Several Syrian opposition activists engaged in a project known as “The Day After” appeared at the USIP on October 4 to discuss the challenges of achieving a post-Assad democratic transition amid intensifying violence, militarization of the revolution, sectarian tensions and repression by the Syrian regime.
Several Syrian opposition activists engaged in a project known as “The Day After” appeared at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on October 4 to discuss the challenges of achieving a post-Assad democratic transition amid intensifying violence, militarization of the revolution, sectarian tensions and repression by the Syrian regime.
The USIP-facilitated project, which brought together some 45 Syrian oppositionists between January and July of this year, was initially envisioned as a planning effort with “a somewhat distant horizon” to develop principles, goals and recommendations for a Syria after the demise of the Bashar al-Assad regime, said Steven Heydemann, USIP’s senior advisor for Middle East Initiatives. But gains by the rebels in the conflict have brought that time horizon closer. Said Heydemann, “We’re seeing a transition that is unfolding in a rolling fashion beginning in areas that have been liberated as rebels take territory from government control and have exercised authority over their own local affairs, sometimes for a period of many months.”
Heydemann noted that the Syrian opposition—a wide-ranging spectrum including those in and out of Syria—have often been portrayed as lacking a coherent vision of the country’s future and as too divided to function. He said “The Day After” exercise offered “a different impression of Syria’s opposition”—one that showed a capacity for collaboration and building a new vision for the country, which has been ruled by the Assad family for 42 years.
The Day After project was facilitated by USIP in partnership with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP). The report, issued in late August, declared that “citizenship and equality of all citizens, rather than sectarian, ethnic or gender considerations should be decisive in relations between individuals and the state.” It urges state and territorial unity and that the future Syrian leadership should “demonstrate a clear commitment to democratic principles.” In particular, the report examined goals, objectives, challenges and recommendations in six key areas: rule of law, transitional justice, security sector reform, constitution making, electoral reform and formation of a Constitutional Assembly and economic and social policy reform.
The Day After project brought together prominent individuals associated with such opposition groups as the Syrian National Council and the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, along with unaffiliated opposition figures from inside Syria and the Syrian diaspora. They wrote the report with technical and logistical assistance from USIP and SWP. “The project is one that is driven by Syrians,” USIP President Jim Marshall told an audience at USIP and watching a live webcast.
Amr al-Azm, an associate professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio and an activist with the opposition National Change Current, said those involved in The Day After understood early on that they need to present a conceptual alternative to the Assad regime that can be articulated to Syrians and an international audience. “You have to prepare now. There has to be a culture change,” he said. Al-Azm recalled that the question many Syrians have been asking is, “Who is the alternative [to Assad]?” The right question and what was the focus of The Day After, he suggested, is, “What is the alternative?”
“The alternative,” added Rami Nakhla, a Syrian activist who worked for USIP on The Day After, “is a process” and cannot, for now, be described specifically. Nakhla will now serve as the director of the Syria Transition Support Network, a USIP-supported organization to be based in Istanbul that will work to explain The Day After’s recommendations to Syrians, encourage them to think about the post-Assad future and implement the project’s goals.
The Day After exercise should help start a process of “healing, reconciliation, political discourse” and help construct a culture of respect for human rights, rule of law and accountability, said Afra Jalabi, a Montreal-based anthropologist and political scientist who is a member of the opposition Damascus Declaration and the Syrian National Council. “It is trying to raise the bar in Syria in terms of the political discourse we’ve been having for the last few decades,” she said.
Murhaf Jouejati, a Middle Eastern studies and international affairs professor at the National Defense University in Washington and a member of the Syrian National Council, called The Day After report “a work in progress as more and more areas are liberated.” Jouejati, who focused on security sector reform in the project, said the group anticipates that Syria will face “some measure of chaos the day after a regime change,” possibly including revenge killings against Assad stalwarts and further violence from remnants of the Assad regime and its Ba’ath party. However, he argued that Syria’s national police for the most part had not participated in the repression and said security forces should be revamped but not undergo wholesale “de-Ba’athification,” as happened following the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. “This is a lesson learned from Iraq,” he said.
Rafif Jouejati, who worked on economic and social reform questions for The Day After, also said that de-Ba’athification was not the way forward on those issues, but rather to “slowly transform society away from the corruption and nepotism.” The English-language spokesperson for the Local Coordination Committees and an activist with other opposition groups, Rafif Jouejati described what will be the urgency after Assad of assisting internally displaced Syrians and refugees, getting medical care to those who need it, repairing the massive damage to infrastructure and creating jobs.
She noted mounting opposition to the regime in the Syrian business community, the media and among Assad’s fellow Alawites. “Each pillar of the regime has been shaking,” she said. “All these pillars are shaking faster and faster.”
“The regime will fall, for sure,” remarked Al-Azm. “The question is, ‘What will the cost be?’”