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Leader defines principles of new Future Syria Party

In an interview with Al-Monitor, the leader of the newly established Future Syria Party, Ibrahim al-Qaftan, rejected claims that the group seeks to counter Turkish pressure in northern Syria, stressing that its goal is to build a pluralistic and democratic state.

The Future Syria Party (FSP) was recently established in northern Syria to represent all components of Syrian society. The party, which is led by an Arab, was formed as Turkey is increasing its pressure in northern Syria against the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD). Ankara accuses the PYD of being affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. There are also rumors that the party was created at the request of the United States.

Party members met March 27 to officially launch the FSP in Raqqa, which is under the control of the PYD and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG). At the meeting, members representing Arab, Kurdish and Assyrian groups and movements as well as representatives from the provinces of Homs, Daraa, Aleppo and Damascus chose the party's leader, Ibrahim al-Qaftan. They also elected an 81-member general council and formed a seven-member board called the Office of the Conference.

While some have argued the FSP is merely the PYD's attempt to address the Turkish pressure in northern Syria, particularly in Afrin, others believe it was founded because the United States hopes to unite divergent elements to block Turkey from manipulating the region. Still others believe the new party was founded to do just what it claims: represent the different Syrian components and entire political spectrum.

The party is seeking public support by explaining its goals, principles and vision on the conflict in Syria. Since it was founded, the FSP has been holding meetings with the public, starting with citizens of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. The FSP also held meetings with intellectual figures in Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor, Qamishli, Raqqa, al-Tabaqa and the Euphrates Basin region. The party has established branches in the Jazira region of Rojava, Afrin, al-Shahba and Aleppo. It is promoting itself as a party that opposes the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and aspires to democracy, decentralized government, plurality and coexistence.

Qaftan, the new FSP chairman, hails from Manbij and holds bachelor’s degrees in architecture from Beirut Arab University and in Islamic studies from the Damascus branch of the Beirut-based Al Imam Al Ouzai University. He taught architecture at Ittihad Private University in Raqqa in 2013.

He has been involved in demonstrations since the first days of the Syrian uprising in 2011, protesting corruption, demanding reform and calling for a technocratic state institution. He was arrested twice that year by the Syrian regime. Subsequently, he led the Revolutionary Council for 15 days when Manbij was cleared of regime forces in 2012. However, he resigned from that post, citing corruption in the opposition as well.

During the Islamic State's rule in Manbij (2014-2016), the group assaulted Qaftan, shot him in the leg and arrested him. A month and a half later, Qaftan fled Syria, returning after Manbij was liberated from IS in August 2016. In February 2017, he was elected co-president of the Executive Council of the Democratic Civil Administration of Manbij and its surrounding areas, together with Zaynab Qunbur.

Al-Monitor talked with Qaftan recently via WhatsApp from Tell Abyad, where he had met with residents. The text of the conversation follows:

Al-Monitor:  Some people claim that your party was formed as an answer to Turkish pressure on the region. ... Others say the party was established on US orders to put an end to Turkey’s justifications — namely that the area is run by the PYD and the presence of the PKK, which Turkey is using as a pretext to threaten to storm the area. How would you respond to such claims? What's the nature of your relationship with the PYD?

Qaftan:  The party was founded as a response to popular demand and the political void in the area, and to enhance the opposition’s role on the Syrian scene. It wasn’t established as a direct answer to Turkey and its pressure, but based on our understanding of the Syrian community. In addition, this party is not — and will not be — an alternative to the PYD. Every party has its goals, programs and policies.

I also would like to reiterate that this party wasn’t formed per US orders. We are aware that Turkey doesn’t need any justification to try to invade and occupy any area in Syria — such as what happened in Afrin. As such, the Future Syria Party came to be in light of a dire need and many Syrians’ longing for an entity that represents them. Accordingly, we maintain our contact with everyone and we will have good relations with the Syrian parties, as we are planning on having a dialogue with national political parties that have a vision for a Syrian solution, provided that it is a national-to-national dialogue rather than one based on religious or ethnic grounds.

Al-Monitor:  During the conference in which the party was established, the … term “Rojava” was notably nonexistent. The conference raised the phrase “Syria — Democratic, Pluralistic and Decentralized.” Does this reflect a focus on the Syrian identity rather than the Kurdish identity? What is the Syrian state that you envision?

Qaftan:  We opted not to resort to narrow terms because the Future Syria Party is for all Syrians and for all Syrian regions, and not exclusively for Rojava. We believe in the unity and sovereignty of the Syrian land, and that Syria should be indeed pluralistic, democratic and decentralized. We are focusing on the Syrian identity, a unified Syria with a diverse community. We won't be focusing on a certain identity at the expense of another. We are working to serve all Syrians, from Kurds and Arabs to Turks, Syriacs, Druze, Alawites, Christians, Jews and all the spectrums of the Syrian people. ... [We want a] state that respects all of its people, as well as their heritage and languages.

Al-Monitor:  What is the purpose of the Future Syria Party, as the dispute is ongoing between Turkey and the regime and the United States has a presence in the country? What is your vision for the future of this party that would be different in implementation and mechanisms from traditional parties in today’s Syria?

Qaftan:  The goal of this party is to reassess the Syrian situation and submit a political program for the entirety of Syria, as most of the territories in Syria are now free of IS rule. We have transitioned from the language of arms and destruction to a building phase in all of its forms — building the individual and the country. Our vision is a vision for all Syrians who hope to put an end to the bloodbath and infighting, so that the language of dialogue would prevail over the language of arms. ... What differentiates us from other parties is that we believe there will be no solution with a religious or a national vision, but [instead] through citizenship and patriotism, as well as respecting ethnicities and religions as complementary and integral parts of the fabric of the Syrian people. Most of the active parties in Syria today have either national or religious views, but the Future Syria Party raises a platform of citizenship, pluralism and decentralization.

Al-Monitor:  What strategy do you have to win Syrians over? What are your visions and goals?

Qaftan:  First, address the rising Syrian crisis and the political and military congestion that have culminated today. Therefore, the Future Syria Party will adopt a strategy that we believe will contribute to unwinding the Syrian crisis through three axes:

  • From a strategic standpoint by proposing dialogue that would lead to a fundamental change on the grounds of citizenship, pluralism and decentralization through holding conferences.
  • Equal opportunities in electoral races and honest practices under the supervision of an international election committee that is approved by everyone and in accordance with an election law to which everyone will contribute.
  • Seek an end to the economic blockade through political understandings through normalizing our relations with the Arab, regional and international states and easing the existing tension with them. But the only solution for the economic crisis is increasing production and relying on a joint economy.

Regarding our goals, we are aspiring through our project and our people and even the Syrian regime-supporting states for a decentralized solution in Syria through international conferences and Geneva. We also seek to amend the constitution and work in accordance with the recommendations of [UN Security Council] Resolution 2254, which provides for amending the Syrian Constitution and restarting the elections.

Al-Monitor:  Why did you choose to announce the establishment of the party from Raqqa — an area under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF]?

Qaftan:  The goal behind establishing the party from Raqqa was to restore Raqqa to its true self and wash away the perception surrounding it — that it is a center for the Islamic caliphate and a capital for IS — and to assert that Raqqa is a beacon for democracy.

To address the second part of your question, Raqqa is not held by the Kurds but by the SDF, which is a national, not Kurdish, force that includes Arabs, Turks, Kurds and Assyrians.

Al-Monitor:  One might say that you are ideologically close to the [area's government], the Democratic Self-Administration [of Rojava] and the PYD, as well as the military forces that have a presence in the area — namely the SDF and the YPG — because you're dealing with a reality where the SDF, backed by the YPG, controls the self-administration areas. But there are other forces, such as the Kurdish National Council [KNC], which represents a large Syrian-Kurdish segment in the area, and they have conflicting views to those of the PYD. What is your stance on the KNC, which is part of the [National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces]? Will you try to bridge some sort of relations with them? What is your stance on the coalition? Have you been in contact?

Qaftan:  We are close to the self-administration and other democratic Syrian parties, yes. We share something with all Syrians of all shapes, ethnicities and religions because our program is based on decentralized pluralism and democracy. Therefore, we are with every national Syrian party, provided that it doesn’t aim to separate and pit Syrians against each other.

As for the Kurdish National Council or other national parties and forces, we have common ground with those on the basis of their Syrian nature, not those who have foreign agendas. We should have common ground as long as the [KNC's] goals are the ones we know and are listed in its political program, namely a constitutional recognition of the Kurds as an ethnic identity. The same [program] also demands that the policies and laws enforced upon Syria’s Kurds are repealed, including the ban on the use of the Kurdish language and the establishment of Kurdish schools as well as the call for achieving a decentralized governing policy in the context of unified Syrian lands and an end to discrimination on a national, religious or sectarian basis. The same program also supports a "national, sectarian and democratic state for all Syrians." All of these demands are indeed listed in the program of the Future Syria Party, which calls for respecting all ethnicities, languages and religions, but from the perspective of citizenship and a unified Syria.

Al-Monitor:  In your foundational statement, you noted that IS and Jabhat al-Nusra [now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] are the embodiment of terrorism, without mentioning Turkey. What is your position on the Turkish military operation in Afrin? What about your relations with Turkey, especially since you never mentioned the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army [FSA], which is dissimilar to the position of the PYD’s that described the FSA as a group of "mercenaries"?

Qaftan:  We look at Turkey as a neighboring country, and we hope it treats its Syrian neighbors well and stops supporting terrorists and exits Syria along with all foreign forces, to leave Syrians to solve their problems. Regarding Afrin, we consider it an occupied territory by the military and political entities that support Turkey. Afrin was never a threat to Turkish national security, contrary to Turkey’s claims.

Al-Monitor:  The party’s foundational conference stressed the need to maintain a pacifist solution for Syria. What does that mean? What are your views toward the civil society and the active media outlets in the region?

Qaftan:  A unified Syrian state is a unified Syria, but while respecting its plurality and all of its spectrums and components. And yes, [we support] peaceful change rather than the language of arms, since that has yielded nothing but havoc and immensely contributed to the destruction of Syria. As such, we have to adopt dialogue and find a peaceful solution for Syria — comprehensively rather than partially.

Regarding civil society groups and the media, their presence is a healthy sign in any community as they contribute to empowering Syrian society to voice its opinions and aspirations for building a civil democratic Syria.

Al-Monitor:  Are you planning on negotiating with the Syrian government to discuss a democratic transition in the future? Who could play the role of a mediator between the Future Syria Party and the Syrian government, assuming there were any initiatives?

Qaftan:  There are no signs in the direction of a negotiation with the regime at this time. We don’t have a problem with negotiating with the Syrian government. However, these negotiations should lead to democracy, decentralization and pluralism, away from the concept of a one-colored regime, and one through which the restoration of Syria’s national, regional and international role can be achieved. We won’t have any relations with the Syrian government unless [it would be] in the context of a solution for the Syrian crisis.

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