In war, there are no rules. Someone who was your bitterest enemy yesterday might become your ally today, and a stranger you’d never thought you’d speak to might become your dearest friend.
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It is in this spirit that Kamal Al-Labwani, a member of the Syrian opposition movement and a human rights activist, made the bold decision to come to visit Israel for the first time. And though he doesn't represent any specific group or faction in the crazy quilt of Syrian opposition groups – he resigned from the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an umbrella group, earlier this year after he grew deeply disillusioned with it – he believes that huge numbers of Syrians support his efforts. Al-Labwani is actively looking for the help of other international players, including Israel. As part of his unprecedented visit this week, he suggested that Israel play a larger role in the devastating war in neighboring Syria, where rebels are in a third year of war against the regime of Bashar Assad and Islamic State militants are in control of some 40 percent of the country.
“I want Israel to help develop the strategy. I need the help to come through your border, for all kind of aid,” he explained in a conversation following a week of public and private meetings and in Israel. As part of the visit, which ends Sunday, he met Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and senior defense and intelligence officials. He also says he met several government ministers whom he says he was asked not to name. And although he did not directly call for Israel to arm moderate rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army – at least publicly – he is on a mission to make Israel consider more active involvement in the war next door. His main messages: the problem will not be solved with air strikes against the Islamic State – and that many people in Syria are interested in opening ties with Israel.
“We created the revolution to really bring about change, and not just changing the regime,” he told reporters Tuesday at the Jerusalem Press Club. “We need to have courage to think outside the box.”
On Thursday, Al-Labwani went to the Ziv hospital in Safed, where Syrians who were injured on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are being treated. One 12-year-old boy made an impression on him: He’d lost most of an arm, a leg and his eyesight in a bombing by government forces on his home in the Quneitra area about two months ago. Convalescing in Israel alone and apart from his family – he’s not sure who among them even survived – the only thing he doesn’t seem to have lost is being able to imagine a Syria after Assad.
“The boy said, ‘Assad told us Israel is the enemy. But who is killing us today, and who is helping us today? Our president tried to kill me and Israel is trying to save me,’” Al-Labwani says. “He was so strong I had to cry.” Israel treating people in Safed and at a field hospital on the border in the Golan, he says, makes an enormous impact on Syrians’ opinions of their neighbor to the south. “Maybe your medical care is more important than your air force,” quips Al-Labwani, who is also a physician.
Of course, a Syria after Assad seems at times to be just that – imaginings. Areas that were gained by rebels earlier in the conflict have been retaken by regime forces. And the atrocities of the Assad regime no longer seem to shock anyone to action, because now the Islamic State threat takes center stage. The U.S. Congress’ approval Thursday of President Barack Obama's plan to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State shows that Washington has gotten serious about the Islamic State threat, but it’s unclear what impact that move – something Al-Labwani would liked to have seen two years ago – will have on Assad. If the focus is largely on the Islamic State, Assad may weather the storm as two enemies of his regime have a go at each other. Not only has the U.S. been reluctant to get involved in the Syrian civil war, but some Republican lawmakers who are skeptical of Obama’s plan say they’re worried that the rebels will fight Assad.
"I'm concerned that the fighters that we train will be focused on what really motivates them, which is removing (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad, not fighting ISIS," Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine told Reuters, referring to the Islamic State by its former name.
After concluding his trip to Israel, Al-Labwani is planning a trip to Jordan, Turkey, and will travel to Washington later this month. Among his proposals, he says, are a safe zone in Syria, including a no-fly zone, similar to what was set up in Iraq after the first Gulf War to prevent Saddam Hussein from attacking Kurds in the north and Shi'ites in the South. “We need a free and safe zone we can use to restart some level of Syrian civil society, and to protect people in Syria. The problem is deeper than Daash,” he says, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They are the tip of the iceberg, but not all the ice. This policy needs a goal, a plan to change the situation. We have to remove this regime to achieve peace."
Even as he spoke those words, there were reports that some 66,000 Syrians – mostly Kurds – had fled the Islamic State's advance and had arrived on Turkish soil.
One of the people who has been facilitating Al-Labwani’s visit is Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman and philanthropist who lives in New Jersey. He says that at the start of the Arab uprisings, he donated cellphones to young pro-democracy activists in Libya and then in Syria. At some point, he got connected to Al-Labwani, a prominent human rights activist and founder of the Liberal Democratic Union opposition party, who was then in jail and named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Al-Labwani was released in late 2011 after having spent nine out of the previous 10 years behind bars.
“To me, he is the Nelson Mandela of the Syrian people,” Kahana says. “He made a decision and said, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to go and visit my neighbor.’ He’s going to face of criticism for doing that and I really admire his courage.”
Several sources close to the Syrian political scene say Al-Labwani is interesting and intellectual, but is a contrarian who distanced himself from the mainstream by quitting the Syrian opposition council earlier this year. Whatever relevance he still had left will likely be severely compromised after a trip to Israel, these sources predicted, because for most Syrians, visiting Israel is too big a taboo and commits the no-no of “normalization.”
But living as he is in the safe exile of Sweden, he can afford to gamble his status on a largely independent peace-making mission. In this light, his trip could prove to have value not so much in that it might move the hand of presidents and prime ministers, but in that it helps give regional and Western powers an honest window into what “free Syrians” think, and could help them consider some creative alternatives to pulling Syria out of what seems like a never-ending chapter of misery.