PARIS – “Beware the Ides of March,” the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s famous play. The Roman emperor was killed on March 15, 44 years before the Common Era. The soothsayer was right. It is unclear if somebody warned Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian ruler, of the same date, for the bloody riots in the town of Daraa began 2,055 years after the death of Caesar. The goal was – and remains – to oust Assad from the seat of power. In the meantime, unlike Caesar, Bashar still lives, and he is butchering his people.
The many army officers that have deserted to neighboring Turkey have no intention of halting their struggle even if a military confrontation serves Assad’s interests. Assad, for his part, wants a head-to-head clash with what he deems “a gang of terrorists.” But if you ask the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which comprises army defectors and rebels, Assad is a spent force. This newly formed, thin military outfit cannot succeed by itself, but if international aid does arrive, even from the enemy Israel, the balance of power will change.
At a Parisian cafe, I meet a man who goes by the alias Kamal. He is a key figure in the FSA, who was willing to sit down with an Israeli journalist on condition that his identity is not revealed. “Any detail that reveals my identity would endanger my life,” he said.
So why are you meeting with me?
“Because Syria is dear to me, and Assad is murdering my people. We, the Free Syrian Army, cannot win this battle alone. You, the Israelis, have the right connections, and you should also have an interest for Assad to disappear. The Syrian people and the Israeli people only stand to benefit from this. And, of course, peace will also benefit. If Israel decides to abandon Assad, he is finished.”
Is it that cut-and-dried?
“I believe Assad is still in power because Western powers are not convinced that Israel really wants to see a Syria without Assad. You are afraid of what will be the day after Assad falls. Don’t be afraid. Let him go, cut him loose. Assad’s fall will eliminate the link in the chain that ties Iran with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Not only would you be rid of an enemy, but you would also weaken two others.”
But if Israel aids the opposition without the Syrian people knowing about it, how would this advance peace?
“Eventually, everything comes to light, and the Syrian people would not forget this gesture,” Kamal said.
“We need equipment and manpower”
The Free Syrian Army was formed on July 29, 2011. It started when a group of uniformed army officers who had deserted Assad’s military forces posted a video on YouTube. It was during that time that the army began massacring its citizens, per Assad’s orders. This set off a chain reaction of desertions and an escalation of anti-government demonstrations.
Colonel Riad al-Asaad emerged as the supreme commander of the FSA. He declared that the former army officers stood by the Syrian people in their efforts to remove the regime and that any force that threatened or harmed innocent civilians would immediately become a legitimate target.
Two months later, the new military force made common cause with the “Free Officers Movement,” an organization that was also active in Syrian towns and cities. At a moment’s notice, these two organizations formed the most significant armed entity in the Syrian opposition’s battle against the Assad regime. Operations against the government security forces, including attacks against military targets, proliferated, and what began as anti-Assad demonstrations had ballooned into a full-fledged war. By mid-January of this year, the FSA boasted a force of 40,000 deserters, although it is difficult to gauge the accuracy of this assessment.
Do you really have 40,000 people?
“This is the figure that we announced, but the number is actually smaller.”
And is this supposed to suffice against Assad’s vast, armed Syrian army?
“Yes, because the people are on our side. I admit that we are still at a distinct numerical disadvantage, both in manpower and equipment. That is why we are appealing to the international community for help. We cannot handle this alone.”
The Free Syrian Army is active in six of the country’s 14 provinces, including the suburbs of Damascus. Thus far, it has managed to inflict a large number of casualties on the Syrian Army. Deserters join its ranks in fits and spurts. Usually, groups of between five and 20 come on board. The FSA’s weapons, most of which are light armaments, are obtained from deserters or from caches that were stolen from the Syrian army.
The FSA’s main areas of activity are Damascus, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, Idlib, Hama, and, of course, the main flashpoint of the conflict, Homs. The rebels tend to focus their attacks on military checkpoints manned by the Syrian Army. They also conduct ambushes against patrols. In a head-on collision, the FSA has little chance against the Syrian military. FSA rebels usually flee when faced with the prospect of staring down army forces. As of now, the results on the ground remain inconclusive. It is also unclear to what extent the FSA’s headquarters in Turkey exercises a free hand and receives support from the government in Ankara.
The sandwich as a metaphor
Kamal was born in Homs in the early 1960s. His father was never enamored with the Ba’ath regime, and he would often take trips abroad with his son. The family eventually picked up and moved to Brussels, where it lived for some time. While Kamal did not serve in the Syrian Army, the numerous connections he had amassed during his time in Europe compelled FSA commanders to enlist him as one of the organization’s most senior representatives on the continent.
In 2010, one year before the outbreak of riots in Syria, Kamal visited relatives in Homs. It was at this time that he began to detect hints of what was to unfold in his country within just a few months.
“I saw an old man,” he said. “At first, I couldn’t understand why he was looking at me. Then I realized that he was looking at the sandwich that I was holding in my hands. This old man was hungry. He was poor and hungry. Obviously I offered him my sandwich, but I could see that he wanted much more. He wanted to restore his dignity that had been trampled.”
So it was on that day that you understood what was going to happen in Syria?
“You have to understand, Syria is my homeland, my home. All of a sudden, I had a hard time recognizing it. It became poorer. People have had enough of living in poverty while those in the regime have an abundance of everything. This is a revolution for freedom, but it also erupted due to economic reasons. It is inconceivable for a small group of people to rule over the state coffers and control the media.”
Kamal said he never really believed Assad, and he remembers well the day he entered the presidential palace in 2000.
“It was remarkable how they changed the constitution within 15 minutes,” he said. “Bashar had not reached the age of 40, and the constitution stipulated that this was the minimum age one needed to be to serve as president. I remember how during the television broadcast of the ceremony in which he was sworn into office, my wife began crying bitterly. She told me that she could not believe that after so many years of Hafez Assad, we are in store for more of the same with his son. Back then, I laughed at all the people who said that Bashar would bring the younger generation closer to modernity. Indeed – only five percent of Syrians have access to the Internet.”
If that is the case, then we are not talking about a Facebook revolution like the ones we saw in Tunisia and Egypt.
“What’s happening in Syria is nothing like what took place in Tunisia and Egypt. In Syria, we are talking about a real, popular revolution. In contrast, what happened in Egypt and Tunisia were coups. Does it seem normal to you that dictatorships that have been in place for years, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, would fall so quickly when they had enormous foreign support? If it weren’t for Western backing and support from the major powers, some of those Arab tyrants would have been long gone.
“When I heard Obama’s speech in Cairo [in June 2009] and I heard him quoting passages from the Quran, I guessed that something was about to happen and that something had motivated his words. The rulers of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt were abandoned right then and there. It was part of a plan. In Syria, on the other hand, the revolution erupted without being planned by the great powers.”
Why wasn’t Syria part of the plan?
“Nothing was planned for Syria. The people took their fate in their own hands. The stability of Syria is strategically crucial to the West. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, and even Israel learned to live with the Syrian regime, which balances the region, for better and worse. The Assad family has longstanding agreements with Israel. Israel’s deal with Assad is ‘no peace, no war.’ Assad knows how to play everybody. In international relations, there is no black and white. Assad plays this game nicely.”
What will happen the day after Assad falls? How can you be sure that Syria will not fall into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood like Egypt and Tunisia?
“Look at me. Do I look religious to you? You visited Syria more than once. Did you see a religious country or a secular one? We are people who respect Islam, but we don’t want a country subject to religious law. Syria’s secular civic society is more fearful of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis than it is of Israel. If there is one person in the region who would like to see a religious Syria, it is [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan.”
But Erdogan has given you, the Free Syrian Army, asylum.
“He has placed restrictions on us, with the camps that he has built for us. How much freedom do you think the Syrians have in their refugee camps in Turkey? Erdogan yearns for the Ottoman Empire of yesteryear. He dreams of reviving it. We in Syria don’t miss that empire. That is the difference. I’m not certain that we and Turkey have the same interests in mind for a post-Assad Syria.”
It sounds as if ties with Israel are more enticing to you than ties with Turkey.
“Israel is not just the country that we see beyond the border. Israel is the West. Israel is the U.S. Israel is a significant, global political power. I fully understand the moral responsibility that the West has toward Israel after the Holocaust, this is clear. But it is your tragedy that obligates you to act nobly toward us. In the future, we will have to normalize relations between Israel and Syria. With all due respect to the Palestinians, peace in the Middle East begins with peace between Israel and Syria.”
Why do you refuse to reveal yourself?
“Because there are those in Syria who do not want peace, and for them any connection with Israelis is tantamount to treason. By revealing myself in an interview, I endanger my life, and an interview with an Israeli newspaper could lead to my death. Syrian public opinion is still not ready for links with Israel. It takes time. Normalizing relations is not something that happens overnight. We will have to rebuild our country, and Israel, as our neighbor, can help us with this.”
So how many years will this take to happen?
“Between 20 and 30 years.”
Will the Golan still be on the agenda at that time?
“It may be that in another 20 to 30 years, without the Ba’ath regime, and with other people in power who will look at ties with Israel differently, the whole issue of the Golan will look totally different.”
Will the Syrian people be ready to give up the Golan?
“Perhaps the people in Israel will be ready to concede. If by that time there won’t be any flare-ups and the dialogue changes, then all of the disagreements revolving around the Golan will reach a turning point.”
During the January 2000 peace talks at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, between Ehud Barak and Farouq al-Sharaa, I visited Damascus twice and I even noticed efforts to prepare public opinion for peace.
“No, we knew that wouldn’t work. Assad the father, just like the son, was not interested in peace with Israel. It contradicts their interest to survive and remain in power. They both wanted to lead a nation that has been instilled with a fear of the enemy and has been programmed to hate. That is why the Middle East must be rid of the Assad regime.”
What is it exactly that you expect of Israel?
“Israel needs to be the neighbor that lends a helping hand and opens its borders to help refugees. Israel needs to assist the democratization process in Syria. That way, two democracies can live side by side.”
In concrete terms, what are the aspirations of the FSA?
“We need help with rearmament, and we need to operate from a free zone that is recognized by the international community. We want Syrian air space to be declared a no-fly zone by NATO, and, if the need arises, for NATO to strike Syrian forces that are massacring civilians, just like it did in Kosovo.”
“No to a religious state”
Two days after my sit-down with Kamal in Paris, a “Friends of Syria” conference was held in Tunisia. It was attended by representatives from 60 countries, among them 50 foreign ministers. Most conspicuous in their absence, however, were emissaries from Russia and China, two governments that have squashed all operative resolutions put forth by the Security Council. More surprisingly, however, FSA representatives were also absent from the conference.
How could this be?
“We weren’t there because we weren’t invited,” Kamal said. “That is the most frustrating aspect of this story – the degree to which we are divided. We were supposed to be the first ones there because we are part of the nation that is fighting and sacrificing its life.”
I’m having a hard time understanding where the disagreements lie between the FSA and the Syrian National Council.
“The Syrian National Council is a tool in the hands of Turkey. It has opposed every military operation against the Syrian regime. It took time until it understood that its pacifist approach against the regime would not produce anything. It is also opposed to all foreign intervention in Syria, and it claims that whoever supports such intervention is guilty of treason. We are completely at odds with them as to how to go forward.”
That is one of the reasons that the U.S., other Western countries, and Jerusalem are concerned over the role that the Syrian Islamists will play in a post-Assad government. You do understand Israel’s concerns about an Islamic Syria?
“I’m going to repeat what I said to you earlier. Syrian society is not religious. It is an extremely diverse population. We not only have Sunnis and Shiites, but we also have Christians, Armenians, Ashuris, and Druze. All of these groups do not want a religious state. There may be countries in the region who are interested in seeing Syria split into different parts. There may even be those who see Syria’s dismemberment as a solution to the Kurdish problem. But we are adamantly opposed to this. We want neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Salafis. Syria is not Egypt. I believe that no more than 10 percent of the population would vote for the Muslim Brotherhood if there were elections. From my vantage point, replacing the Assad regime with an Islamic regime would be going backwards. Is this why tens of thousands of people have been massacred?”