Farid Ghadry 298.88.
(photo credit: Yaniv Salama-Scheer)
Driving up through the Golan Heights last week, I put my pen down after an hourlong interview, my wrist strained with ink and my mind equally numb after listening to some of the most progressive of ideas being married to one of the most suppressive of societies.
During the drive, my interviewee - Farid Ghadry, the president of the Syrian Reform Party and the man who hopes to one day take over from Syrian President Bashar Assad - talks on the phone to a fellow Syrian exile, Mahmoud Hamsi, in Lebanon, in Arabic.
Sitting across from Ghadry was the day's coordinator, speaking in Hebrew with Likud MK Yuval Steinitz.
The dichotomy represented in these two men, their diametrically opposed historical backgrounds was highlighted when they toured the Golan as friends as well as political associates, pointing out various sites where Syrian artillery killed Israeli citizens, and where the IDF vanquished Syrian forces in subsequent wars. In Katzrin, the "capital" of the Golan, Steinitz (in the guise of tour guide) mentioned that it was part of the historical Land of Israel.
"I will defend that," Ghadry says.
Syrians do not typically defend Israel, but Farid Ghadry is not your typical Syrian.
Born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1964, Ghadry and his family moved to Beirut in 1975 due to the political turmoil at home, "similar to the Jews leaving Germany in 1933," he says. However, the Ghadry family did not last long in Lebanon, leaving just before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1975 and moving to the outskirts of Washington, DC, where he would later begin his political career.
Ghadry's reform movement started to gain momentum after 9/11, he says.
"We knew there would be a shift in paradigm in the US, and when the Americans embarked on their liberation of the Iraqis from Sadaam, we decided the time was right to launch our own campaign on liberating the Syrians from the regime in Damascus," he says.
Ghadry says the Syrian people are ready for a change, which means they are ready to push Assad out of power. "At the right time, the Syrian people will emulate the Cedar Revolution," he predicts.
Human rights need to come to Syria, he declares, and this issue is the most significant common denominator between his party and his friends in the White House. "Syrian human rights are resonating in many circles in Washington," he says.
Ghadry says the Ba'athist regime in place in Damascus is based on the model party founder Michel Aflaq saw in Germany. "He extrapolated the Nazi grip on the population, and its hold on the mind of the people. A lot of people miss the Nazi link when talking about Syria."
Ghadry says there are those who do not want democracy to succeed in the Middle East, particularly Assad, who funds terrorism in Lebanon and Iraq to avoid having "democratic laboratories" on his doorstep.
But "you," he says, referring to Israel, "are succeeding and have set an example which [I] would like to follow."
Haifa, he says, is a good example of coexistence between cultures and religions. "Syria must follow this path" and "break from the oppression of one corrupt family."
Breaking from the oppression of Assad's regime, however, is no easy feat, Ghadry insists.
I point out that propping up premature Arab democracies has failed many times, in Egypt, for example, and more recently in Iraq.
"The mistake in Iraq was that [the Americans] were presented as occupiers, and not liberators," sparking factional violence, he counters.
In Syria, he says, there are no plans to "neutralize" anyone, even the Alawite minority holding power. "The Alawite future is contributing rather than controlling," Ghadry says. Unlike in Iraq, "there must be a transition period which will strengthen human rights and the civil society."
This society, he maintains, is not the one depicted by the media, calling for the destruction of the West and Israel. And distrust of Israel is not an inherent outgrowth of the love Syrians have for their country, he says.
The Internet is being used by many young Syrians as an alternative to a regime that only gives the people the information it want to hand down.
"Syrians don't even think 9/11 is an issue. They don't care. They are taught to hate, they're taught that Zionism is the problem. The regime hides the truth. Every dictatorship needs an outside enemy to divert attention away. For Assad, this is Israel."
For Ghadry, the man as well as the politician, the important thing is "coexistence and peace." This, he says, will come through the "de-annexation of the Golan," or the Jo'lan as he calls it. Asserting that the Heights are the bridge to bring peace between Israel and "his" Syria, and that the Golan would never be used as a springboard of hostility toward Israel once Syrian sovereignty is restored.
While he thinks Kadima's Construction and Housing Minister Meir Shetreet's proposal of a 25-year Israeli lease is an "interesting idea," he himself has a head-spinner or two in store for the future of the Golan. Ghadry envisions a scenario where all Israeli businesses and commercial areas would remain and be run by Israelis, but taxes would be paid to Damascus, not to Jerusalem.
"It is more practical for everyone. It's the same concept as [American defense contractor] Halliburton in Dubai. It will mean open borders, which we have to accept."
Israeli security concerns and the lack of trust Israel has in Assad's intentions for the Golan, is the main hindrance for today's negotiations. "The Golan is important to Syrians and we will not live with Israeli occupation. But we need to build trust that the Golan will not be used for violence," he says.
This, according to Ghadry, while Assad is in power, because Assad is a "violent" man. For Ghadry, the peace reached by prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat worked because Sadat was a "peaceful leader."
Although King Hussein of Jordan does not fall under the same category for Ghadry, peace was made between Israel and Jordan because King Hussein could be "trusted in keeping the peace."
"If you make a deal with Assad, you get a 'buy one, get one free' in the Golan. The 'get one free,' he says, is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"What about the stipulation for peace demanding that Assad cut off ties with Iran and stop funding Hizbullah and Hamas?" I ask.
Fool's gold he says. "You cannot peel Syria off Iran. It's a life-support [issue] for them. In a sinking ship, you don't throw the raft out the window... Peace, real peace, is not signing a piece of paper with a dictator."
Syrian sponsored terrorism, he contests, is yet another addition to a long list of reasons why Israel should not trust Damascus at the moment.
"Look at the Palestinian terror victims we met in Haifa. Terror does not discriminate. A Syrian-backed Hizbullah killed a Palestinian, the same Palestinians Syria claims to protect."
While many hope the regime in Syria has backed itself into a fatal corner, this week the French Foreign Ministry may have breathed new life into Damascus's intransigence, seeming to express a willingness to engage Damascus directly.
However, Ghadry is not fazed. "You shouldn't seem so worried," he tells me. "The French will discover very quickly how violent Hizbullah is, and how equally deceitful Assad is. It will fail."
The main reason - Assad.
"He is prone to making mistakes."
"Like what?" I ask.
"Like killing [former Lebanese prime minister Rafik] Hariri."
"Assad says he didn't have a hand in it," I point out.
"Yeah, and I'm Mother Theresa."