Islamists gaining ground

The US seems happy to see the Muslim Brotherhood gaining influence in Damascus, writes Yassamine Mather

It may only be a matter of time before the Assad regime in Syria collapses and Sunni Islamist fundamentalists backed by the US/UK, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others are in power in Damascus. If that happens, the Shia states of Iran and occupied Iraq, which have backed Bashar al-Assad, would have lost a close ally.

While no-one should have any illusions about the Assad dynasty and its dictatorial rule, the Syrian opposition forces jostling for power seem to be as bad or even worse. Even the enemies of the Syrian regime seem alarmed by the atrocities committed by some of its fundamentalist opponents and the uncertainty Assad’s downfall would bring to the region. There is the possibility that a sectarian civil war in Syria would spill beyond its national borders.

No country is more vulnerable than Lebanon, whose political class is divided along pro- and anti-Syrian regime lines. There has been tension on the border, as Syrian forces have shelled Lebanese towns and villages and infiltrated areas in pursuit of rebels who have sought refuge in villages nearby. For now, Lebanon’s political factions have avoided a flare-up between the Sunni and Shia populations. However, a desperate Syrian regime might try to export its crisis to Lebanon and beyond.

Non-Arab Iran remains Assad’s main ally, but Assad’s downfall would create an upheaval that would shift the balance of power in the region in favour of Iran’s enemies: the Sunni Gulf states (the main supporters of the Syrian opposition). Tehran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, now the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon, would also be weakened.

However, even in Tehran fear of a protracted Syrian civil war has changed the country’s attitude towards Assad. Together with Russia, the Iran regime seems to be reluctantly accepting his inevitable departure. Early this year a close ally of Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Khamenei, was quoted as saying that Iran will stand by Assad come what may. Clearly this is no longer the position. The severity of the latest wave of EU/US sanctions is forcing Iran’s clerical rulers to be more concerned about their own survival than the fate of Syrian Alawites. And many Iranians would be happy to see the end of the Syrian regime, hoping it would result in a new domino effect, with the collapse of dictatorships across the region’s capitals, including Tehran.

So who was Hafez Al Assad and how did a supposedly Arab ‘socialist state’ disintegrate into a dynastical tyranny? And who are the various organisations and individuals promoted by the western media as Syrian ‘freedom fighters’?

Dynasty and opposition

Bashar’s father, Hafez Al Assad, is supposedly the man who brought stability to Syria and established it as a regional power. He and other officers joined forces to resurrect the Syrian Ba’ath Party during the short-lived union between Syria and Egypt in the 1958-61 United Arab Republic.

The Ba’athists took power in 1963 and Assad became commander of the air force, and later minister of defence. After a coup against his political mentor, Salah al-Jadid, in November 1970 Hafez Assad became prime minister and in 1971 was nominated president. He relied heavily on both the Syrian military and Soviet aid - Syria was a classic example of the ‘non-capitalist road to development’.1 Political opponents were arrested, tortured and executed. When the Muslim Brotherhood mounted a rebellion in 1982, Assad’s army ruthlessly suppressed it - some 20,000 lives were lost it is claimed.

His heir-apparent was his oldest son, Bassel Assad, but he was killed in a car accident in 1994. At his funeral Hafez Assad announced the decision to make Bashar his successor. His rule, like that of his father’s, relied on three principal groups: first and foremost, his own family and the minority Alawite sect to which they belonged; secondly other minority groups, like the Christians, who were also fearful of possible repression at the hands of the Sunni Muslim majority; and finally Sunnis outside the Syrian elite - those who by joining the Ba’ath party or working their way up in the ranks of the army have succeeded in moving up the social and economic ladder.

According to Robert Fisk, Saudi Arabia and Qatar make no secret of the funds and weapons they are running into Turkey and Lebanon for the opposition.2 One of the two organisations that claimed responsibility for last week’s Damascus bombing is the Salafist Liwa Islam (the Islam Brigade). This group has already forbidden alcohol where it has gained a foothold. Sections of the western media, eager for Assad’s downfall, seem to be completely deaf and blind to the religious fanatic tendencies and political charlatanism of many of the forces.

While travelling in the region of Homs, a German journalist, Alfred Hackensberger, heard horrifying stories about the conduct of the rebels. He was told that in the city of Qusayr not only were Christians expelled from the town, but anyone who refused to enrol their children in the Free Syrian Army had been shot. Hackensberger repeats the story he had heard about an armed group stopping a bus: “The passengers were divided into two groups: on the one side, Sunnis; on the other, Alawis … the insurgents then proceeded to decapitate the nine Alawi passengers.”3

Despite these well documented atrocities, news programme give prominence to ‘democracy activists’ and ‘experts on Syria’, who tell us about the progressive nature of the opposition. As a writer in The Guardian’s comment pages wrote last week, “it’s important to stress: to investigate the background of a Syrian spokesperson is not to doubt the sincerity of his or her opposition to Assad. But a passionate hatred of the Assad regime is no guarantee of independence. Indeed, a number of key figures in the Syrian opposition movement are long-term exiles who were receiving US government funding to undermine the Assad government long before the Arab spring broke out.”4

So let us look at the main US-funded regime change force.

Syrian National Council

This is by far the largest opposition grouping, uniting a number of political forces. Western leaders often refer to the SNC as the government in waiting. In February 2012 at the opening of the Friends of Syria summit in Tunisia, William Hague declared: “I will meet leaders of the Syrian National Council in a few minutes time … We, in common with other nations, will now treat them and recognise them as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

According to its own website, the SNC has a “military bureau” liaising with the different armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army, and planning an “overall strategy for armed resistance that best serves the Syrian Revolution”. It will “work on maintaining peace and stability after the fall of the Assad regime in order to safeguard the nation against chaos and infiltrators who attempt to cause instability”. It also has a “business council” representing a “coalition of a wide range of businessmen and women who decided to take a firm stand against the Assad regime and offer a strong commitment to secure financial stability for a safe transition out of this regime”.5

One of the main organisations within the SNC is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. So here we have the three components ideal for US regime change: the army, business and Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood of Syria is very loosely affiliated to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.6

Founded before the end of World War II, the group was banned by the Ba’athist government in 1963. The Brotherhood played a major role in the mainly Sunni-based resistance movement that opposed the Ba’ath Party following the Hama uprising of 1982.

According to Patrick Martin, writing in The Globe and Mail, July 21, Islamist fighters are “flocking to Syria”: “In the 1980s, it was Afghanistan to which international Islamic fighters came, helping the mujahedeen successfully take on the Soviet army and its puppet regime in Kabul. Then came Bosnia in the 1990s and Iraq in the 2000s, in both of which veteran jihadists fought a sectarian war on behalf of outgunned Sunni minorities. In 2012, they’re flocking to Syria.

“With funding from private organisations in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait, they are making their way across the frontiers from Iraq and Jordan, hooking up with opposition elements in Syria and taking the battle to Damascus and the heart of the regime of president Bashar al-Assad … To them, the real target is Shi’ism, and Iran, and the crescent of Shia forces from Tehran to Beirut.”7

Christians in Syria have been particularly hit by what is being described as “ethnic cleansing” - conducted not by Syrian security forces, but by western-backed death squads working under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

Although the foot soldiers of the Syrian opposition are Islamists, the political leaders and spokespersons of SNC present a different image. One of the most senior of the SNC’s official spokespeople is Bassma Kodmani, who in 2005 fronted the Arab Reform Initiative. The ARI was established by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank promoting market liberalisation.

Another SNC spokesperson is Radwan Ziadeh of the Washington think tank, the US Institute of Peace. Then there is Ausama Monajed, who is often seen on BBC, Sky and CNN explaining why “the world must intervene in Syria” and demanding “direct military assistance” and “foreign military aid”. Monajed was a leading figure in the Movement for Justice and Development, which has been financed to the tune of $6 million by the state department since 2006.

So let us recap. The ‘war on terror’, following the atrocities of September 11 2011, led to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Ironically the collapse of the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad gave Shia Islam, firmly in control in Iran, an unprecedented boost. Over the last few years the US and its Gulf allies, led by Saudi Arabia, have done all in their power to reverse this situation. The collapse of the Syrian regime will see the Muslim Brotherhood, with its open connections to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, in power in Egypt and Syria. In order to retain its hegemony the United States seems to be strengthening the very enemy its ‘war on terror’ was supposed to destroy: ‘Islamic extremism’.

Iran in denial?

As the SNC continues its push in Syria, the situation in Iran is worsening by the minute. July 23 saw food riots in the north-western city of Neyshabour, where crowds turned on the regime’s bassij militia and the following day there were large demonstrations in the provincial capital of Mashad.

Since early July, Iranians have been preoccupied by what has become known as the country’s ‘chicken crisis’. The soaring price of this staple food used in many of the country’s dishes has become a hot topic of public debate. Everyone in authority has intervened on the subject, with grand ayatollah Mokaram Shirazi advising Iranians to become “vegetarians” (an echo of a similar piece of advice offered by Farah Diba, the wife of the shah, a few months before his regime was overthrown in 1979).

Police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam urged television stations to avoid broadcasting images of people eating chicken - such pictures could stir up social tensions. He was widely quoted as saying: “Certain people witnessing this class gap between the rich and the poor might grab a knife and think they will get their share from the wealthy.”

The price of a chicken is now three times what it was last year, at around 65,000 rials (just over $5). Of course, chicken is not the only food item with an exorbitant price. Iran’s currency has been dropping in value since July 1, when the second round of EU sanctions came into effect. The exchange rate for the rial is now more than 40% lower against the dollar than it was in January.

Until a couple of weeks ago regime leaders would routinely claim that the growing sanctions against Iran have had no effect on the country. But since the EU embargo on Iranian oil and a ban on insuring oil shipments they have been forced to admit the truth. The minister of industries and mines, Mehdi Ghazanfari, warned: “The enemy has put his fingers on the main arteries of the country’s economy ... Today we are in a serious and dangerous confrontation.”

The worsening economic situation in Iran might provoke major protests, but unlike in Syria it is more and more difficult to find expressions of enthusiasm for the political programme of Sunni Islam. All the nationalities living within Iran’s border are united on one issue: they have had enough of Sharia law and religious diktat. At least there is one country in the Middle East where secularism is gaining ground.


1. For more on this see www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13523278808414922.

2. R Fisk, ‘If Alawites are turning against Assad then his fate is sealed’: www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-if-alawites-are-turning-against-assad-then-his-fate-is-sealed-7965154.html.

3. http://en.ammonnews.net/article.aspx?articleNO=17300.

4. www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/12/syrian-opposition-doing-the-talking.

5. www.syriancouncil.org.

6. See O Carré, G Michaud Les Frères musulmans: Egypte et Syrie (1928-1982) Paris 1983.

7. www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/islamic-fighters-flocking-to-syria/article4432160.