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 The first casino was closed and the ban on teachers wearing niqabs and burqa was rescinded, helping Assad to frame the struggle as one between Islamism and secularism.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.