Salaheddin, Aleppo

The exiled Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is preparing to exploit the current crisis in the country to make its return, but is unlikely to link up with the most extreme Islamic militants, according to a forthcoming book written by a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

They are rich and well organised and could be a major player in the Syrian conflict.

Raphael Lefevre

Ashes of Hama: The Perilous History of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, by Raphael Lefevre, is to be published in February 2013 and is the first book to explore the history of this secretive Islamic movement.

Exiled for over 30 years, some of the Brotherhood are now returning Syria under cover. Other members are moving closer to Syria, for instance, to Turkey where they can operate openly in the refugee camps.

“They are preparing for a post-Assad Syria,” says Lefevre. “They are rich and well organised and could be a major player in the Syrian conflict in part because the secular opposition is so divided. Islamists in Syria are highly organised because for a long time the mosques have been the only place where public gatherings have been allowed. Friday prayers have been an important focal point.”

The history of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is not well known. Crucial is the 1982 Hama massacre, which Lefevre has written about previously in State and Islam in Ba'athist Syria [http://amzn.to/SZyFbl]. Some 25,000-40,000 people are thought to have died in the massacre when the regime retaliated against a Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising.

The Brotherhood’s leadership has been in exile ever since and a law was passed making membership of the organisation punishable by death.

The legacy of the massacre has major implications for the current situation in Syria.

“People in the streets of Hama and Aleppo not only want revenge for their cousins killed a few months ago in the midst of the Arab Spring, but also want to set the record straight with the regime with regard to past grievances often including the death, torture or imprisonment for life of one their parents or grandparents. That sort of historical narrative is shaping the conflict in Syria and it's one of the issues which makes it so difficult to resolve,” says Lefevre.

However, while the history of the last decades in exile means the Muslim Brotherhood is ready to do whatever it takes to return to Syria, including supporting rebel groups on the ground, particularly those with an Islamist ideology, it also means they are likely to steer clear of Islamic extremists.

“They are careful as to what group they send money and weapons to,” says Lefevre.

“The Syrian Brothers are obsessed with history and, in the past, they struck a deal with an extremist organisation called the Fighting Vanguard to join forces temporarily and topple the regime, but this actually created the right pretext for the regime to crackdown very harshly on the whole Islamic movement. It's a mistake the Syrian Brotherhood is not ready to make again and that's why they are not prepared to finance the most extremist Islamist groups of a jihadist bent.”

Lefevre says that the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to galvanise support from a broad audience since just before 9/11 by conveying a sense of moderation and a message of appeasement. Although there are ideological links between the Brotherhood across the Middle East region, he believes the Syrian movement is primarily a nationalist one and one that is rooted in the democratic system.

“They have first-hand experience of parliamentary democracy in the 1950s and early 1960s and they have worked with minorities including Christians and Alawites,” says Lefevre. “That does provide some sense of reassurance.”

*Ashes of Hama: The Perilous History of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood will be published by Hurst [ http://bit.ly/TjjTPB]


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