Syrian Opposition needs to offer clear vision for new Parliament

A scene from a public session at the Majlis Al-Shaab (the Syrian Parliament). Summer 2014

Ammar Abdulhamid and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen | July 7, 2014

Syria is stuck now for many reasons, not the least the willingness of the existing regime to use any tools to stay in power.  But it is also stuck because of deep distrust among all actors.  There is a possible path forward – one that is constitutional and not military in nature. Could Syria really find a way forward through building the right kind of parliament? We think so – but the parties must stop pretending that there is a Syria without Sectarianism before they can move on to reining it in.

”God, Syria, Bashar, and nothing more!” To Syrian state TV, its footage of parliamentarians vowing to sacrifice their souls and blood for Bashar al-Assad at his first speech after the outbreak of the uprising was a powerful demonstration of national resolve. To everyone else, it was the self-exposure of the most sycophantic parliament on earth. For decades, the Syrian parliament has rubber-stamped every law presented to it by the executive, and no one has even contemplated the idea of parliamentarian oversight.

And yet, in its various plans for a Syria after the fall of the Assad regime, the opposition has avoided the issue of parliamentary reform. It is as if it wants to convince itself that Syria had healthy politics before the Assads, and once Bashar and his clique are removed from the top, everything underneath will emerge unharmed by the rot. But Syria’s institutions are deeply affected by more than fifty years of authoritarian rule. While the regime continues its callous crimes against the Syrian population, and anarchy rules in rebel-held territories, this is a time to rethink the Syrian state and how its institutions may better serve its people in all their cultural diversity. For no matter the outcome of this deadly confrontation, a new constitutional order will have to be installed. And by eschewing the thorny issue of institutional protection of minorities, the opposition has in effect allowed the regime to play their protector and secure their begrudging loyalty. It is perfectly understandable that many people in the Syrian opposition get incensed when they hear the words minority protection at a time when it is actually the majority Sunni population that suffers disproportionally in Syria today. On the other hand, it is also perfectly understandable that members of the Syrian minority communities are unconvinced by mere assurances that in a democratic Syria their identity and interests will be taken into account by the Sunni Arab majority.

Moreover, an examination of the rhetoric and tactics used by different rebel groups and pro-democracy activists throughout the course of the conflict so far provide an added layer of complexity to the situation by raising the issue of regional rights as well, even in provinces where the population is more or less homogenous. Dissatisfaction with central rule is quite rampant and is not restricted to members of any one particular community or region.

Hence, there is a strong need for durable constitutional guarantees, and the opposition’s reluctance to deal with this issue has cost it precious support, at home and abroad.

We want to propose a new Syrian parliament with two chambers: a powerful first chamber in charge of all legislation and a second chamber with limited and well-defined powers acting as a check on legislation on issues related to the Constitution and the religious, educational and legal interests of Syria’s diverse regions and communities. This second chamber will be composed of representatives from all sectarian and national groups, and all of Syria’s provinces. Sunni Arabs will still form a majority, but it won’t be large not enough to reach the quorum of two-thirds needed for agreeing major decisions such as the promulgation of a new constitution, or passing a constitutional amendment. Moreover, this chamber could be given the power of review over all legislation within the narrow mandate of protecting communal and regional rights. Such a bicameral system will reassure the different minority communities and the different provinces in Syria that they will have a representation, and that, together, they can veto any legislation that can undermine their status or threaten their most central interests. Moreover, the new arrangement will also reassure the Sunni Arabs that they will no longer be ruled by minorities. Equally importantly, leaving day-to-day politics to a first chamber where a simple majority can make the decisions will secure a feasible and efficient form of legislation that is often lost in parliaments where seats are reserved for specific groups, and where the state ends up being a source of patronage capital, instead of a framework for civic life and action.

Members of the Syrian opposition are likely to balk at this idea at first. For decades, Syrians have looked at their neighbors in Lebanon and Iraq and congratulated themselves that they were not smitten with the same sectarian mindset. And they are all the products of a Baath education which stressed the Arab identity as the only one that mattered, and sectarian identity as a devious product of European colonialism. But sectarian identity was never absent from the power-struggles within the Baath party, or later the careful composition of the Assad regime itself. Nor was it absent from the Islamist uprising of the early 1980s, or, sadly, from the current revolution in its militarized version. While the political opposition’s principled anti-Sectarian stand is commendable, its denial of the importance of sectarian identities is, at best, naïve. What is needed in Syria’s political reconstruction, then, is a constitution that is mindful of the relevance of sectarian identities without succumbing to them. Here, the political task in Syria is quite different from that of Lebanon and Iraq, because Syria has a majority sect, the Arab Sunnis, whereas both Iraq and Lebanon have three dominant sects. In Iraq and Lebanon the political reconstruction was centered on power-sharing. In Syria, by contrast, it must be about minority protection.

Too often, in the Middle East, the state is something you plunder: jobs, investments and privileges are directed towards kin and sect by powerful ministers who clearly see themselves as representing their clients, rather than their compatriots. The same goes for many parliamentarians who are considered the nuwwab al-khadamat (service-providers) by their constituency. Add a communal and regional dimension to this political arrangement, and you have the recipe for inefficient legislation, endless horse-trading, communal and regional rivalry and sometimes civil strife. Syrians – the supporters of both the regime and the opposition – are right in denouncing sectarianism, communalism and regionalism. Yet that does not mean that their sectarian, communal and regional identity is irrelevant to them, but merely that they are unwilling to tackle the issue. Recognizing the threat of sectarian, communal and regional politics must mean that they begin to discuss ways of reining it in and minimizing its political impact. The institutional architecture of the Syrian parliament would be a good place to start.

At a time when the regime has laid out its vision for a future Syria – seven more years with the autocratic powers of president Assad – it’s important for the Syrian opposition to offer a more coherent and promising vision for the country’s future, one that gives the Syrian people both security and freedom, rather than forcing them to choose one over the other as the regime is doing. There is much more to Syria than Bashar Al-Assad, and the opposition needs to encapsulate that in a clear vision.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian pro-democracy activist. Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen is professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Copenhagen.