When news emerged in early August 2012 that the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, in exile for the past thirty years, had started to form its own militias on the ground in Syria, opposition circles were concerned. Old memories of the organization’s bloody struggle against the Baath regime quickly resurfaced. In the late 1970s, the Brotherhood had endorsed armed struggle against the regime and teamed up with a jihadist organization named the Fighting Vanguard, which was decisively crushed in the February 1982 Hama massacre.
The recent return of former Fighting Vanguard militants Luay al-Zubi and Abu Basir al-Tartusi to their respective hometowns of Deraa and Latakia to lead radical Islamist rebel groups has fed the perception that the Muslim Brotherhood could be about to revive its old networks. The Brotherhood has made contradictory statements: spokesman Mulham Droubi openly acknowledged in August that it has “formed armed battalions within Syria whose mission is self-defense and security protection of the wronged,” but this was immediately denied by fellow spokesman Zuhair Salem and again, in mid-December, by comptroller-general Riad al-Shaqfeh. In either case, the Brotherhood is unlikely to team up with its former radical wing.
The Fighting Vanguard was originally created amid the ruins of Hama after an April 1964 confrontation in the city. The Baath regime, which had seized power a year earlier, made the conservative and rebellious city an example of how far it was prepared to go in order to tame dissent.
The bombing of the local al-Sultan Mosque and the killing of those who had taken to the streets encouraged the emergence of a radical current led by Marwan Hadid, a young militant of the Muslim Brotherhood who believed the “impious Baath” could only be toppled by force. His endeavors throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s led to the growth of a nationwide network of radical militants who wanted to push the Brotherhood into an open confrontation with the regime.
When Hadid was captured and died in prison in June 1976, the cells he had managed to train and scatter throughout Syria vowed to avenge his death and started a campaign to assassinate several of the regime’s top security and political officers. The plans for targeted killings soon transformed into a series of indiscriminate jihadist attacks against the country’s ruling minority community, the Alawites. In June 1979, a commando unit penetrated into the Aleppo Artillery School, forcibly separated Sunni and Alawite cadet officers, then slaughtered dozens of the latter.
Those actions engendered Baathist repression that was aimed not only at destroying the Fighting Vanguard but also at weakening a Muslim Brotherhood emboldened by the proliferation of anti-regime protests throughout the late 1970s. The weight of state atrocities—such as the March 1980 brutal crackdown on Sunni oppositionists in Aleppo or the June 1980 Tadmor Prison massacre in which the regime, infuriated by an attempt to assassinate Hafez al-Assad, killed an estimated thousand prisoners—combined with the passing of a July 1980 law that made membership in the Islamic movement punishable by death eventually pushed the Brotherhood closer to its radical offshoot.
After the Brotherhood set up its own military branch, it was agreed at a leadership meeting held in December 1980 that the movement would enter into a partnership with the forces of the Fighting Vanguard. This one-year affair between the two Islamist forces provided the pretext for Hafez al-Assad to label the whole Islamic movement “terrorist” and to use power and force to an unprecedented extent. The February 1982 confrontation that ensued in Hama cost the lives of between 20,000 and 40,000 of the city’s inhabitants and put an effective halt to any contestation of the regime’s rule until March 2011. It is little wonder, then, that the Syrian opposition is wary of the Muslim Brotherhood reviving its Fighting Vanguard.
Such fears, however, are largely unfounded. A great deal of bitterness and mistrust has long characterized the relationship between the Brotherhood and the Vanguard. After the Hama massacre, the Brotherhood accused members of the Fighting Vanguard, and in particular the zealous Adnan Uqla, the Vanguard’s most influential and charismatic figure, of having pushed the whole Islamic movement into a premature and doomed confrontation with the Syrian regime. Barely two months after the massacre, the Muslim Brotherhood definitively walked away from the alliance and instead allied with secular, left-wing opposition forces. This was perceived as a betrayal by those Fighting Vanguard militants who had done the bulk of the fighting against the regime.
The Muslim Brotherhood lost what little credibility it still enjoyed among radical Islamic circles when its leadership ended a last-ditch effort to regain control of Hama—an episode often referred to as “the failed nafeer (call).” Shortly thereafter, in late 1982, Uqla was caught by the regime in an operation that effectively crushed the whole group.
Although some, like al-Zubi or al-Tartusi, survived the Baathist repression and are now making their way back to Syria to participate in the current struggle against the regime, there is no “revival” of the Fighting Vanguard. The organizational and leadership structure of the group crumbled more than thirty years ago, and the Salafist and jihadist groups now present in Syria, such as the al-Nusra Front, seem to be more influenced by the experience accumulated on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon than by the teachings of Fighting Vanguard veterans of the Syrian jihad.
Within the Muslim Brotherhood, the lessons of the short-lived alliance with the Fighting Vanguard have influenced internal debates on the type of policies the organization should pursue. This was already true in the early 1980s, and it has become all the more relevant in the context of the militarization of the current uprisings—especially given the fact that most of those who were in charge thirty years ago still control the Brotherhood’s leadership.
Whenever possible, the Muslim Brotherhood has associated itself with other Syrian opposition groups, from all ideological and religious backgrounds, in the hope of minimizing the risk of backlash in case the anti-regime movement fails to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Such an approach is also consistent with the group’s efforts since 2001 to engage in a profound ideological evolution and move toward the pragmatic side of the Islamist spectrum. This perception is reinforced by recent party decisions to avoid referencing Islam in the body of its last political project and push a secular Christian figure, George Sabra, to run for the leadership of the Syrian opposition.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s organizational capacity and its vast network of contacts have afforded it a place of power in most opposition umbrella groups with which it is associated. Indeed, it is often referred to as the “kingmaker” of such platforms. This has allowed it to greatly influence political groupings such as the Syrian National Council and the newly formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and steer them in ways ultimately consistent with its interests and values.
The Brotherhood’s influence within military opposition bodies is also growing. It is actively participating in the coordination of military attacks against the regime through the presence of at least one Muslim Brother in the Free Syrian Army’s operations room, which, in cooperation with Turkish authorities, supplies and arms the rebels.
The Brotherhood formally decided to provide money and weapons directly to rebel groups on the ground in late March 2012. There is, however, lingering controversy as to when exactly its active support for armed rebels began. Some observers contend that a September 2011 decision by the General Committee to Protect Civilians, a group headed by former Muslim Brotherhood member Haytham Rahmeh, to send weapons and money to fighters in Homs was the Brotherhood’s first cautious, low-profile step in such a direction. Groups thought to have received generous Muslim Brotherhood support in Syria include, among others, the al-Farouk Battalion in Homs, the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, the Suqur al-Sham in Jabal Zawiya, and the Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib.
While the provision of money and weapons to rebels in dire need of such aid enables the Muslim Brotherhood to influence these groups in directions consistent with its interests, the strategy also ensures that such groups do not fall into the kind of extremism that characterized the Fighting Vanguard’s violent campaign from 1979 until 1982. In this respect, the Muslim Brotherhood’s policy line is clear and uncontroversial within its ranks: neither support nor assistance will be provided to the radical al-Nusra Front and the likes of Abu Basir al-Tartusi or Luay al-Zubi—these are “red lines” that cannot be crossed.
Yet the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing profile on the ground does not please everybody—including, ironically, some of the groups receiving the organization’s support. Some rebels who expected to receive material and financial assistance without strings attached are growing increasingly frustrated with what they feel is an attempt on the Muslim Brotherhood’s part to reassert its presence after thirty years of forced exile. A Syrian Islamist who returned in late November from the region of Idlib, where he actively helps the rebels, recounted how angry a local Islamist group became when a Brotherhood delegation sat down with its leaders and offered assistance of 2 million Syrian pounds (approximately $28,000) in exchange for an oath of allegiance (bay’ah) to the organization. Local leaders eventually agreed to the deal, he said, but with bitterness.
For now, at least, the Brotherhood’s calculus seems to be working. When Islamist rebel groups fighting in Aleppo issued a public statement on November 18 rejecting the new National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and called instead for the immediate advent of an “Islamic state,” two major Islamist groups receiving Brotherhood funding, the Tawhid Brigade and the Ahrar al-Sham, initially backed the effort and subsequently distanced themselves publicly.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to eschew a renewed alliance with the Fighting Vanguard makes obvious political sense. But linking its image and fate to that of other Islamist groups that have emerged over the past year inside Syria is a risky gamble for an organization seeking to consolidate its credibility as a pragmatic political actor. More broadly, the Brotherhood’s entry into the military arena offers it the hope of reinforcing its political influence. But this move is also risky, as the Brotherhood could be seen as simply endorsing the approach of other armed groups, including Islamist ones, vindicating and strengthening them instead of demonstrating its own leadership.
With alternative sources of funding and weapons available to Syria’s rebels, and with others competing on the ideological ground of political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood will be hard put to retain the long-term political loyalty of armed groups that have not sprung directly from its own ranks.
Raphaël Lefèvre is a Gates Scholar and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Ashes of Hama: the Perilous History of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood (London, Hurst & Co., forthcoming February 2013).
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