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More on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and its Withdrawal from National Salvation Front

April 6, 2009

I reported yesterday that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood withdrew from the Opposition National Salvation Front led by Abd al-Halim Khadam last week.  A number of recent articles in the Arab press are worth mentioning.  Also, Prof. Landis at Syria Comment offers some remarks here.

In an-Nahar [by way of] Muhammad Sayid Rasas places the Brotherhood’s shift in the recent historical and political context of the region.  In their 2001 “Pact of National Honor” the Syrian Muslim Brothers rejected violence in favor of democracy, thereby bringing their program closer to the burgeoning liberal Syrian opposition than the ideology of Sayyid Qutb.  This marked a radical reversal of the violent opposition that the organization practiced for much of Hafiz al-Assad’s tenure.

This trend towards moderation continued as the Brothers deepened their ties with other opposition groups, supporting the 2005 “Damascus Declaration” and then in 2006 aligning with Khadam’s National Salvation Front.  Rasas makes a compelling case that these events were primarily driven by regional politics and US foreign policy, rather than domestic factors.  He cites the US invasion of Iraq and subsequent democracy promotion, the US position in favor of “political change” in Syria, and communications between the Egyptian embassy and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, as factors encouraging the Syrian Brotherhood’s efforts to moderate and establish a relationship with Washington.  This phase of the Brotherhood culminated in the June 4, 2006 alignment with Khadam and the National Salvation Front.

Rasas then argues that the July War between Hezbollah and Lebanon marked the beginning of the end for the American backed effort “to reform the region”, which ever since has been in retreat and on the defensive.  Thus, Bayanouni, the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brothers, has sought since January 2009 to distance himself from his alliance with the National Salvation Front and the signers of the Damascus Declaration, realizing that it had become his “death bed”.  In other words, Rasas explains the 2001-2009 phase of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood by the broader trends in regional Middle East politics.

Broadly, this does seem to square with Bayanouni’s comments in Asharq al-Awsat’s piece, where he cites a desire to prioritize Gaza and the Palestinian resistance.  Thus in light of Rasas’s piece, it seems that Bayanouni has read which way the wind is blowing.  He observes the US and Europe’s willingness to hold talks with the Syrian President and understands what this portends for future Western support of Syrian dissidents.

In a piece at Elaph [courtesy of] Nidal N’aisa offers a different perspective.  N’aisa sees Walid Moualim’s recent statement on al-Jazeera that a rapprochement may be possible if the Brotherhood ends its foreign alliances with Syria’s enemies as one of the primary factors driving the Brotherhood’s recent shift.

Frankly, both explanations, Rasas’s focus on international politics and N’aisa’s focus on a domestic shift in the Syrian regime’s position towards the Brotherhood, are relevant.  First, Rasas explains a larger structural dynamic in the region that has been at play in recent years.  This has led to a narrowing of the likelihood of Western support and a greater inclination on the part of the Brothers to seek rapprochement with Damascus.  Second, the Syrian regime’s overtures suggest that Damascus may genuinely be interested in making amends with the Brotherhood.  Though al-Assad will only follow through if he believes that he can completely neuter the Brotherhood as a serious threat.  Third, in my view jockeying for power between the Brotherhood and Khadam’s National Salvation Front in all likelihood also contributed to the fallout.

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Syria: engagement at expense of democratic dissidents?
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