x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Syrian Islamists lay out map for democracy

Seek to allay fears within opposition

BEIRUT // The power of Islamist groups if President Bashar Al Assad is toppled is worrying some members of Syria's opposition.

But Syria's Muslim Brotherhood - the main Islamist bloc within the opposition - has sought to allay such fears, laying out a political plan and pledging to share power and create a democratic new Syria.

"The regime is trying to show that the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to control Syria alone," said the group's leader, Mohammed Riad Al Shaqfa, in Istanbul on Sunday. "We want a democratic Syria and we do not want to control the country alone."

Ahead of this weekend's "Friends of Syria" conference in Istanbul, Syrian opposition groups are meeting in the Turkish city, including the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main internationally recognised umbrella opposition group, which includes the Brotherhood.

The SNC and the Brotherhood have been criticised for the power the moderate Islamist group holds over the council.

Kamal Al Labwani, one of several prominent members of the SNC to resign in the past month, described the council as "a liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood".

"One day we will wake up to find an armed militia ... controlling the country through their weapons," he said recently.

Mr Al Shaqfa's description of the Brotherhood's vision for a post-Al Assad Syria, came as pressure mounts on Syria's divided opposition to form a united strategy to bring down the government and end more than a year of deadly violence.

"We assure that we will accept the result of free elections," The Brotherhood's deputy, Farouk Monir Khalid, said in Istanbul on Sunday.

"We assure that the rights of all Syrians will be guaranteed, of all groups and beliefs."

But, Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said it remains to be seen whether Syria's Muslim Brotherhood can live up to these words.

"I hope the Brotherhood are mature enough to adapt, which is the only way to operate in an environment as complex as Syria," he said.

Offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt and Tunisia have emerged with greater political influence after the Arab Spring uprisings. But the group remains illegal in Syria, where mere membership can result in a death sentence. Many of the Brotherhood's leaders remain in exile.

"They are strongly represented in the SNC, and even over-represented," said Mr Khashan. "But, we have no statistics on the strength of the group's support in Syria."

In the 1980s the Syrian Brotherhood waged a campaign against then-president Hafez Al Assad, President Al Assad's father, In retaliation, the then president ordered a massacre in the city of Hama in 1982 in which up to 25,000 people were killed.

Also on Sunday, the Dubai Police chief, Lieutenant-General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Qabas, the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to take over Gulf states.

In an interview, Gen Tamim said he had information the Brotherhood will try in the next few years, starting in Kuwait, to "make Gulf governments figurehead bodies only without actual ruling".

- With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press

zconstantine@thenational.ae