Though Muslim Brotherhood leaders were exiled under the late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, the movement is commonly assumed to be the most powerful and organized force within the Syrian opposition. Nearly eight months after protests began in Syria, the Brotherhood helped co-found the Syrian National Council, of which it is now the main component; the Brotherhood accounts for a quarter of the 310-member council. According to critics, this share exceeds the movement’s actual size in the revolution, thanks to the numerous groups it formed in exile and its experience in political organization.
Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfeh: secretary general
Mohammad Farouk Tayfour: deputy secretary general
Mohammad Hatem al-Tabshi: head of Shura Council
Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni: former secretary general
In 1942, Mustafa al-Sibai founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria as an extension of the Brotherhood in Egypt, which was founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. The Brotherhood is currently led by its comptroller general, Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfeh, and Hama, Homs, and Damascus are its main strongholds.
The Brotherhood has been politically active in Syria since 1946, represented by several members of parliament and participating in governments until 1963. When the Baath Party came to power, efforts were made to undermine the Brotherhood, culminating in a decision to ban its activities in 1964. At that time, armed Brotherhood members assassinated government officials and bombed government premises and Baath Party offices. In 1979, the Combatant Vanguard defected from the Brotherhood to take up arms against the regime, and it launched an attack in which eighty-three Alawite student officers were killed at the military artillery school in Aleppo. These events prompted then president Hafez al-Assad to issue, in 1980, Law 49 banning the Muslim Brotherhood and imposing the death penalty on its members.
Violence continued until the launch of a large-scale military operation by the regime against the Combatant Vanguard in Hama in February 1982 in which 10,000 to 25,000 of the city’s inhabitants were killed. The Brotherhood then withdrew from political life in Syria; its surviving leaders and many of its members were exiled.
When Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni was elected chair of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in 1996, the Brotherhood entered secret negotiations with the government. With Bashar al-Assad’s arrival in office, hundreds of Brotherhood prisoners were released. However, Assad rejected al-Bayanouni’s main demands to release all Brotherhood prisoners, authorize the return of all exiled persons to Syria, and lift the ban on membership in the Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood continued dialogue with other opposition forces. In May 2001, the Brotherhood announced the National Honor Pact, later presented at the Syrian opposition conference in August 2002 in London. The pact, which expressed the Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy among other things, was greeted with enthusiasm by the Syrian opposition, but it was less well received by the Syrian government. In 2005, the Brotherhood endorsed the Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change—including several opposition Syrian figures from Islamist, nationalist, Kurdish, and leftist movements—which determined the general principles of the Syrian opposition.
In 2006, the Brotherhood joined forces with former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, who had defected from the regime a year earlier in order to form the National Salvation Front in exile. The birth of the front was announced during a conference held in Brussels with the participation of several Syrian opposition figures calling for regime change by peaceful means. This alliance with Khaddam greatly undermined the Brotherhood’s credibility for many Syrians, as Khaddam had played a key role in the Assad regime. The Brotherhood withdrew from this front in April 2009 claiming that it had failed to meet the requirements of the national project. This withdrawal was also the result of differences between the Brotherhood and Khaddam, as the Brotherhood decided to suspend its anti-regime activities. In fact, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party—then on good terms with both President Assad and the Brotherhood—had sought to act as a mediator to resolve the differences between the Brotherhood and the regime. The Turkish efforts did not bear fruit, however, because the Syrian regime refused to lift the legal ban on the Brotherhood.
In July 2010, the General Committee of the Muslim Brotherhood met in Istanbul and elected Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfeh to succeed al-Bayanouni as the Brotherhood’s comptroller general. Born in Hama, al-Shaqfeh was active in the Brotherhood before leaving Syria at the end of 1980. A month after his election, he declared the continued suspension of anti-regime activities by the Brotherhood. In October 2010, he said, “We favor Turkish intervention to resolve differences.” He subsequently expressed the Brotherhood’s readiness to change its name if it were authorized to return to Syria and if the regime approved its demands, yet to no avail.
At the outset of protests in 2011, the Brotherhood cautiously refrained from participation. Its first official statement in support of the uprising was issued only at the end of April, and it called openly for the Assad regime to be toppled. In October, the Muslim Brotherhood participated in the establishment of the Syrian National Council in Istanbul, which brought together different factions of the Syrian opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood is deemed the most influential Islamist component within the council, represented by Mohammad Riad al-Shaqfeh and his deputy, Mohammad Farouk Tayfour, both of whom seek to present a moderate face of the Brotherhood for the benefit of their allies and the international community.
Since the beginning of the revolution, the Brotherhood has maintained that foreign intervention is the only possible solution to the crisis in Syria. In October 2011, it also called on Turkey to intervene and establish protected humanitarian zones in Turkish territory. In January 2012, the Brotherhood accused the League of Arab States of failing to solve the Syrian crisis and providing cover for the Syrian regime’s crimes by granting the leadership more time to continue the killings. The international community was urged to protect Syrian citizens, establish secure corridors, and transfer responsibility from the League of Arab States to the UN Security Council.
In March 2012, the Brotherhood supported the Annan peace plan and commended the ensuing United Nations decision to send international observers to Syria. On April 19, however, it expressed doubts over the capacity of the UN observer mission to confirm the cease-fire. Despite good relations between Turkey and the Syrian regime in the past, the Turkish government is now viewed as the Brotherhood’s greatest ally in the crisis. Deeply convinced that the Brotherhood will play a crucial role upon the fall of the regime, Turkey is hosting Muslim Brotherhood meetings on its territory.
On March 25, 2012, the Brotherhood issued the “Covenant and Pact,” which outlines concepts for post-Assad Syria in broad strokes. It calls for the establishment of a modern, democratic, and pluralistic civil state. The document has been described as “the basis for a new social contract, laying the foundations for a modern and secure national relationship between the components of Syrian society.” It also calls for the adoption of a republican parliamentary system with representatives and officials elected in free, fair, and transparent elections. It demands equality for all citizens regardless of their race, religion, beliefs, or affiliations in a state based on the equal rights and opportunities. The document further calls for the “institution of a State that respects human rights as enshrined by divine texts and international instruments, such as dignity, equality, freedom of thought and speech; [a state] where no citizen’s beliefs or religion shall be subject to prejudice.”
The document’s main principles include:
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