‘The Syrian people will decide the future of Syria’: rhetoric versus reality at the Sochi congress

29 January 2018 Bilal Shami ‘The Syrian people will decide the future of Syria’: rhetoric versus reality at the Sochi congress

Current international approaches to resolve the conflict in Syria prioritise the interests of external actors and undermine a Syrian-owned political process for peace and post-conflict recovery, says Bilal Shami.

Among the slogans chanted in Syria’s uprising in 2011 was ‘karamah – or ‘dignity’ – an expression decrying the personal, socio-economic and political injustice suffered under the Ba’ath regime. Far from reclaiming this dignity, Syrians face the prospect of their country’s fate – to be defined through a looming political settlement to the conflict – being dictated by foreign powers.    

The Sochi Congress for National Dialogue that Russia, Iran and Turkey are planning, taking place on 29–30 January, will convene around 1,500 ‘representatives’ of Syria’s political and social structure to discuss constitutional reforms that will provide the basis for nation-wide elections. National dialogue among Syrians is indeed necessary to reach a lasting solution for Syria, but the rejection of Sochi by many Syrians exposes the flaws in the process.

Although the Sochi congress purports to be an unprecedented nation-wide representative dialogue, the tripartite organisers are deciding who attends. Turkey has vetoed Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) participation. Other Kurdish groups will likely boycott given the Turkish assault on Afrin. Russia is side-lining uncompromising opponents of Assad. Clearly, with this level of intrusion and exclusion, no authentic and legitimate conclusions can be reached.

Throughout the conflict, foreign powers have used the war to pursue divisive, competing agendas with little heed for the Syrian people’s welfare and concerns. Only when the ‘war on terror’ discourse became the focus have external powers displayed some willingness to pull together. Yet as a recent report illustrates, the pursuit of international counter-terror objectives has played disastrously into the hands of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime to the detriment of the pursuit of a just peace for Syria’s long-suffering people.

With territory now reclaimed from ISIS, ‘stabilisation’ has come to the fore – but is being pursued in a way that prioritises the security considerations of foreign countries at the expense of Syrians’ legitimate political right to democracy and justice. The conditions that led to the conflict and the rise of ISIS remain – and neither the Russian, nor the newly announced US strategy, seem likely to make significant inroads to addressing them.

Russia is seeking to regulate the fighting through ‘de-escalation’, and reconcile areas outside regime control by enacting constitutional reforms agreed between the regime and its opponents that pave the way for decentralised governance.[i] It sees Sochi as the first step in achieving the latter objective. Notably, the four ‘de-escalation zones’ guaranteed by Russia, Turkey and Iran in the first phase have only reduced hostilities in areas important to foreign security interests. Eastern Ghouta – of little interest to the outside powers – has suffered continued shelling and the worsening of an already severe humanitarian situation.

While Russia can be expected to keep marginalising the concerns of Syrian people, the US strategy – outlined by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on 17 January – may in contrast sound positive, but is likewise flawed.

The US has given rhetorical support for ‘a positive political path forward that honours the will of the Syrian people and sustains the unity and territorial integrity of Syria’. But the plan to install an open-ended US military presence to engage in combat operations, to expand counter-terror operations in the country, and to ‘stabilise’ areas under rebel control could continue to result in violence and destruction, and does little to address key conflict drivers.

A process for Syrian people to map out the future of their country would look very different from the US and Russian agendas and the proposed Sochi congress.

Representation for all

It remains to be seen how much freedom and independence to design a new constitutional framework will be offered to participants at Sochi. Peace processes that exclude women have a low chance of success. The inadequate representation of women, youth, and civil society organisations fails to make the congress truly representative.

A legitimate, unifying governance structure

While a number of different models for governance in Syria have been proposed, Moscow has advocated for a federal one. This proposal, which has lukewarm backing from some Western states, effectively builds on the current map of who controls what in Syria and the existing de-escalation zones. Such a structure benefits external players more than Syria’s people. By upholding foreign influence in Syria’s regions, it could divide the country rather than unify it, especially if reconstruction efforts follow and cement conflict divides.

A non-sectarian future

Moreover, if current frontlines define federal regions, it could spell trouble given their geographic misrepresentation of Syria’s socio-cultural diversity. Shaping a federal or decentralised model along ethno-religious lines overlooks the fact that Syria’s social structure is not composed of cohesive ethnic and religious communal units.

During the war, foreign powers have used transnational ethno-religious associations to mobilise particular groups, hardening sectarian attitudes. Institutionalising these divisions would consolidate the identity-based influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey over Syria’s internal political affairs.

Sectarian attitudes have hardened due to general perceptions of communal positions vis-à-vis the regime, but institutionalising these divisions threatens to entrench them, as the experiences of Lebanon and Iraq suggest. Moreover, organising political life along such identity lines could normalise segregation and prevent future mobilisation on cross-sectarian agendas such as class and gender. Minorities could suffer greatly if externally imposed ethno-religious-based federal regions fail to uphold their rights.

For all these reasons, a legal framework based on citizenship that respects and protects ethno-religious diversity would be preferable if it could be achieved.

Sochi – the road to Peace?

If international actors are serious about building peace in Syria, they need to exert their influence to create a truly representative approach that enables Syrians to craft their own future governance arrangements, addressing the grievances and divides that have driven the conflict. This will require having transitional justice measures in place that introduce a culture of accountability and that help deter future human rights abuses.

In August 2011 protesters in Homs chanted ‘we want a civil state that governs us, not a shabiha (mafia) state that murders us.’ Will the Sochi congress help rebuild a functioning civil state that respects Syrians’ karamah? Unlikely.

Bilal Shami is Research and Policy Coordinator at Rethink Rebuild Society where he works on policy and advocacy around Syria.

Photo: Martha Heinemann Bixby/Flickr

[i] See US and EU think tank reports in support of this idea.