Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood would follow the Turkish model were it to gain power should President Bashar al-Assad’s regime fall, said Mohammad Shaqfah, the exiled leader of the outlawed Syrian group.
“We are impressed with the Turkish governance system and we are not keen on the Iranian model,” Shaqfah said in a telephone interview from Turkey today. “We don’t want to impose anything on the people.”
While Turkey is mostly Muslim, it has been secular since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the republic in 1923, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and abolished the sultanate and power of the ruling religious institutions. Iran has been under the leadership of Shiite Muslim clerics who define the country’s political and social policies since the toppling of the monarchy in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, an offshoot of the Egyptian organization that is the oldest and most powerful Islamist movement in the region, has “always asked for freedom and democracy,” Shaqfah said. “We will not replace one dictatorship with another. We are against dictatorships.”
Under a Brotherhood-led Syria, “all Syrians will have their complete freedom and elections will determine everything,” he said. “Even if we claim a majority, we will not act unilaterally; we will work with everyone.”
The Assad government has tried to kindle sectarian strife, blaming foreign provocateurs and Islamic militants for the violence that has wracked Syria since mid-March. Sectarian divisions in the country, where the Alawite minority has ruled over a Sunni Muslim majority since the Assad dynasty took power in 1970, stoke domestic political tensions. In 1982, Assad’s father crushed a rebellion led by Sunni militants in the city of Hama, killing at least 10,000 people according to estimates cited by Human Rights Watch.
The brotherhood is “weak on the ground,” said Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution advisory organization. “They are a player in some parts of the country, like Hama. However in many of the other places, like Houran, they are nowhere to be seen, with little support in Damascus.”
Damascus and Aleppo would have “turned” if the brotherhood carried weight, Harling said from Cairo today. The group lacks members who “can speak out in a way that can appeal to public opinion on the ground.” The traditional Sunni establishment is “beholden to the regime, so people pick an odd sheikh on a satellite channel because he speaks to the level of frustration that the regime’s repression has pushed them to.”
The brotherhood “has no structure on the ground, but it could come back and adjust to a completely new era because it has no entrenched interests to defend,” he said.
The opposition Syrian National Council, of which the Muslim Brotherhood is a part, “was formed by consensus and every decision is taken by consensus,” Shaqfah said. “No one in it has a majority and we don’t have, as some might speculate, control over it.”
He welcomed the Arab League’s decision yesterday to impose unprecedented sanctions on Syria, including a freeze on financial assets and a travel ban on senior officials, after it failed to end the crackdown on protesters and refused to admit Arab observers. Still, he said the United Nations Security Council will probably have to step in to halt the bloodshed that the UN says has left more than 3,500 people dead.
Crimes Against Humanity
Today, the UN Human Rights Council’s independent commission of inquiry said its investigation found that Syrian military and security forces had committed “gross violations of human rights.” The commission, which interviewed 223 “victims and witnesses,” said it is “gravely concerned that crimes against humanity have been committed” throughout Syria.
“This regime is stubborn and it knows that any step toward reform will mean its end,” Shaqfah said. “We want protection for the civilians, though we prefer it from the Arabs. If that’s not possible, then from the international community.”