Commentary on the Final Declaration of the Syrian Opposition in Riyadh

In September 2016, the High Negotiation Committee (HNC) of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces published a document, the so-called “Executive Framework for a Political Solution,” that outlines its views regarding a future Syrian state. Due to various aspects, the members of the Kurdish National Council in Syria (KNC), as well as representatives of other ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in Syria, could not identify with these positions of the opposition. Thus, in the document published by the HNC, Arabic was named as the only official language of Syria and the Arabic-Islamic culture as the basis of the intellectual development of the country. Accordingly, the cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds of the Kurdish, Yezidi, Assyrian, Turkmen, Druze as well as many other components of Syrian society were disregarded. As members of the Syrian opposition, the Kurdish National Council together with other groups demanded a constitutional recognition of Syria’s cultural, linguistic and religious diversity.

The recently published final declaration of the second conference, held from 22 to 23 November 2017 in Riyadh, includes a clear commitment to the Syrian multi-ethnicity. Syria is thereby specified as “a multiethnic and multicultural country whose constitution has to guarantee the national rights of all sectors of the population, the ones of the Arabs, similar to the ones of the Kurds, Turkmens, Arameans, Assyrians and others, including their culture and languages, which are regarded as national languages and cultures and which stand for the history and civilization of Syria.” According to the Kurdish National Council, this is a very important step into the right direction. Furthermore, the document explicitly refers to the Kurdish question as a national concern, and demands that the Syrian citizenship has finally to be returned to those whom it was unjustly denied by the Ba’ath regime.

Another criticism of the KNC regarding the September 2016 document of the Opposition referred to the principle of majority democracy to be implemented in Syria. A democracy based solely on majority voting, in the case of Syria the Arab-Sunni majority, inevitably excludes the interests and needs of minorities and thus cannot lead to a pacification of the country. The renunciation of the determination of the majority democracy in the Riyadh final declaration is therefore not only in accordance with the Kurds and all numerically smaller components of the country, but also a precondition for a peaceful future of Syria.

Despite these positive steps, some critical points, which the KNC has already expressed in relation to the “Executive Framework for a Political Solution“, still remain. For a long time, the Kurdish National Council has been advocating the establishment of a federal system in Syria. That means, he demands, in particular, the decentralization of political decision-making power. A purely “administrative decentralization” of the country, as stated in section six of the second Riyadh declaration, would be a continuation of the status quo. This would mean that Syria continues to be governed centrally from Damascus, as under the rule of the Ba’ath regime, while the regional level would not gain any political decision-making power. Yet, in order to build a long-term, trust-based system of government, it is essential to prevent a permanent concentration of power. Only a constitutional division of power and competences between the central state and the regions allows for actual participation and internal self-determination of ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. In order to facilitate the identification of these individual groups with the state of Syria and thus to ensure the territorial integrity of the country, a recognition of these rights is indispensable.

Since the implementation of federal structures in a post-war Syria is an essential demand of the Kurdish National Council, it is appreciated that the final document of the second Riyadh conference would like to allow negotiations about the future structure of the state without preconditions. The European Center for Kurdish Studies organized several dialogue workshops during which members of the Kurdish National Council, together with members of other ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, such as the Yazidis, Assyrians, Turkmens and Druzes, worked on cornerstones for a Syrian constitution. According to the participants, the 31 points developed can build the basis for a discussion about a future Syrian federal state, which ensures the democratic participation of all components of Syrian society.

The final declaration of the second conference in Riyadh was translated from Arabic into German and English by the European Center for Kurdish Studies. The English translation can be found in the article “Final Declaration of the Extended Conference of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces“. The 31 points of the Istanbul Paper III are available in the article “Istanbul Paper III – Cornerstones of a Syrian Constitution“.