There will be fighting and dialogue between the borders of Useful Syria, Democratic Syria, and Fundamentalist Syria
“The concept of the Democratic Nation is a political prescription that involves the coexistence of the people in the Middle East.”
Suwar Magazine interview with Riad Hammoud Darar, a Syrian opposition political and social activist and author from Deir Ezzor.
Interviewer: Sardar Mallah Darwish
October 16, 2017
Riad Hammoud Darar is a moderate Muslim and a Syrian opposition political and social activist and author. He was born in Deir Ezzor city in 1954. He received a bachelor's degree in Arabic language, and became a preacher and an imam at a mosque in Deir Ezzor. He currently lives in Austria.
Sheikh Riad, as he is usually called, has been involved in political activism for a long time and contributed to the Committees of Civil Society in 2000. The Committees of Civil Society was a group of Syrian artists, professors, writers, poets, actors and intellectuals who published a manifesto calling for reforms such as the release of political prisoners and freedom of association and press, just three months after Bashar al-Assad took over the presidency. In addition, Riad was one of the signatories to the 1,000 Manifesto, which was published in June 2000 and signed by a thousand Syrian intellectuals and politicians, and which demanded a range of rights as well as the liberalization of the political system. Following that he became a member of the subsequent subcommittee of the Committees of Civil Society with Fayez Sarah, Ali Abdullah, Hazem Nahar, Samir Nashar, Mashaal Tammo, Samira Khalil and other opposition figures. During his activism, he was imprisoned by the Syrian regime for five years and was released in 2010. During the early phase of the Syrian uprising, he became a founding member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), a Syrian opposition bloc. Riad Darar became one of the major figures in the Syrian opposition. He resigned from the NCC in August 2014.
Riad is a moderate cleric and at the same time an open-minded politician who believes in democracy.
On February 25, 2017, during the second conference of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), in the al-Malikiyah area in northeastern Syria, Riad Darar was elected as the co-leader of the SDC. This has created a debate among Syrians, where some have opposed Riad’s affiliation with this body as they consider it to be under control of the Kurds in Syria, and others have accused him of treason. The SDC is the political wing of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Both umbrella organizations have been created by the de facto autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS). They are working towards the implementation of a secular, democratic and federalist system for all of Syria.
After the city of Raqqa has been liberated from ISIS, the focus is shifting to your hometown Deir Ezzor, which is still under ISIS control. With the advance of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the Deir Ezzor Military Council from the north and the Syrian regime, backed by its Russian ally, from the south, what is the fate of Deir Ezzor in the future? Will these different military alliances ignite a war as a result of their fierce competition for influence over Deir Ezzor after ISIS is taken out of the city?
The SDF avoids confrontation with the Syrian regime, but they will respond to any attack against them. Our forces (SDF (have moved towards Deir Ezzor at the request of the city’s liberal residents, who reject any presence by the Syrian regime in their areas unless agreements are reached, which would ensure that the objectives of the revolution are achieved. These objectives are freedom and dignity, and the elimination of extremist groups as well as their radical ideology. The residents of Deir Ezzor believe that the Assad regime was the reason for the expansion of these extremists groups. Today, the regime is seeking to re-establish its control at a time when the SDF are fighting extremist groups that have marred the fate of the revolution, deviated it from its worthy goals, and distorted the ideal image of Islam. The race to control these eastern areas is the result of each party's desire to achieve its goals and therefore clashes may occur.
In your view, you have earlier considered that there are two political projects in Syria. One is the ‘National State Project’ and the other is the ‘Democratic Nation Project’, which you have described as the foundation for building an organized moral and political society based on the principle of diversity and multiculturalism. Could you explain to us the concept of the Democratic Nation? How can this concept ensure the identity of all Syrian cultures, nationalities and sects?
The concept of the ‘Democratic Nation’ is a political prescription that involves the coexistence of the people in the Middle East. It also requires that people of this region, who have never lived in peace, manage their interests away from the nation-state conflicts that have developed around them. The aim is to break from the confines of the nation state and the concept of nationalism, which have been the main reason for the most intractable internal and intra-state conflicts in the region, and move towards a new system of governance. In Syria, the project of democratic civilization can form a modern culture and create the democratic nation through self-management, which is not aimed at destroying the state institution and building a new one on its ruins. Rather, it aims to build a new moral, political, and organized society based on democratic principles such as freedom, equality, social justice, natural development, voluntary participation, and peaceful resolution of issues through dialogue, discussion, as well as analysis and self-assessment. It is an alternative theory to capitalist modernity, which represents the culture of daily consumption, moral decay and social disintegration stemming from the practices of the current world order of nationalist ideology, capital and industrialism.
The ‘Democratic Nation Project’ is represented by the democratic state, which means that people direct their efforts towards organizing the society without prejudice to major political issues and without destroying the state institutions. Instead, the formation of the democratic social system creates the social will capable of forcing the state to allow society to impose its will on state institutions. In doing so the state institutions become coordinating bodies that do not intervene in the economic, social, cultural and political life of its citizens, but rather their roles are limited to the area of public services.
The concept of a democratic nation is based on the principle of "unity in diversity". Meaning that different cultures, religions, languages, nationalities, races and sects can coexist within a union, in which no one denies the existence of the other.
In Syria, the ‘Syrian Democratic Nation’ can be the collective name that unites every national, sectarian, religious or ethnic group. Pluralism and acceptance of differences are the basis of the union of this nation. The activation of local administrations and the decentralization of authority over regions, cities and sub-districts are one of the requirements of pluralism and democracy. Furthermore, the ability of all segments of society to express themselves and demand their needs through political parties and organizations is one of the basic characteristics of peaceful democratic politics. Hence the democratic nation guarantees the representation of all sects, cultures and nationalities, and it represents the principles and morale of the democratic system.
You chair the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which has adopted the idea of federalism. To what extent can the idea of federalism succeed in Syria, knowing that there is a diverse group of Syrian people who hold it to be a project that would involve separation of the country?
Political terminologies are generally judged by different perspectives. We believe that federalism is for the areas that have been divided as a result of the ongoing war, which occurred primarily because of the extreme centralized state that is led by one party and an authoritarian family. The federal project is one of decentralization that establishes a genuine democratic system and effective participatory citizenship. It relies on democratic administrations through which people, who have the necessary skills and knowledge, can practice politics in the places they are located whether that be in regions, cities, areas or local neighborhoods. It is the organizational structure of a collective life that aims to develop a society, where individuals have the power and ability to make decisions and the freedom to express themselves. In such a system the power of the central authority is distributed over all Syrian regions and cities, meaning that each city and region becomes a place of democratic politics through local councils and municipalities, where the people directly express their needs, and make their own decision and solve their own issues. In this sense, democratic self-management is the management of the people and society by its own self, and the ability of this society to guide itself and resolve its own issues.
The federal project is the concrete expression of the practical, day-to-day functioning of the democratic homeland and democratic politics. Those who reject such ideas are only interested in the return of authoritarian rule as a system and form of opposition.
According to the draft of the federalist idea, the misconception of separation will cease to exist, and there will be no need to divide as long as the Syrian Democratic Nation is the collective name that has enough space to include any national, sectarian, religious or ethnic dimension.
There is an accusation that your council is under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Many Syrians believe that the region is governed by one party that controls the Kurdish self-administrated areas. How will you consolidate pluralism that preserves democracy, and how will you face the accusation by showing that one party does not monopolize the political arena?
As a result of the Syrian crises the trend towards armament and therefore dependence on external forces has made the PYD emerge as an organized body, which was able to protect its areas, and distance itself from revolutionary slogans that do not reflect in any way the aspirations of the population.
The PYD, has constantly been developing its internal systems and mechanisms, and has made sacrifices to people irrespective of their backgrounds or affiliations. It participated in policy-making and worked with people to develop a project that ensures the return of life for the whole of Syria. This is the democratic federalism project - through which the dominance of a central authority over the decision and resources of all Syrians will be prevented and stopped. This will enable the people of the regions to manage themselves, but this does not prevent the central authority from contributing to the strategic policies and administrations. There will be no dominance, but a mechanism of organized thinking that draws policies. And it has been successful so far despite the obstacles and mistakes that can be addressed through discussion, by virtue of the fact that we are not really a state system but the forces of change in the face of a deteriorating reality.
Did you know that there are those who accuse you of betrayal because you have joined the SDC? How do you face such an accusation?
This is not the first time I have been accused by superficial people with rigid minds. There is always a national interest and when I am convinced of it I follow it without looking back. I did so when I stood on platforms and spoke in an enlightened language, even though preachers attacked me and incited the regime to prevent me from speaking publically.
Even in politics, I still follow my intuition, which is inspired by Syrian pioneers whose priorities have always been to unite Syrians. My concept of citizenship is a universal one in which all citizens are equal.
There is an explicit support for SDF by the US-led coalition in the fight against terrorism. However, there is no American support for the SDC as well as federalism. What is your opinion on this?
Formulating administrative policies is not within the competence of the United States nor is it one of its objectives. The U.S. doesn’t want to interfere with administrative matters. The U.S. seeks to achieve a common goal which is combating terrorism. Therefore, it accepts cooperation and alliances with forces seeking to achieve the same goal. As a result, the U.S. is committed to coordination with the forces working on that objective and demands greater transparency from administration bodies in order to trust its goals. This is the secret of our relationship. The U.S. backs recently established local councils in the liberated areas to provide support for the working forces as well as civilians, and to be able to rebuild and rehabilitate the freed areas. This requires us to establish well trained departments capable of accommodating developments.
You have a long history of political action against the Syrian regime. You have contributed to the Committees of Civil Society since 2000. And you were present when The Damascus Declaration was signed on October 16, 2005. In addition, you were a founding member of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC). In August 2014, you resigned from the NCC due to the lack of unity. Do you think the Syrian opposition has succeeded in realizing, even partially, the objectives of the Syrian revolution, and where do you see the future of this opposition?
The Syrian opposition has never succeeded in achieving the objectives of the Syrian revolution. It has failed the Syrian people. I do not see any future for them. The Syrian opposition is floundering and has become like a puppet in the hands of the international and regional fractions. New forces and parties must emerge which will adopt a Syrian political approach away from ideological thinking, and which will develop their goals in order to achieve peace and counter extremism. Nationalism in its traditional form has failed miserably, in addition to the fact that the socialist and religious nationalist approach and ideology have also failed. Any attempt to re-adopt one of these approaches in the next phase is just a new failure.
Where are those mottos now that called for democracy and the end of tyranny at the beginning of the Syrian revolution?
Mottos don’t disappear as they are the needs and demands expressed by claimants at the time of need. Those claimants may not have the ability or the capacity to achieve their demands, so they fail. Democracy will be the solution in form and content. At least there is a democratic experience in the north of Syria, which will be a pilot from which the policies of the next phase may be drawn.
In your opinion, what are the main factors that have forced the Syrian revolution to deviate from its objectives, and what do Syrians have to do to protect their revolution in order to build a better future?
The Syrian revolution began in a very peaceful and civilized manner. But it was diverted from its direction by a counter-revolution led by two parties: the Assad regime on the one hand, by pushing it towards militarization, and by releasing extremist detainees from prisons to radicalize the direction of the revolution, and the on the other hand by Political Islam. By Political Islam, I mean that multiple individuals and groups who adopted the concept of Islamism have subjugated the Syrian revolution to external forces, and allowed the revolution to be controlled by many parties that have no interest in the success of the revolution. The events then evolved into a sectarian conflict between the conflicting groups. Furthermore, the Syrian opposition was not able to deal with such dangerous developments for two reasons; it lacks experience in the field of political work, and is fragmented with no ability to collectively act. This has pushed the opposition to continue with its experimental work, which led to many disappointments and failures; they even contributed to re-installing the Assad regime because of their lack of experience.
How do you see Syria in the next stage?
Terrorist groups such as ISIS will fall apart just like the Taliban in Afghanistan, with some of its members joining other factions, including al-Nusra Front. After the eradication of terrorism as currently represented by ISIS, there will remain three strong parties: the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies as well as its multiple militias; The Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States; and the military factions supported by Turkey, with Russian approval, which have political representation in the Syrian Interim Government as well as the Syrian National Coalition. In the future there will be further war and negotiations between the different forces in “Useful Syria”, “Democratic Syria” and “Fundamentalist Syria.”
Your religious experience confirms that you believe in secularism and democracy. Everyone knows that extreme religious ideologies and radical forces have invaded Syria through external actors, trends and factions that adopt Islamic approaches. This has further complicated the Syrian issue. In your opinion, where will this situation take the Syrian state? How dangerous is this jihadist ideology, and how can it be uprooted?
The jihadist ideology has no future in Syria. But there is no appropriate alternative. The forces on the ground are inadequate. The future situation will be dictated by international forces as a fait accompli. The secular solution must have a sufficient number of supporters and organized forces. A proper definition of secularism and the assertion that secularism does not mean ‘anti-religion’ require a concerted and real effort by the media, seminars and conferences so that the fear will disappear from the minds of ordinary people and they may start to accept it. This needs both considerable time and effort.
1. The Damascus Declaration is a secular umbrella opposition coalition named after a statement drafted in 2005 by numerous opposition groups and individuals demanding a multiparty democracy in Syria.