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IdentifierCreatedClassificationOrigin
05DAMASCUS5833 2005-11-07 15:19:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus
Cable title:  

SMALL BAND OF SECULAR AND MINORITY GROUPS

Tags:   PGOV PHUM SY 
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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