Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Members of the Free Syrian Army in the Al Izaa district in Aleppo. Opponents of the Brotherhood worry about its rising influence, their fears stoked by what they view as the authoritarian tendencies it has shown after rising to power in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Members of the Free Syrian Army in the Al Izaa district in Aleppo. Opponents of the Brotherhood worry about its rising influence, their fears stoked by what they view as the authoritarian tendencies it has shown after rising to power in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Muslim Brotherhood opens direct link to rebels in Damascus

Brotherhood opens direct contacts with opposition groups in Damascus, providing them with cash for the first time and promising political influence in an effort to gain their support. Phil Sands reports

GAZIANTEP, Turkey // The Muslim Brotherhood recently opened direct contacts with opposition groups in Damascus, providing them with cash for the first time and promising political influence in an effort to gain their support, according to Syrians organising clandestine relief efforts in rebel-held areas of the capital.

The infusion of cash and offer of political collaboration last week came just days after the Muslim Brotherhood's secretary general, Raid Al Shaqfa, announced the organisation would reopen offices inside Syria, after years of exile.

The Brotherhood's largesse followed a cutback of relief assistance to some groups in the capital by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the officially recognised opposition alliance.

Although a member of the SNC, the Muslim Brotherhood is not solely channelling its aid through the formal opposition framework. Instead, it is independently dispensing cash and supplies in it own name, the Syrian aid organisers in Damascus said.

The move by the Brotherhood into Damascus is likely to become yet another bone of contention between groups attempting to overthrow the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Deep mistrust, infighting that includes violent clashes between armed rebel groups and a failure to properly coordinate aid and military efforts have severely hamstrung Syria's opposition.

The SNC has struggled to gain credibility and influence on the ground, a problem it is trying to address by appointing an interim government and providing it with resources to undertake relief efforts to needy civilians and induce rebel military factions to unite under the same leadership.

Critics of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the Free Syrian Army's ruling joint command, have charged that it is trying to dominate the opposition and impose an Islamist agenda at the expense of efforts to oust the Assad regime.

Another key complaint is that it operates its own militia groups and distributes resources only to factions promising loyalty. The Brotherhood vociferously denies all these charges.

There appears to have been little progress in addressing the fissures in the opposition, with different groups still jockeying for position rather than uniting and coordinating their anti-Assad activities.

One major opposition network in Damascus had all but run out of cash this month after its regular funding, sent from Saudi Arabia, was cut off, members of the network said.

The SNC also failed to deliver promised levels of financing and relief supplies, leaving a significant shortfall in humanitarian aid for hard-hit areas of the capital.

The Muslim Brotherhood stepped in, however, directly establishing contacts with the network and offering to fill the funding gap.

"The Muslim Brotherhood just asked us how much we needed, we told them, and they immediately send that amount," said a senior activist based in Damascus involved in the aid efforts.

He is not aligned with any political faction but sits on an influential committee distributing aid in the capital and surrounding suburbs.

Organisational security precautions among activists on the Damascus committee - including a strict compartmentalisation of information to guard against captured members giving up the names of their colleagues under interrogation - mean no one has knowledge of all the committee's workings .

But the committee member said the monthly funding needed for just one neighbourhood of the capital was almost US$140,000. Most of that money is given out in small stipends to poor families who have lost sons or fathers in the conflict and have no other source of income on which to survive.

The Muslim Brotherhood not only paid that amount, he said, it also told activists they should take one per cent of the funding for their personal salaries, something none had done before.

"We all work as volunteers, for free, and most of us refused to take any money. We don't want to be paid when every dollar should be used for humanitarian needs, which increase on an hourly basis," he said.

In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood offered relief supplies but on condition that when they were distributed it is made clear they are from the Muslim Brotherhood, not the Syrian National Coalition or any other opposition faction, the activist said.

"The assistance was offered to us for free, its supplies of rice, sugar, food, that kind of thing. But the boxes have 'Muslim Brotherhood' written on them and we have to clarify to the recipients that the assistance is from the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.

Non-political non-governmental organisations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Red Crescent Societies and UN agencies, routinely mark put their organisation's stamp on aid.

Activists within the committee, predominately Sunni Muslims, were grateful for the support.

"The timing was good, we need any kind of assistance, we are short of everything, even more so than before," a committee member said. "We are accepting help from anyone, even if it comes from the devil."

After announcing it is reopening offices inside Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood has also been making private contacts with opposition activists in Damascus.

"They have been getting in touch with activists and making them good offers, I'm not sure if they're offering money but they are certainly promising people high level positions in the movement if they agree to be a part of it," said a dissident in the Syrian capital with extensive family connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.

He said the Muslim Brotherhood was "working hard" to build its strength in Damascus.

"Their timing is good, they have come at a time when other groups are failing to deliver, they have supporters everywhere," he said.

Speaking with the newspaper Asharq Al Awsat last month, Zuhayn Salim, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood said the organisation would seek to boost aid efforts for civilians.

"The decision to open Brotherhood offices in Syria was taken by the group's leadership a few months ago. Now, the decision will be carried out," he said. "These offices will work to achieve coordination between the Brotherhood's supporters, reorganise the group's affairs and provide relief aid for the Syrian people, who are suffering at both the humanitarian and economic levels."

Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood worry about its rising influence, their fears stoked by what they view as the authoritarian tendencies it has shown after rising to power in post-Mubarak Egypt.

In April, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood made a public defence of its record and motivations, saying it was committed to building a "modern, civil state where citizens are equal regardless of difference in their sectarian, religious and political affiliations."

Its supporters say it offers an antidote to rising Islamic extremism in Syria by providing a moderate alternative likely to appeal to the country's Sunni Muslim majority.

The Muslim Brotherhood led a militant insurrection against former president Hafez Al Assad in the 1980s, which was violently put-down. The organisation was subsequently forced underground and into exile. It remains unclear how much popular support it has inside Syria.

psands@thenational.ae

twitter: For breaking news from the Gulf, the Middle East and around the globe follow The National World. Follow us

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets supporters after his arrival in Zahedan, the regional capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. During Mr Rouhani's two-day visit, he will tour several other cities and hold meetings with local scholars and entrepreneurs. Maryam Rahmanian for The National

On the road with Hassan Rouhani

Iran's president is touring some of Iran's most underdeveloped provinces. Foreign correspondent Yeganeh Salehi is traveling with him.

 The Doha-based Youssef Al Qaradawi speaks to the crowd as he leads Friday prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in February, 2011. The outspoken pro-Muslim Brotherhood imam has been critical of the UAE’s policies toward Islamist groups, adding to friction between Qatar and other GCC states. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

Brotherhood imam skips Doha sermon, but more needed for GCC to reconcile

That Youssef Al Qaradawi did not speak raises hopes that the spat involving Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain might be slowly moving towards a resolution.

 Twitter photo of  Abdel Fattah El Sisi on the campaign trail on March 30. Photo courtesy-Twitter/@SisiCampaign

El Sisi rides a bicycle, kicks off social media storm

The photos and video created a huge buzz across social media networks, possibly a marker of a new era for Egypt.

 An Afghan election commission worker carries a ballot box at a vote counting centre in Jalalabad on April 6. A roadside bomb hit a truck carrying full ballot boxes in northern Afghanistan, killing three people a day after the country voted for a successor to President Hamid Karzai. Eight boxes of votes were destroyed in the blast, which came as the three leading candidates voiced concerns about possible fraud. Noorullah Shirzada / AFP Photo

Two pressing questions for Afghanistan’s future president

Once in office, the next Afghan president must move fast to address important questions that will decide the immediate future of the country.

 Friday is UN Mine Awareness Day and Omer Hassan, who does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan, is doing all he can to teach people about the dangers posed by landmines. Louise Redvers for The National

A landmine nearly ended Omer’s life but he now works to end the threat of mines in Iraq

Omer Hassan does demining work in Iraqi Kurdistan and only has to show people his mangled leg to underscore the danger of mines. With the world marking UN Mine Awareness Day on Friday, his work is as important as ever as Iraq is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.

 Supporters of Turkey's ruling AKP cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara on March 30. Adem Altan/ AFP Photo

Erdogan critic fears retaliation if he returns to Turkey

Emre Uslu is a staunch critic of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, with a mass crackdown on opposition expected, he is unsure when he can return home.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National