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What federalism would mean for northern Syria

In an interview with Al-Monitor, the new co-chairman of the Syrian Democratic Council, Riad Darar, said that Syrians need to fully understand their interests in this international game to prevent the partition of the country and to build a new system that is more flexible in responding to change.

The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which is mainly comprised of Arab and Kurdish political forces along with others from the Kurdish region in northern Syria, concluded Feb. 25 its second congress in the Syrian northern city of al-Malikiyah, with the election of Riad Darar and Ilham Ahmed as co-chairmen.

Darar is a Syrian opposition figure living in Germany. He is an Arab and moderate Islamist. Born in Deir ez-Zor in 1954, he has a bachelor's degree in Arabic language and was a preacher and teacher at a mosque in Deir ez-Zor. He was a political activist from 2000 onward, working with civil society groups. He was imprisoned by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for five years (2005-10) for his political views and accused of supporting the Kurdish cause.

Darar is an author and researcher on Islamic religious issues and has been publishing his writings on social media since the start of the Syrian uprising. He was a founding member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change established in June 2011, from which he later resigned in August 2014. He is a prominent member of the democratic Islamist current and is known for his writings on his personal blog, supporting the concepts of democracy and secularism.

Darar’s election to jointly head the SDC came after strongly pro-revolution Syrians demanded that an Arab be on the presidency of the council in the Kurdish areas.

The SDC covers large areas of northern Syria controlled by the Kurds. The Kurds represent the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), which includes various parties and is headed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Noteworthy is that Darar is an independent opposition figure who has no affiliation with any political party.

While Kurdish forces are receiving international military support, on the political level, they have no clear backing from the West — in particular the United States. This is in light of accusations by Kurdish parties — including the Kurdish National Council (a group of parties opposed to the policies of TEV-DEM, the de facto authority in the region) — that the self-rule administration there is operating undemocratically. Most recently, the administration closed the offices of Kurdish National Council members and other parties because those parties had not received official licenses from the autonomous “government.”

Al-Monitor spoke to Darar via Facebook on his ascension to the chairmanship and on the military and political changes the Kurdish region is currently going through.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Syrian Kurds have been accused of calling for a federal system that could be the start of the country’s partition. Today, what does the election of an Arab as joint president of the areas under the Kurdish self-administration (the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria) mean?

Darar:  There are two political projects. [First is] the nation-state project with all the intractability manifested during wars and fighting across the region and within the borders of single states. This left us with oppression and totalitarianism and achieved neither development nor democracy. Second is the democratic nation project, which is what we are proposing. It calls for democratic modernism through autonomous administrations, aiming to build a new, political, moral and organized society on the basis of democratic principles (freedom, equality, social justice, natural development, voluntary participation and resolution of problems through dialogue and debate, criticism and self-criticism).

The concept of the democratic nation rests on the idea of “unity in diversity,” meaning that multiple and varied cultures, religions, languages, nationalities, ethnicities and confessions can live together as part of a union in which nobody denies the presence of the other. Rather, everyone accepts each other with all their differences and colors in a single framework. An example is Switzerland, which includes German-, French-, Italian- and Romansh-speaking communities, each of which speaks its own language, practices its own culture; each language is official and has a presence in the framework of the democratic institutions, and the state plays a coordinating role between them.

The Syrian nation could be a democratic nation, a name that gathers all Syrians regardless of their national, sectarian, religious or ethnic differences. Pluralism and acceptance of difference are the basis of the unity of such a nation. Setting up local administrations and distributing centralized power to regions are among the requirements of pluralism and democracy in the democratic nation.

On top of that, the ability of each social component to express itself and its demands through political parties and organizations is a basic feature of peaceful democracy, meaning that the democratic nation guarantees representation of all parts of society, cultures and communities, reflecting the mentality and the morale of the democratic system.

Al-Monitor:  The SDC supports the creation of a federation including Hasakah, Kobani and Afrin [that is, northern Syria, as that region’s federal alternative to the autonomous region]. Meanwhile, both the opposition [the High Negotiating Committee, including the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the National Coordination Committee and others] and the Syrian regime have rejected the federal project. How will you deal with that?

Darar:  The federal project is a project of decentralization designed to establish a genuine democratic system and valid citizenship. It is based on autonomous, democratic administrations that translate policies into practice and [allows the participation] of the masses in regions, areas, districts and neighborhoods. It is an organizational framework for communal life, which aims to give society a will, a voice, decision-making power and an existence.

Instead of a central authority, powers would be distributed to each region and city of Syria. That is to say, each city and region would become a theater of democratic politics through local councils and municipalities, where the people would directly express their needs, and policies would be formed to address their issues and push competent authorities so they become able to manage themselves. In this way, democratic self-government means self-government by the people and society, with that society able to direct itself and solve its own issues.

Democratic self-government as a project is urgently needed due to the acute need for it in these circumstances, because in line with this project, different parts of Syrian society [the Arabs, the Kurds, the Armenians, the Syriacs, the Assyrians, the Turkmens and all the other confessions] are able to live together, side by side, in peace, brotherhood and social harmony.

Al-Monitor:  You believe in change and democracy. How will that affect northern Syria given the accusations that the region is being controlled by the PYD?

Darar:  We are working for a change of mentality. We are not trying to examine the backgrounds of organizations or dig into history. The PYD is a Syrian party that is working for a unified Syria and the outputs of the SDC conference. All our documents emphasize the democratic path in our relationships and decisions.

The PYD is a part of these agreements, which view the continuation of the current system of government in Syria as impossible and see the Syrian regime as suffering from a structural crisis, meaning it cannot be rebuilt or reformed. Rescuing the nation is a task in the hands of Syrians, their administration and their national, democratic forces.

Al-Monitor:  What are the obstacles that you might face in your position, particularly since you may face criticism and attacks from Syrians given that you hold a position in a Kurdish area?

Darar:  I am not used to giving up in the face of obstacles. But I believe there is a valid ideological basis in the vision of the SDC and a desire and insistence upon democratic change, as well as an honest tendency toward unity among Syrians and a gathering of their forces behind a practical vision.

People are living with the results of an upbringing based on oppression and marginalization, selfishness and envy. I don’t need to respond to the criticisms of some, because time will tell. I have walked alone many times without being distracted by those who tried to discourage me. Many of those who tried to make my ideas fail have adopted them today, so their criticism is harmless. I could recite the words of the Prophet: “O Allah, guide my people for they do not know.”

Al-Monitor:  The US Defense Department announced in February a plan for defeating the Islamic State [IS] without specifying who its partners will be. Is there a fear that the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] will be ignored after Ankara’s demands that Turkish-backed forces enter Raqqa?

Darar:  Manbij is a liberated city, free of IS, and it is run by its residents and the Manbij military council. Turkey’s show of force and its threats to enter Manbij have no meaning. To prevent a confrontation, the Manbij military council came to an understanding with Russia [the guarantor partner, along with Turkey, in the Astana talks between the factions and the Syrian regime].

For their part, the Russians gave up the villages around Manbij to avoid any clashes between the SDF and the factions under Turkish command [Operation Euphrates Shield] to protect civilians from the airstrikes that had been threatened by Turkish high command.

America sees the SDF as a warhead against IS in Raqqa. It is true that the United States has its interests with Turkey, and we respect that — we are not trying to enter into clashes with Turkey. Major powers have their calculations and their interests; we must follow their movements to see where to stand and with whom to form alliances. I believe that we need an alliance with the US, as it also wants a partner originally from the region to fight terrorism.

Al-Monitor:  You always defend the concept of a federal entity in Syria and even now the Kurds alone have put forward the idea of a federal project. Do you not fear that Syrians will accuse you of favoritism toward the Kurds?

Darar:  Syrians have lived through a long era of oppression that made many adopt the same positions. The nation-state took control of their minds and still influences their policies and their ideological references. Even the elites share similar views. Therefore, they dig in behind their imaginations of the state and its traditional political system. In the absence of a democratic experience, there is no dialogue, but rather authoritarian, patronizing ways of thinking — whoever opposes me is my enemy, a traitor, an agent, favoritist. In this way, they accuse me of favoritism toward the Kurds.

The educated, political and media activities speak of threats to the identity. They deal with opposing opinions in language full of ideological fervor, or with a sense of panic toward anything new. They don’t try to respond to any question or challenge, but use demagogic discourse about resistance, defense, fighting, identity and culture. This expresses arrogance and a lack of willingness to change reality, preferring to sleep in the honey of memories, heritage and history. Federalism is an expression of the culture of participation, moving from the narrow context to the cultures of identity, and from a backward-looking culture that rips away to a sense of living outside the age.

So do ideas like these need favoritism? Does anyone who believes in them need to fear?

Al-Monitor:  You left the National Coordination Committee after you liked a post on Facebook, criticizing the committee. This reflects how easy it is to split with a group. Do you expect to stay on the current council, especially given that Haytham Manna, the Syrian opposition figure previously appointed president of the SDC in the Kurdish areas who later resigned, protested against the federalism announced by the council and resigned?

Darar:  I left the committee over a “like” because it revealed the brittleness of a politician when he loses his self-control and threatens your life and your livelihood because of a “like” you put on an important article — regardless of the article. The issue is not in how easy it is to leave, but in the weakness of the agreement and the democracy if its falsity can be revealed by a “like.”

But Manna’s position and his withdrawal from the SDC, as he expressed in his statement, was that the decision to declare the autonomous region was taken without consultation, not because he rejects the idea itself.

Al-Monitor:  Given your experience in the opposition before the revolution and today, how would you describe the current situation in Syria and where is it going? What will be the results?

Darar:  There is no solution for Syria except for a political solution. Everyone must work toward that. The situation has become more complex with Turkey’s entry as an armed force in support for new factions it established to fight IS. I think Turkey’s strategy is guided by its position on the Kurds, and that complicates things. It would have been more successful if it had continued to be a guarantor of the political solution, pushing the factions it supports toward the negotiating table, leaving them to fight alongside Syrians as allies to defeat IS, without imposing conditions on any side. Turkey can coordinate with both the Russians and the Americans in the coalition forces that are supporting the Syrians to destroy IS, rather than sidelining any party. In any case, today Syrians are divided between two major powers — the Americans and the Russians. The rest of the region’s states are following. Syrians need to understand their interests in this international game, to prevent the partition of the country and to build a new system that is more flexible in responding to change.

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