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Syria: The Ambiguous Islamist Angle

By Michael Young - November 8, 2005 12:00 AM

In the aftermath of the United Nations report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, much attention has been focused on how to hold Syria to account. Indeed, the German investigator heading the inquiry, Detlev Mehlis, found "converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act." However, there is a narrower aspect to the report that has gone largely unmentioned, but that shows how Syria's Baath regime has managed to both peddle a secular image while also maintaining ambiguous ties to Islamist groups.

One of the revelations of the Mehlis report is that senior members of a Lebanese Islamist group, the Society for Islamic Philanthropic Projects, known familiarly as the Ahbash, played a key role in the planning, execution and cover-up of Hariri's February 14 murder. Two of its officials, the brothers Mahmoud and Ahmad Abdel-Al, are suspects in the crime, and Mahmoud was reported to have telephoned Lebanese President Emile Lahoud on his personal cell phone only minutes before the assassination.

As the report also observed:

        "[Ahmed] Abdel-Al has proven to be a significant figure in light of his links to several 
        aspects of this investigation... It does not appear that any other figure is as linked 
        to all the various aspects of this investigation as Abdel-Al."

The Ahbash responded to the accusation with heated denials. However, there is a more disturbing aspect to the affair well known to observers of the society: it is among Syria's closest Lebanese allies and in recent years was effectively an extension of Syria's intelligence network in Lebanon. In fact, the society was a rare outpost of the Sunni community not under the sway of the voracious Hariri, and is still caught up in a dispute with the mainstream Sunni religious establishment over control of three Beirut mosques.

The Ahbash are an organization with several facets. As scholars Nizar Hamzeh and Hrair Dekmejian have written, the society was established in 1930, but was taken over in 1982 by a group of Muslim intellectuals who sought to advance religious, educational and social conditions for Lebanon's Muslims. Yet there is another side to the movement that is more intriguing: doctrinally, the society finds itself bitterly opposed to the religious interpretations of, among others, the Jamaa Islamiyya, the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The bitter rivalry has had political repercussions, reflecting the Syrian regime's enmity toward Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. In its third facet, therefore, the Ahbash have been used by Syria as an Islamist rival to the Muslim Brotherhood. Put more simply, the Baath regime has buttressed one Islamist group it could dominate as a counterweight to those it could not do so as easily. It also used it as a stick against other power centers in Lebanon's Sunni community.

A paradox of Syria's minority Alawite regime is that it has had to cede ground domestically to Sunni Islamists to reduce the dangers of a Sunni effort to overthrow the regime. In 1982, President Hafez Assad ruthlessly crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, following a series of lethal challenges against his authority. Membership in the organization was afterwards punishable by death. However, the regime realized that force alone would not suffice; it also needed to bolster its Islamic credentials and find instruments of state to co-opt and infiltrate Muslim institutions.

Ibrahim Hamidi, a leading Syrian journalist, has written that after the annihilation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime "encouraged the building of some 80,000 new mosques. It also established the Assad Institute for Memorizing the Koran in various cities and governorates, and over 22 higher education institutions for teaching Islam." At the same time, the Syrian government set up 584 religious institutions "to provide health care and food assistance to the public, [with] 280 of them [offering] comprehensive daily services to about 1 million people -- and to about 2 million during the holy month of Ramadan."

Yet as Hamidi also observed, disapproval of the regime and Syria's social and economic tribulations pushed an increasing number of youths toward Islam, since the "public...was offered a simple choice: Islam or the official ideology." In trying to keep a lid on the religion by expanding educational institutions and mosques it controlled, the Assads may have inadvertently played sorcerer's apprentice to an Islamist revival they will be unable to control, particularly if the regime is destabilized by the Mehlis inquiry.

What does this mean for future relations between the international community and Syria in light of the information on Hariri's death? Syrian President Bashar Assad has sought to protect his regime by repeatedly implying that if it were to collapse, the result would be chaos or an Islamist takeover of Syria, or both. In other words, whatever happens in the Mehlis inquiry, the Assads are better than the unknown.

Perhaps, but Syrian behavior in Syria and Lebanon has shown two things: that an allegedly secular regime has had few qualms about dealing with, manipulating, and using Islamist groups when convenient; but also that what the Syrian leadership might regard as its supremacy over Islamic institutions has the potential to spin out of control when its legitimacy is called into question. Dividing Muslim groups, as Syria has the Ahbash and the Muslim Brotherhood, may sometimes work; but offering no third choice between Islam and despotism is where the Assad regime's irresponsibility really lies.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.

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