By Bassam Said Ishak and Sinam Sherkany Mohamad, Co-Chairs, US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council
A constitution reflects the aspirations and ideals of a people. Our Syrian Constitution should be based upon the future of Syria, not our past. It should propel us forward to a democratic Syria — one based on pluralism, diversity, human rights, feminism, decentralization, and religious freedom — our highest dreams. To ensure that these democratic dreams become reality, the Syrian Democratic Council, whose own social contract is based upon democratic principles, must be included in the committee that is developing a new constitution for our country.
There are currently discussions on whether to amend the current Syrian constitution or to draft an entirely new constitution. We believe that it does not matter whether a new document is drafted or the old document is revised. What matters is what principles are codified in the final version, and how these principles are applied to ensure democracy can flourish in Syria.
The SDC envisions a Syria in which all in the country are treated equally and fairly as individual Syrians and as Syrian groups, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or identity. No one demographic group has more rights than another group, and the constitution should not favor any one demographic group. In addition, in order to get the Syrian constitution right, specific protections for ethnic and religious minorities must be included in the text.
The SDC has written such specific protections into our social contract. Since our inception, we have worked to protect ethnic and religious freedoms and plurality in our region. Our region is home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians, and Circassians, as well as Syriac, Assyrian, and Chaldean Christians. Our social contract protects the rights of all to believe and worship as they wish, and mandates that each political position in the regional government, local councils, and villages be held by individuals from two distinct cultural and/or religious backgrounds. The contract guarantees full rights to minority groups and protects them from persecution. In addition, the SDC and local councils actively seek roles for minority group leaders, as well as guidance and participation from them.
Gender equality is a principle at the heart of the SDC platform. Women’s rights and full equality have been enshrined into our social contract. The results are clearly visible. Women make up about half of all government positions in North and East Syria. The women’s military units of the SDF (known as the “YPJ,” or Kurdish women fighters), who played an instrumental role in defeating the Islamic State, are just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere in North and East Syria, women are taking control of the decisions that impact their lives. The rate of women’s participation in governance is higher than that of the United States or most European countries.
Decentralization and separation of powers is a key concept that the SDC is based upon. Local communities and individuals should have more say over the everyday elements that impact their lives. Local councils and special committees of the inhabitants themselves should be empowered to make the decisions that affect them.
The SDC has implemented a governance structure that embodies the true spirit of democracy or rule by the people. Seven local administrations or councils working in cities, towns, and villages across North and East Syria, and manage the region’s administrative functions and public services, including health, education, housing, and social and economic integration. The SDF provides the North and East regions with public security, and it is accountable to both the AANES and local councils, which represent the citizens of the region.
All parts of the model form a system of checks and balances that ensures no one body has too much power, and guarantees civilian rule over the military. This kind of decentralization should be a model for other parts of Syria, and should be codified by our constitution.
But even if the highest ideals are written into our constitution, the document will only be a series of empty words if it is not applied. After all, a law is only as valuable in practice as its enforcement mechanism. In order to meaningfully apply the constitution, the Syrian government must enact laws and establish practices to ensure its compliance. A new culture of transparency in governance must gain a foothold. The rule of law must be respected. The powerful and the ruling class of Syria must not be allowed to be above the law.
In just the past few days, the State Department has again expressed support for the Syrian Constitutional Committee. Ethan Goldrich, the new US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, responsible for Syria Engagement, met with the Syrian opposition, reportedly discussing the committee and again expressing support for the UN Syrian peace talks that were enacted by UNSCR 2254. These UN peace talks do not include any representation for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.
We have always been in strong support of dialog, not militarism, to resolve the Syrian crisis. However, we need to be included in this dialog for a real solution to be successful.
The AANES protected the world from ISIS terrorism when we fought on the frontlines to stop the black tide of ISIS, who were occupying vast regions Syria and Iraq with thousands of fighters and supporters. We lost more than 11,000 young men and women in the battles to stop an enemy who sought to bring its “caliphate” of horror across the globe, and planned bombings and attacks in Western cities. Together with the US military and Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, we battled to free our homeland, and we also battled against a violent ideology based on religious authoritarianism. We did so while instituting a true democratic model in our region. We also continue to house tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and their families in our al Howl camp, while they await justice and repatriation.
Despite our battle to protect the world, we have so far been excluded from the negotiations regarding the future of our country. We are prepared for dialog, but the door to the room has remained, so far, closed to us.
When the Syrian people rose up in the streets in 2011 and demanded dignity and freedom, they were calling for a better world for all Syrians — not only some Syrians. We have drafted a social contract and built a model that answers these calls for a better world, and demonstrates that Syrians are ready for a true democracy. Without our inclusion, these talks will at best limp toward a fake democracy. On the other hand, our representation will bring into the discussion those who have built the most inspiring example of a democracy in the Middle East.
For both the Syrian Constitutional Committee and the UN peace talks, representatives from North and East Syria should be at the table, not excluded from the room. Without us, a resolution cannot stand. How can it succeed when one-third of the country is not even represented? Our model and our story are a key part of the Syrian story that cannot be ignored as we move Syria toward a new inclusive future. Compassion and respect for all Syrians as individuals and groups need to be the basis of the new constitution.