Syrian oppositionist quietly aims for normalization with Israel

Political operative currently in Europe is seeking to build a party that would give Syria a liberal, pro-Western bent.

An Israeli soldier on the Golan Heights near Syria border370 (photo credit: Reuters)
An Israeli soldier on the Golan Heights near Syria border370
(photo credit: Reuters)
A Europe-based Syrian opposition political activist who took part in the early stages of the uprising against the Syrian government told The Jerusalem Post he would like the Syrian and Israeli people to become partners, develop business connections and visit each other’s countries.
The activist, who goes by the pseudonym Amin Muhammad, is working on forming a liberal Syrian party that would be pro-West and seek the normalization of relations with Israel. Muhammad is in contact with Israeli politicians. The only one he agreed to name was Labor MK Isaac Herzog, who had helped arrange this interview.
Asked why he does not use his real name, he responded that it could be dangerous for him, but that he wanted “a voice to get through from Syria to Israel.”
Although Muhammad is in Europe, he says he visits the opposition-held areas in Syria “all the time.” He lived there until 2012 and took part in the early stages of the opposition in 2011. He claims he has good connections in Syria in order to draw in new members to a Syrian political party, promoting liberal democracy and the separation of religion and state. He believes in a third way – “not the Muslim Brotherhood and not president Bashar Assad as until now there has not been another way.”
Asked about funding for those who hold such views, Muhammad said liberal Syrians have their own private sponsors and support from Syria’s business community.
He said an ideal party should be made up of Syrians representing all religions and ethnic groups there, including Christians, Druse, Kurds and Alawites (religion of Assad and his most loyal followers). “We don’t want the dreams of pan-Arab nationalism or partition of the country,” he said.
The problem with the strategy of the EU and the US is that they are not interfering enough to shape events, according to Muhammad. The Muslim Brotherhood is organized, so the US works with them, he opined. “This is a dangerous strategy,” he stated, adding that countries such as Egypt and Syria do not want religion to govern people’s lives. “People are religious, but they don’t want it to be involved inpolitics,” he asserted.
However, he believes that in any post-Assad landscape, the Islamists should be given a chance to participate in the democratic process, which would be better than having them go underground. “I was living in Syria, and there were not all these radicals for the first year and a half” of the protests, Muhammad claimed. “All the activists were liberal and were trying to be peaceful.”
The regime became more brutal, and the people turned to radical Islamic groups for protection; in this way, the Islamists gained more support, he observed.
He points out, for example, that in the Syrian city of Raqqa, where the rebels pushed out government forces, people were happy they got rid of the regime, but the radical groups came in and began forcing their way of life on the population, causing a backlash.
Asked about his vision for future Syrian-Israel relations, he responded that change cannot happen quickly, as people have been taught for a long time at school that Israelis are the enemy and are trying to kill Syrians, so Syrians must kill them. However, aiding injured Syrians in Israeli hospitals and various other Israeli human-rights gestures were having a positive effect, raising doubts in the minds of Syrians about what they had been led to believe.
“All this is making people wonder, when they see the killing from their own regime and see the Israeli community treating the wounded. I am talking to a lot of people, and they are thinking: Who is the enemy now?” he exclaimed.
In particular, he mentioned recent moves by the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC to support a US attack on Syria, saying this has left a positive impression with many Syrians.
“I know lots of Israelis. I went to speak at synagogues – even right-wing orthodox ones, and people want to hear,” said Muhammad.
Regarding peace with Syria post-Assad, he said that the main issue is the Golan Heights. “We want direct talks with Israel and to make a peace deal and normalize relations."
“Israel has technology, and Syria can be an industrial supplier,” he said. He believes a majority of Israelis would support giving up the Golan for peace. “There cannot be peace without the Golan,” he declared. As for Israel’s security risks, he responded that in life, there are never any guarantees.
Muhammad’s views are refreshing, but according to analysts, his party would have a difficult time making inroads among the population at large and the opposition composed of many Islamist elements. The fact that he cannot reveal his identity speaks for the difficult path that pro-Western liberal Syrians must follow.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.