By Bassam Said Ishak
As a young Syrian boy, from a Christian Syriac family, I was raised in the authoritarian Syria of Assad the father and then Bashar al Assad. I had heard from my late father about the Syrian democracy of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but I was experiencing something opposite to democracy in the Syria of the 1970’s.
I grew up feeling the fears that an oppressive regime instills in all its subjects. Moreover, I felt the social divides within Syrian society, divides based on religious, ethnic, and sectarian identities. I yearned for these divides between Syrians to disappear, and for the regime’s superficial claim that Syrian society is united to be replaced by a real, in-depth connection by all Syrian identity groups.
When the Syrian revolution broke out in March of 2011, I was the director of the Syrian Human Rights Organization based in Damascus. As an organization, we followed the demonstrations closely and reported on them. I listened closely to the demands of the people risking their lives demonstrating in the streets. They called for freedom, dignity, and for the unity of the Syrian people. For me it was a dream come true and I began to wonder, what would the political system look like that translates these aspirations to a living reality? On the surface political opposition groups seemed to agree what such a system may look like, but in reality they didn’t. And I set out on the mission to reconcile the differences between these groups.
With another colleague, I began speaking to the leadership of the various opposition groups. We were looking to spur the formation of a council in Damascus among the opposition groups. We had come close to succeeding. On September 4, 2011, leaders from the two main opposition groups had agreed to come together at 12 PM to sign an agreement as a basis for collaboration. I was hopeful that this agreement would help us unify the opposition and provide a political umbrella for the uprising in the street.
That morning, I was awoken at 6 AM by a phone call. I learned details from a colleague that revealed without question that I had to flee immediately or risk arrest.
I slid my laptop into my bag. I kissed my children goodbye. “If anyone ever tells you anything bad about your father, never believe them,” I told them. And, I left by the fastest route I could.
Thankfully, I passed out of Syria without incident.
The agreement that was supposed to be signed between the Syrian opposition groups went unsigned, and we lost a key opportunity to unite against tyranny. My journey to find a meaningful democracy in the Syrian uprising had only just begun.
I first encountered the Syrian National Council when it was in exile in Istanbul in 2011 and 2012. At first, I thought this council might be the beginnings of a government in exile that could become a democracy, one that included rights for all Syrians, including Syriac Christians like myself, and could meet protesters’ demands for freedom and dignity. But this council, it turned out, was not exactly going in that direction.
Most of the politicians who were managing the council were ex-pats who had not lived in Syria since the 1980s or earlier. These politicians seemed to want a system that was akin to the Syria of the 1950s. Many of them were supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood groups, which wanted to base our system on certain religious tenets. No one wanted to use the word “secular” in our documents, and the communist groups involved conceded secularism to the Muslim Brotherhood. It became clear that the council did not support a secular government.
I started to raise questions about religion in meetings and discussions. I asked what the Syria of the future should actually look like and what would be the role of religion in such a Syria? I asked the Muslim Brotherhood, the communists, the Arab nationalists. No one wanted to articulate it, but I could see where we were going. The peaceful demonstrations had mostly stopped and the revolution had turned into armed contest where opposition armed groups sat out Sharia courts in towns they came to control.
The armed opposition groups were taking the Syrian revolution into a religious state, and the Syrian National Council’s largest group, the Muslim Brotherhood, didn’t seem to mind the militarization. I thought to myself that this is not what the demonstrators in Syria wanted and definitely not what I wanted or dreamed of. We were not heading to a true meaningful democracy, at best, some form of faked democracy.
The council eventually supported the “Free Syrian Army” which is now the so-called “Syrian National Army,” backed by Turkey and other Arab Gulf States. Once again, I knew I had to look elsewhere for democracy, and we needed to define democracy. Democracy is not just about elections, and freedom is not only the absence of state oppression. Democracy and freedom are intertwined with individual and collective rights – human rights.
As I began to envision a system that would support democracy, freedom, and human rights, I started looking for a different model. My eyes turned toward North and East Syria. There are many Syriac Christians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and others living in harmony with Kurds, Arabs, Yezidis, and others in the region. It seemed that there was hope in the region for groups coming together peacefully on the basis of respect for religious and ethnic diversity, freedom and dignity.
I helped to organize workshops among Syrians from North and East Syria on how to live together. With help from an expert from a US NGO, we explored how to draft a social contract for a system that could protect diversity and individual rights. Following a workshop, members of the Syriac Union Party engaged the PYD, a major political party in North and East Syria, on drafting a social contract.
The social contract that was eventually drafted in North and East Syria was a contract that articulated the best parts of democracy. It included protections for individual rights, women’s rights, freedom of religion, and collective rights such as the right to learn in your native language and recognition of the identity of ethnic groups. This became the founding document of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which is now the governing body of one-third of Syria.
The democratic model of North and East Syria supports a groundbreaking principle of inclusion: Each position of power is held not just by one individual but two, one man and one woman, each of different ethnic or religious affiliations. This model of radical inclusion has led the AANES to have the world’s highest levels of diversity and women’s participation in government. Our levels of women’s participation are on par with those of countries like Sweden and Norway, famous for women’s rights.
I enthusiastically supported the democratic model of North and East Syria, and I now serve as the Co-Chair of the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council. Although the administration is still fine-tuning its model, we are committed to the true spirit of democracy. We are committed to what those peaceful demonstrators were asking for in the streets in 2011 – freedom and dignity, unity reflected in a governing political social model.
I was able to return to Syria, traveling into Qamishli, North and East Syria, in 2016. I took a car across the border and along the road through North and East Syria. As we approached Qamishli, the sign welcoming travelers into the city came into view. It read “Welcome to Qamishli” in Arabic, in Kurdish – and also in Aramaic. Aramaic had been practically outlawed under the Assad government. Now here it was, on a huge sign welcoming travelers into the city.
A wave of emotion came over me. I had left Damascus five years earlier. Now, I was coming to my home country, but now it finally felt like a country that was actually my home. Not only that, but it felt like a country that respected Syriac Christians like myself, respected diversity, respected democracy.
Here it was, at last, the signs of the meaningful democracy I was searching for.