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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

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.

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

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