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INTERVIEW: Issam Zeitoun defends participation in Herzliya conference, says 'Israel made goodwill gestures'

By Ethar Abdul Haq; Translation by Rana Abdul

(Zaman Al Wasl)- Syrian opposition figure, Issam Zaitoun, who his visit to Israel last Tuesday sparked anger of rebel factions, said he did not claim to be representing the Free Syrian Army.

Zeitoun described himself as an independent opposition figure who is seeking to convey the image of Syrian suffering, insist on the purity of the revolution, its steady fastness to its true goals of freedom and dignity, and its fight against the regime and all extremist organizations.

In an exclusive telephone interview with Zaman al-Wasl, Zaitoun admitted he is visiting Israel for the third time in a bid to gain coverage to enable the establishment of a safe zone, with the assistance of academics and aid organizations, indicating that he does not blame those who have repudiated him as much as he blames those who disclaimed his speech which aims fundamentally to halting the Syrian massacre, according to him.

Recently a storming debate took place following the Herzliya conference Issam Zaitoun’s name in the list of speakers at the conference, and listing him as “foreign relations representative, southern front, Free Syrian Army.”

The 6th Herzliya conference took place between 14 and 16 June 2016 under the title, “Setting a New Agenda for Israel in a Turbulent Middle East.”

Zaitoun’s name was listed alongside tens of other names from intellectuals, military members, intelligence personal, and prestigious politicians from around the world, and at their head America’s most famous former secretary of foreign affairs Henry Kissinger.
Zaitoun attended a session in Herzliya conference on the Thursday 16 June entitled, Global Crisis Management, where the Portuguese journalist residing in Tel Aviv Enrique Cymerman acted as moderator. The assembly included the former Chinese ambassador to China Hua Liming, and three Israeli figures amongst them Gal Lusky, the CEO of Israeli Flying Aid. Israeli Flying Aid presents itself as a non-profit non-governmental voluntary organization aiming at getting aid to areas suffering from natural disasters, conflicts and areas where regimes refuse to allow aid to enter.

The interview

1- To being with the first point of contention…. Your presentation in the Herzliya conference under the description, “foreign relations representative, southern front, Free Syrian Army,” so are you actually that?

I did not claim to represent the Free Syrian Army or to speak in its name, or occupy the role of foreign relations representative in the southern front, and the conference ended on Thursday and until yesterday, Saturday June 19, I was unaware about the discussion that occurred about the issue, especially what was released from the southern front.

At present, I am waiting for Herzliya conference to issue a statement denying that I claimed that I represented the Free Syrian Amry, or that the organizers invited me on the basis I am a representative of the Free Syrian Army as I was invited on the basis I am an independent opposition figure, and it is the real description that I give when presenting myself.

2- You mentioned prior to the start of the interview that you have visited Israel 3 times in the past 20 days, would you put us in the atmosphere of these visits, and their purpose?

Yes this correct, and I work as an independent Syrian afraid for his country, his country’s people and their future… I work with a group of academics and experts in strategic research centers, Americans and Jews, whom I found to be friends to the Syrian people and who are searching for a solution for the situation we are suffering.

My efforts were and still are centered on establishing a safe zone for civilians, Israel is working to provide routes for it, and I work in collaboration with humanitarian organizations alongside academics in the hope of gaining official coverage to establish this area.
The American side seemed interested in the issue in the recent period, and I met with them in Israel, we went to al-Goulan, and between them were American diplomates. We undertook a field tour and we discussed the suggestion of establishing a safe zone.

I found the three visits to Israel to be very necessary, especially as current opinion here only sees in Syria at the moment a war between Daesh (ISIS) and the regime, and this is the opinion of the audience here, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the audience, in the end it is the truth of the reality which we must deal with.

And excuse me for this, I consider it one of my duties to explain what it is happening in Syria, and confirm that there is a revolutionary people, and the revolution’s principles of freedom and dignity are still standing, and we are fighting the regime and extremist groups for those principles.

3- Your talk of repeated visits raising in my mind a question about an issue which raised much debate recently, and it is the presence of food aid of Israeli origin in southern Syria… honestly, were you one of the people involved in providing these products and getting inside Syria?

I heard about this recently, and I learned of the discontent it raised, and the rulers in south Syria were able to contain it, to prevent those who created the crisis from breaching ranks and causing divisions.

Generally, the Israeli scene includes a number of organizations, bodies, committees, and movements that adopts different opinions about the situation in Syria, and I want to be here practically to say that whomever can provide a besieged family, if only with a bundle of bread, regardless of which side provides it, then I should thanks him and thank the side that provides the bread, and whomever prevents this suggestions and possesses another perspective for the solution we will be soldiers in his project.

In summary, I say until now I have not be involved in the providing of aid or passing it to inside Syria, even though I wish and seek to become involved in institutional work providing aid for all the Syrian people, this is my project and the work I am trying to achieve as a goal at this stage of course.

4- What is the nature of the safe zone that you spoke of above, and who suggested it originally, and what are the chances of its establishment in your opinion?

The safe area project was spoke of by several sides, the most prominent is perhaps Turkey that tried but did not reach a practical result until now, as the Syrian situation in the end is very complicated and the players entering are big, and we must act with wisdom, at least to provide a safe zone to shelter those fleeing the regime hell, and provides for refugees an alternative to the humiliation of camps outside.

I see that it is not an ethical flaw and not prohibited by Sharia to form a truce with a side less dangerous to use than the other side for us to safe what can be saved, especially as our people’s tragedy is exacerbating and the regime’s entrenchment increases, and the pace of support for some of the military factions was reduced following Washington’s nuclear deal with Tehran.

So till when do we wait?... Our revolution, people and country are in danger, and we must take bold decisions, and leave history to judge us.

Three years ago Niv proposed the idea of a safe zone on the people in my area, and after their discussions in it to develop its formulation and refinement, I suggested the idea to academic friends.

The area is based on the Free Syrian Army from the active factions in the suggested area adopting the task of protecting the area, and with the participation of the locally elected counciles in Deraa and al-Quneitra’s liberated rural areas.

Our first concern was guaranteeing logistical support for the area, and we communicated in that regard with several large humanitarian and aid organizations, and a short period before a delegation of heads of Jewish organizations in America visited al-Goulan and I was at the time suffering from a health set back, and I thank Doctor Kamal al-Labwani for accompanying them.

I can confirm that we have passed the stage of providing an aid artery to the area, and we are still trying to provide political coverage, to officially and legally open a passage, and my presence in Israel is but a new attempt to advertise the idea, based on a complete area where the health, security and educational reality can be rebuilt, and it can become the nucleus for state institutions that can expand to include all Syrian soil.

5- Without doubt you have heard or follow the regime media and its pages and they spoke of your visit and participation in Herzliya conference, and this prompted the saying that this participation regardless of its purpose gave a new instrument of innocence to the regime, and helped in its striving to disrupt the image of the Syrian revolution… what is your opinion on the matter?

This is a very important question, my answer to it is that the regime has been killing us and evicting us for the past 5 years, a since the first day the regime has accused the Syrians rebelling against it and opposing it that they are terrorists and Israeli agents, so there is no value or wait to any accusation the regime makes.

The regime brought all the scum on planet earth to kill the Syrian people, and I personally am seeing ways to provide aid to people besieged, through known aid organizations, and I have no read lines in that matter, so if the regime is targeting me to name me a traitor, then I declare myself the biggest traitor to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, its slogans, and priorities, and everything it has planted in our heads as concessions.

I believe that our revolution against the regime should not target its security, military, political, diplomatic presence only, but it must also target the basis of its cultural presence, and target the illusionary slogans that it issues and left us lagging behind others… a revolution against its priorities and their order, and on its alliances…. And this is the true revolution, and it is not only just a protest against the regime or fighting it with weapons, while continuing with its tools and standards in approaching issues, and measuring the degree of nationalism or treachery.

The regime which killed the two children Hamzeh al-Khatib and Tamer al-Sharai at the start of the revolution, just because they were present amongst the crowds headed to break the siege of the people of Deraa and provide them with bread, I am not surprised by any accusations coming from it, as the regime has no middle ground, and everyone working against it, starting from the person getting bread to besieged people to the person cooperating with the regime’s greatest enemy, their sentence is one and the accusations directed them are almost the same.

And at this I am not surprised by the regime calling me a traitor, I am more surprised by my countrymen calling me a traitor, and people whom I share wounds and sorrows with, to those I tell them they can repudiate me personally and I do not blame them in that, but I ask they do not repudiate my speech because it is a speech transferring the pain of those detained, injured and evicted.

I direct the question to all those who repudiated me, why did they not repudiate a prominent opposition member who sat with the Iranian and Russian ministers of defense, and both of them are killing us, other than what he presented to the regime as concessions…. Why was that person not defamed as a traitor and no one repudiated him?

Our situation is very complicated and intertwined, and we should not put red lines across attempts to help people, as the whole world is dealing with Israel, from its government, its parliament, universities, institutions and unions, including the axes of resistance and objection… except for Syrian people who are prohibited from dealing with them!

6- I have information to the effect that you were in Germany for several years, so did you have any oppositional activities from prior to the start of the revolution, so did you have any oppositional activities prior to the start of the revolution and what is the nature of the activities that you are involved with following the start of the revolution?

I opposed the regime from the time I became conscious of myself, and I left Syria in 1990 after finishing my university education, and I was unable to obtain a document of attainment due to the presence of a law that prevents handing the document over prior to finishing military service.

In Germany, where I reside, I remained an oppositional figure within the traditional frame, where no one dares to incite anyone to revolt knowing the regime’s bloodiness, and I personally stood against the arming of the revolution since the armed war is a field which the regime has been preparing for with perseverance for decades, and it is the domain that it can exhibit in it its excessive brutality.

Following the start of the revolution, my activities focused on touring between oppositional figures, to prompt them to a middle ground political discourse that the world could understand and accept, whereas raising flags of hostility to the east and the west simultaneously will one lead to a situation similar to the situation of our country and our people today.

In any event, Allah estimated and took action, and we must pick up the pieces by opening up to our environment and adopting a contemporary civil rational discourse… a moderate realistic political discourse showing a vision of the conflict in the region and over it, and at the forefront of that is Israel’s situation and the situation of the occupied Syrian Golan… and whether the world is going to continue ignoring our slaughter.

7-i understood from the previous declaration that you admit the whole world including Israel are agreed on keeping al-Assad, and they are also agreed upon not acknowledging the presence of the Free Syrian Army, and at the same time you went to Tel Aviv and participated in Herzliya conference, does this not shed a shadow of doubt on you the correctness and usefulness of your moves?

Yes I said that the world is united on keeping al-Assad, I meant the world is involved in the Syrian situation negatively, and Israel is not amongst these countries in my belief.
I confirm here that Israel made good will initiatives towards us and we ignored it, and my presence in Herzliya conference is not support to the Zionist security, as the Zionist security is not threatened by the Syrian people not now and it will not be after two centuries… Israel has larger and bigger problems.

Israel next door to us sees what is happening in Syria and with its people, but it cannot intervene, and our people for their part have not asked it, and my presence in Herzliya conference stems from it being a gathering for major politicians from across the globe and decision makers, and ignoring it by not attending simply because it is held in Israel has no meaning, as Syria is on the international negotiation table, and every side is garbing their pen to draw up their own special map, and the Syria people must be present to guarantee the minimum to its advantage.

We must be realistic, and it is the right of our people to know that there is an American Russian agreement to keep al-Assad on the basis he is “the devil we know,” and this forces us to deal with wisdom and without aloofness with the facts, and at the same time give up on the hypothesis that sees that Israel has a prior stance regarding what happens in Syria, as Israel has made good will gestures, and we should not put Israel between two extremes: either intervention and toppling al-Assad or it remains our enemy, and we must be logical in our expectations, and we are still raising slogans of hostility towards its, and we must calmly try to compare our expectations with our hopes hinged on out brothers, and what is achieved of them.

8-you repeated in your last response talk of good will gestures made by Israel regarding to situation in Syria, so can you mention for us some of these initiatives?

Of the good will gestures curing thousands of Syrian civilians that have been received in Israeli hospitals, and of the initiatives also providing fuel to camps for internally displaced persons along the border, whom Bashar al-Assad evicted, and who found the other side willing to provide a hand of assistance.

As part of the gestures are speeches made by Israeli parliamentarians and politicians, and from different platforms, clarifying their solidarity with the Syrian people and their understanding of their demands, combined with wishes for this people to clarify their position from Israel with a reassuring discourse, because politics in Israel is concerned with its interests first and the opinion of voters, and from here we should raise our voices with slogans of peace and discourses of good intention, especially as the situation does not allow us at present and nor tens of years later to concentrate on the conflict file in the region, because we will be busy with big files that require the energy of major countries.

I wish our people to open their eyes well, and for our political opposition to speak with a logical speech that pays attention to the humanitarian tragedies of the people, and does not stop at counting on the people’s perseverance.

By the way, my invitation and presence at Herzliya conference is considered from my perspective to be one of the good will gestures, while noting that I criticized the Israeli government openly and called for its improvement.

I believe that looking into Israel’s stance can show it in a angelic image in comparison to some parties, and we must build on this issue and benefit from it, with the reminder that the world is divided between three stances with respect to the Syrian revolution, a part colluding, another defeatist, and the third helpless.

9- you visited a country that had many problems with its surroundings- at least- which cannot be counted, do you not fear on the popular level that will be categorized or that you may have entered yourself into an incinerator that many before you have entered, and you have seen how people dealt with them and categorized them?

By the way talking about problems, I find myself having to compare between Israel and some other enemies at the top of the list Iran and Russia, and openly we see which of the parties is less harmful.

I believe it is our right to be part of a strong alliance, where our interests can meet with parties’ who do not have an extermination project…. In contrast to the Iranian extermination and eviction project whose bloodiness and criminality we are suffering from.

Personally, I discovered in Israel the falseness of the propaganda that the regime has filled our head with, that there is no enemy except Israel, the brute usurper expansionist racism that will consume the Arabs, and this talk is completely incorrect, as the Israeli people based on my observations are very sympathetic to us, as are academics, as for politics they have their lines which they cannot cross and other considerations.

As for your talk about the incinerator, I have not witnessed a bigger incinerator than the one our people are currently suffering from, and I am not more precious that this people whose members are being killed with barrels to fear burning, other than that I have no ambition to attain any political position, and my aims are to stop this massacre.

The truth is the regime was ready politically, militarily, and media to confront the revolution, and our people have been betrayed, and it is not wrong to depend on reassessing the previous stage and reconsider our concepts and the order of our priorities, and even our categorization of enemies and friends, in light of what the Syrian people have lived in the past five years.

10- You spoke in one of the sessions of the conference entitled Global Crisis Management, can you give us a summary of your talk, and the responses of those attending from Israel and elsewhere?

In light of the mix of variables and the continuous disruption of the Syrian scene, I found it necessary to repeat in front of the attendees to confirm the Syrian revolution’s and the Syrian people’s constants.

Of what I spoke about is my indication of the regime’s coordination with Daesh (ISIS), and the regime, its allies, and ISIS fighting the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army, drawing on examples and facts from the field, and I found unimaginable welcome and sympathy amongst the Israeli people.

Israelis I met and just with their knowing that I am Syrian, they would show their sympathy and their wishes of our near salvation from the regime, and I see that the ball is in our court at present and we need to take a step to clarify our political program regarding Syria’s future.

11- Any final words to conclude the interview?

I would like to say that the Free Syria Army and the Coalition’s repudiation of their knowledge of me, does not cause me any embarrassment, as at the end I am a human being without ambitions of arriving to a political position, and I would like to salute Mr Issam al-Reis (the southern front’s spokesman), and confirm my respect to him, but I would like to remind him that it is a grave act of negligence to not have a public relations representative for the front, and I wish that his principles be “not to look at the speaker but at what he is talking of.”

And here I wonder: where is the application to join the Free Syrian Army… send me an application… I am simply the son of the area (Jabal al-Sheikh) and I am concerned for it, and I see that I represent an intellectual and political movement which might not be able to raise its voice at present but it exists, and we are trying with the help of our friends to encourage it, and provide the secure and safe circumstances to enable it to express its independent and real opinion which distinguishes between friend and foe without imposition by anyone.

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