take advantage if an Islamist becomes the Syrian National Council’s head,” former Brotherhood leader Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni told supporters in a video.
The footage is now being circulated by Brotherhood opponents, seeking to highlight its undeclared power.
“We nominated Ghalioun as a front for national action. We are not moving now as Muslim Brotherhood but as part of a front that includes all currents,” said Bayanouni.
The Syrian Brotherhood is a branch of the Sunni Muslim movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s. It was a minor political player before a 1963 Baath Party coup but its support grew under the authoritarian 30-year rule of Hafez al-Assad, as his minority Alawite community dominated the majority Sunni country.
Mindful of international fears of Islamists taking power, and of the worries of Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities, the Syrian Brotherhood portrays itself as espousing a moderate, Turkish-style Islamist agenda. It unveiled a manifesto last month that did not mention the word Islam and contained pledges to respect individual rights.
With backing from Ankara, and following the political ascendancy of the Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya since Arab Spring revolts broke out two years ago, the group is poised to be at the top of any new governing system in Syria.
Extending the loose Brotherhood umbrella to Syria will raise pressure on the U.S.-backed Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, where the local Brotherhood has been sidelined by laws that favor tribal politicians allied with the security apparatus.
Iraq’s Shi’ite rulers could also find they have a hardline Sunni government as their neighbor, and Lebanon’s Shi’ite guerrilla group Hezbollah would lose its main Arab backer.
Working quietly, the Brotherhood has been financing Free Syrian Army defectors based in Turkeyand channeling money and supplies to Syria, reviving their base among small Sunni farmers and middle class Syrians, opposition sources say.
“We bicker while the Brotherhood works,” said Fawaz al-Tello, a veteran opposition figure who is a pious Muslim while being on the liberal end of the Syrian political spectrum.
“They have gained control of the SNC’s aid division and the military bureau, its only important components,” said Tello, a former political prisoner who fled Syria four months ago.
“But they still have to work more do to get support on the inside. Lots of clerics, activists and rebels do not want to be linked to them.”
Tello, however, acknowledged that the Brotherhood has clawed back influence inside Syria, especially in the cities of Homs and Hama and the rural province of Idlib on the border with Turkey, hotbeds of the revolt against Assad.
This is no small feat after three decades in the political wilderness. Unlike Arab rulers who tried to co-opt the movement by granting it limited operation, the Assads excluded it and all other opposition from the political system.
Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad’s forces killed, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands of people after leftists and Islamists began challenging his rule in the 1970s.
The Brotherhood took the brunt of the repression, and a 1980 decree singled out membership as punishable by death.
Mulhem Droubi, educated in Canada and one of a younger generation of Brotherhood leaders, said the group is not primarily concerned with political prominence.
“We are a party that presents moderate solutions. We are not extremists, neither to the left nor to the right and our program is the most accepted by the Syrian street,” he said.
“We are working for the downfall of Bashar al-Assad and not to find a popular base. We leave competition for the future in a free Syria,” the softly spoken Droubi told Reuters.
Droubi, however, acknowledged that the road to democracy will be even more bloody, adding that the Brotherhood began supporting armed resistance in earnest a month ago.
The issue sharply divided the group in the 1980s, when it took up arms against the president. Assad’s forces killed nearly 20,000 people when they overran the city of Hama in 1982, where the Brotherhood’s armed division made it last stand.
Droubi said there is no dispute now about the need for armed resistance, alongside street protests against Assad.
“Too many of our people have been killed. Too many have been raped,” Droubi said, adding that Brotherhood was committed to a setting up a multi-party democracy if Assad is toppled.
Droubi pointed to a political program unveiled by the Brotherhood last month in Istanbul, which committed to multi-party democracy in a future Syria. It said a new constitution would be reached through consensus and guarantee fair representation for diverse ethnicities and religious groups.
“Our proposals are more advanced than the Brotherhood in other countries,” he said.
Bassam Ishaq, a Christian opposition figure who has worked with the Brotherhood within the SNC, said the manifesto bore the marks of the Brotherhood’s pragmatism.
“If they get a chance to seize power by themselves they will do it, but they realize that it will be difficult in country where 30 percent of the population are ethnic or religious minorities,” said Ishaq.
“The street has lost faith in leftist politicians. After the repression in the 1980s, the leftists dispersed. The Brotherhood kept together and rebuilt while in exile, aided by donations from wealthy Syrians in and support in the Gulf,” he added.
In a demonstration of their financial muscle, Brotherhood operatives were dispatched last month with suitcases of cash to a dusty camp for Free Syrian Army defectors in a Turkish region bordering Syria near Antakya.
Sources in the camp said the Brotherhood was supporting Colonel Riad al-Asaad, one of the first prominent defectors last year, now at odds with more senior officers who deserted later.
Colonel Asaad now sports a Brotherhood-style beard. Street activists who have had little to do with the Brotherhood are also being lured by promises of instant support for the revolt.
“I approached them and they instantly gave me 2,000 euros when I asked for help…and I am not even Ikhwan (Brotherhood),” said veteran activist Othman al-Bidewi, who regularly travels between Syria and the border region in Turkey to drum up support for street demonstrations against Assad in Idlib province.
“The Brotherhood wants to restore its political base. It is their right,” he added.