Helping Islamists Take Syria

Secular activists struggle to save their country from both Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The U.S. is calling on Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to step down and is increasingly persuaded that the uprising against his rule will be victorious. As the world wonders who will replace the regime, an Islamist-dominated group called the Syrian National Council is being embraced by Turkey and the Obama administration State Department. Genuine secular forces, meanwhile, are being left to the wayside as they struggle to save their country from both Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has stated, “We have a desire to coordinate the position of the opposition.” With support from the Turkish government and a naïve U.S. State Department, it can achieve this objective. On September 15, opposition activists formed the Syrian National Council in Istanbul, the latest in a long list of umbrella groups to be formed since the uprising began.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a secular democratic activist based in the U.S., published a list of some of the members. Of the 71 named, 34 are Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood has not officially joined the alliance, but many members of it have.  The composition of the Syrian National Council is frightening other opposition groups who do not want Syria to become the next Gaza Strip. A leader of the leftist Kurdish Party said, “Turkey supports the Islamists in Syria and puts them out front. These Syrian opposition meetings in Turkey prevent the creation of a democratic, pluralistic Syria in which the rights of the Kurds are constitutionally protected and they are recognized as the second largest ethnicity in the country.”

Shockingly, the U.S. State Department and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Hamas-tied front for the Muslim Brotherhood, are together supporting the Syrian National Council. On September 24, the Los Angeles chapter of CAIR held a townhall event featuring a member of the SNC and Frederic C. Hof from the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for the Middle East. This isn’t the first time the U.S. has supported the Islamist opposition in Syria. Files released by WikiLeaks show that the State Department funded the Movement for Justice and Development. The group split from the Muslim Brotherhood and was described in the files as “liberal, moderate Islamists” who sought to “marginalize” the Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, genuinely secular forces seeking to topple the Assad dictatorship are not embraced. European governments have urged these forces to unite in order to compete with the Islamists. On September 17, the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians formed in Paris. “We are all against totalitarianism in any form, and that includes Islamist rule,” spokeswoman Randa Qassis declared.

Abdulhamid told FrontPage that real secular alternatives to the Syrian National Council exist and its influence is being exaggerated. “Opposition councils are now two dime a dozen, they have failed to bring unity or to form a working group worthy of the name. They have contributed to increasing schisms within the ranks of protest leaders inside the country,” he said.

The Reform Party of Syria, a U.S.-based secular opposition group, insists that the U.S. must reach out to the secularists to prevent the Islamists from taking control of the opposition. RPS estimates that only 20 percent of the Syrian population is Islamist. Dr. Barry Rubin, an opponent of democracy promotion, agrees, putting his estimate even lower at 15 percent. He feels the Islamists are unlikely to replace Assad. This is partially due to demographics. In Egypt, 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. In Syria, it is 60 percent (the CIA Factbook puts it higher at 74 percent), with the rest being minorities who greatly fear Islamist rule. Many of the Syrian Sunnis are secular. For example, a Sunni cleric that supports the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians insists that there must be separation of mosque and state.

The Assad regime has worked diligently to convince the West that it is the only alternative to Islamist rule in Syria. In 2006, the regime orchestrated riots in response to the Mohammed cartoons to make this point. It claims that the current uprising is an Islamist revolution led by terrorists. Protesters have rejected this accusation, chanting, “We want freedom, not Salafism.” Hanin Ghaddar of NOW Lebanon writes, “If that is accurate, why are they arresting liberal intellectuals and political activists, such as Suhair Atassi and Fayez Sarah? These two have nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalist groups.”

In this case, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is a ferocious enemy of the West with a huge amount of American blood on his hands. He is no friend, but neither are the Islamist elements who want to replace him with a Sharia state. If the U.S. fails to accurately distinguish ally from adversary, then the future of Syria belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood.