Syria’s Islamist opposition emerges in wake of Lebanon war

Media accounts have largely foused on Iran as the supplier of Hezbollah’s missiles, with Syria merely serving as a transshipment point. But Israeli intelligence, mostly relying on forensic work at the impact sites, has reportedly determined that many of Hezbollah’s rockets that hit Israel in the recent war were actually Syrian-made, or Russian missiles that had been supplied to Syria. (LAT, Aug. 31 via Assyrian International News Agency) The United Nations is also said to have reports that Syria continues to permit arms to cross its border into Lebanon, and Secretary General Kofi Annan plans to demand an end to the illegal traffic when he meets tomorrow with President Bashar al-Assad. (NYT, Aug. 31) Syria, which denies arming Hezbollah , has rejected the deployment of UN troops along its border with Lebanon. (AFP, Aug. 31)

Whether the claims are true or not, they point to a renewed “regime change” offensive against Syria. An emerging threat to Assad’s dictatorship comes from growing Sunni Islamist networks in Syria—which poses several ironies. First, while the Assad regime backs Hezbollah in Lebanon, it rules an officially secular state at home, and the elite around the Assad family are Alawite—a Shi’ite sect deemed heretical by the orthodox Shi’ite Hezbollah, and even more so by the militant Sunni networks. Secondly, US imperialism may find the Islamist militants to be the only convenient agents to cultivate for the destabilization of Assad—but they would likely be even more hostile to Washington if they managed to acheive power.

The New York Times noted Aug. 29 that a semi-clandestine Islamic revival is underway in Syria—led, surprisingly, by women. The account, by Katherine Zoepf, states that in Damascus, “women who identify one another by the distinctive way they tie their head scarves gather for meetings of an exclusive and secret Islamic women’s society known as the Qubaisiate. At those meetings, participants say, they are tutored further in the faith and are even taught how to influence some of their well-connected fathers and husbands to accept a greater presence of Islam in public life. [The] Islamic revival for women in Syria…could add up to a potent challenge to this determinedly secular state. Though government officials vociferously deny it, Syria is becoming increasingly religious and its national identity is weakening. If Islam replaces that identity, it may undermine the unity of a society that is ruled by a Muslim religious minority, the Alawites, and includes many religious groups.”

The conservative Mideast Monitor website includes a dossier on the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its leader Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni. The dossier relfects the ambivalence about the Brotherhood—as an irresistable but ultimately untrustworthy proxy:

In May 2005, Bayanouni reportedly tried to open a line of communication with the Bush administration through Farid al-Ghadri, the US-based head of the Reform Party of Syria. It is likely that some indirect communication has taken place, though both sides have a strong incentive to deny it – a public relationship between the United States and the brotherhood could risk uniting and radicalizing Syria’s fractious Alawite power centers (whether behind or against Assad). Bayanouni’s public assurances that the brotherhood is “looking to share power, not to rule the country” appear intended in part to allay American concerns.

However, there is much concern in Washington that a brotherhood-dominated post-Baathist regime will continue allowing terrorists to infiltrate Iraq from Syria. Bayanouni was quick to condemn the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but he has frequently denounced the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and portrayed the United States as a menace to Syria in public speeches. Although such rhetoric usually appears as a prop for his argument that Assad must reconcile with the brotherhood to strengthen the nation against external threats (the “help us help you resist the Americans” appeal has been a common refrain among all opposition currents), he has also berated Assad for “making concessions and more concessions” to Washington. Publicly, at least, he has expressed little willingness to be more accommodating than Assad.

The fact that many Syrian Sunnis deeply sympathize with Iraqi insurgents (no one better understands their fear of being ruled by non-Sunnis) adds to the uncertainty. Even if Bayanouni sincerely commits in advance to halting the traffic, he may find it impossible to control the Islamist underground and politically unthinkable to coerce it. A weak brotherhood at the helm that lacks the ability to rein in radical Islamists would be a nightmare scenario for Washington. The most critical question mark isn’t what Bayanouni’s intentions are, but what he’s capable of delivering.

Adding to the uncertainty are divisions within the exiled leadership of the brotherhood (mostly in Britain and Germany). One wing, favored by Bayanouni, reportedly believes that Assad will never meet the Brotherhood’s core demands and therefore advocates close cooperation with all Syrian opposition currents…and dialogue with Western governments. The other wing, backed by the Egyptian brotherhood, believes that Assad’s growing domestic and international isolation will eventually force him to make these concessions and therefore opposes joining the bandwagon against him.

See our last post on Syria.