Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood faces uphill battle

A Syrian rebel played soccer in Aleppo in January. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood is finding it difficult to rebuild its base with the young revolutionaries of today.
Andoni Lubacki/Associated Press
A Syrian rebel played soccer in Aleppo in January. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood is finding it difficult to rebuild its base with the young revolutionaries of today.

BEIRUT — For Syria’s banned Muslim Brotherhood, the uprising against President Bashar Assad that erupted amid Arab Spring revolts in 2011 provided a long-sought opportunity to stage a comeback after decades in exile.

Thirty years earlier, the group’s own violent uprising against Assad’s father, the late Hafez Assad, was brutally crushed, culminating in an infamous massacre in the city of Hama that ended with the group’s leadership killed, imprisoned, or exiled.

Amid the chaos of the current revolt, the group quickly emerged as the best organized of Assad’s political opponents and is playing an increasingly active role on the ground by providing assistance to military brigades it supports.


It faces enormous challenges in the months ahead, however.

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The downfall of the Brotherhood in Egypt has shaken its Syrian counterpart. It has also deepened distrust of the secretive movement by other Syrians who are suspicious of its religious agenda.

Inside Syria, the group faces an uphill battle trying to rebuild its base with the young revolutionaries of today, many of whom view its leadership as aging and out of touch after years away from the country. Moreover, the self-described moderate Islamic group faces fierce competition from better equipped hard-line Salafi fighters and Al Qaeda extremists who have emerged as a major force in the rebel ranks.

‘‘Despite its rich history of involvement in Syrian politics, for some, the Brotherhood continues to be viewed as a foreign entity merely representing a local branch of the Egyptian movement,’’ said Raphael Lefevre, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center and author of the book ‘‘Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.’’

‘‘To win hearts and minds, the Syrian group needs to move more decisively to define itself in the context of its own considerable history,’’ he said.


Leaders of the Syrian Brotherhood and activists inside Syria say the group has been actively working in that direction. In addition to its pivotal role in shaping and influencing the opposition abroad, it has stepped up relief assistance to rebel-held areas inside the country and its leaders have made several trips to opposition areas in the north in an attempt to reconnect with residents in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, once considered strongholds of the group. In February, the group launched al-Ahed, a newspaper that now distributes 10,000 copies bi-weekly in opposition territory. Sheik Hatem al-Tabshi, head of the Brotherhood’s Shura Council, preaches in the city of Maarat al-Numan and is seen in videos holding meetings with fighters in the area.

Most significantly, an umbrella group of brigades known as the Shields of the Revolution has emerged as a military force closely affiliated with the group, although Brotherhood officials deny any formal ties. Activists, however, say the group is preparing to formally launch its military branch in the country.

‘‘It is not easy to reconnect and restore our presence after 30 years of absence,’’ acknowledged Omar Mushaweh, who heads the group’s media communications department. ‘‘It requires time, but we have a strong history in Syria and we will get there despite the smear campaign against us,’’ he said from his base in Turkey.