(Kafranbel, Idlib) Saadeddin Al-Khatib (52) felt free for the first time in his life in 2011. The Syrian revolution had sparked on March 15, and he was among the first peaceful demonstrators to call for freedom and the overthrow of the Asad dictatorship, which had ruled the country for over four decades.
Al-Khatib is a local of Kafranbel, Idlib. One of hundreds of members of the formerly banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, he has been detained and tortured for several years in the notorious Tadmur Prison.
It has been two years since Idlib governorate fell entirely outside of regime control. However, due to the prevailing state of war and the multitude of jihadist organizations on the ground, new political parties have yet to take shape here. Apart from the Muslim Brotherhood, which resumed its activities through political conferences and relief efforts, party-based political life is nearly non-existent.
The Brotherhood on the Ground
Al-Khatib, who now works in the Brotherhood’s relief sector, explained to SyriaUntold: “Most members of the party live in exile. Despite not being on the ground, they nonetheless provide us with material relief assistance, whether or not we are affiliated with the party. Their support has also benefited the displaced, the poor, and those in need, as well as some military factions.” Al-Khatib declined to name these factions, but there has been ample evidence of Brotherhood support for the Shields of the Revolution Council (2013-14), in addition to other militant groups engaged in the ongoing conflict.
Al-Khatib pointed out that the Islamist group occasionally holds party meetings, and has established many associations to connect the Brotherhood members abroad with those inside Syria. Such associations include the Wafa Association, Ensar Mazlumlar, and the Free Tadmur Prisoner Association.
These associations are concerned with handling Brotherhood affairs at home, as well as providing humanitarian aid and implementing developmental and service projects in opposition-controlled areas.
The Brotherhood strives to recruit new members, but according to Al-Khatib it follows certain criteria, notably having engaged in either intellectual, revolutionary, civil or media activity, in an emphasis on those who can be effective contributors. Nabih Othman (69), the executive director of Ensar Mazlumlar, said the door is also open to all former Tadmur prisoners.
As for the Brotherhood's political role during the Syrian revolution, the party has been a major bloc in the Syrian National Council, which remained the most important opposition group in exile until November 2012, when it joined the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood remains a single party in the midst of numerous Syrian political movements. It is true that it is a disciplined and effective political actor, but it lacks manpower inside Syria. Power has become monopolized by other Islamist militant factions with whom the Brotherhood avoids confrontation. This is not a battle the party wishes to engage in for the time being, says Al-Khatib, as the priority is rather to “overthrow the regime.”Where Are the Leftists and Nationalists?
As for leftist and nationalist currents, where are they in Idlib today?
Istanbul-based journalist Manhal Barish (37), who hails from Saraqib and was a member of the dissenting leftist Syrian Democratic People’s Party, suggests an answer. “Basically there are no currents in the political sense. There are only individuals and small groups who have failed to create a broad social base in Syria. We are talking about political opponents, not an opposition.
"This is the case of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who found no united platform to join, except for the Damascus Declaration [which did include nationalists and leftists]. This platform was nonetheless neutralized by the regime by way of detaining and exiling its members, which ultimately resulted in its dissolution.”
In short, Barish adds, in the context of an armed conflict, a mixture of sectarian strife and a “regime’s war against its people,” not to mention the complex geopolitical dynamics, there is little chance for a leftist movement to be effective in the foreseeable future. Political activity, even the sort bound by democratic principles, is still subject to repression and persecution in areas the regime has forgone, to no lesser extent than in regime-controlled areas.
As for the People's Party, Barish believes that it has distinguished itself from other parties in the vast political ecosystem in which it operates. That is, it has included intellectuals, veteran political dissidents and young activists. However, the party fell short of garnering significance presence in Idlib, which is also the case of the Nasserite current (the Democratic Arab Socialist Union). Furthermore, Barish emphasizes that, as far as the Syrian rebellion’s support base is concerned, the majority of political figures operate on a local rather than national level.
Armed Opposition and Jihadist Organizations
Concerning the lack of political parties in Idlib today, Ahmad Jalal (38), a member of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in Kafranbel, suggests that political parties emerge as a result of a transition of power. However, due to the war, governance in rebel-held areas is exercised by militant factions in a manner similar to the “emergency law” mandate. This, Jalal argues, is an environment “unsuitable for the emergence of any political parties, especially with the polarization which has impacted most segments of the population, dividing them into supporters and opponents of this or that faction. This polarization led to the rise of belligerent movements competing over power.” Consequently, no political parties have been formed in the opposition-held north for fear of confrontations with rebel armed groups or jihadist organizations.
“The Syrian north, especially Idlib and its countryside, is rife with multiple affiliations that have even divided households,” said Abu Amjad[i] (40), a member of the Kafranbel Local Council. On the fragmentation, he explained that “there remain loyalists and supporters of both Daesh [a derogative Arabic acronym for the self-declared Islamic State, IS] and the Asad regime, even if they do not express their political views.”
Abu Amjad attributed the affiliation of young people with the factions to their need for material support, their inclination towards jihad, or their conviction that their factions fight for freedom and overthrowing the regime. He also added that the human capital flight towards asylum countries contributed to the absence of political parties, despite the total withdrawal of regime forces from Idlib governorate in 2015.Amran Al-Hamawi (28) has been a fighter with Jabhat Fath al-Sham (JFS, formerly known as Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al-Nusra) for two years. He is fully convinced that the organization is “the most honest and diligent, with no political or material ambitions. Its only goal is to defend oppressed and persecuted Syrians,” as he explained to SyriaUntold.
On the other hand, Said Habash[ii] (56), who is also from Kafranbel, voiced his grievances about the confiscation of his house by JFS, on the grounds that his son is still serving in the regime’s military. “What are we guilty of, to be punished for our children’s decisions?” he wondered. “The children parted ways according to the ruling powers on the ground, without our consent, and without even consulting us.”
For its part, according to Al-Hamawi, JFS considers that “confiscating the houses of those people is normal, so that they know that, by maintaining loyalty to the Asad regime and assisting it in killing their countrymen, they are expelling their parents and themselves from the liberated areas.”
This demonstrates the dominion of these factions over people’s lives, as well as their reckless retribution against their ‘political adversaries’ which is quite indicative of the rocky terrain ahead for political action under such circumstances.
Given the fragmentation and the multiplicity of powers on the ground, the likelihood that new political parties will emerge remains low. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the only one that is still operating, is far from being the dominant power it is said to be. However, it is thanks to its political aptitude, as well as its proven track record of resilience, that this party might continue to play an active role in Syrian politics for years to come.
[Main photo: Syrian revolution in Idlib. Young anti-regime demonstrators pose with pre-Baathist Syrian flag - 25-2-2012 (Freedom House/CC BY 2.0)].
[i] A pseudonym was used for security reasons.