WikiLeaks: 2005-11-07: 05DAMASCUS5833: Small Band of Secular and Minority Groups Developing Alternative to Damascus Declaration
Viewing cable 05DAMASCUS5833, SMALL BAND OF SECULAR AND MINORITY GROUPS
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 005833 SIPDIS PARIS FOR ZEYA, LONDON FOR TSOU E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/06/2015 TAGS: PGOV PHUM SY SUBJECT: SMALL BAND OF SECULAR AND MINORITY GROUPS DEVELOPING ALTERNATIVE TO DAMASCUS DECLARATION Classified By: CDA Stephen Seche for reasons 1.4(b)/(d) ¶1. (C) SUMMARY: The impact of the Damascus Declaration continues to reverberate through civil society and opposition circles in Syria. A small group of secular and minority elements (with a heavy Kurdish presence) has formed the "Dialogue Group" to develop a more secular, pro-minorities alternative to what it characterizes as the overly Islamic and Arab emphasis of the Damascus Declaration. While the group has yet to agree on a counter-declaration, it has already come under increasing criticism by mainstream civil society activists for potentially splitting the opposition at a critical moment. Activists also quietly insist that many in the "Dialogue Group" are collaborating with SARG security forces intent on delegitimizing the Damascus Declaration. END SUMMARY. ¶2. (C) During the last three weeks, multiple sources have reported the formation of a rump &Dialogue Group8 of opposition and civil-society figures. The Group's diverse-- if limited-- membership is voicing its criticism of what they perceive as the Damascus Declaration's overtly pro-Islamic tone and its lack of a clear commitment to ethnic and religious minority rights. ¶3. (C) Eleven groups are reported to have joined in the discussions: the Kurdish Yekiti, Azadi, and al-Mustaqbal parties (three out of a total of 13 Kurdish political parties in Syria; the others supported the Damascus Declaration); one Assyrian group; seven Arab-led organizations (many of them not well-known even in opposition circles); and activists Nabil Fayyad and Aktham Naissa. Members have met a number of times in Damascus and Aleppo over the last two weeks to discuss at least two draft statements, one created by the al-Nahda Party and another by the Kurdish Azadi Party. A finalized statement has yet to be published. GOAL: GUARANTEEING MINORITY RIGHTS IN A SECULAR LIBERAL DEMOCRACY ¶4. (C) The group's members share a profound disagreement with what they insist is the prominence given to Islam in the Damascus Declaration, particularly the designation of Islam as the religion of the majority. Furthermore, the group's members feel that the Damascus Declaration does not properly emphasize Syria's multi-ethnic, multi-religious composition. Abdulaziz Meslat, leader of the tiny al-Nahda Party, told Poloff that any new constitution should be of a "secular and Syrian national" nature, not religious and Arab-centric in tone. He believes that the Dialogue Group better reflects Syria's history of multiculturalism. Two other participants, activists Nabil Fayyad and Aktham Naissa, referred in separate discussions with Poloff to the Damascus Declaration as the "Kandahar Declaration", a derisive reference to the Taliban in Afghanistan. ¶5. (C) This dissident group insists that the Damascus Declaration is weak on rights for religious and ethnic minorities. Nabil Fayyad fears the potential for "tyranny of the Arab/Islamic majority." Among Kurdish activists, Damascus-based Yekiti Party board member Faisal Badr and Azadi Party SYG Kheyreddin Murad noted with frustration that the Damascus Declaration addressed Kurdish rights in a general statement about minority cultural and linguistic rights rather than presenting a clear commitment to institutionalizing political and national rights for Kurds (and other minorities) in a future democratic constitution. Both Badr and Murad noted that they have successfully negotiated the inclusion of Kurdish national and political rights in the Dialogue Group's draft documents. MAJOR ROADBLOCKS: CREDIBILITY PROBLEMS AND BAD TIMING ¶6. (C) The Dialogue Group has faced criticism from a variety of sources within civil society as news of their activity spread within Damascus' small opposition community. For some, the Dialogue Group lacks credibility, as a cloud of suspicion about collaboration with SARG security elements hangs over a number of members. Nabil Fayyad, Abdulaziz Meslat, and Aktham Naissa have been accused publicly and privately of having been co-opted by various state security services. According to human rights activist Rezan Zeituni, other opposition elements do not trust various members of the Group, and in fact, the members themselves do not really trust each other. This distrust was apparent as Badr and fellow Yekiti Party board member Ismail Hame expressed to Poloff their resentment of fellow Dialogue Group member Naissa, calling him an opportunist. ¶7. (C) Others feel that the "Dialogue Group's" campaign is ill-timed, as the SARG faces enormous external pressure and the opposition is starting to push the government harder for reform. Prominent human-rights activist Anwar al-Bunni admitted that he disagrees with aspects of the Damascus Declaration, but emphasized the need for opposition unity at this point in time. Zeituni noted that the release of a competing statement by the Dialogue Group would be a bad step, showing divisions within the opposition. ¶8. COMMENT: (C) The Dialogue Group's activities highlight a genuine unease in opposition and civil society circles about how to address the powerful issues of Islam and Arab identity -- and the need to increase grassroots support -- while continuing to champion secularism and minority rights. However, like others with whom we have spoken, the real problem with the Dialogue Group is that their motivations are not completely transparent and in fact seem to coincide-- willfully so, in some circumstances-- with SARG efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the Damascus Declaration and to split the opposition. A concurring view argues that the personalities behind the Dialogue Group (particularly Fayyad, Meslat, and Naissa) are positioning themselves for future political careers and have found in some of the Kurdish parties willing partners able to mobilize their portion of the Kurdish street. Because of the prominent civil society and human rights personalities who endorsed the Damascus Declaration, its critical timing, and the artful way it raised critical issues that confront Syrian society, we expect this document to continue to provoke debate and reactions like those of the Dialogue Group. Fears about splitting the opposition and worries about bad timing are likely to mute more widespread public voicing of reservations to the Damascus Declaration in the current tense political environment. END COMMENT. SECHE