At the end of March 2012, Syria's major opposition groups gathered in Istanbul to work out a coordinated strategy to overthrow the Ba'th Party-led regime of President Bashshar al-Asad.
Despite the obvious importance of the meeting—Russian President Dmitry Medvedev presciently called it the last chance to avert a prolonged and bloody civil war—opponents of the Ba'thi order remained deeply divided. Much of the internal friction grew out of deep-seated mistrust and animosity between Islamists (groups whose political platform calls for government policy to rest on the tenets of Islam) and non-Islamists (ones whose political ideology is not built on overtly religious principles).
Important constituencies of the umbrella opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), are staunch non-Islamists. Two weeks before the March conference, prominent civil rights activists resigned from the SNC, charging that it had fallen under the control of Syria's primary Islamist organization, the Muslim Brothers (also known as the Muslim Brotherhood).
Representatives of the country's Kurdish population walked out of the Istanbul meeting as well, complaining that the SNC had no intention of setting up a secular state that would give Kurds adequate political and cultural autonomy.
In the days leading up to the Istanbul congress, the Muslim Brothers released a revised Covenant of National Honor, which laid out a "new social contract" that promised to "protect the fundamental rights of individuals and groups from any abuse or excesses, and ensure equitable representation of all components of society."
The Covenant envisaged the establishment of a republican parliamentary system of government, in which members of parliament would be selected through popular elections. It advocated a separation of powers among the executive, legislature and judiciary, and stipulated that the rights of citizens would be "endorsed by heavenly religions and international conventions."
Some of these democratic elements were discernible in the platform that the SNC drew up during the March meeting. But the rhetoric of SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun's closing address, which called on delegates to take a formal oath in support of the proposed Transitional Authority in Syria, evoked the medieval Islamic ceremony of swearing public allegiance to the ruler (bay'ah).
Liberal activists associated with a rival opposition camp, the National Coordinating Committee, protested that the SNC had pandered to the United States and Europe while abandoning the fighters on the ground. At the same time, dissident members of the Free Officers Movement pulled away from the SNC-affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA), pointing to the inordinate influence that the Muslim Brotherhood exerts over SNC policy.
Nevertheless, the Turkish government welcomed the SNC's platform and pushed for the SNC to be recognized by the international community as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
When the collection of Western and Arab Gulf states known as the Friends of Syria convened in Istanbul on April 1, it endorsed Turkey's position and pledged to step up material and moral support for the SNC and FSA alike. Gulf foreign ministers set up a sizable fund to enable the SNC to distribute regular salaries to FSA troops and construct a tighter command structure.
These foreign measures to fund and support the SNC—and the tactical setbacks suffered later in April by the Syria-based leadership of the uprising, the Local Coordinating Committees—helped strengthen Syria's Islamist organizations in the midst of the current violence and unrest.
Since early in the last century, a variegated Islamist movement—most notably the Muslim Brothers—has played a central role in Syria's politics and society. Today, Islamist political groups remain perhaps the most influential, powerful, and well organized force in Syria's opposition to Bashshar al-Asad. However, the political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood has changed substantially over the decades, as have relations between the ruling regime and the Brotherhood.