ON THE march. A poster of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad who is allied with Russia and Iran. .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Earlier this month, The Jerusalem Post published an opinion piece by Ghaith Alhallak titled, “All killers are my enemies.” This is my response to Ghaith, who is my Arabic teacher in a web program called Natakallam, and my friend.
Ghaith’s message is full of hope. He is a part of a Syrian generation that grew up amidst the regime’s hate propaganda, chanting every day at school “Our commitment is to confront imperialism and Zionism.” After seven years of a war that claimed the lives of over half-a-million people, many Syrians are disillusioned with the Assad regime, and along with it, the regime’s anti-Israeli and antisemitic propaganda.
During those seven years, many anti-Assad rebels got a chance to interact with Israelis, either by receiving medical treatment in Israel or abroad after they fled Syria. While this interaction might not turn those Syrians to big fans of Israel, it helped many of them recognize that Israelis are not their enemy the way the regime claimed them to be.
Having said that, this disillusionment does not make it easier. Ghaith took a brave step by publishing his opinions in the Post
. Although the revolution allowed for a certain “safe space” for Syrians to interact with the regime’s adversaries, even in the diaspora most Syrians are conscious that if they will ever return to “Assad’s Syria,” any public association with the “Zionist enemy” could cost them dearly.
However, Ghaith’s message might be hard to swallow for many Israelis, who on average have more faith in the Israel Defense Forces than any other national institution. As Ghaith mentioned, there are many players today in Syria: the regime, Russia, Iran, Jihadi militias, different rebel groups across the political spectrum and, of course, Israel.
We see our operations in Syria as surgical and needed for the greater good, for both Israel’s security and the stability of the region. Israeli air strikes in Syrian territory (according to foreign sources, for the most part) are aimed at Iranian targets; to destroy game-changing weapons en route to Hezbollah; in retaliation for cross-fire “dripping” into Israel’s territory; or against any new capabilities that have the potential to hinder Israel’s ability to respond to such cases in the future.
Hence, when confronted with terms such as “killers” and “occupiers” to describe Israel in the current Syrian context, the average Israeli might tend to dismiss Ghaith’s message altogether. That would be a mistake.
WE DO NOT know how the war in Syria will end. However, if a free and democratic Syria will ever come to fruition – one that does not include Assad, Iranian forces, or other radical Islamists forces – it will be Ghaith’s generation which will take the lead. Not all of them got the chance to know us (just as much that most of us did not get a chance to know them), but they are far more open to dialogue than any previous Syrian generations.
We need to think strategically and reach out to the right segments in this community in order to build relations with this generation today, to start a genuine conversation about the future of region. Talking from experience, it is possible.
I was privileged to meet some of Ghaith’s peers in the few years I spent in the United States for graduate school and work. I see that as a privilege since not many Israelis get the chance to talk to our neighbors from the North. I met young Syrians from the moderate opposition who have been to hell and back before they managed to flee Syria and arrive in America.
As one friend told me, they want “nothing but a democratic and free Syria.” They tried to pursue this vision in the 2011 revolution, a revolution that was used by the Assad regime to aggressively and excessively attack their own people with the excuse he is “fighting terrorists.” Despite the hardship these young Syrians have been through, they continue to be strong, open-minded and they look to the future.
During my first summer in the US, I decided to take my very first Syrian friend to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I will never forget her face as she was walking through those halls. To her, the images she saw resembled to the horrific crimes Assad was (and still is) committing in Syria. She turned to me with a shocked look and said, “Mor, the Arab world doesn’t know about this!” I looked back at her and told her, “Well, now you do.”
As Israelis, we share more with the Syrian people than we think we do. This is especially true for members of the Syrian moderate opposition. We not only connect over our national traumas and the horrible crimes committed against our peoples, we also share several strategic goals for the region, in particular, seeing Iran out of Syria and diminishing the presence of Islamists forces. These similarities should be enough reason for us to seriously and strategically engage with each other, and there is no better time than now.The writer has a master’s in public affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. Until recently she worked as former ambassador Daniel Kurtzer’s research assistant and currently works as a consultant in Israel.
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