Re­vers­ing past in­jus­tices

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Could the pro­gres­sive model of Demo­cratic Fed­eral North­ern Syria pave the way for an in­clu­sive, plu­ral­ist Mid­dle East?

Shan­non Ebrahim is the For­eign Edi­tor for In­de­pen­dent Me­dia

IT IS amaz­ing to think that in the next few weeks, Raqqa, the city which Is­lamic State de­clared as the cap­i­tal of its caliphate, could be lib­er­ated by the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces. The forces claim that over the past few months they freed the vil­lages sur­round­ing Raqqa, and have lib­er­ated 80% of the city.

The forces com­prise the Kur­dish YPG fight­ers, the Arab army from Raqqa, and the Chris­tian army, which have been ef­fec­tive in rout­ing IS from the city. Prior to this of­fen­sive, these forces had es­tab­lished the Raqqa Peo­ple’s Coun­cil, which is en­vi­sioned as a mod­ern demo­cratic rul­ing struc­ture. The ra­tio­nale was to en­sure there would not be a power vac­uum in the wake of IS’s re­treat, and that pro­gres­sive forces seek­ing plu­ral­ism and democ­racy would take con­trol.

Raqqa’s eman­ci­pa­tion rep­re­sents a ma­jor vic­tory for the forces, as IS will have lost both its strongholds – Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa. The ques­tion now is what form of gover­nance will take hold in Syria, and the most ap­pro­pri­ate model to pur­sue.

What emerges as ar­guably one of the most pro­gres­sive mod­els in Syria to­day is the North­ern Syria Demo­cratic Fed­eral Sys­tem, which was de­clared on De­cem­ber 29, 2016 by all the com­po­nents of north­ern Syria. Hav­ing de­vel­oped au­ton­o­mous struc­tures in the Kur­dish ar­eas since 2012, the Kurds con­vinced the oth­ers of the need for a com­mon demo­cratic model of self-rule.

The sys­tem has ex­plic­itly de­clared it is not seek­ing to set up a sep­a­rate state, but rather to es­tab­lish a demo­cratic sys­tem in the north that could be­come a demo­cratic model for a fu­ture Syria.

The fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple un­der­ly­ing this self-rule is to en­sure peace­ful co­ex­is­tence with other eth­nic­i­ties (such as Assyr­i­ans, Syr­i­ans, Ar­me­ni­ans, Arabs, Turk­mens and Chechens) and to in­cor­po­rate all dif­fer­ent be­lief sys­tems (such as Mus­lims, Chris­tians, Yezidis and Ale­vis).

While this cer­tainly seems a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment, the cau­tion would be that it must not lead to the split­ting up of Syria, and the model should not be used by out­side pow­ers to push for the Balka­ni­sa­tion of coun­tries in the Mid­dle East.

One would ex­pect that the vi­sion of cre­at­ing such a plu­ral­ist and in­clu­sive so­ci­ety would be widely sup­ported by out­side forces. But to date no coun­try has of­fi­cially recog­nised the Demo­cratic Fed­eral North­ern Syria. The rea­son is sim­ple – this sys­tem is at odds with the cen­tralised na­tion-state not only of Da­m­as­cus, but also of other na­tion-states in the re­gion such as Turkey and Iran, which want to en­sure the sur­vival of the eth­ni­cally based na­tion-state.

Da­m­as­cus’s na­tion-state, for ex­am­ple, is based on the denial and marginal­i­sa­tion of dif­fer­ent lan­guages, cul­tures and re­li­gions of the re­gion.

The very ex­is­tence of the Demo­cratic Fed­eral North­ern Syria is per­ceived by Turkey as a threat, given its ide­ol­ogy of be­ing an eth­ni­cally based na­tion-state. The Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion in Turkey is 25 mil­lion, mak­ing it the coun­try’s largest eth­nic group, which has posed the most per­sis­tent chal­lenge to Turk­ish na­tion­al­ism.

Any no­tion that the Kurds in Syria could be af­forded au­ton­omy makes Turkey panic, to the point that it has built a 510km wall along its border with Syria.

Turkey’s of­fi­cial pol­icy is also based on ex­pan­sion­ism, as it would like to re­claim ter­ri­tory which the Ot­toman Em­pire lost in 1914. In a con­fer­ence on se­cu­rity last year in Is­tan­bul, Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan de­clared: “The fu­ture must be planned on the ba­sis of a pro­found anal­y­sis of history. Turkey will have built it­self a big­ger coun­try with the help of Al­lah.”

Iron­i­cally, it was the Bri­tish-French Sykes-Pi­cot agree­ment that di­vided the prov­inces of the Ot­toman Em­pire nearly a cen­tury ago, and re­sulted in the Kurds and other eth­nic groups los­ing their semi-au­ton­o­mous sta­tus.

The 1916 agree­ment was a po­lit­i­cal tool de­vised by Bri­tain and France as a means to im­ple­ment their po­lit­i­cal and strate­gic in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East. They sub­se­quently im­posed the Euro­pean model of the na­tion-state, which en­sured that most regimes in the Mid­dle East are now dom­i­nated by a sin­gle eth­nic and re­li­gious group. The pol­icy of cre­at­ing ho­mo­ge­neous na­tions sowed ha­tred and en­mity be­tween peo­ples as gov­ern­ments im­posed poli­cies of as­sim­i­la­tion, and even car­ried out cul­tural geno­cide.

This is the legacy which the Mid­dle East was left by the colo­nial pow­ers, and we are reap­ing the un­for­tu­nate div­i­dends of na­tional poli­cies of ex­clu­sion to­day.

The Demo­cratic Fed­eral North­ern Syria may prove to be an al­ter­na­tive worth con­sid­er­ing, which re­verses the in­jus­tices of the past. It may as­sist not only in democratis­ing Syria it­self, but it could be­come a suc­cess­ful model for other coun­tries of the Mid­dle East.

Per­haps nar­row Pan-Ara­bism and na­tion­al­ism, which seeks to as­sim­i­late other eth­nic­i­ties, could one day give way to real democ­racy and plu­ral­ist so­ci­eties.

TASTE OF FREE­DOM: Kur­dish fight­ers from the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units in Raqqa, Syria. Eighty per­cent of the city has been lib­er­ated.

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