These days, Fahad al-Masri, Paris- based leader of the National Salvation Front in Syria, has a message for Israelis and Jews around the world: Hag sameach.
“We offer, in the name of the political and military leadership and in the name of all the members of the National Salvation Front, our greetings to the Jewish people all over the world and in the State of Israel, on the occasion of the Jewish Passover holiday, and we greet the Syrian Jews,” said a statement by the NSF, a known group among the approximately 100 Syrian opposition factions, though not considered a major one.
“We hope to God that this holiday will be an occasion that holds promise for a holiday of freedom and unity for the Syrian people,” the statement continued.
“[We hope] that the Syrian people will be saved in the coming days from the bondage of the butcher Assad and his regime.”
It concluded by voicing hopes for a “new historical stage in the Middle East region through building a just peace with the Israeli people.”
It is not the first time that Masri, former spokesman of the Free Syrian Army, seeks to woo Israel, which he views as a vital bridge to the West as a whole. Notably, the NSF issued a detailed “road map” for Syrian-Israeli peace three months ago, including proclamations of friendship with Israel, a provision calling for the expulsion of all Iranian military advisers and of Hezbollah from Syria, and a ban on the transfer of arms through Syrian territory to Lebanon.
“We recognize the State of Israel, and we welcome Israel as a safe neighbor for us. We are not against giving any international guarantees required by the Israeli people to live in security and safety, peace and stability as a nation,” said the road map.
The document called for a “fair settlement on the Golan issue that satisfies both the Syrian and Israeli peoples.” It specified that “Syrian Jews will have the right to recover their property in Syria and to rebuild and take care of the Jewish temples in Syria. We intend to consider the Jewish heritage of religious, cultural and humanitarian and civilizational [activity] in Syria as an integral part of the identity and heritage and legacy of Syria and of the identity and heritage of the entire region as well.”
Masri is clearly not deterred by opponents of normalization with Israel, perhaps going even further than Egyptian president Anwar Sadat did in envisioning a Middle East transformed by peace.
He wrote during an email interview with The Jerusalem Post
: “The Golan must be transformed into a garden of peace for the Syrian and Israeli peoples, and it will be an oasis of security and stability and joint cooperation and of drawing closer between the two peoples and of joint investment.”
He also voiced hope that, with peace, the Golan would become a world-class tourist attraction. Masri also called for the establishment, soon after peace is achieved, of a Damascus-Haifa railway line via Deraa and Beit She’an. The train would go 160 kph along the 289-km. route that he foresees.
Masri said he received positive feedback on the road map from some Israelis, including figures in the government.
Ayoub Kara, the deputy minister for regional cooperation, told the Post that he is in contact with Masri.
“I think things are moving in the right direction for a coming closer between the Syrian and Israeli peoples and the building of bridges of peace and a culture of peace,” Masri wrote in the interview.
“Without a doubt, after the bringing down of the Assad regime, we will take steps toward a relationship and strategic partnership with Israel. Israel for us constitutes an important bridge to the West, and we want to benefit from the experience of the Jewish people in pursuing the Nazis in order to pursue the war criminals in Syria. We want to benefit from Israeli expertise and technology in agriculture and other important economic sectors.”
Masri wrote to the Post
that in the near future he will undertake a visit to Israel at the head of a “very important military and political delegation, including senior generals and important political personalities from the NSF.”
Kara said of such a visit: “It could be. I don’t rule it out. They are very pro-Israel and very positive in their expressions."
"There is a connection, at least on the thought level, for joint projects for progress toward coexistence and peace between Syria and Israel. Whether this will make it down to the level of reality, the day will come when we will see. Even the railway that will continue on to Damascus is a good and positive sign, but it’s in the realm of theory until there is a change in Syria.”
Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Middle East studies at the Hebrew University and a specialist on Syria, termed the NSF’s issuing of a peace road map “good news.”
“Among various rebel groups, there is some change of mind about Israel, because they compare it to the brutal regime of Assad, and there are even some voices to make peace with Israel. This is one of the voices,” he said.
“They’ve been brainwashed for generations that Israel is a monster. Now they see this is not the case,” he added.
Maoz said that word spreading among Syrians of Israel’s treating wounded Syrians in its hospitals also impacts on the image of Israel, though he adds that he thinks Israel should let such patients stay rather than send them back, and should also admit more refugees.
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said she doubts Masri can advance his ideas at present. “I know he’s quite a figure in the opposition, but I don’t think any figure is able to move anything without the consent of the US and Russia. It doesn’t matter what kind of plan he has; it just matters what relations he has with those two players. Like most plans, [the road map] would just be theoretical at this point.”
She added that she wishes Masri’s posture toward Israel would be shared by all members of the Syrian opposition.
The NSF road map’s stress on excluding Iran and Hezbollah would appear to dovetail with an Israeli interest in keeping the Syrian side of the Golan Heights clear of those actors.
Svetlova has called for Israel to be “more active” on the Syrian Golan Heights, in order to back Hezbollah away from the border. This could include discretely supporting some elements in Syria, she said.
Kara said Masri’s standing in the Syrian opposition is not as important as what he is saying.
“Lone voices are also important,” he said. “Moses our Master was also alone, and afterward he led the people of Israel. It takes time to change thinking about Israel, and if there are voices like [Masri’s], I endorse them, and they should be strengthened.”