It is long overdue. The Syrian Ikhwan al-Muslimeen has recently demonstrated renewed determination to become a rallying point to unify the country’s opposition. Between August 23 and 25, the Brotherhood held a conference in London, under the slogan “Syria for All Its People.” The conference, which stressed the need for dialogue and political pluralism, was also attended by Marxist, leftist, Arab nationalist and independent political activists and intellectuals.
In his opening remarks, the Brotherhood’s Superintendent General (al-Muraqib al-’Aam) Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanuni said the purpose of the conference was to set the stage for an “all-inclusive national dialogue, on the path of freedom for the homeland and the citizens, promoting our national unity, and strengthening our internal front, in the face of the dangers and challenges surrounding our nation and country.” He emphasized the need to think beyond narrow “political or factional gains.”
The conference’s final communique, which was signed by 25 delegates, said that the participants have agreed to adopt a “code of honour” proposed by the Brotherhood as a “basis for national action.” It identified the purpose of national action as “establishing modern Syria: a state based on pluralism and the alternation of power, governed by the rule of law, abounding with justice and equity, and where human rights are guaranteed, dignity is preserved and citizens enjoy civil and political liberties through effective participation in national decisions and shouldering the burden of public interest.”
In its description of the current state of affairs in Syria, the statement makes grim reading. It said that the participants denounce “the deterioration of the situation of public liberties, the hegemony of security services, the infringement of the law, the continuation of the state of emergency and martial law, the assault on the independence of the judiciary, the harassment and arrests that target symbols of thought, men of opinion, and pioneers of reform and change, piling up the prisons with prisoners, and what is included in their files of missing persons, in addition to the thousands of Syrian citizens, both Arabs and Kurds, who are forcibly displaced, and deprived of civil rights and citizenship.”
They also deplored the rampant corruption pervading the government and administration at all levels. Widespread corruption and sleaze, in the signatories’ view, underline the need for “a national project to combat corruption on moral and scientific bases, to save the homeland from the state of general deterioration.”
The statement also called for a national plan to liberate the occupied Golan Heights, emphasizing the “option of resistance.”
The charter stated that “Islam, with its lofty objectives, high values, and tolerant Shari’ah, represents a civilizational reference point and subjective identity for the sons of this nation.” It argued that “confrontation between Arabism and Islam was the headline of a period that has long since passed,” adding that “that confrontation originated from factors of rage, misunderstanding and ideological fervour that dominated the general atmosphere [in Syria] in the post-independence periods.”
The charter set a number of specific broad objectives which the signatories said they will seek to achieve. These are: “the establishment of a modern state,” “shouldering the challenge of public construction,” “confronting the Zionist project” and “seeking to achieve Arab unity.”
This is the first conference of its kind, in which opposition groups meet to discuss political reform in Syria and the future of the country. The last effort to bring together the Syrian opposition to Ba’athist rule was in the early nineteen-eighties, shortly after the massacre of Hamah, when the Brotherhood participated, along with dissident Ba’athists, the Islamic Front and others, in the National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria (al-Tahaluf al-Watani li-Tahrir Suriyyah), which enjoyed backing from Iraq, Jordan and a number of Gulf Arab states. At the time, the Alliance also issued a national charter outlining a system of government inspired broadly by fundamental principles of Islam. What is new about the current charter, though, is its specific and unambiguous commitment to political pluralism, public accountability and dialogue, themselves inextricably linked to elementary principles of Islam, such as shura (consultation), ‘adl (fairness) and maw’izah hasanah (good counsel).The overall terminology of the charter, with its emphasis on renouncing violent means and taming the violence of the state, empowering the citizenry, the construction of institutions of civil society, guaranteeing human rights, political pluralism and majority rule, dialogue and the legitimacy of disagreement, and recognizing the ‘Other’, whether religious, sectarian, political, intellectual, or cultural, is embedded in a almost dialectical fusion between some of the most tolerant and open-minded principles of classical Islamic political thought, on the one hand, and broad fundamental principles of democratic rule that have seeped into modern Islamic discourse, on the other.
In many ways, this reflects the striking political and ideological diversity of the groups and individuals attending the conference and signing the charter. But more importantly, it represents a positive development as it signals a well-intentioned desire to close the door on a stage in which the struggle of the Brotherhood in Syria had stumbled into a minefield of sectarian tensions and hostilities.
On a tactical level, this move underlines the willingness of the Brotherhood to formalize its dissociation from such methods as strictly secretive underground organization and selective violence, which political repression might at some point have compelled the group to adopt, but ended up tarnishing its image and increasing its isolation. It also signifies a desire to revive previous efforts aimed at broadening the Brotherhood’s base of support. In the nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, the Brotherhood’s then-Superintendent General ‘Adnan Sa’ad al-Din sought to transform the group into a rallying point of political opposition in Syria, by establishing a network of relations and support, both inside Syria and throughout the region, and in turn into a focal point of the struggle to establish a genuine multiparty system.
These efforts were bogged down in internal factional wrangling. They were particularly unacceptable to the salafi-leaning hardline Brotherhood breakaway faction known as al-Tali’ah al-Muqatilah (Fighting Vanguard). Little is known about the origins of the Tali’ah. But it is believed to have been founded in Hamah (possibly in 1965) by Marwan Hadid, who died in prison in 1975. He was succeeded by ‘Abd al-Sattar al-Za’im, who was killed by the Syrian authorities near Damascus in 1979, followed by Husni ‘Abbu, who was executed in prison in 1980. The leadership of the Tali’ah later passed to ‘Adnan ‘Uqla, an architect by profession residing in Aleppo, whose membership in the Brotherhood had been suspended in 1974 or 1977 because of his opinions about armed struggle against the Syrian regime. The long-simmering rift finally came to the open in December 1981, and became formal when the Brotherhood made an announcement in April 1982 distancing itself from the Tali’ah following ‘Uqla’s refusal to join the National Alliance.
The Tali’ah carried out most of the hit-and-run attacks, assassinations and bombings in the early stages of a military campaign aimed at overthrowing the Syrian regime in the 1970’s and early nineteen-eighties. It was Tali’ah fighters loyal to ‘Uqlah who committed such massacres as the carnage on June 16, 1979, at the Military Artillery School in Aleppo, in which 32 cadets were killed and 54 others wounded. At the time, the Brotherhood denied any prior knowledge of the carnage. It issued a statement on June 24, 1979 officially denying involvement in the massacre.
While the Tali’ah bore the brunt of the actual fighting against the regime, the Muslim Brotherhood bore the brunt of the security forces’ repression. In a countrywide campaign of terror following the massacre at the Military Artillery School, thousands of Brotherhood members and sympathizers were arrested. Fifteen members of the Muslim Brotherhood who were already in prison, some of whom had been in jail since 1977, were executed. Membership of the Brotherhood was made a capital offence. On June 26, 1980, units from the elite Defence Brigades (Saraya al-Difa’a), commanded by Rif’at al-Asad, brother of the late president Hafiz al-Asad, massacred some 1,100 Muslim Brothers at the Tadmur military prison near Damascus, in reprisal for a failed attempt on the life of the president a day earlier. Consequently, the Brotherhood found itself increasingly drawn into the armed conflict against the regime, culminating in full-scale armed insurrections in Aleppo in 1980 and in Hamah in February 1982.
The bloodbath in Hamah began when the Muslim Brotherhood ambushed government forces involved in a large-scale search operation for dissidents in the city. Several thousand troops, supported by tanks and artillery, moved into the city and crushed the insurgency during a two-week orgy of bloodletting. When the fighting was over, major sections of the city lay flattened and perhaps as many as 25,000 people were dead, including an estimated 1,000 soldiers.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was effectively destroyed as a credible oppositional force as a result. It was never again able to mount a meaningful threat to Asad. That makes the recent conference in London all the more important for the Brotherhood’s efforts to make a comeback. But its efforts remain mired in uncertainty. The charter seems so sweeping and open-ended that it smacks of succumbing to platitudes that effectively provide a recipe for future failures and frustrations. In its well-intentioned desire to achieve everything, the charter could end up achieving little in terms of solving Syria’s mounting problems, and adding to an increasing disillusionment in Syria’s population.
Despite its positive aspects, bringing together a conference of mainly weak, and some perhaps discredited, political parties suffers from a serious myopia. All the groups the Brotherhood invited to the conference can by no means muster enough supporters to stage a demonstration in any Syrian city. Notwithstanding the importance of working with political groups of various persuasions, there can be no alternative to working on the grassroots level. Reaching to the “silent majority” in Syria remains a challenge for the Brotherhood. Meeting this challenge is the Brotherhood’s only way out of the shoals of disarray, marginalization and political oblivion.