Though most Syrians oppose normalizing relations with Israel and reject efforts toward establishing diplomatic ties, that has not stopped Syrian opposition leader Fahad Almasri from seeking an opportunity to open communication channels with Israel.
Almasri, founder and leader of the National Salvation Front in Syria (NSF), told The Media Line that he would like the Syrian and Israeli people to live side-by-side in peace and to become business partners. He describes himself as a staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and an alternative leader to Assad’s rule.
Almasri, who has lived in France for 24 years, says he has the bravery to talk openly about relations with Israel in a post-Assad Syria.
“We have the courage and the open political vision. The reason is: the… change that has occurred in Syrian society. [This change] led to the reevaluation of all concepts and values and the fall of slogans,” Almasri said.
Syria and Israel are technically in a state of war since 1948, and the two countries have never established diplomatic relations. Following Israel’s War of Independence, the two have faced off in two additional wars, the first in 1967 and the second in 1973.
Almasri says the time has come for this to change.
“We must recognize that Israel is an important regional state, a fact that exists whether recognized by regional and Arab parties or not. Israel is an internationally recognized state and is supported by all the nations of the world,” he told The Media Line.
Syria has always championed the Palestinian cause and Damascus has consistently tied the Golan Heights – an area internationally recognized as occupied by Israel – with resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But Almasri says a lot has changed since the eruption of the conflict in Syria in 2011.
“After all the destruction that happened in Syria, is the problem of the Syrian people the Palestinian issue, especially since the Palestinians themselves have entered into negotiations with the Israeli state? The Palestinian problem is at another turning point,” he said. “Consequently, the Syrian people paid more than 80 years of their livelihood, security, stability and political life, which was absent as a result of slogans and trafficking in the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
A Palestinian official who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter told The Media Line that the Palestinian leadership had a good relationship with Damascus and don’t want to spoil it. But he was critical of Almasri.
“These are groups created by Israel and the United States that have a relationship with them,” the Palestinian official said. “These groups, which call themselves the opposition, are part of a project hostile to Arab causes and have reached the level of agents for the occupation. The Palestinians want a strong and united Syria, and Syria will emerge from its crisis as soon as possible."
Last month, Almasri’s group launched the national initiative “Hope,” calling on the Israeli government to ease travel restrictions on the Syrian Druze in the Golan Heights to visit relatives in Syria as part of a more comprehensive plan.
“In the first phase… the people of the Golan have to come to Syria. In the second stage of the initiative, the Jewish Syrians, whether they live in Israel and hold Israeli identity or live in the Diaspora, have the right to visit their country and take care of their property and their cultural, historical and humanitarian heritage in Syria,” Almasri told The Media Line. “The ball is now in the Israeli court.”
The Syrian opposition figure says he is in touch with Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Israel.
Tarif told The Media Line that he’s a religious man and doesn’t “interfere” in Syria’s internal politics, but he did support the initiative put forth by the NSF.
“These are humanitarian requests to help the Syrians in the Golan Heights contact their families in Syria just like it was before the war. We are fully behind it,” Tarif said.
Almasri also claims that his group has been in direct communication with Israeli officials. In fact, he says that a delegation from his group was in Israel during the week of May 6, meeting with Israelis.
“We sent a message to the Israeli government and to [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu,” he stated. “We hope that this initiative will receive the attention of Mr. Netanyahu because it will be an initial humanitarian initiative toward the rapprochement between Syria and Israel.”
Almasri says he is also in close contact with Israel Katz, Israeli minister of transportation, minister of intelligence and acting foreign minister. The goal of the meeting was to establish close relations with the Israeli government, he said.
“We want to search for the strategic interests of the Syrian people, and the strategic interests of the Syrian people require [us] to enter into understandings with the Israeli state for the benefit of the Syrian people. The Syrian people want peace, they want to live in safety, they want a broad horizon for development, they want to rebuild Syria,” he stated.
Almasri also claims he met in Paris with Yuval Rabin, chairman of the Israeli Peace Initiative and son of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. He says these meetings are just an example of many he regularly holds with Israeli officials, discussing numerous topics, among them Iran, the Palestinians and terrorism.
Normalization between Arab states and Israel is a touchy subject. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states that have peace treaties and diplomatic ties with Israel, and Almasri knows his attempts at forging relations with a state that many Arabs still view as an enemy will not sit well with them.
“We do not care about the criticism of others; we are concerned about the strategic interest of the Syrian people,” he told The Media Line. “The Syrian people have been left to kill and slaughter [each other] for more than eight years, and the Arab countries are all watching and investing in Syrian blood, and have contributed to the continuation of this tragedy and turned it into a war of attrition.”
The Media Line reached out to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the country’s Foreign Ministry for a response. Both declined to speak on the matter, saying instead in a text message: “We are not making any comments on the issue to the media.”
Almasri says he won’t stop till he meets with the Israeli prime minister, and he has a message for him.
“We say to Mr. Binyamin Netanyahu that we congratulate you on your victory once again with the confidence of the Israeli people. With the beginning of your mandate, we hope for your new government to have a new, courageous and constructive regional vision toward Syria and the Syrian people,” Almasri said.
Still, he admits he doesn’t speak for all Syrians and that the idea of having contact with Israel is controversial for many. But Almasri says he has a vision for a future Syria. In order for that vision to become a reality, he said, the eight-year conflict must end and reconciliation needs to take place.