The arrest last week of Louai Sakra in Turkey suspected of planning to carry out a terrorist attack on Israeli cruise ships evidently would not have happened without the unusual cooperation of several intelligence agencies. According to Turkish sources, it was Syrian intelligence that furnished information about the possibility that Sakra was living in the city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey; Israeli intelligence contributed information on his potential targets and Turkish intelligence reaped the harvest. Sakra is suspected of having links with the Turkish terrorist group that carried out the terrorist bombing of synagogues in Istanbul in 2003. What's more, based on his shouts from his jail cell, he is also linked to Al-Qaida.
A no-less interesting aspect of the case is Sakra's Syrian citizenship. It is not the first time that Syrian citizens or "visitors" have acted in the name of the objectives of Al-Qaida or as part of the radical Islamic mission. For example, the bombers of the synagogues in 2003 fled to Syria, where they found refuge among local friends with whom they had studied at a madrassa (Islamic school) in Aleppo, Syria. Syria wasted no time in extraditing the Turkish escapees to Turkey, but retained their Syrian friends for an investigation of its own (which produced no results).
Syria can also be proud of its "family connection" to Osama bin Laden. His father, Mohammed bin Laden, went to the Syrian coastal city of Latakia in 1956 on business, where he met Alia Ghanem, a young woman from a local Sunni Muslim family, who became his fourth and final wife. They had a child, Osama. Alia moved with her husband to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind two brothers and a sister. Every year since Osama's birth, he would go with his mother to Latakia to spend the summer vacation with her family. They would invariably stay at the home of her brother Naji.
When Osama was 13, his father was killed in a helicopter accident, and left his son an inheritance of approximately $80 million. Osama waited four more years before entering the family business, and at age 17, having entered the business world and begun to study at the post-high school level, he ceased to spend his summers in Latakia. The Syrian side of his family did not benefit from Osama's wealth; his uncles and aunts there continued to earn their livelihood from agriculture, as they still do.
In 1974, when Osama was 18, he paid a visit to his mother's family in Syria to "collect" his intended bride, the 14-year-old Najwa Ghanem. Najwa, his first wife, went to Saudi Arabia and bore him 11 children, including Omar, who later on became head of the U.S. delegation of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. This organization operated freely under Saudi funding and inspiration and was at the same time under the scrutiny of the FBI. After the September 11 attacks, the Assad regime permitted FBI investigators into Aleppo to interrogate residents of the city who were suspected of having links with Mohammed Atta, the planner of the attacks.
On the other hand, over the years Syria permitted the activities of extremist religious leader Sheikh Mohsen al-Qaqa, who in the past two years has distributed his anti-America cassettes through the streets of Baghdad. It was recently reported that al-Qaqa was placed under house arrest as part of Syria's participation in the war against terror and in order to calm the American administration, which has accused Syria of failing to prevent the passage of terrorists from its territory into Iraq, and encouraging Islamic terror.
Al-Qaqa may be the most prominent extremist preacher and madrassa head in Syria, but he is most certainly not alone. It is estimated that hundreds of madrassas operate in Syria, some with Saudi funding. They are a substitute for the collapsing state education, and simultaneously serve as hothouses for radical education. One religious center now being watched by the regime is the Ahmed Kuftaro Institute, named for the previous mufti of Syria, who died earlier this year. Some 5,000 students are enrolled in the institute, 20 percent of whom are foreign citizens, and most are the sort of Muslims the regime fears, as they are liable to be a reserve force for activity against the regime or for international terror activity. Herein lies the inherent contradiction of Syria's policy toward religious organizations.
Syria is not a religious country in the formal sense. On the contrary, the ideology of the ruling Baath party is avowedly secular. According to the constitution, the president must be Muslim, but there is no pronouncement of Islam as state religion. A pupil in the state education system can fail his religious studies and still be promoted to the next grade (as opposed to what might happen if he failed Arabic or "cultural studies," which is primarily the study of Baath ideology). The grade point average that determines a pupil's chances for acceptance to university disregards religious studies, and in the final year of high school, students invest little effort in religious studies, as they know it has no bearing on their grade.
But the informal side may be more important. Cultivation of a "religious front" began during the Hafez Assad era. For example, after the massacre committed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, in which his regime killed about 10,000 people, Assad began to build hundreds of new mosques so that he could later say he was not at all opposed to religion in general, or specifically to the Sunni. As a regime based on the Alawite minority, and as a leader who bore a non-religious ideology, Assad needed double legitimacy, both as an Alawite and as a secular Muslim. This need for legitimacy, expressed in the granting of relative religious freedoms and his regular appearances at mosque prayers, did not prevent the elder Assad from keeping on the books Law No. 49, which imposes a death sentence on any member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Dialogue of war
The religious legacy left by Hafez Assad to his son Bashar could now turn out to be a firetrap. Journalists who have visited Damascus and Aleppo relate that women wearing full veils are now commonly seen not only in the street, but also in the universities. Mosques may be found on every corner and the Friday prayers are a gala event that bring commerce to a halt. These are new developments in Syria, for which the ordinary explanation - such as discontent with the government, poverty or the search for an alternative to nationalism, which proved disappointing - provide only a partial answer.
Assad now faces a strong Islamic movement that is already asking itself if it can threaten his regime, or whether Assad would even be able to act against the Muslim Brotherhood, as did his father in Hama. For instance, in the past few weeks, a "dialogue of war," as it has been termed by a Syrian commentator, has been waged between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood movement. If at the start of his presidency Bashar Assad treated the movement with kid gloves, releasing from prison many of its members and even inviting its representatives for conversations, to the point that one had the impression a new leaf had been turned in the movement's relations with the government, the tone has undergone a complete change of late.
The Baath party conference held this past January, which was supposed to weigh the abolishment of Law No. 49, essentially did the opposite. It defined the Muslim Brotherhood movement as a "non-national movement," in other words a traitorous group, and even accused leaders of the movement of conspiring with the Americans against the Assad regime. According to government "suspicions," representatives of the movement carried on contacts with the Jewish lobby in Washington, and it was they who were behind the verbal assault by the American administration against Syria in the matter of the democratic reforms.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not taking a low profile. In the face of these accusations, their Web site broadcasts direct attacks on the Assad regime, its pervasive corruption, its inability to make decisions, and the fact that the regime is losing legitimacy. But in the meantime, it is difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood to do much more than launch these virtual attacks. With the sword of Law 49 at its throat, and with the group's meetings under government surveillance, it is doubtful whether we might soon see mass street demonstrations along the lines of the Egyptian model.
On the other hand, since Syria's closest friend is Iran, and since Saudi Arabia is one of the largest investors in Syria, it will be very difficult for Bashar Assad to act as his father did and launch a direct attack against a religious organization, even if said organization is openly critical of him.
Evidence of this may be found in a gathering held this month by the Syrian Minister of Waqf Affairs, Mohammad Ziyad Ayyoubi, to which religious preachers in the Syrian mosques were invited. The preachers were requested to moderate the religious discourse, ensure that their sermons would ease tensions and even to not directly attack the United States. Given the fact that approximately 10,000 mosques operate in Syria, and that according to the minister's own data, some 12 million Syrian citizens (out of 18 or 19 million) listen to a religious sermon at least once a week, these clergymen wield much greater power than official government publications. For comparison's sake, official Syrian spokesmen report that the three government newspapers - Tishrin, Al-Sha'ab and Al-Ba'ath - manage to sell only about 60,000 copies a day, and there are only four national theaters, which stage a total of 27 plays a year. The government's ability to influence the public discourse is practically nil when compared to the immense power of the preachers.
In the past, preachers who "deviated from the straight path" would vanish into prison cells. Now the government is finding that if it wishes to fight the Muslim Brotherhood, and especially the extremist faction that plans and executes acts of terror, and at the same time maintain its religious legitimacy - in other words, not to clash with a public that is increasingly more disposed toward religion - it will have to compromise when it comes to ideology. This will be the true test of strength of Bashar Assad.
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