Sons of the Brothers: Emergent Islamic Networks in Syrian Civil Society

27 August, 2019

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on print
Share on email
Share on whatsapp

Executive Summary​

At the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was widely considered one of the largest and best-organized movements in the political opposition to the Government of Syria. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was at the very center of internationally backed opposition platforms, including the Syrian National Council and the National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces. However, contrary to the expectations of many analysts and policymakers, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to convert its expansive international networks, fundraising, and deep engagement in the political opposition into relevance on the local level inside Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ineffectiveness in becoming locally relevant in many Syrian communities is symptomatic of a paradigm shift in which the Muslim Broterhood has been eclipsed as a relevant local actor by newly formed conservative Islamic initiatives which are ostensibly independent and often highly localized. Despite the substantial influence of conservative Islamic values in Syria, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the identity and affiliations of the emergent Islamic actors that have participated widely in the local humanitarian response to the Syria crisis.

In many Syrian communities, individuals, organizations, and social initiatives emerged from these conservative Islamic networks to fill gaps created by the conflict, often through grassroots self-organizing. Many of these actors have been considered ‘affiliated’ to some degree with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, attributions of ‘affiliation’ are overly simplistic, and the relationships between these entities and the Muslim Broterhood are highly complex. In most cases, these new entities are not formally affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Nonetheless, individual emergent actors often do retain familial, personal, or business relations to current and former Muslim Brotherhood members; this is to be expected, as much of Syria retains a conservative, predominantly Sunni Islamic, social character, and emergent actors are generally reflective of the communities in which they operate. Moreover, these emergent actors often enjoy a high degree of community acceptance, and are therefore often highly effective service providers and NGOs. Finally, in many cases these entities have served as important local partners for international humanitarian, developmental, and aid actors inside Syria.

This paper provides a preliminary framework for assessing these actors, their relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood itself, and the means by which these actors may have a role in a post-conflict Syria. It is important to note that this paper is limited in scope to an assessment of grassroots civil society initiatives; it does not assess the role of armed groups with an ostensible Islamic identity, including those which were nominally affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, this paper does not address questions of political Islam which, though valuable in their own right, are beyond the scope of the international Syria response. Finally, it bears note that although this paper is informed by academic research and interviews with members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and emergent Islamic actors themselves, the definitions employed in this paper are ‘functional’ and were thus designed to meet the needs of devleopmental and humanitarian practitioners.

This paper was compiled over the course of three months, relying primarily on publicly available data, academic studies, and key informant interviews with local stakeholders, policymakers, and figures within the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and emergent Islamic networks.

What is the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood?

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (hereafter, SMB) was founded in 1945 by Mustafa Al-Sibai, a protege of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna. The SMB swiftly gained traction as a social and religious movement primarily involved in welfare projects, education, and service provision, and it established itself through wide appeal to the largest constituency in Syria: the predominantly Sunni, generally conservative Syrian middle and lower classes.1 Indeed, the SMB was formed through the unification of three welfare associations that provided robust social and material support to this constituency: Dar Al-Arqam in Aleppo, Jamiyaat Al-Ghara’ in Damascus, and Jamiyaat Al-Hydaia in Homs. Like many Muslim communities throughout history, the SMB viewed Islam as a source of comprehensive guidance, if not a complete roadmap, for all aspects of life.2 Consequently, its outreach frequently involved conventional philanthropic and charitable activities, religious education, and political advocacy, generally in the interest of small-holders, disaffected rural laborers, peasants, and urban craftsmen.3

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as a Political Force

Due to its large following, the SMB swiftly established itself as a potent political force, and from the time of its founding, the SMB was widely viewed as one of the best-organized challengers to Syria’s military-political establishment.4 As such, following the 1963 Syrian coup, successive Baathist regimes enacted ostensibly secular policies and tightened restrictions that effectively barred the SMB and its membership from participation in Syrian politics.5 In turn, mutual political hostility and a crackdown on the SMB’s organized activities drew it into a desultory armed struggle against Baathist security and party apparatuses, and in 1979 a faction known as the ‘Fighting Vanguard’ splintered from the SMB to embark on an insurgent campaign to destabilize and unseat the predominantly Alawite military regime.6 Anti-SMB state policy came to a head in 1980, when Law 49 made membership in the Muslim Brotherhood a capital offense; two years later, in 1982, Syrian President Hafiz Al-Assad and his brother Rifaat, commander of the Syrian Defense Companies, launched a brutal assault on Hama city, considered the SMB’s main stronghold in Syria, to crush the SMB once and for all. Tens of thousands were killed, detained, or displaced by the campaign. As a result, the SMB effectively lost its foothold in Syria; its activities were driven underground, and its leadership and active members were forced into exile.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Pivots Toward Liberal Coalitions

After Hama, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in exile underwent a phase shift. First, the organization lost its cohesive political orientation as many of its members refocused on commercial activities, primarily in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In exile, expansive informal networks predicated on business, family, and ideological affinities increasingly became the primary vehicle of SMB activity. Second, over time the SMB disavowed violence and sought to integrate into wide-spectrum opposition coalitions. In exile, the SMB spearheaded or joined a series of initiatives aimed at implementing liberal democratic reform in Syria, increasingly in coordination with secular and progressive dissident groups.7 However, even as a central pillar of the Syrian opposition abroad, the SMB structured its antagonism toward Syria’s political and military establishment in a way that left the door open to eventual return to Syria. For example, in 2001, the National Honor Pact placed the SMB’s adherence to democratic principles at the core of its advocacy; however, it narrowed the SMB’s opposition to the then-new regime of Bashar Al-Assad to matters of political disagreement, while tacitly recognizing the Government’s basic governing legitimacy. In 2005, the SMB chartered the short-lived Damascus Declaration for National Democrate Change, which cobbled together a coalition that included Kurdish, Assyrian, secular, and conservative opposition factions, both domestic and in exile, as a cohesive political bloc aimed at transforming Syria from a “security state… to a political state.8

Indeed, by 2009 the SMB had ceased all overt opposition activities,9 and its leadership instead pursued a return to Syria through conditional reconciliation with the Syrian regime.10 Over time, the SMB’s meandering, seemingly non-ideological approach to coalition-building made it appear opportunistic to many of its partners and former members. Nonetheless, this criticism did not change the fact the SMB’s large constituency in Syria marked it as a political force that neither the Government nor the opposition could ignore.

Thus, when the Syrian protest movement erupted in March 2011, the SMB, though formally in exile, was widely understood to be among Syria’s best-organized political actors, and it appeared well-placed to capitalize on the incipient uprising to stage a return to Syria.11 To that end, in April 2011 the SMB officially endorsed the Syrian revolution.12 Given the wide networking and substantial fundraising capacity of its members, the SMB found itself at the very center of international opposition political platforms, most notably the Syrian National Coalition, and to a lesser degree, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.13 Crucially, however, the SMB’s adeptness at organizing abroad was not matched by success mobilizing in the civil space that opened in opposition-held areas inside Syria, nor was the SMB itself active or effective in early protest movements, for example in Dar‘a or Homs cities.14 Consequently, the SMB initially played a limited direct role in local, community-driven initiatives inside Syria. To a large extent, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood failed to mobilize on the local level to provide services, humanitarian relief, or local political representation in areas that fell out of Government control. This failure, and the SMB’s overall trajectory throughout the Syrian crisis, reveals a deeper fracture within Syria’s conservative Islamic networks.

The Brotherhood ‘Core’ and ‘Emergent Islamic Networks’

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, image courtesy of

In effect, a paradigm shift has taken place among Syria’s conservative Islamic actors, both domestically and internationally, since the expulsion of the SMB in the 1980s. As a consequence of its exile, the SMB has ceased to be the preeminent political movement and civil society actor within Syria’s conservative Islamic civil and social landscape, especially on the local level. This shift has been accelerated during the ongoing Syria conflict by the SMB’s failure to uphold its basic covenant with supporters: providing welfare and services to meet the substantial local needs, implicitly in exchange for political support, or political sympathy.  This has further reduced its relevance as a cohesive organization inside Syria. Effectively, the formal SMB is now merely one network—albeit a large and influential one—within an ecosystem of effective grassroots Islamic actors and entities with varying degrees of connectedness to the SMB itself.

As such, the milieu in which the SMB exists can be said to consist of two distinct spheres. One sphere contains the organizational ‘core’ of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, primarily in exile.15 The second sphere consists of numerous conservative Islamic networks, primarily centered around local, community-based actors in Syria and their diaspora supporters; for the purpose of this paper, these can be characterized as ‘emergent Islamic networks’ (hereafter referred to as EINs).16 Effectively, these are social networks that have grown organically, partially because of the ineffectiveness of the SMB’s own civil initiatives and activities inside Syria itself. The diminished relevance of the SMB has thus compelled community-based actors to self-organize to meet local service provision, humanitarian, and political needs. As a result, the grassroots civil society initiatives, service providers, and local NGOs that formed on the basis of EINs both complement the SMB’s own limited initiatives, and compete with it over the same constituency.

The ‘Core’ Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

The center of power within the ‘core’ Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is the diaspora ‘old guard’. Currently, the ‘core’ SMB is centered in Istanbul and operates on two fronts. First, it provides services through a network of charity organizations and education centers based in Turkey, and it offers religious instruction and Arabic lessons, primarily targeting Syrian diaspora youth. Second, the ‘core’ group engages in opposition-in-exile political bodies, such as the Syrian National Council, a role which has been monopolized by the group’s elder leadership. The ‘core’ SMB has no formal presence inside Syria.

A defining feature of the ‘core’ SMB is its limited effectiveness in recruiting membership among generations of nominally Brotherhood-linked youth in exile; indeed, when the Syria uprising occurred, it was estimated that less than one-fifth of SMB members were younger than 45 years old.17 To a large extent, the SMB’s failure to recruit youth is due to the organization’s rigid hierarchical structure and its failure to accommodate youth actors in meaningful capacities. Notably, in 2012 the SMB created new ‘youth’ and ‘media’ offices with the explicit purpose of enticing a new generation of membership, and young SMB members were deliberately chosen to head these initiatives (Hussam Ghadban, the Vice General Observer, and Omar Mushawah, respectively). Nonetheless, several factors have impeded the SMB’s youth outreach strategy. To a significant degree, the organization remains defined by the internal and ideological schisms of its past.18 Moreover, despite (or because of) its decline as a relevant, cohesive organization, the SMB in exile remains hierarchical, and meaningful decision-making power is reportedly siloed among its traditional leadership. Finally, the organization has simply failed to appeal to new generations of conservative Syrian Muslims who grew up in comparatively liberal climates with greater access to education, employment, and political expression. It is important to note that a small number of youth actors have joined the ‘core’ Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, including Mulham Daroubi, who was its official spokesman until 2016, but in general younger members occupy junior positions, and their numbers are limited.

Figure 1: Theoretical Sociogram of Emergent Islamic Networks and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

Emergent Islamic Networks

As noted, the diminished relevance of the SMB inside Syria left unfilled gaps in the civil space of Syria’s conservative Islamic milieu; throughout the prolonged Syria crisis, this space has largely been filled by grassroots actors operating through EINs. In effect, EINs are a subset of civil space, specifically, a conservative Islamic space. As such, EINs consist of conservative Muslim families and individuals, their collective social, professional, and personal connections, and their affiliated social groups and organizations. In the context of the Syria crisis, these networks have often coalesced organically on the basis of shared identity within a physical community; in many cases, community members in exile and those displaced by the conflict remain connected via coordination and fundraising. Frequently, actors within EINs have mobilized to create formal and informal entities to provide services and political representation, and in some cases to govern. Often, these entities are grassroots initiatives that are highly reflective of the interests of their local constituencies. However, in some cases, these emergent entities have acquired external support, become formal NGOs, and expanded to wider contexts (for example, see the Hawran People’s Association and Watan case studies below).

Connections With The SMB

In effect, EINs interact with the SMB in two distinct ways. In limited cases, they are directly connected to the ‘core’ SMB by formal affiliation, as is the case for small numbers of local Syrian NGOs. However, the vast majority of EINs have no formal connections to the SMB ‘core’; importantly, however, they remain loosely ‘linked’ to the Muslim Brotherhood through the personal relationships of EIN constituent members. Three dynamics are crucial to understanding the way EINs operate vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood: the linkages between EINs and the SMB based on family, funding, and faith; the diverse ideological streams within EINs; and the wide generational divide within Syria’s conservative milieu.

Family, Funding, and Faith

To a large extent EINs were founded by or are comprised of former members of the SMB, their relatives and children, or their personal connections or business partners. The crucial factor distinguishing these networks from the SMB itself is the fact these actors no longer have, or never had, a formal relationship with the SMB. However, many actors within EINs have relatives who remain members of the ‘core’ SMB, and many operate in business networks with individuals who have some personal relationship to the SMB. Additionally, EINs and the SMB often share social constituencies and, in many cases, external financial and political supporters with the ‘core’; this often includes linkages to Qatari and Turkish state institutions and wealthy private donors. Finally, to a significant degree, actors within EINs and the ‘core’ SMB share a fundamentally conservative social and religious identity, specifically, a Sunni Arab identity. However, there is a broad ideological spectrum within this space, and it is important to note that although these groups coexist within the same generally conservative Islamic milieu and share socio-religious values, they do not necessarily converge on political or social objectives.

Diverse Ideological Streams

As noted above, in terms of religious, social, and political ideology, EINs are not monolithic. In fact, these networks encompass numerous distinct religious and ideological streams, for example the Sufi and Sururi streams.19 Although each of these streams is to some degree conservative, some (i.e. the Sufi) are markedly liberal in comparison to the ‘core’ Muslim Brotherood, while others (i.e. the Sururi) are significantly more conservative. However, distinguishing between these streams is a fraught and exceptionally complicated exercise, and in many cases, the members or leaders of these initiatives do not formally belong to any stream. Often, multiple ideological streams are represented within a single community and its organic networks. Moreover, community initiatives regularly emphasize their independence from any formal ideology. Finally, given the competition introduced by different funding streams (among both institutional and private donors), actors’ ideologies are routinely mischaracterized by rival organizations.

Sons (and Daughters) of the Brothers

The greater capacity and more liberal social values of diaspora youth, or so-called ‘sons and daughters of the Brothers’, has significant impact on their efficacy as service implementers. In exile, a new generation of Muslim Brotherhood-adjacent youth has benefited both from wider lattitude to organize as well as greater access to education and technology; in turn, this has been reflected in their ideology and engagement in the Syria conflict. As noted above, many sons of SMB members in exile have been reluctant to join the classical streams of the SMB as a result of its rigid organizational structure and opaque, restrictive hierarchies. Instead, many in the youth diaspora, including women who have been effectively shut out of the formal SMB, have formed new entities more representative of their comparatively liberal values and capable of capitalizing on their skill sets.20 For example, in 2011, the SMB-linked youth in diaspora engaged heavily in online activism, which proved critical in the early stages of the uprising and benefited considerably from diaspora participation due to the ban on Facebook and Youtube in Syria which remained in place until February 2011, significantly limiting social media penetration inside Syria.21 Indeed, the “Syrian Revolution Against Bashar Al-Assad” Facebook page was decisive in mobilizing popular support for massive Friday protests and shaping the discourse of the early uprising movement22; among the co-founders of the page in 2011 was Fida Al-Sayed, who, though not a member of the SMB himself, is the son of an exiled former leader of the SMB. Finally, it is crucial to note that without the legacy and rigid ideology of the ‘core’ SMB groups, young and independent initiatives have had greater latitude to establish partnerships with other initiatives on the ground.23

Case Studies

Image courtesy of Hawran People’s Association.

Below are three case studies that show the role played by actors within specific emergent Islamic networks in the Syria crisis. These case studies involve: the Hawran People’s Association, a grassroots NGO that emerged to meet local service needs in Dar‘a; the Syrian Business Forum, an international platform that engaged in high-level leadership within Syria’s political opposition; and Watan Foundation, an NGO founded by technocratic members of the Syrian diaspora. To a degree, each case study shows the organizational capacity of Emergent Islamic Networks in building effective grassroots entities and mobilizing funding and political support along personal, business, and families ties. Importantly, they also illustrate the engagement that international donors, development actors, and INGOs have already had with emergent Islamic networks.

Two further points are worth noting: first, many emergent Islamic actors face access and funding challenges due to their informal, personal relations to SMB members; notably, this reputational risk exists even when no formal connections to the SMB exist. Second, and most critically, these case studies show that emergent Islamic actors are important within Syrian civil space; ultimately, EINs effectively represent or serve large portions of Syrian society as a whole. In many cases, local communities, international development agencies, and INGOs, have relied on these actors to deliver humanitarian programming and fill vital service gaps created by the Syria conflict.

Hawran People’s Association (Rabitat Ahel Hawran) - Local Actors Formalize Operations

The Hawran People’s Association (Rabitat Ahel Hawran) is a Syrian ‘international’ NGO that was founded as a social association in Istanbul in 2011.24 The founders of the Hawran People’s Association were religious figures and businessmen who collaborated on the basis of two shared traits: personal and familial connections to the Hawran region (which spans rural Dar‘a Governorate); and a conservative Islamic identity. Initially, the organization was run by local staff in Dar’a with relatively limited technically experience, and it concentrated on basic humanitarian aid and religious education. Although conservative Islamic identity was reportedly a de facto requirement for staff hiring, beneficiary selection reportedly remained impartial, and programming decisions were also reportedly made without respect to religion. Until approximately 2015, the considerable fundraising of the Hawran People’s Association was based primarily on the outreach of Hawrani clerics, including an ex-member of the SMB who enjoyed significant reach among wealthy private donors, primarily in Kuwait and Qatar. However, as this shifted to institutional and grant-based funding, the organization formalized and redirected its programming into six specific sectors: health, education, food, water, shelter, and security. Nonetheless, this shift also entailed a risk: rival NGOs publicized the perceived closeness between the SMB and the Hawran People’s Association in an attempt to discredit it. When the Government restored control over southern Syria in 2018, many members of the Hawran Peoples Association were forcibly evacuated to northern Syria, and the organization ceased its operations in southern Syria; it now solely operates from Turkey, primarily implementing programming in northwest Syria, especially in Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas.

Why it matters: Two key dynamics that are critical to understanding the role of Emergent Islamic Networks in the Syria conflict are visible the trajectory of the Hawran People’s Association: its early professionalization and the persistent accusations that it had linkages to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. First, the shift in funding from an individual donor basis to an institutional, grant basis reportedly catalyzed a more formalized institutional ‘reform’ within Hawran People’s Association. Notably, the Hawran People’s Association began as a bottom-up, grassroots organization of local actors with limited technical experience and capacity; however, through the family and tribal ties of its members, it enjoyed a high degree of community acceptance. As the conflict wore on and individual donor fatigue set in, the Hawran People’s Association transitioned to a formalized NGO structure, with clear programmatic priorities and procedures. This shift was also driven by the organization’s desire to enter formal partnerships with other grassroots organizations, NGOs, and civil society actors in southern Syria. Second, the Hawran People’s Association experienced reputational damage as a result of accusations that it was an arm of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. These accusations deterred potential donors and resulted in heavy monitoring of and restrictions on its activities, particularly in Jordan; however, the primary leadership figures within the Hawran People’s Association deny having formal relationships with the SMB.

Syrian Business Forum - Diaspora Community Leads Political Opposition

Image courtesy of Syrian Forum.

The Syrian Business Forum began in 2012 as a platform for conservative Syrian businessmen willing to engage politically in the Syria uprising. Its principal objective was to mobilize resources for projects to improve the quality of life in Syria as the Government responded to the protest movement with increasing military force. The Syrian Business Forum was primarily comprised of conservative, religious businessmen who had ties to SMB-linked business networks; however, few of its members were known to be close to the SMB. However, reportedly most members of the Syrian Business Forum were outside the SMB ‘core’ group, and several of its members had an overtly hostile relationship with the SMB; indeed, according to some sources the SMB actively resisted the formation of the Syrian Business Forum. The Syrian Business Forum primarily supported local actors undertaking humanitarian work and local governance, and to a large extent it competed with the SMB over the same constituency. To this end, the Syrian Business Forum was an early supporter of the Local Administration Councils Unit, prior to establishment of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and the Syrian Interim Government. In time, the Syrian Business Forum and its later offshoot, the Syrian Forum, became deeply involved in Syrian opposition governance projects that were based in Turkey and widely supported by the international donor community. Indeed, the head of the Syrian Forum, Ghassan Hito, eventually served as the first Prime Minister of the Syrian Interim Government. Moreover, Mustafa Al-Sabbagh, a Syrian businessman and a leader in the Syrian Business Forum, served as General Secretary of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. Like most members of the Syrian Business Forum, both Sabagh and Hito are from families linked to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, but have never themselves been open members.

Why it matters: The Syrian Business Forum’s involvement in the Syria crisis demonstrates three key dynamics. First, the group’s activities call attention to the essential role that conservative Syrian business networks play in socio-political organization at the highest levels in the Syrian response. Businessmen, especially conservative businessmen who have some professional links to the SMB in exile, have been highly successful in establishing and supporting social, economic, religious, and political initiatives in Syria, and many of these actors remain involved in some form of civil society or grassroots organization. Second, the forum faced routine accusations that it was a branch of the ‘core’ SMB itself. However, the Syrian Business Forum publicly adopted and advocated progressive political and social values; moreover, the ‘core’ SMB resisted its formation, likely fearing rivalry over a shared constituency. Nonetheless, the family, personal, or economic ties that linked many members of the Syrian Business Forum to the SMB led to the perception that it was in fact an appendage of the SMB. Third, and most crucially, international support to entities linked to the Syrian Business Forum and sharing membership with it, to include the Local Administration Councils Unit, Etilaf, and the Syrian Interim Government, demonstrates that Emergent Islamic Networks are crucial actors within broad initiatives which international actors already support to a considerable degree.

Watan Foundation - Diaspora ‘Sons’ Bring Technical Capacity to the Syria Response

Watan Foundation was established in June 2012 in Istanbul as an umbrella entity unifying multiple technical, civil society, media, capacity-building, and humanitarian initiatives; its explicit goal is to serve as the preferred local implementing partner for international donors and aid agencies in Syria. Overwhelmingly, Watan’s founders were Syrian diaspora technical professionals with experience in Turkey, Jordan, and Gulf states (primarily Saudi Arabia). Notably, many of these founding members belong to families that are historically highly influential within the SMB, including Al-Sibai, Sayyed Omar, Zain Al-Abdien, Bakkar, and Hamdo families.25 Like the Hawran People’s Association, Watan initially drew much of its funding from private donors in Gulf states, while Turkey continues to host most of its activities, including its large annual conferences. Nonetheless, these funding streams institutionalized over time. Thus, Watan is now often considered one of the most technically capable Syrian ‘international’ NGOs, it receives significant support from foreign donors and development agencies, and it is a primary local partner for numerous INGO, developmental, and humanitarian projects, primarily in northwest Syria.

Why it matters: Watan is widely viewed as one of the most successful Syrian-run civil initiatives, in terms of access, local effectiveness, and viability as a long-term partner. To a considerable degree, Watan’s organizational success has been the result of its place within diaspora and youth Emergent Islamic Networks. In particular, Watan has drawn on the technical expertise of its Syrian diaspora founders and early membership; this includes staff with subject matter expertise in technical fields as well as often overlooked areas critical to building viable partner institutions, such as finance and business. Nonetheless, the participation of emergent Islamic actors also entailed reputational vulnerability, and rivals to Watan have routinely characterized it as a front for the SMB. The ‘starting point’ for Watan’s founding membership was a network of trusted families from Hama, Homs, Dar‘a, and Aleppo with traditional or historical ties to the SMB, although no Watan members are known to be active or open members in the SMB. Nonetheless, conservative social values, family ties, and political orientation provided a successful module for building an effective service-oriented organization, without necessarily sacrificing humanitarian principles such as impartiality.


As one of Syria’s best-organized civil society actors, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood played a leading role in the political opposition during the early stages of the Syria uprising, where its core leadership participated at the highest levels in Western-backed opposition initiatives. However, its role in the humanitarian response, local service provision, and emergent civil space inside Syria was comparatively modest. Indeed, in many communities in Syria, the formal Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, in exile since the early 1980s, was absent, ineffective, or functionally irrelevant. However, on a local level, individuals, organizations, and social initiatives that emerged from the same conservative Islamic milieu as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood filled these gaps, often through bottom-up, grassroots self-organizing. These actors often have familial, personal, and business relations to communities of current and former Muslim Brotherhood members in exile; in many cases, they draw funding and support from the same international networks used by the Muslim Brotherhood itself. It is important to reiterate that the SMB is, by its nature, a secretive organization; as such, confirming the precise affiliations of an organization or an individual to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is all but impossible. However, many, if not most, of these actors are functionally and formally independent of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their activities have on some occassions been perceived as hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood itself.

Concern on the part of development actors, international donors, and INGOs over the linkage between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and local humanitarian organizations and social initiatives in Syria is warranted. This is both a political consideration and—potentially—a legal risk; in April 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his administration would seek to have the Muslim Brotherhood designated a Foreign Terror Organization by the U.S. State Department, an initiative that has not yet occurred as of this writing. It is important to note, however, that the reach and effectiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria has been exaggerated, both by the organization itself (to increase its own profile), and by its detractors (in an attempt to discredit competitors for funding, or the political opposition more generally). Ultimately, it is crucial that actors intervening in Syria recognize that much of the Syrian population remains fundamentally conservative, and Sunni Muslims of the lower and middle classes are the largest constituency in Syria. As a result, in many communities self-organized initiatives that reflect local dynamics are likely to have a conservative character, if not an overtly Islamic one, which will to some degree intersect with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood itself.

However, opportunities for principled engagement in this space do exist.  Many emergent actors with a fundamentally conservative character are committed, at least nominally, to liberal principles, democratic values, and religious and ethnic pluralism. Most importantly, supporting these actors offers a potential lever of influence over wider networks; support to these actors can strengthen their relative position, and they are likely to transmit their values to other actors within their constituent networks of personal, familial, and business connections. Finally, many of these actors have already received, and continue to receive, considerable support from Western aid agencies, and they are often among the most effective local partners for developmental and humanitarian actors on the local level.

The future role of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria is an open question. Whether it will seek to collaborate with, or to co-opt, effective actors with community acceptance, access, and effectiveness it lacks itself is unclear. Emergent actors, however, are likely to exist in some form in Syria both locally and among the Syrian diaspora for the foreseeable future. Currently, these entities are crucial actors in northwest Syria, and they remain important partners in refugee host nations, especially Turkey. A conservative Islamic constituency is deeply entrenched inside Syria, and the Government of Syria itself is keenly interested in asserting greater influence over the way a distinctly ‘Syrian’ Sunni Islam manifests itself. This is likely to have a considerable impact on the way civil society actors, religious charities, and faith-based initiatives are allowed to operate in Government-controlled areas in the future. It is possible that emergent Islamic entities will operate under the auspices of state institutions (including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the Endowments Ministry); other actors, however, may continue to operate underground, grow and evolve along liberal or conservative lines, or work from exile, just as previous generations of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood operated. How emergent actors navigate this space and respond to or resist new constraints will thus be determined by the degree of control the Government is able to impose, and the degree to which emergent Islamic networks are able to access new support structures.

Key Takeaways

  1. Conservative Islamic identity is a fundamental aspect of Syrian civil society; international humanitarian and developmental actors should consider emergent Islamic actors to be viable potential partners. Notably, throughout the Syria conflict, actors with a conservative Islamic identity emerged in a grassroots, bottom-up manner in communities across Syria. As such, they are broadly representative of local community dynamics; in many cases they are the most effective actors present; and they have had substantial influence and high degree of community acceptance. Especially in Euphrates Shield and Olives Branch areas, these entities play a crucial role in stabilization and governance; crucially, many are already directly and indirectly supported by numerous developmental and humanitarian actors.

  2. When working with conservative or religious organizations, donors and INGOs must recognize that the label “Islamic” is highly nuanced. Throughout the Syria conflict, local community actors have relied on personal, familial, and business relationships to support grassroots initiatives to meet their needs. These entities share a generally conservative Islamic identity, but their members embrace a wide range of ideological views, and most of these entities are explicitly supportive of secular, democratic, and humanistic values. In fact, the desire to break away from the ineffective and ideolgoically rigid formal ‘core’ Syrian Muslim Brotherhood directly contributed to the growth of many emergent Islamic entities. Developmental actors intervening in this complex environment must recognize that a wide spectrum of views and ideologies exists.

  3. Critically, not all emergent Islamic entities that have filled the gaps created by the conflict can or should be funded. Some emergent Islamic actors cannot be engaged by Western developmental and humanitarian actors due to ethical, political, or potential legal concerns. However, many actors in this space are effective and viable partners, and programmers must recognize that personal relationships are not determinant, and they do not define the activities of these actors or their coordinate entities. 

  4. Supporting emergent actors is one means of shaping their trajectory and values, both internally and within the wider conservative networks. Emergent Islamic actors both receive ideas from other actors, and share their own values with other entities in their networks. Entities that receive support grow stronger and transmit their values, ideology, and ideals throughout the broader emergent Islamic network; those that are not supported dissolve, or are co-opted by other actors. Thus, programmatic decisions to engage emergent Islamic actors can have a multiplier effect. Importantly, support is not only monetary; political and logistical support, education, and trainings are also valuable, and can be vehicles to impart or strengthen specific values. Finally, funding streams should be structured in a way that promotes collaboration within these networks, rather than competition. Indeed, competition over funding has been a key driver of internal competition and spurious accusations of linkage to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood on the part of ‘rival’ actors.

  5. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is a stigmatized, secretive organization; its membership is essentially unknown; and accusations of affiliation are both unverifiable and unfalsifiable. Many emergent Islamic actors have been accused of affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood by peer organizations (including others of a conservative character) vying for the same competitive funding streams through both private and institutional donors. Ultimately, these accusations are a product of competition, largely as a result of the funding conventions adopted by donors themselves. Importantly, donor funding streams and external support should be structured explicitly to encourage collaboration, rather than competition within these networks.

  6. In general, the atomization of the Syria response has diminished the effectiveness of external support; as above, donor engagement should encourage collaboration not only among conservative Islamic actors themselves, but between these actors and secular, progressive, and multi-ethnic entities. It is crucial that donors and developmental actors create incentives for conservative Islamic entities to operate collaboratively outside their immediate networks. Notably, these actors have a long track record of pragmatic coalition-building, and wide-spectrum partnerships are one of the defining features of the youth conservative Islamic networks. As such, partnerships with entities to include secular and non-ideological civil society actors should be encouraged.

The Wartime and Post-Conflict Syria project (WPCS) is funded by the European Union and implemented through a partnership between the European University Institute (Middle East Directions Programme) and the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). WPCS will provide operational and strategic analysis to policymakers and programmers concerning prospects, challenges, trends, and policy options with respect to a conflict and post-conflict Syria. WPCS also aims to stimulate new approaches and policy responses to the Syrian conflict through a regular dialogue between researchers, policymakers and donors, and implementers, as well as to build a new network of Syrian researchers that will contribute to research informing international policy and practice related to their country.

The content compiled and presented by COAR is by no means exhaustive and does not reflect COAR’s formal position, political or otherwise, on the aforementioned topics. The information, assessments, and analysis provided by COAR are only to inform humanitarian and development programs and policy. While this publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union, its contents are the sole responsibility of COAR Global LTD, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.