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Assyrian Syriac powers looking to unify positions for future of Syria

Along the lines of the inter-Kurdish talks, Syria’s Syriacs and Assyrians appear to be joining hands in holding an internal dialogue to unify their vision and national discourse in the country.
The Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary, which was destroyed in 2015 by the Islamic State, in the village of Tal Nasri, south of the town of Tal Tamr, northeastern Hasakah province, Syria, Nov. 15, 2019.

A few months ago, three Syriac Christian groups launched an inter-Syriac dialogue in a bid to unify their national Syriac and Assyrian discourse and offer a common vision for the future of Syria.

These groups, which seek to represent Syriacs and Assyrians politically and constitutionally in Syria, include the Syriac Union Party, the Assyrian Democratic Party — both of which operate under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Council affiliated with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — as well as the Assyrian Democratic Organization that is affiliated with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

According to the London-based The New Arab pan-Arab newspaper, the Syriac dialogue appears to be going the opposite direction of the inter-Kurdish dialogue, which has been marred with challenges since it was launched, preventing the Kurdish parties from reaching an agreement. The Syriac dialogue aims to reach common positions and a clear vision for the future regardless of the parties’ political affiliations. 

Although the Syriac forces participating in the dialogue have various affiliations — some close to the Kurds and others to the Syrian opposition — they all agree on the need to reach a common vision for the good of the country, away from any interference or mediation by any party. 

The dialogue, which kicked off in January, is ongoing and taking place in Qamishli in the countryside of Hasakah.

Syriac Christians belong to the Assyrian ethnicity, which makes up about a third of Syria's Christians and 4% of the country's total population. They mainly live in northeastern Syria in the Jazira region, namely in the cities of Hasakah, Qamishli, Ras al-Ain, al-Malikiyah, Amuda and Tal Tamer. Some of them are also settled in major cities such as Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. At the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the Syriacs have formed independent military forces to protect themselves, such as the Syriac Military Council, the Syriac Security Office (known as Sutoro) and the Khabur Guards, which fought alongside the SDF.

A member of the Executive Committee of the Syriac Union Party, who preferred not to be named, told Al-Monitor, “The parties share the same language, religion and social traditions, which prompted them to find a common ground in politics too.”

He said, “This is true despite some challenges related to the fact that the Christian components are associated with the existing political alliances based on existential reasons rather than political conviction. Some of these alliances are fully associated with the policy of the Turkish government, such as the National Coalition to which the Assyrian Democratic Organization belongs, and whose popularity has greatly dwindled."

He added that the Syrian Democratic Council’s popularity is also dwindling in the areas under the SDF control, amid violations of freedom and democracy. “I believe that any official rapprochement between Turks and Kurds would be conducive to bring together the views of the region’s different components and unify the political affiliations that can be found within the same single component."

Samir Matar, head of the Syrian Journalists Association and a Christian journalist based in Germany, told Al-Monitor, “The main reason behind the establishment of this dialogue is the realization of the majority of Christians that their disassociation policy during the rule of the Syrian regime and their ensuing marginalization has greatly harmed the Christians’ interests in general.”

Matar added, “I believe many Christians realized — albeit a bit late — that it was wrong to rely on the clergy to defend their social and political interests.”

He does not see any success in the foreseeable future for these parties that were created on a religious basis.

“I think their success is contingent on the future composition in Syria and whether or not the new constitution would be based on the quota principle, which proved a failure in both Iraq and Lebanon. Syrians ought to learn from their neighbors with whom they share a similar religious social composition,” he said.

“I believe Syrians should distance themselves from the dictations [and interference] of external powers. Yet it remains difficult to judge these parties — whether they are politicized or independent — because the ground for party work has not been laid yet in Syria and the region as a whole is gripped by crises.”

In statements to The New Arab April 8, Gabriel Moshe Kourieh, head of the relations office of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, denied any mediation from third parties in the Syriac dialogue.

“During our meetings with the Americans [last month], they asked us to follow in the footsteps of the Kurdish dialogue. We said that our dialogue was proceeding. In later meetings, a few months after the launch of the dialogue, they offered to mediate. We responded that we were able to solve our internal problems,” he said.

Al-Monitor tried to reach out to a member of the Syriac Union Party’s Executive Committee for a statement on whether or not the dialogue is backed by the United States, but he declined to comment.

But Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, told Al-Monitor, “The Syriac-Assyrian dialogue kicked off with a push from the United States as was the case with the intra-Kurdish dialogue.”

He said, “This was confirmed by our sources within the three Syriac parties, who are unable to make comments in this regard and wish to show that the reason behind this dialogue is the common will between the three parties to reach political independence."

Shawakh believes that these parties are unlikely to succeed in their endeavors since they are affiliated with opposing sides, unless a Kurdish-Turkish agreement is reached, which is far-fetched.

“I find that these dialogues are useless for the region in supporting stability, as long as they are held within a single component or sect rather than across all religious components. But these dialogues remain a good step to bring together the different opposing parties within a community to take the next steps,” Shawakh added.

Wissam Aldien Aloklah, a professor in the Political Science and International Relations Department at Mardin Artuklu University in Turkey, told Al-Monitor, “Internal dialogues within the same community are necessary to unify their ranks after they have been divided between the warring parties, especially now amid the political stalemate and the calm on the fronts — something that would allow these components to opt for dialogue.”

He said, “Despite the fact that these dialogues primarily seek to achieve personal gains for the parties involved — as they would have representation at the international level and in committees involved in the drafting of the constitution — they are eventually in the interest of the Syrian people and contribute to reaching a political solution.”

Aloklah concluded, “The next step would be to talk with other parties, something that needs more time but can be successful in the long run."

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