DOHA, Qatar — The head of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood political bureau, Hassan Hachimi, ruled out near future prospects of talks with Iran regarding the Syrian civil war, calling the Iranians “untrustworthy.”
The remarks were made during an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor on the sidelines of the Brookings Institution’s US-Islamic World Forum in Doha.
“They have made many attempts [to engage the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood] and continue to do so, but we are still refusing to meet with them because we see them as part of the problem and an untrustworthy partner,” he said, accusing Iran of backing the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which this week captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
“The image they [Iran] are trying to send [is] that here we have a battle that is the same as yours, we are fighting terrorism, and we have now [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani who is a moderate, and who is trying to cooperate, and Syria all of a sudden might be a partner.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged support to the Iraqi government June 12 in its fight against the radical group, condemning ISIS as "an extremist, terrorist group that is acting savagely."
The Brotherhood leader rejected assertions his organization had lost influence within the Syrian National Coalition, or that its relationship with Saudi Arabia had been constrained since Riyadh designated the global organization a terrorist group in March.
“We don’t feel there are issues between us and the Saudis as far as our role in the coalition is concerned. We’re still playing our role in the coalition,” he said, but he did concede there were concerns over the Saudi-led regional push against the Brotherhood movement.
Hachimi, who is also the coalition’s director of political affairs in North America, admitted that the regime was in large control of the main cities in Syria, but would not sign off on Aleppo just yet.
“We can say yes that the regime still has the cities, but Aleppo is still going back and forth.”
A Syrian government official last week told Al-Monitor that the fall of Aleppo to the Syrian army was a matter of when, not if.
There was less optimism in regard to the delivery of advanced American weapons to the rebels, with the Brotherhood leader saying he’s heard it all before.
“We’ve heard it from the American government before. But I would say wait and see because they’re saying it’s making its way through.”
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: How significant is the Muslim Brotherhood within the Syrian opposition coalition these days?
Hachimi: We are part of the coalition, as you described it. We are working through the different institutions of the coalition and the opposition in general as one partner of the big Syrian opposition. We always like to believe that we are there to add to the constructive role of the opposition in general, particularly in bringing together all the differences, and mediate when we have differences or issues in the opposition. This is unfortunate really, because after 40 years of no political life, it’s a fact we have lack of political experience and political relations between different Syrian activists. In some cases, there’s some lack of trust issues. We try to always be there to help whenever those who think of us as a party that has been around for a long time, and have good relations with them. We are having issues of polarization that have grown over time, and we’re trying to level that and address this issue. Our message is actually that we nowadays, everything we do, everything we ask, is to keep the needle in our compass straight toward the real goal of achieving the revolution’s objectives, and not be distracted with the other issues here and there.
Al-Monitor: Has the Muslim Brotherhood been marginalized within the Syrian opposition coalition since Saudi Arabia took a more active role in the opposition?
Hachimi: No, we don’t feel marginalized, we’re still playing an active role. Our vice president in the coalition is from the Muslim Brotherhood, even the situation of the Saudi-Qatar issue is not really as clear nowadays. At one point in time, probably because of some competition within the coalition, there was a little bit of that. But today we are in a much better situation, there’s a lot of coordination between the Saudis and Qataris, even within the coalition there’s a lot of consensus. The latest political bureau, which I am now a member of, is proof of that. We had a consensus election in the coalition where we have a real mix now in the political bureau, in terms of representation.
Al-Monitor: It’s not just about Qatar; Saudi Arabia has listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, you’re officially banned from Saudi Arabia. How has your working relationship with the Saudis been affected since the ruling came into place?
Hachimi: Even that is not really accurate because the position that Saudi Arabia took wasn’t really so general as people read it. I think it was addressing certain issues. The latest coalition’s visit to Saudi Arabia that the president made, it also included the vice president, who is a Muslim Brotherhood representative in the coalition. We don’t feel there are issues between us and the Saudis as far as our role in the coalition is concerned. We’re still playing our role in the coalition.
Al-Monitor: Are you concerned though by Saudi Arabia’s active push against the Muslim Brotherhood across the region?
Hachimi: For sure, in general the overall regional scene is not very much positive nowadays. We’d definitely like to see things settling down and brought back to more neutral, positive relations. I think that’s definitely the case, particularly when you look at Egypt’s role today. Unfortunately, the Egypt coup, as we describe it in our opinion, is not really a positive contributor to the Syrian revolution in terms of the Syrian refugees. They used to enjoy more freedom and rights during Mr. [Mohammed] Morsi’s presidency. Since the coup, the Syrians in Egypt have been going through harsh difficulties, denied sometimes entry, imprisoned, tortured. I think we used to have over a million Syrian refugees in Egypt, now we have half a million. This is definitely a negative sign that worries us, for sure. We would like to see this going forward. Our concern always goes back to the big scene, not our own partisan interests.
Al-Monitor: Do you think the Islamist project for the Middle East is still viable given the ferocious opposition the Muslim Brotherhood is facing?
Hachimi: First of all, let me say there’s no such thing as a regional project of the Muslim Brotherhood. We are totally independent. Every country has its own organization and has its own set of objectives and goals that they’re working to accomplish. This is clearly displayed through the variety of performances when you compare Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to Libya to everywhere else. As far as we are concerned, we haven’t changed a bit since day one. We are working within this large Syrian opposition to accomplish the revolution’s goal for dignity, freedom and establishing a democratic, civil Syria.
Al-Monitor: A secular, civil state in Syria?
Hachimi: We’d prefer to describe it civic and democratic. The project itself, when it comes to secular versus other ideas, I think every party will have its own mandate and project and will put it forward in a democratic environment, in a parliament, and then work toward it. Frankly speaking, our own project is pretty much to run away from all these kinds of sensitive, inaccurate words or descriptions of the project that you would like to establish. Our project is very much organic, we would like something that is Syrian, that reflects the Syrian mosaic with all the components that we have in Syria. That’s why we believe in a collective effort that carries that burden. We see it is a burden that cannot be carried by one project or one party.
Al-Monitor: Does reflecting the Syrian mosaic mean you’re willing to compromise and opt for a political system that doesn’t include any sectarian or religious overtones, which might alienate other aspects of Syria’s demographics?
Hachimi: Our project for sure will take into consideration not to isolate any of the Syrian mosaic. It will include the participation of all Syrians in carrying this burden in terms of rights and responsibilities. That’s been described in our Syria project in 2005. It describes all our aspects of it, and it’s not really excluding anyone.
Al-Monitor: This conflict has taken huge sectarian overtones, with rising jihadist and Islamist groups. Do you think the Islamification of the rebellion has done more damage to the Syrian revolution, given that minorities are increasingly siding with the Bashar al-Assad regime out of fear of the Islamists?
Hachimi: No, I don’t think so at all. I like to recall here what Mr. [Burhan] Ghalioun used to say, he’s a professor in social science. I think he once mentioned: What do you expect of a person who is going out and he knows he might not come back? That person would definitely resort to his religious values, and will definitely be attached to them. That’s the reality between life and death.
That’s not something that has developed over time. From day one, people went out expressing their will for freeing Syria from the corruption, and a return back to the dignity and free life that they aspire for. From day one, they would do Friday prayers, then go out chanting Allahu Akbar. This is the moderate, standard Islamic life that people live in their cities and villages. It was reflected in their behavior, there was no makeup. What was added from abroad, and what is worrisome, are the more extreme ideologies which attracted not significant numbers of Syrians. Generally speaking, the Islamic reflection of values that these people reflect, it’s very organic and very normal. Nothing is made up.
Al-Monitor: The result of that has been minorities being fearful as they largely view the opposition not as Syrian, but as Islamist. How do you address minority concerns?
Hachimi: There’s a lot of politics in this, to be frank. I always like to go back to many in the opposition who are from all the minorities: Christians, Alawites, Druze, Assyrians and so forth. I can cite tons of statements that they have issued and expressed about their will to go the mosques and participate and say Allahu Akbar with these guys. Everyone read it in the right way, nobody took it out of context. Only those who wanted to play politics made it otherwise, and this was the game the regime was trying to play. Unfortunately, there were also some regional and international powers, particularly Russia and Iran, who used this.
There was a lack of activism from our part to explain and bridge the information gap to really shed some light. This was never meant to exclude anyone, this was just to show that we, as a majority, are asking to bring Syria to its dignity and freedom and everybody with us in the big Syrian scene. The reality of it is that since day one there has been participation from different minorities in the revolution. The minorities’ participation was there. The huge media machine that the regime and its supporters that tried to use this and bring it to what it is not, probably succeeded somehow to give it that sectarian image, which is really not the image it intended to.
Al-Monitor: ISIS captured Mosul this week, and they’re extending their reach and power. How has this organization become so powerful? Where are they getting their support from? How do you stop them?
Hachimi: I have my own theory on ISIS. ISIS’s story, since the start as far as we’re concerned, in Syria was supported by security forces in the Syrian regime and Iran. Although it seems awkward because they were fighting the regime in some cases. Of course, in Syria they were never really fighting the regime, they always used to call it freeing the freed lands. Wherever the Free Syrian Army (FSA) freed lands, they would go and take it over. We have tons of examples where they would be backed by the regime, where their back would be to the regime fighting the FSA. We have lots of examples, and this is firsthand from people fighting on the ground, this means a lot to us.
This means that the regime and Iran are planning a big scheme. The scheme that they’re planning is still under their control. They will let these guys, who they would like to call “Sunni extremist image,” behave in an ugly, totally un-Islamic manner. Nothing of what they’re doing is Islamic in performance, in ideology, in thought. This is the ugly image that they [Syrian regime and Iran] are promoting. But [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki is allied to Iran, so does it make sense that Iran also supports ISIS? It makes sense because it means that they are allowing ISIS to lash out, and against this they will put us — the Syrian opposition — in the same basket with ISIS. This is basically how they are trying to present it to the world who aren’t really following the details. In Europe and even the United States, you would be surprised at the lack of information and ignorance that you would see.
It’s about the headlines, and you know how the media psychology works, you just leave the image, you don’t really go into the details. So, basically, the image they [Iran] are trying to send [is] that here we have a battle that is the same as yours, we are fighting terrorism, and we have now Rouhani who is a moderate, and who is trying to cooperate, and Syria all of a sudden might be a partner. This is an attempt to rehabilitate Assad. Syria is very important to Iran. Mosul today is part of the big scheme to convince the world that there’s a need for a resolution in Syria where Assad is rehabilitated and stays in Syria, and the opposition is marginalized. I think if they achieve this, they will have the Iran-Maliki-Assad-Hezbollah circle that will continue to be a power in the region. This is a price worth paying for — for them.
Al-Monitor: Do you have any evidence of Iranian support for ISIS?
Hachimi: Of course we do. First, at the beginning, we know that ISIS’s first announcement was when they defected from al-Nusra. Since early, through our people on the ground, we know in terms of participants, those who were in the regime’s security forces all of a sudden have long beards and are now in ISIS or al-Nusra. The second, the Iranian attempt to get in touch with the Syrian opposition would always carry with it attempts to say that we are willing to support you. This doesn’t make any sense, you support Bashar, how would you support the opposition? Amongst that, and this is through important middle people, they will say we are prepared to support you, we are already supporting al-Nusra and ISIS. This was mentioned literally by them, they said that we are doing so.
We all know of course that still important [jihadist] figures are living in Iran, in camps. The passports that were confiscated were hundreds. We have lots of evidence, we have lots of passports and people who were captured on the ground who were from Iran or trained there. The real question is: Why is no one listening to this? This is not new of course, this piece of information has been around for quite some time. Why is nobody taking action? Why is the action going the other way around, and going toward Iran to make it a partner in the solution, and make it achieve its scheme, and make a Shiite front that will prevent any development in the region? This is a very big obstacle in the whole regional picture.
Al-Monitor: Will the Muslim Brotherhood meet with the Iranians to talk Syria?
Hachimi: No, they have made many attempts and continue to do so, but we are still refusing to meet with them because we see them as part of the problem and an untrustworthy partner. When we see constructive action by them toward the solution, then it will be time to talk to them. In the absence of that, it is nonsense.
Al-Monitor: The Syrian army has recently made significant gains, and they’re riding on a high wave of confidence. How do you see things on the ground in Syria? Is it inevitable that Assad will regain the core of Syria, including Aleppo?
Hachimi: Just yesterday there was news that things were going the other way around. This is still going back and forth, it’s not really going one way. Whenever we have a lack of support, or whenever things are still under planning, things slow down and they go back and regain what they lost. This has been going on for quite some time. Generally speaking, the regime, yes, still has Idlib, Homs, Damascus and big parts of Aleppo city. The opposition on the other hand is avoiding having the regime cause further damage to these cities and to the civilians living in them. They are avoiding a lot of confrontation in certain areas as a result, and this influences the way they run the scene, whether they attack or they don’t. It doesn’t really mean a lot necessarily. However, we can say, yes, the regime still has the cities, but Aleppo is still going back and forth.
Al-Monitor: The United States is considering sending more advanced weapons to the Syrian opposition. Are you optimistic that this will result in tangible support?
Hachimi: After I’ve seen the lack of support, I’m not really very optimistic. I would like to be optimistic. I would rather say wait and see. We’ve heard it from the American government before. But I would say wait and see because they’re saying it’s making its way through. There’s no clear sign that anything arrived or didn’t arrive.
Al-Monitor: A major concern is preventing the fall of advanced weapons to jihadist groups. How can that be guaranteed?
Hachimi: The technology embedded in the weapons can prevent them from falling into the wrong hands, there’s GPS and fingerprints embedded in them. The idea of how the FSA will handle these weapons is to document using them and give all assurances that they are used for what they’re intended, which is against the regime and defend against regime air strikes.