Tuesday, July 11, 2006

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria’s largest and most influential op- position group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has begun an am-bitious program to unite Syrian pro-democracy reformists and increase pressure on the government of President Bashar Assad.

“We want to set up a transitional government so that if the system collapses in the future, we will be able to prevent anarchy,” says Ali al-Bayanouni, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Syria.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Western enthusiasm for regime change in neighboring Syria has waxed and waned. But Syrian opposition movements both inside and outside the country continue to struggle against the secular but dictatorial Ba’ath Party that has ruled Syria since 1963.

In June, the Muslim Brotherhood helped found an umbrella opposition group, the National Salvation Front, that aims to publicly refute the Syrian government’s assertions that widespread sectarian and religious violence would erupt if the Syrian regime fell.

The new group brings together not only the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long campaigned for an Islamist state, but also Abdel Halim Khaddam, the secular former vice-president who defected from the Assad regime last year.

“By working together, we, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Khaddam from the Ba’ath Party are saying there will not be a war like in Iraq,” said Mr. al-Bayanouni, speaking in London, where he lives in exile.

Syria’s ethnic mix is far less volatile than Iraq’s. Sunni Muslim Arabs make up about 70 percent of the population, while Christians, Kurds and Shi’ites each make up about 10 percent.

However, many secular and educated Syrians fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would seek to impose Islamist rule over the country’s religious minorities if it took power.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is very popular in communities at the lower end of the economic scale in Syria,” said Glada Lahn, a Middle East analyst at Chatham House, a think tank in London.

“But there is also a real fear of the Islamicization of society amongst government allies and liberal opposition alike, and the Brotherhood [is] still tainted with radicalism,” she said.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has its roots in the Sunni pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood movement founded in Egypt in the 1920s.

During the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood fought a bloody war against the Syrian government that cost tens of thousands of lives. Since Mr. al-Bayanouni took over the group’s leadership in 1996, however, the group has become more moderate and now campaigns for the creation of multiparty democracy.

The group remains illegal in Syria, and membership is punishable by death — although in most cases this is reduced to a long prison sentence. This has not been enough to undercut a steady increase in religiosity in poverty-stricken Syria.

“Religion has infiltrated high society,” said Sami Moubayed, a political commentator in Damascus. “You even see veiled women in the posh areas of Damascus now.”

Syria’s government has sought to harness this trend for its own ends — even though Mr. Assad is a member of the country’s small Alawi Shi’ite minority. Islamic anniversaries are now celebrated more than Ba’athist ones, and the president’s speeches are peppered with Islamic pieties.

But despite this, Syria’s leaders fear that the country’s Sunni Muslims easily could turn against their Shi’ite rulers. The government prevents the country’s few legal opposition activists from phrasing their political ambitions in Islamic terms and forbids Muslims clerics from talking about domestic politics.

It is a situation that analysts fear could fuel Islamic extremism further.

“If people are not allowed to publicly express their desire for more Islam in politics, then this frustration has to go somewhere,” said Obeida Nahas, the director of the Levant Institute, a private, pro-Islamist research foundation in London.

“And because people are not allowed to support the Muslim Brotherhood — which is now in fact relatively moderate — they might be drawn to more radical groups,” he said.

There are signs that underground militant movements opposed to the secular, Alawite-run regime are taking shape — partly inspired by the situation in next-door Iraq.

On June 2, Syrian security services battled Islamic gunmen in central Damascus who apparently were trying to occupy key government buildings such as the TV station. Four militants were killed, two were wounded and four were arrested.

The group appears to have been “homegrown,” and analysts say the foiled attack is an example of the “blow-back” that could destabilize Arab regimes for years.

The militants apparently were followers of a Syrian preacher, Abu al-Qaqa, who openly told Muslims that they should travel to Iraq to fight the Americans. But rather than traveling to Iraq, the men turned against Syria’s regime.

“The Syrians caught 8,800 people trying to go to Iraq to fight,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus bureau chief of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. “So you can imagine how many actually went.”

Having initially encouraged Muslims to fight in Iraq, the Syrian regime now has backtracked and largely succeeded in closing the border. But this may provoke many Islamists into turning their anger on the government.

“One man I met went and fought in Iraq and then came back to Syria. But when he tried to go again, the government prevented him,” Mr. Hamidi said. “He was angry with the Syrian government for stopping him.”

But with both the state and opposition movements becoming more Islamist, Syria’s democracy activists are the ones being squeezed out.

“The way things are going, there will be an Islamic government here — and sooner rather than later,” said Ayman Abdel-Nour, a reformist member of the ruling Ba’ath Party. “The only question is what sort of Islamic government is it going to be.”

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