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.
The End of Colonial Rule in Syria and the Beginnings of the Islamist Movement
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a variety of nationalist movements struggled against the French-dominated imperial order that was imposed on Syria at the end of World War I.
The leading nationalist party, the National Bloc, consisted of liberal constitutionalists, but during the late 1930s an Islamist current started to gain momentum.
Islamist organizations responded to the severe economic problems facing the country by offering financial assistance and social programs to the general public, filling a vacuum left by the national government.
Well-to-do urban merchants and tradespeople, almost all of whom adhered to the orthodox Sunni interpretation of Islam, set up a variety of civic and benevolent societies. Some of these associations—such as the House of the Elect in Aleppo, the Society of the Bond in Homs and the Young Men's Muslim Association in Damascus—were headed by religious scholars with formal training in Islamic law. Their charity and activism earned the loyalty of many Syrian Muslims.
During World War II, the House of the Elect relocated to Damascus. There it forged links to other Islamist societies and in 1944 rechristened itself the Syrian incarnation of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that had originated in Egypt sixteen years earlier.
In 1946, shortly after French imperial authorities pulled out of the country, the Brothers elected prominent religious scholar and activist Mustafa al-Siba'i to be its first General Supervisor.
In its early months, the Muslim Brotherhood called on the National Bloc-led government of newly independent Syria to nurture Islamic morals and ethics, and to refrain from practicing political and economic discrimination—as the French had done—along religious lines.
The organization's early manifestos underscored broad goals of combating popular ignorance, immorality and economic deprivation. The Brothers also pushed for the consolidation of a fully independent and self-sufficient Syria.
These objectives were disseminated through neighborhood schools and periodicals sponsored by the organization, most notably "The Lighthouse," a newspaper published in Aleppo.
After Syria's defeat in the 1948 Palestine war, the Muslim Brotherhood expanded its membership in urban areas, especially Damascus, where members consistently won a fifth of the parliamentary seats allotted to the capital area.
Throughout the democratic era of the 1950s, the Brothers competed not only against the veteran liberals of the National Bloc, but also against a range of newer, more radical parties. These included the Syrian Communist Party, supporters of Egypt's President Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir, and the Arab Socialist Resurrection (Ba'th) Party, which called for regional unity and wholesale redistribution of wealth.
Rivalry between the Muslim Brothers and Nasirists proved particularly intense, since both appealed to the same constituency, the Sunni petite bourgeoisie of the larger cities and towns.
Growing competition from Communists and Ba'this during the mid-1950s led the Brothers to formulate a mixed bag of economic and social reforms that pointed in the direction of "Islamic socialism." Not surprisingly, the organization's members welcomed Syria's 1961 secession from the Egypt-dominated United Arab Republic, which had been set up in 1958 by military commanders affiliated with the Ba'th Party.
Islamists and the Ba'th Regime
The rise to power of the Ba'th Party in Syria led to a redefinition of the political platform of the Muslim Brothers.
In March 1963, officers with ties to the Ba'th Party and other radical movements engineered a coup d'état that pushed out the liberal constitutionalist elite. In response, the Muslim Brothers mobilized popular opposition to the redistributive economic and social policies that the avowedly socialist, secularist regime introduced.
The Brothers further criticized the Ba'th Party for inserting significant numbers of cadres into key positions in the state apparatus, particularly individuals who hailed from the disadvantaged and heterodox 'Alawi and Isma'ili communities of the western and southern provinces.
Policies adopted by the Ba'thi leadership in 1964-65 not only damaged the interests of large landowners, rich merchants and private industrialists, all of whom were predominantly Sunni, but also jeopardized the livelihoods of the small-scale manufacturers and shopkeepers who had long backed the Muslim Brotherhood. Religious notables sympathetic to the Brothers orchestrated a succession of public demonstrations and protests against the regime, particularly in the north-central cities of Aleppo, Hama and Homs.
Faced with widespread popular disaffection, the authorities turned for help to radical activists in the labor movement and the Syrian Communist Party. The regime also cultivated closer relations with the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and the other countries of the Communist bloc. East Germany, in particular, provided the government with substantial economic and technical assistance, which came heavily imbued with notions of secularist modernism.
The political-economic program espoused by the Ba'th Party-Communist alliance in the mid-1960s led the Muslim Brothers to jettison the remains of its earlier platform of Islamic socialism. The organization instead became a champion of private property and limited state authority, principles congruent with the interests of Syria's beleaguered urban petite bourgeoisie.
In the wake of Syria's defeat in the 1967 war against Israel, and with the rise of a more pragmatic wing of the Ba'th Party led by Hafiz al-Asad in 1969-70, a schism developed inside the Muslim Brotherhood. Militants in Aleppo and Hama pressed for armed struggle (jihad) against the Ba'thi regime, but were countered by the Damascus-based followers of 'Isam al-'Attar, who had replaced Mustafa al-Siba'i as General Supervisor in 1957.
The Damascus moderates discerned a convergence of interest between small-scale manufacturers and tradespeople and the pragmatic wing of the Ba'th, which expressed a willingness to deregulate the economy and solicit investments from the Arab oil-producing countries of the Gulf.
Parting of Ways: President Hafiz al-Asad and Muslim Opposition
During the 1970s, Islamist tensions with Ba'th Party escalated and increasingly turned to violence.
The moderate wing of the Muslim Brotherhood led by al-'Attar initially welcomed the November 1970 coup that brought Hafiz al-Asad to the presidency, and took provisional steps to reconcile with the Ba'thi pragmatists.
Militants in the northern cities, by contrast, rejected any sort of rapprochement with the Ba'th Party, and the honeymoon between the al-Asad leadership and the Damascus wing of the Muslim Brothers soon collapsed.
When the government issued a revised, overtly secularist constitution in 1973, the Brothers launched a series of mass protests, forcing the government to back down and stipulate that Syria's head of state must be a Muslim.
This phase of the Islamist movement's campaign against the Ba'th Party-dominated order is closely identified with the leadership of 'Adnan Sa'd al-Din, a schoolteacher and writer from Hama, who became General Supervisor of the Muslim Brothers in a disputed election in 1971.
Several factors laid the groundwork for the turn to armed struggle during Sa'd al-Din's term in office: the flagrant corruption that accompanied the implementation of the government's economic liberalization program; Syria's military intervention in the civil war that broke out in Lebanon in 1975 and above all, the rising political and economic influence of the 'Alawi minority, whose gains came largely at the expense of urban and rural Sunnis.
At first, Islamist militants targeted prominent figures in the Ba'th Party and armed forces, particularly high-ranking 'Alawis. But through the 1970s, violence broadened to include assaults on government facilities and public symbols of Ba'thi rule, including district party offices, police stations and military encampments.
Militants drew encouragement from the 1978-79 revolution in Iran, in which a network of Islamist guerrilla forces fought alongside religious scholars and tradespeople (so-called bazaaris) in the cities to overthrow a well-entrenched authoritarian regime.