A New, Free Middle East Is Rising from the Ashes of Syria’s Civil War. Why is Geneva Ignoring Them?

By Johannes de Jong Published on April 1, 2016

How many people from Western countries would believe that there is actually a sizeable and growing area in the Middle East in which democracy, freedom of religion and equality of men and women are simple facts of life? An area in which Kurds, Syriac Christians and Arabs work together? I am here to tell you that I’ve been to such a region myself and seen it first-hand. And I am not the only one. The embattled people of these new regions need Christians and others of good will who live in the West to understand and support this fragile but hopeful new start for the battered peoples of Syria and neighboring countries.

If there is hope for peaceful coexistence, religious diversity and the rights of women and ethnic minorities anywhere in the Middle East, it is in the regions of Syria controlled by indigenous militia groups which have been fighting for years, with only fitful help from the West, to establish what they see as the best possible future: a decentralized country where local people have maximum control over their own fates, instead of being the pawns of foreign powers or the victims of murderous governments.

Unfortunately, no representatives of this free, democratic region were invited to the UN peace talks in Geneva, which may determine the fate of all the groups in the region.

These militias have fought courageously and with real success; now they are excluded from the peace talks in Geneva which should determine the end-game in the Syrian civil war. American Christians should let their elected representatives know that people of faith will not be satisfied with any outcome that robs such self-governing regions, and religious minorities, of their hard-won liberty.

The map below is crucial to understanding what is going on in Syria. Things are very different in West and South Syria on the one hand, and North and East Syria on the other.

Syria Map

Map Courtesy of Thomas van Linge

In North and East Syria there are two main factions that fight each other: the terrorist Islamists of ISIS are battling a coalition of Kurds, Arabs and Aramaic-speaking Christians. This anti-ISIS coalition is also known as the Democratic Self-Administration (DSA). In Kurdish this area is called ‘Rojava’ and in Aramaic “Gozarto.” Much of the war against ISIS in Syria is actually a war between these two quasi-state entities: the ISIS theocracy, and the multi-religious, self-governing DSA.

The DSA is divided into three cantons: Afrin in the uttermost northwest of Syria, Kobane in the north central region, and Jazire in the northeast. Each of these cantons has its own parliament, and is turn governed by elected local councils. (In Jazire, for example, local elections took place in March 2015.) The parliaments and regional governments reflect the ethno-religious diversity of the areas they govern.

The best example is Canton Jazire in which all governmental posts and departments are divided between Arabs, Kurds and Syriac Christians. Furthermore 40 percent of political positions in each canton is held by women. When I was visiting the Jazire, I had the honor to spend down a whole evening with the Syriac-Assyrian Christian ministers and state secretaries of that canton, many of them women. (Remember that across the border, in ISIS territory, such non-Muslim women are not part of government — they are kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.)

A  Tolerant Democratic Government with Equal Rights for Women

The DSA government is secular and tolerant, governed by a Social Contract that functions as a kind of constitution. The DSA’s Social Contract rejects Islamism and dictatorship, and guarantees political representation for women. A network of “women’s houses” and female-led organizations supports this move to offer equal rights for all. Syriac Christians have their own cultural, civic political and media organizations, whose members I was privileged to meet on one of my visits to DSA’s region of Syria.

As the DSA is in an ongoing war against ISIS, members of the ethnic and religious groups living there join in the fight — including the mostly Kurdish YPG, the Christian-led Syriac Military Council, and smaller Arab militias (the Jaish al Thuwwar, Burkan-Al Firat and Sanadid forces). In late 2015, the DSA linked these smaller militias into the umbrella group called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has begun to receive support and airpower protection from the United States. The U.S. now treats the SDF as a formal American ally in the fight against ISIS.

I had the honor of visiting several headquarters of the militias making up the SDF, and meeting the brave soldiers who are defending their freedom. Since 2015, the SDF forces have beaten ISIS consistently, driving the terrorists into retreat. As a consequence ISIS is facing the possibility of an overall defeat in Syria, its main power base. If that happens, ISIS likely also will be defeated in Iraq — freeing many more religious minorities from its savage regime of repression, and diminishing ISIS’s resources for attacks against the West.

The “Moderates”

The next threat the democratic, tolerant government of the SDF faces comes from groups who are routinely depicted in the West as “moderate” rebels against the Syrian government, including groups that have received U.S. aid in the past. In cold, hard fact, the “moderate” elements among these rebels were marginalized many months ago, and they are dominated by Islamists such as al Nusra, which is formally allied with al Qaeda. These theocrats, who are not much more tolerant of religious minorities than ISIS is, seized the weapons and money the Americans had intended for supposed moderate militias.

The latest development in this fight is a political declaration on the part of the DSA. On March 17, 2016, the DSA renamed itself the “Federation of Rojava North Syria.” This Federation is a formal governing structure for areas liberated from ISIS, but not controlled by Assad or any Islamist militia. Unfortunately, no representatives of this free, democratic region were invited to the UN peace talks in Geneva, which may determine the fate of all the groups in the region — including the four million people who now live in freedom and safety as part of the DSA’s Federation. Observers trace the exclusion of this large group to pressure from Turkey, which resents and fears any sign of independence on the part of Kurdish peoples in the region.

A number of the Syriac-Assyrian Christians live in areas inside the DSA that are still under control of the Assad regime (they are in the ‘red dots’ inside the ‘Rojava’ area as seen in the map). These Christians have a militia of their own, the Gozarto Protection Forces/Sootoro, which receives support from the regime.

The DSA: Disproving the Syrian Stereotype

There is hope for the people of Syria in the experience of the DSA and its Federation, which give the lie to the notion that Middle Eastern peoples are incapable of peaceful coexistence, religious tolerance or democratic self-governance. Thanks to a twist of fate, and the near collapse of the central government in Syria, the people of this region — Muslim and Christian, Arab, Kurd and Syriac — have been given a chance to prove that this stereotype is false.

Under siege from the fanatics of ISIS, ignored by most of the world, these freedom fighters deserve the West’s support at the negotiating table. This is especially crucial since the major powers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are violently opposed to the autonomy of Kurdish and Christian communities. They want to subject these communities to rule by the Islamist militias whom they sponsor.

Westerners concerned about defending religious freedom and fighting terrorism owe the DSA Federation their support. Christians like us who are privileged to enjoy religious freedom must not abandon the embattled Christians and other minorities who have won themselves a respite from persecution and dictatorship. Those who wish to learn more can also contact my own group, the Christian Political Foundation for Europe, which is connected with the European Parliament of the EU.

The free peoples of Syria don’t ask the West to step in and “fix” things for them. They only ask for support in defending the freedom they have already won for themselves. If they succeed, millions more across the region will be inspired by their example.

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