North Africa, West Asia

Towards an inclusive and pluralistic citizenship in Syria

Talk about building a new form of citizenship in Syria might seem unrealistic today, but in fact, it should be seen as a long-term strategy.

Joseph Daher
28 April 2017

“Syria for everyone”, picture taken in Raqqa in April 2013. Picture by Beshr Abdulhadi. (CC BY 2.0). Some rights reserved.The war in Syria has had important consequences in the country in terms of rising sectarianism and racism. In this in-depth article, I demonstrate the importance of a dynamic and open understanding of citizenship.

Citizenship between theory and practice

Firstly, the concept of citizenship should not be understood as a fixed concept, but as constantly in flux. Citizenship is not a universally accepted concept, but differs from one country to another. Some people limit the concept of citizenship to nationality, some to political rights, while others go further to include socio-economic, education, national and cultural rights. "Liberal" systems for example have always resisted giving legal (and constitutional) expression to the inclusion of social rights, such as health care for all, thereby limiting their understanding of citizenship to the right to vote and respect for private property.

At the same time, there is conflict between theory, and practice. For example, the French Revolution greeted women as "citizens" (citoyennes), but they had to wait until 1945 (in France) before their complete political rights were recognized. Similarly, France, and other western countries, continued the process of colonization and denied the rights to people in their colonies. Also today, stateless people and refugees are most often denied any rights pertaining to citizenships, and are not even treated as human beings.

I argue that citizenship should not be linked to the issue of nationality. A person living and working in a country, whether holding its nationality or not, should be extended all the rights as other citizens. This for example would allow Palestinians in Syria, who had been living for more than 60 years in the country, to participate in all sectors of society, in elections, etc… Indeed how can we demand from Palestinians in Syria to take side with the objectives of the uprising while not allowing them to participate in the future of the society?

The struggle for an inclusive and pluralistic concept of citizenship is a continuous one

The difference in the forms of citizenship and its understanding are rooted in socio-economic and political conditions and reflect the balance of social forces in a particular society. History shows that this is a transforming concept with no precise definition, that has always been at stake in struggles. Any broadening of citizenship to include social, economic, cultural and national rights has been the result of successful struggles from below including economic civil rights, voting, unionizing, civil rights, gender equality, etc. all were the result of numerous struggles. The dominant ruling classes never willingly gave in to demands. We can see this particularly with the Assad regime’s four decade long repression of the Syrian population’s political, social, economic and national rights.

However, the improvements and broadening of rights in the concept of citizenship is not linear. We see this clearly today in Europe with the continuous rise of racism and islamophobia. Neoliberal policies limiting the political, social and cultural rights of people, particularly Muslim populations with the veil ban in French schools or the imposition of a particular identity linked to a so-called Christian and Jewish common heritage and culture, are all examples of how citizenship is becoming more excluding.

The struggle for an inclusive and pluralistic concept of citizenship is a continuous one. Philosophers like Jacques Rancière and Hannah Arendt define democracy as a process of permanent anti-oligarchic “insurrection” rather than as a stable regime. Citizenship, is no different and requires a permanent struggle to eliminate all forms of exclusion, whether cultural, social, ethnic, or religious, etc…

In order to build an inclusive and pluralistic citizenship in Syria, it is important to clearly point out the responsibilities of the current situation in the country. The Assad regime is the main actor responsible for the killing, displacement and destruction as well as being the key in the rise of sectarianism and racism in the country. Assad’s regime was accustomed to playing the “sectarian card” and more generally “primordial identities” (racism and tribalism) to divide the Syrian people and put the different groups against each other in order to maintain its rule.

In fact, the regime is far from being secular, as presented by some. It has promoted a constitution with an Arab chauvinist discourse, reserving the position of President to the Muslim faith, while in 2012 Islamic jurisprudence became a primary source of legislation, instead of a main source of legislation. These are only some of the many examples that show the lack of any kind of secular nature of this regime.

Since the first days of the uprising, the regime has targeted the peaceful, non sectarian and democratic activists. Many of them were arrested and tortured to death in prisons, others had to flee the country out of fear of the repression while others were killed. Meanwhile, the regime released Islamic fundamentalist groups and allowed their development at the expense of democratic groups.

Today no major political or armed force in Syria is offering an inclusive and pluralistic project of citizenship.

This being said, foreign actors such as Iran, Turkey, or the Gulf Monarchies, as well as sections of the opposition in exile gathered around first the Syrian National Council (SNC), then the Etilaf, and Islamic fundamentalist movements have also played a role in the rise of sectarianism by deepening the divisions among various ethnic and religious groups in the country during the uprising.

Today no major political or armed force in Syria is offering an inclusive and pluralistic project of citizenship. The High Negotiations Commission (HNC) for the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces has failed in reflecting the democratic and inclusive message of the revolutionaries and the popular movement since the beginning of the uprising. In Autumn 2016, its vision within an Executive Framework for the Political Solution in Syria that was far from offering an inclusive and pluralistic citizenship as we can see in its first article:

“Syria is an integral part of the Arab World, and Arabic is the official language of the state. Arab Islamic culture represents a fertile source for intellectual production and social relations amongst all Syrians of different ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs as the majority of Syrians are Arabs and followers of Islam and its tolerant message which is distinctly moderate”.

This is of course exclusionary for all ethnic and religious minorities in the country, in addition to all people not identifying with these identities. The Etilaf and many of the personalities linked to it have also promoted a sectarian, racist (particularly against Kurds), and authoritarian discourses and behaviors. Similarly, when it comes to women, the Etilaf has completely neglected their large participation in the uprising, providing them with only “decorative positions” without any effective role in the decision making process.

The various Islamic fundamentalist movements (such as the jihadist organization of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the salafist organisations Ahrar al Sham and the Islam Army, as well as others such as the Muslin Brotherhood who call for a civil state but in practice support the creation of an Islamic state with the implementation of Shari’a) defend an Islamic State despite their differences on how to reach this objective or the nature of this state. This is of course an exclusionary project for various groups such as religious minorities, women, or those who have a different understanding of Islam, etc… Their sectarian and authoritarian practices have also confirmed this pattern.

For a big majority of Kurdish political parties and activists, Rojava is only a new form of authoritarianism rather than democratic confederalism in action

The last main actor is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is more complex to analyze, but in my mind did not provide an inclusive and pluralistic citizenship model, despite its “social contract” and political discourse promoting theoretically these ideas. In the areas controlled by the PYD, there has been progressive advances that must be acknowledged such as the promotion of women rights and gender equality, secularisation of laws and institutions, and to a certain extent some forms of coexistence between the various ethnicities and religious sects, despite some tensions.

The possibilities for the Kurdish people, long oppressed in Syria, to manage territories in which they are a majority is another positive thing in the framework of support for their self-determination. However, without entering into details there are a series of problems. Institutions in PYD controlled areas, such as Rojava for instance, have been dominated by PYD-affiliated organisations, with an assortment of Arab, Syriac and Assyrian personalities who had little to lose from entering the project.

For a big majority of Kurdish political parties and activists, Rojava is only a new form of authoritarianism rather than democratic confederalism in action. At the same time, these new institutions lack legitimacy among large sections of the Syrian Arabs in these areas, although an Arab president had to be elected to the male/female joint presidency of the town’s local council. For instance Shaykh Humaydi Daham al-Jarba, the head of a tribal Arab militia and outspoken supporter of the Assad regime, was nominated as the governor of the Jazirah canton in Rojava in 2014. His son became the commander of the al-Sanadid Forces, one of the main Arab militias fighting alongside the PYD-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Prominence of tribal leaders in the Rojava institution was also preserved, rather than challenged.

Furthermore, human rights violations against Arab, Assyrian and Kurdish civilians have also been documented in the area. The authoritarianism of the PYD was demonstrated in its repression and imprisonment of activists, political opponents and the closure of critical organizations or institutions. Lately, this repression against other Kurdish political groups and activists has even increased.

This is why I believe that there is no significant political movement today, which is providing an inclusive and pluralistic citizenship able to unite the various components of the Syrian people. In my opinion, to reach a broad understanding of citizenship including the social, political, national and economic rights of the Syrian people, three main issues must be tackled: political rights (democracy, self organization and equality), socio-economic rights (social justice and inequality) and the issue of self determination of the Kurdish people in Syria. I have chosen these issues because they are based on the political and social experiences accumulated by large sections of the Syrian people involved in the uprising in the past five years.

Democracy and equality

In the first two years of the uprising, the dominant message from the large popular movement with its demonstrations and statements was an inclusive and democratic discourse that is not threatening for a majority of Syrians. This movement challenged the rhetoric of the regime as being the only barrier against extremism. In addition to this, the local councils and coordination committees played the role of an alternative institution to the state by providing services to local populations, and created a situation of dual power where the authority of the state disappeared. These two elements created the conditions to present a political alternative appealing for large sections of the population with the capacity to become hegemonic against the propaganda of the regime portraying them as a foreign and sectarian conspiracy.

Participation from below, by the underprivileged and popular classes in managing their societies at all levels has been the most significant element in the uprising.

Experiences of participation of local populations in decisions pertaining to society at all levels multiplied. The experiences of the “liberated” areas and local popular councils are in this perspective something to maintain in any concept of citizenship. In fact. participation from below, by the underprivileged and popular classes in managing their societies at all levels has been the most significant element in the uprising.

According to a survey by the independent Syrian-led civil society organization The Day After Tomorrow (TDA), conducted between November 2015 and January 2016, the population actually wanted to maintain this experience. This is visible in the expressed support for some form of decentralization in a way to,

“endorse the allocation of broad competencies to local authorities, and this support explicitly increases in opposition-held areas (if) compared with regime-controlled areas. It seems that the absence of the state in opposition-held areas has contributed to increased support for decentralization, and the spread of positive perceptions about it (…) (especially) the idea that it enhances ‘participation in governance’ tops the list of advantages.”

The issue of equality must also be put forward in order to challenge the patriarchal structures of society. In the first two years of the uprising, the involvement and participation of women was a very important element, breaking many conservative social codes and overcoming traditional barriers. Female activists often agree that the beginning of the revolution opened the door for women to challenge restrictive social conventions, whether they were legal, familial, religious or social. On Women’s Day, March 8, 2012, the female activists of the youth movement Nabd for example issued a statement that read:

“We, the revolutionary women of Syria, address the regime on Women’s Day saying: Our revolution will continue until we have each and every single one of our usurped rights, like a woman’s right to nominate herself for presidency and to grant her nationality to her children”.

Political rights guaranteeing the participation and self-organization of local populations at all levels of society must be guaranteed in a new concept of citizenship, and not limited to the right to vote and choose its representatives in elections every few years. Similarly, the issue of equality must also be put at the center of any new struggle for a pluralistic and inclusive citizenship.

Social Justice

Social justice and the redistribution of wealth in the country is another necessary step towards an inclusive citizenship that should not be limited to the upper class in urban centers.

Regional structural injustices existed before the uprising in 2011

Before the uprising, the upper class and foreign investors were satisfied with the state’s neoliberal policies. This was especially true for investors from the Gulf monarchies and Turkey, which were not hostile to the Assad regime prior to the revolution, at the expense of the vast majority of Syrians, who were hit by inflation and the rising cost of living, while public services and investments (health care, education, housing) were diminished considerably.

Regional structural injustices existed before the uprising in 2011 and increased with the accelerated adoption of neoliberal policies by the regime of Bashar al-Asad. On the eve of the upheaval, the proportion of poor people was higher in rural areas (62%) than in urban ones (38%). Poverty was more widespread, more rooted and more marked (58.1%) in the north-west and north-east (the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ez-Zor and al-Hasakah), where 45% of the population lived. Just over half (54.2%) of all unemployment was found in rural areas.

In addition to this, before the beginning of the popular uprising, the geographic concentration of business was as follows:

Governorates distribution for micro enterprises (less than 5 workers):

– Damascus and Rural Damascus: 27.36%

– Aleppo 21.72%

– Homs 9.93%

– Hama 6.06%

– other governorates 34.93% (10 other governorates)

while governorates distribution for small enterprises (between 5 to 14 workers)

– Damascus and Rural Damascus: 29.40%

– Aleppo 41.55%

– Homs 5.89%

– Hama 4.70%

– other governorates 18.46%

Foreign private investments were also concentrated in the two cities of Damascus and Aleppo in unproductive sectors (real estate, tourism, services such as bank insurance companies), while other regions and rural areas were left out of any kind of economic development and of provision of services. In addition to this the most impoverished areas of the country were the areas mostly populated by Kurds such as in the north-eastern Jazirah province. Jazirah was the region with the highest level of illiteracy and poverty, hosting 58% of the country’s impoverished population before the occurrence of the 2006 drought.

In 2010, poverty increased considerably, reaching 80 per cent of the Jazirah inhabitants, as the impact of four consecutive droughts since 2006 had been dramatic for both small-scale farmers and herders. In addition to this, the Jazirah region produced two thirds of the country’s grains (and 70% of wheat) and three quarters of its hydrocarbons. Despite the industrial underdevelopment of the Jazirah, and the scarcity of industrial installations in the region, which accounted for only 7% of the overall sector, this plain was nevertheless important. For example, 69 percent of Syria’s cotton was produced in the region, but only 10 percent of cotton threads were spun there. Of course, all ethnic groups in the area, Arabs, Syriacs-Assyrians, and Kurds, suffered from economic marginalization.

There has been a continuous impoverishment of rural areas since the 1980s

The most important component of the Syrian uprising was actually that of economically marginalized rural workers, and urban employees and self-employed workers, who have borne the brunt of the implementation of neoliberal policies, in particular since the coming to power of Bashar al-Assad. The geography of the revolts in Idlib, Deraa and other mid towns, as well as in other rural areas, all historical strongholds of the Baath party, and which benefited from the policies of agricultural reforms in the sixties and had not played a large role in the insurgency of the early 1980s, including the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo, showed the involvement of the victims of neoliberalism in this uprising.

There has been a continuous impoverishment of rural areas since the 1980s and the droughts from 2006 accelerated rural exodus. This situation was exacerbated by an annual population growth of around 2.5 percent. This growth affected particularly small rural mid towns, in which the population often multiplied by five to ten times since the 1980s, while public services provided by the state did not increase but rather diminished with the neoliberal policies, leading local populations to lack or witness a deterioration of their living conditions. In the main towns of Damascus and Aleppo, the geography of revolts was nearly similar to their socio-economic divisions. Many bourgeois and middle class Aleppo urbanites used to characterize the protesters in the first demonstrations at the university and rural Aleppo as “Abu Shehata” (derogatory term meaning literally “Father of slippers” insulting the social class of the protesters).

Similarly again, these neoliberal policies had particular and deep consequences on women, especially when it comes to their access to the labour market. The total number of women in the work force decreased since the mid 1980s, while it was growing before essentially because of the state controlled public economic sector. There was definitely an important gender dimension to the unemployment before the uprising in 2011, with unemployment rates among young women almost twice as high as those among young men. The unemployment rate in 2007 was estimated at 22.6% (14.5% for men, and 53% for women). The rate increased to 30.3%, if non-citizens are accounted for.

In addition, 50% of young women in Syria (aged between fifteen and twenty-nine) were neither in the labour force nor in school, suggesting potential barriers to labour market entry. Women’s participation in the labour force was 18%. Women lost around 50% of their total jobs between 2001 and 2007, and were pushed away from the labour force. The state-owned sector (government and state-owned companies) created 119,000 jobs between 2001 and 2007 (52% of which were for women); while the private formal sector lost 77,000 new jobs; men gained 77,000, but women lost 154,000. Most urban labour markets were mainly constituted by informal employment, with no social/maternity protection for women. By the year 2006, 25% of workers in the public sector were women, while in the private sector, only 8 percent were women. According to the 2008 labour force survey the majority of employed women (55%) work in the public sector.

Neoliberal policies had particular and deep consequences on women, especially when it comes to their access to the labour market.

The issue of wealth redistribution in society and across the different regions will have to be tackled in any future political system in Syria. On this perspective, the Etilaf economic policies are problematic because they support the same neoliberal policies of the Assad regime against the interests of the underprivileged classes. The socio-economic injustices in the society and across regions must be linked to the democratic issue.

The Kurdish Issue

It is absolutely necessary to tackle the Kurdish issue in order to be able to provide an inclusive and pluralistic citizenship embraced by all in Syria. The large majority of the Kurdish parties – as well as of the Kurdish population in Syria – are not satisfied by the way most Arab opposition political parties consider the Kurdish issue as simply and uniquely a citizenship issue. In other words, the Arab opposition believes that Kurds are normal Syrian citizens who have been deprived of some of their rights and that the problem is therefore limited to the single issue of the census of 1962, which resulted in around 120 000 Kurds being denied nationality and declared as foreigners, leaving them, and subsequently their children, denied of basic civil rights and condemned to poverty and discrimination.

There were between 250 000 and 300 000 stateless Kurds in the beginning of the revolution in March 2011, roughly 15 percent of the estimated two million total Kurdish population in Syria. The large majority of the opposition political parties have not been ready in any way to recognize the Kurds as a separate “people” or “nation” and are not ready nor willing to listen to demands for federalism and administrative decentralization. The demand for a federal system in Syria is a demand of the quasi majority of Kurdish parties in the country despite their political differences and rivalries.

We have to understand that the demand for a federal system by the Syrian Kurdish political parties is rooted in decades of state oppression, and this since the independence of the country in 1946, on a national basis (policies of quasi systematic discrimination against Kurds, policies of colonization in the framework of the “Arab Belt” and cultural repressions at all levels), but also has socio-economic consequences.

According to a survey conducted between November 2015 and January 2016 by the TDA, respondents in both regime (86.7%) and opposition-held areas (67,4%) agree on rejecting federalism, while proponents of federalism almost reach a consensus in Kurdish-led Self-Administration areas (79.6%). These results show that a Kurdish-Arab divide exists and that the first imperative regarding any future political system in Syria is dealing with the “Kurdish issue”, although it is not the only requirement.

No solution for the Kurdish issue or an inclusive Syria can be found without recognizing the Kurds as a proper “people” or “nation” in Syria

The majority of the Syrian Arab opposition did not address or even acknowledge this reality, thereby mirroring the regime’s position.

In general, no solution for the Kurdish issue or an inclusive Syria can be found without recognizing the Kurds as a proper “people” or “nation” in Syria and providing unconditional support to the self-determination of the Kurdish people in Syria and elsewhere; this clearly does not mean being uncritical of the policies of the leadership of the PYD or any other Kurdish political party.

The elimination of the Kurdish issue from the discussions under the pretext that it allows more unity within the opposition and less problems, is actually a recipe for division and lack of confidence between the various components of the Syrian people.

By recognizing the Kurdish people we make a move forward towards building a new society and citizenship not based on an ethnicity, but one that recognized the various peoples constituting Syria: Armenians, Palestinians, Syriacs, Assyrians, Turkmens, etc....


The basis for any future inclusive and pluralistic citizenship in Syria must include the democratic and social empowerment of the popular classes to manage their own societies.

In this perspective, a possible decentralized and/or federal state could best answer some of the issues discussed in this article, notably by respecting the principle of self determination of the Kurdish population in providing more tools and power to manage their affairs, on the one hand, and in trying to correct regional social injustices, on the other. Such an option would also strengthen participation and self-organisation from local populations in decision-making processes.

However, the implementation of a decentralized or federal state is not a guarantee per se to achieve an inclusive and democratic system. Indeed, all future options in Syria, whether federal, decentralized or otherwise, will need to take into account these issues in a secular political framework encouraging the participation from below of the popular classes and in which democratic and social rights of all Syrians without gender, ethnic and religious discrimination are guaranteed. This means notably providing the popular classes with the right to organize politically in their workplaces, society, and neighborhoods, and to defend their interests.

This is also the only way to prevent foreign states from instrumentalizing particular religious sects or ethnicities for their own political interests, while fueling sectarianism and racism.

Reaching these goals requires new struggles at all levels of society when it comes to democratic, social and national issues. This also requires working towards the unity of democratic and progressive actors and movements against the different counter revolutionary forces, whether these are the authoritarian regimes or the Islamic fundamentalist movements. There is therefore a need to build an independent front away from these two forms of reactionary forces and against all forms of discrimination. Such a struggle for radical change in society is a dynamic from below in which the popular sectors of society are the agent of change.

The issue at the core of building a new inclusive and pluralistic citizenship is to protect the freedom and dignity of the people as the popular movements have demanded since the beginning of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010-2011, including in Syria, against authoritarian and unjust regimes.

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