A Wake Up Call for the Syrian Brotherhood

07/18/2013 03:48 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2013

When Ahmad Mouaz al-Khatib was elected president of the Syrian National Alliance in late 2012, red flags were raised at the offices of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers feared ideological competition from someone who like them, was preaching Sunni Islam. Their niche, after all, was the conservative Sunni Muslim street of Syria, which they supposedly represented and sought to monopolize.

Here was Khatib, a scholar and former preacher at the prestigious Umayyad Mosque, seemingly being parachuted into the job, right from the heart of Damascus. Although politically inexperienced, he came across as selfless, unblemished, and sincere. He came from the midst of domestic suffering within Syria, whereas the Brotherhood operated from exile. Most of its active cadres were second-generation members born and raised outside of Syria. Simply by being himself, Khatib threatened to make them irrelevant, exposing the Brothers as power-hungry politicians blinded by their thundering success in Egypt. Unlike the Brotherhood, Khatib had no ambition of becoming president of Syria. If the pro-regime street motto had been: "It's either Assad, or we burn the country" the Brotherhood's unspoken drive seemed also to be, "It's either us, or we burn the country!" Clearly in Egypt, now ejected from office with little respect or ceremony, they have decided to "burn the country!"

In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood's real powerbase today lies strictly in the Idlib countryside, specifically Jabal al-Zawiya, where they still command a sizable community of loyalists. Their influence in the conservative city of Hama, the city to suffer most from their 1982 adventure, had long vanished. Hama today is no longer a "Brotherhood stronghold." The secular opposition leader Fidaa Hourani, who treated the wounded at her field hospital in early 2011, was more popular in Hama than the entire Brotherhood leadership combined. She was a secular, and not only that, the daughter of Akram al-Hourani, the father of socialism in modern Syria, who had combated the Brotherhood during the golden years of Syrian democracy, back in the '50s.

Hama notables grumbled when recalling how while their sons were being led to the gallows in 1982, Brotherhood leaders had packed their bags and left to safe exile, leaving the city to sort out its own mess. They blamed the Brotherhood for dragging Syria into an ill-planned confrontation, which led to the killing of anywhere between 15,000-30,000 civilians, without calculating what the regime's response would be. The Brotherhood knew that popular sentiment in Hama, although anti-regime, was nevertheless not pro-Brotherhood in 2011-2012. They also realized that if the Syrians went to the polls, unlike Egypt, the Brotherhood would never win a landslide victory. Syrian Christians, who constitute 10 percent of the population, would never vote for them, nor would Alawites (12 percent), Druze (3 percent), Kurds (15 percent), and Bedouin tribes (10 percent). Even among the country's 75 percent Sunnis, not everybody is in favor of a theocracy, certainly not after how they performed in Egypt.

One of the long-standing myths surrounding Syria is that if the regime goes, the only alternative is either the Muslim Brotherhood or chaos. That argument, after what happened in Egypt on June 30, is now history. Backbone of the Alliance and the Syrian National Council was the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now struggling to rebuild its shattered self after Egypt. The Brotherhood was the best trained, most experienced and organized group in the Syrian Opposition. Without them, for now, the Alliance is toothless, unless real money and support is injected into its blood by Saudi Arabia. They realize that the U.S. will be, for the foreseeable future, too busy with Egypt to pay real attention to the Syrian opposition. After the latest twin attacks on the Turkish side of their border with Syria, the Erdogan government is less enthusiastic about more adventurism in the Middle East. Clearly, they too are very worried about what repercussions the Egyptian coup will have on the Islamists of Turkey. They put their money on the Egyptian and Syrian Brotherhood, after all, and are now trying to figure out what happened in Egypt, and why zero progress has been achieved in Syria, nearly three years into the Syrian Revolt.

Qatar, their prime backer since 2011, has quietly left the scene with the abdication of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani. His son and successor Tamim has remained remarkably mute about Syria, raising eyebrows among the Syrian Brothers. Qatar's two top men, Prime Minister of Government-in-Exile Ghassan Hitto and secretary-general of the Alliance Mustapha al-Sabbagh, have both been knocked down, in one week, by Saudi Arabia. The Brotherhood has no control over the new Alliance President Ahmad al-Jarba, which means that their wings will be clipped in both the SNC and Alliance in the weeks ahead.

Saudi Arabia never liked the students of Hasan al-Banna, although it gave them asylum from the Egyptian and Syrian dragnet from the 1950s onwards. Their message of Islam contradicted with that of Wahabism, which calls for unconditional obedience of the ruler. They were nevertheless allowed to flourish, namely in the educational sector, to counterbalance the rise of Nasserist and leftist movements in the Muslim world. They came into more use after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where they helped recruit warriors, and channel both aides and weapons to jihadists like Osama Bin Laden. The Brotherhood's successful civil society organizations, often billing as charity or welfare services, were clearly capable of mobilizing society, which was a double-edged sword, as far as the Saudis were concerned. The honeymoon collapsed in 1991, when the Brotherhood became increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia's decision to host U.S. troops and lead the international coalition for the liberation of Kuwait. After 9-11, the Brotherhood was accused of radicalizing Saudi youth. When the Brotherhood came to power in Egypt in 2012, not only was it flirting with Iran, but also, challenging Saudi Arabia's sole political representation of Sunni Islam, undermining their monopoly over the Arab and Islamic world. With little surprise, the Saudi channel, Al Arabiya, played a monumental role in bringing down Mohammad Morsi, while Qatar's Al Jazeera unapologetically stood firmly behind the Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood is now fighting a battle on several fronts: with Egyptian officers in Cairo, with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, with Mohammad Abbas in Palestine, and with Saudi Arabia in the Arab and Muslim World. This is more than they can chew. If they don't try to extinguish fires, they will collapse. Both the Egyptian and Syrian Brothers have to put down their guns, sink into self-reflection, study their mistakes, and eventually re-invent themselves after the Egyptian fiasco.