When Syrian dissident Kamal Al-Labwani was nearing the end of his tenth year in Adra Prison outside Damascus, he met a teenager from his hometown of Zabadani who had just been incarcerated by the Assad regime. It was June 2011.
“He was crying. I asked him: ‘Were you beaten? Were you broken?’ He said: ‘What right did state security have to sexually violate me? I only demonstrated.’ A month later he was carrying arms.”
The Syrian revolution did not have to turn violent, Labwani told The Times of Israel in a telephone conversation from Amman, Jordan, recalling the early days of the uprising, which erupted in the southern city of Daraa in March 2011. Syrians took up arms, he said, after the Assad regime treated the population in a “criminal, unacceptable way.” Now, he asserted, there’s no going back on toppling Bashar Assad by all possible means.
“Our dispute with Assad is not political. It’s criminal. The man perpetrated the crimes of corruption and authoritarianism — all this is trivial. But he intentionally humiliated people and killed them in cold blood. This is why the revolution began.”
It is extremely rare for a Syrian dissident to speak openly with Israeli media, but Labwani, who has sought political asylum in Sweden, believes the Syrian uprising has shattered many Arab taboos, including the cultural Arab taboo on engaging Israel.
“I am not the only one [who speaks to Israelis]; there are many others like me. Three years of revolution have destroyed many intellectual and cultural principles,” he said. “People today have begun thinking outside the box, exploring two fundamental things: changing ourselves and seeking help.”
Labwani is angry both with the West and with the Arab world. Both camps, he feels, have failed the Syrian people, depriving moderate opposition forces fighting Assad of weapons essential to toppling the regime. Politically, Arab states — along with Western superpowers — have appointed corrupt Syrian expatriates to represent the opposition in exile, depriving it of all legitimacy with the broad Syrian public.
Discouraged by the opposition’s traditional allies, Labwani now believes Israel is the Syrians’ best hope. The Jewish state has both the military capacity to help the Syrian opposition and the strategic incentive to do so.
“Israel is able to change the international mood,” he said. “You have ties with all decision-making centers in neighboring countries, and could change opinions if you would be convinced to.”
Many in the West are glad to view Syria as a battleground for Hezbollah and al-Qaeda to shed each other’s blood, in a seemingly endless war of attrition. But Labwani believes that mode of thinking is misguided; Israel stands to suffer from a protracted civil war, and is the only country capable of convincing the world to let Assad go.
“It is the moderate forces which are being eroded, while the extremist powers are growing stronger. Hezbollah is much stronger today, holding strategic weapons. Half the chemical weapons owned by the [Assad] regime were given to it. Areas which [Hezbollah] occupies today are either being inhabited by Iraqi Shiites or converted to Shiism … this is a great danger not just for me, but for you [Israel] as well.”
“If you want to befriend the Syrians, send a message of friendship. I tell you, my people are ready.”
The field hospital established by the IDF on the Syrian border has had a significant positive impact on Israel’s image among the population of southern Syria, Labwani said. Nevertheless, most Syrians are still convinced that Israel is backing Bashar Assad, a sentiment that can be changed through a clear Israeli stance.
“If today 90 percent of Syrians believe you support Assad, what have you gained? Nothing. In my opinion, a clear political declaration from Israel saying Assad is a criminal will have a very important impact. Today, we hear conflicting statements.”
But a moral position by Israel is not enough. Israel must extend military assistance to Syrian forces fighting Assad, based on the internationally recognized “responsibility to protect,” he said.
“If you only helped us intercept low-flying [regime] helicopters by providing a limited amount of antiaircraft weapons, with American approval, it would have a huge effect, morally and militarily,” Labwani said. “There are a million ways such weapons can be given to recognized people [in the opposition]. These weapons have ‘fingerprints’ and deactivation modes.”
Alternatively, he said, Israel could declare a no-fly zone in southern Syria, as NATO did in Libya in its bid to topple Muammar Gaddafi. Such a move would immediately cause a large segment of Syrian society to support peace and normalization with Israel.
An interview published with Labwani last month, in which he reportedly offered Israel control over the Golan Heights in return for militarily supporting the Syrian opposition, triggered a flurry of Arab comments accusing him of selling out to the Jewish state. But the Syrian dissident told The Times of Israel that he was misquoted, merely proposing negotiations over the disputed territory, which was captured by Israel in 1967.
“If it were a matter of selling [the Golan], I would sell it to Jordan if it were willing to buy,” he joked, but then added more seriously: “We could open universities, industrial zones, parks. The Golan could be used as a peace resort … the area could be administered in a way that would alleviate the fears of both sides.”
‘I fear that if [Israel] does not respond … [the Syrian] people will not want to do anything for many years’
A window of opportunity currently allows hope for cooperation between Israel and the Syrian public, but that window will not stay open forever, Labwani warned.
“I fear that if [Israel] does not respond … [the Syrian] people will not want to do anything for many years.”
Labwani has conveyed these messages to Israeli decision-makers, whom he said have been receptive. But he is interested in communicating directly with the Israeli public, trying to create a broad support base for his ideas.
In January, Labwani resigned from the political committee of the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition group established in Qatar in late 2012 and currently headed by Ahmad Al-Jarba. The immediate reason for his resignation was the opposition’s willingness to take part in the Geneva II negotiations with the Assad regime in February.
“I believed Geneva was a move to rebuild the [Assad] regime,” Labwani said. “We created the [Opposition] Coalition to topple the regime, not engage in dialogue with it.”
The Western and Arab teams entrusted with overseeing deliberations in Geneva were “extremely stupid,” Labwani said, accusing them of ignoring Syria’s reality.
“The Saudis were the worst, followed by the French, the British and the Americans. They worked in a very bad manner, leading to a catastrophe in Syria which could have been averted.”
Rather than build the capacity of Syrian institutions, Western negotiators appointed their own “agents or collaborators,” mostly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping they would become Syria’s legitimate opposition. They have also appointed “fake” representatives of Syria’s minorities with no grassroots support inside the country, marginalizing Syrians “who fought and were deported” from the decision-making process.
“More than once I’ve heard Americans say that ‘the Brotherhood must lead this stage.’ We told them: ‘The Brotherhood are extremists, not moderates. This is not Islam which is appropriate for civilization. There should be another reading of the Islamic faith, which hasn’t emerged yet, but help us foster it.’”
According to Labwani, Arab states are not interested in Syrian democracy but only in weakening Iran. The West, for its part, seeks stability through maintaining the Assad regime or its “deep state.” Labwani accuses the United States in particular of harboring racist sentiments toward Syrians.
‘More than once I’ve heard Americans say that ‘the Brotherhood must lead this stage.’ We told them: ‘The Brotherhood are extremists, not moderates’
“I’ve sensed not only misunderstanding [by the Americans] but also racist thinking. There’s no solidarity, no sense that we are a people with a different identity, who have the right to express it … Until now, the American team is unsympathetic to the Syrian people. It is tasked with protecting us, but doesn’t like us. There’s a certain contradiction … I believe that thwarting the opposition was a strategic goal in order to maintain the [Assad] regime.”
Labwani himself was used as part of the Western attempt to legitimize the opposition as authentic. He was named as a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) while still in prison in 2011, without his knowledge.
“They utilized my name to claim they have support on the inside, that they have objectors on their side,” said the dissident, freed from jail eight months into the Syrian uprising as a result of massive pressure from the Arab League and international rights groups.
“Look how wise they were,” he adds sarcastically, referring to his association with an opposition organization while he was still serving time for subversive activities. “They [the opposition] had no problem with the regime executing me or keeping me in jail, as long as they used my name.”
Labwani was released from jail in November 2011, only to discover that the SNC “had no leadership, no connection to Syria, and no idea of what’s happening inside.” He voiced his grievances to Burhan Ghalioun, a France-based sociology professor appointed as the first head of the SNC, but was disappointed by his response.
“[Ghalioun] didn’t want to listen. All he cared about was personal gains, hotels, traveling and photo opportunities. The SNC was nothing more than a secular cover for the Muslim Brotherhood, which operated secretly behind the scenes and was to lead a single-party state, like the Baath party.”
The Syrian National Coalition was created in November 2012 by the Jordanians, Lebanese and Saudis, wishing to form a counterbalance to the Islamist-dominated SNC which was backed by Qatar and Turkey. To Labwani’s chagrin, that organization too lost its independence to the West, as well as to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“I left it, and began working on my own,” he said.
Today, Labwani travels between Turkey, Jordan and Europe; trying to garner support for his idiosyncratic ideas. Asked whether he planned to return to practicing medicine, Labwani laughed.
“I don’t think so. I was forced to work on more important issues,” he said. “Ultimately, my work is a form of medicine: healing my society.”