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Rebuilding Society in Syria

By Ondřej Novák - Syria’s civil war is rages on and has entered its 9th year. The intensity of fighting has been intermitted since the onset of war. During the conflict, alliances shifted, new factions emerged and new participants entered the fray. Despite continuous fighting, Al-Assad's government has begun reconstructing Syria. Reconstructing housing and infrastructure is a one thing and what about the society at large? Can it be built and if so in what form? There is an attempt to answer to this question, on the level on civil society, from the representatives of the Syrian communities. Delegates are engaged in a dialogue, which has been happening for 3 years now, held on European soil, with the latest talks taking place in unspecified location in Berlin, Germany.

 

As the London-based journalist, Ibrahim Hamidi, points out, the idea of this kind of dialogue first emerged in 2016, when several meetings were held in France and Switzerland.  The first set of meetings had the primary task of creating proposals addressing issues related of a post-war political transition period and the establishment of a collective presidential council. With these first proposals being agreed on by the representatives, other meetings followed in mid-2017. During these meetings many individuals were representing different social groups, notably Sunnis and Alawites (the two main groups represented), in addition to others (Christians, Druze and Kurds). Due to security reasons and the sensitivity of the issues, meetings were held behind closed doors. Many participants of these meetings did not, and do not, want to be publicly identified. However, some peoples identities were eventually revealed including: Mulham al-Shabali (Al-Fawara tribe), Sheikh Amir al-Dandal (Al-Aqaidat tribe), Aounein al-Jarba (Shamar tribe), Mustafa Kiyali (National Bloc in Aleppo-Idlib) and various Alwaite figures from Tartus, Homs and Latakia. When the initiative landed in Berlin, in 2017, it was sponsored and mediated by an independent German institution. In that context, the dialogue reached a new level and the parties agreed on a document containing 11 Articles on coexistence policies to rebuild Syrian civil society.

 

Intentionally leaked to the public before the peace talks in Sochi the beginning of 2018, the document is titled a Code of Conduct for a Joint Syrian Life and the best definition of it would be a social contract, which should guide the Syrian people into the future of peace and coexistence. The goal of the leak was to influence the official talks and to offer them an alternative in terms of negotiating options. However, ultimately the impact was minimal. The document’s first Article stressed the importance of the unity of the Syrian territory and building a society where there are no conquerors or conquered. This is more of a wish or a vision for the future as, arguably, the reality will be quite different. Article five then highlights the importance of accountability, but not for the purpose of revenge and not in the terms of collective punishment, i.e. the group should not be held responsible for the crimes of the individual and vice versa. While this too might not be a realistic, it is noteworthy that these concepts have been put forward. The subsequent Article 6 then talks about the right of every Syrian to compensation of property destroyed, stolen or misplaced due to the conflict. The same Article also mentions the right of every citizen to return to the place of residence prior to the war. It is recognised, in this particular article, that the Syrian society varies on the different aspects, be it religious, tribal or cultural and Article 9 points out that society should not be politicised on these bases, while the right of the individual to belong to any particular group should be protected. Overall, the document aims to protect a common Syrian heritage and identity, rights and freedoms of individual, while guaranteeing equality for all and the humanitarian rights of those affected by the conflict.

 

Why is it important to rebuild society level in Syria? While many focus on military dimension of Syria´s civil war, a separate but related conflict is being waged on the societal front. Since Syria consists of many religious and tribal groups, who have lived along side each other for centuries, solutions must reflect such dynamics. In religious terms, the country’s largest group are Sunni Muslims (re: 50-70% of the population). Internally they comprise of Arab majority, but also include Kurds and Turkmen. The second largest religious group are Shia Muslims (re: 10-15% of the population), which includes Alawites, Twelvers and Ismailis. Christians are the third biggest religious group (re: around 10%. of the social fabric). Syria´s Christians groups include Orthodox, Catholic and Maronite sects. Finally fourth religious group Syria´s populations are the Druze, accounting for around 3% percent of the population.

 

While current numbers of the ethnic and religious make-up of Syria are unavailable since, many people fled or died as a result of the conflict. Before the war, however, some 21 million people lived in Syria. These millions coexisted in strict socio-political structures entrenched in the country’s own political history. Syria gained independence from the France mandate in 1946 when it became a parliamentary republic. After a number of coups, which happened throughout the following 24 years, the country eventually turned into an autocratic semi-presidential republic, where the regime draws its support from the military. In the last internal coup of 1970, Hafez Al-Assad, who was Minister of Defence at that time, overthrew his comrades and became President of the country. With strengthened powers granted by the 1973 constitution, Hafez Al-Assad replaced all the important military and Ba´ath Party officials with loyalists from the ranks of the Alawite sect, the sect to which Al-Assad family belongs. Ever since, the ruling elite mostly consists of Alawites, over the subsequent decades the dissatisfaction of the Sunni population grew as the Al-Assad regime continued to favour the minorities over the Sunni majority in terms of both political civil and economic rights. In the second part of the 1970s an opposition, led by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, rose against the regime. The opposition escalated at the beginning of the 1980s, when the army suppressed two uprisings in the city of Hama, in what later became known as the Hama massacres of 1981 and 1982. After the massacres, the regime made sure that any opposition was brutally suppressed. This continued even after Hafez Al-Assad´s death, with his son Bashar al-Assad, who oscillated between a reformist agenda and a security-centred approach to governance. By reconsidering this background, it is obvious that the conflict which erupted in 2011, would put the Sunni majority against the Alawite minority, with other minorities caught in the middle.  The current conflict has deep roots in Syrian history. To ultimately produce a stable, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious Syria, structural changes and a deepening of societal engagement must take centre stage.


The latest talks in Berlin were, as the previous ones, moderated by a Syrian constitutional expert, Dr Nassif Naim, who is currently residing in Germany. During the latest talks, the representatives agreed on a statement that the country must be free from any form of foreign military presence. This once again is another example of an ideal vision rather than a probable reality for the upcoming years. Delegates also agreed to form a Council to implement the Code of Conduct for a Joint Syrian Life Agreement. They further selected three spokesmen, who will present the document both inside and outside Syria. The statements and ideas agreed at these meetings represent noble visions for the future of Syria´s society. Unfortunately the reality will be quite different as the meetings lack any kind of political backing or support from within the Syrian political scene. The only support they received was from the European countries which hosted the initiative and, even there, the support was received through Non-Governmental Organizations and civil society institutions rather than through official channels. Therefore, the question that arises is whether this project can succeed? Shy of a crystal ball it is impossible to tell. However, with a regime claiming military victory and heavy advancing narratives laden with sectarian rhetoric Syria´s civil society may be the wars final victim.

23 April 2019

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