ISTANBUL — After three decades of persecution that virtually eradicated its presence, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has resurrected itself to become the dominant group in the fragmented opposition movement pursuing a 14-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Exiled Brotherhood members and their supporters hold the biggest number of seats in the Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group. They control its relief committee, which distributes aid and money to Syrians participating in the revolt. The Brotherhood is also moving on its own to send funding and weapons to the rebels, who continued to skirmish Saturday with Syrian troops despite a month-old U.N.-brokered cease-fire.
The revival marks an extraordinary comeback for an organization that was almost annihilated after the last revolt in Syria, which ended in the killing by government forces of as many as 25,000 people in the city of Hama in 1982. Only those who managed to flee abroad survived the purge.
The Brotherhood’s rise is stirring concerns in some neighboring countries and in the wider international community that the fall of the minority Alawite regime in Damascus would be followed by the ascent of a Sunni Islamist government, extending into a volatile region a trend set in Egypt and Tunisia. In those countries, Brotherhood-affiliated parties won the largest number of parliamentary seats in post-revolution elections.
Brotherhood leaders say they have been reaching out to Syria’s neighbors, including Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon — as well as to U.S. and European diplomats — to reassure them that they have no intention of dominating a future Syrian political system or establishing any form of Islamist government.
“These concerns are not legitimate when it comes to Syria, for many reasons,” said Molham al-Drobi, who is a member of the Brotherhood’s leadership and sits on the Syrian National Council’s foreign affairs committee.
“First, we are a really moderate Islamic movement compared to others worldwide. We are open-minded,” Drobi said. “And I personally do not believe we could dominate politics in Syria even if we wanted to. We don’t have the will, and we don’t have the means.”
Of far greater concern to the United States and other Western countries are recent indications that extremists are seeking to muscle their way into the revolt, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East policy. The double suicide bombing in Damascus last week, in which 55 people died in circumstances reminiscent of the worst of the violence in Iraq, bore the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda attack, deepening suspicions that militants have been relocating from Iraq to Syria.
On Saturday, a group calling itself the al-Nusra Front asserted responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on a jihadist Web site.
The Brotherhood is eager to distance itself from the jihadists, whose radical vision of an Islamic caliphate spanning the globe bears no resemblance to its philosophy.
As the Brotherhood starts distributing weapons inside the country, using donations from individual members and from Persian Gulf states including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, it is going to great lengths to ensure that they don’t fall into the hands of extremists, Drobi said.
“We have on the ground our networks, and we make sure they don’t distribute arms to those who are not within the streamline of the revolution,” Drobi said.
Other leaders also stress the moderation of the group’s policies, even by comparison with the original Brotherhood movement in Egypt, to which the Syrian branch is very loosely affiliated.
Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood would support NATO intervention to help the opposition topple Assad, and it has published a manifesto outlining its vision of a future democratic state that makes no mention of Islam and enshrines individual liberties, said Mohammed Farouk Tayfour, who is the movement’s deputy leader, vice president of the Syrian National Council and head of the council’s relief committee, making him perhaps the most powerful figure in the opposition.
“In Tunisia and Egypt, the regime did not uproot the Islamic movement as they did in Syria,” he said, citing a 1980 law that made membership in the Syrian Brotherhood punishable by death. “Based on that, I would not expect to gain that much support after the fall of the regime.”
Syria’s long history of secularism and its substantial minority population also make it unlikely the Brotherhood would ever achieve the kind of dominance it appears to have won in Egypt or Tunisia, analysts and activists say. Drobi predicted that the Brotherhood would win 25 percent of the vote if democratic elections were to be held.
Even that could be optimistic, experts say. A third of Syria’s population belongs to religious or ethnic minorities, among them Christians, Alawites, Shiites and Kurds, who share concerns about the potential rise of Sunni Islamism.
It is in large part a measure of the dysfunction of the rest of the opposition that the Brotherhood has managed to assert itself as the only group with a national reach, at a time when most of the uprising’s internal leadership is atomized around local committees that don’t coordinate, said Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“There is no other political party outside of the Brotherhood that has organization across the country,” he said.
The flow of weapons and money to fighters is one of the biggest concerns of secular Syrians, who worry that it will give the Brotherhood undue influence over the direction of the revolt and whatever may come after Assad, should the regime fall.
“The Muslim Brotherhood has played it really well. They’ve distanced themselves from extremism, and they’re trying to gain the middle ground,” said Amr al-Azm, a Syrian dissident and history professor at Ohio’s Shawnee University who declined to join the Syrian National Council because he felt it was overly influenced by Islamists.“But they are trying to make sure they have a finger in every pie and a hand on every lever of power that they can.”
The vast majority of Syrian activists on the ground do not support the Muslim Brotherhood, he and other Syrians insist.
“We don’t want what happened in Egypt to happen in Syria,” said Omar al-Khani, the pseudonym of an activist in Damascus with the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union. He and several of his colleagues have accepted small donations from Muslim Brotherhood members outside the country, but the money has not contributed to any noticeable increase in the group’s influence in the Damascus area, he said.
“We won’t let people living outside the country come here and tell those of us who made the revolution what to do,” he said.
But although support for the Brotherhood inside Syria appears to be limited, activists say it is growing as the uprising drags on.
“The Muslim Brothers have resources, and they get help from Saudi Arabia and the gulf states,” said Mousab al-Hamadi, an activist in Hama with the secular Local Coordination Committees. “They have a long history behind them, whereas other groups like us are newly born.”
“From the point of view of religion, most Syrians don’t accept political Islam,” he added. “But the people here are still Muslim, and they are still conservative, so I think the Muslim Brotherhood will become the biggest political power in Syria after the departure of the Assad regime. And I will be the biggest loser.”