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Assad Plays the Islamist Card

The Syrian government has long used Islamists to justify its rule by making the Assad regime look acceptable while doing its best to hide the existence of its secular opponents from the world. The Syrian government has sponsored Islamic extremists to the hilt (including al-Qaeda), while casting itself as the barrier to stop their ascent. Now, the regime is employing the same trick to frighten its citizens and deter the West from challenging it.

Riad al-Turk, a secular democratic opposition leader, says Assad’s political strategy includes “using the threat of the Islamists taking over and arguing that our people are not yet qualified to practice democracy.”

As soon as the uprising began gathering steam, one of Assad’s advisors immediately blamed it on Muslim Brotherhood theologian Yousef al-Qaradawi. The first casino was closed and the ban on teachers wearing niqabs and burqa was rescinded, helping Assad to frame the struggle as one between Islamism and secularism. When it released 270 political prisoners, all but 14 were Islamists. The regime also agreed to allow for the forming of a “moderate Islamist party loyal to the regime” under the leadership of Ayman Abdel Nour, a close personal friend of Assad. He was also told to create an Islamist satellite station. The regime wants to co-opt its Islamist opponents while undermining the secularists.

The regime refuses to even admit that its security forces are killing people, attributing the deaths to “armed gangs” and “terrorists.” There have been accounts of the victims’ families being required to sign statements affirming that the deaths came at the hands of these vaguely defined murderers before being given the bodies for burial. The regime has also claimed that it is combating “an armed insurrection by armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations, especially in the cities of Homs and Banias.” Protesters in Homs reacted by chanting, “We want freedom, not Salafism.”

This is simply the continuation of a shrewd strategy. The regime has permitted Islamic extremists to hold anti-American rallies in the open while fighting to make sure the secular opposition is not seen or heard. The late Abu Qaqa is an excellent example of this. He preached jihad and called for Sharia-based governance, yet was not put behind bars. Qaqa was involved in the flow of foreign extremists to Iraq and his former second-in-command, Abu Ibrahim, suspects he was an agent of the regime. Government personnel attended his rallies and Baath Party officials were present at his funeral.

The Assad regime also used the publication of the cartoons mocking Mohammed to tell the West: “We are the only thing standing between you and the Islamist hordes,” in the words of a source cited in a confidential cable released by WikiLeaks. In February 2006, the regime had the grand mufti instruct the imams to incite their audiences. An agent of the regime tied to the mufti helped organized protests which are normally prevented. The security services stood by as they took place and the Danish and Norwegian embassies were attacked. The source said that the regime was sending a message: “This is what you will have if we allow true democracy and allow Islamists to rule.”

The choice is not merely between Assad and Islamists. There is a real secular democratic alternative. The Reform Party of Syria estimates that only 20 percent of the population is Islamist. Dr. Barry Rubin, an opponent of democracy promotion as strategy, writes that “Syria isn’t likely to see an Islamist takeover.” He estimates the level of Islamist support to be about 15 percent and notes that the Syrian government has harshly repressed the Muslim Brotherhood and made it unable to effectively organize. He also observes that the regime’s promotion of radical Islam has led to a backlash against the ideology.

The demographics of Syria are also a hurdle for the Islamists. About 90 percent of Egyptians are Sunni and the latest poll shows the Muslim Brotherhood is in second place behind a secular party. The CIA World Factbook says that about 74 percent of the Syrian people are Sunnis (Dr. Rubin puts the number at 60 percent). The rest are minorities that will not support the Islamists. Kurds and Christians each make up about 10 percent of the population and 3 percent are Druze. The Allawite minority that the regime comes from is 10 to 13 percent, though the Washington Post put it as low as 6 percent.

The West must not fall Assad’s trickery. The uprising is driven by secularism, and liberal activists are being imprisoned. The Muslim Brotherhood, which ceased opposition activities in 2009, did not endorse the revolution until last week. Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah are on the side of Assad, not the protesters.

Assad is not Mubarak. He is a promoter of the radical Islamic ideology and terrorism that some fear will replace him. He is not an ally in any sense and is an enemy in every sense. The U.S. should not hesitate any longer to help the people of Syria who are aspiring to rid themselves of a dictatorship that threatens both them and us.

(Also read “You Want to Appease Syria? Not to Worry, Hillary’s Out in Front” at the Tatler.)