The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria: the past informing the present
As the Arab Uprisings spread across the Middle East in January 2011, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders gathered in a town a few hundred kilometres from Istanbul for their monthly meeting. The group had been in exile for the nearly three decades since their failed previous uprising, and its leaders and members were now scattered across the world. For the first time in many years however, the Brothers had reason to be hopeful …
… A new item was quickly added to the Syrian Brothers’ January meeting agenda: the leaders would discuss what to do if the wider Arab unrest spread to Syria.
So begins Dr Dara Conduit’s new book The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, an indispensable guide into the history of the Brotherhood and their role in the recent Syrian conflict.
Published in August by Cambridge University Press, the book is a continuation of Dr Conduit’s PhD research that she began in 2013 – two years into the Syrian War – and completed in 2017 when she graduated from Monash University.
“I decided to research the Brotherhood because at the time they were probably the most famous opposition group in Syria – the one group that everybody knew about. Yet I was struck by the reality that even in 2013—two years into the uprising—their message and goals didn’t seem to have resonated in Syria. I wanted to know why.” said Dr Conduit.
Throughout their 30-year period of exile, Dr Conduit claims that the Brotherhood’s primary goal was to return to Syria, and that the 2011 uprising was the opportunity that they weren’t able to harness, despite the fact that they were the Assad regime’s best known and best resourced opponents.
“It was a mix of historical experiences, political contexts and deep-seated political wounds that strongly influenced the Brotherhood’s entrance into – and subsequent underperformance in – the uprising.”
Now an Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute, Dr Conduit is a leading expert on the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, currently working as a political scientist within the Middle East Studies Forum research network.
Who are the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria?
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was founded in the mid-1940s with close links to the broader Muslim Brotherhood movement. Within its first few years of existence, the Brotherhood was elected to parliament and continued to field parliamentary representatives throughout much of Syria’s democratic era before the current regime took power.
“These early years were foundational to the development of the Brotherhood. Its leaders had quite moderate ideas and were very open to the concepts of democracy and participating in the parliament. Several of the Brotherhood’s leaders were parliamentary deputies themselves. This reflected a consistent thread in Syrian Islamist thought prior to the Brotherhood as well,” said Dr Conduit.
“After the Ba’th regime came to power in 1963, the Brotherhood was outlawed and over the two decades that followed, it radicalised and splintered – particularly within its grassroots. From 1976 onwards, the Fighting Vanguard splinter faction undertook a targeted assassination campaign against regime officials.”
But it wasn’t just splinter factions that were responsible for the violence. Between 1979 and 1982, the Brotherhood too was involved in grave violence, which peaked in 1982 with the Hama uprising and subsequent massacre – an incident that has permanently scarred the Brotherhood well into the 21st century. Although most of the group disavowed violence after 1982, Dr Conduit found that some members continued to prosecute their armed campaign against the regime well into the mid-1980s.
“Between 1979 and 1982, the Brotherhood too was involved in grave violence, which peaked in 1982 with the Hama uprising and subsequent massacre – an incident that has permanently scarred the Brotherhood well into the 21st century.”
The price of history
Dr Conduit undertook meticulous research over many years to get the holistic view of the Brotherhood’s history right up to 2019. This included analysing primary documents published and issued by the Brotherhood, undertaking in-depth interviews with Brotherhood members from across the generations and Syrian opposition figures, as well as extensive archival research.
The picture of the Brotherhood she is able to draw from her research is one of a group that has been heavily shaped by its historical experiences, including one particular moment in its history.
“The Hama massacre is probably the most famous incident in Syrian pre-2011 political history,” said Dr Conduit. “Up to 30,000 people, including roughly a thousand government soldiers, were killed in a siege that lasted over three weeks in February of 1982.”
“When the uprising began, militants in Hama rose up against the government, putting out a call for a general mobilisation of the population over the minarets of the city’s mosques. The government responded by closing off all of the roads and access to the city, cutting all telephone connections, and besieging the city in one of the most violent incidents seen in Syria’s history to that point.”
Dr Conduit says that this historical period left a huge toll on the Brotherhood, a much greater toll than she had expected it would.
“My analysis showed that the Brotherhood is not the ultra-radical, irrational violent group that the Hama lens made it out to be, but I was surprised to find that the group’s experience of violence remained central to its existence.”
“I felt that the Hama uprising played too central a role in narratives surrounding the Brotherhood, which saw it depicted it as this one-dimensional violent and dogmatic group. I wanted to examine the Brotherhood from a wider aperture that viewed the group as the sum of many parts, contexts and experiences over history.”
“Although I do not wish to whitewash the Brotherhood’s responsibility for its role in the violence during this era, the period was relatively short compared to its now 70-year history, and took place in the context of, and as a response to, a really brutal authoritarian regime.”
“My analysis showed that the Brotherhood is not the ultra-radical, irrational violent group that the Hama lens made it out to be, but I was surprised to find that the group’s experience of violence remained central to its existence. In the decades of exile that followed the violence, the group never seriously answered questions about how it had diverged so far from its original path in the Syrian parliament, who was to blame, and how they could prevent it from happening again.”
“It also was deeply shaped by its experiences as an opposition to an authoritarian regime.”
“These threads combined to ultimately stunt the group’s ability to organise and to build new constituencies.”
With the experiences leaving such a permanent and damaging mark on the group, Dr Conduit believes that when the time came in 2011 to join the new uprising, the group’s leadership were paralysed with fear, not willing to commit for fear of repeating their past mistakes.
Where to for the Brotherhood?
As the Syrian uprising and conflict changes gear, Dr Conduit believes that the Brotherhood will face new challenges because of their lack of action in the conflict.
“In some ways, because the Brotherhood only had limited engagement in the armed aspect of the conflict, it will be protected from criticisms that will be levelled at other parts of the opposition, including those groups on both sides of the conflict that were involved in egregious human rights abuses.”
“But on the other hand, the Brotherhood will be called out because—unlike in previous times of unrest in Syria—it hasn’t been seen to have made a major contribution on the ground. They, along with the broader exiled opposition, are often called ‘The Opposition of the Hotels’. They’re seen to have sat in the comfort of hotels in Doha and Istanbul while Syrian civilians suffered on the ground, and this has been immensely damaging for their image.”
“Its behaviour in relation to other opposition groups, particularly its attempts to monopolise power, has also won it few friends among the organised opposition.”
The other challenge the Brotherhood faces is the transfer to the next generation of leaders. Dr Conduit says that much like their parents, the younger generation are highly educated and articulate but frustrated by the Brotherhood’s performance in the uprising and the reticence of senior leadership to hand over power to the next generation.
“In the end, the Syrian people deserved so much better than the government and opposition that they have been dealt.”
“The leadership still includes many people who were involved in events of the 1980s, and there’s a perception that because they ‘suffered’ through that period, that they deserve to retain control over the group. Many members of the younger generation disagree with this sentiment, and believe they could have mounted a more effective response to the Syrian uprising had they been in charge.”
“In the end, the Syrian people deserved so much better than the government and opposition that they have been dealt. While these political organisations and armed factions have been consumed by these internal and external wars, the Syrian population has paid a massive humanitarian price, and will continue to pay that price for decades.”