Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood is trying to gain influence in the conflict by establishing an armed wing—the effort might enhance its profile in the short term but carries big risks in the longer run.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has recently become a growing force in Syria, particularly in the armed struggle against the regime. Rumors that the organization has established its own militia started spreading over a year ago, even as its leaders were officially and systematically denying such developments. The group’s deputy head reiterated in August, “It is important to emphasize at the outset that the Brotherhood has no armed military formations in the Syrian revolution.” Prior to these rumors, little was known about the degree to which the Muslim Brotherhood had any influence on the ground—be it through ties to already existing rebel groups or to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But a series of interviews carried out recently1 revealed the extent to which Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood has gone to rebuild its military influence—and the serious challenges this step might hold for the group in terms of its image and own unity.
A handful of armed factions close to the Muslim Brotherhood started organically forming in response to the Syrian regime’s crackdown on the protests that erupted in March 2011. Most were then centered in Idlib where, despite their lengthy exile, members of the organization had kept close ties to friends and family as well as to militant networks. As government crackdown continued, these rebels—of which only a minority were formally affiliated with the Brotherhood—organized and started spreading to other areas of the country. The process finally came to a head in September 2012, when the Brotherhood gathered all these groups under the more formal umbrella of the “Shields” (Hay’at Duru‘ al-Thawra or Shields of the Revolution Council) before the platform became fully operational in January 2013. Many opposition activists now refer to the Shields as the Muslim Brotherhood’s new “militia” in the Syrian conflict. In fact, their emergence is only the latest of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to gain leverage over the struggle on the ground. Some figures within the organization had tested the waters early on by supporting the Committee to Protect Civilians (CPC), which was a platform of rebel groups mainly based in Homs. Later on, the Brotherhood again tried, in vain, to co-opt other big Islamist groups like the Farouk Battalions in Homs or the Tawheed Brigades in Aleppo.
But the issue of the Syrian Brotherhood’s military influence conjures up a messy chapter of its own history, which is one of the reasons why its leaders are so cautious when making public statements about the group’s actual influence in the military conflict. After all, it was the organization’s own involvement in armed struggle against the regime thirty years ago that led to major internal splits, the weakening of the group, and its eventual exile. Publicly, therefore, Brotherhood leaders only go so far as to acknowledge the Shields’ “ideological proximity” to and “trust” in the Brotherhood. In private, however, many recognize that ties between the two groups are deeper than mere sympathetic rhetoric. A Brotherhood leader explained that “the relationship is one of ‘being there for you’—we provide the Shields with funding and we are helping them through communication and coordination.” Revealingly, the symbol of the Shields bears the two crossed swords, which act as a Muslim Brotherhood emblem, and the rhetoric of the two groups often strikes similar chords. Further complicating the issue—and for all of the Brotherhood’s efforts—the Shields have not quite yet transformed into the movement’s full-fledged armed wing. “Until now we have given them general instructions, but they have their own structure and merely coordinate with us—ideally we would like to have a proper chain of command and a more centralized decision-making process, but it’s going to take time,” stressed the Brotherhood leader.
A main factor holding up the transformation of the Shields into a Brotherhood militia is that only a minority of the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Shields fighters are actually part of the Brotherhood2. This raises a number of fears for the Brotherhood, including issues of loyalty, lack of education and discipline, and potential for extremism, among others. The organization was long deprived of a recruitment base inside Syria—the Law No. 49 of July 1980 condemns to death any known members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. And, even though many Shields fighters might now want to officially join the Brotherhood, it will take time to process their applications. Becoming a member of the Brotherhood can be a challenging process, as candidates must first go through an intense political, religious, and organizational training (tarbiya). Another leading Syrian member of the Brotherhood confirms that “the process of affiliating the Shields to us has started, but it’s not operational yet and we want to be very careful.” Indeed, Brotherhood leaders are keen to avoid mistakes made in the late 1970s, when the Brotherhood’s confrontation with the regime transformed into an endless cycle of retributions with sectarian undertones. “We learned a lot from our previous experience—that’s why we think the issues of loyalty and education are paramount to prevent extremism and to refrain from revenge when the regime commits a massacre.”
So far, the Shields have gone largely under the radar of observers of the conflict in Syria. One prominent Muslim Brother explained, “We are reluctant to give the platform more visibility until it is fully ready militarily but also at the educational and political levels.” However, its presence on social media is already growing, and some Shields brigades, such as the Shield of the Mountain (Der‘a al-Jabal) in Idlib province, have recently multiplied their military operations on the frontlines. The equipment of its members has also drastically improved in recent months. While early videos show Shields fighters operating artisanal cannons and basic rifles, more recent ones suggest the platform has acquired much more sophisticated weapons—including MANPADS, mortars, and some tanks. It has also improved its fighting capabilities by allying regularly with the CPC, which shares the Shields’ sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and a similar “centrist” message. Both platforms call on their followers to respect international laws on human rights and to support mainstream opposition groups such as the National Coalition (NC) and the FSA. These developments—especially seen through the lens of the radicalization of Syria’s Islamist spectrum, as demonstrated by the recent signing of a statement by Islamist groups rejecting the NC’s authority and calling for the application of Islamic law—may suggest that time has come for the Shields to take on a more visible role to fill the demand for “centrist” Islamist groups.
But three serious challenges stand against the Brotherhood’s dreams of military influence inside Syria. First, despite the Shields’ growing role in Northern Syria, they have struggled to become a geographically consistent platform. Some regions such as Idlib province are home to over twenty brigades—some of them comprising several hundred fighters—while in other areas such as in Dera‘a there are no more than four battalions—some of them as small as a few dozen fighters. This greatly hampers the Shields’ ability to lead nationwide military operations. Second, there is a risk that as the Brotherhood becomes more formally integrated with the Shields, it would be accountable for any of the Shield’s infringements at a time when the Brotherhood is investing a lot of resources to rebuild an image defined by 30 years of absence. “What about if we start having a problem with the Shields and some of them don’t behave well enough?” wondered a leading Syrian Brother. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the issue is significant enough that serious internal disagreements have emerged on the best ways to exercise military influence on the ground—that could possibly lead to major splits in the movement in the longer run. “There was no Aleppo-Hama clash when it came to setting up the Shields,” explained a member of the group’s leadership in reference to the historical divisions that have plagued the Brotherhood for decades; “but consensus withered when it came to discussing how close we should bring the Shields to us and with what sort of timeframe in mind.”
Increasing its military influence in the context of the chaos in Syria might seem like a rational option to Brotherhood leaders who want the organization to overcome the consequences of its lengthy exile by regaining some revolutionary credentials. But the challenges raised by such a move are considerable. The rise of its armed wing will put to the test the Brotherhood’s “centrist” message and make it accountable for any mistakes the Shields might commit, such as involvement in sectarian killings or looting. In his latest statement, Bashar al-Assad labeled the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood an extremist “terror” group. State propaganda attempting to equate the Brotherhood with terrorism and extremism, the organization’s own controversial history in the late 70s, the possibility that the Shields might get involved in dirty business, and the repercussions this might have on the group all strand to complicate the process of integrating a military wing into the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—particularly as that would arguably render it the only political party in Syria with a degree of military influence on the ground.
Raphaël Lefèvre is visiting fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He is the author of Ashes of Hama: the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria (London, Hurst, 2013). Ali El Yassir is a Beirut-based analyst focusing on political and security issues in Syria and Lebanon.
1. These interviews were carried out by the authors with Muslim Brotherhood figures over the past few months.↩
2. Most estimates gathered situate the Shields’ fighting force as ranging between 5,000 and 7,000 fighters. However, some members of the Syrian Brotherhood’s leadership put the figure at 10,000 fighters.↩