SDC at the Table

By Bassam Ishak

As I write this, major actors of the Syrian Civil War, both internal and external, are struggling to come to an agreement on who will be members of a committee to create a new constitution for the nation. This constitution would potentially end a brutal war which has lasted years and taken countless lives. As this very important event unfolds there is a conspicuous lack of representation for one of the most important players in the region. 

The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) represents a coalition of multi-religious and ethnically-diverse communities, administering approximately one-third of the Syrian landmass. The SDC is affiliated with neither the regime nor the rebels. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military wing of the SDC, provided the bulk of fighters in the struggle against ISIS, and fought with great success due to their determination and support from American allies.

Yet despite the many accolades that would position the SDC as a serious partner at the table for any negotiations on the future of Syria, they have been excluded from all discussions — including the constitutional committee to be hosted in Geneva.

There are today, in Syria, three political models in operation on the ground. The first is the authoritarian model of the regime in Damascus. This model is a marriage of nationalism, socialism, and performative religion, having been the prevailing structure for decades. 

The second system, established by the opposition, was created with democratic intentions but has since strayed from its goal and given ground to religious extremists. The promise of the opposition has gone from democracy for all to a dictatorship of the majority, refusing to guarantee rights and protections for minorities. In contrast to the first two, the SDC proposes a model of a secular, non-nationalist democracy in which all people can participate politically and express themselves freely. 

The situation in North and East Syria is a testament to the success of the SDC’s proposed model. No privilege is reserved for any religious or ethnic group, but rights are guaranteed to all. The regime and opposition agree on many issues, such as the presence of religion in government; it is only a question of the extent to which religion will play a role in government. At best, we will see a return to the way of the old regime, in which the president must be Muslim and Sharia is the source of civil law. At worst we will see the success of the radicals and religion becoming the centerpiece of the state. Only the SDC is firmly committed to a democratic and truly secular state with protections for all faiths. 

As the major faction that took on ISIS and won, liberating countless villages and towns from the so-called caliphate, the SDC will refuse to allow religious extremism to take hold of Syria’s future. One of the most important tools in fighting ISIS ideology in Syria is the new constitution. 

Who is best qualified to fight against extremist ideology in the constitution committee than those who represent the people who fought and defeated ISIS? Barring the SDC from constitutional negotiation is equivalent to kicking ISIS out the door and letting them back through the window. By excluding the SDC from the constitutional committee, a very clear message is being sent: marginalization of the oppressed will continue no matter who leads. This is an intolerable situation for Syria’s many ethno-religious minorities, such as myself, and is not a plan for long-term stability.

Ms. Sinam Mohamad met with Lord David Alton, British politician and religious freedom advocate.

Both the models of the regime and the opposition offer different solutions to Syria’s problems. However they both seek to solve these problems through a single unifying ideology and identity which they must enforce on the population. To the opposition, it is the Islamic Arab identity, and to the regime it is semi-secular authoritarianism. In a nation so diverse as Syria, however, no single approach or identity can ever unify the people.

What has worked in the SDC has been the opposite. It is only through embracing the national diversity that any unity can be found. Each community must be entrusted to handle its own affairs with support and guarantees of equality from the government above them. In Northeastern Syria, the establishment of town councils with diverse membership has helped to alleviate tensions among different ethnicities and religions. 

While no system is perfect, the decentralization offered by the SDC is unique and has been proven to reduce inter-communal strife and violence. The forms of decentralization offered by the regime and the opposition lack substance, guaranteeing only limited rights and responsibilities to local municipalities. In contrast, the SDC gives each town the right to its own self-defense, education, and development, aided by the administrative government. The approaches of the opposition and regime have already been tried. They have not, and will not, work in Syria. The only answer is unity through diversity.

The current assembly of legislators, politicians, and delegates planning to gather in Geneva cannot create any semblance of an effective deal for the whole of Syria when the whole of Syria is not represented. Without the presence of the SDC in negotiations, entire swathes of Syrian society are left voiceless. The SDC is the only voice for a political system which supports religious and national pluralism in Syria. \

Outside international pressure on the negotiators removes agency from the Syrians themselves, and makes this a competition of larger powers rather than a negotiation between fellow citizens. Those on the committee who serve only as mouthpieces for those seeking regional domination and power cannot be said to be negotiating in good faith. So long as the interests of outside powers are prioritized over the interests of the Syrian people, there can be no lasting peace or democratic solution.

A truly democratic constitution cannot lack the vital mechanisms of a truly democratic society. Guaranteeing elections and popular voting is not enough. The measure of success for the democratic project in Syria will be the treatment of the most vulnerable members of our society. The Kurds, Alevites, Syriacs, Assyrians, Druze, Armenians and Circassians, among others, who collectively make up around 40% of the national population, are all put at risk by those chosen for the constitutional committee’s lack of commitment to minority rights. 

The social contract — which has been established in the North and East of Syria through the SDC — is the only charter of any of the Syrian parties which explicitly ensures the right to choose and practice your religion, gender equality, self-determination and consensual communal democracy. Previously unheard of rights to educate, speak, and learn in your native community’s mother tongue are being pioneered across SDC-administered Syria. 

It is from this model that a true democracy can begin to develop in Syria, with communities each being given a say in how they are governed. The constitution must be forward-looking, seeking long-term stability and prosperity for all Syrians. This cannot be accomplished through only the proposals of the opposition and regime, which lack protections for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Such a constitution is a ticking time bomb, doomed to fail. 

Is it possible to synthesize the three models which are currently in place in Syria? It will require difficult compromises, but I can say with certainty that it will be impossible unless all Syrians are represented fairly at the table.