The Greater Game: New Syrian Constitution Negotiations were Condemned to Fail

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.

By Metin Rhawi

Note: I use the Syriac-Aramaic terms Suroyo (singular) and Suroye (plural) for our people. Suroyo translates to Syriac in English and contains the Aramean-Assyrian-Chaldean denominations of our people.

We were many who said “told you so” when the Geneva negotiations for a new Syrian constitution collapsed at the end of November. The Syrian regime showed no inclination to make any significant concessions, as it has not done during the nine-year civil war. The opposition kept persisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should go. The pre-war status quo was to be preserved. Of course, there are many and nuanced reasons for the failure of the Geneva talks, but in my opinion, the most important reason is that the regional power struggle for the Middle East has not yet shown clear winners.

The Regional Power Game

Although U.S. President Trump and Russian President Putin seem to agree on the larger picture and spheres of influence in Syria, one of the reasons for the collapse of the negotiations is that the two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, have not yet fully agreed on how a future Syria should be governed. President Putin is trying to win over Turkish President Erdogan by giving him room to maneuver. Putin is also trying to align the Turks and the Iranians to the Russian Syria-plan through the Astana talks. U.N.-led negotiations in Geneva, orchestrated by presidents Putin, Erdogan, and Iranian President Rohani, were needed to gain international recognition and to win over future financial donors for the rebuilding of Syria, since none of the three has the power to take that responsibility. Everybody knows serious reconstruction efforts can only be undertaken by the E.U. and U.S. Without a new constitution and some form of concessions by the Syrian regime on the rule of law, inclusiveness of peoples, and local governance, the international community will not pull out its wallet.

The U.S., on the other hand, have retracted their position in Syria, withdrawing to the oil fields outside Deir ez-Zor, temporarily appeasing Turkey. In contradiction to many others, I think U.S. policy on Syria is clear: the U.S. has the time and leverage to wait, oversee, and steer the game as Russia and Turkey maneuver.

Neither the U.S. nor Russia wants Iran or Turkey to embolden their regional positions. The current political leaderships in Iran and Turkey have bad human rights track records and have encouraged and strengthened sectarian structures in their domestic politics. Furthermore, both Iran and Turkey as regional powers pose a real threat to Israel. It is not long ago that Turkish President Erdogan, having accumulated evermore dictatorial power, has threatened Israel. We should not forget that Israel has a lot of influence on how the future solution in Syria will look. In addition, we should also recognize that Israel has warm relations and the support of both superpowers but at the same time is disliked by their regional powers.

The regional powers – Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – are still fully engaged in their power struggle for the Middle East. Each one of them is openly and covertly pushing their local proxies to gain greater power to tip the regional balance in their favor. Meanwhile, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are fighting a silent war for the leadership of the Sunni faction of Islam. Iran considers itself the standard-bearer of Shia Islam. The instability in the Middle East over the last decade has allowed the major regional players to expand their power and influence over Sunni and Shia Islam in the Middle East. Even partial retreat of the U.S. would intensify this power struggle and at the same time weaken Saudi Arabia in relation to Turkey.

However, Turkish, Iranian, and Saudi bases of support are shaking in many places throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including amongst their own populations. We can see this in the large popular protests in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran, the more moderate course of the Saudi king on human rights and personal freedom, and the diminishing power of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and growth of break-away factions from within the party. I would not be surprised if popular protests will commence in Turkey in the very near future as U.S. sanctions are implemented as a response for Erdogan’s close dealing with Putin – including the purchase of the S-400 air defense systems – and Turkish actions in North and East Syria.

Suroye/Syriacs and their Survival

Let me be clear on one thing: it was not the Suroyo who started this war and it is not the Suroyo people who have the power to end it. The Suroyo people need to survive, endure, and face all the horrific scenarios of the war – just like the rest of the peoples of Syria. But we must not emigrate. Not this time. If we do, then that will be the end of Suroye in Syria. We have always lost more than our neighbors as a result of instability because we are an unwanted indigenous, ethnic, and religious minority. Every war takes something from us, either it’s our land or our lives.

How should we, the Suroye, take a stand in this very confused picture? Of course, the current situation is not new to us, we have been in the middle of this power struggle for centuries. We have many different alliances depending on what kind of policy the respective Suroyo organizations have and what kind of organization we are talking about (religious, cultural, or political). Historically, our churches have been close to the regimes and in general closer to the Shia elements, as the Shia Muslims are regarded as more moderate in comparison to Sunni Muslims. For us Suroye, it is like walking on the edge of a sword, and we are forced to do so without shoes. No matter what, we are get hurt.

The greater regional game is the most important reason for the failure of the Geneva negotiations. And it is still being played out. For us Suroye, the greater regional power game is a clear existential threat. We can only survive in Syria and the broader Middle East if a sustainable political solution of co-existence, representation, and consensus is reached. Suroye can only have a future in a Syria where there is a basis for the various peoples to coexist and cooperate on all political and social levels. Suroye can only exist in the Middle East where human rights, equality, and personal freedom exist. Suroye can survive when secularism is not a whim, and the corridors of power politics are not governed by religion. Suroye can exist in a future where children can grow up and embrace life in accordance with U.N. Conventions. Suroye can exist where democracy is more than one person, one vote; it is essential that democratic and pluralistic values are part of society. These values must be included in the school curriculums and taught to all children.

The Solution for Syria will not only Benefit Syria but also Europe

Turkey and Iran as powers in the greater regional contest were the most important reason why there was no representation of above demands at the table in Geneva. There was no representation from the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAA-NES or DAA) due to the vetoes of Turkey and Iran. Our representation at the table would give a voice for secularism and democracy and for the recognition of human rights and personal freedoms. That is why the new Syrian constitutional negotiations were condemned to fail.

The Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria was initiated by Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Suroye, Armenians, Yezidis, and other minorities and who now enjoy the benefits of the newborn democracy in northeastern Syria. It has it flaws and difficulties, mistakes were made, and likely more are yet to come, but it worked in bringing people from the many social and political backgrounds together in a system of shared governance and co-existence. Under the adversity of the Syrian civil war, the Suroyo, Kurdish, and Arab peoples found each other in reciprocal acceptance of political representation and agreed upon the most sustainable solution for a better and democratic future Syria. No one should forget that what has been achieved so far is under the worst conditions. Everyone who wants peace in Syria and the Middle East should support the idea of a decentralized Syria, as visible in the Democratic Autonomous Administration – Despite the power of the forces against it, it is working.

As a European representative of the Suroye people, we see that the existential threat to the survival of our people in the Middle East can only be remedied if everyone who believes Christianity should remain in their homeland supports us and empowers us through the DAA in Syria.

Metin Rhawi is head of Foreign Affairs of the European Syriac Union.