Washington DC, August 4, 2007/Reform Syria Blog – Farid Ghadry/ — Our trip to Israel was fascinating. The people. The country. The common sense prevailing in a nation that has never known peace mostly because of Arab rulers’ refusal to recognize it, the majority of which are themselves recognized by the US government. And, in certain instances, out to destroy it by arming themselves with lethal weaponry as is the case with the leadership in Syria and Iran today. There is a verb widely repeated in the Arab countries that very much applies to Israel, it goes: “Do not hate something for it may be a source of goodness for you”.

After the meeting in Prague with the other dedicated dissidents from 17 different countries, I traveled alone to Tel Aviv and arrived the morning of June 8th. There are many people who made this trip a success but three come to mind. MK Yuval Steinitz, Nir Boms, and the third gentleman wanted to remain anonymous for the time being. All three are exceptional men. After Syria is free, I will push the Syrian parliament to name streets in Damascus after these brave men.

At the airport, I was met by an old friend who comes often to Washington. We both went to eat Foul (Seasoned fava beans) at a small popular restaurant in old Tel Aviv owned by a Jewish Syrian family that emigrated from Aleppo. Not only the Foul and the Hummus were fantastic but I got the opportunity to talk to someone from my own hometown. The yearning was overwhelming. Aleppo is, in my opinion, the greatest city because of its people. Aleppians represent some of the smartest businessmen in the region; their entrepreneurial spirit keeps the people and the city alive.

After the breakfast, I took another flight into Amman where I stayed two days meeting with other Syrian dissidents. Amman is a beautiful city that reminds me much of Aleppo the way I remember it. Upon entering the country, I was asked few questions by the immigration officer stamping my passport, which made me feel safe.

The meetings with the other Syrian dissidents in Jordan were extensive and the results were very satisfactory. When in Amman, I like to eat at a very popular and common (Shaabi) restaurant called Abou Hashem, which was frequented often by the late King Hussein. One would suspect that fear would grip Syrians traveling into Jordan, but in reality they come armed with courage and determination. I got to meet new faces, some from the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood who came from Hama. They were not too happy with the direction their leadership in London took by uniting with the ex-vice president of Syria. The stories I heard from them about Khaddam’s actions while he was in power in Syria explain very well the reasons behind his unpopularity. More often, I try to steer Syrians away from expressing hate and direct them to put their trust in the rule of law in the new Syria.

An important side-note to all of this. We, Syrians, are caught in a geo-political endurance test with two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Iranians want to spread their ideology of Wilayat al-Faqih across the region. The Saudis have already started spreading their own ideology called Wahabbism, which helped spur much of the terrorism we witness today by Sunni organizations that later was duplicated by Assad and the Mullahs of Iran. Arab reformists, no matter the background and religious affiliation, are caught in-between, needing none and wanting neither. Assad, the so-called secularist, has chosen to adopt Wilayat al-Faqih‘s by aligning himself, to their delight, with the extremist Mullahs. Saudi Arabia wants the Muslim Sunni-majority country of Syria to stay within its sphere of influence and therefore, like it did in Lebanon with Hariri, is supporting Khaddam, who happens to be also a Saudi citizen. The difference is that Hariri was a self-made businessman, much respected for helping build Lebanon with no history of oppressiveness while Khaddam was an instrument of oppression and corruption for 35 years very much disliked inside Syria. Credit the genius Bandar bin Sultan for coming-up with this choice. By supporting Khaddam, it goes to show you how belittled Syrians are and will be by the Saudis. Is it a wonder that extreme Islam is on the rise in the region? If the Saudis do not export it themselves, they create the conditions to grow it.

Syria needs to become independent or else Syria may become the fault line between a future Shiia-Sunni era of violence. Saudi Arabia will not hesitate to position the whole country of Syria as its proxy first line of defense against Iraqi Shiia in the belief it can stop Iran even though most Iraqis are fiercely independent. But unfortunately, the Saudis see all Shiia as Iranians. Supporting any Saudi puppet for Syria is tantamount to anchoring explosive conditions for a great Middle East war that will dwarf anything we have seen so far. We, Sunnis and Shiia, cannot forget a disagreement that happened between us 1,400 years ago and it would be naive to think that if a Saudi puppet government replaces Assad, it would play any effective role in deterring Iran. The Shiia have suffered discrimination at our own Sunni hands and the Sunnis outnumber the Shiia in the Middle East three to one. The last thing we need is to create conditions for further violence by creating a fault line of sort in Syria. My hope is that some NEA policy maker at the US State Department is reading this Blog.

I flew back to Tel Aviv where I met with Dr. Saado at the airport and we both immediately left for Jerusalem. The trip by car from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was quite interesting. A friend of Nir Boms named Avihu accompanied us. His story is worth telling and reminds me of the tough work ahead. His father was killed by unknown assailants (Palestinians) as he drove his car on the road to Jerusalem. A pure and simple senseless act of terrorism. What it would take to change Arabs to trust the rule of law, I wonder? That is probably the biggest challenge ahead for any Arab reformist. Arabs, because of oppression and corruption by their own rulers, have lost faith in the system of justice, in any country and for any reasons. Hence, our propensity to see conspiracies everywhere far exceeds our understanding of the inner workings of a transparent system of governance since we have never witnessed transparency. The political side-effects of Arab oppressive regimes are yet to be fully grasped when discovered little-by-little.

My first task upon arriving in Jerusalem was to visit Haram al-Sharif. This is the second time that I pray in the Aqsa Mosque but this time around it had certain significance that dawned on me after leaving the premises. The Aqsa is managed by the Jordanian Waqf and I noticed that the people were a bit more open and friendlier than the last time I visited, in 1996, when the Yasser Arafat people controlled it.

The first event Dr. Saado and I attended was at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Eldad Pardo and Ms. Naama Shpeter welcomed us. Many students and professors were present as well as some media outlets. The discussion centered on the theme that peace happens between two peoples, which effectively set the tone of our trip. Many great questions were asked from the audience and the media. One of the most amazing moment happened when I announced that I have in my possession a Fatwa by Sheikh Abdullah al-Humeidy from Homs in Syria justifying my trip to Israel. You could sense at that moment, given the public reaction, how important it was to open a channel of communications between the Syrian and the Israeli peoples. Much research in Israel refer to information disseminated by the Assad government, which yields faulty analysis. I received an email later from Dr. Pardo telling me that “Your visit and comments opened new channels of thought for the Israeli public”. The Syrian people are grateful to Dr. Pardo and Ms. Shpeter for their enthusiasm and support for peace in the region. We hope one day to reciprocate by inviting them to visit both Damascus and Aleppo Universities with many Israeli students and academia.

The political machine in Israel that continues to see Assad remain in power is helping, I believe, to render him so much more violent. He very well knows that he is protected from a regime change and he relies on these Israelis to test a very patient Israeli society, one that seems to be at the receiving end of his harrowing tendencies. If over 3,000 rockets by Hezbollah is not enough, then when is it enough? Supporting the Apartheid system of Assad is counterproductive to the Israeli society besides being unjust. The weak Assad has aligned himself with and supported Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Ahmadinajead, Chavez Hugo, and Kim Il Sung. How many more and how much more before the Israeli public says enough is enough? Assad Jr. has never tasted the agony of defeat the way his father tasted it in 1967 and 1973 and Israel of today is reluctant to tame, by military means, Assad’s strutting bravado or support regime change in Syria. In the past, Israel was capable of choosing one or the other. One of the themes I challenged the Israeli public to inspect carefully is the notion that giving back land to violent Arab oppressors will provide Israel with security. It never did, starting with Oslo and ending with Gaza. On the other hand, peace with peaceful men has been a source of success for Israel. Jordan is a good example of that. Assad, with seven years under his belt, has already started a war and was involved in more terrorism than his father or any other Arab leader has done in 30 or more years. Trusting Assad is a grave mistake.

Since the next day was the official day at the Knesset, we tried to keep a low profile out of respect for our hosts. But this was somewhat difficult to manage in a country with a free press. That day at the Hebrew University, there were several TV interviews with Dr. Saado and myself laced with the same message of peace and co-existence. Every one was friendly, and even though some did not agree with everything one said, I sensed respect for our message of human rights and freedom. Just one more reason to admire Israel and the Israeli society for building a nation that accepts the opinions of others. My hope is that one day Syrians will have the same free press able to project the different views of Syrians.

Later that evening, we had dinner at a friend’s house in a beautiful apartment in Jerusalem. Very animated discussions. Great company.

In the next installment, I will talk about our extraordinary experience at the Knesset, a building whose planners foresaw a day when the Hezbollahs and the Assads of the world would be targeting Israel with missiles so they built it underground.

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