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The SNC met earlier in the week, trying with little success to paper over its differences. The Kurdish delegation walked out in the middle of the conference, claiming their concerns were not being met, while several secular members had quit in disgust last month, saying that the organization was “undemocratic” and was being dominated by Islamists. Working feverishly, Turkish diplomats managed to save the conference from catastrophe by luring back many of those who quit, getting the SNC to agree to expand its membership and try to work more democratically. The Kurds, however, refused to return citing the SNC’s unwillingness to include a reference to Kurdish autonomy in its statement on a post-Assad Syria.
So far, the SNC and the rest of the Syrian opposition has been hopelessly fractured in almost every way — from agreeing on an immediate agenda to help the FSA to violent disagreements over the future of a post-Assad Syria. But there is one group within the SNC that is organized, dedicated to throwing Assad out, and clear about both its immediate goals and long term plans.
The Muslim Brotherhood – once banned in Syria – is on the comeback trail and its resurgence should give Western powers pause before agreeing to arm any of the opposition groups.
The Brotherhood was last seen in Syria during the 1980s when Assad’s father Hafez cracked down on its headquarters in the city of Hama, murdering up to 10,000 during a bloody insurrection. But in reality, the Brothers had never left – they simply went underground. While most of the leaders were in exile, the structure of the group remained intact through a network of cells and activists. It was the same tactic used in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s crackdown and has led to victory at the polls there. While Assad continued to arrest and execute Brotherhood members, he could never stamp out the movement completely.
Now, with the secular opposition in disarray, the Muslim Brotherhood is re-emerging with surprising strength and cohesiveness. Some opposition members say that the Brotherhood is using money and weapons to gain influence in the council, tapping its donor base spread throughout the Middle East. One secular dissident who broke away from the SNC last month, Kamal Labwani, claims the SNC is “a liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood. ” Islamist members of the council deny this, saying that they want a pluralistic Syria where all factions and sects are represented in government.
What’s clear is that at the SNC meeting last week, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced to compromise and expand the SNC to include more secular groups. Of the 350 members of the SNC, it is believed that 270 are Islamists, Salafis, and other Sunni radicals who want to depose Assad both because he is a member of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam and because of his oppression.
This is obvious from the growing radicalism of Sunnis in next door Lebanon. While many Syrian religious figures have stopped short of calling for jihad against Assad, fearing a bloody sectarian conflict, no such restraint has been shown by Lebanese clerics who are urging their flocks to go to war against Assad and “grind him into dog meat.” To that end, several independent battalions of fighters have formed, including the “God is Great” brigade whose fighters march under the black flag of Islamism:
To our fellow revolutionaries, don’t be afraid to declare jihad in the path of God. Seek victory from the One God. God is the greatest champion,” the brigade’s spokesman said in the January video. “Instead of fighting for a faction, fight for your nation, and instead of fighting for your nation, fight for God.
“We don’t want to accidentally wind up supporting extremist groups,” said Joseph Holliday, of the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington. Holliday added, “The fundamental question is: What happens in the future? And does our involvement make this turn better or worse?”
The FSA is not making a distinction between defectors from the army who are fighting for Syria, and groups of radical youths who fight for an Islamist state. They will no doubt distribute arms based on battlefield success. Who is to say whether the independent groups who claim allegiance to the FSA are fighting to depose Assad or “fight for God”?
Then there are the unknown connections that might exist between the opposition and the shadowy terrorist groups who have begun a campaign of bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. A terrorist organization calling itself the Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that killed 27 in Damascus over the weekend. This follows on the heels of several other high profile bombings targeting police stations, intelligence headquarters, and regime supporters. It is also believed that al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch has moved into Syria to assist in overthrowing Assad. Any thought to arming the FSA should take into account the idea that the diffuse leadership of the FSA may contain officers who feel no compunction about working with terrorists to achieve their goals.
As the Syrian revolt gets bloodier, the temptation to give arms to the opposition will grow. But given the re-emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the growing influence of radical Sunnis in the SNC and FSA, and the possibility that heavy weapons would fall into the hands of terrorist groups, that temptation must be resisted and a true democratic opposition to the odious rule of Bashar Assad be encouraged. Whether that is even possible remains the biggest question to be answered if Western countries are going to aid the rebels.
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