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.

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.

Of the minority groups in Syria, the Ismaili and Christian Assyrian communities were the most responsive to the TSP’s call to action and have participated as members; Kurds and Turkmen have also taken part in the group’s work. Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia sect, agreed to participate in discussions with the TSP’s leaders but refused to formally join the organization, out of fear that they would be endangering themselves as members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s clan.

Although the 1950 constitution does make reference to Islam as the religion of the state, it also explicitly protects the right of religion for all: Chapter 1, Article 3 states, “Freedom of belief shall be guaranteed. The state shall respect all theistic religions and shall protect the free exercise of all forms of worship consistent with the public order. Personal rights of religious communities shall be respected and observed.” Nevertheless, the TSP’s organizers admit that it has been difficult to convince Syria’s minority populations that they will be protected in a future Syria based on a system of equal representation and not on a quota system, as in Lebanon. Many minorities hope Western countries will ultimately impose a quota-based system through an internationally brokered peace settlement (like Geneva II) to ensure that they obtain a specific number of seats in any new governing structure.

In 2011, the TSP’s founders convinced 86 members, selected by LCCs, to represent their communities in the body. Unable to physically meet for fear of attack, members coordinated their efforts online. Funding was limited to Syria-based donations, which have been sparse compared with the outside money received by other opposition groups. That same year, however, the Syrian government began to target the TSP’s members. Today, many have been killed, captured, or forced to flee Syria. Only 16 TSP members remain inside the country.

The TSP has criticized the SOC, the Syrian opposition’s primary government-in-exile, for its ready acceptance of foreign funding from the U.S., its European allies, and other countries in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. This funding, the TSP and other Syrian activists argue, comes with strings attached that are not always in the best interests of Syrians inside the country. Qatar, for example, has allegedly funded Ahrar al-Sham, a sectarian rebel group that has refused to negotiate with the regime to end the conflict. Organizers also criticize the SOC’s failure to attract members of the opposition in Syria. For decades, they argue, the Syrian opposition overseas dreamed of overthrowing the Assad regime, but was unable to do so primarily because it lacked the strength or influence on the ground. Although the SOC has tried to engage Syrians inside the country, there have been practical hindrances, including a lack of secure communications equipment and constant targeting by the Syrian regime.

The TSP has also criticized rebel groups inside Syria for launching attacks on Syrian government forces from inside cities, knowing full well that the government will likely strike back in those same heavily populated areas. The organization, in its foundational documents, argues, “It is a grave mistake that endangers our kids, women, and vulnerable communities. We [those opposed to the Syrian regime] have remained firm and steadfast but we do not have the ability to protect all the weak and unfortunate, so those that have been able to protect the weak have won their loyalty out of desperation.”

The TSP’s refusal to accept outside money and its lack of an armed wing have put it at a crippling disadvantage compared with the exiled Syrian opposition and the Islamists inside Syria, who receive hundreds of millions of dollars from governments and wealthy private donors in the Gulf bent on furthering their cacophonous agendas. The TSP’s small numbers and poor representation abroad also limit its ability to negotiate an end to the conflict.

In practical terms, the TSP is irrelevant to the negotiations in Geneva. Better-funded groups in the opposition have the upper hand. But the opposition outside Syria will need the support of groups within Syria to implement a deal if one is reached this week or in the future. The United States and its allies would do well to push the TSP and other shadow governments like it to the fore. The opposition could find worse partners and, barring U.S. insistence, probably will. Money and guns are strong incentives in today’s Syria.