This week two senior diplomats with the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) spoke in a panel discussion that was part of the 2019 Ministerial on International Religious Freedom hosted by the US State Department. The model of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and the Syrian crisis was the subject of the panel, “Will Religious Freedom Survive in Northeast Syria?” Sinam Mohamad and Bassam Ishak, the two co-chiefs of the US Mission of the SDC, spoke at the event, which was organized by the Family Research Council and Law and Liberty International.
Mohamad and Ishak both discussed how freedom of religion and belief is fundamental to the democratic governance model of the AANES. In the Middle Eastern context, freedom of religion and belief means governments that protect religious diversity, and laws based on rights rather than religious doctrine. The AANES governance model supports religious pluralism and protects minority populations.
“We are all working for the Syrian people, all the Syrian people, not only the Northeast of Syria,” said Mohamad. “Whatever we have in the Northeast of Syria, we can have it all over Syria. That means diversity, ethnic and religious diversity.”
“What democracy is, and should start with, is human rights. It’s the rights of the most vulnerable elements in society,” said Ishak. “Syria is very diverse, ethnically, religiously, politically, on every spectrum. The question was how could we bring unity, real unity.”
Ishak spoke of the recognition of all ethnicities and all languages as official under the governance model. As an indication of the commitment of the AANES towards diversity, he spoke of the diversity of languages. For the first time since 600 B.C., Aramaic language was official in Mesopotamia under AANES governance. In addition, all government positions are held not by only one person, but two people — of differing genders, and ethnic and religious backgrounds.
“The most revolutionary thing in our model was to guarantee religious freedom — for those who believe, for those who don’t believe, and for those who want to change their belief. This is a revolution that had never happened in the Middle East,” said Ishak.
Mohamad spoke of her home, Afrin, which was a predominantly-Kurdish region in North Syria. Roughly one million people lived in Afrin before it was invaded by the Turkish military and Turkish-backed forces. Most are now displaced. There are now 300,000 people in the Al Shah Ba camp alone who fled from Afrin. There were 23 predominantly-Yezidi villages in the Afrin region. When Turkish military and the Turkish-backed forces entered the region, the overwhelming majority of the Yezidi people fled, leaving all 23 towns nearly empty. These Yezidis, as well as Kurds and Christians, fled because they knew the occupying forces would persecute them for their religious beliefs.
“What’s going on now in Afrin? The Turkish and their mercenaries, they are brainwashing the people there,” said Mohamad. “Do you know how? They built a school. They are forcing the people there, the Yezidi people there, to go to the mosque. And they forced the children there to go to the school and they are teaching them now radicalist extremist Islam. So maybe now, after five years, you will have a new people there who will become jihadis. Who knows? This is what will be going on, if we can’t stop Turkey.”
While Afrin was under the jurisdiction of the visionary model of the AANES, more than 3,000 people officially converted to Christianity. These were mostly people whose beliefs had been closeted under the former regime. Religious conversion was protected under the AANES model, as freedom of religion and belief was respected as a right. Christians built a new church called the Al Raay Saleh Church (which translates to “The Good Shepherd Church”). When the Turkish military and Turkish-backed forces attacked Afrin, they destroyed the church.
“Turkey now wants a safe zone in the Northeast of Syria,” said Mohamad, speaking of the proposal by Turkey to have a militarized border which would annex a large swath of territory through Northeast Syria. “So they wanted to create a safe zone which they said they created in Afrin. So now in the Northeast of Syria, if it happened the same, the same scenario repeated in Afrin, it would be very much a catastrophe… the whole region would be under threat of these jihadis who come with Turkey. It is not a safe zone. I don’t call that a ‘safe’ zone.”
Ishak warned of repercussions if freedom of religion or belief is not included in the new Syrian constitution, which is being drafted by a 150-member committee mandated and supported by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The AANES has thus far been excluded from participating in these negotiations or peace talks, despite the fact that the military wing of the AANES, the SDF, were the ground forces who won a historic victory over ISIS earlier this year in alliance with the US military and the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
“The most important challenge to bring is that we need this model to be represented in the constitutional committee of the United Nations,” said Ishak. “Imagine, this model produced the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, which allied with the US militarily, a great accomplishment. And 11,000 young men and women died in the process. And we are not allowed to be at the negotiating table, by the traditionalists.”
Ishak spoke of the likelihood that the constitutional committee would generate a constitution that does not protect freedom of religion or belief.
“They don’t want us there at the negotiating table to talk about religious freedom, to talk about gender equality, to talk about rights of identities, pluralism. It basically means, you defeat ISIS, you kick them out the door, they come back through the window. Because if the ideas of ISIS come back through the negotiations of the constitutional committee, why did the US support the SDF? It’s a waste of money and time. Without the SDC at the negotiating table, the military defeat of ISIS in March of this year is meaningless.”
“If I talk about the freedom of religion, it starts with human rights,” said Mohamad at the event. “If we want to support human rights, then we have to support such a model, which is a model not dividing Syria, not separating Syria. We would like to have a united Syria. But what kind of Syria? As a decentralized Syria, a Syria with all diversity. And unity comes through this diversity.”
The ministerial brought together human rights advocates, faith leaders, activists, nonprofit organization professionals, government offices, and elected officials around the idea that the freedom of religion and belief should be a protected right.
After the ministerial event, various side meetings occurred, such as a brief meeting between Mohamad and Lord Alton, in which they discussed the crisis in Afrin and other issues related to Northeast Syria.