In recent months, Syrian liberal and prominent oppositionist Dr. Kamal Al-Labwani has been promoting a public initiative calling on Israel to provide military and diplomatic assistance to the Syrian opposition in its struggle against the Assad regime, as a preparatory move for peace and normalization with the future Syrian regime. According to a report in the London daily Al-Arab, the initiative was prepared together with Arab and regional elements, and in cooperation with elements in the U.S. Congress, and has received the blessing of senior officers and commanders in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). As part of his efforts to promote the initiative, Al-Labwani attended several secret meetings in Germany on the matter, and has even expressed his willingness to visit Israel "if doing so would serve the Syrian people, peace, and the peoples of the region."
In response to the initiative, presented over the past few months by Al-Labwani in a series of articles and print and TV interviews with Arab, Israeli, and Western media, the Syrian regime accused him of encouraging "the Israeli enemy" to occupy Syrian lands, and of treason against the homeland. Positive comments about the initiative by Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog were presented by the official Syrian news agency SANA as proof of Israel's support of the "terrorists" operating in Syria and of the scope of "the cooperation, coordination, conspiracy, and explicit plotting between the so-called 'Syrian opposition' and the Zionist entity, with the hopes of wearing down the Syrian state's forces and bringing about its destruction."
Al-Labwani (b. 1957), a practicing physician, has been one of Syria's leading liberal human rights activists for over two decades. He was imprisoned from 2001 to 2004, for promoting democratic reforms in Syria as part of the Damascus Spring, and again from 2005 to 2011, for "damaging national security" by visiting Washington, D.C., meeting with U.S. administration officials, and discussing democratization in Syria with them. During his second spell in prison, he was released early from a 12-year sentence as part of the regime's attempts to mollify domestic public opinion in the face of increasing protests. Following his release, Al-Labwani attended nonviolent protests in Syria calling for regime change; shortly thereafter, fearing arrest or worse, he fled to Jordan, and from there applied for and was granted Swedish political asylum.
Since then, Al-Labwani worked mostly in Turkey as part of the Syrian National Council, and, after it was dismantled, as a member of the general secretariat and founding committee of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Oppositionist Forces. In early 2014, he withdrew from the national coalition, accusing it of administrative and financial corruption and of imitating the Assad regime's culture of tyranny. Since then, he has been operating independently.
The following report will review the details of Al-Labwani's initiative, his attempts to market it to intra-Syrian public opinion, and some of the reactions – both supporting and hostile – that it sparked among Syrian oppositionist circles.
Dr. Kamal Al-Labwani (image: memritv.org)
Al-Labwani's Plan: An Israel-Enforced No-Fly Zone In Southern Syria
In recent months, in a series of articles and print and TV interviews with Arab, Israeli, and Western media, Al-Labwani presented his initiative for cooperation between the Syrian opposition and Israel, which would lead – after the civil war ends and the current regime is removed – to a warm peace and normalization between the two countries.
According to Al-Labwani, the initiative is a response to the impasse in the Syrian civil war, which is the result of the military status quo on the ground and the failure of the U.S.-, Russia-, and U.N.-sponsored Geneva talks. He says that cooperating with Israel, which possesses military might and international political influence, particularly in the U.S., could help the Syrian opposition tip the military and diplomatic balance of power in its favor, stop the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, and ultimately vanquish the Assad regime. Therefore, he says, the Syrian opposition's can at this time choose "between either long-term anarchy and the ongoing suffering and torture [of the Syrian people], or a plan that the West accepts, and which could create a counterbalance to the allies of the [Assad regime], defeat their project in Syria, and rehabilitate the region in a manner befitting its residents." A plan that includes peace with Israel, he added, will be positively received in the West.
The main military role that Al-Labwani intended for Israel as part of the proposed cooperation is the creation of a no-fly zone in southern Syria, which Israel would enforce without violating Syrian airspace. Under his plan, Israel would shoot down any Syrian jet within 60 seconds of takeoff with its anti-aircraft systems, which cover an area of over 100 kilometers from the Golan Heights to Damascus. This area encompasses Al-Suwayda, Daraa, the southern Rif Dimashq governorate and the Syria-Lebanon border. NATO, for its part, would be charged with attacking the Assad regime's air bases. As for Israel's diplomatic role, it would be tasked, Al-Labwani says, with removing its objection to ousting the Syrian regime and consenting to its Western allies' provision of arms to the opposition forces.
Al-Labwani pointed to a number of important strategic assets for Israel that his initiative would include that would make it a joint interest for both sides: On the security level, it would thwart Hizbullah's plan to establish outposts in Syria similar to the ones it holds in South Lebanon, outposts from which extremist Sunni groups could attack Israel on a daily basis on Hizbullah's behalf without this organization having to do dirty its own hands. On the domestic Syrian level, the move would prevent Syria from continuing to slide into extremism, zealotry, and anarchy – all of which endanger Israel as well. On the political level, the Syrian opposition would take the option of military action against Israel off the table, and, following the establishment of a legitimate government in Syria, work towards a peace agreement with Israel, provided that an arrangement can be made regarding the Golan Heights. On the cultural level, the agreement would result in warm, peaceful Israel-Syria relation, and could open the door to normalization of the Jewish presence in the Middle East.
As for the fate of the Golan Heights under a future agreement between the sides, Al-Labwani remained somewhat vague on what the exact details would be. In an interview with Al-Arab, he implied that the Syrian opposition would be better off relinquishing the Golan Heights in return for Israeli cooperation in toppling the regime, or even "selling" it to Israel, than losing all of Syria – including the Golan Heights, which it doesn't control anyway – in the event that the civil war lasts for many more years and leads either to the country's collapse or to Assad's victory. However, in another interview a few days later, on Orient News TV, which is affiliated with the Syrian opposition, he backtracked, stating that any potential future peace agreement between Syria and Israel would be conditional upon the Golan Heights' return to Syria in accordance with U.N. Resolution 242. In any case, Al-Labwani said, Israelis living in the Golan Heights would be able to remain there as part of a future agreement: "The Golan will be a platform to solve all regional problems at once. We wish the Golan to become an international paradise of peace, and that its tourist attractions will open up to the entire world. Those among the [Israeli] settlers who want to stay [there] can do so, and those who want to leave for Israel or elsewhere can do so as well."
Justification For The Initiative: Pragmatism And Paradigm Shift
Al-Labwani explained that he decided to place his initiative "on the table" publicly, openly, and transparently, so as to spark public discourse on a crucial issue once "forbidden to even think about" – that is, changing the dogmatic rejection of relations with Israel. Using several arguments, Al-Labwani attempted to combat the immediate doubts raised by the initiative, recruit widespread public support for it, and respond to criticism by its opponents.
Solving The Crisis Requires Thinking Realistically And "Outside The Box"
Al-Labwani acknowledged that he himself had initially had some difficulty overcoming "the psychological barrier" related to his proposed plan: "I do not want to condemn anyone. I myself worked hard to rid myself of the prevailing dogma that is passed down from generation to generation, and is elevated to the level of sanctity and taboo – a dogma that calls to perpetuate conflicts, as opposed to burying them. I only relinquished this [way of thinking] because of the circumstances. I am not claiming to be courageous – just realistic, which is not always honorable or bold. We now must propose some solution for the suffering, groaning people.
"As politicians, we must search for a way to save [the Syrian people] from the slaughter it is carrying out with its own two hands. This can only be achieved by thinking outside the box and outside this dogma that we inherited [from previous generations]...
"This is my wakeup call. You are welcome to suggest alternatives that do not include swearing fealty to [Al-Qaeda leader] Ayman Al-Zawahiri or following [Hizbullah leader] Hassan Nasrallah, but please remain within the confines of reality."
Peace With Israel Is A Precondition For Widespread Cultural Change
Al-Labwani described peace with Israel as part of a widespread move that was necessary in order for Syria to revive as a democratic, free, and progressive country. In an article titled "Israel – Our Historic Enemy?!", Al-Labwani argued that breaking free of the culture rooted in the conflict with Israel is a precondition for promoting liberalization in the Arab world. He wrote:
"Should the Arab world, as nationalists suggest, sacrifice its development, culture, democracy, and future generations, and become mired in crises and extremism for the sake of the Palestinian problem? Should we continue to use the Palestinian problem to cover up the corruption, tyranny, and backwardness suffered by Arab regimes? Should we, like Iran and the terrorist organizations, plot an all-out war against the Jewish state with nuclear and chemical weapons, so that no one will ever again be able to live in the 'Promised Land?'...
"Our problem in Syria, and that of Arabs in general, is not people like Bashar or Al-Qadhafi, but rather the [patterns] of culture, logic, and political wisdom that birthed these regimes and leaders, which include rejection of the other, fanaticism, lack of freedom, totalitarianism, fascism, idolatry, and a herd mentality, as well as personality cults, tyranny, corruption, barbarism, and crime... Without changing these cultural patterns, and without external assistance, [the Syrian people] will remain embroiled in pointless conflicts for a long time.
"It is this that spurred me to present a new vision based on a different logic, while searching for regional and international leverage to promote it. This will help us rebuild our societies and countries in a way that is different than the one we rebelled against. Since everyone in the Middle East defines themselves with regards to their position in the Arab-Israeli conflict, let us first define this conflict; the proposed solution for this complex problem will naturally reflect on the other historic topics and conflicts...
"I read an article by Yassin Sweiha on the Al-Gumhouriyya website; in it, he reviews my initiative to change the political thought process and search for a culture of peace. He concludes that this is a dangerous initiative that could change our historic identity. Since we are the enemies of Israel, [he says,] if we reconcile with it, what will happen? We will lose our identity!... This reminds me of the American movie in which the two protagonists, criminals, imagine that they are pursued by the secret police. They escape in a car and attempt to evade it. They only discover that they are imagining this when their car drives off the Brooklyn Bridge, as they float in the air before plunging into the waters."