x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Brotherhood denies plans for Islamist rule in Syria

Group responds to accusations it is trying to monopolise opposition to Bashar Al Assad.

ANTAKYA, TURKEY // The Muslim Brotherhood has denied it plans to impose strict Islamist rule on Syria or monopolise the opposition, saying it wants to cooperate in building a modern, secular state in which all sectarian and ethnic groups are equal.

As the best organised and apparently best funded opposition faction, the Brotherhood has played a major role in the uprising against the president, Bashar Al Assad.

But it has also been at the heart of deep divisions that have undermined attempts to overthrow him, an accusation levelled publicly by the military wing of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) last month.

In a long statement on its Facebook page on Thursday evening, the Brotherhood replied with a message that seemed designed to heal opposition rifts and reassure a worried, religiously diverse Syrian public that it poses no threat to them.

"The new society will be based on equality and justice to all, and this is the only path to build a modern Syria," the statement said, adding any form of theocracy or dictatorship was unacceptable.

"We will by no means allow any room for exclusion or monopoly in the lives of the people in the just society which we are striving for.

"In no way will the secular state, which is based on the principle of equality of rights and duties, be a state of privilege on any religious, sectarian, or ethnic grounds.

"Thus, all the allegations putting in doubt our intentions or conduct are merely claims circulated by privilege holders in an attempt to preserve their own privileges."

The simmering tensions within the SNC burst into the open again in recent weeks when the command of its military wing, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), issued a scathing denunciation of the Brotherhood.

It accused the group of undermining the revolt, "delaying victory", splitting the rebels and seeking to hijack control of the opposition.

The choice of Ghassan Hitto last month as interim prime minister became a focal point for opposition divisions.

Mr Hitto narrowly won a ballot of SNC members, but leading coalition figures walked out on the vote amid claims the Brotherhood had forced through his appointment.

The FSA has refused to acknowledge his authority, which could cripple his interim government before it is formed, and insisted a consensus candidate replace him.

The Brotherhood said it had not used Mr Hitto to take over the prime ministerial office, insisting it had no interest in doing so.

"It was our strategy to seek consensus and to go with the majority," the statement said, adding the group was "ready to support any candidate who is most comparable".

Whether Mr Hitto's selection will now be reconsidered remains unclear but the Brotherhood appeared to leave the possibility open for such a reassessment.

"Our group does not claim infallibility," it said, later adding that it always tried to correct its mistakes and welcomed "all open, positive and constructive criticism".

Opposition politics have been characterised by a level of disunity and infighting bordering at times on fiasco.

Factions have been jockeying for power and trying to cut self-interested backroom political deals while inside Syria hundreds of people, many of them civilians, are killed each week, and many thousands more are wounded or forced to flee their homes.

The lack of decisive leadership has been a source of dismay for grassroots Syrian activists, ordinary civilians and international supporters of the revolt.

Those failures are one reason for the growing popularity of militant groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra, classified as a terrorist group by the US for links to Al Qaeda, which has won a reputation for taking effective, practical steps towards winning the war, enforcing law and order and providing basic humanitarian supplies.

"Syria is a complete mess but if you think that's bad you should see the mess inside the National Coalition," said an opposition activist.

"The kind of discussions they have are just terrible. If they were made public it would put them all to shame, fighting for power and which group should get the most money or the best position."

One of the criticisms levelled at the Brotherhood is that it has channelled funding, humanitarian aid and weapons only to groups inside Syria that promise loyalty in return.

This way, it has been claimed, it can build up a private army and systems of administration outside the control of the SNC, and thereby position itself to dominate in a post-Assad Syria.

Its statement rejected those suggestions.

"We do not have a special armed faction under our command as is being alleged, nor have we established any armed group," the group said.

"That the Brotherhood bases its decisions and positions on account of the allegiance it receives is a baseless rumour."

psands@thenational.ae