The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) was established in 1945-46 by Mustafa al-Sibai, who had studied in Egypt in the 1930s where he grew close to Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and had participated in Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood political activities. The SMB was an active political party following independence and favored Syria becoming an Islamic state. Members were elected to government positions until the secular Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963. In 1964 the SMB was outlawed and its leader Isam al-Attar was exiled.
When Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, the tensions erupted into violence that was sanctioned, in part, by Sunni SMB members challenging the legitimacy of the Alawi Assad regime. In 1979, SMB members killed over eighty unarmed Alawi cadets at a military training compound in Aleppo, and in 1980 the Assad regime issued Law Number 49 that declared membership in or association with the SMB a capital crime. The SMB continued to function underground but in 1982 the Assad regime launched a major attack on Hama, a SMB stronghold. Tens of thousands of people were killed and SMB members fled the country.
Following exile, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members forged alliances with secular dissidents who were calling for the establishment of a multiparty democracy based on Islamic law. The National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria was formed in 1982 and in 1990 the National Front for the Salvation of Syria was formed with similar objectives.
In 1996 Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni was elected as the leader of the SMB and shifted tactics by engaging in secret negotiations with the Syrian government in an attempt to have Law Number 49 rescinded, SMB political prisoners freed, and the right for those in exile to return. When Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, he granted some of these requests (freeing hundreds of prisoners and allowing some to return from exile) in keeping with his desire to align with the anti-western movements that were growing in the region.
As a result, the SMB publicly promoted a new political platform that was outlined in the 2004 publication entitled “The Political Project for the Future Syria.” In that document, the SMB supported political reform through the rule of law by promoting nonviolence, democracy, and human rights. They continued to promote enshrining Islam as the official religion of the state, but with a decidedly pluralist focus. In a similar vein, in 2005 the SMB joined other opposition forces to sign the Damascus Declaration, calling for peaceful transformation to democratic rule in concert with the regime.
In 2006, Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni made a controversial decision to join with the recently defected (2005) vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam to form the National Salvation Front that called explicitly for regime change. Signers of the Damascus Declaration felt betrayed by the decision to align with such a controversial figure as Khaddam and the SMB responded by asserting that they were aligning with all groups focused on reform. The SMB angered Khaddam and other NSF members three years later, however, when it withdrew from the coalition citing support for Bashar al-Assad given his sponsorship of Hamas in the wake of Israel’s military campaign to occupy the Gaza strip.
In 2010, the SMB elected Riad al-Shaqfa to succeed Bayanouni and many assumed he would take a more militant stance against the regime given that he was active in the resistance movement in the late 1970s. Shaqfa continued to support the regime, however, in an attempt to have the restrictions against the SMB eased. He called upon Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to intervene in support of easing restrictions that were still enforced.
The SMB continued to support the regime until the recent uprisings. In the wake of escalating tension, Assad accused the SMB of spearheading the protests. SMB leadership denied this accusation, but acknowledged supporting the opposition in light of the regime’s consistent refusal to overturn Law Number 49 and to allow those in exile to return.
Ruth Roded, “Lessons by a Syrian Islamist from the life of the Prophet Muhammad,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 42, No. 6 (2007), pp. 855-872.
Yvette Talhamy, “The Muslim Brotherhood Reborn,” Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring 2012), pp. 33-40.