The Syrian Brotherhood’s Islamic State challenge

By Raphaël Lefèvre, University of Cambridge

*This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” conference, January 23, 2015.

After three decades in exile, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has been working in recent years to rebuild its influence within Syria. An important part of this effort has consisted of trying to gain a foothold in the military struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In 2012, Brotherhood leaders encouraged the creation of the Commission of the Shields of the Revolution (hayat duru al-thawra), a moderate rebel umbrella gathering dozens of small and mid-size brigades, which started being effective on the ground in 2013.

By early 2015, however, the military activities of the Shields have considerably dwindled. Infighting within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has hampered the expansion of the rebel umbrella. Moreover, Shields brigades have faced financial difficulties as result of Saudi Arabia’s hostile stance against the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2014, some Shields battalions defected and joined other rebel groups. So far, few battalions have pledged allegiance to the more extremist groups that are currently on the rise in Syria, such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. But this could be about to change.

The Rise of the Shields

A handful of armed factions close to the Brotherhood started forming in response to the Assad regime’s crackdown on protests that erupted in March 2011. Most factions were centered in Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria, where, despite their lengthy exile, members of the organization had kept close ties to friends and families as well as to militant networks. As the government’s crackdown continued, these rebels organized and started spreading to other areas of the country. The process came to a head in September 2012 when the Brotherhood gathered all these groups under the more formal umbrella of the Shields. Officially, Brotherhood leaders are still reluctant to acknowledge their special relationship with the Shields. Off the record, however, figures close to the rebel platform admit to taking direct orders from the Brotherhood’s leadership.

In the galaxy of Syrian rebel groups, the Shields belong to the Islamic center. The rebel platform’s founding statement asserts the primacy of opposition bodies recognized and backed by the West, such as the Free Syrian Army and the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. It also stresses that the Shields’ political orientation follows a “moderate and centrist Islamist” approach. This means, in its words, that the group supports the advent of a Syria based on a “democratic and pluralistic institutions” in the context of a political system that would include an “Islamic reference” but would allow “all citizens to enjoy the same rights” regardless of religion or ethnicity. In a bid to clearly disassociate itself from the rhetoric of extremist groups, the Shields’ founding statement also insists on its members’ commitment to “reject all calls of takfeer” and to “limit revolutionary activities to the borders of the Syrian state.”

Throughout 2013, the Shields acquired sophisticated weaponry, including Man Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS), mortars and some tanks. At first acting locally and autonomously from each other, Shields brigades started to coordinate better on the ground and to carry out military operations together. Influential in the countryside of Idlib, Homs and, to a lesser extent, in Aleppo, Hama and the Damascus suburbs, the Shields took on a more pronounced military role in the Syrian conflict. They played a significant role in battles against regime forces in late 2013 and early 2014 on the Homs-Idlib axis with a particular focus on the cities of Khan Sheikhoun, Heish, Morek and in the Qalamoun region at the border between Syria and Lebanon.

The Brotherhood’s Failures

Since then, however, the military activities of the Shields have significantly decreased. A major reason for this has been the toxic state of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s internal politics. A decades-long leadership struggle between the group’s Hama and Aleppo factions, the two blocs vying for power in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, has hampered the expansion of the military platform. Indeed, the Shields, whose creation was encouraged by Riad al-Shuqfah, a Hama-born figure who was leader of the Brotherhood until last summer, was initially opposed by most of the group’s Aleppine figures. Instead, these members chose to either support already existing moderate Islamist rebel groups, such as Liwa al-Tawheed, or to dismiss military work altogether to focus on activities such as dawa, media, charity or politics.

These internal disagreements along Hama/Aleppo lines effectively slowed down the Shields’ expansion in Aleppo and created geographical discrepancies in the way military operations could be carried out. Today, for instance, the Shields can merely count on three brigades based in Aleppo province while it has two dozen rebel groups acting on its behalf in Idlib province. This has prevented the Shields from acting as a coherent national platform. More generally, leadership tensions within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood have also contributed to reducing the appeal of the Shields inside Syria by highlighting the petty disputes, advanced age and lengthy exile of the Brotherhood’s leaders.

In addition, the Shields have faced severe funding difficulties in the past year. Until recently, most of the funds the Brotherhood channeled to the rebel platform originated from the Gulf, where the group could rely on the support of wealthy individuals. But Saudi Arabia’s March 2014 decision to ban the Muslim Brotherhood and to declare it a “terrorist organization” effectively halted the Syrian Brotherhood’s fundraising campaign and it plunged the group in a financial crisis. Shields leaders suggest that the Brotherhood’s financial support for military activities has considerably dwindled to the extent that the group is now merely providing brigades with clothing, food and limited weaponry.

The Risk of Radicalization

It is in this context that a growing number of brigades have left the Shields for wealthier rebel platforms. So far, most of those which defected have joined other moderate Islamist groups such as Faylak al-Sham and Ajnad al-Sham. This, however, could soon change. Since late 2014, extremist rebel groups have been on the rise precisely in the areas where the Shields have some presence – and the financial resources at their disposal could make joining them an attractive option for a growing number of Syrian rebels. The Nusra Front now controls vast swathes of Idlib province while the Islamic State is on the rise in the Homs countryside and in the Qalamoun mountain range between Syria and Lebanon.

Beyond the growing need for money and weapons, other factors could lead to a radicalization of Shields brigades. Ideologically, clerics from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood have struggled to come to terms with the emergence of the Islamic State. They criticized the hasty and unilateral way in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the “caliphate” in June 2014. Yet they haven’t fundamentally questioned his extremist approach to governance nor his troops’ massacre of ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Politically, it has also proved difficult for the Brotherhood to criticize the Islamic State in the wake of the U.S. aerial intervention against jihadist targets in Syria and Iraq. Preachers associated with the Shields have focused much of their rhetoric on targeting the United States, the “world’s leader in terrorism,” and in one video they accused the United States of starting its campaign against the Islamic State “to rescue Bashar al-Assad’s regime” and “to break the will of Muslims and destroy their hope of leading a life of freedom and dignity.” Such statements are likely to further breed confusion and extremism among rebel groups already negatively affected by the stalemate in Syria.

To avoid losing brigades to extremist rebel groups, Syrian Muslim Brothers must clarify their ideological stance toward a range of issues and disassociate themselves more clearly from extremist groups. They should also commit more resources to educating fighters in a way echoing the centrist rhetoric of the Shields’ founding statement. But, beyond showcasing their ideological commitment to moderate Islamism, they will also have to undertake major internal reforms, such as introducing greater transparency and accelerating the generational handover at the leadership level, in order to put petty struggles on the side and improve their group’s image inside Syria. For, ultimately, the rise of Islamic extremists is also a symptom of the Muslim Brotherhood’s own failure to present itself as a credible and attractive option to many moderate Islamists.

Raphaël Lefèvre is a Gates Scholar and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, as well as a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He is the author of Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (Oxford University Press, 2013) and co-author of State and Islam in Baathist Syria: Confrontation or Co-Optation? (Lynne Rienner, 2012).

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