By May last year, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had established enormous leverage within almost all the opposition’s burgeoning political, military and grassroots bodies. The group had made an impressive comeback, three decades after it had been effectively wiped out of existence after the Hama massacre in 1982.
The Brotherhood’s comeback in Syria is remarkable on several levels. Up until the end of April 2011 – nearly two months after protests broke out in Syria – the Brotherhood had been reluctant to support the popular movement. That hesitation has defined much of the organisation’s activism in recent years, and indeed throughout the Syrian uprising. This sense of hesitation reflects real and deep limitations for the group in the country.
The most notable of these limitations is how the group could compete ideologically on the ground without contradicting the non-violent principles it has repeatedly announced to Syrians. The group had to adopt a jihadi discourse if it was to be accepted by the rebels as a legitimate Islamist player. It was not enough for the group to funnel money to various Islamist factions.
If the struggle in Syria had been peaceful, the Brotherhood would have found it easier to champion people’s demands. But the cause is militarised and the dominating discourse is a Salafi jihadist one. Understandably, the Brotherhood will remain reluctant to espouse this discourse because Syrians and outsiders will be quick to draw parallels with the organisation’s extremist past in the 1970s and 1980s.
For other Islamic groups, the task is easier. Many Islamist groups in Syria have advocated a jihadi discourse to rally the masses and to lend meaning to their actions. Because these groups have no history of violence, they will be judged by their actions during the war. For the Brotherhood, the story is different as it comes with historical baggage.
This situation has made it unavoidable for the Brotherhood to look for other options, although less favourable and less effective. It has carefully and quietly sought to build influence within the armed opposition, in four main ways.
The group directly funded close to two dozens rebel factions under the umbrella of the Body for Protection of Civilians, created in December 2011. The group, which operates mainly in northern Syria and Homs, has been debilitated due to internal differences and operational and ideological incoherence. In March, according to researcher Ahmed Abazid, most of the factions regrouped as Al Sham Legion.
The Brotherhood also supports the Revolution Shields Association, another umbrella group that operates in many parts of Syria, and Deraa-based Liwa Shuhada Al Yarmouk.
Beyond these groups, the Brotherhood supports, together with other sponsors, groups that have a similar ideology to it but are not necessarily loyal to it. Such groups include Ajnad Al Sham Islamic Union and Shabab Al Huda Brigades, both of which operate near Damascus, as well as Liwa Al Tawhid and Jaish Al Mujahideen in Aleppo and Liwa Al Moataz in Deraa. According to Mr Abazid, some of these factions are close to the Brotherhood, depending on the region in which they operate.
The Brotherhood has loyalists within some of Syria’s powerful rebel factions, including Suqour Al Sham. Groups with links to the Brotherhood tend to be well equipped and they mostly receive funding and weapons through Libya, according to a top rebel commander who works with such groups.
The fact that the Brotherhood has managed to build influence within the rebel groups without openly adopting a jihadist discourse is truly striking. But the organisation’s influence has been built on shaky ground – a fact that has been put to the test in recent months.
Since May last year, much of its influence has been reversed. Efforts to restructure the National Coalition played a key role in significantly reducing the group’s domination. The group no longer has the same sway over the opposition’s political body as it used to. The better management of funding to the Syrian political and armed opposition, especially after the diminished role of Qatar in the sponsorship of the opposition towards the end of last year, has meant that the Brotherhood and its allies no longer have a monopoly over the opposition’s resources. This has made fighters less inclined to depend on the Brotherhood.
It’s worth noting that the Brotherhood’s control over the military and aid offices of the Syrian National Council helped it achieve two goals: to use the political body to channel funds to rebels on the ground, and to get the rebels to support it politically in exchange for increased aid.
Three regional trends have also contributed to the misfortunes of the Brotherhood in Syria: the decreased appetite for support to the opposition from Turkey and Qatar, the downfall of the Brotherhood-aligned regime in Egypt, and the subsequent backlash against the Brotherhood in the region. This backlash, perceived or real, has made the Syrian branch profoundly fearful of overplaying its hand. This can be felt in a spate of articles on Arabic news sites close to the group.
Despite these recent developments, the Brotherhood still has some presence throughout Syria. It has benefited from its name recognition to play a role within Syrian opposition’s emerging political and military bodies. The group’s influence has fluctuated throughout the uprising, and at one point the group appeared to be set to control the transition after the regime’s downfall. The bubble seems to be ready to burst, however, and it remains to be seen how the Brotherhood will recover.
Hassan Hassan is a Middle East analyst in Abu Dhabi who focuses on Islamic groups and regional politics
On Twitter: @hhassan140