By Joris Leverink*
While the war in Syria continues to draw in more outside forces, the work towards finding a political solution to this five-year old conflict carries on. In the past week, no less than three separate conferences were organized by different clusters of opposition groups. Conferences were held in three places: Damascus, Dêrîk – a city in the Kurdish-controlled northern part of Syria – and Riyadh, the Saudi capital, respectively.
With the Damascus conference widely regarded as a sham, organized with the permission and under the firm control of the Assad regime, and the conference in Dêrîk being all-but ignored by the international media, the eyes of the world were fixed on the proceedings in Riyadh.
The conference in the Saudi capital was sponsored by a number of international allies to the various warring factions inside Syria. The intended outcome was to unite the Syrian opposition so that it could present a common front in upcoming negotiations with the regime, as determined by the Vienna talks held in November.
Remarkably, little attention was paid to the conference in Dêrîk – called the “Democratic Syria Congress” – organized by Syrian Kurdish groups and their allies. This conference brought together more than a hundred delegates representing religious and ethnic groups from all over Syria, with an important role reserved for women and youth organizations. It was the first peace conference of its kind organized in opposition-controlled territory inside Syria – a fact that goes a long way in pointing out the significance of this particular event. Contrary to the one in Riyadh, this was a conference by Syrians, and for Syrians, not controlled by the agendas of powerful international allies nor obstructed by the dogmatic views of some of its participants.
The Riyadh conference was attended by political bodies such as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, as well as rebel factions like Jaysh al-Islam, the Southern Front and Ahrar al-Sham, a salafist group fighting in alliance with the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front.
Tellingly, the New York Times reported that in the final statement of the Riyadh conference the word “democracy” was left out because of objections by Islamist delegates, and replaced with “democratic mechanism” instead.
In contrast, the final resolution presented at the Democratic Syria Congress in Dêrîk underlined the delegates’ commitment to democracy, social pluralism, and national unity. It confirmed the participants’ determination “to form a democratic constitution to enable solutions to the Syrian crisis through democratic, peaceful discussion, dialogue and talks; … to hold free and democratic elections required by the current process in Syria; [and] to secure the faith, culture and identities of all Syrian people.”
The Dêrîk conference also saw the establishment of the Democratic Syrian Assembly, which will serve as the political representation of the newly formed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a Kurdish-dominated coalition of rebel factions, including Arab, Syriac, Turkmen and Yezidi forces. In recent months, the SDF has proved to be ISIS’ most formidable enemy, and the international coalition’s most reliable ally in the fight against the terrorist organization.
It might come as a surprise, then, that neither the SDF nor any other Kurdish organizations were invited to the Riyadh conference. As a faction that controls an area many times the size of that under control of the National Coalition – or any other rebel group for that matter – and which has been able to claim a string of victories against ISIS, it naturally ought to play a role in any post-Assad, post-ISIS future plan for Syria.
The Kurds’ absence in Riyadh has everything to do with Turkey’s position in the Syrian conflict. From the Turkish perspective, the Kurds in Syria pose a bigger threat to its national security than ISIS.
Turkey fears that the establishment of the autonomous regions, or “cantons,” in the Kurdish parts of northern Syria might inspire its domestic Kurdish population to pursue a similar goal. The fact that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the most powerful political body in the region, is a sister organization to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a 35-year insurgency against the Turkish state, only adds insult to injury.
Commenting on the Riyadh conference, PYD co-chair Saleh Moslem stated that “it doesn’t pay regard to the current political and military reality in Syria and the region, as the most active and dynamic actors and representatives of the actual Syrian opposition haven’t been invited. In the circumstances, such meetings will have no seriousness.”
Before it even started, the precarious alliance formed in Riyadh was already on the verge of collapse. Ahrar al-Sham threatened to pull out of the talks, condemning the presence of “pro-Assad forces” and deeming the final statement “not Islamic enough.”
The goal to bring all the different opposition factions to the table, to explore common ground and to form a united front against the Assad regime is a noble one. Unfortunately it is doomed to fail when the alliance neglects to reflect the reality on the ground as well as the will of the Syrian people.
When it is merely the outcome of external parties pushing their agendas for personal benefits – whether it is to strengthen the position of local allies on the ground, to obstruct the efforts of the Kurdish autonomous administration or to explore options for negotiations with Assad in order to be able to focus all energy on destroying ISIS – any alliance will be too weak to withstand the test of time, let alone the test of war.
In this regard, despite the lack of international attention, the conference in Dêrîk might actually supersede the one in Riyadh in terms of importance. Despite the increasing involvement of outside forces, diplomatically, politically and, most important, militarily, any real solution to the crisis in Syria must be initiated by the Syrian people, not any outside power.
The Democratic Syria Congress in Dêrîk has shown that there is not only a will to work towards peace, but that there is also an infrastructure in place, a platform, where the first, cautious steps towards a peaceful future and an “alternative democratic system aiming at change” have been made.
*Joris Leverink is a writer and political analyst based in Istanbul. He is an editor for ROAR Magazine and a columnist for TeleSUR English, where he frequently reports on Turkish and regional politics.