ISTANBUL — The Muslim Brotherhood is set to open offices in Syria for the first time since the organization was crushed there decades ago, in an apparent effort to capitalize on the increasingly Islamized rebellion in that country.
Riad al-Shaqfa, the movement’s exiled leader, said in an interview with the Financial Times that a decision was recently taken to revive organizational structures in Syria and that followers have been asked to start opening party offices in rebel-held areas.
“In the beginning, we said this is a time for revolution, not ideology. Now there are many groups inside, so we feel we should reorganize,” he said, adding that the Brotherhood — a similar movement to its Egyptian counterpart — was hoping to promote a more moderate brand of Islamist thinking at a time of growing radicalization.
The decision comes amid heated controversy over the Brotherhood’s behind-the-scenes influence on the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, and it is likely to be treated with suspicion by many of the group’s secular and liberal critics. At the same time, some opponents of Assad fear that the Brotherhood’s efficiency, strong organization and superior fundraising networks could enable them to dominate a fractured Syrian opposition.
The opening of the offices follows the launch of a twice-monthly newspaper that the group says is distributing 10,000 copies in liberated areas of the country.
Speaking at the Brotherhood’s offices in Istanbul, a Syrian revolution flag wrapped around his neck, Shaqfa denounced what he said was a campaign against the group backed by “outside” forces. He countered widespread accusations that his organization, which has existed only in exile since a bloody 1980s crackdown by Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, has been trying to control the fractious Syrian opposition.
“Those who attack us have no influence on the ground. They are media personalities and are trying through their attacks to create influence for themselves,” he said.
The regional context, along with the questions raised over the commitment to democracy of its sister organizations that have taken power elsewhere in the region, is not helping the Syrian Brotherhood’s case. “The fact that the Brotherhood won in Egypt and Tunisia raised fears about the Brotherhood in Syria,” Shaqfa said.
The Brotherhood is not thought to have significant support on the ground, where membership in the organization has been a capital offense under the Assad governments.
It is difficult to gauge the extent to which it will be able to reassert itself, especially at a time when armed groups, rather than political parties, hold sway. Many of the rebel groups are puritanical Salafists, espousing a stricter interpretation of Islam than the Brotherhood.
Perhaps in an attempt to pave the way for a more official political comeback, the Brotherhood has armed rebels affiliated with it. Dozens of small brigades calling themselves shields of the revolution emerged over the past year and are supported by the organization.
Shaqfa said these groups were formed not by members, but by people with a political leaning close to the Brotherhood’s. They came together in a meeting in Istanbul last May and are now part of the supreme military command, the nominal rebel leadership backed by Western and Arab governments. “These groups have their own commands and agreed to give back their weapons after the revolution,” he said.
Although the Brotherhood is believed to be backed by Qatar and Turkey, Shaqfa insisted that all the help it has given on the ground, including the humanitarian support it has provided, comes from exiled members, many of them working in the region.
Within the political opposition, which is based outside Syria, the Brotherhood has operated through the Syrian National Council, the first opposition front formed after the eruption of the revolt in 2011.
Accusations that it was imposing its will on the SNC, however, drove other opposition groups and Western states to promote the creation of a broader body, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which is now recognized as the representative of Syrians.
That, however, did not end the controversy over the Brotherhood’s dominance. The infighting escalated last month when the Brotherhood backed the formation of an interim opposition government and its choice for prime minister won the internal Syrian Opposition Coalition election.
Secular activists in the coalition were livid — some suspended their membership — and stepped up their denunciations of the Brotherhood. Discussions are underway between various factions to contain the quarrel, and the coalition might be expanded to bring in more liberal and minority voices.
Shaqfa said the Brotherhood has only 10 percent of the seats on the Syrian National Council, which is now part of the broader coalition, and had followed others, rather than led, in the election of Ghassan Hitto as interim prime minister. Although Shaqfa is not opposed to expanding the coalition, he said: “There is a group outside the coalition which wants to get in, and so they say we control the coalition, which isn’t true.”
The Brotherhood, however, is more organized than others, and it is also flexible in its positions, which creates suspicion about its motives.
“If we haven’t pushed to form the Syrian National Council it would not have been formed, because there were no other parties,” Shaqfa said. “Others were not organized or strong.”
— Financial Times