The Syrian Shadow Government the World Forgot

In 2011, an upstart group in Damascus began charting a pluralistic future for the country. Now the organization is a shell of its former self.
A Free Syrian Army fighter in front of a burning truck outside Aleppo, Syria. (Saad Abobrahim/Reuters)

This week marks a milestone in the Syrian conflict: Diplomats from more than 30 nations are gathering in Switzerland for the Geneva II peace conference, which will feature the first face-to-face talks between the Syrian government and opposition.

But here’s the catch: After almost three years of brutal warfare, the Syrian ‘opposition’ is an alphabet soup of internally warring and ideologically polarized political and military forces: the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SOC), the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic Front, and numerous other independent battalions. The Syria-based Islamic Front has dismissed the talks (ISIS rejects power-sharing even for a transitional period, and thus rejects the conference in its entirety), and only the Turkey-based SOC has agreed to participate after a contentious vote that a third of its 119 members boycotted.

Even in the unlikely event that a political settlement emerges from the Geneva conference, there is no guarantee that the SOC can effectively negotiate and implement the agreement on behalf of the Syrian opposition in Syria due to the dwindling power of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In December, the Islamic Front seized FSA warehouses, prompting the U.S. and Britain to immediately freeze all non-lethal aid to the opposition in northern Syria. To make matters more confusing, the FSA and the Islamic Front coordinated to battle ISIS in January.  

The Democracy Report

When the history of the Syrian civil war is written, it may or may not cite Geneva II as a turning point in the grinding conflict. But one of its major themes will undoubtedly be the demise of early attempts to chart a pluralistic future for Syria. The current armed opposition has such an Islamist hue that it is easy to forget it was not always so. In the first year of the civil war, several pluralistic shadow governments popped up all over Syria, but faded in relevance and influence due to regime repression, foreign neglect, and their own strategic errors. Many of these governments are now too anemic to support, but there are still ways to ensure that the groups’ members and vision influence the Syrian government in exile.

One such shadow government is the Temporary Syrian Parliament (TSP). The TSP took shape in Damascus and its suburbs two months after Syria’s uprising began in 2011, led by Naif Shaaban, a 46-year-old Damascene lawyer who considers himself a moderate Islamist and who has managed to attract Islamists and secularists alike to support his initiative. Contrary to the Islamist stereotype, the TSP’s program is pluralistic and inclusive, despite growing sectarianism in Syria. Its authors have based their agenda on the 1950 Syrian constitution, the first constitution written by Syrians after the French occupation of the country. As the TSP’s founding documents state:

In 1928, a group of 94 individuals came together to draft a guiding constitution for Syria that called for a 120-member temporary Syrian parliament to represent the Syrian people until a permanent Syrian government could be elected, post-French rule. This temporary Syrian parliament came to fruition in 1943 when the body formally adopted the constitution as the guiding constitution for the Syrian people and operated under its articles, which called for a pluralistic, inclusive government. Today, a similar temporary Syrian parliament can be developed, even before independence, in the same way that the historical temporary Syrian parliament carried on under French rule. This will enable Syrians to be self-sufficient and have a guiding document even during this time of crisis so as not to be dependent on any other peoples or powers to achieve independence.

“The vision of the Temporary Syrian Parliament was never built on favoring any one religion or any ethnic group,” says Maya al-Shami, a sociologist from one of Damascus’s suburbs and a founding member of the TSP, who is now living in France. “The writers of the 1950 constitution knew what Syrian needed, and they recognized that equal representation from the various regions of Syria would enable the voice of the Druze, the Alawites, the Sunnis, the Ismailis, and the Kurds to be recognized. That is what would lead to equality and stability in Syria. Unfortunately this is not what Syria saw after the Assad regime came to power.”

UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov join hands after their meeting in Montreux, Switzerland. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

Al-Shami, together with Naif Shaaban and Hussein Assaf, a 32-year-old Damascene engineer and secular humanist who now lives in the United States, played key roles in organizing the TSP. Shaaban, Assaf, and al-Shami, all of whom were interviewed for this article, worked with activists from Syria’s 14 governorates to craft an interim government that would represent the country’s varied ethnic and religious makeup and give way to an elected, transitional government once the Assad regime fell. The 120-member TSP was designed to coordinate social services, organize civic participation, educate the population on their democratic rights and the responsibilities of citizenship, and establish a volunteer national army to protect the civilian population.

The TSP does not want to radically remake Syrian society. Although the group has called for the immediate dissolution of the ruling Baath Party, it rejects de-Baathifying government institutions because it does not want to lose Syria’s civil-servant class, most of whom are not in decision-making roles. The TSP would also maintain Syria’s independent local coordination committees (LCCs), which sprung up at the start of the Syrian uprising, so they can educate Syrians on the electoral process and the rule of law, while working hand-in-hand with the TSP’s representatives to execute decisions. In many localities, LCCs have already served as the primary entities maintaining law and order, managing trash collection and utilities, providing medical assistance, and offering other social services.

Presented by

William McCants and Jomana Qaddour

William McCants is the director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. Jomana Qaddour is a foreign-policy researcher in Washington, D.C., and a co-founder of Syria Relief & Development, a non-profit humanitarian organization that operates in Syria and Jordan.

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