No one in Syria expected the anti-regime uprising to last this long or be this deadly, but after around 70,000 dead, 1 million refugees, and two years of unrest, there is still no end in sight. While President Bashar al-Assad's brutal response is mostly to blame, the opposition's chronic failure to form a viable front against the regime has also allowed the conflict to drag on. And there's one anti-Assad group that is largely responsible for this dismal state of affairs: Syria's Muslim Brotherhood.
Throughout the Syrian uprising, I have had discussions with opposition figures, activists, and foreign diplomats about how the Brotherhood has built influence within the emerging opposition forces. It has been a dizzying rise for the Islamist movement. It was massacred out of existence in the 1980s after the Baathist regime put down a Brotherhood-led uprising in Hama. Since then, membership in the Brotherhood has been an offense punishable by death in Syria, and the group saw its presence on the ground wither to almost nothing. But since the uprising erupted on March 15, 2011, the Brotherhood has moved adroitly to seize the reins of power of the opposition's political and military factions.
to a figure present at the
first conference to organize Syria's political opposition, held
in Antalya, Turkey, in May 2011, the Brotherhood was initially hesitant to join
an anti-Assad political body. The group had officially
suspended its opposition to the Baathist regime in the wake of
the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in 2009, and it pulled out of an alliance with Abdul
Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president who defected in 2005.
The Brotherhood nonetheless sent members to participate in the conference, including Molhem Droubi, who became a member of the conference's executive bureau. Meanwhile, it took steps to form fighting groups inside Syria, recruiting potential fighters and calling on its relatively meager contacts on the ground in Homs, Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo.
As the idea of a unified opposition group to lead the popular revolt gained momentum, the Brotherhood became more involved. A month after the meeting in Antalya, it organized a conference in Brussels, attended by 200 people, mostly Islamists -- one of the first obvious fractures in the unity of the opposition. The Brotherhood subsequently organized several conferences that formed opposition groups to serve as fronts for the movement, allowing it to beef up its presence in political bodies.
After the conference in Brussels, at least three groups were formed "to support the Syrian revolution." The organizations continued to hatch, and a few months after the first conference they were present in opposition bodies that later formed the core of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella group that ostensibly represented all anti-Assad forces. The council set aside seats for both the Brotherhood and members of the Damascus Declaration, a group of Syrian reformists established in 2005 -- but the Brotherhood already had a significant presence within the Damascus Declaration group.