The Daily Star, 28 October 2005

On October 16, four days after the violent death of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kenaan and five days before Detlev Mehlis released his report to the United Nations on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, several Syrian parties and individuals signed a historic document titled the Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change. The timing was one reason why the document is important; two others were its contents and those who signed it.The Damascus Declaration spoke about the necessity for radical change in Syria, which has been ruled by a military-Baath Party complex for more than four decades. The signatories held the regime responsible for the terrible situation inside the country as well as Syria’s appalling regional status. They called on all Syrian parties aspiring for democracy – “people of the regime” not excluded – to engage in “a salvation task of change that takes the country from being a security state to a civil state.” They also called for democracy, and though the signatories refused “change coming from the outside” and expressed an aspiration for the independence and unity of the country, they also refused, and in a way that was unusual for the Syrian opposition, “isolation, political adventurism and irresponsible attitudes.”

The signatories also promised to “work together to put an end to despotism, and [declared] their readiness to make the required sacrifices to achieve this aim and to do whatever is necessary to launch a process of democratic change in the country.”

However, the main importance of the declaration derived from the identity of the parties that signed it. The original document was signed by five parties and gatherings, namely the Democratic National Gathering (composed of five parties with leftist and nationalist roots), the Committees for Civil Society Revival, the Democratic Kurdish Alliance in Syria, the Democratic Kurdish Front in Syria, and the Future (Al-Mustaqbal) Party. Also, nine prominent figures co-signed the document, of whom Riad Seif, a jailed parliamentarian, was the most prominent.

No sooner had the declaration been issued than the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood also joined in and called on others to sign it. The Brotherhood described it as a starting point for a new national consensus. Soon other smaller groups and individuals, both within Syria and outside, joined – the most problematic of them being the Reform Party of Syria headed by Farid Ghadry, which is based in the United States.

The Damascus Declaration was a historic initiative. For the first time since the Baath Party seized power in 1963, a broad understanding was reached between the main body of the Syrian opposition and a majority of Kurdish parties, between secular parties and the Muslim Brotherhood. Groups and individuals from across Syria’s social spectrum, whether religious, ethnic or sectarian, agreed to join their efforts in a struggle for democratic change at a critical moment of Syrian history. How coherent this “alliance” will prove to be is unclear, but it is a strong expression of large sections of society.

The Damascus Declaration could be seen as an early Syrian reaction to the Mehlis report. The intention of the signatories was to propose an option different than what the Syrian regime has been offering: either the regime on the one hand or chaos or extremist Islamism on the other. The signatories sought to say that there would not be a vacuum of power should the doors of the country be opened to the unknown, and should the regime collapse under international pressure.

As George Sabra, a speaker from the Syrian People Democratic Party, put it, the document was intended to show that “Syria is not politically an empty shell.” He underlined that there do exist popular forces in the country, with a long history of democratic struggle – trustworthy groups that can be dealt with. These forces are united in their support for democratic and national change, and have a program that dovetails with the spirit of modernity in this era of world history.

So far the Assad regime has shown tolerance for the declaration and those who signed it. However, it used some of its proxies to wage a campaign accusing those behind the declaration of betrayal and sectarianism. One cannot be sure that the nervous regime will not soon use other weapons against Syrian democrats who are building up their courage and experience.

Now that the Mehlis report is out, it is becoming increasingly clear that it will be difficult, perhaps impossible, for both Syria and its regime to be saved together. The Damascus Declaration, in calling for change, has the aim of separating the fate of Syria from that of its regime. This is the great challenge that the Syrian opposition will have to face up to in the coming months. The stronger and more united and active the democratic opposition is, the less grim the future of the country will be.