The five days I spent in Istanbul with Syrian democracy advocates was enlightening, as most of these trips are for me. The participants were all young — in their mid twenties to mid thirties. They were Arab and Kurdish, Muslim and Christian, women and men. Several of the men had been detained and tortured by the Syrian army but did not join the Free Syrian Army, the rebel military group, because they don’t want to fight. Several of the Muslim women had participated in protests and had been detained over the last decade for their activities.
Some were still living in Syria but many knew they would be in danger if they stayed and have moved to Lebanon or Turkey. Most still have family in Syria but communicate irregularly with them. A number of the participants’ communities had been shelled and during the training, one woman had to leave temporarily to check on her aunt who was injured by government shelling.
All had a commitment and a passion to change Syrian society once the Assad regime was gone. But they weren’t just talking, they were already doing. Several of the Muslim women in one Syrian community had started a program to train women, whose husbands had been killed by the regime, to make jewelry to sell so they could make a living. Along with this practical side, came discussions about allowing a judicial process to take place once the regime is toppled and not to resort to killings to avenge the deaths of their husbands.
I asked a number of the participants about their neighbor, Israel. To a person, the first statement was that the Syrian government creates anti-Israeli sentiment to distract its citizens from the abuses of the regime — no hostility towards Israel, but a knowledge they are being manipulated by their own government. And to a person, the second statement was, we are tired of war and of Assad’s regime and want to focus on making Syria better.
And the activists realize, and as has happened with other Middle East countries emerging from the Arab Spring, the greatest challenge will be to avoid having the revolution hijacked by forces that will only change the names and faces but not the fundamental course of the country.