The Brotherhood has survived in Syria because of the understanding it has reached with the jihadists of HTS and its predecessors. That understanding will break down when the groups realize they are rivals for Syria’s political future.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is considered one of the oldest, most organized and most widespread organizations that has stood in opposition to the country’s successive autocratic regimes.
But when the 2011 Syrian revolution began, the Brotherhood ended up on the sidelines – the demonstrations were spontaneous and non-ideological, no opposition group was able to claim them. As the revolution evolved into an armed uprising, it had a similarly limited influence. Though some armed groups affiliated to the Brotherhood in name, most did not interact with the group in practice, uninterested in its ideology, or indeed any specific ideological mindset.
This vacuum allowed jihadist groups like the predecessor of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – Jabhat al-Nusra – to take over armed factions aligned with the Brotherhood, and the moderate opposition in general. The Brotherhood moved to focus on relief work centered in Turkey, its ally, where it was able to penetrate some sectors of the Syrian refugee society there by providing relief and logistical support.
But when jihadists started to turn on one another, the Brotherhood had an opportunity to regain influence. As Jabhat al-Nusra attacked and dissolved other rebel groups, the Brotherhood welcomed their former members into its military arm, the Sham Legion.
Just an importantly, it struck a truce with Jabhat al-Nusra, which did not regard the Brotherhood’s military arm as a threat. It transferred arms and provided relief support to the members of the Sham Legion. In exchange, the Brotherhood agreed to not promote its ideological or religious activity in associations, religious institutions or mosques run by Jabhat al-Nusra or, later, HTS.
This alliance of convenience allowed the Brotherhood to retain a presence in Syria when other opposition groups were being decimated, leaving it with one of the dominant strains of ideological thought.
It carried benefits for HTS as well. Jabhat al-Nusra gained the support of the Brotherhood in its war against jihadist groups that opposed HTS, such as Jund al-Aqsa and ISIS cells, and it secured the Brotherhood’s neutrality in its struggle with other revolutionary factions, including Euphrates Shield, Ahrar al-Sham, and the al-Zenki Movement.
But the Brotherhood sees no political future for the jihadists in Syria; indeed, it sees itself as the political and ideological leader of the future. When each side realized the other is an enemy, the truce will break down.
This deferred conflict looms on the horizon, particularly after the Russian-Turkish agreement on Idlib, which calls for jihadist groups to be disbanded, foremost of all HTS. This international and regional demand, entrusted to Turkey, has become a way for the Brotherhood to put pressure on the jihadists.
The Muslim Brotherhood may end up leading the campaign to disband of HTS, including militarily. It is unlikely that Turkey will get directly involved in the conflict with the jihadists because of the internal risks for Turkey and for its positions in Syria. Accordingly, Turkey might push for a factional clash against the jihadists, led by Turkey’s Brotherhood allies. Such a clash is likely to be bloody.
Likewise, a media onslaught has begun against the jihadists by individuals sympathetic to the Brotherhood, who advocate proselytization activity in the mosques and in the revolutionary street to weaken HTS and destroy their legitimacy.
It cannot be said whether direct confrontations between the two sides have actually begun because of the negotiations between Turkey and HTS to persuade HTS to disband. Turkey does not want to go too far, too fast with HTS, for fear that most of its members and leaders will switch to Hurras al-Din, an Al-Qaeda group that was established when HTS announced its split from Al-Qaeda, and is hostile to Ankara.
Turkey also does not want to miss the opportunity to use HTS to help confront the Kurds and control its border with Idlib, as well as to keep it in place as an effective political tool that Turkey can use in its rivalry with Russia. So for the moment, conflict is not on the table.
But in the meantime, the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to create a strong foothold in northern Syria through the formation of the National Front for Liberation, whose members number an estimated 30,000. It is beginning to undertake proselytization activities by moving the street to demonstrations against the regime, and it may use such demonstrations against the jihadists in the future. It is also seizing arms shipments from Turkey.
Meanwhile, it is consolidating its large influence on political opposition entities outside Syria – especially those present in Turkey – and through the benefits it receives from the support of Turkey and Qatar.
All this means that conflict between the Brotherhood and the jihadists is likely to be coming.