The Damascus Declaration…. Can it offer a gateway for change in Syria?

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On the 16th of October, a congress of Syrian intellectuals, public figures, political parties and civil society associations announced the release of “The Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change”. The declaration calls for the mobilization of all the energies of Syria, the homeland and the people, in a rescue mission of change that aims to lift the country out of the mold of the security state and takes it to that of the political state, so that it will be able to enhance its independence and unity, and its people will be able to hold the reins of their country and participate freely in running its affairs.

According to the declaration, the establishment of a democratic national regime is the basic approach to the plan for change and political reform. The declaration also called for rejecting totalitarian thought and severing all plans of exclusion, custodianship, and extirpation under any pretext, be it historical or realistic; rejecting violence in exercising political action; and seeking to avoid violence in the practice of politics. It also uttered the need for building a modern State, whose political system is based on a new social contract, which leads to a modern democratic constitution that makes citizenship the criterion of affiliation, and adopts pluralism, the peaceful transition of power, and the rule of law in a state where all citizens enjoy equal rights and are obliged with the same duties. The declaration addressed the need to find a just democratic solution to the Kurdish issue in Syria, in addition to the need to launch public freedoms, organize political life through a modern party law, and organize the media and elections in accordance with modern laws that ensure liberty, justice, and equal opportunities for all.

The Damascus Declaration was the main theme of a dynamic seminar with the participation of an elite of Syrian prominent figures under the title ” The Damascus Declaration…. Can it offer a gateway for change in Syria?”. The seminar was moderated by Bahey Eddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies –CIHRS- within the framework of Ibn Roshd Salon. The declaration provoked enormous and wide-ranging reactions whether inside or outside Syria as it entailed, according to many observers, a comprehensive program for democratic reform in Syria, stated Mr. Hassan. At the outset, a considerable number of political, partisan and social effective figures signed the declaration followed by another wave of active players, remarkably the Muslim Brotherhood, who added to the significance of the Declaration.

The renowned Syrian writer Radwan Ziadah, the prominent Syrian author, started off by presenting a historical background to the Damascus Declaration. Since the year 2000, civil society and human rights organizations in Syria were put into action and witnessed extensive movement ushering in the beginning of the so-called “Spring of Damascus” during which a significant number of dialogue and cultural forums were convened in many of the Syrian provinces”, Mr. Ziadah recounted .

Syrian community organizations struggled to restore the freedom of expression and to institutionalize this right through legislation; however, their efforts did not avail and the “Spring of Damascus” ended with the detention of ten activists, some of whom are still in custody, he elaborated. After that, the Syrian civil society went through a period of ebb and tide. In March 2003, Syrians who became truly alarmed about their future, as the United States’ occupation was perpetrated under the pretext of liberating Iraq, perceived the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq as a turning point. The invasion represented a real shock for the Arab intellectuals and activists in general, and for the Syrians in particular.

Amidst this menace, the Syrian civil society started to think seriously about building its own capacities, and the opposition powers and the forums, which were called off, launched an internal dialogue and debate about the paramount importance of reaching a consensus on a definite action plan. Hence, the idea of drafting an instrument that entails a gradual program for a phased democratic change found its way to serious consideration, particularly in March 2005 in the wake of the assassination of Rafiq Al Hariri, the late Lebanese Prime Minister, and the repercussions that followed .

Ziadah proceeded that in its endeavor to finalize the declaration, the Democratic National Group played a pivotal rule in embracing these debates, in formulation of the document, and in the inter-party dialogues especially between Committees for the Revival of civil society, Kurdish parties, the Communist Labor Party as well as other parties.

Ziadah revealed that the declaration faced severe backlash, which can be summed up in three main points; the first criticism was expressed by the nationalists who claimed that there is an attenuation of the Syrian national and Arab policies; despite the fact that the essence of the declaration reiterated the importance of belonging to the Arab system describing it as a principal policy and the need to draw a distinction between Nationalism and Arabism. Nationalism as an ideology has already collapsed, whereas Arabism built on democracy and human rights is still appropriate for Damascus in its national and democratic changing role.

Ziadah added that the second criticism fell on the Kurdish issue, even though some Kurdish parties were among the signatories to the declaration and, included the Kurdish Democratic Alliance and the Kurdish Democratic Front. He pinpointed that the declaration emphasized the significance of finding a fair democratic solution for the Kurdish issue but at the same time safeguarding the unity of the homeland and the people on the basis of absolute equality.

According to Ziadah, the third criticism had to do with the declaration’s stance regarding religious minorities. Despite the fact that there are some instances of uncertainty in some of its articles, the declaration accentuated the essentiality of preserving the rights of all minorities and the role of these minorities in realizing the aspired change. In addition, the declaration called for utter respect for citizenship rights as a main principle in the social contract among all components of the Syrian people.

Ziadah expressed that despite the comments that can be passed on the Damascus Declaration, it has launched a definite mechanism, or course of action, among all Syrian components highlighting the call for practical thinking in the process of change. Moreover, the external pressures that Syria encounters require a potent and healthy internal structure, and this will not be accomplished until Syria’s civil society undertakes a process of capacity building.
So complicated and inconvenient were the circumstances at the time of making the declaration, recalled Fayez Sarra, a top-level leader in the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society and one of the drafters of the Damascus Declaration. In their endeavor to attain the anticipated reform, civil society in Syria as well as different political groups had to surmount a lot of formidable obstructions in every step they had to take. Meanwhile, grave developments had taken place in the region and in the regional sphere around Syria pushing Syria towards further confrontations with the international community and towards more differences with other countries in its regional sphere. For instance, there was a predicament for Syria in Lebanon and another in Iraq, and an exacerbating dilemma with Turkey; not to mention the political problems with the United States, in which the European Union got involved, remembered Mr. Sarra.

Mr. Sarra added that the significance of the declaration also emanates from the nature of the powers that participated in its creation, and the nature of its signatories. The chief signatory powers rightly represent the enduring differences in the Syrian political field, which had never entered any serious multiple dialogue with a national and democratic character. In the light of this historical background, signing the Damascus Declaration is an achievement of paramount significance.

Mr. Sarra stressed that the declaration was an open text for different groups and persons to express their views; thus the drafters left the door open for introducing structural amendments to the declaration. Moreover, the declaration drafters were ready to introduce substantial amendments in response to the discussions that were underway among the concerned groups. Sarra promised that the declaration will take into consideration and will respond to different declarations that were made and publicized in reaction to the Damascus Declaration, whether approving or disapproving. Likewise, the declaration will examine carefully all the comments and will perform executive amendments consequently, even if they are not submitted to the ad hoc committee for discussion.

Mr. Sarra pointed out that a provisional committee has been commissioned to monitor the declaration and carry out a constructive dialogue with other parties, whether those who are willing to adopt the declaration or who will only submit their comments on it. He added that a standing committee would be subsequently elected to be at the heart of the Syrian opposition, which is represented in the declaration with all its components.

A Crucial Moment

Dr. Al-Tayeb Tiziny, professor of Philosophy in Damascus University and a luminous Syrian intellectual, explained that the moment Baghdad fell revealed to all the world that the long-lasting constant fell apart in no time – a tragic moment that the whole Arab world experienced. The Arab world realized at that moment that they were not able to see, or rather were made unable to see, many things which started to clear up gradually. On top of these things was the fact that the Iraqi regime had institutionalized a certain pattern of an almost impenetrable castle of tyranny that could not be infiltrated from within, consequently infiltration had to occur from without.

Mr. Tiziny added that this coincided with the increased suggestions by Syrian intellectuals to the Syrian President to start opening this circle from inside before it opens from outside by any given foreign force. He explained that the Syrian regime held a rigid position on the relationship with the public at the time when the public was expecting crucial initiatives at all levels, or, at least, at the political level being the main gateway into a true and comprehensive national democratic reform.

The Syrian nation, with their long and honorable history, only desired to have three matters settled down: financial sufficiency, freedom and dignity, none of which was taken into account. This negligence of the people’s will provoked them and were never able to vent this negative emotion. The Syrian regime, however, could not realize that there were certain requirements that could not be neglected any more, except if the whole country was to be sacrificed.

Mr. Tiziny considered the Damascus Declaration a preemptive attempt to control the situation and emphasize that only democratic reform can bring Syria to a safe harbor.

Mr. Tiziny then gave numerous remarks regarding the Damascus Declaration, and then explained that he talked about the political power, or the monopoly of such power, apart from other forms such as the monopoly of wealth, through which Syrian funds were robbed and sent abroad. He added that the Declaration addressed the Islamist/Arabism duality, as Syria represents a beautiful mosaic of all cultures that coexisted on this land.

Mr. Tiziny further explained that it must be stressed that Syria encompasses all religions, consequently no single religion should be favored over another. A secular model, thus, is needed that would help regulate the relation between political power and religions. Mr. Tiziny thought that in order for Syria to come out of that critical phase, two main steps need to be taken: first, observing the international legitimacy to avert the country the abysmal traps which other regional countries fell into, and second engaging in a national democratic reform to which the ruling regime would be party in a bid to realize a national conciliation among all.

Concerns

Aktham Na’issa, Chairman of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Syria, initiated his address stressing that he did not wish to downplay the Declaration, however he expressed concern that the Declaration could have been “tailored” under the influence and pressure of the International Investigation Committee into the Assassination of al-Hariri, and the fact that the Syrian regime was on the brink of collapse. He explained that the Declaration was exceptional as it was made in a tense political atmosphere with an accelerated tempo about six months before.

Na’issa added that the Declaration resounded deeper and more far-reaching repercussions than its predecessors, the matter which created a dialogue and initiated vitality and dynamism. Many other following declarations disagreed at certain points and agreed at others. The Declaration, indeed, created a crucial dynamic spirit that grew gradually to make minorities feel that it represented only the signatories, rather than the Syrian society at large. Thus minorities felt apprehensive that if the Declaration makers managed to accede to power, they would keep on excluding and oppressing minorities.

Na’issa argued that the Kurdish street was in turmoil because of this Declaration, that more than 400 published articles criticizing it, some of which had sectarian overtones that did not exist before; the matter which raised concern that the provisions contained may lead to religious sectarian tension. He stressed that till that moment, not a remark was raised regarding the Declaration was considered, nor a single word modified despite previous promises to respond promptly.

Criticizing the provision contained in the Declaration reading that “Islam is the religion and ideology of the majority”, Mr. Na’issa argued that the Declaration, thus, violated one of the most fundamental human rights, namely, freedom of belief. He affirmed, at the same time, that what was more important was the fact that this Declaration was suggestive that the Islamic ideology would prevail over the next regime, which they – in Na’issa’s terms – claimed would be democratic. He further argued that this very provision was suggestive that no other ideology would be tolerated beside Islam. He contended that the Declaration carried the “We and Them” discourse, despite affirming respect for all other beliefs. This implies that the nation would be made by the “We”, with only marginal contribution of “they”. Thereupon, Na’issa wondered whether it was reasonable to think that Syria, with its vast cultural and historical heritage, was made by a single majority alone.

Mr. Na’issa argued that the Declaration, to him, seemed a kind of political nihilism when it rejected, for instance, the change from outside, explaining that the Syrian opposition was unable to effect change in the general political trend, and that the only power that could influence this trend was the ruling regime, despite all foreign interventions. This happened at a time when all would agree that the regime was unable to give concessions to achieve reform and change. As the Declaration denies the foreign parties to bring about change, then how come – Na’essa wondered – change would happen within Syria if no external powers pushed the ruling regime to effect such changes?

Na’issa argued that touching on the Kurdish issue in the Declaration was just ridiculous. The Declaration presents rights that the Kurds have already got, and never mentioned what new the Declaration would give to them; however, this issue was indeed raised on grounds of good intentions.

In his final comment, Dr. Radwan Ziadah explained that any document should be read with a will to cooperate to effect, and not to preclude, change. He added that despite of the Declaration’s shortcomings; dynamism should be launched among all parties and at all levels.

He argued that those who objected to the Declaration’s provision on the Kurdish issue, did not mention the rights that should have been contained therein, affirming that all parties signatory to the Declaration insistently stressed that Kurds were part of the Syrian fabric.

Mr. Ziadah affirmed that the “Islam is the religion of the majority” phrase, was clearly out of place, as it is well known that the Arab Eastern territories (Mashriq) are highly religious. It is thus pointless to highlight it in a seemingly “elitist” declaration.

Fayez Sarra, as well, affirmed that the Damascus Declaration is not holy, referring that there are certain mechanisms to work on it, including mandating delegation to hold dialogues with all Syrian forces about the contents of the Declaration, and to welcome other declarations which will strengthen the Declaration and clearly show the agreed-upon and controversial issues.

He further explained that nine Kurdish parties signed the Declaration –including the provision on the Kurds – without requesting any kinds of modifications. He added that the Declaration did not give final solutions, rather it highlighted the challenges Syria is facing and attempted to motivate the internal situations in order to strike an internal balance to help opposition forces, conditioning they managed to develop their powers, to chart the Syrian future.

Back to criticizing the declaration, Aktham Na’issa explained that the Declaration called all opposition forces to come together under its umbrella, which negatively affects benefiting from long individual histories under oppression, under the single roof, the single party and a single leader. He added that it was natural to have alignment with, and against, the Declaration, as well as making another declaration that will avoid the shortcomings of the present one.

He reaffirmed that the Damascus Declaration was designed to be taken as a package, but its tailors could still modify it if they want to, refusing to sign it except if certain changes were in effect. He added that another religious-based Halab Declaration will be made completely contradictory to the secularly-informed Damascus Declaration.

Dr. Al-Tayeb Tiziny added more comments, indicating that the Declaration confused between Islam as a belief system and Islam as a political system. He argued that in such political context, it should have been better to discuss political Islam rather than discussing religious ideology.

He stressed that external forces could not build from inside, thus bet should not be placed on foreign forces except minimally as they managed to make a crack in seemingly internally inflatable regimes.

Mr. Tiziny explained that the Ba’athist party was a massive force undergoing the crisis, and that many of its members are now demanding democratic reform. He stressed that calling for the foundation of a national democratic conference for all Syrians was subject to two significant conditions: first, recognizing unconditional multiparty system, and second, reaching a consensus on a national democratic reform project that should enable Syria to face present challenges.

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