Are there still opportunities for democratic transition in Syria?
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
Seven years have passed since the first outcry for “freedom” in Syria has been launched as a popular demand to get rid of decades of oppression and silence. However, Syrians today find themselves in front of a military, political, and economic dilemma that makes the task of foreseeing Syria’s political future so sophisticated.
Despite the awful situation it created in the country, the Syrian revolution has opened up new horizons of freedom. The unlimited demands of change make it impossible to bring back Syria to what it used to be before the popular movement in 2011 at the political and civil levels. Indeed, Syrians have overcome the past years of the rule of the “One single leader, one single party, and one single media “, breaking the Baath Party’s monopoly over political life. The influx of civil organizations has also contained the public fear of the government’s “red tape and bureaucracy” and stirred a sense of community responsibility.
At the social level, it can be said that the opportunity of ”taking part” in civil and political institutions provided to the Syrians, in addition to eliminating the fears of “talking in political matters” and its consequent security prosecution, created a state of psychological “liberation” for the Syrian citizen, which can no longer be dispensed with . This is reflected in the overt expression of the citizens’ rejection of any undesirable civil or military powers in the midst of the revolution or in the opposition controlled areas, in addition to the fact that the public has turned into an observer who holds the political opposition accountable for its failures and mistakes.
Perhaps this is clear evidence that the Syrian revolution has created loopholes in the wall of fear that Al-Assad regime has been building for 40 years, aided by social tricks, military iron grip, and narrow political means that only lead to the one-party absolute rule.
These loopholes can be gates through which the Syrians go through a stage of “democratic transition,” based on redistributing power in any future political authority in a way that enables the people to have the largest share of rule compared to the government.
Civil society… Community power
The culture of civil work was not common in Syria until the beginning of the 21st century. It was limited to some charities and private orphanages, which operated in narrow contexts and under strict security control.
This situation has witnessed a significant shift after the Syrian revolution. More than 800 Syrian organizations have been established since 2011, according to the “Establishing the Map of Civil Service in Syria” report issued by Citizens for Syria in 2016.
These organizations are specialized in fields ranging from relief and education to information, development, and housing to political empowerment.
Political activist Motaz Mourad believes that the peaceful revolution has opened the door to the Syrian people to learn about the civil society activities outside the umbrella of the state. He added to Enab Baladi that although these institutions are small and weak in terms of potential, they seek to positively influence and leave an important impact in the lives of Syrians.
This civil work takes many forms, such as covering shortages in service sectors in most Syrian regions, providing important alternatives to state institutions, and enhancing social solidarity, and raising awareness and empowerment in areas such as politics and technology. Civil society activities equally include attempts to strengthen and empower women at various levels, and create a different understanding of what had previously prevailed as far as their social role is concerned.
In addition, Syrian human rights organizations, whose number exceeded ten, have been active in monitoring and documenting violations against civilians in the country, due to the number of violations in Syria. These organizations came out under different labels like the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Syrians for Truth and Justice, and the Syrian Centre for Human Rights Studies”.
In spite of the limited resources and constraints which faced these institutions, the lack of expertise among its boards, and the fluctuation of material support, they managed to make an impact in the world of human rights, talking and influencing in international forums, on behalf of war victims in Syria.
At the security level, the Syrian Civil Defence and the Free Police organizations have provided an alternative to the regime’s security and police institutions and managed to change the conception of the “security officer” or “policeman” in the Syrian citizen’s mind.
These organizations can be said to have created the basis for the process of democratization, which is academically defined as “the distribution of power so that the share of the state diminishes in favour of civil society institutions in a way that ensures a balance between the state and the society.”
Freedom of expression, promising media
The “Local Coordinating” pages on Facebook strained the Syrian regime at an early stage, as it became a means which impedes the suppression of the popular revolution, represented by peaceful demonstrations at that time.
Although the regime managed to curb the demonstrations two years after the revolution, these pages turned into media sources, which in turn increased in number and developed , to more than 400 in 2014, according to domestic and international statistics, and dozens of which are still working at a regular pace and a high level of proficiency.
Despite the poor media experience of the Syrians due to the authority’s monopoly over this field for four decades, the networks, radio stations, newspapers, and websites launched by the revolutionary activists were able to reach a stage of professionalism that the regime’s media could not emulate.
In addition to the experience and professionalism of the Syrian media opponents of the regime, the most important values of their work is to have full freedom of expression, which they did not use to enjoy in the past.
Although these media means face challenges and obstacles, represented in the extent of impact of most of them, and the lack of financial resources, this experience can be considered as a training and rehearsal stage for Syrians whose expertise can be invested in the event of a democratic transition.
But these media sources can be a double-edged sword. They can play an important role in preparing a process of democratic transformation by raising public awareness about the notions of freedom, responsibility, pluralism, and respect for others. However, if they fail to prove their professionalism and their ability to make a positive impact, they will not therefore be presented as a real alternative to the media of the autocratic regime, even if the political transition has taken place.
Parties mushrooming outside the “National Progressive Front”
The Socialist Baath Party has dominated political life since president Hafez al-Assad came to power in Syria, and there was no voice of other parties in the Progressive National Front, which was involved in the regime’s propaganda about “the openness of political life and partisan diversity.”
The Syrian revolution has opened a political horizon which was shut for four decades. Some political bodies began to form in response to the need to organize the popular movement and gradually started to turn into more stable and organized forms. The new Syrian party map has begun to be shaped.
The number of Syrian parties today has reached more than 100 parties with different ideological, national, or religious orientations. Some of them are active in Syria, according to the party law issued by the regime after the revolution, with the aim of licensing some of the “internal opposition parties” in exchange for “foreign opposition parties,” which the regime sought to promote as linked to regional and international agendas.
However, the new partisan scene has not managed to catch the Syrians’ attention as it was characterized by weak experience and the inability to present the lowest mass-mobilization programs. Accordingly, these new parties did not experience many cases of affiliation by the Syrian people, and were mostly limited to small elite groups with very specific interests and goals.
Many political researchers believe that the new parties cannot be relied upon as a political organizational structure. Nonetheless, reviving partisan life can be a tool for democratic transition and a process of political pluralism.
Definition of Democratic Transition
Is the transition from an autocratic to a democratic system, that is, a process of transition to a system that abides by political pluralism, recognizes the existence of an opposition to the ruling regime, guarantees freedom of opinion and expression regarding issues and subjects that were not allowed to be discussed before and believes in popular participation. Thereby, it grants people the right to change governments through free and fair periodic elections. The people are also responsible for supervising those in power, in return for obeying the ruler.
The democratic transition is also defined as a process, which aims at revisiting the map of power at the level of the political system and working to rebalance the official forces represented by the state and informal institutions represented by civil society organizations.
Multiple- fronts battles for democracy’s sake
The implementation of democratic transition in the countries which did not witness it is linked to a number of fundamental principles. At the same time, it encounters many obstacles, which revolve around controlling the mechanism of the process, and coordinating with supervision as well as judicial institutions and others, to ensure embarking in the right path.
Owing the reality of the Arab countries, democratic transformation has not been manifested into any of the rudiments on which it was built, including Syria. According to other people’s perspective, the term “democracy” has been offended at the local and Arab levels politically and religiously, on the grounds that it is a Western concept that entrenches colonialism and contradicts with what God has ordered.”
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Mohammed al-Abdallah, executive director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center stated that “Syria is witnessing some sort of division on this regard right now.” “In regime held areas, democracy is insulted in public.” They do not believe in the idea, whereas in opposition held areas the situation is better though it remains limited. ”
Historically, Syria witnessed democracy partially after getting independence from the French colonization. According to al-Abdallah, that era witnessed “the establishment of different parties and political formations, in addition to an obvious students and university activism. Unions also played a clear role in political life. Women participated in political, partisan, and intellectual work, making Damascus a place of extensive activities. ”
This period did not last long after the arrival of the Baath Party led by Hafez al-Assad. According to the director of the center, the period of democracy practice was too short to become an essential part in citizens’ daily life. That’s why, Syrian people did not get accustomed to democracy.
The way the term democracy was dealt with and used politically was not the same in al-Assad era and at the present time. Al-Abdullah believes that all military and dictatorship regimes describe themselves as “democratic, progressive, and popular” and that they are “anti-imperialism.”
He explained that democracy was not included among the agendas of the Baath Party or the ruling family, which did not mainly refer to democracy, nor did it recognize it as being part of a military and security system. “Therefore, the term democracy was not used and was even distorted. The concept was then demonized as an exported thing which has been brought and imposed by Westerners to be used for different ends.”
Nowadays “the Islamic factions are using the word democracy to intimidate the people, portraying it as a ghost coming from the West, which is offensive to religion and Islam and is an alien to our society,” according to al-Abdullah, who pointed out that the Syrian society has gone through these periods before the factions came to Syria .
The director of the center considers the chances of applying democracy in Syria as “very limited.” “Despite the horrifying atrocities, including the victims and the destruction in the country, what happened will make the return to 2011 era impossible. People will not accept to return to conditions of slavery and tyranny that used to control the republic “.
It would become difficult to re-impose anything on citizens, even when the international community would try to do so through Sochi, Geneva and other conferences, according to al-Abdallah.
Al-Abdallah points out that the current battle for democracy and long-term freedom “is not only with the Syrian government, but with the military factions that are trying to impose themselves by force and prevent citizens from exercising their freedoms and rights.”
The battle is also “against the neighbouring Arab regimes that consider democracy as a threat to their existence. The battle is equally against the anti-revolution legacy that the military campaigns of the regime, Russia, and Iran had left,” according to al-Abdallah who believes that despite all what have been previously mentioned “we are still on the right path.”
“There is always a chance for a democratic transition in Syria or any country,” said Syrian political activist Motaz Mourad, considering that the Syrian people experience is “great and significant, in case we want to benefit from it by revisiting its scenes and avoiding the mistakes that have been committed.”
Mourad believes that it is necessary for the Syrian people to open up to all successful experiences that have changed the reality in many countries. “These tests should be the compass even if the road is long, for the results are going be great.”
On the revolution’s eighth anniversary: Syria and democracy
Opinion: Mohammed Sabra
Since the sixties of the last century, Syria has witnessed the worst stages of its political history, under a brutal authority, which was able to usurp and cease the state, and then converted it from a range of administrative structures that work to achieve public welfare to only instruments serving the project of the personalized authority and only abiding by the one leader’s rules.
On top of that, the power of the authority extended to affect the community itself and managed to alienate it from its traditional structures that provided a minimum of shelter and an umbrella for the Syrian individual, protecting him from the absolute tyranny of the authority.
Hence, the uniqueness of the autocratic model in Syria, which managed to harness everything to serve this authority, and achieve what it wants at the expense of the interest of the group.
Therefore, it was impossible for the authority to understand any of the citizens’ demands or try to accept them. Thus, it became structurally incapable of any reform, because its structure cannot accept this, for it considers citizens as cattle that has nothing to do but abide by the authority’s choices.
The term “people” as a political and human concept has been absent from the authority’s discourse and it was substituted by the term “dogmatic masses,” which means a group of people that have no rights but only obligations to submit to and that must fully surrender to the will of authority, represented by the unique leader who enjoys absolute power.
As a result of the blocking of Syrian citizens’ horizon, the Syrian revolution broke as a spontaneous expression of protest against the deprivation of human dignity. Therefore, it was a revolution of dignity lacking any rights or political dimension that framed it or organized its public movement and defined its features and objectives.
Hence, the importance of turning this revolution from a spontaneous expression of protest against the loss of dignity, into a revolution that would necessarily produce a political system based on the idea of citizenship, bearing full human dimension, and capable of producing a national identity, which is self-centred and objectively identical to the Syrian reality.
This fact makes of the Syrian revolution the modern era’s most authentic and radical event. It is very deep, both in terms of the popular groups that have been involved in and the horizontal spread within the Syrian society, or in terms of the issues tackled and put forward to confront everyone. These questions are related to National identity, setting up its frameworks and defining it, in addition to its cultural, civilizational, religious, and ethnic dimension.
The Syrian revolution has shaken the entire structure of Syrian society and unveiled what has been silenced and hidden under a thin crust of hypocritical compromise. This makes Syrian the revolution one of the greatest revolutions in history.
The aim of any revolution is not just to establish an alternative to the ruling political regime. It rather aims to destroy the political, administrative, and legal structure of the political regime, and thus unleash the will and lift restrictions on them. This will allow the creation of a new environment in which free will and free conceptions will interact and formulate a new social and political agreement that defines the framework of the Syrian political consent and re-establish their national identity and their desired state. All this is done on the basis of consent different from that on which the revolution had originally broken out to change.
The Syrian revolution has accomplished its goal and has destroyed and abolished the political regime. As for now, Bashar al-Assad and his regime no longer represent a ruling regime or any political or legal legitimacy. He is rather described as heading a powerful militia occupying a part of the Syrian territory and exercising its hegemony in cooperation with other cross-border militias, that came from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. He is mostly dangerous with the armies of two states of Iran and Russia. Therefore, we now have a real opportunity to re-establish our country, our state, and our political consent.
What I am really afraid o is the idea of a political solution that is based on a partnership between the so-called regime and the opposition in governance. This participatory solution which some are eager to establish, is a step back in the movement of the revolution on the one hand, and a barrier that will lead to self-resurrection and prevent the establishment of a real democratic experience in Syria.
Everyone must realize that we are living in a post-revolutionary phase today; that is the chaos period that follows all the revolutions. Therefore, the responsibility of Syrian elites and citizens lies in directly opting for re-establishing a new social agreement for the Syrians, and not creating a new and distorted regime based on the idea of partnership between the opposition and the regime.
Establishing democracy in Syria starts from the moment of laying the foundations for a political and legal environment that provides the safe, necessary, and neutral atmosphere for a new the political regime. This is what the Geneva statement stated in articles 7, 8, and 9. It is supposed not only to oust Bashar al-Assad and his regime from Syria, but more than that, considering that the ruling regime does not politically and legally exist, and therefore it must be tried as individuals and as a regime for the crimes they have committed.
Democracy can only be established in a society of justice and civil peace. This is its significance and essence, which is based on free competitiveness and equal opportunities, and which cannot be conceived without justice in the relative and absolute sense. The conventional idea of partnership between the ruling team and the opposition must be overcome. This is the truth about the essence of the Geneva statement which is rejected by the ruling junta and its allies and to which we are clinging to for this reason.
It should be noted that the opposition erred in interpreting the statement, when it assumed that it meant the establishment of an equal transitional governing authority between the regime and the opposition. This is incorrect as it was not mentioned in the statement. Article 9 of the statement provided for the establishment of a transitional governing authority that would carry out all executive powers by mutual consent. In the next paragraph, it stated “the governing authority might include members of the regime or opposition or other parties.” The participation of members of the regime or the opposition came as an exception and possibility rather than as an obligation.
It is necessary to focus on the fact that the statement mentioned the regime and the opposition as individuals rather than institutions, which meant that what is permissible is the participation of persons as individuals and not as institutions.
The political solution attempt, as now put forward by the opposition sides and other sides will be a severe hit that will prevent establishing the national democratic regime, which is the matter that bothers me the most.
Political transition negotiations
Syria Peace Talks in Astana
Syria Peace Talks in Astana, in their first session, have started in January 2017. They were sponsored by Russia, Turkey, and Iran and addressed de-escalation areas and the matter of detainees without addressing the political transition.
The second session of talks was held in February, followed by the third in March, in which the opposition did not participate, and then withdrew from the fourth session of the talks in May. Afterwards, there was Astana 5 in July 2017, followed by the sixth session in September and the seventh and eighth sessions respectively in November and December.
The Geneva 1 conference was held in June 2012 and came out with various recommendations, foremost of which is setting up the points of the transition process in Syria. The second session came in January 2014, followed by the first and second Moscow conferences in 2015, then the first and second Vienna conferences at the end of the same year. Afterwards, the third session of Geneva conference was held in early 2016.
The fourth session of Geneva conference was held in February 2017, followed by Geneva 5 in March, and then followed by negotiations in the sixth session in May. The latest two sessions were respectively held in July and November.
Since the fourth session, Geneva negotiations have discussed four topics, the first of which included the issues of the establishment of a non-sectarian rule that included all Syrians, and the second discussed issues related to the scheduling of the draft of a new constitution.
The third topic was related to the organization of “free and fair” elections after the constitution was drafted. The fourth focused on strategic solutions to “counter-terrorism” and confidence-establishing measures, without any actual development in the content of any matter to date.
The congress was held under the auspices of Russia on January 30, 2018 and was titled “Syrian National Dialogue Congress.” It concluded with the agreement to form a constitutional committee composed of representatives of the Syrian regime and the opposition to reform the constitution in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254.
The final statement also called for “establishing security and intelligence institutions that will safeguard national security, be subject to the rule of law, act in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and respect human rights.”
The UN envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is still waiting for pressure from the guarantor states on Astana parties to form the committee to this day.
Is there still a chance for democratic transition in Syria?
An opinion poll which Enab Baladi has conducted on its website and its Facebook page showed that most of the public do not believe in the possibility of a democratic transition in Syria.
57 percent of the 850 respondents answered “No” to the question “In your opinion: is there still a chance for a democratic transition in Syria?”
25 percent of the respondents answered “Yes,” and 15 percent answered that they do not have any specific opinion on the matter.
The poll was highly interactive on Facebook, and a number of readers explained their points of views regarding “democratic transition”.
Ahmed Ghazal commented: “How can we talk about democracy with people who are mostly running behind their own interests and satisfying the deadly ego, and whose ignorance affects all aspects of life? What democracy while most of the people consider murder as simple as drinking water?!”
Hassan al-Hussein ironically wondered, “Democracy? With the Syrian tribes, clans, and religious sects?,” while Yunus Mohammed Al-Yunis said: “Yes. There is a demographic and not democratic transition.”
Ibrahim Hijazi commented: “Yes, we used to be a free and fair democratic people before Hafez al-Assad came in, but now we do not care about the democracy you desire, we rather want to drop those who expelled democracy out of our country.”
Some commentators who showed loyalty to the Syrian regime through their comments considered that it was the regime that supported democracy, and that the opposition prevented its establishment in Syria.