I traveled to Turkey in March, as part of a class in public diplomacy, sponsored by George Mason University's Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. During the trip, the class met with Syrians who were engaged in the early, non-violence movement. We also met with Turkish officials and academics, and visited a Syrian refugee camp in Nizip, Turkey. It was, to say the least, and interesting experience. I came to the class with boat-load of professional skepticism, and left with a much deeper appreciation of the immense complexity of the regional situation, from the geopolitical to the deeply personal perspectives.
Pre-trip research made me realize that Syria has been in a state of conflict since 1963, and to some extent that conflict has been "spilling over" since then. Whether it was the energy and idealism of the nonviolent activists or the former members of the Fighting Vanguard who went on to be some of the most influential jihadis of the movement. These exiles and expats have been playing a long, slow game against the Assad regime since at least the 1970s, with Muslim Brotherhood members being the most prominent of the group.
My counter-jihad career began, in ernest, in 2003, during brief stint as an FBI analyst. It was there that I was introduced to former members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and not in a good way. I'm unable to discuss the details of that experience, but my public skepticism about potential post-Assad governments is inspired by my experiences during that early period. If you've read my blog you'll know that I'm not a fan of the MB in general, but the Syrian branch inspires a particularly acute antagonism. As a result, I rarely mention them.
I've been in the middle of a personal Syria project for a few weeks, primarily as an effort to "find" a possible masters thesis idea. It was during this work that I came across the UK's Foreign Office correspondences accessible through the Adam Matthew Archive. The Syrian branch of the MB is little known, especially in English. Thomas Friedman and Robert Fisk seem to be the most prominent filters of "common" knowledge on the Syrian MB. The group's real history seems lost in the mists of Syrian instability.
To add a little more to the short bin of English-language historical knowledge of the group, I'm reproducing some of the passages on the group from years of FO correspondence, between 1947 and 1956. It's not much, but I suspect some of this information on a few of its early leaders is "new" to writers studying the group:
From a 25 February 1947 weekly report of political activities of the Syrian government, an account of the aftermath of a visit from Egyptian MB student rep, Mustafa Mumin:
"In the course of conversation with the oriental secretary Muhsen Bey Barazi, head of the President's Cabinet, remarked that the President was very displeased with the Egyptian Charge d'Affaires and the members of his staff for their activities among the Ikhwan al Muslimeen, particularly in connexion with the visit of Moustafa Mu'min (representative of the university graduates of the Egyptian Moslem Brethren) when one of the sheikhs of the Syrian Ikhwan made a speech in the Omayyad Mosque violently attacking British policy over the Sudan. The sheikh in question has been informed that he will be banished if any repetition occurs and Sheikh Moustafa Sebai, President of the Syrian Ikhwan al Muslimeen, has been told by the President that the Ikhwan al Muslimeen must not interfere in matters concerning international politics. The oriental secretary took the opportunity of mentioning the forthcoming visit of the Ashigga delegation, who are due to reach Damascus in a few days to present their views on the future of the Sudan. Muhsen Barazi gave an assurance that they would not be allowed to speak in the mosques nor to cause demonstrations but said that it would be hard to prevent the press from becoming violent in view of the freedom of expression which it was the policy of the present Government to allow. The oriental secretary pointed out that it would be most unfortunate if the Ashigga representatives were able to mislead the public by a press campaign into the view that they represent anything other than a very small proportion of Sudan opinion."
Among the annual correspondences regarding Syria, the FO published biographies of notable social and political actors, "Leading personalities in Syria." Several MB leaders show up on the list in successive years, including 1956:
"36. Dawalibi, Ma'ref
Born 1907 in Aleppo. Moslem. A lawyer. A graduate of the Syrian University, he also holds a Paris University Doctorate of Law. From 1936 to 1938 he was a member of the National Party and was active in both Aleppo and Damascus. During the war was in France at the time of the German occupation and was in close touch with the ex-Mufti Haj Amin Hussaini, Rushid Ali al Keilani and the other pro-German Arabs. Collaborated with the Vichy Government. Helped the ex-Mufti to escape from France in 1946 Elected to Parliament in 1947. he left the National Party and joined the Popular Party in 1948. Member of the Moslem Brotherhood. Elected to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949. Appointed Minister of National Economy in the Cabinet formed by Khalid al Azm on 27th December 1949. Resigned with the rest of the Cabinet in May 1950.
While in Cairo in April, 1950, made a statement indicating that the Arabs would prefer to become a Soviet Republic rather than be judaized as a result if American pressure. This statement caused something of a sensation and was the signal for a noisy demand in Syria, chiefly by the Moslem Brotherhood, for a rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Although the statement did him harm in responsible Syrian circles it boosted his popularity among the masses. Minister of National Economv under Nazim Qudsi (q.v.), 23rd to 27th March, 1951. After the fall Hakim's (q.v.) Government on 10th 'her he managed to form a Government. at the second attempt, on 28th November, but on 29th November its members were imprisoned by General Shishakli. Released in April 1952. but later taken into custody again. Refused to take the oath of non-participation in politics as a civil servant (lecturer at Syrian University) and was accordingly dismissed in May 1952. Released from prison by General Shishakli as an act of clemency in June 1953 of Shishakli was restored to his position in the university and was appointed Minister of Defence in Sabri Assali's coalition Cabinet March-June 1954 which fell partly as a result of the bad relations between Dawalibi and the army. Returned at the head of the poll for Aleppo as a Populist in the 1954 elections.
Poses as fanatic Moslem, is popular and a fair speaker. A trouble-maker, he is reputed to have Left-wing tendencies and ambitions to become President of the Republic."
"81. Mubarak, Muhamad
Born 1912 in Damascus. Sunni Moslem. Son of the late Abdul Qadir Mubarak (of Algerian origin), who was a prominent member of the Arab Academy, Damascus. Graduate of Syrian University, faculties of law, arts and sciences. Also holds a licence in literature from the Sorbonne. A teacher in the Government secondary school of Damascus, he later became an inspector of education. Leading member of the Ikhwan al Muslimeen and elected to Parliament in 1947 as their candidate. Elected to the Constituent Assembly in November 1949 as one of the candidates of the Islamic Socialist Front. Appointed Minister of Public Works in the Cabinet formed by Khalid al Azm in December 1949. Resigned with the rest of the Cabinet in May 1950. After Ma'ruf Dawalibi's Cairo statement in April 1950 Muhamad Mubarak, together with Shaikh Mustafa al Sibai and the rest of the Islamic Socialist Front, began publicly to advocate a rapprochement between the Arab States and the Soviet Union, and called for a treaty of friendship between Syria and the Soviet Union. They later ceased this clamour and even made statements against Communism. Allied with People's Party in 1951. Mubarak became Minister of Agriculture in Hassan Hakim's Government, August to November 1951, and in Ma'ruf Dawalibi's Government, 28th to 29th November. 1951. Imprisoned in January 1952 by General Shishakli when he and Mustafa Sibai showed signs of preparing to call out the mobs ostensibly in support of Egypt but really to upset or embarrass the regime. Officially resigned from the Brotherhood early in 1954 but this seemed to make little difference to his continuous political activity. He was persistently referred to as a Brotherhood candidate. Appointed as Syrian Minister at Tehran but, being returned for Damascus in the 1954 elections, he did not proceed."
"108. Sibai, Mustafa, Shaikh
Born in Horns about 1915. Moslem. Studied at Al-Azhar University, Cairo, where he was when Rashid All's rebellion took place in 1941. He was accused of having distributed a circular in Cairo calling on the Egyptian people to support the movement, was arrested by the Egyptian police and detained for some two months without trial; deported from Egypt and interned by the British authorities in Palestine at Sarafand for seven months. Repatriated to Syria, where he was again interned for two years, first at Mieh-Mieh and then at Rashaya; released early 1945, when he began to take a strong interest in the Moslem Brethren. Since 1946 he has been director of the Arab Institute in Damascus (a school run bv the Moslem Brethren). He is controller-general of the Moslem Brethren in both Svria and the Lebanon, and was one of the principal editors of El Manar newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Moslem Brethren until*its suppression in April 1949. El Manar reappeared in November 1949. Elected to the Constituent Assembly in November 194 chief representative of the newly-formed Islamic Socialist Front (= Moslem Brethren), of which he is the main spokesman. In 1950 together with Muhamad Mubarak publicly advocated a rapprochement with the Soviet Union.
Imprisoned by General Shishakli early in 1952 when he and Muhamad Mubarak showed signs of preparing to call out the mobs ostensibly in support of Egypt but really to upset or embarrass the regime. Re-elected in 1954 as Head of the Moslem Brotherhood in Syria after a split in the Brotherhood ranks had been healed during the visit to Syria in the summer of 1954 of Hudeibi, the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood in Egypt. Did not stand in the 1954 elections for Parliament in which the Brotherhood was ostensibly neutral. Was prominent towards the end of 1954 as a consequence of the many demonstrations in Syria protesting against the attack by the Egyptian Government on the Brotherhood in Egypt. He is accused of being more interested in politics than in religion."