Making new friends in Damascus?

A few years ago, the term nationalist opposition was introduced to Syria by President Bashar al-Assad.

This means “opposition that has no ties with foreign parties”. Mainly, this meant everybody except the Muslim Brotherhood and the Reform Party of the US-based Farid al-Ghadry.

The Muslim Brotherhood had received money and arms from neighbouring Arab countries in 1982 to topple the Syrian government and al-Ghadry has been collaborating with the Americans since 2003 for the same purpose.

Previously, there was no “nationalist opposition” in Baathist Syria. The opposition, regardless of its ties or orientation, was always considered unpatriotic, and its leaders were described as enemies of nationalism, the state and the Syrian people.

That time has long passed and Syrian politicians today have been trying to reach out to various groups in the opposition, aiming at acheiving national unity to ward off US pressure mounted after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Harriri on 14 February 14 2005.

“I will oppose President Assad’s policies when they go wrong, but I will fight for him when someone wants to harm him.”

Mohamad Ali Mardam-Bey, Lebanon

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The Syrians have realised that the only way to avoid further isolation is to establish a united front inside Syria, where the Baathists and all their traditional enemies (the Muslim Brotherhood included) can work together.

After all, the opposition might be opposed to the government for a variety of political reasons, but it is by far more opposed to the United States. This opposition includes the Communist Party, Marxists, founding Baath Party members and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Syria’s rapprochement with the “nationalist opposition” was begun by al-Assad when he came to power on 17 July 2000.

The only party who can truly and genuinely mobilise the streets are the Muslim groups

On 22 July seven days after he began his constitutional term as president, al-Assad released 30 members of the Muslim Brotherhood from prison.

Another gesture included the return of Abu al-Fateh Baynouni, the brother of the Brotherhood’s leader, Ali Sadr al-Din al-Baynouni, from exile in September 2001.

The ban on the scholarly works of Mustafa al-Sibaei, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was lifted after being on the Baath blacklist for over four decades.

President al-Assad then issued a general amnesty in the summer of 2000, releasing 600 political prisoners, 90% of them were from the Muslim Brotherhood.

In November 2001, al-Assad released another 113 Muslim Brotherhood members, most of whom were arrested in 1979 for a massacre they had conducted at an artillery school in Aleppo in 1979.

In December 2004, 112 Muslim Brotherhood members were also released. Another 55 prisoners were set free, mostly from the Brotherhood, on 12 February 2005.


The Brotherhood found more reason to cooperate [with the Syrian government] when al-Assad refused to join in the US-led war in Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003.

They hailed his commitment to the Palestinian uprising, and his support for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Hizb Allah in Lebanon.

Both al-Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood have repeatedly said that democracy cannot be imported to the Arab world from the US, nor can it be imposed by President George Bush.

The only way to democratise is from within the Arab world by the Arabs themselves, they often said. This view is shared by a vast majority of Syrians and Arabs.

Syrian nationalism is soaring and the majority of Syrians feel that it is their duty to stand by the government

The Muslim Brotherhood also hailed al-Assad’s refusal to abide by American terminology on terrorism, vis-a-vis Hizb Allah and the Palestinian resistance, and his declared commitment to restore the Golan Heights to Syria, and Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

One week after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, members of the Muslim Brotherhood appeared on Aljazeera and called for dialogue with Damascus, refusing to use the US campaign against Syria to settle old differences with the regime.

They stressed, in interviews and press releases, that there was no Ahmed Chalabi among the Syrian opposition. This notion was repeated by opposition members inside Syria, thereby earning the title of “nationalist opposition”.

The message was taken by authorities who responded with similar goodwill, permitting many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had lived in asylum in Iraq, to return to Syria after the invasion in March 2003.

After that, these dissidents were not arrested or harassed in Syria, as long as they did not engage in illegal political conduct (by law, the Muslim Brotherhood is a banned organisation).  

Between 2003-2005 domestic political reforms stalled in Syria as a result of Syria’s entanglement in a web of complex issues, related to Iraq and Lebanon.

Soon enough, the Muslim Brotherhood raised its anti-government rhetoric, much to the displeasure of Damascus. In May 2005, the writer Ali al-Abdullah, a member of the Jamal al-Atasi Forum, read a speech sent to the forum by Baynouni from London. Immediately, the Syrian authorities ordered his arrest.

The forum founders cried foul and the authorities requested that they issue an official apology, saying that they had not intended to spread Muslim Brotherhood propaganda in Syria – by law 49 being a member of the Brotherhood, or spreading its views, was a capital offence. When they refused, they too were arrested.

The arrests, which included the forum’s president Mrs Suhayr al-Atasi, and the veteran Baathist Husayn Uweidat, gave the Syrian authorities bad publicity.

Both al-Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood have repeatedly said that democracy cannot be imported to the Arab world from the United States

They were released after one week but Abdullah remained in jail until November 2005.


The government knew that arresting these people was going to give it very bad publicity, especially now that the world’s attention was focused on Syria.


But this was a price it was willing to pay to send a clear message to everybody: that the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam were a red line that nobody could cross in Syria.

To make this point loud and clear at the Baath Party Congress in June 2005, authorities said they would formulate a new multi-party law, ending the socialist monopoly over political life in Syria (existing since 1963).

Parties not affiliated with the Baath would be allowed to operate. The only exception would be the Muslim Brotherhood and other Muslim parties.

The calls for abolishing law 49, which had been proposed by the moderate Muslim cleric and parliamentarian Mohammad Habash, faded out in the weeks preceding the Baath Party congress.  

The publication of the Mehlis report in October and the subsequent adoption of UN Resolution 1636 have made the Syrians put aside their differences and unite in opposing foreign pressure on their country.

Marches, anti-US demonstrations, and rallies condemning Mehlis have become a daily scene in Damascus.

Syrian nationalism is soaring and the majority of Syrians feel that it is their duty to stand by the government at this difficult stage because although they might have reservations about the government’s actions, they would not want it to be weakened or removed by the US.

Those who have second thoughts are asked to look next door and see the chaos prevailing in Iraq to see how un-rewarding it would be to side with the Americans.

The government has embarked on a series of reforms intended to reduce, in anticipation of eliminating, any reasons for discontent in the Syrian Street. The authorities are planning to raise wages, authorise bank loans facilities and create more jobs.

The Brotherhood found more reason to cooperate [with the Syrian government] when al-Assad refused to join in the US-led war on Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003

On the political front, the government issued a general amnesty in November 2005, releasing 190 political prisoners, mainly from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Many expected that the two famous parliamentarians, Riyad Sayf and Maamoun al-Homsi, would be released. They were not, probably, because the government did not want any big names to make headlines, except those of the Brotherhood. The state was sending a clear message: we are releasing what remains of the Muslim Brotherhood from Syrian jails.

The reason is that owing to the increasing religiosity in Syria society, the only party which can truly and genuinely mobilise the street are the Muslim groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood, and a variety of other opposition groups in Syria, issued an opposition document called The Damascus Declaration in October 2005, right after Detlev Mehlis issued his report, criticising the government for stalled political reforms.

The authorities surprised everybody by refusing to arrest or harass any of the politicians who signed the document.

Then, in another gesture of goodwill towards the Brotherhood, al-Assad had an unofficial conversation with members of the Arab Nationalist Congress meeting in Damascus shortly after his speech at Damascus University on 10 November 2005.

The speech, it must be noted, made no reference whatsoever to the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Assad reportedly told his guests that he does not have a problem with anybody who opposes the government politically.

Owing to the increasing religiosity in Syria society, the only party which can truly and genuinely mobilise the street are the Muslim groups

The government only has a problem “with those who collaborate with Syrias enemies”. This was a clear message to the US-based al-Ghadry.

Al-Assad added that he is willing to conduct dialogue with everybody, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is a new atmosphere in Syria. It will be worth watching how Syria will deal with the Brotherhood in the months to come since all indicators, including the Syrian president’s Damascus University speech, suggest that Syria’s relations with Washington will deteriorate rather than improve.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. He is the author of Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000 (Cune Press 2005)

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position or have the endorsement of Aljazeera.

Source : Al Jazeera

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