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SYRIA : Wither the Syrian Muslim Brothers?

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Talia al MukatilaThrough a mixture of subtlety and intransigence, President Hafez Assad has for the time being broken the back of the Moslem Brotherhood, regarded not so long ago as the most destabilising challenge to his authority.

One faction of the Syrian Moslem Brothers, backed by the Brotherhood’s pan-Arab international organisation, has been cornered into endless (and so far fruitless) negotiations with the government. Another faction has sought the protection of Iraq, but appears to be virtually impotent. Meanwhile, the military wing of the Syrian Brotherhood is for all intent and purpose out of action.

Assad scented victory when he managed to get a delegation of Moslem Brothers to meet his representatives in January 1985 in Frankfurt. Ali Duba, head of Military Intelligence, brought two of the regime’s security “specialists” on the Brotherhood, Colonel Hassan Khalil and Major Issam Bucktiar, to the negotiating table with Hassan Huweidi, then general supervisor of the Syrian Brotherhood, and one of his deputies, Munir Radban. The meeting was something of a coup for Assad, since it came less than three years after the bloody events in Hama.

Debating future strategy

Said HawaFor months, the leadership of the Brotherhood -- based chiefly in Iraq and Saudi Arabia -- had been debating future strategy. The organisation’s consultative council and its political bureau were deeply divided over the question of talking to the government. The split has persisted until today, and Assad has exploited it skilfully.

On the one hand, Hassan Huweidi and Ali Bayanuni argued that some sort of negotiations were imperative. They stressed the practical problems faced by rank and file members. Many of them had been forced to leave everything (homes, jobs, sometimes fortunes) after Hama and now lived the dismal existence of exiles in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Hundreds more were prisoners of the regime of whose fate little or nothing was known. As Ali Bayanuni is reported to have told his colleagues in the leadership late in 1984: “We have to re-evaluate our resources and facilities. Do they permit us to achieve our goal of overthrowing the regime? If they don’t, we have no alternative but to talk”.

Adnan Saadeddin, then deputy supervisor and head of the political bureau, was deeply opposed to the idea of negotiations. But the vote went against the hardliners, and Adnan Saadeddin had to admit the delegation sent to Frankfurt was legitimately constituted. Despite rumours to the contrary, however, he strongly denies taking part in the talks with Ali Duba and his associates: “There is nothing to discuss with these criminals; they are not a government, they are a mafia”.

Adnan SaadeddinIn the event, Adnan Saadeddin’s scepticism seems to have been justified. Hassan Huweidi presented Ali Duba with a long list of demands, including a general amnesty, freedom for all political prisoners, abrogation of martial law, free general elections and freedom of religion. According to witnesses of the meeting, Ali Duba virtually laughed in the Brothers’ faces. He is said to have been “arrogant and haughty”, telling the opposition delegation that he was only there to lay down conditions for their return to Syria. These included a complete report on all their past activities in the country.

A crisis within the Brotherhood

The failure of the meeting led to a crisis within the Brotherhood. Hassan Huweidi resigned, but when the consultative council met in June 1985, it was unable to agree on a successor. The international organisation of the Moslem Brothers stepped in and appointed Munir Radban, who had participated in the Frankfurt talks. However, he was unable to impose his authority on what was now a paralysed Syrian Brotherhood.

The crisis came to a head at an election for the post of general supervisor held in Bagdad in May 1986. Out of 1.855 votes cast, the hardline Adnan Saadeddin received 822, while 903 went to his more conciliatory opponent, Sheikh Abu Gouddeh. Since there were 89 blank votes, neither candidate had the statutory 50 % required to win. So the international leadership stepped in again, decided the blank votes should not be counted and awarded Sheikh Abu Gouddeh 51,1 % of the poll. Incensed, Adnan Saadeddin turned to his supporters and simply had himself proclaimed general supervisor of the Moslem Brothers in Syria.

Since then the two factions have laid claim to be the legitimate Syrian Moslem Brotherhood. Adnan Saadeddin is based in Bagdad and is obliged to follow the Iraqi line closely, especially on matters such as the Gulf war and the political import of the Iranian revolution. The moderates, headed by Sheikh Abu Gouddeh, Hassan Huweidi, Munir Radban and Ali Bayanuni, have taken refuge in Saudi Arabia with the backing of the international organisatioon of the Brotherhood.

For Hafez Assad, this has consecrated his success in neutralising the Brotherhood. The political wing is irrevocably  split. The movement’s  historical leader, Issam al Attar, has lived in exile for a long time in Germany and now plays no part in its activities. The military wing (Talia al Mukatila, the Fighting Vanguard) has been crippled since its leader, Adnan Okla, was lured back to Syria by a government agent and disappeared from sight.

Is this the end for the Syrian Brotherhood? Probably not entirely. There remains a strong undercurrent of religious fundamentalism inside Syria waiting to be exploited again, and some secret Brotherhood cells are thought to remain. But Hafez Assad can relax. For the foreseeable future, any challenge to his rule will not come from the Brothers. Meanwhile, he can afford to tantalise the moderates with the prospect of a settlement. Ali Duba is reported to have met Sheikh Abu Gouddeh three times in Germany last year. Predictably, the regime continued to be intransigent.

(The Middle East magazine, April 1988)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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