Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, July 25th, 2007
Unlikely Allies: To Check Syria, U.S. Explores Bond With Muslim Brothers
— Activist Group Provides Link to Syrian Islamists; Seeking Women's Rights
By Jay Solomon
25 July 2007
The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON — On a humid afternoon in late May, about 100 supporters of Syria's largest exile opposition group, the National Salvation Front, gathered outside Damascus's embassy here to protest Syrian President Bashar Assad's rule. The participants shouted anti-Assad slogans and raised banners proclaiming: "Change the Regime Now."
The NSF unites liberal democrats, Kurds, Marxists and former Syrian officials in an effort to transform President Assad's despotic regime. But the Washington protest also connected a pair of more unlikely players — the U.S. government and the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of the NSF's most influential members is the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — the decades-old political movement active across the Middle East whose leaders have inspired the terrorist groups Hamas and al Qaeda. Its Syrian offshoot says it has renounced armed struggle in favor of democratic reform.
In the months leading up to the May 26 rally, the NSF held a string of meetings with officials from the State Department and the National Security Council. They discussed media and political strategies, and the administration dispatched a camera crew from the U.S. government-funded Al Hurra television station to beam scenes of the rally across the Arab world.
How Bush hard-liners and the Brotherhood's Syrian branch came together is a tale of desperation to keep up the pressure on Mr. Assad, whose regime has weathered all attempts by the U.S. to cripple it in recent years. The unusual relationship is also a measure of the evolving strategies on both sides as they seek ways to counter the Syrian government.
The White House views Syria — along with its allies, Iran and militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas — as a main threat to stability in the Middle East. So it is exploring the potential benefits of engaging with the Brotherhood. Despite its checkered record, the Sunni group could provide a counterweight against the rising influence of Shiite political power in the region. It could also, the reasoning goes, emerge as a force for democratic change.
The U.S. has traditionally avoided contact with the Brotherhood across the Middle East. But now the State Department and National Security Council have begun to hold regular strategy sessions on Syria policy with the NSF and is funding an organization linked to it. Senior officials from the State Department and the National Security Council confirm the meetings. The U.S. has also discussed with the NSF and linked groups ways to monitor elections and promote civil society in Syria.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Carpenter says the U.S. talks "with everyone in the Syrian opposition" to understand what is happening in the country and hasn't bestowed the NSF with special status. The front "is the largest coalition of groups that have come together" to promote democratic change, Mr. Carpenter adds. "It's begun to have its own gravitational pull."
U.S. diplomats and politicians have also met with legislators from parties connected to the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Egypt and Iraq in recent months to hear their views on democratic reforms in the Middle East, U.S. officials say. Last month, the State Department's intelligence unit organized a conference of Middle East experts to examine the merits of engagement with the Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt and Syria.
A Syrian embassy spokesman in Washington, Ahmed Salkini, described the NSF as "an insignificant force," and said Damascus is aware of the NSF's activities and its meetings with the Bush administration. "It's a coalition that lacks any form of legitimacy inside or outside Syria," he said.
Set up in the 1920s by an Egyptian schoolteacher amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders argued that only a society governed by Islamic law could buttress the Muslim world against foreign aggression and internal corruption. A principal credo of founder Hassan al-Banna states, "The Prophet is our leader. Quran is our law."
Branches spread across the Arab world, including Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Though ideologically linked to the Egyptian group, they were largely autonomous. In the Palestinian territories, Muslim Brothers established Hamas in 1987 as a militant response to Israel's occupation; the organization seized control of the Gaza strip this June. The U.S., Europe and Israel designate Hamas as a terrorist organization for its use of suicide attacks.
Today, the Brotherhood's relationship to Islamist militancy, and al Qaeda in particular, is the source of much debate. Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders cite the works of the Brotherhood's late intellectual, Sayyid Qutb, as an inspiration for their crusade against the West and Arab dictators. Members of Egyptian and Syrian Brotherhood arms have also gone on to take senior roles in Mr. bin Laden's movement.
Al Qaeda's leadership, however, has also criticized Brotherhood branches recently for their embrace of democratic elections and dialogue with Western powers. The Brotherhood's modern leadership has renounced al Qaeda's use of violence.
The Brotherhood's Syrian branch was established in the 1940s and won seats in early parliamentary elections and government cabinets. In the 1960s, the Baath party and the Assad family seized power, ushering in a violent chapter in Syrian history. Arms of the Brotherhood assassinated senior military and Baath party officials in the 1970s. Syria made membership in the Brotherhood a capital offense in 1980. In 1982, the regime killed up to 25,000 civilians in the city of Hama, a Brotherhood stronghold, driving many of its leaders into exile.
Syria currently has mixed relations with Islamist groups. Damascus supports the Brotherhood-inspired Hamas, as well as Hezbollah, in their fight against Israel's presence in the region. The U.S. charges Syria with facilitating the entrance of al Qaeda fighters into Iraq, a charge Syria denies. But the staunchly secular regime represses these or other Islamist groups seeking political change within the country.
Among the Syrian exiles pressing for regime change is Ali Sadreddin Al Bayanouni, a lawyer and former bodyguard to Brotherhood officials. Mr. Bayanouni fled to Jordan in 1979 and eventually took over as president of the Brotherhood's Syrian arm. In 2000, Amman expelled him to appease Damascus, and Mr. Bayanouni settled in London. Fit and energetic despite his 69 years, he personifies to many the new, moderate leadership of the Brotherhood.
Though his son-in-law was executed during the 1982 crackdown, Mr. Bayanouni says he rules out armed struggle as a way to change Syria. He advocates the rights of women and ethnic minorities, and envisions a government based on "pluralism and power sharing."
"The Brotherhood has a very moderate understanding of Islam that needs to be taken into account," he says.
The seeds of the NSF were planted four years ago by Abdul Halim Khaddam, who was among the longest-serving senior Baath party officials under late President Hafez Assad.
President Assad died in 2000, replaced by his son Bashar. By 2003, Mr. Khaddam says he believed one-party rule was fueling corruption and wrecking Syria's economy. Mr. Khaddam, then Syria's vice president, secretly contacted Mr. Bayanouni to discuss a rapprochement. Through a third party, Mr. Khaddam says he conveyed his belief that Syria could progress only if the Muslim Brotherhood was brought inside the political system. In 2005, Mr. Khaddam resigned and fled to Paris.
Messrs. Khaddam and Bayanouni formed the NSF in February 2006. The marriage of the Muslim Brothers and breakaway Baathists shocked many in the Arab world. The pair also reached out to the Bush administration, hoping a partnership with the U.S. could increase pressure on President Assad.
Instead of requesting military aid or financing, the group is seeking Washington's help in focusing on Syria's human-rights record. It is pressing for more financial sanctions on President Assad's family. (The U.S. already has some sanctions on Syria, including on senior government officials.) The NSF also wants Washington to give up its historical bias against Islamists in government, saying the Brotherhood could help moderate Damascus's behavior.
"We don't want to see the U.S. give the regime a way out from its violations," Mr. Khaddam says.
An initial contact between the White House and NSF was forged by Najib Ghadbian, a University of Arkansas political scientist. In 2005, Mr. Ghadbian and other Syrian-Americans had set up the Syrian National Council in a bid to influence the U.S. policy debate. Meeting that fall with a senior State Department official, he suggested the U.S. work with his group and its contacts, including the Brotherhood. U.S. officials confirm they were initially resistant to talking with Syrian groups tied to the Brotherhood.
Syrian-Americans were also divided. At a January 2006 conference of Syrian-American activists in Washington, participants debated whether to align with the NSF. The Syrian Reform Party, a group of pro-democracy activists close to the Bush national security team, declined to attend. "We can't trust our future to Islamists," says its president, Farid Ghadry, a regular visitor at the White House. "The Brotherhood will never moderate itself."
Mr. Ghadbian's group, however, decided to join the NSF. Syrian-American activists, he explained, "wouldn't be taken seriously" in the Arab world without ties to arguably the largest group opposing President Assad.
As 2006 progressed, Washington became increasingly concerned about Syria's military alliance with Iran, and the threat it posed to U.S. interests in the region. Damascus and Tehran backed Hezbollah, which fought Israel to a virtual draw that summer. The White House also worried about the threat Syria posed to Lebanon's pro-Western government.
By early summer, the stance of key administration officials — including the White House's chief Middle East adviser, Elliott Abrams — began to shift, say U.S. diplomats and NSF members. The White House's National Security Council quietly vetted Messrs. Bayanouni and Khaddam through retired diplomats and Syrian-American activists, participants in the process say. U.S. officials sought assurance that the Syrian Brotherhood was committed to democracy and had renounced violence. They also hoped Mr. Khaddam could provide information on the inner workings of the Assad regime.
During 2006, Syrian exile and democracy activist Ammar Abdulhamid emerged as one of the NSF's main liaisons with senior White House officials. In the weeks surrounding the Lebanon war, which began in July, Messrs. Abdulhamid and Ghadbian and other Syrian-Americans met with Mr. Abrams's deputies in the Old Executive Office building next to the White House. Through these intermediaries, the White House exhorted the NSF to build a wide coalition of opposition groups and to run it in a transparent and democratic manner, participants say.
The two sides began discussing ways to highlight the problems of Syria's parliamentary and presidential elections, approaching in 2007. The Baathists allowed no candidates from other parties to run in the May 27 presidential poll.
In the weeks before the presidential election, the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, which promotes regional democracy, and NSF members met to talk about publicizing Syria's lack of democracy and low voter turnout, participants say. A Washington-based consulting firm, C&O Resources Inc., assisted the NSF in its planning for the May 26 anti-Assad rally at the Syrian embassy, providing media and political contacts. State Department officials stress they provided no financial or technical support to the protestors.
Turnout for the May 26 rally in Washington was smaller than expected. From behind the windows of Syria's colonial-style embassy building, officials snapped photos of the crowd. Some protesters, worried they could be linked with family members back in Syria, covered their faces with scarves.
The cooperation has come at a price for both sides. The Bush administration has come under fire from critics who point to the Brotherhood's ties to Hamas and al Qaeda. They also argue that any U.S. partnership with the group could destabilize governments in Jordan and Egypt, two U.S. allies where the Brotherhood is a growing opposition force. The U.S. says it is committed to opening political processes across the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bayanouni and the Syrian Brothers have drawn criticism from some Brotherhood leaders in the Middle East, who say contacts with the U.S. discredits their movement. And inside Syria, courts have ordered long prison sentences for three prominent democracy activists in recent weeks, one of whom visited the White House last year.
Senior State Department and National Security Council officials say they haven't ruled out meeting with Mr. Bayanouni and other Brotherhood leaders in the future. Mr. Bayanouni says the cooperation through the NSF is merely a good start. "In the absence of direct dialogue" between the U.S. and the Syrian Brothers, he says, "we believe the American image of the Brotherhood will always remain vague."
Key players in bringing closer the White House and Syria's branch of the
— Abdul Halim Khaddam. Syria's vice president until 2005, when he
expressed distaste for President Bashar Assad's rule and fled to Paris.
Helped form National Salvation Front, a political alliance with the
— Ali Sadreddin Al Bayanouni. Now head of Muslim Brotherhood's Syrian arm,
he fled Syria in 1979 during Damascus's crackdown on the Islamist group.
Joined with Mr. Khaddam to form NSF.
— Najib Ghadbian. An early supporter of U.S. efforts to engage the
Brotherhood, the University of Arkansas political scientist joined the NSF in
early 2006. He argues that the group will have credibility in the Middle East
only with the Brotherhood's participation.
— Ammar Abdulhamid. Syrian exile played a key role in building ties
between the Bush administration and NSF. Democracy activist runs a separate
foundation, Tharwa, which monitors Syria's elections and human rights abuses.
He quit the NSF in June, concerned it wasn't moving aggressively enough to
unseat President Assad.
— Elliott Abrams. Bush's Middle East adviser in the National Security
Council. His office was reluctant to engage the NSF due its links to the
Brotherhood and Khaddam. It warmed amid fears of a threat to U.S. interests
by Syria and Iran.
— Scott Carpenter. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State runs the Middle
East Partnership Initiative to promote democracy in the Islamic world. MEPI
has met regularly with the NSF and funds groups that aid Syrian opposition
groups such as Abdulhamid's Tharwa.