Signs of dialogue with exiled opposition 27 years after Hamas massacre.
By an IWPR-trained reporter (SB No. 75, 09-Sep-09)
Syria appears to be planning to open a dialogue with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, MB, to pre-empt the Islamisation of society and the rise of Islamic groups in countries around Syria, local political analysts say.
The regime is said to be concerned about growing fundamentalism. “Syrian society is witnessing a return to religion to face the difficulties of life,” said one analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It also sees MB branches becoming increasingly influential in neighbouring countries like Jordan and Egypt, he said. Even Iraq and Turkey are currently ruled by Islamist groups, he added.
The analysts said a number of moves in the past months could signal that the leaders of the organisation – who live in exile in Europe and in some Arabic countries – were inching towards less hostile relations with Damascus.
Earlier this year, the MB announced that it would suspend all “opposition activities” against Syrian authorities as a display of unity in the face of the Israeli attack on the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
In April, the organisation withdrew from the National Salvation Front, a coalition of exiled Syrian opposition groups formed in 2006 and grouping Islamist, secular and Kurdish dissidents.
The coalition had stated as its main objective changing the Syrian regime by peaceful means.
The MB explained its withdrawal from the group in a statement saying that the coalition proved it was unable to achieve its national goals.
The Syrian branch of the organisation issued a statement in August confirming its earlier decision to suspend hostile activities against the regime in Damascus. The group said that it wanted "to give a true and honest chance for breaking the circle of evil enveloping the Syrian people for the past 40 years".
But Abdel-Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice-president who is currently in the opposition, accused the Islamist group in a newspaper interview in April of establishing contacts with the regime in Syria.
He said that meetings were being held in an Arab country to prepare for reconciliation between the two parties.
Attempts by IWPR to contact the Muslim Brotherhood’s exiled leadership in London for comment were unsuccessful.
A number of Arab media reports said in August that prominent Syrian opposition figures are expected to return to Syria soon.
Another leading opposition figure said that he had information indicating that Turkish figures as well as Islamist groups in Jordan were mediating an easing of relations between the MB and Damascus.
Talks between the government and the organisation were also reported by private United States-based intelligence organisation Stratfor in January.
“The negotiations now appear to have reached a more critical stage and are focused more on following the Jordanian model of working with the more moderate elements of the MB as a way of containing the Islamist populace,” it said.
The report argued that as a minority regime, the Alawite-Baathist leadership had always supported more radical Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah to maintain its legitimacy in the eyes of Syria’s sizable Islamist community.
But now that Syria was trying to pursue peace negotiations with Israel it needed to distance itself from these radical groups and approach more moderate Islamist trends "to maintain its credibility and safeguard the regime from popular backlash".
In the early 1980s, the MB was in open armed revolt against the government, culminating in an insurrection in the town of Hama in 1982 which was violently crushed by the army, killing many thousands.
A Kurdish activist, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the withdrawal of the MB from the main opposition coalition abroad was probably the result of a “deal” between authorities and the Islamist group.
He said he believed the Syrian regime was ready to give the MB some legitimacy in return for the Islamists taking a stand against the democratic secular opposition in the country.
The activist argued that the regime in Syria allowed religious institutions to exist but repressed non-religious civil society groups.
Most recently, a widely circulated media report said that the Syrian authorities were planning to cancel a law that allows the death penalty for anyone found to be a member of the MB.
The Arab news website Al-Bawaba in an August 29 article quoted unnamed Syrian and Arab sources as saying that a legal committee formed by the Syrian Baath party command had just finished drafting a proposal to revoke the law in question.
The website, which describes itself as a portal for Middle East news and information and has offices in a number of Arab countries, said that this was a preparatory step for the return of some of the MB cadres to Syria.
The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, at a news conference the next morning denied any knowledge of what was reported.
Although the regime has not carried out capital punishment against any alleged member of the MB in recent years, it continues to arrest any individuals or groups suspected of political Islamist activity.
“The Syrian regime has succeeded in causing the opposition abroad to splinter after crushing all internal opposition,” said a Damascus-based political analyst, who asked not to be named.
He added that the Syrian regime could be trying to control religious movements to use them as a bargaining chip in its relations with the West.
Some critics, however, believe that it is unrealistic to expect any warming of relations between the MB and the Syrian government.
A former Kurdish dissident did not trust the regime to change its colours and said it was not ready for dialogue with political groups that oppose or criticise it.
The system in Syria is not open to the existence of political groups other than the one in power, he said.