Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lebanese, Syrian Brotherhoods unlikely to feel effects of "terror" designation

[Originally posted at NOW]

Saudi’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorist” organization is unlikely to have tangible effects in the Levant.

While much attention has been paid to the deepening rifts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims across the Arab world in recent years, it is the internal battle for the political and ideological soul of Sunni Islam that has seen the fiercest inflammation in the last few days.

In an unprecedented escalation, on 7 March the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia designated as a “terrorist” organization the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatar-backed movement that advocates an alternative form of Islamic rule to the Wahhabi-Salafist strain established in Riyadh. The move came two days after Saudi, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, recalled their ambassadors from Doha; the culmination of months of tensions deriving from Qatar’s continuing support for the Brotherhood.

While the “terrorist” label applies, in theory, to all Brotherhood members worldwide, NOW learned that in practice it is expected to target only those active within Gulf states, and in Egypt, where the new Saudi-backed military government has waged a violent crackdown on the movement since the July 2013 overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-linked President Muhammad Morsi, going as far as to jail journalists working for Qatar’s Al Jazeera network. Specifically, Brotherhood affiliates in Lebanon and Syria – where they make up a significant minority of the opposition Syrian National Coalition – told NOW they did not anticipate feeling any tangible effects.

“I don’t think there will be any effect on us from the Saudi decision,” said Bassam Hammoud, head for the South region of the Brotherhood-linked al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah party. “It’s clear that this decision started with the bloody coup in Egypt [which Saudi supported] because they were afraid for their chairs and their positions, because the project Muhammad Morsi proposed is one of reformation and change.”

The mood appears to be similar among Brotherhood members in Syria, where questions had initially been raised about the fate of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition, which is backed by Saudi yet also contains many Brotherhood members who will now be deemed “terrorists” by Riyadh. (As one analyst noted, it’s still unclear whether Brotherhood-affiliated members can even attend the upcoming Coalition general assembly in Cairo, where they are also now legally considered “terrorists”.) Muhammad Sarmini, a Brotherhood partisan and member of the Syrian National Council – which withdrew from the umbrella Coalition in January over disagreements about the Geneva peace talks – told NOW he expected ties with Saudi to remain essentially cordial.

“Even after [the Saudi] decision, there is no change in the relationship between us. The decision doesn’t touch the Syrian Brotherhood directly,” Sarmini told NOW.

One reason for this, according to sources familiar with the Saudi leadership’s thinking, is that Riyadh doesn’t deem the Syrian Brotherhood a security threat in the way it does the Egyptian branch.

“I do not think the decision will adversely affect Saudi allies such as the Coalition because the decision addresses terrorists from the Brotherhood and [especially] Egypt’s Brotherhood,” said Dr. Anwar Eshki, a former Saudi army general and head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies. The Brotherhood denies accusations of involvement in terrorism.

“The Kingdom deals with the Syrian Brotherhood and respects the Tunisian Brotherhood because they are engaged in political work and have not practiced terrorism […] The Kingdom gives aid to the Syrian Brotherhood for spending on refugees and the needy among the Syrian people,” Eshki told NOW.

Indeed, Sarmini told NOW the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood in particular had long enjoyed warm ties with Riyadh – another factor making an abrupt breach unlikely.

“The relationship between Saudi and the Syrian Brotherhood was a good, positive one, and even a historical one. Saudi embraced members of the Brotherhood in the 1980s and opened the door for them. Even until now […] we appreciate their position and their support toward the Syrian revolution.”

Nevertheless, Sarmini and Hammoud still voiced strong objections to the Saudi decision. “Without a doubt, we consider this position to be one that needs to be reviewed […] We appreciate that Saudi is confronting terrorism, but this is not reconcilable with describing moderate organizations as terrorists,” Sarmini told NOW.

Hammoud was blunter: “This is a reprehensible decision.”

And the move has also faced criticism in certain Arab media, such as the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, whose editorial Sunday said the decision benefits the Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi leaderships, and “identifies Saudi, objectively, with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.” Indeed, NOW asked Dr. Eshki why he thought Saudi had designated the Brotherhood as “terrorists” before doing the same to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant party often considered Riyadh’s preeminent foe in the Levant. He declined to answer directly, telling NOW instead:

“From the womb of the Brotherhood came al-Qaeda, and from the womb of the Brotherhood occurred most of the terrorist acts in the Kingdom.”

Ana Maria Luca and Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

No comments:

Post a Comment