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Islamists Rising in Syria
By Rick Moran

The situation in cities besieged by the Syrian army is getting bloodier, while the political situation gets more confused and muddled by the day. A UN peace plan being pushed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, first accepted by President Bashar Assad and the rebels, is in the process of failing, as once again, the Syrian dictator has reneged on implementing the terms. As Syrian tanks and artillery continue to attack several cities, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are beginning to flex their muscles in the councils of the political opposition, while radical Sunnis form independent battalions to fight the Syrian army -- and the Alawite minority running Syria -- declaring jihad on the Syrian dictator while fighting under the black flag of radical Islam.

The failure of the peace plan is leading to increased calls to arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main military force fighting the Syrian regime. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul on Sunday, said that if Assad doesn't stop his attacks on civilians, the US will not stand in the way of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar from arming the rebels.

The peace plan offered by Annan was agreed to last week by both sides. It calls for "a ceasefire, military withdrawals from towns, prisoner releases, humanitarian and media access and above all a Syrian-led political process to negotiate transition to a new government." After giving his agreement, Assad almost immediately altered the terms by demanding that the "terrorists" give up their arms first. The FSA rejected Assad's proposal which has left the entire plan teetering on the edge of failure, if not already dead.

Assad agreed to a similar plan presented by the Arab League back in November, but refused to carry out important parts of the agreement. It was after that failure that the Syrian military launched its most brutal campaign of the war, pulverizing civilian neighborhoods in Homs and Hama, killing many hundreds of innocents. Indeed, following Assad's ostensible agreement to the UN plan, the Syrian army escalated its violent crackdown to include towns and cities in the provinces of Idlib, Daara, Deir Ezzor, and in the city of Homs. Three soldiers tried to defect during fighting in Daara province, but were recaptured and shot by an officer, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. All told, more than 70 soldiers and civilians were killed on Sunday alone.

The imminent failure of the Annan plan has stirred the ad hoc organization "Friends of Syria" to action. More than 70 countries and representatives of the Syrian opposition met in Istanbul over the weekend, and while rejecting calls for unified action in arming the rebels, the group agreed to supply money to the FSA so they could pay the troops under their control, while calling on Kofi Annan to set a deadline for Syrian compliance with the terms of the UN peace plan. Annan will address the UN Security Council on Monday. But any deadline would have to be approved by the Security Council -- an unlikely event given the strong opposition by Russia and China to any kind of action by the world body directed against their client Assad.

In addition to warning Assad that the US would allow the arming of rebels unless he agreed to the cease fire, Secretary Clinton also said the US would be supporting the SNC with "direct assistance" in the form of communications equipment and other non-lethal aid. The US pledged up to $12 million in aid while making it clear that "[o]thers are going to be supporting fighters associated with the SNC." The conference pledged in excess of $100 million to pay salaries to FSA fighters.

The Friends of Syria also recognized the Syrian National Council (SNC) as the sole, legitimate opposition group speaking for the Syrian people. This is easier said than done, given the state of the Syrian opposition and the fact that there is little the group can agree upon.

The SNC met earlier in the week, trying with little success to paper over its differences. The Kurdish delegation walked out in the middle of the conference, claiming their concerns were not being met, while several secular members had quit in disgust last month, saying that the organization was "undemocratic" and was being dominated by Islamists. Working feverishly, Turkish diplomats managed to save the conference from catastrophe by luring back many of those who quit, getting the SNC to agree to expand its membership and try to work more democratically. The Kurds, however, refused to return citing the SNC's unwillingness to include a reference to Kurdish autonomy in its statement on a post-Assad Syria.

So far, the SNC and the rest of the Syrian opposition has been hopelessly fractured in almost every way -- from agreeing on an immediate agenda to help the FSA to violent disagreements over the future of a post-Assad Syria. But there is one group within the SNC that is organized, dedicated to throwing Assad out, and clear about both its immediate goals and long term plans.

The Muslim Brotherhood -- once banned in Syria -- is on the comeback trail and its resurgence should give Western powers pause before agreeing to arm any of the opposition groups.

The Brotherhood was last seen in Syria during the 1980s when Assad's father Hafez cracked down on its headquarters in the city of Hama, murdering up to 10,000 during a bloody insurrection. But in reality, the Brothers had never left -- they simply went underground. While most of the leaders were in exile, the structure of the group remained intact through a network of cells and activists. It was the same tactic used in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak's crackdown and has led to victory at the polls there. While Assad continued to arrest and execute Brotherhood members, he could never stamp out the movement completely.

Now, with the secular opposition in disarray, the Muslim Brotherhood is re-emerging with surprising strength and cohesiveness. Some opposition members say that the Brotherhood is using money and weapons to gain influence in the council, tapping its donor base spread throughout the Middle East. One secular dissident who broke away from the SNC last month, Kamal Labwani, claims the SNC is "a liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood. " Islamist members of the council deny this, saying that they want a pluralistic Syria where all factions and sects are represented in government.

What's clear is that at the SNC meeting last week, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced to compromise and expand the SNC to include more secular groups. Of the 350 members of the SNC, it is believed that 270 are Islamists, Salafis, and other Sunni radicals who want to depose Assad both because he is a member of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam and because of his oppression.

This is obvious from the growing radicalism of Sunnis in next door Lebanon. While many Syrian religious figures have stopped short of calling for jihad against Assad, fearing a bloody sectarian conflict, no such restraint has been shown by Lebanese clerics who are urging their flocks to go to war against Assad and "grind him into dog meat." To that end, several independent battalions of fighters have formed, including the "God is Great" brigade whose fighters march under the black flag of Islamism:

To our fellow revolutionaries, don't be afraid to declare jihad in the path of God. Seek victory from the One God. God is the greatest champion," the brigade's spokesman said in the January video. "Instead of fighting for a faction, fight for your nation, and instead of fighting for your nation, fight for God.

"We don't want to accidentally wind up supporting extremist groups," said Joseph Holliday, of the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington. Holliday added, "The fundamental question is: What happens in the future? And does our involvement make this turn better or worse?"

The FSA is not making a distinction between defectors from the army who are fighting for Syria, and groups of radical youths who fight for an Islamist state. They will no doubt distribute arms based on battlefield success. Who is to say whether the independent groups who claim allegiance to the FSA are fighting to depose Assad or "fight for God"?

Then there are the unknown connections that might exist between the opposition and the shadowy terrorist groups who have begun a campaign of bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. A terrorist organization calling itself the Al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that killed 27 in Damascus over the weekend. This follows on the heels of several other high profile bombings targeting police stations, intelligence headquarters, and regime supporters. It is also believed that al-Qaeda's Iraqi branch has moved into Syria to assist in overthrowing Assad. Any thought to arming the FSA should take into account the idea that the diffuse leadership of the FSA may contain officers who feel no compunction about working with terrorists to achieve their goals.

As the Syrian revolt gets bloodier, the temptation to give arms to the opposition will grow. But given the re-emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the growing influence of radical Sunnis in the SNC and FSA, and the possibility that heavy weapons would fall into the hands of terrorist groups, that temptation must be resisted and a true democratic opposition to the odious rule of Bashar Assad be encouraged. Whether that is even possible remains the biggest question to be answered if Western countries are going to aid the rebels.

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