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ICSR Insight – Syria’s Best of Enemies Breaking Good

18/01/2018

By Inna Rudolf, Research Fellow, ICSR

Only a week ahead of the upcoming Geneva talks at the end of January and the controversial Syrian National Dialogue Congress planned for Sochi, high-ranking representatives of the country’s most influential Alawite and Sunni tribal confederations met in Rome with members of the Christian and Druze minorities. Breaking free from an abusive status quo, they jointly announced an authentic code of conduct document. Driven by a legacy of tolerance and co-existence, forgiveness is their delayed revenge.

For far too long has the Syrian conflict been painted in black and white, cementing a hostage situation in which the grey Syria is still caught up between a repressive regime and a vengeful armed opposition. Tired of being a pawn in repetitive gambits, individual leaders of Syria’s highly divided communities have now decided to turn the page. Over a year ago they had launched a uniquely cross-sectarian initiative meant to restore trust, build bridges and address mutual fears in a safe environment.

After months of heated discussions occasionally eased by excessive tobacco indulgence, as most participants recall, these unlikely allies united around a historic code of conduct comprising eleven simple guiding principles. Restraining from the use of a heavy legal jargon, the language is clear and easily comprehensible targeted at larger lay audiences.

Among its signatories were distinguished representatives of the country’s bourgeois and intellectual leadership, featuring Dr. Mustafa Kayyali (member of the Damascus Declaration National Council), Sheikh Amir Mulhem Nasr al-Shibli (Prince of the Fawa’ira tribe), Mahmoud Abu al-Huda al-Husseini (former director of the Islamic religious endowment in Aleppo), Ibrahim Pasha (part of the foreign relations committee of the Kurdish National Council), Christian representatives from Wadi al-Nasara and Homs,  Sami Khiyami (Syrian diplomat and former ambassador to the UK), Sheikh Amir al-Mushref al-Dandal from the Aqeedat tribal confederation of Deir Ezzor and others, whose identity will not be revealed for security reasons.

Having learned from previous instances of civil society initiatives losing credibility after being hijacked by various interest groups, no diplomats or official observers had been accredited to attend the internal rounds to safeguard the initiative’s purely Syrian DNA and avoid its politicisation.

In its very first article the document calls for preserving Syria’s territorial integrity. This, however, does not rule out a scenario outlined as “Syria of the regions”, allowing for an alternative to the false dilemma between a centralised state and federalism. Even though the central power in Damascus would formally be in charge of the constructive elements of statehood such as the domains of foreign and defence policy, the regions could extend their autonomous sphere of local governance coordinating public expenditure, service delivery and regulatory reforms.

Ibrahim Pasha from the Kurdish National Council also underlined the importance of Syria remaining unified, insisting that any future form of federalisation be realised solely along geographical lines instead of formalising ethnic and sectarian divisions.

Acknowledging that years of bloodshed have produced neither victor nor vanquished, the third article of the document emphasises that Syrians in their entirety have been the ones paying the highest price. While external conflict parties have started rubbing their hands in anticipation of the spoils of war, half a million have been killed and millions more have been forcefully displaced. Clutching to the flotsam and jetsam of the shipwrecked Syrian state, the rest are desperate to return to normality.

It is the ‘harmonious normality’ of the Syrian post-independence period – at least in the way he remembers it – that Mustafa Kayyali hopes to see restored. In 1928, his grandfather Abd al-Rahman al-Kayyali had co-founded the National Bloc – the country’s leading anti-French movement, and later on he served as minister of education and justice in the first bloc cabinet of Prime Minister Jamil Mardam Bey as well as in 1947 being appointed Syria’s representative to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Nostalgic for the non-sectarian Syria of his ancestors, the Doha based dentist from Aleppo wants to revive the inclusiveness of the National Bloc project. The common cultural heritage is therefore highlighted as indispensable element of Syrian nationality.

“Accountability, not revenge” reads the most critical part of the document.
The first time the Fawa’ira Prince Sheikh Mulhem was presenting the initiative to members of the Beni Khalid tribal confederation during talks in Riyadh, he had a hard time convincing them to drop the logic of guilt by association. Expressions such as the so-called criminal faction (ta’ifiya mujrima) equating the Alawite community to the Assad regime, cannot be uprooted overnight from an overtly sectarianised public discourse. Therefore, the signatories had adopted an additional sentence postulating that accountability can only be pursued at an individual level respective to one’s own role and positioning within the conflict.

They reached consensus that no one should be judged for misdeeds committed by a co-religionist, which would eventually disarm both the regime’s as well as the armed opposition’s victimisation rhetoric. Spreading fear of imminent retaliation awaiting the ‘Nusayri’ (derogatory term for Alawite) in case of regime change has been Assad’s most powerful weapon to keep the isolated minority in check. In this sense, participants compared the potential impact of the initiative to an ancient rock breaking mechanism, once popular across their lands. Exploiting existing natural cleaves, the old miners used to inject water into the joints of the rock. Once temperatures had fallen and the water inside had frozen, they only had to wait for the rock surface to crack open under the pressure.

As for external support, the signatories wish for nothing but leveraging recognition for their attempt – symbolic it may be – at ending the savagery. This gives the international community an opportunity to make up for its past miscalculations. Instead of trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, it should give a voice to a largely overlooked client. Until then, the silent opponents of the regime can only keep on pouring water into its widening cracks.

Inna Rudolf is a Research Fellow at ICSR. Follow her on Twitter @inna_veleva